The Old City Was Empty, Just Like Their Hope

I had the incredible experience of going to Palestine and Israel a few weeks ago. No, I’m not crazy. Yes, I’m aware there was a conflict there. No, I didn’t see a bomb. Yes, I met real people with real stories.

They live there, not on the news.

First off, I admit I was not extremely well-versed on the conflict as a whole. I have a rough understanding of the history and situation as it stands today. Yet after sitting for 5 hours on a bus next to an Israeli Defense Soldier (IDF) with his gun propped up against the seat; after witnessing a peaceful Christian demonstration in Ramallah , followed by an outburst of celebratory fireworks and candy distribution after Hamas claimed to have captured an IDF soldier against a backdrop of tear gas tosses and bunkered IDF soldiers; after listening to stories of treachery, connivance, and turmoil, my hope is that we all will be actively aware of what is going on.

There are two distinct, fervent, and unrelenting sides to this story. There are thousands of families and communities involved. Entire generations are impacted forever by what is going on.

photo 1

He sits down on the bus, props up his gun and pulls out his smartphone with the smashed screen and absent plastic backing. His olive green military shirt is torn and his boots scuffed. Earbuds in he sips his orange juice and flips through Facebook. As the bus stops a couple hours later at a gas station, in broken English he translates the Hebrew the bus drive had just spurted out over the speakers. We’ve got a 15 minute break. This short interaction broke the ice. He was on his way to report for military duty, called back in from reserves. That morning, after he left, his sister was returning to their home after fulfilling her two years of mandatory military service. They missed each other. He showed me videos from Unity Fest, pictures of him enjoying the beach of his hometown, wistfully spoke of his future wife and family life, and lamented the war and struggle. He smiled and pointed out his country as we wound through it. He loved it with all his heart.

The Old City of Jerusalem was empty. Not quiet, not slow, not sparse. Empty. Mid-July, high tourist season and I thought I was in the wrong place. I thought I had transported back to Jordan. A lone soccer ball flitted by me in the narrow, stone passageway. Several lanes over I had left the Arab market and lost myself in homes and alleys. White stone surrounded me, here and there dotted with a string of lights for Ramadan or a street sign. Surreal. Via Delarosa, where Jesus had famously traversed carrying his cross, was empty. The courtyard outside the Church of the Sepulchre was empty. The market stalls were barred and silent. Empty, empty, empty.

photo 2

Olive wood nativity scene in Bethlehem, symbolically separated from Jerusalem by Wall

My friend met me and we were off. “This house used to be Arab, until the Israelis kicked them out. They’re moving in, Ellie, everywhere. They are forcing us out. See the flag.” He pointed up and there it was. Baby blue and white, Star of David proudly fluttering in the late-afternoon breeze. Another dappling the always-blue Middle Eastern sky. It was the only one in this section of town, but perhaps not for long. It was a symbol, a statement. It was the first promise of more to come, the advance guard.

He knew Jerusalem like the back of his hand and proudly gave me a thorough tour. Not a touristy tour, but an authentic and raw one. He knew which streets and sites he could visit, and which ones were hostile to Arabs. He knew when the church services ran for every denomination and we stood by as incense and hymns wrapped around us. He stood in as much wonder and awe as I did as we watched demonstrators in Ramallah protest the killings in Gaza. “I’ve never been to a protest before,” he announced, wide-eyed. It was solemn and powerful. We stood shoulder to shoulder, running the square to see the marchers and read their signs and hear their cries. Their cries were his cries and they became my cries. How could anyone stand by and not be moved. Humanity is not sterile or untouchable or distant. Moments like that remind me of this and touch my soul.

We sat drinking wine on a Tel Aviv balcony. His friend was there, just returned from reserve military service. His clipped conversation with me was a challenge; a defensive offense of Israeli pride and determination. “Hebrew is nothing like Arabic,” he says in English after a rapid conversation between us in Arabic in which I’d stated some of the sounds are similar. He followed this proclamation with a dangerous question. “Where do you think Palestine is?”

Where is it indeed? And why does it matter? Why is this tiny, pea-sized spot on the map riling up the entire world?

Is it land? Is it people? Is it political? Is it spiritual?

Is it relevant?

I can’t describe how moving it was to be there in person. But I can advocate for it now because of that experience. There are countless lives and livelihoods at stake. If it wasn’t relevant or real to you before, I hope it is now.

What are your thoughts on the Israeli/Palestinian situation? Please share.

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