Faith-based coalition explores Israeli-Palestinian issue

DOWNERS GROVE — January 2006 was an eventful month for both political sides of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On Jan. 4, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was incapacitated by the effects of a massive stroke, and Ehud Olmert, deputy prime minister, was confirmed as the acting prime minister. On Jan. 25, elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council turned over a majority of seats to members of Hamas, an Islamic organization that is known for sponsoring suicide bombing attacks and other acts of violence against Israeli civilians.

Consequently, the absence of Sharon, a leader with a reputation for making peaceful gestures concerning the Palestinians, has stirred concern throughout the world. An incident that further fuels anxiety is the recent election of the Hamas in Palestine. The group is known to have terrorist affiliations.

“I’m a little confused about what might happen next, but I’m hopeful that things will ultimately become better for the Palestinian people and the world maybe will have to learn to deal with Hamas,” said Dina Tannous, who is currently working in Chicago for the Lutheran Church in America. A 26-year-old resident of Chicago, Tannous is a native of Ramallah in the West Bank. Previous to a Feb. 25 panel discussion at United Methodist Church in Downers Grove, Tannous shared insights with the Catholic Explorer. She was present to address related issues for the third annual gathering of the West Suburban Faith-Based Peace Coalition.

The solidarity event titled, “We Can Make a Difference,” was designed as an educational program to empower people interested in working for peace and justice in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, explained Dave Martin, director of WSFPC.

“The message is to not to actually take sides, but to work for peace from both sides,” explained Tannous. “A lot of (Palestinians and Israelis) might be looking at the past and not moving on with reconciliation. And a lot of people are having a hard time doing that because death, occupation and war are not something you can forget about, especially if you were raised in it as a child and it keeps haunting, like in my case. But once you realize that things will work out, there is a God and justice will prevail; that’s what we have to live for,” she said.

The notion of achieving peace for the region was of primary concern for another Palestinian-Christian panelist who shared his political position with the Catholic Explorer. Rami Khader, a 24-year-old student at Concordia University in River Forest, is currently working toward a master’s degree in non-profit administration. His goal is to return home to Palestine, where he hopes to work at a combination healthcare clinic and wellness facility sponsored by the International Center of Bethlehem.

During the panel discussion, Khader expanded on his opinions that proved his activist position. Relying on the humanity that binds the human race, he openly sought American supporters to join his cause in favor of ensuring health care and wellness for Palestinians living in areas where access to hospitals is restricted. As part of his push for peace, Khader said he believes Americans are instrumental in persuading both the Israelis and Palestinians to embrace an armistice attitude. However, it’s difficult for the message of peace to be taken seriously while news reports of suicide bombings dominate the airwaves and details of a military presence cover the front page of major newspapers. He said, “It’s trying to get people to understand that behind every struggle of the Palestinian people there is a story.”

Khader criticized the lack of play in the media about recent events—such as the unfair elections in Palestine—because more than 4 million Palestinians living in refugee camps were not allowed to vote. He believes Americans are not getting the full story about the indignities and disparity that marks the everyday lives of Palestinians.

Khader described the separation he must endure because he lives in Bethlehem and his family is 9 miles away in Ramallah. Multiple checkpoints, mandatory permits and road closures make the trek hours long and many times impossible. He said, “I’m not allowed to see my family. It makes my life very harsh.”

The Israel-Palestinian Authority boundaries set by legislators and guarded by military forces are now becoming more permanent through the security fence being erected in the West Bank. It is only increasing the isolation of the Palestinians, observed Khader.

“2006 is a crucial year to stop this. The wall is only one-third of the way done,” said Yigal Bronner, a peace activist from an organization called Ta’ayush. During his keynote presentation, he explained he has been working at the grassroots level with Arabs and Jews to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and to achieve full civil equality for all Israeli citizens.

Bronner, an Israeli who became an activist after meeting Palestinian families through a friend, is an outspoken activist in an effort to achieve dignity for his Palestinian neighbors. He called upon all those present at the WSFPC assembly to work toward bringing down the 410-mile long security wall that stretches between 65-100 yards wide. He condemned the installation of electrified barbed wire fences and concrete barriers by the Israeli government, which he accused of exercising a land-grab campaign and disguising it as a matter of security.

He said the wall diminishes the quality of life, separating 400,000 Palestinians in 102 communities from hospitals, farm fields and ground water wells. “The wall is strangling and killing the economic center of the Palestinians,” he described.

Bronner, who served a prison term for his conscientious objection to military service in the Occupied Territories, compared the wall to the infrastructure of a prison because the Palestinians are no longer able to move freely on their own land. The Israeli government controls who is allowed through the checkpoints and who can pass to the other side of the wall.

The Israeli government’s building of underground tunnels in order to connect divided communities has proven to be counterproductive, according to Bronner. He said, “It’s created a system of interconnected prisons. (Palestinians) can go like mice from one tunnel to another and no one would see them.”

The second keynote speaker, Ali Abunimah, compared the current status of Palestinians to the apartheid of South Africa. The writer and commentator on Middle East and Arab-American affairs called for action on the part of Americans. He said, “If you don’t want violence, it’s up to you to provide an alternative.”

Abunimah called for boycotts of Israeli products and investments. He also urged those present to contact American legislators who are appropriating funds to the Israeli government. He concluded, “It’s not an option to stay neutral between the strong and the weak because then you are siding with the strong.”

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