I recently returned from the Holy Land after leading about 40 Presbyterians from Galilee to Jerusalem. This isn’t new territory for me. I’ve been in the country many times leading students, working at archaeology digs, speaking at conferences, and occasionally taking a church such as this. And this time what I saw and heard was worrying.
Many important developments have taken place over the last six months. There was Israel’s winter invasion of Gaza and a few months later, right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister. Even recently US President Barack Obama has called for a change in America’s posture toward Israel’s settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. For Middle East news junkies, these have been solid months.
But there is something else going on behind the scenes. One day last week I drove with Yahav Zohar into a neighborhood inside Jerusalem. Yahav is a staff member at the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), an advocacy group that researches and publicizes discriminatory policies in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Yahav wanted me to see a village he used as a case study. Jabal Mukabber is typical of the many small Palestinian villages that dot the landscape. Tourists never go there. Israelis avoid them. When Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem after the war of 1967 in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, it claimed Jabal Mukabber as part of the municipality of “Greater Jerusalem,” and its residents suddenly paid new taxes and had a world of new opportunities open to them. Or so it would seem.
Then Yahav had me look closer. Jabal Mukabber has no sewer system. And it has an antiquated water system that usually runs dry. Its streets are broken, there are no libraries or parks. The school is falling down. In other words, Jabal Mukabber’s infrastructure is broken because since 1967 the Israeli-controlled Jerusalem municipality spends 10 times more on Jewish neighborhoods and settlements than this one.
Now here’s the catch: When the Palestinians try to build and improve their lot, they are denied building permits in places like Jabal Mukabber. And if they build anyway, Israeli bulldozers destroy the building. I saw the rubble of one. In the last 10 years, the Israeli army has demolished 300 Palestinian homes within the city limits of Jerusalem. According to ICAHD, the goal here is to so frustrate the Palestinians, that they will leave. And this is to maintain an explicit racial quota in the city: the Israeli government’s publicized goal is to keep a 72 percent - 28 percent ratio of Jews over Arabs at all times. The explicity made me dizzy. I couldn’t imagine imposing a racial quota on an American city like this.
But Jabal Mukabber is a good case study for another reason. Because right next door is the new Jewish settlement called Nof Zion. It is spectacular and looks like the townhouses I’ve seen in San Diego, California. It will be a gated community or as its sales office calls it, a “private residence.” And as I watched, they were laying sewer systems and water mains for the settlement right alongside the village of Jabal Mukabber! Imagine that: Jabal Mukabber will be going dry while water in huge cement pipes is rushing under its fields to feed a nearby settlement. While Jabal Mukabber buys water off trucks, Nof Zion will be watering gardens and filling swimming pools.
What is going on here? As aid workers told me, this is economic strangulation. The Palestinian villages of Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank are quietly having the life strangled out of them. In many, the water comes on only once per week. In the village of Beit Jala, it came on once in June. And Palestinians are forbidden by law to dig wells into the aquifer while at the same time enormous machines pump massive amounts of water from the same aquifer to feed the Israeli settlements. If you get behind the scenes, the frustration in these villages is boiling over.
Additionally, a village can be strangled by the building of Israel’s separation fence or wall. Villages that for centuries anchored their economy to Jerusalem now find themselves — like ancient Bethany — outside the wall. They sit alone, strangled in the desert. And quietly their culture is dying. Now add to this what is happening to Gaza. Since the war in January in which 1,500 Palestinians in Gaza were killed, Israel is quietly doing the same thing. No building materials are being permitted into the destroyed region to rebuild it. Cement, pipes, electrical, machinery — Gaza is living today in the squalor of its broken buildings.
The leader of a major non-governmental organization (NGO) in the region expressed his frustration to me: “We are permitted to organize convoys of trucks filled with food and take them to Gaza. Then at the border, the soldiers deny our authorized entry and the food rots in the sun.” One major NGO leader in Jerusalem complained vigorously this spring to the Israeli government. His visa was promptly withdrawn and he was forced to leave. This has silenced the other NGOs who don’t want their work stopped.
One day I happened to be standing at the great Western Wall where so many Jews pray. And as I stood, a young man handed me a flyer from the conservative Chabad-Lubavitch foundation. Many men were reading it and so I joined them. A lead essay described a strategy for how Israel can “settle the entire land.” And the outline stunned me. “Do not announce to the gentiles what you are doing.” “Do it quietly without noise or publicity.” The essay fleshed out these aims and my mind went immediately back to Jabal Mukabber and the countless villages like them. They were being destroyed quietly.
After my tour group departed for home, I remained in Jerusalem and talked to some of my Palestinian Christian friends, asking, so what is going to happen? Their answer was telling. There will be another uprising. It is inevitable. But then I asked if it would work, since the previous uprising in 2000 failed. The despair that followed was disarming. We will rise up, organizations like Hamas will become more popular, there will be violence, and we’ll be presented to the world as a crazy, violent people once again — and Israel’s severe policies will look legitimate once more. I stood on a hilltop on a Palestinian-owned farm on 26 June and heard many of these sentiments once again. This farmer, Daoud Nassar, holds a 100-year-old deed to his cultivated land. And I witnessed how three settlements were cutting away at its edges, where at night settlers come and uproot his young olive trees; I saw the water pipes now turned off by the government and how electricity was taken from him. “Will you leave?” I asked. “This is my family’s land,” he said. “How can I abandon it?”
Gary M. Burge is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Chicago. He is author of Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians are not being told about Israel and the Palestinians (2003). He will soon release Jesus and the Land. How the New Testament Transformed “Holy Land” Theology.