A typical Sunday morning in Jenin

From Psalm 46

God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change ,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Come behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Israeli tank in Zababdeh, a predominently Christian Palestinian village of 3,000 people, located in the Northern West Bank between Jenin and Nablus. (Photo by Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders)

It was a restless night for us, the hours perforated by bursts of gunfire, the heavy grinding of tanks, and Hebrew-accented Arabic barked from military loudspeakers. We had finally drifted off when the blast literally shook us out of bed. As we grabbed for the camera and some borrowed slippers, our host rushed into the room to see if we were OK and if the windows were broken. “Whose house is that?” exclaimed his wife, staring out the window as she held their startled sleepy boys. We ran up to the second floor to get a better look, and saw tanks rumble away from a neighboring home engulfed in flames. After the flames were put out and the tanks gone, we went to see what had happened. Our friend consoled neighbors who had been aroused at 3:00 am and ordered to evacuate their home and stand in the street - hence the interminable loudspeaker announcements in the night. For the next few hours, scores of neighbors - men women and children - waited as soldiers set explosives in a nearby building - we were told the as-yet uninhabited new home of a Hamas activist’s father. The blast broke windows, destroyed grape arbors, sent metal doors through fences and damaged stone walls of the neighbors’ homes. No one was hurt, but everyone was shaken, including us. A typical Sunday morning in Jenin.

Hardly a week earlier, and only a few blocks away, one of our eleventh grade students was doing her homework in the room she shares with her younger two sisters. Tanks rumbled through the street below, announcing curfew and sending off warning shots. Suddenly the “warning” shots burst through her bedroom window, shattering glass over her sister’s bed, flying across the room and lodging in her bookshelf and wall. Our student was not hurt, but she and her family were very shaken. Across town, another student was not so lucky, shot in the side as he opened a window during curfew. Repeatedly denied access to medical care, Mohammad Zeid was 16 years old when he bled to death. Another quiet news day in the “Holy” Land.

Amid the uproar of war, where is the place of refuge?

Nablus, the Biblical city of refuge known as Shechem, has been under a suffocating curfew for almost four months. Schools have been open barely a few days in the last month. The same is true of businesses and places of worship. Marthame spent three days there, helping to insure the delivery of emergency supplies, particulary medicine and food to a city cut off from the world and from itself. The support of international aid agencies, even with the explicit permission of the Israeli military, is not always enough to guarantee arrival - two other deliveries from Save the Children and Caritas were turned back this week.

It was there that another pre-dawn blast rousted us from our beds and away from the windows. Even though our friends in Nablus have gone through much worse this spring and summer, they and their kids were still shaken by this explosion. Through slats in the shutters, we watched tanks prowling the deserted streets, their gun turrets moving ominously and firing regularly, their loudspeakers broadcasting the morning order: “Stay in your homes or you will be shot.” There isn’t even safety at home in the haven of the Anglican church compound - its outer wall has been demolished by Israeli tanks, its windows broken by bullets and the deafening booms that accompany tanks and F-16s. The twin mountains of Gerizim and Ebal which surround Nablus echo and tremble with the sound. It feels like they’re moving closer together together, such is the claustrophobia. When Marthame left that shattered, burnt hull of a city, it was by ambulance through the deserted streets. Emergency vehicles are one of the few ways to get in or out or around in Nablus. And even these are no guarantee of safety. In the last two years, the Israeli military has attacked Palestinian ambulances 205 times, killing or injuring 182 medical personnel, including the head of the Red Crescent office in Jenin.

Amid the uproar of war, where is the place of refuge?

As we write this, news comes of another suicide bombing in Israel, killing at least one woman. The man tried to enter a bus near Tel Aviv intending to blow up himself and all its passengers, probably in revenge for the 16 killed in Gaza earlier this week. Luckily, the brave driver and some passengers were able to stop him, holding him down to keep him from detonating his explosive belt and allowing passengers to run away. Most escaped with their lives. Fear permeates Jewish Israel. When and where will the next bomb be? On the bus? At the restaurant? At university?

Amid the uproar of war, where is the place of refuge?

It has been proven to humanity time and time again, both here and elsewhere, that refuge cannot be found in our nations, our homes, our institutions, even in our places of worship. These are fleeting and vulnerable; they totter and tremble. Our real refuge cannot be found not in the Holy Land, but rather in the presence of the Holy One. Amid the beating drums of war, the rumbling of tanks, the blasts of bombs, the blaring of news, we are instructed to be still and know that God is God, that God breaks the bow and shatters the spear of war, that God wreaks desolations on the war-makers of the earth. In a world of refugees, let us take refuge in the psalm and solace in this promise. Let it give us courage to be among the peacemakers of the world. We will be richly blessed.

Salaam al-Masiih (peace of Christ),
Marthame and Elizabeth

Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders are American Presbyterians working in the Palestinian Christian village of Zababdeh.

Holy fire