Another beautiful day in Bethlehem! The air is cooling a bit each day….a welcome break from the heavy, hot, below sea level air of yesterday.
Up early to 7am breakfast, and on our way to Wadi Fukin, staying in The West Bank, by 8:15am. Janet began with a talk about the settlements the Israelis are building ringing Jerusalem that will eventually close ranks to completely ring the city making all the land de facto Israeli land, and cutting Palestinian access to Jerusalem. We drive on an ‘Israeli- only’ nicely paved modern highway and observe the ‘Palestinian-only’ dirt road passing under the Israeli highway. Janet explains Palestinians are forced to use these dirt roads even when it means carrying a sick child miles, changing taxi cabs as required in all kinds of heat or cold.
Wadi Fukin (The forgotten village or Valley of the Thorns) is the first United Methodist Community Project outside of the USA. A small home has been rented to house a market place for the village women’s products (needlework, soap, oil) and especially honey, in an effort to help the village develop self sufficiency. A women’s program here teaches health maintenance and first aid, which is needed since the “World Vision” build clinic has extremely limited and irregular hours, and is lacking funds for operation.
This village of about 1200 residents has seen much difficulty, as has every Palestinian village. The people of the village were forced to leave in the 1950’s, returning in 1972, all the while secretly returning as they could to tend their fields and olive trees. We learn land and olive trees are regarded with much pride and affection (as if they are children), you are known for how many olive trees you have. On return from exile the villagers cooperatively helped each other rebuild their homes.
A large new Israeli settlement of Betar Illit (High town) has been built on a nearby ridge (population 80,000!!) and has caused major problems spilling raw sewage onto the Wadi Fukin farmers’ fields while denying responsibility for the spills. The construction of the settlement has provided jobs for the villagers in construction, cleaning and other menial labor which is a constant irritant to the pride of the village men.
This settlement houses mostly Orthodox Jews…American and Russian. Orthodox men do not work; they study and pray and are supported by the Israeli government.
On a positive note, the Israeli town on the other side of Wadi Fukin (built in 1993, with 30,000 people) has a very good relationship with Wadi Fukin, buying their vegetables and honey, and this Jewish town has intervened in court action to prevent “The Separation Wall” from completing construction that would cut access between the two villages, as well as helping them get action regarding the sewage issue with the newer settlement. Wadi Fukin is truly sandwiched in between these Jewish settlements.
Janet introduced us to the work of the UM Community Development Project and to the director of the community center, Ata. He introduced us to his nephew, Adel, a handsome young man in his late twenties. The two men, who each have just recently been elected to their village council, began by showing a video made about Wadi Fukin by an American Jew highlighting the difficulties Wadi Fukin has experienced in recent years, esp. explaining the raw sewage spills from Betar Illit, and the denials of the city planners for responsibility.
Adel continued, by telling the story of his arrest in the middle of the night in 2003. The entire family was brought out of the house and questioned resulting in Adel’s arrest and detention. The family was told it would be only for questioning for a “day or two” but it became a prison sentence of four years. He told of being severely interrogated for hours being pressed for names of others which he adamantly refused to name. While in prison he was elected representative of 100 other prisoners having taught himself Hebrew while incarcerated.
After release he entered university, graduating with a degree in Political Science and English Literature. While in college he discovered that Israelis harass Palestinian students by setting appointments, cancelling appointments and then resetting them over and over again to distract them from their studies and in some cases forcing them to miss exams. There are more than half a million “political prisoners” in Israel. He now lives at home with his extended family and has developed and leads a class for male youth in his village, concentrating on first aid, politics and culture, (teaching them to think critically) in a effort to provide positive encouragement for these young men, ages 16-25, to not be afraid to do something positive for their people. He is need of “a real job” as are most of the men in Wadi Fukin. His testimonial was intense and emotional for many of us.
We then picked up trash on the outside, and scraped walls inside, in preparation for spackle and paint in the coming days. This work began after drinking tea together, flavored with fresh sage, which Ata prepared for us while Adel told us his story.
In the afternoon we traveled to Beit Sahour (House of Shepherds) and visited The Chapel of the Angels dedicated to remembering the shepherds who being the least among us were who God chose to announce the birth of Jesus Christ. Per Elias, our guide, God sent the angels to announce the good news to “the most talkative people on earth”; the shepherds of this part of the world…now Beit Sahour!
Next we visited the Church of the Nativity, Circa 4th century build by Queen Helena (who also built the Church of The Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem). The church is built over the cave where Christ was born. It is opulently decorated with all manner of draping, icons and incense burners. There are beautiful gold mosaic mural fragments on the upper walls of this basilica style church. We waited in line with people from all over the world to enter the lower cave and look at the birth place and manger for a few seconds. Not at all like the stable image from most of our childhoods.
Last, but not least, we were treated to an Arab sweet delicacy “Knafeh” Elias’ favorite dessert at a busy Arab bakery. This was the most exciting food of the day! We enjoyed a lunch in Bethlehem of a hot chicken pita sandwich at Issa’s favorite place, but although quite tasty, not as spectacular as some of our earlier meals. (Someone reported reading in their guide book that Bethlehem is not noted for its food…we are not complaining…just realizing how lucky we were to have such a wonderful welcome with authentic homecooking in the early days of our stay.)