I had heard about Gaza before I traveled to the Middle East. I didn't know much about it, except that it seems to be a very violent place. You've probably heard about the rockets that are fired out of Gaza into the surrounding Israeli villages and the military strikes that Israel launches on strategic locations within its walls. On one of our days in the Holy Land, we went to a hill that overlooks Gaza. Concrete walls are commonplace in the occupied territories, but this took it to a whole new level. Here we saw several layers of walls with not just sniper towers but remote controlled guns, too. The security threat that Gaza represents was underscored when a couple of IDF jeeps raced up the hill that we were on so that soldiers could warn us that snipers from within Gaza might take aim at us. I didn't see any Arab terrorists from where we were standing, but we decided to take their word for it.
We went on to the town of Sderot. Less than a mile from Gaza, its residents have suffered from Qassam rocket attacks fired from within Gaza Strip for almost a decade. When the violence was at its worst, as many as 20 rockets struck Sderot in one day. We saw the remains of rockets that had landed in the town and heard the stories of people who had died from rocket fire. Sirens throughout the city warn its residents of incoming attacks, giving them a few seconds to find a bomb shelter before they're hit.
Eric Yellin was our guide through Sderot. His story reminded me of George in Bethlehem. Living everyday under the very real threat of a terrorist attack, I would harbor some strong feelings against the people on the other side of that wall. But Eric and others have recognized that the voices of fear and violence aren't accomplishing anything, so they created an organization called Other Voice that is working toward more creative solutions.
Part of Eric's work is to simply let people living on opposite sides of the wall hear from each other. Eric co-writes a blog with a Palestinian who lives in Gaza. At events for Israelis, Eric will have a Gaza resident call in and speak to the assembly. All of that may seem trite in the face of Qassam rockets and air strikes, but I believe it is the stuff that real change is made of.
George Sa'adeh's daughter Christine was killed by Israeli soldiers, and his response has been to meet with Israeli parents whose children have been the victims of Palestinian violence so that understanding can grow instead of hate. Eric's town is attacked by Palestinians in Gaza, but his response has been to forge contacts with Gaza's residents and hear their stories, so that two populations living so close to each other might one day become real neighbors.
St Francis is famous for his prayer that begins, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." Later he prays, "O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek... to be understood as to understand..." Because it's hard to love your enemy if you don't understand him. It's easy to demonize a race or a city or a religion, but when we listen to each other, we discover the humanity that we share. For George and Eric and many other peacemakers on both sides of this conflict, that shared humanity is the most promising ground on which to build lasting peace.
You hear a lot in the news about the violence that Israelis and Palestinians are perpetrating against each other, but I met heroes while I was there who are telling a different story, and I wanted to make sure you hear about them, too. Later this week I'll share with you a passage from the Gospels that took on profound new meaning for us after hearing these stories.