On July 27, 2007, the last day of my fifth trip to Israel Palestine, a religious Jew and former Infantry Lieutenant in the Israeli Defense Force/IDF who served six years in Bethlehem, Hebron, Ramallah, Jenin and the Gaza Strip addressed over forty youth and a few committed middle-aged and elderly supporters attending Sabeel's http://www.sabeel.org Second International Conference: 40 Years in the Wilderness…40 Years of Occupation…
Mikhael Manekin, discharged from the IDF in 2002 is now the Foreign Relations Manager of Breaking the Silence http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il
which documents former IDF soldiers testimonies about the occupation and oppression of Palestinians, "I am a practicing Jew and in [August] we go into the month of repentance; which requires acknowledging our sins. We cannot change things until we acknowledge our culpability.
"You cannot do anything if you do not believe you can do something to change the situation. We have to remind ourselves that we are the minority; [it appears that] we are losing , but we remind ourselves we are right!
"A few years ago, the soldiers you have encountered at the checkpoints would have been me. Soldiers like myself who served during the second intifada, got our education on the job. [Most] Israeli's have no idea what is happening in the occupied territories…I became very opinionated while in the army, but I kept it all to myself. Nobody talks about it in the army and I was the commander and did not know until after I got out that one of the other soldiers in my unit was feeling the same way, until he gave his testimony. Israeli society wants you to believe you are a bad apple for speaking out because unless you trust the system, it will fall apart.
"You have to understand you must preach to your own people; we want to shake up the comfortable people who may agree with us in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but are not activists yet ."
Ever since I returned to America I have been haunted by the memories of Palestinian children who only know Israelis through the barrel of a gun or through their bullet proof glass tombs at the hundreds of checkpoints in Palestine. That is, until I received an email from thirty-four year old American Lebanese Christian, Ali Elhajj, whose first trip to Israel-Palestine in November 2006, planted the seed of the need for reconciliation between the cousins in the family of Abraham. His vision for this Christmas is challenging Christians in the USA to become reconcilers in the Holy Land by providing the funds to enable former Israeli soldiers to be Santa to the children in the little town of Bethlehem-which as it was when Jesus was born-occupied territory.
Ali wrote, "I met with individuals and humanitarian organizations and witnessed great suffering among the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories as well as fear in the hearts of average Israelis. When I returned home, my wife Jenni and I brainstormed for ways to help bring Israelis and Palestinians together, and what better way to do so than by helping children? And what better time to do so than this Christmas? Once the concept was hatched, we contacted Salim Munayer, the founder of Musalaha, about working on the project."
Musalaha’s mission is to promote reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians as demonstrated in the life and teaching of Jesus- first among Palestinian Christians and Messianic Israelis and then as bridge-builders among Israeli and Palestinian societies according to biblical reconciliation principles.
“Our partnering with Musalaha, one of the most effective and well-respected reconciliation ministries in the region, was a natural next step in the process,” Ali continued. “The Bible verse that came to mind was Ephesians 2:14, about Jesus destroying the barrier of hostility between us and God. We, as His followers, must now break the wall of hostility between God’s children. This is what we are hoping to do this Christmas by bringing former Israeli soldiers and Palestinians together to be ambassadors of peace to the children of Bethlehem.”
Ali explains, "There's a lack of understanding in American churches, and we are working to cross this divide. The next step for us was to integrate Americans into the project. Why? First, we in the United States are among the wealthiest people in the world. We have the means and the responsibility to help those in need. Second, building a bridge of understanding between Americans, Israelis and Arabs can go a long way to diffuse the growing tensions in the world. Our project may be just a drop of hope in the ocean of distrust, but it will make ripples- ripples we and others can build upon in the future.
"This is why working alongside the Israelis and Palestinians will be a team of Christian leaders from the United States, who will return home to share their experiences with friends, family and their congregations. The idea is to introduce Israeli and Palestinian Christians to American Christians.
"Working side-by-side with us is Salim Munayer, the Dean of Academics at Bethlehem Bible College, the perfect person to educate our American participants on the history and Biblical theology of the region. An interfaith team would be problematic, as the theological frameworks of the participants would not align. That said, we should be clear that we intend to give gifts to children regardless of their religious identification, as our compassion extends to all those who are in need. Moreover, there are no strings attached; we have no agenda, no tracts, no Gospel message.”
Ali elaborates, “Our message of compassion, love, and mercy is in our actions. Imagine if the roles were reversed, and a Christian mother living in poverty, as 66% of Palestinians do, was required to hear a Muslim message in order for her child to receive a gift. This is not a decision we want to force a troubled mother to make.
"A friend suggested we create a film about the project, because a documentary has the potential to reach thousands, if not millions, more than word-of-mouth alone. Initially, we found the idea amusing. How would you react if someone suggested you film a documentary about yourself? But as we thought more about it, we saw the power of a documentary and asked ourselves, 'Why not?' Not too long afterwards, film director Basil Khalil, a Palestinian-Israeli film director with knowledge of the conflict and both cultures, joined us to work on the project.
"We're excited about the future… the best is yet to come!"