Evangelicals visit West Bank for perspective on Palestinian life

  |  Source: Religion News Service

A nun walks through the Hebron Road Checkpoint in Bethlehem, West Bank, on June 5, 2018. (RNS Photo / Dan Rabb)

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NABI SALEH, West Bank (RNS)—Bassem and Nariman Tamimi’s squat but expansive one-story home of stucco and tile sits near the highest point of the dusty hilltop village of Nabi Saleh, in the Palestinian West Bank.

Bassem Tamini was born here in 1967, a few weeks before the Six-Day War and the subsequent Israeli occupation. In the years since, the home has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance to Israeli rule.

Most weeks for the past decade, the Tamimis have protested what they say are encroachments on their land by a nearby Israeli settlement and the demolition of their village’s property by Israeli security forces.

These are often violent events, as Nabi Saleh has grown into a flashpoint for Palestinian nationalist passions. Protests have developed into a form of high-stakes political theater, with activists and photographers surrounding stone-throwing teenagers to document their clashes with the Israeli troops who inevitably arrive.

Members of the Tamimi family frequently end up in custody, injured or worse. They also appear on the news. Some see the Tamimis as heroes of the populist Palestinian liberation movement. Others consider them the epitome of reckless incitement and exploitive propaganda.

Christ at the Checkpoint brings evangelicals to West Bank

Nabi Saleh is the last place one might expect to find a group of evangelical Christians, a demographic known in Israel–Palestine for its enthusiastic support for Israel. But on a hot spring day, two busloads of evangelicals, mostly American, sat sweating in a semicircle among the scraggly olive trees in front of the Tamimis’ house.

The cohort visited the West Bank as part of Christ at the Checkpoint, a five-day gathering of Western Christians organized by the West Bank’s tiny evangelical community.

In its fifth iteration since 2010, the gathering brings hundreds of Western evangelicals to the town of Beit Jala for field trips and lectures. Attendees learned about the Palestinian narrative. They also heard biblical and theological arguments against faith-based support for the Jewish state.

Evangelical tourism to the Holy Land is hardly unusual. An estimated 100,000 evangelical tourists traveled to Israel last year to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Many come to see where they believe Bible prophesies say the end of days will occur.

Yet travel into the Palestinian territories usually is limited to day trips to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and a cordoned-off baptismal site on the Jordan River.

Visiting with a self-proclaimed ‘freedom fighter’

Buses of Christian tourists typically are waved quickly through checkpoints. Exposure to the military occupation, and to Palestinians themselves, often is almost nonexistent. Many evangelical tours of Israel are designed explicitly to foster the bond between Christians and Jews, and to maintain evangelical support for Israel that has such significant influence in U.S. foreign policy.

But during the Christ at the Checkpoint event, conservative evangelicals sipped coffee and orange soda with a self-described “freedom fighter” in a remote West Bank village.

Bassem Tamimi (left) talks with American evangelicals visiting his home in Nabi Saleh, West Bank. (RNS Photo / Dan Rabb)

Bassem Tamimi, a Muslim, looked on quizzically as the group raised their hands in prayer.

“May God bring reconciliation to this land,” a Palestinian Christian group leader said. “Hear our prayers, oh Lord.”

The group listened as the patriarch told them about the price his family paid for their activism. His 17-year-old daughter, Ahed, is serving a prison sentence for slapping an Israeli soldier. His cousin was killed when a tear gas canister struck him, and his brother-in-law died of a gunshot wound from an Israeli soldier. He and his wife have been placed in Israeli detention many times for charges ranging from unauthorized protests to assaulting soldiers.

He did not, however, mention his cousin Ahlem Tamimi, who was convicted of masterminding a 2001 bombing of a pizza parlor that killed 15 Israelis.

Varied views among evangelical visitors

While the Christians on the buses seemed comfortable with being called “evangelical,” they were far from monolithic in their views. The group included a college student in an Industrial Workers of the World T-shirt, a Palestinian keffiyeh wrapped around his neck, who tearfully apologized to Tamimi for the United States’ role in the region. Moments later, a self-described Christian Zionist asked Tamimi how he could be angry at Israel when Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat refused multiple offers for peace.

As the coach made its way back to Beit Jala, Paul Penley, 38, mostly stared out the window, his sharp features pursed in thought. Penley is an ordained minister from Colorado Springs who makes his living investigating the integrity of faith-based nonprofits for major donors.

While work brought him to the region, Penley came to Christ at the Checkpoint out of personal curiosity. He’s sympathetic to both sides, he said, but as someone who cuts through rhetoric and window dressing for a living, he’s not going to be swayed by what he admits was an emotional experience.

“What the Tamimi family has been through is heartbreaking, and you’d have to be heartless not to feel for them,” he said, measuring his words. “But I want to do my own research to figure out what’s spin.”

Penley quickly pointed out that the trip’s organizers never hide the fact they have a political agenda.

“This is a point of view most American evangelicals don’t hear very often, if at all,” Penley said. “I’m glad there’s a platform for this.”

Evangelicals a tiny minority in Bethlehem

The bus crossed back through a checkpoint into Bethlehem. Along with the adjacent villages of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, Bethlehem used to be a primarily Christian enclave, but non-Muslims now make up less than a third of the area’s population.

Evangelicals—already a tiny minority of the Christian population dominated by Orthodox and Catholic Christians—have dwindled to a few families. They are counted in the hundreds, not thousands.

Whether the decline is due to the hardships of Israeli occupation or oppression at the hands of Muslims depends on who you ask. Most Palestinian evangelicals insist limited economic opportunity and travel restrictions created by Israeli control drive their high rates of emigration.

Many in the community say they feel forgotten in the conversation around Israel-Palestine, typically framed as being simply between Jews and Muslims. But the prominent role of their American co-religionists in lobbying for Israel, however, has created a unique opportunity for advocacy, if the Palestinians can counter the theological roots of that support.

Hard-sell approach turned off some visitors

For many of the American visitors in Beit Jala, however, the lectures and workshops they sat through—most disputing the theology that lies at the heart of evangelical Zionism—felt off target.

Many of the more conservative Americans on hand said they came to witness the conflict firsthand, to better understand the Palestinian perspective. Some recalled their surprise at learning that there were Palestinian Christians who shared their Bible-centric beliefs. They said their experiences in the Holy Land humanized the Palestinian people for them, but that the focus on refuting their theology only served to push them away.

While the group met, Hamas launched its largest barrage of rocket fire since 2014, Israel responded with airstrikes, and a full-scale war seemed possible. No one at Christ at the Checkpoint, sequestered in conference rooms at Bethlehem Bible College, had any idea what was happening 50 miles away.

Nathan Berg, 44, looked dejected as he slumped in the lobby outside the conference hall.

“I came here to stand with my Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ,” he said.

Seeing the realities of life in the West Bank on a previous trip to the Holy Land made him an advocate for Palestinians, a fact he does not see as mutually exclusive to his Christian Zionism. He said he sees no reason why his biblical interpretation and his empathy have to conflict. Yet he is pained by what he perceives as personal rejection because of his belief.

“If you believe what I believe, it means you’re with Israel, you’re with the Jews, and you’re stepping all over (the Palestinians), ruining our lives and you hate us,” he said. He threw up his hands. “That’s how they see it, unfortunately.”


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