Report of the January 2005
Holy Land Fact Finding Mission

"Come and See...Go and Tell"

A mission of fact finding, solidarity, witness, and
in Jordan, Israel, Palestine

by The Rev. Richard Koehn

We arrived in Tel Aviv on the day of the Palestinian elections and I was anxious to get a feeling for how the people of the region were reacting. Over the coming days our fact-finding team would meet with a number a people, Israeli and Palestinian, members of peace organizations, doctors, YMCA and YWCA personnel, church workers and governmental officials. Our group of six, including the Rt. Rev. Samir Kafity (retired Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem) traveled through check points, across borders, sat in offices, walked the streets of Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Jericho and Ramallah.

“WE” were the January 2005 Fact-finding Mission group with The Society For Biblical Studies and what we “found” was eye-opening, troubling and encouraging. We arrived in Tel Aviv on Sunday, January 9 and headed directly to our hotel in Bethlehem, the Nativity Hotel, which was graciously opened up just for us. This was our first indication of how bad things were in Bethlehem where very few tourists are staying, leaving most of the hotels empty. After a good nights sleep we were up and ready to go first thing in the morning.

Our first day began with a tour of the Church of the Nativity. After that we were ready for some fact-finding. We began our search at the Holy Land Trust with George Rishmawi.We learned about several of the programs that they are working with, and learned a lot about what indigenous Palestinians are doing to help themselves in the midst of the troubles that they have been facing. After our meeting at their offices, George took us to visit a portion of the wall that is being built around Bethlehem. The part that we visited was still under construction and it was an amazing sight to behold and extremely troubling. Bishop Kafity pointed out several aspects of the walls’ construction that was adversely affecting Palestinians right where we stood. For one thing, a nearby Anglican Church was cut off from it’s fields. While this dispute was settled in favor of the church and the route of the wall changed, many Palestinians face the same situation, being cut off from their fields and orchards by the wall.

After our visit to the wall we then traveled to the East Jerusalem YMCA- Beit Sahour Branch where we met Judeh Majaj, the General Secretary of the “Y”. While Judah and others from the “Y” explained several of their programs and gave us a tour of the vocational training center that they run, two thoughts raced through my mind. First, this is not the “Y” as I know it in the U.S., the typical swim and gym. These people are very active in peace and justice issues and in bettering the lives of the people they serve in all aspects of their lives. The second thought, which came over time and visits to four different “Y” sites, is how embarrassed I am at the lack of support that the “Y” in Palestine receives from the YM and YWCA’s in the United States. Few people in this country, and that includes the “Y”s, seem to want to touch anything Palestinian. Hopefully this will change as people who are traveling to the West Bank can come back and report the real facts.

For our final stop of the afternoon we went to the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem, which is located in Bethlehem. Here we received an education on how difficult it can be for Palestinians. The director was not able to meet with us because he was detained at a roadblock somewhere between Ramallah and Bethlehem. However, in his place two able assistants gave us a good overview of the current situation with the use of maps and graphs.

That was just the first day. In the coming days we visited with a Jewish settler in his home in Efrat settlement, Palestinian and Israeli peace organizations such as Betselem and the Israeli-Palestine Center for Research and Information, government officials and politicians as well as various other community projects. A highlight was our one-day trip to Ramallah. At first we were not going to be allowed to enter the city by the Israeli checkpoint guard who met our taxi. But we were very fortunate that Bishop Kafity was with us and was not to be denied. After getting another soldier over to the taxi the Bishop stated our case very firmly, but lovingly, and before you knew it we were on our way to the Ramallah “YMCA.” In addition to the “Y” we had the opportunity to visit with Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, who finished second in the elections just a few days before to Mahmoud Abbas. While only being able to spare 15 minutes with us, he left a definite impression that there are viable options to the present Palestinian Authority leadership, which gives hope to a new day in Palestine. We will be interested in following the careers of such people as Barghouti.

The final piece of our journey took us to Jordan where we stayed and visited and experienced an Arab country that is not under occupation. We met with Akil Biltaji, advisor to King Abdullah, with representatives of the YW and the YMCA. We also attended worship at the Church of the Redeemer, Anglican. We also had the opportunity to visit Pastor Hannah Monsour at the Schneller School. It is always a delight to hear from a deep thinker such as Monsour, whose ideas go far beyond much of the present day thinking in the Middle East concerning solutions to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Monsour is himself a Palestinian from Israel.

When it was time to head back to the United States, we left with many mixed feelings about the future of the Holy Land. While there is great optimism about the future, we also realized that there is still a long ways to go and it will not be easy. There are many stumbling blocks in the road ahead. But at the same time we were encouraged by the resolve and dedication of those we met who were committed to finding a path to peace with justice, in spite of those barriers. We came back realizing there is still much work ahead and determined to do our part.