Peace Is Not Dead Yet

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Bethlehem isn’t far from Jerusalem. It’s maybe just a 10-minute drive. Our taxi was waved through the checkpoint.

As we took the worn asphalt road toward Star Street, Claude asked our driver what he thought of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority that controls parts of the West Bank. He turned toward the car window and spat at the mention of his name. By now we’d learned that this was a familiar gesture of disdain. No Palestinian wanted the taste of that name in their mouth, it seemed.

“What can be done to move forward, then?” Claude asked. The driver shrugged.

Claude asked every Palestinian driver the same questions, curious about how those on the street felt about their current leader and prospects for the future. Our informal survey revealed that Abbas had lost the trust of his people.

The story on the other side of the checkpoint was not so different. Our Israeli friends spoke of their prime minister as a corrupt politician. One couple mentioned how his election was a fluke, taking many Israelis by surprise much as the election of our current U.S. president. The name Netanyahu isn’t honey on the lips of his people, either.

Where are the trusted leaders to lead the way forward? This was the emerging question between taxi rides.

***

While in Bethlehem, my husband and I shared lunch with a friend, a Palestinian Christian who has been working toward peace for more than 20 years from his base on Star Street. We ate overlooking the crescents, crosses and settlements that dotted the landscape. We asked him, surely an expert in the region, about the way forward in this hallowed land.

He quieted.

“I don’t know,” he sighed. “I stay out of politics—there are no answers to be found there. Neither side has a good plan,” he relayed flatly.

So much of what plagues Israel-Palestine involves politics, the negotiation of facts on the holy ground. “How can you work for a solution, but avoid politics altogether?” my husband asked. His voice betrayed his own sense that this was a naïve position, even as he spoke with a seasoned peacemaker.

“I just keep connecting people,” he said without additional comment.

Indeed, the core of his work all these years is creating spaces where people connect across fracture lines—Israeli and Palestinian, the devout of the three Abrahamic faiths—and hosting those from foreign lands to meet and find common cause in the shared hunger for peace.

It was an unsatisfactory answer for both Claude and I who hungered for a better answer than that of the taxi drivers. As if he sensed our disappointment, our friend turned the conversation toward our schedule for the next set of days.

“You must visit Hebron, Aida Refugee Camp and see the Separation Wall up close, maybe from The Walled Off Hotel,” he said.

We left lunch with an itinerary and the awareness that our friend was very tired from the unending work of making peace where there is no peace.

Claude and I have circled back to that conversation atop Star Street many times since. How can there not be a political response to occupation? How do you carry on with peacemaking initiatives when the funding is drying up and energy is waning for the work? What do you do when you see no way out of the conflict?

A couple days later, following the itinerary our friend sketched, we sat alongside the Separation Wall with another driver-turned-friend. Again we heard stories about life before and after the wall, how Naif drove down Hebron Street without the partition hemming him in. Now he cannot cross over and visit Jerusalem, he cannot even drive us there in his taxi.

“The Separation Wall will not be completed,” he said.

I asked why not.

“It has done its work already. We are a separated people. Our children don’t know the other side anymore.” He talked about a generation that cannot work or shop together, and cannot even share the same roads anymore. The separation is complete.

As I listened it occurred to me that the Separation Wall is just the most visible part of what separates people in this land. But the government works to make separation systemic. Even our Israeli SIM card purchased in Tel Aviv would not connect with a Palestinian phone number in Bethlehem by design. We are not meant to talk, to visit or to connect.

But if we remain confined to our own side of the wall, we will never meet and make peace.

I found myself circling again. Maybe our friend was right. There is no political solution at present. There is no road we can take to peace … yet. But every instance of connection is an act of resistance to separation. Every time he brings people together, he is resisting. Each time he hosts conversations among young Palestinians and Israelis, he is seeding the soil for another future. Maybe each conversation creates the possibility of a new reality to come, each connection made a tangible prayer for a future peace. As long as people are finding ways to communicate despite the separation, they are creating new facts on the ground.

And out of that old burned out tree stump, maybe a green shoot will emerge again, as Isaiah prophesied. Maybe this is what our friend knows—the peace process is dead now, but not forever. There will be newness borne of the Spirit and so in the meantime he keeps connecting people, creating the conditions for new leaders and a future peace. He knows the God who makes a way where there is (at present) no way.

Maybe someday we will drive from Bethlehem to Jerusalem in Naif’s taxi, with no need to stop at a checkpoint. Perhaps we will sip tea in the Old City and remember the wall that was—the one that used to separate us—and he will tell us what it was like to watch it come down at last.

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Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is also the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (Eerdmans).
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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