As of today, 197 Palestinians have been killed and more than 1,500 have been injured in Israel’s constant bombing of Gaza over the last 10 days. Though Palestinians have fired lots of rockets and mortars at Israel in this same time frame, reportedly only one Israeli has been killed. This outburst of violence is the worst in five years. This is a guest post written by an American friend of mine that is a missionary to the West Bank. I asked her to give advice to all of us for whom this conflict is just a bunch of numbers: 197. 1,500. I hope this reminds us that each of those numbers is a person made in the image of God.
On a cool summer evening, my four teammates and I found ourselves sitting on the curb of a popular walking street in Amman, Jordan. My husband (who I was only dating then) brought his guitar and began playing some tunes in hopes to draw the interest of Muslim passersby and within minutes, we were in conversation with two young Arab girls, enthralled with the idea that we were from America, THE America. Of course, as Arabs do, they invited us to their home the following day for dinner. The girls and their parents were so honored by our visit that they invited cousins, uncles, aunts, and neighbors to meet us. They overfed us with lamb and rice until we were nearly bursting at the seams, and then, as Arabs do, they brought out the second course, multiple whole baked chickens. Food was shoveled onto our plates as if it were as common as the rocks on roadsides. We ate and laughed and ate and laughed and ate some more. The girls translated for their solely Arabic-speaking relatives and we gestured as awkwardly as possible to fill in the gaps. As the night drew to a close nearly five hours later, they begged us to stay, begged us. It was hospitality like I’d never seen. It was Arab hospitality, and it put my southern hospitality to shame.
This was my first visit to the Middle East nearly ten years ago. I can still remember the tension in my body on my first night in the country as I lain awake listening to distant fireworks, probably just a celebratory gesture from a nearby wedding, but I was imagining a war zone in which I’d somehow found myself in the middle. My assumption was that the entire area was in constant turmoil, bombs going off everywhere, anti-American protests down every street, and bloodthirsty Muslims just waiting to slice my neck with a machete. So needless to say, the hospitality I found in these two teenage girls and their family, the sweetness of the shop owners, and the normalcy of the city streets caught me off guard. It was then that God cultivated in my heart a deep love for the Arab world that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to shake, even if I wanted to.
For the last five years, my family and I have made our home in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and have given our lives to serving God among Palestinian Muslims. Every so often, we travel back to the U.S. to fundraise for our work there, driving from church to church, sharing about our Father’s love and desire for Palestinian Muslims to know him. “Aren’t you afraid?” It’s always the first question asked. It is the most obvious after all. And I’ll tell you what I tell them: no. In general we feel quite safe in our West Bank village. We have loving neighbors, shop owners who know our names, and friends who have helped us out in a pinch.
We have found that same hospitality amongst Palestinians that we experienced on that Jordanian street nine years ago. So no, we don’t live in daily fear, but there are times when conflict arises as it did in 2012 and as it is now, when we found ourselves a little more on edge. There was more tear gas in the streets than usual, more protesting, more yelling, more soldiers shoving guns in the faces of the unarmed as they scream desperately, horrible things that you just can’t unsee. I’ll admit, my first reaction was to be fearful. But the interesting part is that when I looked around at my local friends and neighbors, they were feeling the same way. See, they’re just people, people trying to live out their lives as peacefully and as normally as possible. They too are just trying to care for their children, provide for their families, celebrate weddings, and shop for groceries. And when you get to know them, the “issues” suddenly become faces and it is more difficult to talk politics.
It is much easier if we oversimplify the conflict, demonizing one side, and therefore glorifying the other. We say things like, “it’s so simple, see” and “if only they would do this.” In fact, if you happen upon a news article, video, or social media post in which the author is offering a simplified version of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, it’s safe to assume that he/she is selling you a narrative in hopes that you’ll choose the “right” side. The problem though is when we choose sides, we begin to justify the unimaginable. We overlook the faults of the side we support and exaggerate the faults of those we oppose.
Choosing sides usurps the humanity in the situation.
It is this dehumanizing spirit that causes Israelis to sit on the beach and cheer as explosions are heard in Gaza. It’s what causes Palestinians to laugh at videos of Israelis running out of a wedding in fear because of air raid sirens. When we choose a side, the other ceases to be human on some level. As followers of Jesus, we can’t afford to choose sides. We can’t afford to support political and militaristic causes that involve killing the innocent. We can’t afford to deem an entire race or religion of people as being beyond redemption. As soon as we’ve done that, we’ve belittled their creator, assuming He is somehow incapable of restoring all. No, we must choose another way, a path of true peace. We must be makers of peace, choosing love and compassion for both the Jew and the Arab.
Do not allow the complexity of this situation to overwhelm and paralyze you though, I beg you. Please continue to educate yourself. Keep reading. Keep praying. Continue the discussions. But if at any time you find your heart growing cold toward people of any race or religion, then pause. Recenter yourself on Christ. Allow the Spirit of God to remind you of how deeply he cares for all of the world’s inhabitants. You see, as His workers in the Holy Land, we have one job to do there, and it has nothing to do with political agendas or standing with one side or the other. It has nothing to do with deciding who is right and who is wrong. We are called above the conflict, to help the hurting, comfort the afflicted, and most importantly, we’re called to speak the good news that brings true, everlasting peace into the hearts of all people everywhere. So, will you drop the arms of distorted positions, arguments, and narratives, choose the path less traveled, and join us in reconciling the world?