Crossing Barriers, Finding Faith and Forgiveness

Journalist Diane Handal writes of how families are finding Love as a Healing Balm in Palestine.

In the current edition of ONE, journalist Diane Handal writes of how families are finding Love as a Healing Balm in Palestine. Here, she gives additional impressions from her trip.

The conveyer belt went round and round at baggage claim in Tel Aviv and I prayed. We had been delayed in New York two hours and I feared my luggage had missed the connection. Then, I saw the little green tag on the black bag that said, “Bella and Lola’s Nana!”

I jumped into a taxi and said, “Jerusalem please!”

This is Jerusalem from the taxi window:

Israeli flags on every street…lots of cranes…beautiful stone walls…newly paved roads…new apartments high on the hilltops…modern street lamps…cyprus, elm, and pine trees…Mc Donald’s…men wearing long beards with side curls emergent from their temples, big black round hats, white fringes hanging on either side of black pants, long black coats…cell phones pressed to ears…women wearing wigs, hairnets and head scarfs.

At Damascus Gate, there were several white police vans, and a strong presence of Israeli policemen. All wore sunglasses, steel gray uniforms, black flak jackets, and they carried assault rifles.

I had arrived at this ancient gateway to the old city of Jerusalem with its crowded bazaar and the holiest sites for Jews, Muslims, and Christians — unaware that it had become quite dangerous with a surge in knifing incidents.

I hired another taxi at the gate and argued over the price with the driver in my halting Arabic. The driver wanted to take me all around to enter Bethlehem to avoid the checkpoint. I knew that was prohibitive, cost-wise, so declined. The driver was not happy.

Finally, I agreed to pay $25 just to get to Checkpoint #300, where no one asked to see my passport and I walked through the long tunnel dragging my suitcase and computer bag. I walked up and down hills and still could not find the Jacir Palace Hotel. Finally, I paid another taxi $5 and it was just around the corner.

It was a very long journey. I was exhausted. The first room I was taken to had dirty rugs, a broken phone, and no hot water. I moved twice more with much of the same issues and finally, gave up.

Dinner was sparkling water and biscuits I bought at a nearby market.

Back at the hotel, I took a lukewarm shower and passed out for a few hours. I went down for breakfast and had two fried eggs, Arabic bread, and coffee. The chef and I began talking and he asked my family name. He then told his boss — and every morning, two fried eggs appeared at my table.

George Saadeh is picking me up about 9:30am in the lobby. He sounded very nice on the phone.

The next day, I was inside the “open prison.” I felt the sense of gates closing behind me from the minute I walked through the checkpoint to the other side of the “separation wall” into the streets of Bethlehem.

A heavy weight descended upon me and I thought this was just a touch of what the Palestinians live with every single day.

The sun was shining and the houses and apartment buildings on the hill were all beige, broken by only a few green trees and some black water tanks in the distance.

Water is scarce here and there are many cisterns as the Palestinians are dependent on the Israelis for water. They receive only 17% of the water supply while the Israelis receive 83%, under the Oslo Accords. The settlements have 24–hour water access and that includes water for swimming pools.

Cars were speeding past me and going round and round through the city.

I went to change money in a tiny dark closet of a store and then, walked across the street to Abu Alees, my favorite shawarma place near my family’s home off Orient Street. The wrap was fresh, the chicken tender, the tomato, cucumber, and parsley salad fresh, and the hot sauce burned in my mouth. I was in heaven.

Later, I walked up the street toward town to buy some cherries and oranges and the owner gave me a discount and smiled. I asked for teen (figs), but he said they were not in season. The Palestinians are kind people.

For three shekels, less than $1, I took a “service” (a taxi that picks up people along the way) back to my hotel.

My friend Wajdi Zoughby — who is an IT genius — greeted me with a hug at the hotel.

He is married now and just had his second child, a little girl named Marion. His son Khuder is two and named after his father, George, who died a few years ago. I often think of the opportunities Wajdi could have had on the other side of this Wall.

Yesterday, I met George Saadeh and spent the day with him at the Greek Orthodox School where he is principal. He is a good man who is very smart, very kind, and works hard to see change in a community under occupation.

His daughter Christine was just 12 when she was killed in an Israeli raid. The family was on their way to the market. Hundreds of bullets shattered the windshield and windows. Christine was shot in the head and neck and died. Nine bullets struck her father George. His eldest daughter Marion was shot in the leg; his wife’s body was laden with shrapnel.

He is a strong man despite this pain and suffering no parent should endure and he has held onto his faith throughout a very difficult journey.

George, Najwa, his wife, and I went to St. Joseph’s convent. The sisters there taught Najwa and her daughters at the St. Joseph School. They have been a tremendous support for Najwa, particularly Soeur George.

And, Soeur George knew my grandmother Jameleh. She met her when we visited Bethlehem and stayed at the convent. I was 10 years old at the time. She was 21 and had just entered the novitiate.

We went to the Church of the Nativity later, which is being renovated. A huge crane sat on the roof of the church, the only one I saw in Bethlehem.

Najwa, George, the photographer Nadim, and I went to dinner at a café next to the church.

After dinner, I interviewed Najwa. My heart broke for her, for them. But their strong faith and their journey toward forgiveness through their fervent belief in peace and reconciliation have given them the tools to survive.

God bless them.

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