Najwa Saadeh says she draws the strength to forgive from her faith. (photo: Nadim Asfour)
George and Najwa Saadeh meet with the leadership of St. Joseph High School. (photo: Nadim Asfour)
The graffiti-glazed wall severing the West Bank of Palestine from the state of Israel has many names. Israelis term it a “security barrier” against terrorism. Palestinians call it an “apartheid wall.”
Whatever its name, the 440-mile fortification severely disrupts movement, divides land, cuts off access to services and resources, and undermines agricultural and rural livelihoods throughout the West Bank. The massive structure is all the more striking for its sparse surroundings: a desert landscape of beige, accented by an occasional cluster of buildings or green trees, with black water tanks in the distance.
Due to the scarcity of water in this arid region, people depend on cisterns to collect rainwater and store well water.
“We have water through the wells that come from the mountains 300 yards down,” says George Saadeh, principal of Shepherds High School in the largely Christian town of Beit Sahour, which is adjacent to Bethlehem.
“But Israel controls the wells. We have to buy water when it runs out, and it is very expensive,” he says.
The convenience of constant access to drinkable water is not known to the Saadeh family — nor is mobility.
“Palestinians are prevented from moving freely. I cannot take my children to see the Mediterranean Sea, which is a half an hour away,” he adds, his olive skin highlighted by the white hair around his temples.
All travel beyond the West Bank requires permits, which do not come easily. Even for Christian Palestinians, reaching Jerusalem for Holy Week and Easter can be difficult. It is common in Bethlehem for half of a family to receive the necessary permits while the other half is denied.
“Security” is the single biggest reason why the Israeli authorities may deny a permit. Often no reason is given.
Such challenges are customary for the Saadeh family — and for the nearly three million Palestinians who live in the West Bank. But for the Saadehs, theirs is a life overshadowed by violence and heartbreak that have tested their Christian faith. Their story, as with so many others in occupied territories, is one of struggle and survival. But it also turns out to be a story of confronting the pain of the past — and finding reason to hope.
George Saadeh and his wife, Najwa, live within a framework of concrete walls and checkpoints. Both hail from Bethlehem.
Mr. Saadeh attended Terra Sancta College, a primary and secondary school run by the Franciscan Friars of the Custody of the Holy Land, and then studied aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He returned to Bethlehem in 1983 to work and teach, marrying his neighbor, Najwa, in 1986.
In 1999, Mr. Saadeh began serving as vice principal of Shepherd High School, and became its principal in 2002.
Najwa Saadeh, a Syriac Christian whose family left Turkey during the tumult of the World War I era, attended Bethlehem’s St. Joseph High School and later studied philosophy at Bethlehem University. The curls at the bottom of her dark hair fall loosely on her shoulders as she speaks of her daughter Christine. Dark circles frame her big brown eyes.
“Christine was an angel,” her mother says, fingering a locket on a silver necklace around her neck. The locket enshrines a photograph of her seventh-grade daughter wearing her St. Joseph’s School uniform: a red plaid jacket and white turtleneck. It is here that the Saadeh story turns grim.
The Al Aqsa Intifada began in the autumn of 2000 after the collapse of the Camp David summit that summer and the riots that followed the visit of the then prime minister to the Temple Mount — a symbolic assertion of Israeli sovereignty over the Holy Site, which includes the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.
The uprising continued for about four years, and invaded even peaceful communities such as Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.
In the summer of 2003, the conflict hit Saadeh family, tragically.
On a rainy evening in June, the couple, along with 12-year-old Christine and her sister, 15-year-old Marian, drove to the market. The family car passed the Shepherd’s Hotel around 7 and, unexpectedly, heavy gunfire erupted, peppering the family’s car with bullets, shattering the windshield.
“The glass fell on us,” Mrs. Saadeh says. Her husband turned to his daughters, first seeing that Marian had been shot in the leg. “I called to Christine, but she didn’t answer me.”
He then saw Christine lying between the seats. “She had been badly hit,” Mr. Saadeh says; he sustained nine bullets in the back and abdomen, while his wife suffered various shrapnel wounds.
He managed to raise his left hand out the window and called out: “We are civilians, don’t shoot!”
The gunmen, undercover Israeli soldiers, immediately closed off the area.
Mrs. Saadeh says she picked up her daughter and cradled her until an ambulance came 15 minutes later and took them to Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem.
It took surgeons seven hours to remove all the bullets from her husband. His wife and elder daughter survived.
Christine did not.
Three other civilians, also Palestinians, were also killed in the attack, which locals have come to call the “Shepherd’s Massacre.”
“I witnessed those days and it was very difficult,” says the Rev. Issa Musleh, who also serves as the spokesman for Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III.
“I was the spiritual father for the Saadeh family,” he remembers, adding “we lived very sad days.” Father Musleh had to deliver the news to George that his youngest daughter had died of her wounds.
“It was a shock for all of us,” he says. “It changed our lives, 180 degrees.”
While her husband remained in the hospital recovering, Mrs. Saadeh struggled through the next few days of mourning and the funeral alone. She told The New York Times at the time: “The soldiers were shocked when they saw the girls. They told us, ‘we are very sorry. We didn’t mean to shoot you.’
“They came with us to the hospital. But what does sorry mean to me? I lost my daughter.”
Father Musleh welcomed thousands paying condolences — ambassadors, faithful from 13 churches and even a representative of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
“I was alone,” says Mrs. Saadeh. “But I didn’t lose my mind. I was touching Christine’s face and hands at the funeral.”
For years afterward, the family struggled to cope with the loss.
“I slept in her bed every night,” Najwa says. “I set her plate at the table every night. I made her a sandwich for her school lunch every day for seven years and asked Marian to give it to a poor student who did not have food.”
Marian, Christine’s older sister, was in tenth grade when the attack happened. She suffered greatly, her mother says, but refuses to speak about it.
Now 29, Marian is a clinical psychologist and works as a counselor at St. Joseph’s School after having graduated from Bethlehem University.
“She has lost her faith,” Marian’s mother says, “but she will get it back in time.”
Mrs. Saadeh understands this turn all too well: “I questioned my own faith.
“I blamed Jesus so many times that this would happen. But after four years I asked for forgiveness. I look to Jesus to hold my sadness as I am holding his cross since Christine’s death. I pray to the Holy Mother: ‘You endured the same pain I do now; so, I need your help.’
“I always have their help,” she adds.
Now, 14 years later, Najwa Saadeh still suffers from stomach problems, sleep deprivation and panic attacks.
The Israeli military has admitted its error, claiming it was targeting several wanted men, and apologized.
The emotions still raw, Mrs. Saadeh has little use for such an apology. “We are not dogs. We are not animals. We are human beings.”
A month after Christine’s death, George Saadeh received a call from a group hoping to meet with him at a gathering in Beit Jala.
The Parents Circle Families Forum, a joint Palestinian-Israeli organization of more than 600 families, includes men and women dealing with tragedy and loss, and encourages its members to share their stories, to listen and to offer support.
The group is committed to peace and justice, and an end to the military occupation of the West Bank. Its members all have lost family members as a result of the conflict, and now look for ways to create dialogue with a long-term aim of reconciliation.
“It’s not easy for us telling our stories all the time,” says Mr. Saadeh. “The politicians don’t like it. On both sides, they say you are crazy speaking about peace — ‘look at what is going on.’ ”
Some family members and friends have likewise been critical.
“My Palestinian friends and some family were not understanding toward my work in The Parents Circle with Jewish families,” says Mrs. Saadeh.
At a recent meeting, a group of Germans from Pax Christi International, a Catholic international peace movement, met in Bethlehem in the basement of a local hotel.
The 15 members of The Parents Circle sat in a circle and listened as George Saadeh recounted his story about Christine.
Robi Damelin, who came to Israel in 1967 from South Africa, where she was an anti-apartheid activist, spoke next.
Ms. Damelin’s son, David, was completing a master’s degree in the philosophy of education at Tel Aviv University, when the reserves called him for active duty. A peace advocate, David did not wish to enforce the occupation, and agonized over the decision. In the end, he went, believing that with his perspective, he would act as an evenhanded and moral soldier — traits he could not guarantee should someone else go in his place.
The Saturday before his death, David called his mother. “This is a terrible place,” he had said. “I feel like a sitting duck.”
Two days later, David was one of ten people killed by a sniper. He was 28 years old. His unit was stationed at a checkpoint near Ofra, an Israeli settlement in the northern West Bank built on privately owned Palestinian land, and considered illegal according to the ruling of the Israeli High Court.
“It is impossible to describe what it is to lose a child. Your whole life is totally changed forever,” Ms. Damelin says. “I am the same person — with a lot of pain. Wherever I go, I carry this with me.”
Ms. Damelin has asked priests, imams and rabbis about the meaning of forgiveness. The answer she has synthesized from many responses is: “Giving up your just right to revenge.”
“I’ve lived here 69 years. There is no justice and all the world is silent,” says Sister Femia Khoury, principal of St. Joseph’s School in Bethlehem. “No one can understand our situation if not living in this country and seeing what is happening every day.”
The commission for justice and peace of the Catholic bishops of the Holy Land last May decried the “normalization” of the Israel-Palestine situation, calling it “an open, festering wound.
“The life of the Palestinians is far from normal and acting ‘as if’ things were normal ignores the violation of fundamental human rights,” the statement continues. “Like the prophets of old, the church, a prophetic body, points out injustice and denounces it.”
We want to live under freedom and make a better life for our children, George Saadeh says.
“We should live together side by side. We don’t want hatred. We want people to come together.”
“With revenge,” adds his wife, “we will live like animals. We would destroy ourselves and others.
“We have to gain love between nations,” she adds, touching her locket. “Because we love, we can change life.”
Diane Handal is a frequent contributor to ONE, focusing on the Middle East.