By Conor O’Loughlin, Caritas Communications Officer
The road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is no simple highway connecting two major cities. Not for one moment are you allowed to forget that you are enveloped in the world’s most complex political skirmish. Metres-high concrete walls bear down on you from either side. Highly-fortified Land Rovers ply the lengths like the old police vehicles in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles. Israeli settlements sit loftily and well-lit upon every hilltop; crooked Palestinian villages cower, ashamed and dark, in the valleys.
A sign rushes towards us: ‘Welcome to Jerusalem’ written in Hebrew, then Arabic, then English. Yet another checkpoint rises in the distance. I don’t feel particularly welcome.
Towers raise their heads at various points. Palestinian Mosque or Israeli watchtower? In the pre-dawn light, it’s impossible to tell.
And Jerusalem itself. It’s beauty, history and diversity the very reasons it is so contentious. Am I in east, or west? Is the man crossing the street Israeli or Palestinian? Or tourist? It feels like it shouldn’t matter. But to so many, it does.
My taxi driver tells me that it should be raining at this time of year. Possibly even snowing. But the morning is bright and crisp like a Northern European spring morning.
In Bethlehem this weekend the Episcopal Conferences in Support of the Church in the Holy Land are meeting. A group of European and American bishops here to show the Church in the Holy Land that they are not forgotten.
And so I make my way. As we pass yet more settlements and precariously perched Palestinian villages we get to the ‘Welcome to Bethlehem’ sign. Not as daunting as the last. Until just after, another: ‘Palestinian Authority Controlled Area. No entry by Israelis’. The land is utterly biblical: hillsides striated and ash baked. Olive trees puncture the slopes. Great palms sway gently, oblivious to the travails beneath.
I have some time to kill. So to the Church of the Nativity, the reason I am here in more than one sense. Where Jesus was born and which is now so intertwined with that which makes him saddest. Deep in its chambers, I watch a group of Orthodox priests chanting vespers. Surrounded by ancient scripts, portraits of dead saints and elders and the deep musk of incense clouding the air, it is easy to imagine that they, like their beliefs, have been found on this spot for two millennia.
It is calm here. There are tourists and the hawkers that harass them. Priests, nuns, monks and bishops of every denomination wearing every colour. Police. Taxi drivers.
And yet… And yet. It is impossible to banish from the mind what is happening in another corner of this place. Impossible to forget the images of pain and suffering on every television bulletin and newspaper just down the road in Gaza. It is in the lips of every Palestinian; their anger and frustration barely contained. 800 dead – and why? No-one can say. Here, Israel is the enemy. But Israel is here. Israel is the neighbour and it is not always even clear where Palestine begins and Israel ends. How can you know where to direct your hate when the object of your hatred is so intertwined, so enmeshed in your land and way of life?
For many Palestinians, their enemy is not just their neighbour. Their enemy lives in their house.
The difficulties here are age-old and well documented. The solution has evaded humanity for decades, and even centuries. But the violence in Gaza is certainly not part of that solution. Israelis and Palestinians must learn to work and live together. The hope is that recent events might force both sides to realise that the only solution is peace.