Jesus Asked Us to Love Our Enemies: Learning to be a Christian in Occupied Palestine

by Cliff Burton

Waiting to pass an Israeli military checkpoint is at the same time nerve-wracking and mundane. Trying to enter the West Bank city of Nablus, we stood in line with a large group of Palestinians.

Israeli soldiers cradling M-16’s stared stone-faced at the crowd. A soldier standing behind a cement block checked ID’s, asked questions, and searched each person. Those making it past the checkpoint would hurry to get a place in a taxi waiting on the other side.

Israeli check point in the occupied West Bank

As we neared the front of the line, an Israeli soldier began shouting wildly at a young Palestinian boy. The soldier overturned the boy’s wagon, loaded with containers of olives, and began pushing the boy around. The other soldiers stood around and watched, some laughing, some just looking bored.

I was shocked at the soldier’s treatment of a young boy who only wanted to get to town and sell his olives for a meager profit. My blood began to rush, I was struck with the urge to grab the soldier and make him leave the boy alone.

My adrenalin was quickly replaced by fear, as I thought of what he and his heavily-armed fellow soldiers might do if I tried to intervene.

My friend John stepped forward, putting himself between the soldier and the boy, diverting the soldier’s attention. The soldier began yelling some things in Hebrew to John, but then finally backed down. John helped the boy put the olives back in the wagon, and stayed near him until the soldiers finally let him bring his wagon through the checkpoint.

The West Bank and Gaza strip, which make up what is left of Palestine, have been under Israeli military occupation for some 40 years. Located in the West Bank are numerous sites of religious significance to Latter-day Saints, including Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, East Jerusalem, where Jesus taught and ministered, and Hebron, where the prophet Abraham is buried.

Over the past 40 years the Israeli government has, in methodic fashion, forcibly confiscated more and more Palestinian land, in order to build settlements for its Jewish citizens. Persistent Israeli colonization, and Palestinian resistance to it, is what drives the long standing conflict in the Holy Land between Israeli Jews on the one hand, and Palestinian Christians and Muslims on the other.

Life under Israeli occupation for Palestinians has been characterized by expulsions, land confiscations, imprisonments, torture, home demolitions, rocket attacks from helicopter gun ships, embargoes, which strangle the Palestinian economy, and closures, which restrict Palestinian movement between towns and villages.

To carry out the Israeli program of colonizing Palestinian land, the Israeli Army denies Palestinians the basic political freedoms and protection of human rights that Israeli citizens enjoy, including those Israeli Jews who live in settlements just miles or even yards from Palestinian towns.

In the winter of 2003, I was studying Arabic at a Palestinian university in the Israeli occupied West Bank. The second Intifada, or uprising of Palestinians against the Israeli occupation was in full swing. Israeli military incursions into Palestinian cities and towns were common, particularly in Nablus and Gaza.

Palestinian suicide bombers carried out several attacks within Israel during the time I was there. While in Nablus I was tagging along with some friends who were involved with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), which seeks to use non-violent tactics to protect Palestinian civilians from the Israeli army, as my friend John had done when helping the young boy with the wagon full of olives.

The day after I arrived in Nablus I saw a large-scale Israeli incursion into the old city. Israeli soldiers began occupying Palestinian homes, using them as temporary bases, detained a number of Palestinians, and engaged in clashes with Palestinian youths.

Palestinian youth throwing stones at Israeli soldiers

The youths were throwing rocks at the soldiers for several hours, and soldiers were firing rubber-coated bullets back at them.

An Israeli soldier shot my friend John, who was watching the clashes and taking photos. He was only lightly wounded, since the bullet hit him in the shoulder, rather than in the neck or head. After a quick visit to the hospital, he was in pain but in good spirits, especially after he saw a report about his injury the next day in the local Nablus newspaper.

Walking through the city had a dreamlike feel; we could hear gunfire very close to us, often on the next street over. This didn’t seem to bother the throngs of Palestinian kids playing soccer in the streets, who apparently were used to these foreign soldiers invading their town.

The next day we were walking down a dirt road on the edge of town, and noticed an Israeli tank blocking the road ahead of us. To the left of the road was a hill, on which twenty or thirty Palestinians were sitting and waiting; some carried school books, others carried basic things they had bought at the market.

There was a stand off taking place, between the Israeli soldiers who were blocking the way, and the Palestinians hoping to reach their villages beyond the road.

A German girl who was with us, also a volunteer with ISM, began speaking to the soldiers, asking why they wouldn’t let these Palestinians simply go home at the end of a long day of studying or working. Not wanting to get involved, I walked up the hill and sat among a group of Palestinians. I couldn’t hear much of what was being said between my friend and the soldiers. After a few minutes the turret of the tank cannon began to move, conceivably to fire in our direction.

The Israeli soldiers then abruptly raised their guns, pointing them at those of us on the hill and looking through their scopes, perhaps attempting to pick out individual targets.

A sense of panic overtook me and everyone else in the crowd. We began running as fast as we could, trying to get over the top of the hill and out of range. A feeling of relief and thanks to God came over me as I finally fell to the ground in safety on the backside of the hill.

I spent that night with an ISM volunteer from New Mexico named Brian Avery. We chatted a bit about politics and Brian’s interest in agriculture before turning in for bed, trying to fall asleep despite the intermittent gunfire now being exchanged between the Israeli Army and Palestinian guerillas on the street outside the house.

The next day we attended a protest against the looming US invasion of Iraq, in which all the major Palestinian political factions were represented, as indicated by the sea of Fatah, Hamas, PFLP and DFLP flags being waved by the marchers.

We walked through the narrow streets of Nablus as the crowd chanted “Wahid, Ithneen, Al-Jaish Al-Arabi Ween?” 1

A group of young boys carrying sticks designated themselves my bodyguards and escorted me the entire way. The US invaded Iraq the next day. After a few more quiet days in Nablus, I returned to Birzeit to resume my Arabic studies.

Several weeks later my friends from ISM got a call. Israeli Soldiers had shot Bryan Avery while he was volunteering in Jenin for the final month of his time in the West Bank. As Bryan and several other ISM volunteers were walking down a road on the outskirts of town, two Israeli Armored Personnel Carriers (APC) approached. An Israeli soldier manning the machine gun mounted on one of the APC’s opened fire. The group scattered as they heard the burst of gunfire. When it was over, they looked back to see Bryan lying in a pool of blood. The soldier had shot Bryan in the face, the bullet entering one cheek and exiting the other.

Bryan Avery, shot by an Israeli soldier in 2003

Bryan’s injury was too severe to be treated in a Palestinian hospital. When the Israeli soldiers at the border realized he was an American, they called in a helicopter to lift him to an Israeli military hospital in Haifa, on Israel’s northern coast. My friends and I traveled the next day to Haifa, thinking Bryan could use the company until his parents arrived from the US.

Bryan was completely unrecognizable. His long flowing hair had been cut off, and his face had swollen to twice its normal size. His face was covered with stitches from the first of many surgeries he would have to reconstruct the shattered bones in his jaw and cheek. He couldn’t speak, and could communicate only by writing notes.

Bryan felt the Israeli soldier had tried to murder him, since the shooting was unprovoked. The recent Israeli Army targeting of two ISM volunteers seemed to reinforce this notion. One was Rachel Corrie, whom an Israeli soldier killed by crushing her under a bulldozer as she tried to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian doctor’s home in Gaza. The other was Tom Hurndall, whom an Israeli soldier shot in the head while Tom was escorting Palestinian children away from a clash between the Israeli military and Palestinian guerillas. Tom died after laying in a coma for nine months.

The irony of seeing Bryan in a hospital bed, in the very same room as an injured Israeli soldier made me think for the first time about what it meant to have to love one’s enemy.

I wondered what feelings Bryan must have had for the soldier in the same hospital room; or for Israeli soldiers in general. They had almost killed him, perhaps intentionally, had maimed him for life, and were detaining, killing, and displacing his Palestinian friends.

By any definition imaginable, Israeli soldiers were his enemies. Though I didn’t ask Bryan such a question, I felt a strong impression from the Spirit that if I were in his situation, Jesus would want me to love these Israeli soldiers.

Having feelings of hate, or resorting to violence wasn’t the thing to do, even if such a response would be understandable. Even though armed resistance targeting the Israeli Occupation Forces (but not civilians) is in my view justified, I felt the Spirit was encouraging a different, non-violent route. Amazingly, despite all the wrongs Palestinians have suffered, many, both Muslim and Christian, have embraced non-violent methods of resisting the occupation. Strangely, this was the first time in my life I was forced to seriously think about this most basic tenet of Mormonism, the command to love one’s enemies, though I had attended church pretty much every week since I was a kid.

Because of this experience I consider myself a pacifist most of the time. Though I acknowledge there are times when using violence is justified in God’s eyes, when we choose to love our enemies instead of killing them, the Lord will reward us for our righteousness (D&C 98:30).

When thinking of how to respond to violence, I think of the example from the Book of Mormon of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, who refused to take up arms against their attackers, preferring to be slaughtered rather than kill their “brethren” (Alma 24:6-19).

When I hear people declare that we have no option but to invade or bomb another country, I think of the Lord’s admonition that we “renounce war and proclaim peace (D&C 98:16).”

At the same time, being a pacifist doesn’t mean that we should, or can, simply abstain from making war; rather, we need to put as much effort into peacemaking as others do in war making. My friend John, who stepped in to prevent that Israeli soldier from abusing a helpless Palestinian boy is an example of this, as are Rachel Corrie, Tom Hurndall, and Bryan Avery.

For more information about volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement please visit http://www.palsolidarity.org/

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