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Hope Springs Eternal Amid Middle East Terror

By Linford D. Stutzman (group leader)

I returned last month to the United States after spending a semester in the Middle East with a group of 30 students from Eastern Mennonite University. Our time was divided between the West Bank and Israel.

In the West Bank, the students stayed with Palestinian host families. They received outstanding hospitality and heard their gut-wrenching stories of suffering, longing for justice and their deep opposition to Palestinian terror.

One day, a spokesman for a terrorist group from a nearby refugee camp spoke to us. An articulate host, he explained why terrorism is inevitable in the face of increasing repression, humiliation and violence directed against the Palestinians. "It is our only weapon, he said. "The world will ignore us if we do not do this. We have no other options." The students vehemently challenged the assumptions, but he remained adamant: "Even women and children are the enemy. The Israelis started this, and we will only stop when they change, leave their settlements, withdraw their tanks, allow the refugees to return. But now, regretfully, terror is our only effective weapon."

We left the West Bank shortly thereafter, with our Palestinian host families worried about our safety in Israel and fearful that we would forget them, their shattered world and their dreams of justice.

Several weeks later, just across the valley within sight of Bethlehem and the refugee camp, we visited an Israeli settlement, a clean, prosperous, heavily guarded community. Our hosts were also convincing as they outlined their desire for peace, of buying land from their Palestinian neighbors for the settlement, of their attempts at being good neighbors. "However," they said, "terrorism gives us no choice but to fight back, to take drastic measures. We are sorry that innocent people get killed, but they started it. If they would stop, so would we. As long as terror persists, military responses are our only effective weapon."

The students pointed out that the Palestinians had said the same thing, and that both sides now live in armed communities contorted by fear, hatred and hopelessness. We said good-bye and left the settlement with our hosts worrying about our safety, again fearful of the possibility that we might forget them, their insecure world and their dreams of peace.

I wish every American politician, every news reporter and pundit who is enthusiastic about our own war on terrorism would have the opportunity to see the tragic failure of fighting the evil of terrorism with violent reprisals, including using weapons of mass destruction.

Several days later, a Palestinian couple invited us to their once beautiful home located directly across the street from the former PLO headquarters in Bethlehem, reduced to a pile of rubble after being bombed by Israeli gunships. It was a "precision" bombing, but the blasts damaged all of the surrounding homes, making them uninhabitable. Because thieves had stripped everything from the house before it could be made secure following the bombing, the house was completely empty except for shattered glass, a torn, unfinished coloring book, and a framed picture of the Madonna neatly broken into two pieces at the neck.

Our hosts told us of their suffering, loss and desire for peace. We had heard the story before, repeatedly. But as they spoke, we began looking at them in amazement. For instead of the haunted look of bitterness and fear to which we had grown accustomed, they radiated joy. Instead of rage and pain, they spoke of their gratitude for God’s protection in their and their children’s lives. "We do not hate the Israelis," they said, standing amid their shattered world. "An Israeli mother cries when her son dies, just as a Palestinian mother cries when her son dies. Didn’t Jesus tell us to love our enemies? Forgiveness is our only hope if we want to live together in the future."

I wish every Christian in America who supports returning evil for evil would live out their faith in such a way.

Linford Stutzman is associate professor of culture and mission at Eastern Mennonite University. He and his wife Janet Stutzman led a cross-cultural group of 30 EMU students to the Middle East for the fall semester 2002.
Posted: January 28, 2003

Click on the images below to see photo galleries of the 2002 Middle East cross-cultural trip: