This is the first snapshot from Israel/Palestine. In no particular order, they give you a glimpse of life under occupation.
We set out early on Wednesday from the Mount of Beatitudes on the Sea of Galilee to visit Elias Chacour, the recently retired Archbishop of Akko, Haifa and Allo of Galilee in the Greek Catholic Melkite Church. Abuna Chacour had agreed to meet with us in Ibillin at the marvellous educational complex, begun by him in 1983. It now includes a co-educational kindergarten, primary school, high school and gifted program for Christian, Moslem and Druze students of the area. As we walked through the facility built on the hill overlooking the town, the energy and discipline of the young Palestinians was apparent to all. Chacour met with us in a large classroom lined with a pictorial description of the development of Mar Elias which had been constructed, as are most buildings owned by non-Jews, without a permit, that is, against the directives of the Israeli government.
Abuna Chacour began by drawing us out: What had we learned during our visit to his country? He listened intently and reminded us that a journalist who has spent one day in Palestine can write a book, a journalist who has spent a month can write an article and one who has spent a year there will see such complexity that she may not be able to write at all. (Regardless, we blog on.) Chacour then went on to briefly describe the details of his life as a Palestinian Arab Christian Israeli who had been born in 1939 into a large Christian family that, prior to the Nakba, lived in peace with other Jews and Moslems in Galilee. In 1948, when the Zionists drove them from their village, the devout Chacour family became refugees in their own land. The youngest of four boys, Elias was encouraged by his father to accept the call to the priesthood. After university, he studied theology at St. Sulpice Seminary in Paris. Returning to Israel in 1965, he was ordained a priest and assigned to the small village of Ibillin that became his parish and the focus of his educational activism for the next 50 years.
Abuna Chacour regaled us with the story about the “illegal” construction of his high school in the early 80s. Every time the Israeli authorities showed up to see if he had a building permit he told them that he needed a building not a permit. As soon as they left, the work recommenced. He would not let the refusal to provide a permit to slow down the construction of the building. However, when he realized that the project was in jeopardy of becoming caught up in political conflict and red tape, he flew to Washington in 1981 to seek assistance from then Secretary of State James Baker. He landed unannounced at the side door of the Baker residence as the Secretary’s wife was beginning a Bible Study session on the Beatitudes. When she opened the door, Chacour introduced himself as “another man from Galilee.” When she asked if he had an appointment, Father Chacour quipped, “Appointment? We men from Galilee don’t make appointments. We make appearances.” She invited him in and he explained to the group of Washington wives that the Christian Beatitudes are not “Be Happy Attitudes.” They are a call to conversion and to peace making. Abuna Chacour became a close friend of the Susan and James Baker. On his next Middle Eastern diplomatic mission, Baker quietly intervened by hand-delivering a letter to the Israeli government supporting the initiatives of the Mar Elias Educational Institution. The necessary permits were granted. No school demolition need be feared.
As we listened through tears of laughter and sadness to Elias Chacour, we realized that we were in the presence of a true peacemaker but we did not realize that he would be commissioning us to become the same in the service of the Palestinians whose sufferings we had been witnessing for the last two weeks. As he has told others in the past, he told us to take the side of the Palestinians but he gave us this last bit of advice: “If taking our side would mean to become one-sided against my Jewish brothers and sisters, back up. We do not need such friendship. We need one more common friend. We do not need one more enemy, for God’s sake.”