by MICHAEL OTTO
AUCKLAND — The most difficult task Claudette Habesch faced in raising her children in Palestine was not letting hatred grow in their hearts.
“It has not been easy,” the secretary-general of Caritas Jerusalem told an audience at Liston Hall in Auckland on March 11.
The 71-year-old Palestinian Christian told how “an alarm rang in my head” when she was driving her then-seven-year-old son home from school in East Jerusalem. Passing an Israeli soldier, her son came out with a statement that shocked her.
“He tells me, ‘When I grow up, I am going to buy a gun and come and kill this soldier’. As calmly as possible, I said to him, ‘Why would you want to do such a thing?’
“He goes, ‘Don’t you know what has happened this morning?’
“I said, ‘What has happened?’ He said ‘A boy my age was going to school. There was a bomb, it blew up and the boy was killed.’
“He said, ‘Do you know his mother is now crying at home?’ I said, ‘I am sure she is crying at home’.
“He said, ‘I must kill this soldier. It is because of him that this boy was killed.’
“This was when I was very concerned that my son wanted to grow up with hatred in his heart. Personally, I believe that hatred is self-destructive.
“So my answer to him was, ‘Yes I know, I feel the pain of the mother, but do you know that this soldier has also a mother at home. Do you know that if you kill him, also his mother will be crying. This is not the solution.’”
n Lenten visitor
Mrs Habesch was in New Zealand as Caritas’s lenten visitor. She spoke and took part in liturgies for the Holy Land in Christchurch, Wellington, Palmerston North and Auckland. A pilgrimage to Jerusalem on the Whanganui River was a highlight of her stay.
During her Auckland talk, she recounted her experience of losing her childhood home in 1948 when the state of Israel was created.
“My father could not explain to me — who deserves to sleep in my bed and to have my only doll? He could not make me understand the situation.
“Today, 64 years after the state of Israel was established on historic Palestine, we are still refugees. The problem of the dispossession of the Palestinian people has not been resolved. Today, I am a refugee in my own city. I am an internally displaced person.”
Mrs Habesch’s Jerusalem ID, given to her by the state of Israel, says she is a resident of East Jerusalem, but not a citizen.
She said she wanted to convey a message of hope, but would not hide the hardship of living under occupation.
“The political situation is very hard. People have lost faith, have lost hope, and believe that 45 years of occupation, the longest recorded in history, cannot continue,” Mrs Habesch said. She reminded her audience of the many United Nations resolutions concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that have never been implemented.
“It seems as if the world is not aware about all the difficulties, is not aware what happens to us every day in that land.”
Apart from making a living in an economy so dependent on intermittent donor support, there is the ongoing problem of Israeli settlement on “expropriated, confiscated Palestinian land”.
“The aggressive policy of settlement expansions means more expropriation and confiscation of Palestinian land, uprooting of thousands of olive trees and fruit trees and building bypass roads for the settlers. The Jewish settlers roam freely in the West Bank, often terrorising the local community. They have full power and the protection of the Israeli army. They steal produce, they uproot trees, they steal cattle or they burn the agricultural produce,” Mrs Habesch said.
“I think I will share with you what happened some six weeks ago. Children were playing near a settlement. In their village, they had a horse. The settlers come down, [took] the horse, attached it to the car and sped away. The horse died. The children were traumatised.
“But I don’t like to think about the anger in [the children’s] hearts. I don’t want to think about how they plan to react. This is very worrisome for me and for all Palestinians.”
Mrs Habesch recounted the difficulties of life in occupied Palestine — the demolition of Palestinian homes for small violations like stone throwing, the forced eviction of Palestinian families, the hours of waiting to pass checkpoints, the denial of access for some Christians and Muslims to the Holy Places because they don’t have the necessary permits.
n Security wall
Then there is the 8-metre high “security” wall Israel is building on the West Bank. “They call it the wall of security. I call it the wall of separation,” Mrs Habesch said.
“I have no problem that Israel asks for security. I also ask for the security of my people. But, if it is for security only, why is it built, not on the armistice line of 1948, the recognised borders . . . .
Why is it built on confiscated Palestinian land from the West Bank? It has separated people from their agricultural land, it has separated families. Parents are living in one part, children in another part. Also, whenever there are water resources, the wall makes sure the water resources are on the Israeli side.
“I don’t believe that this wall will work. It will neither bring security, nor will it bring peace eventually.”
Mrs Habesch said peace will only come when there is justice.
“I am convinced that both peoples will either win together or they will lose together. There is no peace for one people and not for the other.”
But in a week when there were rocket launches from Gaza into south Israel, and Israeli raids upon Gaza, Mrs Habesch said “any human life is a precious life and we condemn any act of violence on either side”.
She noted that some Israelis are concerned about the injustices done to the Palestinians.
These Jewish people come and stand with Palestinian protests.
n Love in action
Amid all these problems, Caritas Jerusalem still tries to be “love in action”.
Healthcare remains the core of its mission, but it has expanded into employment programmes, children’s health camps, care for the elderly, and counselling. All people are served, regardless of religion, race or colour.
Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand supports Caritas Jerusalem to expand its community healthcare in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, with support from the New Zealand Aid Programme of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Mrs Habesch noted that Caritas Jerusalem is also “empowering women to learn to ask for their rights, to learn to challenge the Palestinian ministry of health if the services are not adequate and proper”.
Another issue close to her heart is the dwindling presence of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land.
Although a mere 1.7 per cent of the Palestinian population, Christians in the Holy Land are proud “to be members of the ‘Mother Church’”.
“Although our numbers are dwindling, [our] uninterrupted presence in the Holy Land for the last 2000 years remains of the utmost importance. Christianity was born in the Holy Land and the people of this land were the first to bear witness to a message that reached the end of the world,” Mrs Habesch said.
“We like to call ourselves the living stones and we like to invite all of you to come for pilgrimages, not only to visit the holy sites, but also be with the living stones, to give them hope, to tell them they are not forgotten, that you remember them, and that they are part and parcel of this Church, the universal Church.”
Palestinian Christians were encouraged that the Church held a synod in Rome in 2010 on the Middle East. It sent a message that “we are not the forgotten Church”, Mrs Habesch said.
But the rise of religious fundamentalism — Christian, Jewish and Muslim — in the Holy Land and the wider Middle East is a concern, she added. “We say, please help the moderate voices, please help us to end this conflict, to reach a solution because, if we don’t, the extremists will take power, and that is not what we want around the region.”
Mrs Habesch said the task ahead for Palestine and Israel seems “difficult and complex”, but she did not believe this has to be so.
“We, the Palestinian people, have recognised the state of Israel in 1988, and today we have accepted and acknowledged the fact that an independent Palestinian state has to co-exist alongside Israel, based on the two-state solution, on 22 per cent of historic Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital,” she said.
But progress is frustratingly slow.
“We recognise the state of Israel, we make concessions and we say, let us live one next to the other in peace. Still, we are negotiating and negotiating, apparently just for the sake of negotiations.”
Nonetheless, New Zealand, which has a voice that can be heard locally and at the United Nations, has an important role to play, Mrs Habesch added.
“I was touched by the campaign by New Zealand to support the recognition of the Palestinian state at the UN [last year].” The motion just failed to get the necessary votes in the UN Security Council, but even if it had, a United States veto would have followed.
Mrs Habesch asked New Zealanders to stand with Palestinians in their prayers and actions to being peace to the Holy Land.
“In this time of Lent we see a new dawn rising. As Christians, we all bear witness to the birth of an amazing power, the power of resurrection and life.
“Our Saviour has shown us that death does not win, that there is always hope.”