Bethlehem, Palestine: “Tourists often come to see the sacred stones, not their inhabitants”.

From the terrace of Wi’am, also known as the “Palestinian Conflict Resolution Centre”, you can see a horizon interrupted by the Israeli wall and a cloud of tear gas. At the foot of it, a narrow path leads the visitor off the tourist circuit to the refugee camp of Aida, jealously guarded by soldiers. At the entrance to the camp we see a large key to the return, symbolizing the identity that the 1948 refugees are unwilling to renounce. It is the Nakba or “catastrophe” as a consequence of the creation of the state of Israel, which resulted in the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and the destruction of half a thousand populations.

During my stay in Bethlehem, I frequented the centre, which welcomes rare volunteers and visitors who wish to learn about the other reality behind the city’s tourist décor. There, I took the opportunity to interview the Director of Wi’am, Mr. Zoughbi Zoughbi, about his intense experience as spokesperson for an original movement close to Liberation Theology, inspired by the deep roots of regional culture and which tries to resolve the conflicts and traumas arising from the occupation, through the notion of “reconciliation” (or “Sulha” in dialectal Arabic).


Alex Anfruns: As a tourist city, Bethlehem has been directly confronted with the context of the occupation. Nevertheless, not everybody who visits the Holy Land knows about the reality in Palestine. In terms of economic development, what are the consequences of the wall and the checkpoints?

Zoughbi Zoughbi:  You know Bethlehem is a little town. It’s becoming smaller and tinier, and it’s not in a good shape. Bethlehem is smaller than you expect it. It’s a small prison. The West Bank is a bigger prison. Bethlehem is sorrounded by settlements. 87% of Bethlehem governorate is under the Israeli control. The whole area has been cut in areas A, B and C. Our center is on area C.

In Bethlehem there are 23 israeli settlements with a population of 120,000, and there are 25 outposts. Bethlehem is sorrounded by the wall, which is twice the height of Berlin wall and five times Berlin wall’s length. All the fertile land is taken. The lands behind these walls are for people in Bethlehem but they are only allowed to be there unless they have permits.

AA:  And there are many villages that are struggling against construction of the wall…

ZZ: Yes, because the wall is not healthy. Best waters from the aquifers are under Israeli control. And also the wall has divided some villages in the East and the West from the main area.. We are not free to move anywhere we want. We lost our olive trees that were planted by our elderly, losing the traditions by bad conditions. Our ancestors have carried water on their head or on donkeys to water the trees for three years at least . We don’t have water to make modern irrigation. We treat our olive trees like a baby. Until three years you need to water it; then specially after three or five years it depends on rain. And finally you need to build stone walls or terraces to protect from soil erosion,. It’s a work of love, a work of compassion. That’s why the wall is not healthy at all.

AA: I have seen many tourists coming to Bethlehem, but they only go to the Nativity Church. How are the Palestinians trying to make them see the whole reality?

ZZ: Tourists don’t come often to see the people. They come to see the holy stones, and not to meet the living stones. Our duty is to help them to see holy stones, the living stones and the rolling stones of the social, economic and political conditions. Some are not coming through Israeli travel agency and some do, but they are open-minded and like to meet with Palestinians. Some travel agents work as a political tool to brainwash and demonize the Arabs. It doesn’t mean always that it deals with politics, but just to make profit.

Our duty for our churches and our people is to make them see a different reality. At least to talk about the Holy Places and their interpretation. Since Jerome, our compatriot who translated the Bible, said there were five gospels: four in the new testament and the fifth when you visit the land and meet the people.

AA: Wi’am has been a grassroot association for more than 25 years. What motivated you at the time of its foundation?

ZZ: Wi’am started in 1994. I am the founder and director. I emerged as a grassroots leader in the student movement; I responded to the need of the local community by different ways: from mediation, to services, helping the students to empower the civil society…Then we started to recruit volunteers to help us in mediation and in other departments. Of course, at that time, during the nineties, we haven’t had a state since 1967. Until this moment, we don’t have a viable state with sovereignty based on the separation of powers…We are still under occupation.

At Wi’am we try to work for the people, to the people and with the people. We started with conflict mediation because it is the way that we work with the people on different fields. After having resolved a problem through mediation, people used to come to us for more conflicts to solve. We have become like the “ultrasound”. People asked us to help them in facing the challenges, difficulties; they want us to help them to get rid of fear…Through this “ultrasound” process, we work to empower our civil society, to meet the challenges and solve the problems of the people amicably and innovatively. We have become more proactive in order to help in the transformation of our people, to cope with the situation, with trauma, to have resilience and steadfastness.

But we didn’t stop at mediation. We started to work with children, women, and, of course, men. We have an advocacy program, a peace engagement with other people that visits us…and we also have a non-violent protest program in different places. Either we initiate the protest or we join others.

We have also embarked on alternative tourism.

AA: What is your personal view, your philosophy, about non-violence strategy?

ZZ: Non-violence is a way of life.  It’s a strategy for resisting the occupation. We have a non-violent approach for resolving conflicts in the community. We have to talk and walk in non violence. On the Palestinian struggle level, we don’t want to give Israel a justification by using violence though they don’t need any justification . We do a lot of training on non-violence for school, teachers, universities, and activists. We do a lot of study comparing the first to the second intifada, the achievements and the pros and cons of non-violence in spite of the violent atmosphere that we live in.

We are a part of an international movement called International Fellowship of Reconciliation, which is an interfaith and intercultural group, so we work with each other on different levels. We are part of the Global Alliance for the Prevention of Conflict, the Arab Association against Violence, and we are part of the movement here. We do training, write articles and manuals…

But to talk to you frankly, it is not easy! You are almost tempted to use violence. We tell to our friends, “we consider the best trainer who is in training”. We say “non violence is the courageous approach, not a weak approach”. Which is to follow resilience, perseverance, steadfastness, education, learning from other people who we respect and tip our hat to: Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Mother Teresa and other folks…

AA: In 2014 the Israeli parliament allowed Palestinian Christians in Israel to do the military service. Could you comment on this decision?

ZZ: First of all, the Christians inside the green line are integral part of the Palestinian people. Our identity is Arabic. Being Arab, Palestinian and Christian are the several components of our identity, whether we are living in the Green Line, West Bank, Gaza or Diaspora. The world should remember that 70% of the Christian population were kicked out in 1948: they became refugees. They are dispersed all over the world. 24,000 Arab Palestinian Christians were expelled from West Jerusalem, alongside 21,000 Muslims. They have been ethnic cleansed. So Palestinian Christians are part of the Palestinian people in general, and they were the victims of the creation of the state of Israel, where we were the children of the Nakba in 1948.

Secondly, divide and rule is not a healthy policy. If Israel wanted to treat all of its citizens as equals, there should be no differences between a Jew, Muslim, Christian, Druze, Samaritan and others. To continue this policy will create more hatred against the entity which tries to differentiate between the people. The Druze were first opted into the system after 1948 according to their Elders. The Bedouins as well were recruited in the army. But when the soldiers from those groups come back to their home after they served and fought on the front, they found their homes were destroyed. Because there is discrimination in the state of Israel, against anyone who is not Jewish. Why now make a big issue about Christians? What was the purpose? Another fact is that they are Christians in the Arab world, they are Arabs, they number at least from 15 to 20 million. So how can a system deny a person, a group or a community to identify themselves? Who has the right to dictate what is my identity? My identity is my choice.

Are they going to give back Kufr Bir’im and Iqrit, the two villages whose population were kicked out in 1948/1950? Iqrit is a Greek Melkite Catholic Church and Kufr Bir’im is Maronite. Their people want to send their kids to get married there – the younger people – and the elderly who passed to the other world to be buried there. They haven’t been allowed to go back to their own villages. The Israeli Supreme Court of Justice in Israel even ruled in favor of them. Well, up until this month they aren’t allowed to go back.

The PLO was created by those folks who were kicked out from 1948. Each one has a family member outside. How can she or he appear to them? This is the worst example of misusing religion against people’s well-being. It‘s again divide and conquer, divide and rule. There has been a strong debate in Israel: Jewish State or a state for Jews. Until one day everyone will be a second class citizen, a third or a fourth class citizen. The Christian citizens inside Israel were there before the Israeli state. Always the Galilee has been the Galilee of nations, even at the time when in the area, thousands of years ago. All the area was full of many people, and the Palestinians feel they are the inheritants of Jibsuites, Canaanites…the nations that were living in that area until this moment. So it is really a terrible situation.

AA: At the same time, the Palestinian Authority decided to erase the mention of religion from the ID card. Is it a good thing?

ZZ: Yes. I like to be treated as an equal citizen. And I like to see religion as a personal relationship between me and God, instead of something related to government’s control.

I am for a secular democratic state and for making people choose their religion by the freedom of conscience. I would like to be treated equally, because we were born as babies as equals. There should be no discrimination, so there is a good idea by the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the sixties to build a secular democratic state based on citizenship.. This is a very progressive approach.

AA: Is there a link between both approaches?

ZZ: What we are seeing now is that Israel is pushing us to be identified along religious lines and to be fighting amongst ourselves. Of course, they want a justification for a so called Jewish state, knowing the fact that the number of Jews in Israel at this moment are more than before. At least 30% of the newly migrant Russians and Ethiopians are Christians.. The religious Jews used to be small in number. So if this is a law that aims towards Christian of other nationalities, it is a different story. I believe Israel should really identify itself whether as a Jewish, a religious state or a secular one. But if there is an identification as a religious state, that means that it will house and attract more immigrnts to create such religious state, and then I don’t know where it would lead us: we could enter in a war of religions. I am not sure that Israel would be safe by this law or rule based in religions, because it could eat up everything else and could be destroyed from inside by a war between religious camp and the secular one.

In that case, either you secure a seat in heaven or conquer the enemy. I don’t want to gain a seat in heaven through this way, although I believe in God. I believe in life after death, but I want to live my life before death, and I like to enjoy my life with my sisters and brothers who are Muslims, Christians and Jews if they would like to. I am not willing to fight against the Occupation because of the religion. I am against the Occupation because the Occupation demoralizes every human being. So the Jews should go back to their conscience and raise their conscience to realize what damage they are doing in the area. Everything they do is against the principles of human rights and human security. As the victims of the Holocaust they shouldn’t be the perpetuators of any of this.

Alex Anfruns is an independent journalist . In 2007 he helped direct the documentary Palestina, la verdad asediada. Voces por la paz (available with Catalan, Spanish, English and Arabic subtitles). Between 2009 and 2014 he made several trips to Egypt and the occupied Palestinian territories. He has edited the monthly Journal de Notre Amérique since 2015. Read other articles by Alex.