JERUSALEM — Pope Francis came to Jerusalem with a message of peace and reconciliation as talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials teeter on the brink of collapse. But in this region, the future for peace between Israelis and Palestinians may come from the upcoming youth, who are determined to beat the odds and forge a peace built on mutual respect and a common humanity between Jews and Arabs, Christian and Muslim.
Louis Salem and Jiries Elias, both 16, spoke to the Register at President Shimon Peres’ house in Jerusalem on May 26, where they waited with other high-school youth for Pope Francis to arrive. They are both Arab Christians living in Jerusalem. Although they have Israeli citizenship, they identify as Palestinians and feel a great deal of solidarity with their fellow Christians and Arabs living in the West Bank.
Responding to Prejudice
Anti-Christian persecution does happen in Israel, although Salem hasn’t personally been a victim. Elias shared that he hasn’t been as fortunate as Salem in his own neighborhood.
“I’ve been the victim of some discrimination as a Christian,” he said. “Christians are a minority here. For Jews, we are Arabs; and for Arabs, we are Christians — so we are kind of left out. We’re a community that is [considered] not an Arab, not a Jew and doesn’t belong here.”
Elias said these conditions push Christians to immigrate to Europe, Canada and the United States.
“I think that is awful,” he said. “It is the land of three faiths, and Christians should show other people that we are here, that this is our land, and we should live here and fight to stay.”
Another alternative some Christians take instead of leaving is to join the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Salem said they do that because they feel Israel is the only safe place for Christians in the Middle East. But Salem, Elias and many Arab Christians in Israel believe neither leaving nor joining the Israeli army is the answer to ending the prejudice.
“I’m an Arab Palestinian,” Salem said. “If I go join the Israeli army, I’m practically fighting against my own people.”
Salem said raising awareness is the only way to end the prejudice in all quarters of society. This means teaching Muslim Arabs that Christians are also Arabs and Palestinians, but also the Jews in Israeli society that “we’re also humans, Arabs, Middle Easterners, we also want peace — to live here altogether. No one wants war or conflict.”
He said he has many Jewish friends — from Kids for Peace or the Jewish-Arab school called Hand-in-Hand — who feel the same way.
“My classmates, my best friends, my close friends were all Jews who believed the same things I do,” he said. “And I do believe there are many moderate Jews, Jews who believe in equality — not necessarily people who are left-wing — just people who believe in humanity and humanitarian equality.”
The two youths take a critical eye at the politics surrounding the peace process. Both youths met President Mahmoud Abbas last year and said that he told them he was ready for peace, but the problem is from the Israeli side.
But it’s the same song Elias has heard from the other side, as well.
“We can never know the truth, because both sides say that it depends on the other side; that peace is in their hands: ‘Give us what we want, and peace is there!’”
Both youths know that peace is not a mere absence of conflict. Elias said that, even if Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu achieve a formal peace and resolve the issue of settlements and any other problems, peace still won’t exist until Jews and Arabs embrace each other as brothers on their streets.
“I don’t think peace is just having peace between countries’ heads — like presidents or prime ministers. That is not it,” he said. “Peace is having peace between people who live with each other: with me walking the street and a Jewish person coming from the other side — instead of assaulting me, just saying hi and showing me that we are the same, on the same level, and nothing divides us. That’s peace.”
Attitudes are hardening on both sides against a negotiated peace. Salem said that, on the Israeli side, fewer people are motivated to demand peace. On the Palestinian side, he said, Fatah’s non-violent approach is losing credibility against Hamas’ violent tactics.
Salem feared that Netanyahu’s refusal to recognize Abbas’ unity government — because Hamas has not renounced violence and rocket attacks — is undermining Abbas’ efforts to show the Palestinians that non-violence is the more effective path — and that Netanyahu is missing his best chance to get Hamas to renounce terror.
“Fatah could influence Hamas against fighting with violence and making all this war,” Salem said.
“Sadly, the Palestinians are seeing that the more aggressive approach is working,” he said. Hamas’ swap of captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners looks like it gets results, while Fatah’s peaceful approach gets little return with the Israeli government.
“This motivates many Arabs — and I have many classmates who say, ‘How are you supporting the PLO? Look at Hamas; they actually did something. Their tactics worked, and they freed prisoners,’” he said.
Both Salem and Elias oppose returning violence with violence.
“That’s what the Pope said yesterday [May 25] to some kids from Bethlehem,” Elias said. “That the way to solve things is not to fight violence with violence, but with talking — saying to the other side what we feel, what we want, and try to reach some agreement.”
The two-state solution is often talked about in the media as a matter of course, but both Elias and Salem have different thoughts as to whether it would work. A huge problem is what to do with all the settlements that Israel has built and checker the West Bank.
“Over 50% of the West Bank is Israeli settlements,” Salem said. “How are you going to evacuate over 500,000 people? Where are you going to put them?”
Salem said that he and his friends with Kids for Peace believe that a one-state solution is more practical. Building peace between the people could help them elect governments that work toward peace, “and, slowly, we can work toward a one-state solution.”
Elias, however, held out hope that a two-state solution could still work. He suggested the Israeli settlements would become part of Palestine, where Jews could be Palestinian citizens, just as Arabs are Israeli citizens in Israel.
“It is just as we live today, and we could live in peace: not an Israel for only Jews and a Palestine for Arabs and nobody else — that’s not peace; that’s separation.”
No larger symbol of separation looms than the security barrier, which cuts through Bethlehem and other towns as a massive 26-foot-tall concrete gray wall with barbed wire and guard towers.
“It separates families; it separates people. It looks kind of like the Berlin Wall,” Salem said.
Salem said he understood that many Israelis view the wall as a security measure, but he saw it as a waste of resources that wouldn’t deter people intent on terrorism — terrorists could just as easily dig tunnels under it. But he said they don’t hear of suicide bombings anymore.
“I think something changed in the mentality,” he said.
Elias said, “I see closing people in a territory and not letting them out.”
He said people’s freedom of movement in the West Bank is heavily restricted with Israeli checkpoints everywhere due to the checkered nature of the settlements. Christians in Palestine can only get passes into Israel to visit holy sites such as the Holy Sepulcher on holy days and special occasions.
Even the tourists who come to Bethlehem, he said, are shocked with how ugly and inhumane it looks close up.
“It’s hard if you’re human to see other humans being closed with such a high gray wall; you just can’t live with it: You have to do something about it.”
Pope’s Bridges for Peace
Elias and Salem hope that Pope Francis will become “a bridge for the two sides.” The symbolism of having the president of Israel with the president of Palestine praying together with the Pope on Pentecost Sunday could be effective to raise awareness and momentum for peace.
“But the man who really needs to be brought through, talked to and influenced is Netanyahu,” Elias said.
Salem said the American people can help encourage peace through their government, but they must also educate themselves about both sides of the conflict and realize that both sides have a “reasonable cause or claim.”
“I think that awareness and understanding on both sides is the best way to solve this issue.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.