Working to Keep Hope Alive

Date Posted: 
Monday, May 2, 2016

By John Paarlberg

“If we cannot, for now, end the occupation, we can at least keep our identity, our dignity, our sanity. But sometimes we feel abandoned, that the world neither knows nor cares what is happening to us. That is why your visit means so much to us. Hope is so important. We cannot live without hope.”

These are the words of a young man who lives in the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem. Aida is one of 19 refugee camps in the West Bank. There are nearly 750,000 registered refugees in the West Bank—people who, or whose ancestors, fled from their homes, whose property was confiscated, or whose villages were destroyed during Israel’s war for independence.

The confiscation of Palestinian land continues. Illegal Jewish-only settlements have been built by Israel for its citizens on territories it occupied in 1967. In 1993 when the Oslo accords were signed there were approximately 250,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Today there are more than 650,000. Sixty percent of the West Bank is under full Israeli military control.

I had come to the West Bank to participate in a travel seminar sponsored by Friends of Sabeel. Sabeel is an ecumenical Christian peace movement initiated by Palestinian Christians. We had come to listen and to learn.

Life is hard—often very hard—for those living under military occupation with continuing land confiscations, restrictions on travel, arbitrary arrests and detention, and ongoing violence. There are two legal systems in the West Bank: one for Israeli settlers who are subject to civil law, and another for Palestinians who are subject to military law. Palestinians, including children as young as 12, can be detained without charge or trial. A system of Israeli-only highways connects the settlements and Jerusalem. Most Palestinians are prohibited from using those roads. Palestinians must often stand in line for hours at checkpoints to reach hospitals, farms, workplaces, and schools, or to visit their friends.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often perceived as an ages-old conflict between Jews and Arabs. But it is not so much an ethnic conflict as it is a political one. This is not a dispute between people of different religions but a conflict over land, resources, and human rights. Yet people of faith—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—will need to work together to end the injustice and the violence and build a path toward peace.

Recently, and with the approval of the Albany Synod Ministries Board, a group of people have begun planning for a multi-faith travel seminar to Israel and the West Bank. Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Albany area have met together to learn from each other and to explore ways we can work together. Traveling together to places that are important to each of the three Abrahamic faiths but that are also places of tension and conflict presents significant challenges—and unique opportunities.

Under the leadership of Joshua Vis, professor at Central College, and with the support of Marlin and Sally Vis, facilitators of church engagement in Israel/Palestine, this proposed travel seminar will include:

  • Visiting holy sites important to each of the three Abrahamic faiths and learning about their historic significance as well as the current situation.
  • Meeting people who live in the midst of the conflict, listening to their stories, and trying to understand their experience.
  • Asking faith-based organizations (Christian, Muslim, Jewish) working to resolve the conflict, What do we have in common? Where do we differ? How can we work together?

We have no illusions that this or similar travel seminars will, by themselves, end the occupation and bring peace. But we can, at least for a time, be with the people who are suffering in the midst of the conflict and let them know that they have not been abandoned. We care about what is happening. We want to learn more. We want to work for peace. We—Jews, Christians and Muslims together—want to keep hope alive.

The trip is scheduled for February 17-28, 2017. For more information, please email

John Paarlberg is pastor of First Church in Albany (RCA) in Albany, New York.


[Photo by John Paarlberg]

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