After the clashes in the Jenin refugee camp, West Bank (Ansa-Zumapress/Mohammed Nasser/APA Images))

Holy Land: Another logic

The war between Hamas and Israel broke out while the CL community was gathered for the Beginning Day. Dialogues, testimonies, tensions. And a discovery. From the November issue of Tracce.
Luca Fiore

7 October was the Beginning Day for the CL community in the Holy Land. It was also the day of the beginning of the war between Hamas and Israel. It was supposed to be a special meeting, the first gathering of the Schools of Community in Haifa, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Palestinian Christian Arabs, Italians, Spaniards and Israeli citizens. About twenty people in total. Three days together, staying in the convent in Abu Gosh, a few kilometres from Jerusalem, from Friday to Sunday, to get to know each other better. It was an occasion for that, and much more. The cloud of Hamas rockets launched from Gaza, the massacre at the rave party, the taking of hostages, the relentless and merciless retaliation of the Israeli army, the flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the hospital bombing. The logic of war inflamed those hours and the days that followed, plunging the Holy Land and the lives of each of the participants in the CL meeting back into the nightmare of violence. "Faith, the fulfilment of reason", the title proposed for the Beginning Day 2023, intertwined, in a mysterious way, with the headlines: "Israel hit at its heart", "The Middle East in flames", "Israel, bloodbath".

The decision to gather in Abu Gosh was dictated by objective reasons related to the political situation: Israeli citizens are not allowed to travel to the Palestinian territories, while women from the Bethlehem community had managed to get permission to enter Jerusalem. Karen is a Jewish convert to Messianism, a Protestant Church that recognises Jesus as the messiah. She has been attending the Jerusalem School of Community for a year. "I have tried to attend many groups," she told the others, "but none are like yours. You are Christians who have not stopped searching for happiness.” She, for example, would not have been able to go to Jericho, where they initially planned to go.

Sirens announce the arrival of Hamas rockets over the city of Rehovot, Israel (AP Photo/Dor Kedmi/La Presse)

Lina, on the other hand, is an Arab Christian from Bethlehem. She arrived in Jerusalem the day before: she had not been to pray at the Holy Sepulchre for over a year, despite living only a few kilometres away. "That first day together was beautiful. After the short introduction by Hussam, the CL responsible in the Holy Land, we played games together. We had fun and laughed a lot. I went to bed happy. I thought back to those moments and laughed to myself. I felt loved." Little did she know that she would wake up in a country at war.

"The first message was from Karen," says Daniela, an Italian archaeologist, curator of the Terra Sancta Museum in Jerusalem: "At first we did not understand what was happening. There are sometimes bombings from Gaza, but they are isolated cases. But after a while it became clear. We saw that Hamas had attacked by land. The siren sounded and we entered the shelter. When we came out, the hill in front of us was in flames.” No one understood what to do. Going out into the street was dangerous. Those who live in Bethlehem were not sure if they could return. Some people had also brought their children to the Beginning. Karen locked herself in her room terrified: she was scared that someone would come and kidnap her because she is Jewish. "Our gazes were enough to understand the tension," says Hussam, a doctor from Haifa: "In the midst of the turmoil, we told ourselves that the only thing we could do was pray. We could only offer. The situation was very uncertain, but we understood that we were called to be there and continue doing what we were doing." Lina adds: "I did not know what to say. My family had stayed at home. Someone had the children there. I said that whatever they chose to do I would follow the decision. It was hard, but being together made things a little less difficult.”

Praying Lauds in the Holy Land during a war does not happen every day. Certain words resonate more and dig deep. "The Lord will protect you from all evil, He will protect your life," says Psalm 120. And an antiphon reads: "I will turn their mourning into gladness. I will give them comfort and joy.”

The Beginning Day began with a short lesson by Fr. Gianfranco Pinto Ostuni, Franciscan of the Holy Land. They then listened to the testimony of Jone Echarri. Then that of Souzy Hazin, a Palestinian from Bethlehem, who recounted the difficulties of life in the territories under the Palestinian National Authority. "Before I met the movement I was always anxious, worried about my future and that of my two children. I felt something was missing. I felt lonely and overwhelmed by life's responsibilities. I used to ask Jesus: why did you give birth to me here? But he would not answer.”

She then met a group of Italians who introduced her to the life of the movement, a way of life that attracted her in a magnetic way: "Our friendship helped me to widen my eyes to see Jesus, listen to his voice and open my heart. They treated me like a human being and this changed my life. In their eyes I see Jesus.” Souzy was interrupted by the siren announcing a new incoming missile. Everyone got up and reached the shelter. With their ears pricked up and their hearts clenched, they waited in silence for the explosion. Which, however, did not come. After a few minutes, the alarm went off. And they returned to listen to the testimony. The testimony continued: “Now, thanks to our friendship and self-discovery, I am incredibly happy to have been born and to live in Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born. And I have learnt to accept my life as it is and to try to make it better for me, my family and also for my town. And I learnt from these new friends that we can change the world by changing ourselves first.”

Daniela had prepared the songs, including Se tu sapessi, by Fr. Antonio Anastasio. "It was moving to sing it that morning. It helped express the question I had inside. It is Christ saying to the Samaritan woman: If you knew how long I waited for you / How much I thought about you, how much I wanted you. I realised Who was embracing me at that moment. And that is a logic that goes far beyond the opposition of sides recriminating their own reasons. It was like feeling a caress.”

In the afternoon, to try and ease the tension, games involving young and old were still played. The atmosphere was no longer as carefree as the previous evening, but there was something more intense. Some of them used the word 'unity'. Daniela says: "I went to Abu Gosh with this question: that those days might help us to become closer to each other. Sometimes we argued. Even between the three communities, there are not many ties.” Lina explains: “In the most tense moments, everyone was attentive to each other, we looked after each other's children when we had to go to the shelter. We are from different peoples, we speak different languages, yet the language we used was one of unity.”

By mid-afternoon the news came that the borders with the West Bank would be closed indefinitely. Those from Bethlehem risked not being able to return home. They quickly packed their bags. Mass was hurriedly celebrated. Before leaving, Lina looked at Hussam with tears in her eyes and told him: "This is not the end. We are one.” Fr. Gianfranco got in his minibus and headed for the checkpoint. A rosary was being prayed on board. Lina says: "He does not have permission to enter, so he left us at the border waiting until we told him we had managed to cross. It was a wonderful gesture and it took courage because the situation was really dangerous.”

Those who remained in Abu Gosh could not help but talk about what was happening. And the discussions became heated. Karen, at one point, threatened to leave. Then she reconsidered. The difference of opinions was not just between Jews and Palestinians. Hussam says: “Reach an agreement? And how is that possible? It is already a miracle that we can discuss around a table as if we were family. It is what brought us together, what unites us, what allows us to discuss, even if we disagree.” After dinner, an evening of songs was planned. Mandy had come from Italy especially with Antonio and Luciano. Music and words brighten the evening of a terrible day. Karen confessed to the friend who invited her: “I love you more than before, because we are together for something bigger.” Already back in Bethlehem, Lina received the video of some songs. She replied: “Despite everything that is happening, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the quality time we have spent together.”

Read also - Pizzaballa: "Christ won the world by loving"

The next day, everyone returned to their homes, to everyday life in war-torn countries. But the calls and messages, between Haifa and Jerusalem, became more frequent to receive updates, to find out if everything was ok. In the North, there were fears of an attack by Hezbollah. In Jerusalem, Hamas missiles. In Bethlehem, you can see the crater that Gaza has become. It is a film we have already seen. But this time the volume is louder. The pain more acute. The sense of inevitability and impotence more lacerating. A little dazed by the pain, we cling to the words of Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa: "The question in these cases is not ‘where is God?’ but ‘where is the man?’ God is here, he is present. It is the moment in which we must turn to him, which is why I asked for this day of prayer and fasting. What have we done with our humanity, what have we done with our vocation to respect the rights of people? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves. At this moment, Christians must first of all look at Christ, who is the concrete man, otherwise they remain vague. Jesus as a real presence that changes lives.”