Terrified Children, Frightened Soldiers

Letter from Taybeh

By Maria C. Khoury

My home is Taybeh, a village between Jerusalem and Jericho, not far from Ramallah. Taybeh received its present name during Salahdin’s visit in the 12th century. Its earlier name, Ephraim, is mentioned in the New Testament: “Jesus therefore walked no more openly among the Jews; but went thence unto a country near the wilderness, into a city called Ephraim.” (John 11:54). Christians have lived here since the time of Christ.

As a child growing up in America, I didn’t realize there were still Christians in the Holy Land — I imagined only Jews and Muslims. It wasn’t until I was a student at Hellenic College, where I met my husband, David Khoury, himself a Palestinian, that I began to hear about Christianity’s living presence in the places mentioned in the Gospel.

It was David’s idea that we build our lives in the Holy Land. He assured me that Taybeh, a Christian village where he grew up and in which everyone is related, would be the best place in the world to raise responsible children. We moved there in 1996.

Indeed, in the climate of hope created by the Oslo Peace Agreement, raising children in such a setting presented itself as a wonderful opportunity for them — a wholesome upbringing in a land of promise. In many ways Taybeh proved to be a better place to raise children than the United States. In Taybeh we avoid Saturday night parties because everyone in Taybeh visits their relatives on Saturday night. Here children are never tempted by peers to experiment with drugs — drugs are not available on the West Bank. There are be no appeals from children to miss church on Sunday in order to attend a soccer game — here there are no sports events when it’s time for church. Here we avoid shopping malls and a culture of self-obsessed materialism. The children have the blessing of a close-knit extended family that, sadly, many Americans have lost.

Returning to his homeland is the dream of every Palestinian father. David talked the family into building a microbrewery in Taybeh that would support the family while strengthening the Palestinian economy.

“Taybeh Beer” is the first Palestinian beer and the only microbrewery in the Middle East. The new beer was so successful that it made history in Palestine — the first and only Palestinian product to be franchised and brewed in Germany under the Taybeh Beer license. Hundreds of newspapers articles were written as reporters were so curious about these people who invest millions of dollars to produce beer in an area where 98 percent of the population is Muslim. The resourceful persons behind all this are my husband and his brother, Nadim. They invested their heart, soul and savings to help build up Palestine. Receiving Arafat’s blessing for the brewery was also an indication that a democratic Palestinian state would have room for a Christian minority.

Then came Sharon’s fateful visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on September 28, 2000, and the new Intifada began. We have experienced 18 months of destruction — bombings, assassinations, countless buildings demolished, and the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians, among these my dear nephew, Ibrahim, an altar boy shot through the heart because he happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

We have watched as many families packed up their belongings and left for other countries leaving behind hotels they built, battery factories they created, health clinics they established. They gave up the dream of helping rebuild their homeland and living in the land of promise.

Sometimes I can’t understand my husband’s decision to stay. How can he run a beer factory when the bottles he needs are stuck at the Israeli port due to red tape? The fees and storage costs are more than the bottles are worth. A 40 percent production tax cripples you as a new business. Israeli’s war against the Palestinian economy is an entire story by itself.

“What does all this mean to you as a mother in your daily life?” relatives and friends in America ask me. I will just give one example.

Every day there is the issue of trying to find a way to get our children to school. I normally take nine children (three are my own) back and forth to Ramallah in our van. Ramallah is close on the map but sometimes as far away as the moon because of so many obstacles. You get up, get dressed, try to find out if the schools are open that day, then try to find a way to school. Sometimes you make all the preparations only to discover at the last moment that the schools have been closed for the day by military order, or you find that the school is open but the roads are closed. Sometimes you make it all the way to school, passing through many checkpoints — at least four — only to find school was cancelled because of a funeral or protest. Sometimes while in school, a bomb goes off in Israel, with the result that you cannot get back home. The stress is sometimes unbearable.

Today at one checkpoint I saw the children ordered out of the van and lined up like criminals, a machine gun pointing at them while the heavily-armed soldier kept his finger on the trigger. Meanwhile I handed over their passports for inspection, as I have done countless times.

Never in my 20 years of traveling in and out of this region have I seen the soldiers so frightened and so intense as at present. Today I wondered if the violence has so traumatized this particular young soldier with the machine gun that he has lost his ability to treat mothers and children in a humane way?

I hated to see my children and nieces made to stand shoulder to shoulder as if for a police line-up. We were only three minutes from our home — so close after such a long and hard school day. “Are you kidding?” I asked the soldier. “Why do you want the children to get out of the car?” But one of my children said, “Mom, please don’t argue. He has a gun. We are used to this.” In fact no one ever gets used to this. The youngest child was shaking so badly she could hardly get out of the van.

In the face of such cruel treatment of civilians day after day, is it surprising that some desperate young people become terrorists? For so many young people, just going back and forth to school is often a nightmare experience.

Every day we try a new way to school because each day the situation changes. Sometimes we discover at the last stage that a tank is blocking the way. All we can do is turn around and try some other dirt road. The result of so many obstacles and detours along routes never intended for cars is that all our vehicles are damaged. The main roads for Palestinians have been closed since September 28, 2000. The back roads are full of rock and holes. A ride that would take only 15 minutes in peaceful times can now take four hours.

Not many days ago Israeli tanks were in the heart of Ramallah. Now the tanks are withdrawn to the outskirts, poised to reoccupy the town at any moment.

Meanwhile Palestinian towns and villages remain cut off from each other. We feel as if we are being strangled by the endless military presence.

As an American, I find it ironic each day to have American weapons aimed at me and my children. The weapons and money the United States sends Israel are not being used for Israel’s security but to ethnically cleanse the Holy Land of its native people. American military aid is being used to deny three million people their human rights, a collective punishment so severe that it becomes humiliating just to send children to school.

The situation will improve only when Israel ends its 35-year-old occupation of Palestinian territories. It is not possible to have peace and occupation at the same time. The Palestinian Authority recognized Israel on 78 percent of historic Palestine. It is Israel that refuses to acknowledge Palestine’s right to exist on the remaining 22 percent of the land occupied in l967.

The continuing enlargement of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza makes peace more elusive. Today there are about 250,000 settlers on Palestinian territories, many of them heavily armed, all living under army protection. The biggest settlement happens to be right next to Taybeh.

It is facts like this that create suicide bombers.

Is it any wonder that the Christian community in the land of Christ’s birth is shrinking? Families decide to emigrate because they see no hope for their children here. What is surprising is not that so many people have left, but that so many still remain. But we who remain have to pay a very high price.

I write this in the first week of the Orthodox Lenten period. I pray we can open our hearts to Christ so that he can to fill us with his love and everlasting hope so that we will have the strength to remain in the land of his birth, bearing witness to the possibility of Christians, Muslims and Jews living and prospering together. I believe there are enough of us who are not fanatics and only want to raise a generation of children in peace.

Maria Khoury was born in Greece and raised in Denver, Colorado. A graduate of Hellenic College in Massachusetts, she is the mother of three teen-age children and the author of several children’s books, Christina Learns the Sacraments, Christina Goes to Church, You are Special! and An Alphabet Book for Children. She is trying to help 30 families in the village of Taybeh build their first home on land donated by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, for which she is seeking donor support. To learn more about Taybeh, go to: www.holylandchurches.com.