Palestinians who fled their homes due to Israeli airstrikes take refuge at a UN-run school in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, October 23, 2023 (OSV News photo/Mahmoud al-Masri, Reuters).

 

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A few weeks after the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas, a shipping container from Europe arrived in the coastal Israeli city of Ashdod. Its final destination was the Terra Sancta Museum in Jerusalem’s Old City. Vincenzo Zuppardo, an Italian architect and preservationist managing the transfer of the container to Jerusalem, ran into an unexpected problem. The Jewish driver hired to bring the container from Ashdod to the Old City now refused to do so. The Terra Sancta Museum is located in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, and the Jewish man was afraid to enter an Arab part of town. Eventually, Vincenzo arranged for the driver to drop off the container in a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. But once it arrived there, the Palestinians hired to unload the container also refused to do their job. They were afraid to enter a Jewish part of town. “‘Fear’ is the right word for what we are going through,” Vincenzo says.

The journalist Chris Hedges once wrote that small acts of decency during wartime are important because they “make it impossible to condemn, legally or morally, an entire people.” For decades, cultural institutions (like the Terra Sancta Museum) and religious organizations (like the Franciscan friars, who sponsor the museum) have hoped to bring peace to the Holy Land by building networks of cooperation and friendship. Today, as the museum-container episode suggests, those hopes are evaporating.

Hamas’s brutal October 7 attack on southern Israel and the ensuing Israeli bombing and invasion of Gaza have destroyed thousands of innocent lives and displaced many more. In other parts of Israel and Palestine, the war is also destroying those same networks of friendship and cooperation that were once seeds of hope. The Gaza War is renewing the deep distrust between ordinary Palestinians and Israelis, making small acts of decency all the more difficult. This tragedy has been clearly described by Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem: “After this crisis…it will be really difficult to rebuild not only the destroyed buildings…but the trust and relations between Israelis and Palestinians, which is a true necessity, because Israelis and Palestinians will still be here after this [war], and will have to deal with each other, whether they want to or not.”

The three million Palestinians who live in the occupied West Bank are not citizens of Israel and cannot enter Israeli territory without a permit. The voyage from the West Bank into Israel involves crossing through one of several military checkpoints that monitor traffic across a nine-foot-tall concrete separation barrier. Neither do Palestinians enjoy complete freedom of movement even within the West Bank. They are often restricted by flying checkpoints and roadblocks, and some roads are forbidden to Palestinian vehicles. Travel out of East Jerusalem is less restricted but still fraught with difficulties. In the past, the labor markets have found a way around all these obstacles. In 2022, around 150,000 Palestinians worked legally (with a permit) in Israel, including seventeen thousand Palestinians from Hamas-controlled Gaza. Most work in construction and come from Bethlehem and Ramallah in the West Bank.

The journalist Chris Hedges once wrote that small acts of decency during wartime are important because they “make it impossible to condemn, legally or morally, an entire people.”

With the outbreak of war, however, all work permits have been indefinitely suspended. The small hope that commerce might lead to mutual understanding between Palestinians and Israelis is disappearing. For now, the labor gap is being met in part by migrant workers arriving from Southeast Asia, including Thailand and the Philippines. One source in Jerusalem reports that many Palestinians, seeing this influx of foreign workers, now fear that they have been permanently replaced.

The war has also affected another source of income for Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike: tourism and religious pilgrimages. The holy sites are empty, and poverty and hunger are short-term possibilities. A friend writes that Jerusalem “is like it was during the Covid lockdown.” Christian pilgrimages in particular are a unifying industry. A Christian pilgrim will want to visit Jerusalem (split between Israelis and Palestinians), Nazareth (majority-Arab but inside Israel), and Bethlehem (behind the separation barrier in the West Bank). The tourism industry always has an interest in overcoming the divisions between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, especially in the West Bank. But the tourists are gone, and they may not be coming back anytime soon.

Inside the West Bank, European- and American-funded NGOs have for decades supported development projects designed to generate a Palestinian civil society. But while non-Palestinian NGO managers are still able to cross into the West Bank, their work is stalled by Palestinian labor strikes. The economic development of Palestine cannot, the NGOs reason, be forged by foreigners crossing Palestinian picket lines.

Around 21 percent of Israel’s population is Arab—about 2.1 million people. But while Arab Israelis have full political rights, relations between them and Jewish Israelis are often complicated, especially in the last two months. A Catholic Arab Israeli named Hussam Abu Sini recently made headlines when he and his wife decided to have their daughter baptized earlier than they had planned to, immediately after the start of the war. This was a sign of both faith and alarm. Abu Sini, an oncologist, works in a hospital in Haifa with colleagues who are both Muslim and Jewish. The best way to heal the divide, he argues, is for Jewish and Arab Israelis to continue to work together and not discuss the conflict. “Of course, there is always someone asking that a position be taken. But the important thing in this moment is to keep focused on what binds us: the care for life and our mission as doctors. That is the point of encounter where we discover our common humanity.”

Vincenzo, the Italian architect, has a similar story of work leading to peace. For a restoration project—an old monastery just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem—he hired Palestinian workers from East Jerusalem. But the project required a special type of cement, so he hired a small cement company run by Jews. “I saw that when we were working on a common goal, to do something well-done, to preserve something beautiful, all the prejudice and ideas that all of us may have disappear. This was possible, even in this mess.”

Published in the December 2023 issue: View Contents

Santiago Ramos is a contributing writer for Commonweal.

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