Sometimes it is hard to be impartial, hard to listen to two sides of an argument. But being in Bethlehem and Jerusalem today makes the apparent intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict depressingly real.

I am leading a group of 37 people from England on a visit to Israel-Palestine. I last brought a group just over two years ago and this time we are putting more effort into listening to those trying to live in this small land peacefully.

This morning we visited Bethlehem. These pictures are of the wall you have to go through to get in to the town.

Most residents of Bethlehem cannot get permits to leave the town. This wall is more than twice the height of the Berlin Wall.

In Bethlehem we listened to stories of hope. One project (located right up against the wall) we visited was absolutely clear on several points:

  • Don’t just curse the darkness – light a candle. Being bitter about the ‘imprisonment’ will not change the situation, but will do damage to those who are bitter as well as their enemies.
  • Create spaces for children to play and for olive trees to grow – speaking of a fertile future.
  • These Palestinian Christians (who also work among Muslims) wish to live alongside Jews in Israel, sharing the land. They are not against Israel, but they are against the occupation of their land.
  • There should be no hierarchies of pain or victimhood – these create only a vicious circle of hate and resentment and the circle must be broken.
  • It is vital to work with young people and women, helping them cope with trauma and work for a dignified future.

Claiming, “we have an incurable malady called ‘hope'”, these people had one major complaint about the ‘west’:

Your media ignore the hundreds of constructive, positive and hopeful projects being run in difficult conditions, but a single molotov cocktail thrown by a young man will bring blanket coverage in your media. Why?

In the afternoon we visited the archaeaological sites at the City of David. This is run by Zionists. It was great to see Warren’s Shaft and Hezekiah’s Tunnel (which I realise sound like medical complaints) and see the work done to uncover these ancient ruins. But the preceding 3-D film presentation and accompanying guide narrative were shocking to many in our group who had come here with sympathetic and open minds.

We were given a perfect example of teleological story telling: start with your conclusion (the land belongs to the Jews and Jerusalem was, is and always shall be the ‘eternal capital city’), then fit the story to justify your end point. Not only was history re-written, the Bible selectively appropriated and political assumptions dripped in throughout, but there was a startling blindness to the inconsistencies in front of our eyes.

Jerusalem is a city of peace and a city of justice, we were repeatedly told. Yet, in all the hours we were there, not one mention was made of the Palestinians on the other side of the valley, those who had been removed from their homes in order to allow the excavations to be done or the injustices being done to Palestinians in relation to their land

If the people do not live justly, they will lose their city, said our guide – without either a hint of irony or any awareness of what was obvious to us observers.

This is just the first day and we are encouraging the group not to make too many judgements until we have seen, heard and experienced more. But, as we looked out over Bethlehem and saw the city-sized settlements (‘new facts on the ground’) dominating the lands, many in our group wondered why this is allowed to happen, why international agreements can be simply ignored and why people who have suffered grievously can be so willing to inflict suffering on others.

We had a de-brief session this evening to begin to process some of these questions and reactions. But, there is a long way still to go.

‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ (Psalm 122) has taken on new meaning and urgency for many in our group.