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A Palestinian fan (r.) poses with Jordanian rock band Autostrad. East Jerusalem, Oct. 12, 2013. (Shira Rubin)

Jordanian band slammed by fans for touring Israel

By Shira RubinCorrespondent / 10.15.13

Autostrad, a funk-rock-reggae band from Amman, shatters the norms of traditional Arabic pop with songs about sex, drugs, and unemployment on the Jordanian street. It has also shattered the norm of how many Arabs deal with Israel.

The six-man group enjoys an ardent Palestinian fan base, but its recent tour in Israel – where it played to Palestinian fans in Nazareth, Haifa, and the Golan Heights – has stoked a tense debate about how Arabs can best support the Palestinian cause. Most refuse to acknowledge Israel's sovereignty over historic Palestine and critics have berated the band for accepting, or “normalizing,” relations with Israel, rather than joining the popular Arab movement to boycott it until Palestinians are granted a sovereign state of their own.

Proponents of the cultural boycott of Israel flooded social media after learning that Autostrad obtained an Israeli visa from the Israeli embassy in Amman, under the Twitter hash tag, “come_to_Palestine_after_liberation". 

"Your 'cultural communication' is for only the few… welcome to Palestine, dirty, lying Arab hypocrisy," tweeted Jordanian architecht Roaa Zaidan, reiterating the argument that the band caters mostly to a Palestinian elite, while undermining the popular struggle for equality and freedom for the majority.

Many say that Arab musicians should instead apply for Palestinian permits, which don't grant access to cities such as Jerusalem and Haifa in Israel proper.

The movement known as "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions" (BDS) has succeeded in persuading, and sometimes threatening, a slew of prominent musicians from visiting Israel, in what they claim is an effort to end the occupation and promote the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Autostrad resisted such requests.  Along with thousands of local fans, they branded their shows as a form of “cultural resistance,” strengthening solidarity and bringing a sense of normalcy to a war-weary people.

They issued a Facebook statement following their Nazareth show, echoing a position expressed repeatedly by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, that “visiting the prisoner does not legitimize the jailer.” 

“[The Israeli visa] is the only way for us to get to our homeland, Palestine, and no one can stop us from doing our work,” said band member Hamza Arnaout to the Jordanian site Ammannet before the tour. 

But Budour Hassan, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who blogged on the issue, insists that fighting occupation, not improving its conditions, is what's needed.

“It’s not like if they don’t come it’s like a funeral,” says Ms. Hassan in a phone interview. “We have our own Palestinian musicians, who can’t move freely.”

For at least some fans at Autostrad's intimate East Jerusalem concert, however, attempts to deter the band from visiting Israel are “incompatible” with modern Palestinians, who are weary of hollow talk of liberation.

“That this beautiful band comes all the way from Jordan strengthens my position here as an Arab in this land,” said tattoo artist Wassim Razouk, who hit three of the band’s six shows last week.  “This conflict will be resolved in hundreds of years, but, in the meantime, I’m not ready to waste my life.

Jewish people, including women, read holy Jewish books outside the cemetery during the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the ultra-religious Shas political party, in Jerusalem October 7, 2013. (Nir Elias/Reuters)

Jerusalem life: 'Are you aware? Women should not be strolling outdoors'

By Staff writer / 10.11.13

People often ask me what it’s like to be a female reporter in the Middle East, expressing concern about the rise of sexual harassment on Cairo’s street or extremist attitudes toward women.

Overall it’s fine, I tell them.

But this week I had an interesting experience in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Geula, where 850,000 people – 1 in 8 Israelis – gathered for the funeral procession of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, widely seen as one of the greatest Torah scholars of his generation.

As I was interviewing a secular Jewish man off to the side of a street, a flurry of flyers rained down from a balcony above us.

“ARE YOU AWARE?” the flyer asked, one side printed in English and the other in Hebrew. “Separating oneself and maintaining distance between men and women is the basis for tznius [modesty],” it said, referencing a passage from Shulchan Aruch, a 16th century compilation that Rabbi Yosef and others have held up as the basis of all Jewish rabbinical law.

But few today would endorse the conclusions that followed this statement on the flyer:


  •       When men are in the street, a woman should go off to the side.
  •       A woman should not raise her voice whe[n] men are around.
  •       Women should not be strolling outdoors when men are frequenting the streets”

Such societal demands, together with occasional incidents of “immodestly” dressed women being scolded or stoned, are seen by many as the work of fringe groups who are becoming increasingly vocal as more ultra-Orthodox women expand the sphere of their lives – including jobs at hi-tech firms such as Intel.

It was ironic to me that I was showered with these pamphlets while standing quietly by a dumpster, apart from the crowds, rather than when my husband and I were fighting our way through a mass of humanity in Geula’s main street, which required not only brushing up against ultra-Orthodox men with top hats and swinging side curls but at times being tightly sandwiched between them.

But Jewish life seems full of such contradictions, at least to an outsider like me, and even religious Jews themselves can’t agree on exactly how to implement the value of modesty in the hustle and bustle of modern life. Here’s an excerpt of a debate I found on about the potential perils of mingling with seminary girls in Geula during the school year, an influx that is resented by more than a few yeshiva guys:

Yummy Cupcake: when i was in sem[inary] (very recently), walking through geula any day me[a]nt bumping into men sometimes. and yes, i am a very frum [devout/observant] … girl, and so are all my friends, and you know what, we didn't make a big deal out of it b/c we knew geula was c[r]owded and we don't own the streets, and there is not really anything you can do about it. just keep walking!

Stuck: What do you mean by “bumping”?

Yummy Cupcake: i mean literally- bumping into them. swiping as you pass by each other. and then continuing on as if nothing happened- because in reality, it's the norm there.

Stuck: That doesn’t sound too kosher.

Sam2: Stuck: Just because it doesn't sound Kosher to you doesn't mean it isn't. Rav Moshe and the Tzitz Eliezer both have famous T'shuvos pointing out that it's Muttar [acceptable] to sit next to women on a bus and be squeezed into a subway train with them….

To solve such problems during the autumn holiday of Sukkot, when the narrow streets of nearby Mea Shearim are jam-packed, rabbis have decreed that men should walk on one side of the street and women on the other. But for the rest of the year, and the rest of Jerusalem, it seems this bumpy coexistence will continue – and so will the debate about how best to express the modesty required of religious Jews.

Gaydar in the Gulf? Kuwaiti official reveals regional plan to 'detect' gays.

By Staff writer / 10.09.13

A Kuwaiti official’s intimation that Gulf countries may soon expand medical screenings of expatriates to “detect” homosexuals has stirred up gay-rights activists and sent a ripple of snickering across the Internet.

But while the idea that homosexually could be medically detected may be funny to Westerners, upholding a ban on such activity is a serious matter in the states that belong to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), where more conservative mores prevail.

“Health centers conduct the routine medical check to assess the health of the expatriates when they come into the GCC countries,” Yousuf Mindkar, Kuwait’s director of public health, told the local daily Al Rai. “However, we will take stricter measures that will help us detect gays who will be then barred from entering Kuwait or any of the GCC member states.”

Gulf countries have banned gay-themed movies and imposed prison terms for homosexual activity, such as a 10-year sentence in Kuwait if the activity involved minors. In Saudi Arabia and Yemen, homosexuality carries the death penalty, according to a 2012 report by the The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. It is technically legal in Bahrain, but in 2011 police there arrested 127 people, mainly gays from Gulf countries, for putting on a “depraved and decadent” party with cross-dressers drinking and smoking shisha, Gulf News reports. 

But on a societal level, there are at least pockets of acceptance, particularly in cosmopolitan cities such as Dubai, which has become a hub for many Western countries in the Middle East. A Dubai-based lawyer interviewed several years ago for a trade publication article on gay lawyers in the Gulf said there was “complete acceptance” of his sexuality at his firm. 

“Homosexuality is tolerated ­provided people don’t go up and down the street with a rainbow ­banner,” he said.

The issue is likely to be increasingly in the news as the 2022 World Cup draws closer, which Qatar won the right to host in a controversial vote. Russia, which will be hosting the 2014 Olympics in Sochi this winter, is facing growing pressure over a recent law banning the spread of homosexual propaganda among minors – an offense which can result in deportation when foreigners are concerned. Some 40 US congressmen have expressed concern to the US Olympic Committee over the law, which could affect both athletes and spectators.

Israeli MP Labor Party member Hilik Bar (l.) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attend a meeting with Knesset members in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Oct. 7, 2013. (Abbas Momani/AP)

Israeli lawmakers pay President Abbas an unprecedented visit in Ramallah

By Staff writer / 10.08.13

As Israeli-Palestinian peace talks intensified yesterday, with both sides agreeing to meet twice a week for up to eight hours a day, they received an extra boost of support from Israeli and Palestinian lawmakers.

For the first time, a caucus of Israeli members of Knesset (MKs ) visited the presidential palace in Ramallah Monday, which drew the interest of dozens of reporters from Israeli, Arab, and Western media. Their aim was to give a “tailwind” to peace negotiations and underscore the strong majority on both sides that favor a two-state solution, says Hilik Bar of the Labor party, who is chairman of the Caucus to Promote Resolution of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

“It was important to me to emphasize both to us in Israel, to [the international community], and to Palestinians that we have a majority in the Knesset and it’s really in the hands of these two leaders to close the deal and bring us peace,” said Mr. Bar in a phone interview after the event, estimating that 70 to 80 of the Knesset’s 120 members would vote in favor of a two-state solution.

The new caucus, which was launched this spring, is the largest in the Israeli parliament, with 40 members. In May, they hosted a delegation of Palestinian lawmakers – the first time Palestinians have ever entered the Knesset, which they had long avoided doing for fear of being seen as endorsing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, Bar says.

Yesterday, 11 Israeli MKs traveled to Ramallah to reciprocate, and were accompanied by a presidential police escort from the Beit El checkpoint to the Muqata, the Muqata presidential compound that Israeli forces stormed during the Second Intifada.

It was not the first time that Israeli MKs have visited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the Muqata, however, and some diminished the significance of the event since nearly all of the participants were from the dovish Labor party. (Some members of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party had to cancel due to the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the party who was widely considered one of the greatest Torah scholars of his generation.)

But in a neighborhood where cynicism is easy to come by, fueled recently by a number of violent incidents that killed both Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank, as well as a terrorist attack this weekend that injured a 9-year-old girl in the Israeli settlement of Psagot – it is worth noting that Israeli and Palestinian parliamentarians took the initiative to meet despite the fear, criticism, and hatred that challenge such reconciliatory action.

Two Iranian men dance among their friends as they enjoy their weekend in the Darakeh mountainous area, north of the capital Tehran, Iran, June 21. A Twitter hashtag #jeans has been popular in response to recent remarks by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said Iranians are governed by a cult that bars them from wearing jeans. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Iranians launch #jeans protest on Twitter, taking jab at Netanyahu

By Staff writer / 10.06.13

In a lighter side to the Israel-Iran standoff over nuclear weapons, Iranians armed with nothing more than jeans and a camera are protesting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intimation that they are ruled by a cultic government that restricts not only their voting options but their sartorial choices as well.

One Iranian Twitter user, who had only bothered tweeting 152 times before today, dedicated his next 140 characters to Mr. Netanyahu:

Other tweets ranged from sassy to vindictive, but all seemed to send a clear retort: We don’t need you intervening on behalf of our freedom.

The #jeans protest came in response to a comment by Netanyahu last week in which he attempted to distinguish Iranian aspirations from the theocratic system of government that has prevailed in the Islamic Republic since 1979. The Supreme Leader is officially considered “God’s deputy on earth.”

“If they had a free go, are you kidding, they’d toss out this regime, they’d go in blue jeans,” said Netanyahu during his first-ever interview with BBC Persian. “I mean these people, the Iranian people, the majority of them are actually pro-Western. But they don’t have that. They’re governed not by Rouhani. They’re governed by Ayatollah Khamenei. He heads a cult. That cult is wild in its ambitions and its aggression.”

Netanyahu has just returned from Washington and New York, where he warned the US and the world of the dangers of accepting Iran's softer rhetoric without seeing any real change in its nuclear program. Some say the Israeli prime minister sees himself as taking on a Churchillian role of warning against appeasement, just as the formidable British leader did when faced by the Nazi regime.

Syrian siblings Fatima and Mohamed rest after completing a 10km run in Amman, Jordan. (Nigel Wilson/The Christian Science Monitor)

Syrians run for dignity in Amman marathon

By Nigel WilsonCorrespondent / 10.06.13

Thousands of runners took to the streets of Amman for the city's annual marathon this weekend, as pounding electronic music and the thud of trainers on concrete shattered the usual pre-prayer tranquillity. But this year there was a new addition: hundreds of Syrians and Jordanians who ran alongside each other to promote dignity for refugees, a campaign organized by the international aid agency Oxfam.

“When I heard about this event to show solidarity between Syrians and Jordanians, I loved the idea," says Fatima, a Damascus University student who fled to Jordan six months ago and ran in this weekend's 10 km event. "As refugees, we shouldn’t live inside a shell and we should go out and live a dignified life. It felt amazing to express myself and I want to be more active from now on."

As the Syrian civil war continues unabated, with more than 100,000 killed and a third of the country's population either displaced within Syria or seeking refuge abroad, Syrians know it could be many years before they return home.

Of the 2 million refugees that have fled the country, more than a quarter are living in Jordan. Most of them reside in urban areas, where their presence has sometimes led to resentment among host communities. Public health and education services have been stretched, while rents have more than doubled in some cities.

Earlier this year a number of Jordanian politicians called for the country’s northern border to be closed, stating that Jordan couldn’t cope with any new arrivals. National media narratives have become increasingly critical of Syrian refugees, with some newspapers blaming the influx of cheap labour for Jordan’s unemployment rate, which remains stubbornly high at around 12 percent.

But Fatima’s younger brother Mohamed, who also took part in the Amman marathon, says that while he recognizes the strain the country is under, he feels welcomed by the majority of Jordanians.

“It’s important for us to be here with Jordanians. Jordanians are our brothers and sisters and it’s nice to run side by side in the streets of Amman," he says, though he hopes to return to Syria.

Oxfam’s Jordan program manager Syma Jamil says that while it's true that Syrian refugees her organization works with are "extremely grateful" for Jordanians' hospitality, Jordan and other host countries need more support from the international community.

"The price these countries and host communities had to pay has already been extremely high, and other countries have to put their money where their mouth is," said Ms. Jamil in an email response to the Monitor.

In the meantime, Syrians like Fatima are adapting to life in a new place. Though it's been tough, Fatima’s self-confidence is steadily rebuilding as she throws herself into community life. She has taken a computer class, enrolled in a citizen journalism project, and now completed her first 10 km (6.1 mile) race – no mean feat for a brand-new runner.

“It was so tiring! It’s not flat like Damascus," she said at the finish line. "But it felt fantastic.”

Sami Batrawi, whose late father (illustrated on the left) acquired a personal library of 15,000 books, says he still prefers the feel of a real book in his hands but is turning to digital innovation out of necessity. (Christa Case Bryant/TCSM)

A quest to preserve Palestinian heritage in the digital stacks

By Staff writer / 10.04.13

As the son of a man who had a personal library of some 15,000 volumes, Sami Batrawi loves the feel of turning the pages of a book rich in history.

But after years of trying and failing to establish a Palestinian version of the Library of Congress, he would now content himself with swiping a finger across an iPad if it meant being able to access the wealth of literature about Palestinian national heritage.

“We didn’t succeed to have our traditional national library but I think now we can do something else,” says Mr. Batrawi, the director-general of the intellectual property unit at the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Culture and one of less than a dozen Palestinians with a graduate degree in library science.

So now Batrawi is trying to get the PA to approve an online Palestinian national library, which would provide digitized access not only to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza but also to Palestinian refugees and expats spread out across the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, and the US.

But his proposal has been mired in government bureaucracy for more than two years, and he faces a major hurdle because the PA has yet to establish a uniform copyright law. (Those efforts are also tied up in bureaucratic reviews.)

“If there’s only one minister who is interested in this project, he can get the signatures,” says Batrawi.

Before the 1948 nakba, or catastrophe, in which at least 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced to leave their homes amid fighting over Israel’s declaration of independence, many Palestinians read widely and had private book collections as well as community libraries. But many of those books were lost in the nakba; to this day, some 30,000 volumes labeled “abandoned property” are collecting dust in the basement of Israel’s National Library. 

Batrawi was part of an effort to build 120 new children’s libraries after the 1993 Oslo peace agreement with Israel, but it’s perhaps an even harder battle to restore the love of reading.

As part of the virtual library project, he hopes to introduce workshops, TV shows, and university programs to teach Palestinians to make better use of the computers and Internet access that many families have in their homes.

“You will not see that they’re using it in the right way to make research,” says Batrawi, noting that many use their computers mainly for games, Facebook, and online chatting.

Even among those who value Palestinian national heritage, Batrawi faces an additional hurdle: fear that Israel could destroy that national treasure in one fell swoop if it were located in one building.

“Why do you want to collect all our heritage in one building?” is a key criticism he has heard. “What if the Israelis come and they destroy it? How will you protect this?”

Irena Steinfeldt, an official at Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, shows a certificate recognizing Mohamed Helmy, an Egyptian doctor in Berlin, as 'Righteous Among Nations' for saving a Jewish family during the Holocaust, in Jerusalem, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

Egyptian doctor becomes first Arab recognized for saving Jews during Holocaust

By Staff writer / 10.01.13

Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial museum, has added an Egyptian doctor to the ranks of Gentiles recognized as “Righteous Among Nations” for aiding Jews during the Holocaust.

Dr. Mohamed Helmy is the first Arab to be honored in the 50-year span of the project, which has recognized 24,911 individuals from 44 countries.

Yad Vashem, located in Jerusalem, learned of Helmy through letters written by several Jewish survivors he helped. The letters were found in a Berlin archive and recently passed along to Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among Nations department.

Helmy  moved to Berlin for medical studies in 1922 and went on to work at a hospital, but his professional progress was thwarted by Nazi racial policies, and he was even arrested in 1939 and held for a year. Nevertheless, when a 21-year-old Jewish patient of his, Anna Boros (later Gutman), sought his help, he sheltered her in a cabin he owned in Berlin and moved her to friends’ homes from time to time to prevent her from being discovered.  He also helped to hide three of her relatives, with the help of Frieda Szturmann, whom Yad Vashem has honored along with Helmy.

The recognition of Righteous Among Nations is inspired by an idea from the Mishnah, “Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe.” The background of those who have been honored so far varies widely, from intellectuals to illiterate laborers, from Muslims to nuns, from a zoo director to a circus owner.

But they generally share one or more of the following characteristics, according to Yad Vashem: They hid Jews in their home or on their property, provided false papers and false identities, smuggled Jews or helped them escape, and rescued Jewish children.

A commission of Holocaust survivors, researchers, and historians currently chaired by retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel reviews each potential honoree. The commission decided in March to honor Helmy and Szturmann, who have both passed away, but delayed the announcement until yesterday in an attempt to notify relatives first, according to Yad Vashem spokeswoman Estee Yaari.

“We hope maybe [the announcement] will help us find the next of kin,” she says, adding that the announcement was also published on Yad Vashem’s Arabic website. Among the Arab outlets that picked up the story was Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper.

Since the announcement yesterday, Yad Vashem has received a number of inquiries from relatives of Anna Boros Gutman, says Ms. Yaari, but they are still hoping to hear from relatives of Helmy.

Saudi women shop at Al-Hayatt mall in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, February 15, 2012. (Fahad Shadeed/Reuters/File)

Many Saudis don't want women to drive – but it has nothing to do with their ovaries

By Staff writer / 09.30.13

A Saudi sheikh's comment Friday that driving could negatively affect women's ovaries and create "clinical problems" in their children sparked a flurry of indignation on Twitter and elsewhere over the weekend.

The sheikh in question, Saleh al-Lohaidan, is a relatively low-profile judicial adviser to Gulf psychologists – not a prominent Islamic scholar, as was initially reported. But while his particular argument was quickly pounced on as ridiculous, there remains a deep-seated opposition to women driving among a conservative segment of Saudi society that cannot be as easily dismissed.

But there is also a growing cadre of civil-society activists and women’s rights advocates who are pushing back on such limits. A petition promoting the Oct. 26 protest on the female driving ban has garnered more than 12,000 hits, and may have had gotten a dramatic spike in support since Friday if it hadn’t been blocked in Saudi Arabia this weekend. Among its five points are a demand that the Saudi government make clear what the legal reason is for not allowing women to drive rather than just citing “societal consensus.” 

But women’s rights advocates are running against pretty strong currents. A recent World Bank study ranked Saudi Arabia the worst country in the world for placing legal restrictions on women and failing to provide legal benefits, such as maternity leave. The Saudi government discriminates according to gender for a variety of activities, including traveling outside the country, getting a passport, obtaining a national identity card, and conferring citizenship on one’s children.

The more fundamental issue may be a mentality that proscribes certain activities for women as un-Islamic, culturally inappropriate, or both. @ThatSalafi, a Twitter feed satirizing conservative Muslim attitudes, poked fun at the fear that the right to drive could lead to a slippery slope of immoral behavior:

But some Saudis, women included, really do see a direct connection with social restrictions and women’s modesty. When I was in the kingdom in May 2012 with the International Reporting Project, I recall a gentleman earnestly defending the ban as necessary to protecting women’s modesty and safety. What would happen if a woman got in a car accident, he asked? Then she would be forced to deal with the male driver of the other car, a stranger, with no oversight – a problematic situation in a country where male guardianship of women is deeply entrenched.

As Caryle Murphy explained in a 2011 article on guardianship for the Monitor:

A woman is not legally independent under the guardianship system…. If unmarried, her father (or, if he is deceased, another male relative – usually a brother or uncle) must give permission for her to travel abroad, accept employment, get certain types of medical care, go to university, and, in many cases, conduct business in government offices. If she is married, her husband is her guardian.

While such a system would likely sound oppressive to most Western women, even some well-educated Saudi women who travel abroad feel more comfortable in this system than in the West. On the same trip last spring, I caught a ride home one night with a 20-something Saudi businesswoman who vacations in California with her family every summer. As a foreign driver whisked us past the palms and skyscrapers of Riyadh in her luxury car, she told me she prefers her long black abaya and headscarf to the jeans she wears in California, and appreciates the dating strictures in Saudi that require her family to be involved in her meetings with potential suitors.

But for her less wealthy fellow citizens, many simply can’t afford not to drive. With no public transportation, and drivers often costing as much as half of their monthly salary, women have a hard time earning a substantial income without being able to get themselves to work everyday.

Badria Al-Bishr, an award-winning Saudi columnist and novelist at King Saud University, highlighted a great example from the 13-minute Saudi movie “Scrap,” which was an entrant at the Gulf Film Festival this spring. Dr. Al-Bishr explains:

The Saudi movie “Scrap” … is based on the true story of a lady who was arrested by a traffic officer while driving her pickup. The officer found out that she was poor and that she supported herself by collecting scrap. So he escorted her to the police station and asked her: "Where is your guardian?" Her only reply was: "God is my guardian."

Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith of Itamar explains the biblical geography of the area to Christian pilgrims visiting the Israeli settlement set above the Palestinian city of Nablus. (Christa Case Bryant/TCSM)

Christian Zionists: 'God bless Israeli settlers – and the Palestinians'

By Staff writer / 09.26.13

As our tour bus full of Christian pilgrims rolls out of Jerusalem, the Jewish guide reads a poetic description of the Israeli settlement Itamar, a place where, we are told, the fields are carpeted in scarlet poppies and blue pansies and the deer “run free … and skip from hill to dale.”

Mid-poem, a woman snaps a photo of the Israeli-built cement separation wall just before we cross a checkpoint into the West Bank. Now we’re heading into the heart of the land where Palestinians want to build a state and Israeli settlers want to build Greater Israel. According to Scripture, God promised this land to His chosen people.

That’s a promise Christian Zionists fully support.

“If we’re going to believe the Bible is the word of God, then we must believe that,” says Heather, an Irishwoman on her tenth trip to Israel.

She’s one of 5,000 Christians from more than 80 countries – most notably Brazil and Finland – who came to Jerusalem for the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem (ICEJ) annual Feast of Tabernacles week in a show of solidarity with Israel.

Each year since the inaugural event in 1980, bus tours have been organized to bring pilgrims off the beaten path of traditional Christian tours. And each year, the visit to Israeli settlements in the West Bank has been one of the most popular, says ICEJ media director David Parsons, who has helped organize the Feast week for 17 years.

Rabbi: 'Spread the word'

As we make our way up to Itamar, there are plenty of sites that resonate with Jewish and Christian readers of the Bible. Off to the left is Beit El, or Bethel, where Jacob spoke with God. Further up on the right is Shiloh, where the ark of the covenant rested for 369 years and the little boy Samuel heard the voice of God. If we hadn’t turned off for Itamar, we would have ended up in Shechem, known today as Nablus, where Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel and the people made a covenant with God to serve Him.

Standing on the top of a windblown hill in Itamar, with sweeping views west toward the Mediterranean, north to the Galilee, and east to the Dead Sea, it is easy to see the appeal of such a vast inheritance, whether in ancient or modern times.

But it is also easy to see that Jews are not the only people here; a patchwork of fields and olive groves dot the Palestinian village below, and the metropolis of Nablus and the adjacent Balata refugee camp fills the nearby valley.

Only 500 families live in a handful of relatively isolated Israeli settlements that cling to the mountainous backbone here; in Itamar, Palestinian terrorists have killed more than 20 residents out of a population of 1,800, including Ehud and Ruth Fogel and three of their six children, who were murdered in their sleep in a particularly heinous attack in March 2011.

The Christian visitors listen empathetically as Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith recounts that night, eagerly ask him about the biblical geography in the area, and nod their heads with an “Amen” as he leaves them with a request: “I do hope you’ll come back, and spread the word,” he says. “You should realize that every good word about Israel strengthens the country. It’s very important to feel that you have that mission of being an emissary.”

'God has a plan for Palestinians, too'

Christian evangelicals have become increasingly vocal in their support of Israel, including Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Such activities have become so energetic, in fact, that some Jewish groups have become unnerved and actively worked to alert fellow Jews about the dangers of over-zealous Christians eroding their Jewish heritage and claims to the land. 

But the ICEJ group seemed to strike a less political tone than other Christians, mainly emphasizing their appreciation for the Jewish people, the spiritual heritage they share with Jews, and their prayers for Jewish settlers. At a later visit to Shiloh, they bade farewell to their rabbi tour guide with a "God bless you, we'll be praying for you." Yet they also showed compassion for Palestinians, who see Israeli settlements as increasingly encroaching on their national aspirations.

“I believe God has a plan for Palestinian people, too, he has not cast them out,” says Heather, the Irishwoman, who references God’s care in the desert for Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Hagar. According to Jewish tradition, Ishmael was cast out while his half-brother Isaac was favored by Abraham, while in Muslim tradition Ishmael was the favored son. John, an evangelical Christian from Oregon who didn’t want his last name published, says he believes there is a divine plan for resolving that age-old “family feud” between Arab and Jew going back to Abraham and that focusing on land and territorial issues misses the mark.

“God loves the Palestinian people just as much as He loves the Jewish people or any other people on earth, says the Oregonian, who has been to Israel 27 times in 18 years. “I think God has a huge plan for the Arab peoples in healing that rift, that family feud.”

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