I recently met Khaled, a Palestinian Christian, on a sunny day in Bethlehem, where the dusty hills are covered with centuries old white stone buildings and olive groves. The Israeli’s security barrier cuts off the main road from Jerusalem, making the once vibrant tourist spot now eerily quite. A city full of history as the birthplace of Jesus, its empty buildings are now riddled with bullet holes and plastered with posters of martyrs. There are long lines at the huge barbed-wired checkpoints out of the city for those trying to find work. Yet Khaled’s bright smile and friendly face shows none of the stress of living in this war torn region.
Khaled has been on staff with our organization, Youth With A Mission (YWAM) for almost three years. To better communicate with the groups of students that often come to serve in Bethlehem, he went to take a five-month ESL course at our University of the Nations Campus in Kona, Hawaii. But as the first Palestinian student, he had a difficult time.
“Are you a Muslim?” Khaled recalls one man asking him. “No! Of course I am a Christian, how could I be a part of YWAM if I wasn’t a Christian?” was his reply. “Are you Arab?” The man asked. “Yes,” Khaled replied. “But aren’t all Arabs terrorists? “No, of course not!”
Khaled laughs now at the incident, but at the time he remembers thinking, It is very hard in the United States.
After three lonely weeks, he wanted to leave Kona, and asked for prayer about his situation. The staff asked God to bring him friends and people with whom he could share about the Palestinians.
The next week Khaled was asked to share about himself. Most students did not know where Palestine was, or who the Palestinians were. Many prominent Christians deny that there is such a thing as a Palestinian, and many young people brought up in church have been taught nothing else. But with one standing before them it becomes hard to deny, as does their history.
In 1948 the United Nations created Israel by dividing the British-occupied land called Palestine. The neighboring Arab nations declared war, and lost the majority of Palestine to Israel.
According to the UN, there were over 900,000 refugees from that war, and in 2005 that number has grown to over 4.5 million. Throughout the last 50 years of Israel’s existence there have been various complicated wars, terrorist tactics and political maneuvering that have still not led to a homeland for the Palestinians.
One major part of this struggle was a popular uprising started in 1987, called the intifada. Khaled was 8 years old. He recalls the Israelis raiding their home in the middle of the night, accusing them of being terrorists and beating up his brother. After interrogating them, the soldiers broke their water tank. “We did not have water for five days. Another day the soldiers came to my home and beat me. You can’t say anything because if you say something you’ll get hit more” Khaled said. This was a regular occurrence for 6 years of his life.
When he was 17, Khaled visited a YWAM English Center. He felt the Holy Spirit touch him and he accepted Christ as a true believer. But still, he could not bring himself to love the Israelis. “Sometimes I felt like I had a real problem because I am a Christian, but if I saw an Israeli soldier I felt the need to hit him. In my heart there was hatred.”
Khaled continued to struggle with this in Kona. Flags of many nations, including Israel, fly at the entrance to the campus. “I thought to myself, I cannot get away from them. Even here the Israelis are putting up their flag.”
The campus had a welcome ceremony for incoming students. Internationals carried flags from their nations, and Khaled presented the Palestinian flag. He was met with cheers and excitement from the crowd and was asked to pray in Arabic. After praying, he saw the Israeli flag being carried by a Jewish student and he felt God tell him to pick it up and wave it. “I did not want to, but I did anyway because I need to be obedient to God.”
Khaled lifted the flag, and for the first time held the symbol of those who had beaten him and his family. As he did this, a Jewish student came up and hugged Khaled asking him, “Please forgive me, forgive my people who have done these things to your people.” And Khaled, for the first time, forgave the Israelis. That night, he felt true peace flood his heart.
Khaled has been back in the West Bank for over a year now and I asked him how it has been. He pauses for a moment before answering, but starts truthfully. “Its hard for me to get permission to go around in my country. I still have to go through many checkpoints. Its hard to see the [Security] Wall … but I still feel hope for the future.” Kahled smiles as he continues,
“For the first time in Kona I felt I could relax, like there was garbage in my heart and it went out.” He sighs and makes a gesture of relief. “And for the first time I slept very well. God spoke to me and said, ‘I’ve cleaned your heart towards these people. I know what they did to you, but I give you forgiveness, for the future, I give you what you seek.’”
The power of Jesus is evident as I look at his face and see the true joy he has now, despite the injustices done to him. The news today is full of the continued conflict; rockets and embargos, walls and presidential visits. But truly we have to look to the way of Christ to lead us in how to love both peoples. He forgave them, He laid down His life for them, and He extends a roadmap to peace that is radically difficult, but infinitely rewarding.