By Stan Friedman
YANOUN, WEST BANK (February 21, 2011) – Wayne Smith, an Evangelical Covenant Church pastor for more than 30 years, has rarely felt more helpless to assist someone than he has the past two months.
Since mid-December, Wayne and his wife, Ruth, have been working with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program for Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). Christian leaders from around the world formed the peace-seeking organization after consulting with leaders of Christian churches in Palestine. The Smiths co-pastor Praise Covenant Church in Tacoma, Washington, but are in the Middle East until early March.
He keeps asking, “What are we doing here?” They had hoped to serve as a “protective presence” for Palestinians and foster peace between them and Israel.
They have made no immediate tangible difference, however, Wayne says.
Ruth has been in Jerusalem working with Israeli, Palestinian and international peace groups, monitoring one of the busy check points leading into the city and dealing with other issues. Wayne has spent much of his time in Yanoun, a remote rural village of fewer than 80 people. From there he also has traveled throughout the area.
Wayne wonders if they are making any difference as he watches Palestinian schools, businesses and homes bulldozed to make room for new Israeli settlements occupied primarily by religious settlers. There also are times like earlier this month when he has no idea why troops destroyed several homes.
He describes the destruction of six homes in Khirbet Tana, a village of fewer than 100 year-round residents, but which attracts several hundred shepherds who bring their flocks to the area during the spring when it transforms from an arid valley to one covered with green grass. The village also has no electricity.
Two Israeli Defense Force bulldozers and 15 jeeps filled with soldiers leveled the homes of six families and 11 shelters for sheep, Wayne says. “In some cases they allowed the residents to remove their meager belongings and their sheep. In others they did not, destroying everything these poor people own and killing and injuring the livestock within,” Smith reports.
In three and a half hours, 45 adults and 13 children were left homeless. Wayne said the villagers threatened no one and are not near any Jewish settlement. Soldiers had previously demolished a makeshift school three times.
“They just want to live the simple life that they have lived for generations,” he says. “I am so overwhelmed by this that I can’t even suggest what anyone can do.”
It is a scene repeated on an almost daily basis throughout the Palestinian territories, Wayne says. He adds that he is surprised most residents are not seeking retribution.
The Smiths also have met with people in the Israeli town of Sderot, which has a population of 21,000. Thousands of missiles launched from the Palestinian territories over the past 10 years have reined down on the town and killed 10 people.
“We are certainly a people who have lived with terror and are a traumatized city,” one resident working for peace told Wayne. Loudspeakers announce “Code Red” when a missile is incoming, and the residents have 15-30 seconds to get to shelter. Throughout the city there are bomb shelters in the form of bus stops, and parks have unique play structures that double as bomb shelters.
The resident continues to pursue a better future, telling Wayne, “We have a choice to demonize all Palestinians because of what we have experienced or we can choose to believe that they are human beings and find a way to establish relationships between us like real human beings.”
The number of people with the resident’s attitude for pursuing peace is not common, however, Wayne says. “I have met a number of brave and determined Israelis who are working for peace and justice, but they all say that they are very much an isolated minority with very little impact on society.”
Wayne says he has long been a supporter of Israel’s right to exist. “I am old enough to recall celebrating the Six Day War of 1967, rejoicing in Israel, the little David overcoming the Goliath of the hostile Arab world.”
He adds, “I absolutely affirm Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself, and in their own mind, I suspect that is all the current leadership thinks they are doing.”
Over the past six years, his support is no longer unquestioning, however, and Wayne says he has “gotten religion” about widespread injustices against Palestinians. Until those are remedied, there won’t be peace for anyone, he maintains.
The Palestinians’ situation, he adds, is similar to the history of the Jewish people. Both know what it is to be forced from their homelands.
The minister says his experiences of the past two months have strengthened his “sense of mission to help Evangelicals in general and the Covenant in particular come to a more balanced and informed understanding of the Middle East.”
That is at least part of his answer to the question, “What are we doing here?”