by Lorin Peters
Peacemaking in Bethlehem
Rick, my roommate in Hebron, and the commander of the Israeli occupying force were both honest men. They grew to trust each other.
In April 2002 Israel invaded Bethlehem. About 200 residents, along with 30 security officers, ran into the Church of the Nativity for sanctuary. The IDF (Israeli “Defense” Force) surrounded the Church and imposed a curfew, 24 hours a day, on all homes within four blocks.
A few days later, Rick encountered the Israeli commander outside Bethlehem. Rick asked, “Why are you not in Hebron?” The commander responded, “Let’s go for a walk.” When they were alone, he continued. “In three days, the IDF plans to invade the Church. I refuse to be part of it. So I requested to be transferred.” The situation was more desperate than Rick had realized.
Rick struggled to know what to do. Finally he went to a place of solitude, lit a candle, and prayed earnestly, asking God for guidance. Then he waited… After a long stillness, a vision formed – a small group walking, in silence, towards the Church. As they approached, soldiers parted and allowed them to pass.
Rick gathered four Christian Peacemaker Teammates (CPT) and four priests, with years of experience. A plan formed. They would be ‘transparent’. When their preparations were complete, they prayed. Monsignor Moran offered them a whimsical yet serious “blessing of invisibility.”
They carried food and medicine in transparent bags. They walked in complete silence. They avoided the media. Once they approached soldiers, Rick would make all decisions, without consultation. The soldiers would see only eight silent spirits.
When they reached the first squad, above the Fountain of Peace, soldiers blocked their way. Rick stated, quietly, “It’s OK.” The soldiers stepped aside. At the entrance to Manger Square, in front of the Church, the same thing happened. The second squad just watched them pass.
As they crossed the Square, two jeeps roared up. Ten excited soldiers intercepted them, with rifles pointed, just in front of the Church. They knelt, prayed, and began to sing “Ubi Caritas”. The soldiers grew silent.
Rick spoke, “This food is for the people trapped in the Church.” The commanding officer replied, “No, we can not allow that.” Because the soldiers were standing in the crosshairs of security guns inside the Courtyard of the Church, Rick moved to the back of the Square, where the soldiers would be safer.
He asked, “We are getting phone calls about babies starving in the curfew. May we deliver food to them?” Several soldiers responded, “Yes, we hear babies crying.” Twelve volunteered to lead the CPTs and priests to families with babies.
Afterwards, for the first time in 12 days, the IDF lifted the curfew on the homes near the Church. Two days later, negotiations began between the IDF and the Palestinians inside the Church. The imminent invasion of the Church was never carried out. Apparently, Rick’s vision and their action created a space for the Israelis to negotiate. Yet Rick and his companions thought they were just taking food and medicine to those trapped inside the Church. God’s ways are beyond ours.