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The Road to Emmaus

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century. This article appeared in the Christian Century December 21, 1977, p. 1182. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Traveling the roads of West Bank territory occupied by Israel, the visitor is struck by the dominance of the Arab culture. The cities, running from Nablus in the north, through Ramallah and East Jerusalem, and down to Hebron, are almost exclusively inhabited by Arabs, both Muslim and Christian. And yet, because of the hysteria of anti-Zionism, over the past 20 years among the major Arab powers and the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel has found itself in the uncomfortable role of an occupying military power, controlling the lives of a large population of Palestinian Arabs. Now it appears possible that a peace agreement could result in the formation of a Palestinian entity in the West Bank.

One way to examine the dynamics of this possible agreement is to travel the smaller roads of the West Bank.

I

The road from Ramallah to Al-Nabi-Saleh. Our journey to the Jewish religious settlement near Nabi-Saleh was unexpected. We went to Ramallah the day after President Anwar Sadat’s historic visit and talked to the mayor of the city, Karim Khalaf -- a landowner in the area, first elected in 1972 and surprisingly re-elected in 1976 when most other mayors on the West Bank were turned out of office for reflecting not enough sympathy for Palestinian nationalism, specifically a commitment to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Several Israeli journalists I met couldn’t believe Khalaf had been re-elected; they assumed there had been a complete turnover in the 1976 elections. Khalaf either changed his attitude toward the PLO between 1972 and 1976 to a very positive one, or else he already had decided for the PLO and simply found it easy to let that be known in 1976. Ironically, in the West Bank, deportation by military authorities can await any citizen known to be related to the PLO. The political trick, then, for local politicians is to appear stable in the eyes of the authorities, at the same time making sure the public knows of their sympathies for the pro-PLO leanings of the populace.

In our interview with Khalaf, he vigorously criticized Sadat’s failure to identify the PLO as the proper Palestinian representative for peace discussions. He seems not to trust the Israelis to give the West Bank its sovereignty. In his modern city hall office we listened as Khalaf alternately boasted of the future West Bank state and deplored Israeli actions that appear to go counter to that future.

“Just last week,” he said, “the Gush Emunim put up another fence around a large area and moved in a contingent of settlers.” The Gush Emunim (bloc of the faithful), an orthodox Jewish group, has been establishing its own settlements in the West Bank, insisting that it has a commission from God to recapture the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria. The settlement that was disturbing Khalaf was the most recent of six which Prime Minister Begin had sanctioned the week after his return from his initial meeting with President Carter last summer.

Our group, which included four Americans and a European journalist, decided to visit the settlement. With the mayor’s help we studied the map and then drove north. Unlike the other 44 established Jewish settlements in the West Bank, this one is not on a map, and it has no name. But we knew that the settlers had been given permission to live in an abandoned “Taggart Fort,” one of a series of military installations placed on strategic hills by the British during the Mandate period. Formerly used by Jordan as a police station, this fort near the village of Al-Nabi-Saleh had been empty until Prime Minister Begin persuaded a group of Gush Emunim members not to take over open land but to reside instead within the more secure walls of the fort.

On the way to Nabi-Saleh, we passed the town of Bir Zeit, where a Christian university started by Anglicans in the 1920s thrives as a center for education and radical Palestinian ideology. We drove to the fort, located on the hill overlooking the village of Nabi-Saleh. One of our party, who speaks Hebrew, asked the soldier guarding the gate if we could come in and talk with the civilian settlers. In a country obsessed with security checks, I was surprised that he waved us through, carefully replacing the chain that blocked the road behind us.

II

The fort is vintage Hollywood; living quarters for the troops surround an inner courtyard, with lookout posts along the roof of the fort. I had a fleeting image of Errol Flynn striding along in a pith helmet. Two men who greeted us promised an English-speaking occupant, and we were soon welcomed by Schomit Abramowitz, a pleasant dark-haired woman in her late 20s, who invited us up to her family quarters for tea. Born in Israel, she lived for 12 years in Chicago, so we talked briefly about her time there. (She wondered if I had known Mayor Daley.) When we asked if we could tour the fort, she proudly showed us around.

Eighteen orthodox Jewish families have joined with about 25 nonorthodox Israelis to establish this community, which will soon move out of the fort into concrete block houses nearby. A contingent of soldiers, tents pitched beside the fort, are apparently on hand for protection. The inner courtyard, where British Tommies once paraded, is now crossed with clotheslines, and small children romp about. Our English-speaking hostess has three small children -- two of them in diapers, which she must wash with boiling water on a portable stove. The children, two of whom slept through our talks, share a 12-by-12 foot room with their parents. Water from the fort’s old well is still unsafe for drinking, so much of their water is brought in by truck.

I asked Ms. Abramowitz if she knew how much interest the world was showing in these Gush Emunim settlements, especially after Begin’s visit to Washington. She assumed such an interest and then rather shyly asked me to tell her what people were saying. I responded that it probably depended on the attitude they had toward the conflicting claims of Israel and the Palestinians. We had reached a narrow passageway connecting the fort’s two floors when she turned to me and with a pride and commitment I don’t often hear in the young these days, said: “You know it’s theological, don’t you?” I said I did, and we went outside where she was distracted from my answer because a small child on a tricycle -- not one of her own -- was crying over some real or imagined hurt.

I didn’t agree with her theological rationale for living in this abandoned fort near Nabi-Saleh, but I had to admire her parting comment to me. “From the top of that hill” (which rose slightly behind the fort), “you can see the lights of Tel Aviv. It is a beautiful sight.” It is, no doubt, made more beautiful to her because she is convinced that her presence here both fulfills God’s will and provides security in these hills for the people of Israel.

From Nabi-Saleb we drove back down to Ramallah, where we went to the home of Raymonda Tawil, an outspoken Palestinian nationalist recently put under house arrest for two weeks by Israeli authorities for “inciting actions against the occupation.” Ms. Tawil, with her husband, David, a banker, moved to Ramallah from Nablus several years ago. The home in which they live would suggest that they are among the upper-class members of West Bank society. We visited in the Tawil living room drinking coffee and eating fruit, served by two attractive teen-age daughters. The room looks out over the hills toward Nabi-Saleb, and I was struck by the vast emotional space that separates Raymonda Tawil, here in her comfortable Palestinian living room, from Schomit Abramowitz living out her religious dedication in the Taggart fort a few miles away. How different they are in ideology, and yet how similar in commitment. I recalled Schomit’s description of how her Gush Emunim group listened to the Sadat speech the day before, broadcast from the Knesset in Jerusalem. As Sadat spoke, she said, the group stood around the radio holding hands. Two mothers, one Jewish and one Palestinian Arab, plunging forward with absolute dedication. Are they wrong to act as they do? Politics is so much more complicated when it becomes personal.

III

The road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. A few days later I traveled over a different West Bank road, this time from Jerusalem to Latrun, a journey taken to gain perspective on the terrain over which so many previous battles have been fought and where future boundary lines may some day be argued. My attention had been drawn to Latrun by books I had read on the battles fought between Israel and the Arabs in 1946-48. On three separate occasions, Jewish armies tried to capture Latrun, a village at the bottom of a mountain range leading to Jerusalem.

Another British fort stands in front of the Catholic monastery at Latrun; despite several frontal attacks, the Israelis were unable to capture the fort and thus failed to gain control of a vital link between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. This defeat might have caused the fall of Jerusalem; but the Israelis cut an alternative road around the mountains to the south, and later built another road during the 1948-67 period when the West Bank, and the road through Latrun, were controlled by Jordan.

The road that approaches Latrun from the northeast winds through the mountain range along the same route followed by Joshua in his conquest of the Amorite kings (Josh. 10:1-15). Here, the Scriptures report, Joshua commanded the sun and moon to stand still at Gibeon and in the Valley of Aijalon. This valley is crucial to control of the center of this country, today as in Joshua’s time, for it is a wide span of fertile farmland nestled between mountain ranges reaching west to the sea and east to Jerusalem and the cities of Ramallah and Nablus.

Driving through the Valley of Aijalon, we passed fields to our left covered now with prickly pear cactus and scrub trees. Before 1967 there were Arab villages here. Their presence appears to haunt the valley because the casual observer at first assumes the land has always been empty. The Arabs know better. The cacti that grow in definite patterns on these hills are not indigenous to the area, but were planted as hedges between farm huts bulldozed by the Israelis as a security measure after their 1967 military victory. Farmers who once lived and worked here are now refugees in Jordan or Lebanon they and their children are restless to return to land they have lost.

One of three villages destroyed here was Imwar (Emmaus), one of two possible sites for a recorded resurrection appearance of Jesus. A church marking the traditional site still stands; the village is gone. An Israeli explained the bulldozing policy to me in this way: “We thought we would have to give up all the land we gained in the Six-Day War, so we cleared our borders of hostile villages. If we had known that ten years later we would still have all this territory, we would not have torn them down. It was for security.”

But people do live near Imwar now. A Jewish settlement, Canada Park, has been constructed from funds raised by Jewish groups in Canada. This settlement was opened in April 1976, and it includes around 1,000 acres from the bulldozed villages of Yalu, Imwar and Beit Nuba, about a fourth of which is orchard land. A nation that fought four wars to gain control of the Valley of Aijalon does not intend to see this strategic land bargained away at some international peace conference.

I drove away from the former villages of Imwar, Yuba and Beit Nuba with mixed emotions. If a government is charged with the security of its people, then its actions must be understood in part as following from what it assumes to be in the best interests of its people. And after ten years. Israel is still not sure that it can trust the world community to provide its security in this relatively small strip of land between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean Sea.

The Jewish people, who for centuries wandered the earth without a home, are determined to take action that will guarantee that this homeland is secure for future generations. In this they are in conflict with Palestinian Arabs, who now number in excess of 2.7 million, and who also insist the time has come for them to have their own homeland. Security conflicts with nationalism. Or to put it another way: Raymonda Tawil conflicts with Schomit Abramowitz, two women with children seeking a future in the same war-torn area. They travel the same roads; what remains is that they must learn somehow to travel them together.


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