During the past 20 years, living in Byron Bay, my wife and I have been amazed and impressed by the letters sent into the Echo by Gareth Smith.
He wrote what we were too scared to put in writing for fear of reprisals on my family who live in the West Bank (occupied Palestinian territory).
We met Gareth about five years ago and have found him to be a compassionate, intelligent man with a generous heart, who stands strong against injustice, and we applaud and highly respect him for that.
After reading the letter of response dated 6/01/16 from Vic Alhadeff to Gareth’s last letter we can no longer remain quiet.
As a Christian born in Bethlehem I was an altar boy at the Church of Nativity, and lived my childhood in the Shepherds Field town of Beit Sahour.
My cousin is Professor of Palestinian Culture and History at Bethlehem University, and after many years of research has found that my family have lived in that area since before the birth of Christ, and at that time were shepherds. My other cousin is Bishop of the Latin Patriarch, Jerusalem. We are one of the first Christian families to live in Palestine.
The majority of my male cousins have been arrested, imprisoned, tortured, put into exile or shot over the years, and eventually have returned home unable to work or live life as they used to.
Having visited my family there in 2010, 2014 and recently Oct-Dec, 2015 my wife and I have witnessed and experienced the following:
The kindness, softness and respect shown to us and each other by both Christian and Muslims, young and old, who live peacefully together in that area. There is no drunkeness, swearing or aggression, they are all just thankful each day for family and the Grace of God.
We notice the light in their eyes has dimmed and their hope for freedom in their own land fade. Most of the young have never seen Jerusalem or the sea. They are trapped and controlled in every way, both Christian and Muslim.
We have witnessed firsthand the humiliation of the Palestinians who have been granted work permits in Jerusalem, pass through the wretched ‘cattle grid’ crossing under the watchful eyes of armed Israeli soldiers, who, in their arrogance, often yell and shout abuse at the Palestinians as they are kept waiting in long queues for many hours on many occasions. They are literally treated like cattle.
Water is piped by the Israelis from the West Bank into Israel and then sold back to the Palestinians, who are allocated four litres per person per day while the Israelis in Israel and the occupied West Bank are allocated 70 litres per person per day.
In the West Bank the water is only turned on, if lucky, one out of every five days, making it very hard for Palestinians to grow their own vegetables/fruit, and have had to become reliant on fresh produce from Israel.
Palestinians, who are lucky enough to own a car, are issued with green number plates which provide them with limited movement. They cannot enter Israel or any areas where settlements have been established, and there are many which sit high on the hills surrounding Palestinian townships.
It is now too dangerous to travel on allowed roads to Ramallah, the Dead Sea etc as armed settlers aim and shoot at vehicles with green number plates. Israelis have yellow number plates and are free to travel anywhere they choose.
Palestinians are double taxed, obviously they pay taxes to their local authority, but Israel also puts tax on them with no beneficial flow back into Palestine whatsoever. It only benefits the Israelis and settlers.
Cost of living is very high in the West Bank, wages very low and very few have jobs.
Is it any wonder the young people, both Muslim and Christian, are near breaking point?
Trapped behind the wall, humiliated, with no future for them to dream of. All they can see are the settlements growing around them and that wall expanding.
Any peaceful demonstrations by Muslims and Christians combined, in and around Bethlehem, are met with Israeli soldiers firing live bullets and tear gas indiscriminately into the crowds.
Reading the letter from Mr Alhadeff, the only comment we can agree on is the Christian Community in Palestine has dropped to under two per cent. Keep in mind it used to be 30 per cent Christianity.
As for the Israeli goodwill and friendship towards the Christians, and spreading the friendship around the world, one of the many reasons for that being that the Israelis have commandeered the Christian tourist market.
They provide the tour buses which take the tourists into Jerusalem for their shopping of Christian souvenirs and artefacts. Most of the shops in the Jerusalem Souk are now owned by Israelis, the Palestinians only work there.
Israeli tour buses literally whizz through Bethlehem and Shepherds Field Beit Sahour so the tourists can have a quick look at the churches of interest, but the tourists have no need to buy souvenirs from those towns, as they have already shopped in Jerusalem.
Palestinian businesses in Bethlehem Manger Square and Beit Sahour have suffered greatly because of this.
The Israelis are benefitting on the birth of Christ, Christian tourism, Christian Ancient sites and they do not even believe in Jesus.
Anyone who is Jewish or converts to Judaism is welcomed with open arms into Israel and the settlements, sadly that same welcome is not extended to Christians and Muslims.
The new settlers have beautiful homes, lush green gardens on the hillsides, and look down upon the Palestinian towns and villages.
Even as I write this, Israelis have seized a parcel of my family’s land and are currently building on it. I was born in Palestine and my family have lived there for thousands of years.
Still, I and my family living here in Australia have no right of return. No-one else is allowed to live there unless they are Jewish by belief.
Christians all over the world sing the Christmas hymns and carols including ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ – how sad – soon there will be no Christians left there at all.
I welcome the friendship of those of Jewish or Israeli backgrounds, but not at the cost of the lifeblood of my fellow Palestinians. I call on those of Judaic ancestry to stand with me for peace, justice, love and compassion. It is the only way forward.
Bassam and Anne Shomali, Tyagarah