2003 Palestine Journal



On Feb. 18, 2003 I left with my Dad from Chicago Illinois for Tel Aviv Israel and Bethlehem in the West Bank on a trip that would eventually lead us to Kakinada India. The purpose of our trip in Israel was to visit with Christians engaged in peace efforts and offer them all the support we could. This is the first installment of a multi-entry journal of this trip to Israel and India. More is coming!

-CR 3/18/2003

A Visit to Bethlehem and Beit Sahour by Chris Rice

Meeting Samer Kokaly was difficult for me at first. After crossing the border from Israel into Bethlehem on a very cold, wet afternoon for which the three of us were severely under-dressed, we were relieved to enter a building of any kind to get out of the weather. My sister, dad, Nanci our guide in Jerusalem and Samer all crowded into a 9’x9′ room and the list of atrocities began. Dad pulled out the video camera and just rolled with the questions. Jennifer, my sister and I, just sat there and chattered our teeth. Still no real heat in this building.

Samer wanted to brief us on the political situation immediately. I found out later that the ATG hadn’t seen a tour group since November and so was eager to share his story. Unlike Abuna Chacour he just shot from the hip as soon as the camera started rolling. My two years of study all started coming back to me and frankly all I could feel was beleaguered and depressed. Samer’s friend in the next room made Arabic coffee. That warmed me up a bit but my feet were still wet from walking through that six inch puddle at the border. During a lull in dad’s questioning I piped up to ask “Do you have a heater here or something I can lay my socks on?” At that point Samer jumped up and said, “Oh yeh, let me take you to my house.” Finally, maybe I’ll get to know this guy.

Samer lives with his wife and three girls, aged seven, six, and fourteen months in the lower level of a large cement square house that was recently built for his entire family-mom, dad, and others. As we walked down the steps we were greeted by his wife and girls in the living room. It’s a nice sparse apartment and though we didn’t see into the back I knew it wasn’t huge. Maybe two or three bedrooms. We sat on the two couches and watched his little girls wrestle and play on a rocking horse. I got out my digital camera and started taking pictures. Samer started opening up, I hope because we made him feel comfortable with us.

He started sharing about his family and the effects of the Israeli occupation: the curfews, the bullet through the window we faced from the couch. Snap, more pictures. There’s a hole in the screen window and a larger hole

across the room where the tracer bullet lodged in the wall. “Why didn’t you take it out?” we asked. “Because I’d have had to tear up the wall. Better to just leave it there.” Besides he had a collection of bullets already. Camera ready, more pictures. He held the shell left from an Apache helicopter attack. I asked wryly “Does it say ‘Made In the USA’?” Samer smiled. We were going to get along fine.

“I’m actually packing my family up for the US.” He admitted. He called yesterday and began the immigration process. He’d just told his wife. They can’t take it anymore. For their middle daughters sake but also for their sanity they have to leave. How can I blame them? If it were me with my family would I stay?

Not a chance. Its ironic. We had just come from a meeting with Abuna Chacour up in Ibillin Galilee where we discussed Christians leaving the Holy Land like it was an epidemic flood that had to be ebbed, even stopped. Up in Galilee its so easy to talk of staying. Samer has never been to Galilee, only an hour and a half away. Daily life for him is a completely different reality. Sitting next to that bullet hole put a totally different spin on immigration. Especially his little girls playing there before us.

“Do you really want to leave?” “No. This place is my whole life. My family lives here. A very large family. I don’t want to leave them. I’ve lived in other places-France, Greece, the US, for months at a time. No place in the world is like Beit Sahour and Bethlehem. I always take with me in my mind the houses the streets the neighborhood.”
“What if you could transplant all of that, even the Olive trees and rocks, to Southern California?” I couldn’t believe I was creating such a bizarre scenario, but I was trying to pick his brain for what it really meant to belong to the land.

“No, it still wouldn’t be the same. We’ve lived here for centuries.”
You can’t separate family from land. It just can’t be done.
I explained to him that I didn’t think people in America could relate to such an identification with the land. I’ve lived in different places all my life. Who cares whether its an apartment or a house, in Chicago, Missouri or Los Angeles? Most Americans over their life span usually move two or three times anyway.
But then again we’re not moving because tanks and bunkers are in the neighborhood. We’re not moving because a settlement named Gilo stands on the highest hill with Israeli only roads going in and out saying “Its only a matter of time ’til your homes are mine.” We wouldn’t be moving because our six year old daughter sleeps under her bed afraid of soldier’s tracer bullets.

Upon reentering the US through Newark another suicide bomber exploded a bus in Haifa. This often results in tightened closures in the West Bank. Samer says regarding the situation right now, “Regarding the situation [after the bombing], now we have no curfew, but we are under a very strict siege (Closure), and there are a lot of soldiers in the streets. People [here] are afraid of the coming war, we are sure that we will have a very hard curfew, and we are sure that the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) will make more attacks here as all Media will be focusing on IRAQ, so people are storing food. For two weeks we have not had gas for heat and cooking. This is really hard, not everybody has an alternative like a microwave or electrical cookers. Also we expect that the Israelis will cut the Electricity at any time.”

Please pray for Samer Kokaly and his family. Pray for justice. Their plan is to move to the United States until the IDF siege and curfews in Bethlehem are ended. Pray that that time comes soon. Six year old Christine Kokaly is suffering psychologically and is just a nervous wreck right now. Pray for peace in her heart and mind. I am so honored to know this Christian family in Bethlehem. I only hope to see them again under better circumstances.



Filed under Israel/Palestine, Personal

2 responses to “2003 Palestine Journal

  1. You’ve done it again. Incredible article!

  2. Khali

    Thanks, for posting this article, I stayed with Samer when I was in the West Bank in 2007. Brought back some good memories!

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