Good Samaritan Sister Veronica Quinn returned from the Holy Land in late 2012 with a new perspective on the region after living and studying in Jerusalem.
Veronica was halfway through a three-month sabbatical at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, when Israel commenced a military offensive on Gaza in retaliation for rockets fired on Israeli cities by Hamas militants. From Tantur, Veronica could hear the air-raid sirens and bombs, and could see the dividing wall, which separates Palestinians, who live mainly in Bethlehem on the West Bank, from the City of Jerusalem.
“It’s very easy for us to think of the Holy Land in some romantic sense. But seeing that wall all the time and hearing sirens, and over the last couple of weeks you could smell the tear gas and hear bullets, [it’s far from romantic],” said Veronica.
Veronica, who has a background in education, completed a course on the cultural, religious and political aspects of life in the Holy Land. She also visited biblical sites including Galilee, the Jordan River, Gethsemane, and Temple Mount, and pictured biblical events happening amid check points or landmines.
“In Bethlehem they have thousands of cribs, but they also have cribs with the wall in them; the idea being that the three kings couldn’t have got to Bethlehem. They wouldn’t have got past the wall, and they wouldn’t have had the permit to get through. I find that incredibly powerful,” said Veronica.
Navigating security checkpoints from the West Bank into Israel could take up to two hours and provided Veronica with a glimpse of the daily experience of Palestinians who work in Jerusalem.
Veronica was moved by the plight of Palestinian people who are increasingly being dispossessed to make way for Israeli settlements, particularly in Hebron where about 500 Israeli settlers live, protected by an even greater number of soldiers.
“Hebron was possibly the most depressing day we have had. It is a large ancient city in the West Bank that has always been a cause of unrest. Over the last 20 years there have been a few small groups of Israeli settlers who have gone and entrenched themselves in the middle of this Palestinian city …,” Veronica explained.
“The Palestinians, on the other hand, are not allowed to build at all, not even alterations or additions, even though their population is increasing. There are roads in Hebron that are totally closed to Palestinians, some of whom have to climb over rooftops to get to their homes because they are not allowed in the street to get to their front door.”
Amidst the conflict, Veronica saw Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace and justice.
She described how a Palestinian Christian family, the Nassar family, has established a “Tent of Nations” on its 100-acre farm as a peaceful response to the Israeli government’s attempts to claim the family’s prime land. Young people across the world are invited to come and work on the farm and build understanding and tolerance.
Veronica spoke about a group of Israeli women who arrive at the checkpoints at 4am, when most Palestinians cross, to act as observers: “… they just sit there to make sure that the people that come through are not being mistreated, so that there’s somebody else watching”.
She also met former Israeli soldiers who have formed an organisation called “Breaking the Silence” to highlight the abuse of Palestinian people within the Occupied Territories.
The recognition of Palestine as a non-member observer state, following the United Nations General Assembly resolution, is a sign that the international community is also starting to acknowledge what has happened and is happening to the Palestinians, Veronica hopes.
Reflecting on her sabbatical, Veronica said that she is much better informed on the region, but fearful of the uncompromising and narrow views of far-right political movements in the Holy Land and worldwide. Veronica said ultra-orthodox Jews whom she encountered showed the same “certainty of being right” of right wing Christians and right wing Muslims.
“I don’t think I expected to be challenged to the extent I was… I think even living there is a challenge – it’s a harsh land,” said Veronica.