Thursday, November 5, 2009

A view over East Jerusalem

Mark Brown stood at the top of the hill behind Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem and looked beyond the grove of olive trees to the place where the Lutheran World Federation hopes to build 84 housing units for Palestinian Christian families.

Brown is the regional representative for Lutheran World Federation in Jerusalem. He has been involved in issues of the Middle East most of his adult life. Agusta Victoria Hospital is in a historic building that sits atop the Mount of Olives.
The Mount of Olives Housing Project illustrates the complexity of life in this fractured city.

"We are at a point where in a few years, there may not be a Palestinian Christian community in Jerusalem," Brown said.

He laid out the numbers. In 1946 in Jerusalem, there were 31,000 Christians, 35,000 Muslims and 98,000 Jews. Today, there are only 10,000 Christians compared to 220,000 Muslims and 450,000 Jews in the city.

One of the things that has diminished the Palestinian Christian population here is the difficulty of sustaining family ties. With the intricate and oppressive system that Israelis now have in place of security barriers and check points, travel between East Jerusalem and the West Bank, where Bethlehem sits only a few miles away, is extraordinarily difficult. So Brown says that one big political issue is that of family reunification.

The wall that separates East Jerusalem and the West Bank is very visible from this hill behind the hospital. Later, our driver, George, who grew up in East Jerusalem, took us down tho Jericho Street, where the wall cuts across what used to be the main street in that part of the city.

"You used to be able to go from this point in Jerusalem to Bethany in two minutes," George said. "Now it takes 40 minutes" to go around the wall and through a checkpoint.

The travel restrictions and their impact on family reunification is only one of the complexities facing the housing project. Another is getting the permission of the Israeli government to build it.

One piece of the puzzle is a law that allows Israel to take the equivalent of 40 percent of a property owner's land in exchange for housing. That means land on some other part of the hospital grounds will have to be given to Israel.

But there is a more subtle issue as well. There is a sense among the Arabs living in East Jerusalem that Israel is doing everything it can to push them out. The road restrictions that make travel difficult nudge families to move to the West Bank where they can be together. College students who go away may have their permits to be in Jerusalem torn up on their return. Bulldozers come in and level houses if the government is displeased with something.

The housing demolitions -- we saw one right across the street from the spot where Jesus is said to have begun the Palm Sunday procession into Jerusalem -- create a fear factor, Brown said.: "They create such anxiety that people want to leave."

And then there are the Israeli settlers moving into East Jerusalem, a traditionally Arab part of the city that belonged to Jordan before Israel claimed it in the 1967 war.

Brown said one element in the settlement efforts seems to be a desire by Israel to break up traditional Arab neighborhoods so that if there is ever a peace agreement that includes the status of Jerusalem, Israel will be able to keep the Palestinians from claiming that these are intact Arab neighborhoods.

The housing project is just the latest in a long commitment from the Lutheran church to serving the people of East Jerusalem.

Augusta Victoria Hospital was set up after the creation of Israel in 1948 to serve the population of Arab refugees displaced by the formation of that nation. Over the years, it has developed specialties like cancer treatment (it is the only major cancer center for residents of the West Bank and Gaza), diabetes, geriatrics and others. It treats Muslims as well as Christians.

As in so many areas, the disparities in health care for Jewish residents of Jerusalem and the Palestinians served by August Victoria are stark. Patients at the hospitals in West Jerusalem - the Jewish part of the city --- have an 80 percent chance of surviving cancer, Brown said. But at Augusta Victoria, 80 percent of the patients receive palliative care -- helping that have a less painful death -- because their cancers are too far advanced to successfully overcome.

Brown is struggling to create hope for the future for the Palestinians living in the shadow of the Israeli occupation. In health care, in the vision for new housing, in advocacy on human rights issues, in work with a coalition of church groups lobbying the U.S. government, he is a gentle but strong voice of hope in a place where hope often seems to be in short supply.

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