Hello. My name is Gary Storm. I am a resident of Urbana who has just returned from a 10-day trip to Palestine (the West Bank) and Israel where I had a chance to observe first-hand the state of relations between these two Middle Eastern populations. The trip was arranged for 17 of us by John Setterlund, a retired campus minister from Urbana who recently spent two years volunteering at a Lutheran complex located in Beit Jolla, a small community adjacent to Bethlehem and Jerusalem in Palestine. The complex includes a church, a boys boarding home serving a 50-50 mix of Christian and Muslim children, and a guest house serving a variety of international visitors. Both Beit Jolla and Bethlehem are separated from nearby Jerusalem by a 40-foot high concrete wall that includes checkpoints operated by armed guards with automatic rifles. Similar check points have been established throughout the West Bank to limit the movement of Palestinians in the region.
Our visit gave us a chance to meet many Palestinian citizens in a person, face-to face, and to communicate with them openly about their situations. Among the individuals we met were management and staff of the guest house and boys home; parents of the children involved; the Arab Pasteur of the church and his wife from Germany who runs its music program; the owner of a small coffee shop; faculty, staff and students from two nearby universities; and numerous people on the street. We were warmly received by all and encouraged to share our experiences in Palestine once we returned home.
These experiences confirmed the many horror stories about the treatment of Palestinians most of us had heard about before arriving: Israeli arrest and incarceration of Palestinian students and others with no need for justification, Israeli confiscation of Palestinian homes and other property, the establishment of Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank, blocked access to farms and businesses owned by Palestinians, long delays at checkpoints that interfered with or prevented everything from employment to medical appointments to tourism.
John Setterlund and many of us involved in the trip are speaking at a public forum at the Champaign Library next Tuesday night, December 1. We have entitled the event, Bethlehem Today. As the holiday season begins, please take a little time out to come hear what we have to say and to ask questions. We hope the evening will raise awareness in ways that can lead to greater peace in the region.