Bethlehem is my home, the place where I was born, the place where I bring up my son. I’m 31 years old and am one of around 200,000 Palestinians who live in this city in the West Bank.
I remember growing up here as a girl, traveling wherever we wanted with my parents. We went to Jerusalem, to the Holy Sepulcher church, which is a special place for us Christians. We swam in the sea at Tel Aviv, and it felt good.
But things got hard with the Intifada War, and it wasn’t safe. There were curfews and bombs and it wasn’t safe to leave your homes. Then they built the wall and now you have to get permission to go into Israel. It’s not easy.
My sister lives in Jerusalem with her family, and I have to apply to get a permit to see her, so I can only go one or two times a year. It’s humiliating the way you are treated at checkpoints. It’s hard to explain.
You know I’ve been living with this all my life and I don’t want my son to live the same way, too. I had never met an Israeli before, to talk to. I had seen them as soldiers, carrying their guns. But then nine years ago, I was invited to go on a young adults’ trip with Musalaha to Norway with a group of Israelis.
At the beginning, we were like teenagers, playing cards in the middle of the night. We became good friends. But then the serious stuff started and it was hard.
I will never forget this one exercise they made us do where we had to imagine we were Israelis and had to defend why we deserve the land. It was hard for us. But it made me understand their view.
When one Israeli girl spoke I felt offended but I didn’t want to jump to conclusions so I gave her a chance and told her what life was like for us, how we’re treated at the checkpoints and how life is restricted for us.
She said, “Do you know what it’s like to carry a gun and how terrifying it is for us soldiers?” It was so touching to hear that.
Musalaha gives me the opportunity to know what is inside of the Israelis’ minds, what they are thinking. I see that they are good people and that they love God. We are not the only ones that have a hard time; we just don’t know about their lives and they don’t know about ours. We have to accept each other.
I have learned so much about God in meeting them. When I first went away with Musalaha, I had so much hate inside me. I didn’t go to church. I was so angry and sad, and in the meetings they were talking about forgiveness. They were talking to me inside.
We were rowing on a lake in Norway; it was like heaven on earth. You could hear your own breath. And then I heard from God. I cannot describe it. I felt so much love. I had this big hate inside of me, and it all vanished. I haven’t known hate since this moment. I will never hate anyone now.
People don’t usually understand why I choose to meet with the other side. They say, “Why do you go? You are dealing with the enemy. They are killing us.” But they are missing the point. We have to learn from each other.
If it wasn’t for Musalaha, I would never have the chance to meet Israelis and even become friends with them. I still go to their meetings and we talk about reconciliation and how to accept each other, no matter who we are and where we come from. It is important to be open-minded.
I do hope for a peaceful solution. I know reconciliation is a process and that it takes time. But I want more of it. If you don’t have hope, you will never live. And I believe in the power of one. I know I am not the president, but I can do something little.
We have to do something. We can’t just watch.
*Leila’s name has been changed for confidentiality reasons.