By Claus Grue*
With olive harvest season coming to an end, life under occupation returns to “normal” for Palestinian communities on the West Bank. Under that “normal,” which means forced displacements and constant fear of threats and harassments, now also looms a threatening Israeli annexation of large chunks of fertile land owned by Palestinian farmers – a move which would “undermine peace and justice and be in direct violation of international law,” according to a joint ecumenical statement by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and other ecumenical organizations earlier this year.
“This land has been cultivated by Palestinians for centuries. The olive tree has always played an important role, not only for the crop it yields and the livelihood of farmers, but also as a symbol of hope and resilience,” explains Rev. Dr Mitri Raheb, church leader, social entrepreneur and president of Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem.
A long-time advocate and pursuer of what he calls “creative resistance” Raheb is a driving force behind several Christian networks and movements, aimed at empowering all parts of civil society in Palestine and raising global awareness of the struggles and injustices Palestinians have to endure.
“Replacing uprooted olive trees with new ones in the occupied territories is one example of peaceful action which demonstrates that we will never give up our hope to live in decency. There are 6,5 million Palestinians in this land, equalling the number of Israelis. We are here to stay,” Raheb says.
Real hope entails creative action
To him, hope is always contingent on concrete actions to bring about aspired changes, and he urges each person and each group of people to actively promote change within their space and authority.
“God said and did what needed to be said and done 2000 years ago, while Jesus taught us that it is the peacemakers who are blessed, not the peacetalkers. Now it is up to us to be the peacemakers and initiate change. Each one of us is called to do something, we cannot sit and wait for God or Joe Biden to change things. Instead of just managing the conflict under occupation, we must think outside the box and find creative ways towards real changes on the ground for the Palestinian people,” Raheb explains, while also underscoring that war is never a creative option.
Time and time again, he emphasizes the interrelationship between hope and action, where the latter emanates from the first.
“Being hopeful is fine as long as it leads to some kind of action, in spite of all the challenges and adversities we are facing. Otherwise, we’ll only sustain false hopes,” he continues.
Driven by faith, hope and hopelessness
Having lived under occupation since he was five years old, Raheb has been a champion of freedom, justice and peace for the Palestinian people all his life. After graduating and earning a PhD in theology at the University of Marburg, Germany, in 1988, he returned to his hometown Bethlehem to serve as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church. From there, his endless journey of transforming hope into creative action commenced.
Three decades later, Raheb’s tireless efforts have resulted in a number of well-respected non-governmental organizations and social initiatives designed to empower Palestinians and meet a variety of urgent needs in their communities, especially in higher education, and arts through Dar al-Kalima University. He has also long been a household name in ecumenical circles around the globe, widely admired for his energy and persistence.
Such accomplishments have been driven by faith and hope, albeit at times also by a bit of hopelessness, which he regards as a driver itself of renewed strength and resilience. “Sometimes, losing hope is important, because it reminds us of the meaning of real action-oriented hope, rather than cheap, passive hope,” he says.
Not a religious conflict
Despite continuously bleak outlooks for the Palestinians, his own hope has not eluded him and he regards it as the best ingredient in the fight for justice and peace. Although, that doesn’t mean that he is optimistic about the future.
“We must distinguish between hope and optimism. Hope is a long-term investment which has nothing to do with optimism. How can we be optimistic when we are facing such a powerful empire?” he asks.
As a devoted Christian, Raheb sees the Holy Bible as a tool for liberation, not a textbook for occupation and settler colonialism, as he sees it being used today: “This is not a religious conflict, it is a conflict between equality, liberty and justice for all, versus white and Israeli supremacy. What we are witnessing is the Bible being weaponized for political ends. That is not how we read the Bible.”
His future hopes for creative change are to a large extent laid on the young Palestinians, who he believes are well equipped in terms of education and much more aware than their parents.
“Just like the olive trees, we have resisted and survived all kinds of adversities. We now see a new generation of creative leaders emerging in Palestine, getting ready to transform hope into concrete change. That is indeed hopeful,” Raheb concludes.
*Claus Grue is a communication consultant for the World Council of Churches.