PEC Board Member Recalls Middle East Visit

PEC Board Member Recalls Middle East Visit

By Jim Detjen

In May 2018, PEC board member Jim Detjen and his wife, Connie, visited Palestine and Israel to learn more about the Palestinian-Israeli crisis and to learn about Biblical history in the region. They participated with a tour group that was organized by a Disciples of Christ pastor who had a reputation for fairness. They learned a great deal on this trip but were shocked by how most Palestinians were treated by Israeli officials. They also realized how one sided most media coverage in the United States is. There is a strong bias favoring the Israeli government and the Palestinian viewpoint is rarely heard.

Our bus approached a checkpoint on our way to the Sea of Galilee. Everyone stopped talking when two Israeli soldiers entered the bus and asked to see our passports. The young men, clad in olive green uniforms and bulletproof vests, methodically examined each of our IDs. Each man was about 20 years old and carried an AK-47 assault rifle.

When finished, the soldiers exited and passengers began talking again. We were on our way to see where Jesus, the Prince of Peace, had preached “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.” We were less than 10 miles from the Golan Heights where gun fire punctuated the night-time air. Military vehicles were parked along the sides of the roads.

What the soldiers didn’t know was that in the back of the bus, covered with blankets, was our guide’s Palestinian wife. A devout Christian, she had wanted her entire life to see where Jesus performed his miracles. But under Israeli law she was prohibited from going there because she was Palestinian.

It was May 2018 and Connie and I were touring the Holy Land on a visit to Israel and Palestine. We were part of a 14-day “In the Footsteps of Jesus: An Alternative Tour” to see where Jesus was born and baptized, preached, and then crucified. Eighteen Americans and Canadians were part of this pilgrimage organized by a retired Disciples of Christ pastor.

It was a thrill to visit the Holyland which I first learned about in the 1950s in my Sunday School class in upstate New York. Among the Biblical sites we visited was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where experts say Mary gave birth to Jesus. And in Jerusalem we crowded into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to see where Jesus was tried and crucified.

 But we also learned a great deal about the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. I was saddened — and sometimes shocked — at the militarization of Israel and the way many Palestinians are mistreated. Everywhere we encountered heavily-armed soldiers, roadblocks, checkpoints, and walls. There was a palpable feeling of tension during much of our pilgrimage.

Israel is a small country, just 300 miles long and 85 miles wide — about the same size as New Jersey. But it has been racked by deadly violence since it became a nation in 1948.

We witnessed numerous places where Palestinians, who make up about one fifth of Israel’s population, were harassed and discriminated against. The United Nations says that Israel ‘s policies are similar to the Apartheid practices in South Africa from 1948 to the early 1990s.


We wanted to experience first-hand what it’s like for Palestinians to pass through security checkpoints, which are found throughout Israel. Each day thousands of Palestinians enter Jerusalem to go to work. One morning before dawn six of us took a taxi from our hotel in Bethlehem to checkpoint 300 on the Jerusalem border. This is one of 13 militarized gateways Palestinians must pass through to enter the city. We joined a large crowd of people who squeezed into a cement lane surrounded by wire fences. As we slowly jostled our way through a long, dark passageway I felt like a rat in a maze. Some people climbed over fences to move ahead in the line. Others shouted or banged on the steel bars. It was chaotic and sometimes frightening. Finally, I passed through a metal detector and showed my passport to a soldier. As an American, I was quickly waived through. But many Palestinians were questioned at length and some were refused entry. The entire process took 25 minutes; on some days it can take three hours. Israel says these checkpoints are necessary to keep out terrorists. Palestinians say it’s dehumanizing and that the lack of air in the passageway causes some people to pass out. 

On another day we rode a bus to Hebron, a city 25 miles south of Jerusalem, which is holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews. It is here where Abraham, the patriarch of all three religions, was buried 4,000 years ago. It’s a tense city with a long history of violence. In 1929 Arabs killed 67 Jews. In 1994 27 Muslim worshippers were gunned down by a Jewish settler.

The city is surrounded by hundreds of illegal Jewish settlements where Israelis have built homes. Wealthy Jewish people from around the world have moved into these structures even though the U.N. says this is illegal. An estimated one million Russians have settled in Israel and some street signs in Hebron are in both Hebrew and Russian. 

We walked through a sparsely populated Muslim market in the old section of the city.  Palestinian merchants have erected barriers above and around the market to protect them from urine, acid and trash thrown at them by settlers. “This market used to be full of people,” said Jamal Marada, a Palestinian merchant. “The Israeli soldiers let settlers harass us. We live in a prison now.”

I am horrified and greatly saddened by the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, which killed more than 1,200 innocent Israeli citizens and kidnapped at least 200. The Israeli military retaliated with missiles fired on the Gaza Strip which so far have killed at least 24,000 Palestinians. More than 10,000 of the Palestinians killed have been children.

It’s important to understand that only a tiny fraction of Palestinians belong to Hamas, a radical militant group which controls the Gaza Strip.  The U.S. National Counterterrorism Center estimates that Hamas has about 25,000 members. This is less than one hundredth of one percent of the 4.7 million Palestinians who live in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Will peace ever come to Israel and Palestine?

Shiri Ourian, executive director of an Israeli-Palestine nonprofit of 700 families who have lost a loved one in the conflict, said, “The sad and profound truth is there is no military solution to this conflict. We must show love for each other and our commitment to a better future with freedom and dignity for all.”


Connie and I met Tariq Thabet two years ago when he was studying business at Michigan State University. We invited the young Palestinian scholar to dinner because we wanted to learn more about the Gaza Strip, the embattled and impoverished area where he and his family lived. 

We had visited Israel and the West Bank in 2018 and had many questions about Gaza. Because of Israeli regulations we were not permitted to tour Gaza, a strip of land on the east bank of the Mediterranean Sea about 60 miles west of Jerusalem. 

We were immediately charmed by Tariq. He was a Humphrey fellow, which is part of the Fulbright scholarship program. I had been a Fulbright Scholar in China in 2002 and 2012 and we enjoyed discussing our mutual experiences.

I was impressed by Tariq’s smile and upbeat attitude. He wore glasses, had short-cropped dark hair and was clean cut and handsome. He planned to bring back home to Gaza the business skills he acquired at MSU. He planned to help launch new businesses in a region where two-thirds of the 2.3 million people are jobless.

“Do you really think that’s possible in Gaza?” I asked. “You have little access to money.”

“Oh, yes. You don’t understand the resilience of the Palestinian people,” he said. “We have endured hardships for many, many decades. We have never given up hope.”

Tariq returned to Gaza to be with his wife and four children in the summer of 2022. He worked hard to accomplish his goals and was happy to be back home again with his wife, their four children, his parents and other family members.

I lost touch with Tariq and didn’t hear anything more until last week. That’s when Thasin Sardar, a fellow board member of the Peace Education Center, said, “An Israeli missile destroyed the house where he and his family were staying. It happened on Oct. 29 — just a week ago.

“Tariq, his wife, their four children and his parents were killed when a missile struck the house where they were staying.  Sixteen members of his family died,” he said. “They’d left their home and moved to a place south where officials said they would be safe.”

Tariq was one of the young, educated Palestinians who set out to improve the lives of other Gazans. He was an upbeat peace keeper who was determined to make a difference. 

During our trip to Israel and Palestine five years ago, our tour group met with both Palestinians and Israelis who were working to bring about peace in the region. And like Tariq, they had to overcome obstacles to achieve their goals.


Father Elias Chacour, who established a school in Ibillin in northern Israel where 2,750 children who are Christians, Muslims and other faiths study together.  The Israeli government initially refused to give Chacour a permit to open the school. Chacour then flew to Washington, D.C., and showed up unannounced at the home of George W. Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker.

“I am another man from Galilee,” Chacour said to Baker’s wife Susan. “We don’t make appointments. We make appearances.” The Bakers were so impressed with Chacour’s passion and unconventional approach that James Baker told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that the United States would not give Israel foreign aid that year unless Israel gave Chacour’s school a permit. 

Rabin relented and Chacour got the permission he needed.  Chacour opened the school, which now educates children of many faiths. The school teaches nonviolence and mutual understanding. We visited the school and watched as the young people sang, “We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome someday….”

In Nahalin, a community southwest of Bethlehem, we visited the Tent of Nations, an educational and ecological center run by Daould Nassar, a Palestinian Christian whose family has owned the property since 1916. The center teaches peace building and nonviolent resistance techniques pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The center is surrounded by Israeli settlements and in 2014 the Israeli Defense Force bulldozed the road leading up to the center and shut off its electricity and water. Nassar and his family then installed solar panels to provide electricity and used rain barrels to capture water for the center. 

We had to hike in a distance because their entrance road had been destroyed. We planted 12 zucchini seedlings in their organic farm and donated money to help them plant trees. The motto of the center is “We refuse to be enemies.”’

A third organization that is trying to achieve peace is the Parents’ Circle, which brings together victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We met with Rami Elhanon, an Israeli whose daughter was killed by suicide bombers, and Arab Aramin, whose sister was killed by an Israeli soldier. “We have all suffered terrible losses,” said Rami. “The only way we can heal is by sharing our pain and working to understand each other.”

I thought of these groups recently when Connie and I joined 150 others at a vigil on the MSU campus. We gathered in darkness at the Rock, a MSU symbol and gathering place overlooking the Red Cedar River.

Painted on the Rock in green, red and white letters were the words “Tariq Thabet 1985 – 2023,  10,000 + Since Oct. 7th,” signifying the 10,000 Palestinians who have died in Gaza since the Hamas attack killed 1,200 Israelis. As of January 2024, more than 10,000 of the 24,000 Gazans killed have been children.

“We can honor the legacy of Tariq’s life by calling our congressmen and senators and ask them to demand an immediate ceasefire,” said Sardar. “We need to end this killing right now. Let’s honor Tariq’s life by ending the cycle of violence. Let’s call our lawmakers and demand a ceasefire right now.”

Jim Detjen is an at-large board member of the Lansing Area Peace Education Center. He also serves as the organization’s secretary.

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