A Letter from Doug Dicks, serving in Israel and Palestine
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Dear family and friends,
As a new year begins, it seems as though our future is rooted in our past, as the year starts off not much better than where we were this time last year, with the Omicron variant of the Coronavirus surging all around the world. The prediction for Israel is that, by the end of January, upwards of four million persons may become infected with the Omicron variant, and Israel would – in theory – reach herd immunity. In late December, Israel was already testing a fourth vaccine for those over 60, and on New Year’s Eve, began administering the fourth dose for those with compromised immune systems.
In the Palestinian Territories, complacency coupled with fatigue seems to be dominating daily life, as fewer people have been observed wearing face coverings. Accurate statistics are hard to come by, but most agree that the surge in infections is every bit as worrying here as it is inside Israel.
I arrived back in the country on November 28, 2021, following my first trip home to the U.S. in almost two years, and just before Israel clamped down yet again and closed its airport to foreign travelers.
Christmas in Bethlehem was a muted affair, yet the traditional festivities went on as usual. However, there was little comfort and joy with the lack of foreign tourists – and tourist dollars to provide a much-needed income to the local Palestinian shopkeepers and businesses. Nonetheless, the local Palestinian population came out to enjoy Christmas Eve on Manger Square, complete with various scout troops parading through the streets and drumming and piping their instruments to such tunes as “Jingle Bells” and “Angels We Have Heard on High,” to name just a few.
A light drizzle didn’t dampen the mood of those that turned out to watch the scouts and to await the arrival of the Latin Patriarch, Pierre Battista Pizzaballa, to Manger Square, heralding the start of the Christmas Season.
If it were not for the Palestinian Arab Christians, who are citizens of Israel and who came to the city from the Galilee region, there would have been no visitors at all to the town of Christ’s birth. They, at least, provided some much-needed income to the stricken Bethlehem economy, filling what few restaurants and cafes there are around the square.
In late December, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz. It was the first such meeting between the two parties in almost 10 years. Topics discussed included “the tense conditions on the ground due to the practices of Israeli settlers,” as well as security, economic and humanitarian issues.
Following the talks, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, known for his hawkish stance, emphasized that there was no peace process underway with the Palestinians, “and there won’t be one.”
As if to add fuel to the fire, the Israeli Prime Minister also stated in late December that Israel intended to double the number of residents on the Golan Heights – land captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War – within the next five years. Currently, approximately 25,000 Israeli settlers live in the Golan Heights, along with another 23,000 Druze, who remained on the land after Israel seized it.
Donald Trump, the former U.S. president, had previously recognized Israel’s sovereignty over this disputed territory. In 2019, and in return for this gesture of recognition, the former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also known for his hawkish stance, named a new Israeli settlement on the Golan Heights “Trump Heights.”
When I searched for this settlement late last summer, I was finally able to locate it on the western side of the Golan Heights, overlooking the Hula Valley in northern Israel. It was not where I was expecting to find it, as I had assumed it would be more prominent and further up on the Golan. It appeared to me to be not much more than a sign, though there were buildings that exist as part of what has been described as the “aging hamlet” known as Bruchim. That the Biden Administration has done nothing to reverse U.S. recognition of Israel’s annexation of land acquired in war is disconcerting, to say the least.
Beginning in January, all mission personnel serving with the Presbyterian Church (USA) will be supported by one general fund. Further details can be found at the bottom of this newsletter.
As always, thank you for your prayers, your correspondence and your financial support, all of which make my presence here possible.
Happy New Year!
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