When denominational leaders and peace activists from mainline churches return from fact-finding missions to the Middle East, their pronouncements about the suffering of the people in the region and the underlying causes of the Arab-Israeli conflict are accorded great credibility by church members who have never been to the Middle East.
Sadly, in some instances, church leaders and peace activists broadcast misinformation (which almost invariably cuts against Israel) about the conflict to their denominations upon their return from the region.
One particularly egregious example of this phenomenon is Rev. Margaret Paynes March 19, 2009 appearance on Interfaith Voices, an independent radio show broadcast on 62 stations throughout the U.S. and Canada. During her appearance on the show, hosted by Maureen Fiedler, Bishop Payne made three factual misstatements.
First, she asserted that Augusta Victoria Hospital, a facility owned by the Lutheran World Federation (of which ELCA is a part), is the only hospital in the country that provides cancer treatment to Palestinians. In fact, Israeli hospitals have routinely provided all sorts of medical care, including cancer treatment, to Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Second, she asserted that Israels security barrier completely surrounds the city of Bethlehem. Numerous maps of the barrier reveal that it is located only to the north and west of the city.
Thirdly, Bishop Payne reported that as a result of the security barrier, tourists do not have a chance to shop and support the economy. In fact, 2008 was a record year for tourism in Bethlehem.
Given her inability to master these basic facts on the ground, it should come as no surprise that Bishop Payne asserts the end of the occupation is the answer to everything even though Israel has been attacked from nearly every bit of territory from which it has withdrawn since the 1990s.
Bishop Payne appeared on Interfaith Voices to describe what she saw as part of a delegation of ELCA Bishops which visited Israel, the West Bank and Jordan on a 10-day theological study retreat that took place in January 2009. When Fiedler asked what the purpose of the trip was, Bishop Payne responded:
We have a long-standing relationship with the Palestinian Lutheran Church. Thats has been going on for many years and this trip, which was in the planning for two years was really a strong commitment to walk with the Christians in Palestine, to accompany them and learn about their lives there and also to become more aware of what we call the facts on the ground the reality of life for the Palestinians and for everyone in the Middle East that is not very often well communicated here and then when we return to advocate for peace and justice in ways that we feel are important.
Augusta Victoria Hospital
When Fiedler asked what Bishop Payne learned about day to day life in the region, Bishop Payne said daily life is getting worse for the Palestinians as a result of the security barrier Israel constructed to stop terror attacks from the West Bank.
The building of the wall, the separation barrier limits their movement and just provides daily harassment and humiliation and in fact cuts them off from their work, and their family, and even medical care. Things are getting more and more restricted for them and each time we go and especially on this trip we were able to witness a lot of examples of that kind of restriction and all of the pain it is causing.
When pressed for an example, Bishop Payne continued:
I think maybe the most outstanding example for us has to do with
we visited the August Victoria Hospital which is a hospital of the Lutheran World Federation. Its on the Mount of Olives. In fact its the only hospital in the country that provides cancer care and dialysis for Palestinians, but there are check points between the hospital and the patients and the doctors.
Bishop Paynes assertion that Augusta Victoria Hospital is the only hospital in the country that provides cancer care to Palestinians indicates that Israeli hospitals do not treat Palestinians suffering from cancer.
Numerous reports demonstrate that is not the case.
Haddasah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem is well known for providing treatment to Palestinians from the West Bank and Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer treats patients from Gaza.
A recent decision by Palestinian leaders to stop paying for medical treatment in Israeli hospitals has caused an interruption in this treatment for many Palestinians, but the fact remains, Israeli hospitals have been a regular and significant source of medical care, including cancer treatment, for Palestinians whose leaders have declared either their intent to destroy Israel (Hamas), or who have refused to acknowledge Israels legitimacy as a Jewish state (Fatah).
A Feb. 16 2009 article published by The Jerusalem Post reported that:
The Palestinian Authority has minimized the number of sick Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza that it sends for treatment in Israeli medical centers at its expense, according to the Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem and the Civil Administration, which facilitates such transfers.
According to the report, the article, the PAs leadership in Ramallah made the decision to stop giving money for the treatment of Palestinians in Israeli hospitals. The report continues by quoting Dr. Michael Weintraub, head of pediatric hematology, oncology and bone marrow transplants at Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem:
"We have 57 such children with cancer, blood diseases and those needing bone marrow transplants. The PA knows who they are. Hadassah management never received any warning in advance. The families come to us desperately and beg us to treat them free or ask to pay small amounts out of their own pockets.
"We have given such life-and-death treatments free or solicited contributions in Israel during the last few days, as they would die within days without receiving care. But these are very expensive therapies, and we can't continue to offer them free."
Weintraub stated that if the PA had contacted Hadassah three months ago and asked for medical documents regarding what treatment was given and what needed to be done in West Bank facilities, he would have provided them.
"But the PA knows that it can't stop cancer treatment suddenly, as there is the risk of immediate relapse and death."
Dr. Ron Pundak, director-general of the Peres Center for Peace, told the Post that the PA has sent ill Palestinians mostly to Hadassah, Sheba and the Schneider Children's Medical Center in Petah Tikva.
The Peres center has an independent project that refers sick 1,000 Palestinian children to Israeli hospitals for surgery and consultations each year. If the diagnosis is cancer, it pays half the cost, while the PA has covered the rest.
The Peres center also annually subsidizes the training of some 40 Palestinian physicians in Israeli hospitals so they can learn Israel's superior techniques and take them back to Palestinian hospitals, Pundak said.
"It would be a tragedy if the PA does not continue to send to Israel those ill patients who cannot get treatment there," Pundak said.
In the same article, (Fewer Patients being transferred to Israeli Hospitals), the Jerusalem Post stated that PAs Health Minister Dr. Fathi Abu Moghli indicated that the reduction in referrals to Israel hospitals was part of an attempt to build up medical skills inside the West Bank and Gaza.
The PA also decided not to send Palestinians who were wounded during the fighting in the Gaza Strip partly in anger over the war in Gaza. The article also reports that Abu Moghli confirmed that Palestinians wounded in the war were indeed not being sent to Israeli hospitals, but he added that those with diseases who need care and consultations not otherwise available in the region would continue to be referred here [Israel]. Abu Moghli told the paper As for the sick, we have a high-level medical professional committee to decide who needs to go to hospitals for care we cannot provide. This indicates that Israeli medical care is still available to the Palestinians and that it Palestinian leaders who decide when it will be used.
The article also reports that:
Peter Lerner, the Civil Administrations coordinator of government activities in the territories, said that last year, a total of 28,000 Palestinians from the West Bank were treated in Israeli medical facilities and 90,000 went to east Jerusalem hospitals, but that he could not say how many were paid for by the PNA and how many paid privately.
On March 18, 2009, the Associated Press reported on the death of a 6-year-old girl who was in her eighth month of treatment for tuberculosis when the PA stopped covering for her care at Hadassah Hospital. The article reads in part:
For years, Palestinians and patients from the wider Arab world have regularly been referred to hospitals across Israel for diseases their own hospitals could not treat. Israel boats an advanced medical system, and promotes is treatment of Palestinians and employment of Arab doctors as a small beacon of co-existence amid the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The AP also reported that Hadassah official had treated some special cases at no cost, but cannot afford to give sweeping free medical services.
This is not the first time Augusta Victoria Hospital has been described as the only source of medical care for Palestinians. On June 1, 2008, the Canadian Lutheran World Relief agency falsely described Augusta Victoria Hospital as the only institution offering specialized medical services like cancer treatment and dialysis to Palestinians. The Presbyterian Record repeated this same statement on June 1, 2008.
In addition to providing medical care, including cancer treatment, to Palestinians, Israeli health officials have played a substantial role in the effort to improve the quality of medical care in Palestinian hospitals.
Augusta Victoria Hospital is one of the recipients of this assistance. For example, in 2008, the Peres Center (mentioned in The Jerusalem Post article quoted above) provided substantial assistance to a Pediatric Oncology center for diagnosis and treatment of cancer at Augusta Victoria Hospital, in collaboration with the Department of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology at Hadassah.
Security Barrier and Bethlehem
After Bishop Payne detailed the impact of the security barrier on Palestinians host Maureen Fiedler challenged her by asking how she would respond to Israelis who argue that it has prevented suicide bombers and other terrorists from entering Israel. The interview proceeded as follows:
Bishop Payne: Its true that the wall has provided some protection against suicide bombers and the position of our church and all the people I know who travel there
we are all adamantly opposed to the violence against the Israeli people but the reality of where the wall is located does more than just provide security. It also ruins, disrupts, cuts apart Palestinian territory where there is not a border between Israel and Palestinian territory so there really is not a reason for the wall to be there.
The wall right now is a 30-foot concrete wall surrounding for example the city of Bethlehem, and
Host Maureen Fiedler: [Interrupting] Completely surrounding Bethlehem?
Bishop Payne: It completely surrounds Bethlehem. The only way you can get into Bethlehem is through a checkpoint ands some tour buses still come in and they stop for half an hour at the Church of the Nativity, the site of Jesus birth and then go right back out again and so the people who come as tourists dont have a chance to shop and support the economy and they dont have a chance to experience the vibrant life and the real people who live there and the people cant leave and go to Jerusalem and some Israelis cant come to Bethlehem and that is not so well known but it violently interrupts the lives of both Israelis and Palestinian people and their economy.
Bishop Paynes assertion that the security barrier completely surrounds Bethlehem is simply false. Maps provided by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United Nations, Btselem, and the PLO all indicate that the security barrier is located to the north and west of the city, and does not completely surround Bethlehem. Fiedler was correct to challenge the assertion that the security barrier completely surrounds Bethlehem because Bishop Payne quite simply did not know what she was talking about.
Bisohop Paynes assertion that the security barrier and checkpoints are making it impossible for tourists to shop and support the economy is also patently false. On Dec. 26, 2008, The Christian Science Monitor published an article titled Calm brings record tourism to Bethlehem. The subhead reported that an estimated 1.3 million people visited the West Bank this year, boosting the troubled economy.
The article reports that with record bus loads of Christian pilgrims filing through the Church of the Nativity and sleeping at local hotels, Bethlehem is abuzz
. The article continues:
The revival of tourism in the West Bank is one of the few bright spots in the Palestinian economy, which was supposed to get a big boost from the Bush administration at its Middle East peace conference in the fall of 2007 in Annapolis, Md.
"After the Annapolis conference ... there was a relative relief in the political situation," says Palestinian tourism minister Khouloud Daibes-Abu Dayyeh. "The pictures coming through the media showed at least part of Palestine as more safe and ... ready to receive tourists," he says.
While tourists must pass through the Israeli security barrier at the main entrance to Bethlehem, West Bank visitors have doubled over the past year. The 1.3 million tourists expected for 2008 surpasses the pre-uprising peak nine years ago. The surge is filling hotels to capacity an encouraging sign as chains Mövenpick and Days Inn pursue plans to open in Ramallah.
Tourism contributed to a modest 2 percent growth rate in the overall Palestinian economy this year a figure that would have been twice as high if it weren't for the flagging economy in the Gaza Strip, which has been under a yearlong Israeli blockade.
In the Beit Sahour suburb of Bethlehem, hammers can be heard from hotel construction just up the road from Shepherds' Field, the hillside believed to be the site from where the biblical Star of Bethlehem was sighted. Builders are adding to the Sahara Hotel to nearly triple its capacity to 52 rooms.
Despite Bishop Paynes report to the contrary, the security barrier and the checkpoints have not prevented tourists from shopping and supporting the economy in Bethlehem or the West Bank.
Bishop Payne also downplays the effectiveness of the security barrier when she asserts the barrier has provided some protection against suicide bombers, when in fact, it has caused a dramatic reduction in this form of attack. According to a news brief issued by the Israeli government in 2004, the security barrier caused a 90 percent reduction in the number of attacks.
Palestinian leaders themselves have testified to the barriers effectiveness.
On Nov. 11, 2006, Ramadan Shalah, a leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group that carried out numerous suicide attacks during the Second Intifada blamed the security barrier for a significant drop in these attacks, stating if it [the security barrier] werent there, the situation would be entirely different. And in 2007 Moussa Abu Marzouq, deputy chairman of Hamas political bureau, explained that suicide attacks against Israel had decreased significantly, because [carrying out] such attacks is made difficult by the security fence and the gates surrounding West Bank residents."
Another problem with Bishop Paynes testimony is that for all her talk of describing the daily life of all the people in the reason, she offers no detail whatsoever to the horrifying attacks that prompted Israels decision to construct the barrier, nor does she provide any concrete description of what life is like for Israelis living in range of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.
The End of the Occupation is the Answer to Everything
In the second segment of her appearance on Interfaith Voices, Bishop Payne laments the presence and behavior of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and asserts that this territory looks like Swiss Cheese as a result of Israeli policies. The end of the conflict she says, can only be brought about by ending Israeli presence in the West Bank.
The only way to move forward is to end the occupation of the Palestinian territory but along with that does not come a greater danger for Israel, but instead will come the peace and security that they want and that they need. And so the end of the occupation is the answer to everything. Humanitarian aid is helpful but its not the answer. Understanding the facts wont change them. Ending the occupation is the one way that I believe both countries really can get what all the people in the country want which is lives that have peace and meaning and that children can grow up.
At this point, Fielder asked what the U.S. can do to perhaps push Israel in that direction. Bishop Payne answered:
The United States government has more clout with Israel than any other entity in the world and by bringing the facts to the table and by encouraging all the options to be pursued and there to be honest strategizing and a willingness to talk about peace, I think is the answer and its the answer to the whole Middle East and to many other situations and the United States really does have the ear of Israel in a way that no other country does.
If Bishop Payne were truly interested in bringing the facts to the table she would have to acknowledge a few facts of history which she ignored throughout her appearance on Interfaith Voices. First off, Israel has been attacked by nearly every bit of territory from which it has withdrawn since the 1990s. Israel withdrew its soldiers from cities and towns in the West Bank in the 1990s only to see these cities (including Bethlehem) become recruiting and staging grounds for suicide bomb attacks during the Second Intifada. Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 only to be attacked by Hezbollah from this country six years later. And Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 only to see an increase of rocket attacks after the withdrawal.
ELCA church members who rely on Bishop Payne as a source of information about the Arab-Israeli conflict are making a mistake. Her propensity to misstate or ignore important facts on the ground renders her testimony virtually useless to anyone truly interested in understanding the causes of the violence in the Middle East.