Images of Israel

A Whitefish family returns from the edge of war



“This is our village, this is where I was born,” says Ibrahim Bisharat, pointing to a photo showing a few scraggly trees and some rocks strewn across a grassy hill.

The photo, taken in Israel in July, shows where the small town of Malool stood when Ibrahim was born in 1947. By 1948, the Bisharats, Christian Palestinians, had fled to nearby Nazareth to escape the brunt of the Arab-Israeli war. The Bisharats’ village was razed, and the land became property of the Israeli government. All that remains of Malool are two churches.

Fifty-eight years later, Ibrahim, who has lived in the United States since 1967 and in Whitefish since 1986, traveled to Nazareth with his wife, Martha, and two of his children, Jenan and Jibran, for the wedding of their nephew’s daughter. They happened to arrive July 9, three days before the latest war between Lebanon and Israel broke out. They left Aug. 4, 10 days before the cease-fire took effect.

Perhaps because his background doesn’t give him a clear stake in either of the faiths central to the conflict surrounding Israel, Ibrahim and his family tend to align themselves with peace, rather than with Muslims or Jews, Palestinians or Israelis.

When the war started, the Bisharats say they were not particularly scared, even though Nazareth is only 50 miles from the Israel/Lebanon border. Nazareth is populated by Christians and Muslims—Jewish Israelis live in a settlement outside of Nazareth—so they knew the missiles being launched into Israel were not aimed at them.

But the Russian-made Katyusha rockets Hezbollah fired at Israel aren’t known for their accuracy, and the Bisharats got a scare July 16, when a rocket landed in the center of Nazareth, killing two young brothers.

After that, Ibrahim says, they worried more. Broader problems in the Middle East and the rockets coming from Lebanon made them wonder if what they were seeing was only the beginning of a wider war.

“There was no end to the rockets being fired,” he says.

Starting at midnight each night, the Bisharats say, they heard the Israeli response to the rocket attacks—a near-constant stream of jets taking off on sorties over Lebanon.

By the time the Bisharats returned to the United States, according to a Reuters story, 2,500 rockets had been fired into Israel, and about 50 percent of the people in northern Israel were estimated to have left. The Bisharats say that Nazareth felt deserted when they were there, since residents were leaving and no tourists were coming. The wedding party piled into a rented bus and toured Israel, and took individual trips by car.

The Bisharats returned with more than 1,200 photographs and their thoughts and memories. They plan to speak and show some of the photos to the public on Sept. 7 at the Whitefish Library at 7 p.m.

The photos show a country that looks Western in places, romantically foreign in others. They also reveal a society torn by war and religious segregation.

Several shots are of the wall being built between Palestinian lands and Israel. One, taken from the Israeli side, shows the stark gray wall with an ominous guard tower and a huge banner hanging below it that reads “Peace be with you.”

“I think it’s a mockery,” Ibrahim says.

Another photo shows graffiti on the Palestinian side of the wall, in Bethlehem, depicting a square described by a dotted line, with scissors preparing to cut it out.

Other photographs show predominately Christian and Muslim cities in the foreground, with Jewish settlements on the hills above.

Ibrahim’s daughter Jenan selects a photo on the viewer of her digital camera showing Bethlehem, with a Jewish settlement hovering over it.

“They live like we do,” she says of the Jewish settlements, noting shopping malls and western clothing.

Ibrahim says the largest Palestinian cities were impossible to visit while they were there due to wartime travel restrictions, but that the Arab neighborhoods inside Israel are dramatically different from the settlements.

“Everything [in the Arab neighborhoods] is hundreds of years old,” he says. “The streets are narrow, the shops are small, and there is poverty.”

“The society is very segregated,” Ibrahim concludes. “You don’t see a Jewish family living near a Muslim family.”

On July 14, the Bisharat’s met with Elias Chacour, the Melkite Catholic Church’s Archbishop of Galilee. Chacour is a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee who has worked to encourage peace among the religions of the Middle East. Chacour is also the founder of the Mar Elias Educational Institutions, schools where more than 1,000 Christians, Jews and Muslims study together.

Like Ibrahim, Chacour is a Christian Palestinian whose family was forced off its land during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

His 1984 autobiography Blood Brothers, which has been translated into 28 languages, tells the story of his family and how he learned to forgive Israel.

A priest friend of the Bisharat family learned that Ibrahim had read Chacour’s books, and was able to arrange the meeting.

Chacour told them he participated in talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Condoleezza Rice.

According to Ibrahim, Chacour told him that “He had the chance to speak to power, but they seemed bent on violence.”

Before leaving, Chacour signed two copies of his book for the family.

“Together we are stronger than the storm,” Chacour wrote in one; he inscribed the other, “God does not kill.”

Shortly after the Bisharats returned to Whitefish, Dick Cheney came to town to speak in support of Sen. Conrad Burns at a fundraiser. Both Jenan and Ibrahim went to a peace rally staged along Cheney’s route. Ibrahim held a sign that read “Fund peace, not war,” while Jenan held one that read “Free Lebanon,” with a Palestinian flag draped over her shoulders.

“We thought we might impress Cheney somehow,” Ibrahim says, laughing. “We didn’t see much of him.”

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