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NCC delegation in Israel focuses on Palestinian toll & viewpoint

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A delegation of the National Council of Churches met with the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s director of religious affairs, Gadi Golan, and with the American Jewish Committee’s director of interfaith relations, Rabbi David Rosen, during an April 24-27 visit to Israel.

Other than the brief mention of Golan and Rosen in NCC news releases April 25 and 26, the 13-member NCC group focused on the Palestinian toll in Israel’s “Operation Defensive Shield” military response to Palestinian suicide bombings.

NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar, one of four delegation members to travel into the Jenin refugee camp where eight days of intense Israeli-Palestinian clashes occurred, said in the April 26 news release, “We thought it important that some of us be able to see for ourselves the level of destruction and make our own assessment. And as people try to recover and rebuild from the rubble, but also still mourn their dead and the missing, we wanted to join in the assistance efforts.” The NCC group traveled to Jenin in an aid delivery sponsored by several religious relief agencies.

According to news reports, nearly 50 Palestinian deaths have been counted in Jenin, along with the loss of 23 Israeli soldiers. Israeli officials have said 26 suicide bombers came from Jenin and that troops battled in house-to-house fashion to root out terrorists while minimizing civilian casualties. The Israeli Defense Forces has released aerial photos of Jenin before and after Operation Defensive Shield on its www.idf.il website, noting that “the damage is significantly smaller” than “the Palestinian claim in the world-wide media” of a civilian massacre. The IDF also asserted, “… it is known that following the withdrawal of IDF forces from the Jenin refugee camp, 21 innocent people were injured from the explosive charges that the Palestinians placed and were scattered in the area.”

Retired Episcopal Bishop Arthur Walmsley of Connecticut, representing the church’s presiding bishop on the NCC delegation, was quoted in the NCC news release on his reaction to seeing the Jenin camp destruction: “Appalled. This action was against a whole community, not just terrorists.”

Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, recounted in the news release, “As we waited at a checkpoint today, a food shipment from the U.N. was permitted to go around us and right in. I was told later that the residents refused to accept the shipment because the people saw food packages on which were written ‘gift from the United States’ and that there were children’s toys that read, ‘Made in Israel.’

“I am happy when my tax dollars are used for food, but that food was rejected because a greater portion of my taxes were used to provide weapons that destroyed this camp and so many of these people. It is not a proud day for me,” Winkler stated.

Delegation member Mark Brown of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was described as shaking his head sadly after walking through Jerusalem’s Old City and commenting in the April 25 news release, “This, too, is the destruction of the Palestinian people. You can destroy people and societal infrastructure with tanks and missiles and heavy weapons and bulldozers. You can destroy those same people and that same infrastructure by wrecking the people’s economy. Merchants and restaurant owners are going days, even weeks, without selling one item or one meal.”

The April 25 news release stated that the NCC delegation “spent time in meetings also with key Palestinian Authority members. These included Dr. Manauel Hassassian, Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, and Dr. Emil Jarjoui.”

Instead of just mentioning their names, as was done with the two Jewish officials, the NCC release recounted that the three Palestinian Authority leaders “articulated honestly the depression and/or rage now present in the Palestinian people. Dr. Jarjoui said that the Israelis were today bulldozing mounds of dirt around what remains of President Arafat’s [Ramallah] compound in order to prevent cars from getting close. Nevertheless, he concluded, ‘Our heads are always high; we will never go down to our knees.'”

The April 26 NCC news release about the trip to Jenin ended by recounting: “Near the end of the walk through the camp, delegates and residents alike were permitted to make use of a temporary house of mourning, where all sipped bitter coffee shared in common cups. They sat, reflecting on what had been experienced, and they prayed. Bob Edgar of the NCC said simply, ‘This was our communion with the people of Jenin. I was privileged to sit and to drink coffee with them.'”

Neither NCC news release told of whether the NCC delegation visited with any Israelis who have lost family members during the wave of suicide bombings that prompted the Israeli counter-response in late March.

The NCC has 36 member denominations; the Southern Baptist Convention, however, has never been affiliated with the council, which was founded in 1950.

The Institute on Religion and Democracy, at the outset of the NCC delegation’s April 17-27 trip to the Middle East, contended that the NCC has shown “a severe tilt toward the Palestinian Authority that distorts truth and undermines the church’s witness.”

Diane Knippers, president of the Washington-based IRD, urged the NCC delegation to avoid becoming “mere propagandists” for the Palestinian side of the conflict. She also urged the NCC delegation to avoid “a mindless moral equivalence” and, instead, make “crucial moral distinctions between the identities, goals and tactics of the parties in conflict.”

The Israeli Defense Forces, in a news release, targeted Palestinian “false and twisted propaganda” regarding the battle in Jenin. Israel remains in a stalemate with the United Nations over a three-member commission assigned to investigate Palestinian claims of Israeli atrocities.

The IDF news release claimed that the Palestinian Authority, in the “struggle for public opinion,” has created “a special public affairs committee … in charge of preparing the camp for the U.N. committee’s arrival. The Palestinian committee does not hesitate to use acts of deceit and fraud.

“The most appalling fraud is the matter of the dead bodies in the camp,” the IDF contended. “The Palestinians have begun moving bodies buried in the cemetery next to the government hospital prior to operation ‘Defensive Shield’ into a ‘mass grave’ of casualties of the operation … 26 casualties from operation ‘Defensive Shield’ are buried in the grave. The bodies recently added, those from the hospital cemetery, bring the number up to 50 bodies … in order to display a larger number of Palestinian casualties that were allegedly killed during the fighting in the camp. Additionally, members of the Palestinian Authority issued an instruction to stop searching for bodies so that they will be found only in the presence of the U.N. committee.”

The reconstruction of damaged houses also has been suspended for PR purposes, the IDF asserted, adding that the Palestinian PR committee has asked Jenin residents now living in apartments after their homes were damaged or destroyed “to arrive back in the refugee camp during daytime (the U.N. committee operating hours) and sit inside tents, after which they will return to their apartments in the city.”

Among those joining NCC’s General Secretary Edgar in the delegation to the Middle East were William Shaw of Philadelphia, president of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., Inc.; James Edward Winkler of Washington, D.C., general secretary of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society; and James A. Forbes Jr., senior minister at New York City’s Riverside Church.