The word "Palestinian" brings several vivid images, all negative, to many minds: Masked gunman. Angry demonstrator. Political pawn. Helpless victim.
The bloody June takeover of Gaza by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas –- and weeks of fighting between Lebanese army forces and a Palestinian extremist faction in a refugee camp in Lebanon -– only reinforced those images. Pictures splashed across TV screens and newspapers once again showed armed Palestinians shooting at their opponents and at each other -– while unarmed Palestinians ran for their lives.
You may shake your head in bewilderment or anger -– and turn away. But how does God see the Palestinians? Does He turn away?
"It's hard to convince Americans that Palestinians are more than just terrorists," admits a Christian worker who serves among Palestinians across the Middle East. "But these are needy people who for the most part are oppressed and marginalized. The Bible teaches us that 'God so loved the world,' but most of us think 'the world' is people who are like us.
"We try to help people understand that 'God so loved the world' includes Palestinians."
God's love is the Palestinians' only hope at the moment, as millions hoping for a better life -– or at least a more tolerable one –- face yet another bitter disappointment.
"This past month has been an especially dark time for Palestinians, both in Lebanon and in Gaza," says the Christian worker, who has related to Palestinians for many years. "We've seen them come to the edge of the cliff many times and back away just before going off. I think they went off this time. They've fallen into the abyss."
Prospects for lasting peace among Palestinians –- much less between Palestinians and Israelis, Lebanese or anyone else -– seem bleaker than ever. Open war has broken out between the two main centers of Palestinian political power. The Palestinian "unity" government in Gaza and the West Bank seems unlikely to recover from the internal conflict, which pits the Islamists of Hamas against the secularist Fatah movement. Fatah was long dominated by the late Yasser Arafat and currently is led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Some extremist factions sprouting in Palestinian refugee camps across the region have pan-Islamic goals that transcend the traditional Palestinian fight for statehood. They include the militants recently attacked by Lebanese army units in the Nahr al-Bared camp near Tripoli, Lebanon.
The fighting near Tripoli drove thousands of terrified Palestinians out of the area and into United Nations-sponsored refugee camps in southern Lebanon. Christian workers are seeking to aid Palestinians there.
In Gaza, meanwhile, 1.5 million Palestinians remain jammed into the 140-square-mile strip between Israel and Egypt –- now sealed off at both borders. They face a summer of misery if food aid and other services aren't restored soon. At least 70 percent of Gaza's people already were depending on U.N. food aid and relief supplies from other groups.
"This has happened after a long time of conflict, so people don't have reserves," the Christian worker says. "They don't have any food in their cabinets. The humanitarian crisis is going to come pretty quickly."
Palestinian Christians, once again, find themselves caught in the middle of both the political and humanitarian crises. More than 90 percent of the 6 million Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria are Sunni Muslims. Minority Palestinian Christians -– including Catholics, Orthodox and evangelicals -– endure the same privations and second-class status as other Palestinians in the region, plus the suspicion of some of their ethnic Muslim cousins.
Local believers put all that aside back in 2002, when Palestinian Christians began packing 70-pound food bags and hauling them into refugee camps around Gaza City and the West Bank. For some of the Christians, it was the first time they had stepped into a Muslim home of any kind.
They lugged the aid bags through the narrow lanes of Gaza's huge Jabalya refugee camp (which recently became the site of some of the worst fighting between Hamas and Fatah). Concrete-block, tin-roofed dwellings adorned with militant Arabic graffiti long ago replaced the tents refugees once occupied. Households in the area average seven or more children.
In each home, the Christians delivered lentils, oil, rice, beans, tea -– and a toy for children. In each home, they listened to the hardships the family was enduring and asked permission to pray. When they asked what to pray for, the first answer, almost without exception, was "peace" followed by health and work.
For families facing such a life, a brief visit and a little food was "a drop in the bucket," admitted a Palestinian Christian coordinating the food distribution. "But you put many drops together and you make a difference."
The relief work has continued in the years since, supplying thousands of Palestinian families in Gaza and the West Bank with food, other survival basics -– and love.
Whether such efforts will be allowed to continue in Hamas-ruled Gaza remains to be seen. A Catholic church and school were ransacked and desecrated June 14. Hamas' security chief blamed a militant splinter group for the attack and vowed to "punish anyone who targets churches and public institutions." Islamic militants also were blamed for the April bombing that heavily damaged the Gaza Bible Society.
Some Christians reportedly want to get out of Gaza, along with many other Palestinians. Others fear more attacks or increased restrictions will come if Islamic law is imposed – which Hamas leaders have promised to do. Hamas doesn't oppose Christian worship, according to one Palestinian Christian leader, but community activities might be curtailed.
"We are very concerned," said a Palestinian Christian. "Most people here are still in shock. They are watching and waiting to see what will happen.
"Our trust is in God and He is still in control. We continue to experience the power of God's presence, His peace and His love. Please pray that God will continue to use us to reflect His love in Gaza. Please pray for our children, that God will help us to help them to overcome this trauma. Please pray for stability in the region."
Pray for the Palestinians. God loves them as much as He loves your family and mine. In fact, Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, is now a Palestinian town.
How many other peoples can claim that distinction?
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