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Jad and Miryam
Jad Isaac of Bethlehem and Miryam Rashid of the American Friends Service Committee chat during a recent visit to Madison. Contributed photo

Jad Isaac has a vision of planting roses in the troubled city of Bethlehem.

Real roses? Well, maybe. But it’s more an image of planting hope in a city choked by Israeli occupation, Palestinian divisions and international paralysis.

Isaac is a scientist with a deep understanding of the environmental issues playing out between Israel and the Palestinian lands in the West Bank and Gaza. He can speak passionately about the diversion of water from the West Bank to Israel, the impact of Israeli settlements on Palestinian resources, and the reality of life under occupation.

He was in Madison recently for presentations following an event in Chicago called “The Chicago Hearing.” That event was put on by the American Friends Service Committee, the highly regarded social action arm of the Quakers (Society of Friends). It was designed to spotlight U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine through the eyes of Palestinians.

Isaac was clear during a conversation in Madison that at this time, hope is as scarce as water in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israeli settlements are taking more and more land. The concept of a two-state solution (Israel and Palestine each existing as sovereign entities) seems further away. The Arab nations that once supported the Palestinians are now dividing their loyalties between Palestinian factions -- the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza -- as well as between the Shiite and Sunni religious factions.

And then there is the area around Bethlehem itself, where Isaac grew up, lives and works.

“Bethlehem is becoming a ghetto,” Isaac lamented. It is segregated from Jerusalem by the wall -- a security barrier erected by Israel that essentially surrounds the city.

Isaac calls it “a dying city” as Palestinian Christians move to other countries and unemployment remains very high because people cannot get to their former jobs in Jerusalem.

That’s why Isaac wants to plant roses. As he traveled around the U.S., he was appealing to Palestinian emigres who are doctors to come back and start a hospital in Bethlehem. He was appealing to educators to start an American-style elementary school there that could also nurture Muslim-Christian dialogue.

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He wants to create a public park and recreation area and start an eco-village that would be energy self-sufficient while families grow organic produce. He has started a company called Green Palestine to do solid waste recycling and composting.

Isaac is the director of the Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem, a major enterprise in Bethlehem that is working on issues like solar energy and food security for the Palestinians.

“The only way to avoid the ethnic cleansing that is taking place is by planting roses,” Isaac said, using both strong words for the impact of the occupation and a beautiful metaphor for the many small projects he is planning that he hopes will take root in this ancient land.

Phil Haslanger is pastor of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg. He was in Bethlehem and Jerusalem last fall.