Myriad voices have been heard over the decades that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dragged on, and last week a voice from a small faction in Gaza came to Santa Barbara to be heard. A solidly built, middle-aged man with a kind, round face, Hanna Massad is one of a very small number of Baptists from Gaza: There are only 200, out of 1.5 million Gazans. Having been at the receiving end of hostilities from both Israel and Hamas, Gaza’s controlling faction, Massad has a unique perspective on the situation.
Speaking to Westmont College professor Chandra Mallampalli‘s class on the topic of imperialism, Massad told students how he and most of his small congregation, which he now ministers, were forced to leave Gaza a year and a half ago when Islamic militants murdered the church’s leader during a persecution of non-Muslims in the area. “As Christians, we live between two fires,” he said. “I’ve never been to prison, but I lived in one.”
Massad and his family hope to return to Gaza this summer, but it all depends upon his Jordanian wife getting a visa from Israel - based on past experience, he said, it could be denied. A professor at the Gaza extension campus of Bethlehem Bible College, Massad is currently on sabbatical at a research institution for “cross-cultural Christianity” in New Haven, Connecticut, called the Overseas Ministries Study Center. He is an alumnus of the West Bank campus of Bethlehem Bible College, and in 2000 received his doctoral degree in theology at Fuller Theological Seminar in Pasadena, California.
For the past couple of weeks, Massad has been traveling around the United States speaking about the role of love and forgiveness in the peace process. “A military war is not the solution. We need to listen to each other and find common ground,” he said, focusing on the recent struggles in Gaza between Hamas and the Israeli army. “Most important is that, from both sides, we have good intentions for peace.”
In addition to Westmont students, Massad spoke to Santa Barbarans at Westmont’s Hieronymus Lounge, where he gave a lecture entitled “A Christian Perspective on the Israeli-Palestian Conflict.” Saying that the media typically deals with the symptoms - Gaza’s 50-70 percent unemployment rate, the number of people killed in the latest conflict, and related hardships - he defined the root of the problem as the shrinking land and material resources available to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. “When one nation controls another nation, it’s an occupation,” he said to Westmont students. “Even [Ariel] Sharon himself said in 2003, ‘We cannot continue to control the life of the Palestinians.’”
Opining that the refugee situation that has existed since 1948 is not likely to just go away, Massad said that while it is not reasonable that all of those people flood back into Israel, perhaps some kind of restitution for Palestinian families whose parents and grandparents lost land in the 1948 and 1967 wars would be possible. “This problem will not be solved until we dig to the root of it and come up with a reasonable solution for both sides,” he said.
In examining how Hamas - a group that many Israelis equate with terrorism - became so powerful, Massad looked at Palestinian culture, which is largely Islamic. “One of the main reasons they came to power was because they helped people on the ground with education and clinics. People were frustrated with the corruption of the Palestinian Authority,” he said. Using that impetus, he said, Hamas garnered popular support at mosques, which enabled its ideological takeover of the region. “They made it seem that if you’re against Hamas, you’re against God.”
With regard to the recent conflict in Gaza, Massad condemned the use of violence on both sides. “I disagree with Hamas ideologically, but this shouldn’t prevent us from speaking out about what happened to children,” he said, stating that 1,300 civilians - half of whom he said were women, children, and the elderly - were killed in the hostilities, and many more, of course, injured. He pointed out that Hamas has made the situation worse by aiming rockets at civilians in Israel. He said that people supporting Israel as well as those supporting Palestinians go too far. “We need to know our priorities as Christians,” he said to the students. “Stand with the oppressed without demonizing the oppressor.”
Calling the violence a huge step backward for Gaza, he said that forgiveness and reconciliation - often in short supply in that area of the world - are of paramount importance if the war-torn region is to be rebuilt. “[The conflict] creates more bitterness and hatred, and makes the walls inside of people taller and taller,” he said. “For me, as a Christian, perhaps I can forgive and move on.”