JERUSALEM—As an uneasy truce between Israel and Hezbollah continues, millions of average men and women in the Holy Land are turning to the one simple comfort that has always seen them through the darkest days of their troubled history: the steadfast guidance of their religious faith.
Arabs and Israelis alike are embracing their faith as a way to make sense of the violence from which there seems to be no escape.
“I take solace in knowing that my faith is a sanctuary, an escape from the bloodshed and turmoil,” said Haifa resident Yigal Taheri, who last week lost his wife and newborn daughter when a Fajr-3 long-range rocket launched by Lebanese militants struck the synagogue where his family was attending services. “YHWH, Elohim, whatever you wish to not call Him—His love comforts all those who are willing to open their hearts to Him. Praise be to G–d.”
“Religion is the one thing that has never let us down,” Taheri added over the low rumble of AK-47 fire emanating from the nearby home of a radical Israeli rabbi.
Taheri is not alone. In a time of seemingly unending conflict between Israelis and Arabs, a growing number of Middle Easterners are fervently embracing the unshakeable wisdom of Judaism and Islam.
“The Israelis have fired missile upon missile on my neighborhood, but it has only made my trust in Allah that much stronger,” Abdel-Malik said. “I cringe to think where the people of the Middle East would be right now if it weren’t for our steadfast belief in one true, merciful, and loving Supreme Being.”
Palestinian widow and mother of three Dareen Idriss agreed, citing the healing power of prayer as a way to cope with the relentless slaughter she and her family witness every day. “When the children cannot stop crying because of the bombs, we all gather our families in the rubble of the mosque to pray for justice,” Idriss said. “During this calm meditation, we also pray for the annihilation of the Hebrew race.”
An unidentified Palestinian man seeks a renewed resolve through prayer.
West Bank settler Ari Chayat, whose neighborhood has also been ravaged by violence, echoed this profound reliance on faith. “The world is so brutal and unfair,” Chayat said. “Many days, my uncompromising belief in a vengeful creator is all that gets me out of bed in the morning.”
“If it wasn’t for my faith that the God of Abraham has given these lands to Jews and Jews alone by divine decree, I probably wouldn’t even be here today,” Chayat added.
Lebanese militant Jawad Hamid, who recently lost his best friend to an Israeli helicopter attack while the two men were on their way to pick up a Katyusha rocket, said his faith in Allah was the only way he could cope with the tragedy.
“Every time I want to give up hope, I just open the Quran to my favorite passage, Surah 2:194: ‘Whoever acts aggressively against you, inflict injury on him,'” Hamid said. “Whenever I read those words, I am immediately filled with inspiration and a renewed sense of purpose.”
Even political leaders have tapped into the public’s reliance on religion and used it as a way to encourage them to never give up.
“In this time of strife, the only way to endure the unending suffering is through an unwavering, uncompromising faith in one’s religious beliefs,” Israeli hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah went so far as to quote from the Quran in a speech delivered to followers the same afternoon.
“It’s always frightening to be reminded of your own mortality, as we all were this past Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday,” Hezbollah commander Mahdi al-Zaidi said. “But rather than react irrationally, I looked deep within my faith, consulted the Quran, and by the mercy of Allah, I gained the resolve to oversee a massive airstrike against the enemy.”
“We will get through this, so long as we have God on our side,” he added.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A hunger strike at the Guantanamo Bay prison has grown and now involves at least 21 men, a U.S. military official said Monday while denying reports trickling out from prisoners through lawyers that there is a more widespread protest and lives are in danger.
No prisoner faces any immediate health threat from the strike, though two have been admitted to the prison medical clinic because of dehydration, said Navy Capt. Robert Durand, a spokesman for the detention center at the U.S. base in Cuba.
In recent weeks, as lawyers returned from Guantanamo with accounts of clients weak from hunger and an angry standoff with guards, the military had said no more than a handful of prisoners met the definition of being on hunger strike, which includes missing nine consecutive meals.
That figure rose to 14 on Friday, and then grew by seven over the weekend. It has become the largest and most sustained protest at Guantanamo in several years, but Durand insisted there is no evidence to support reports of a strike involving most of the 166 men held there.
“The detainees certainly have the support of one another,” Durand said. “But if it was 166, I would tell you it was 166. I don’t have a reason to lowball or pad the numbers.”
A prisoner from Yemen, Yasein Esmail, told his attorney that he lost about 35 pounds (15 kilograms) after striking for 29 days and was struggling to keep his balance, according to notes taken by the lawyer, Washington-based David Remes, during a March 5 visit.
“Many of the detainees are desperate,” Esmail told his attorney. “They feel like they’re living in graves.”
The U.S. military does not identify hunger strikers and will not let journalists speak to prisoners so the account could not be verified.
A letter sent Thursday to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that was signed by more than 50 lawyers who have represented Guantanamo prisoners said they had received reports that “the health of the men has continued to deteriorate in alarming and potentially irreparable ways.” They urged him to meet with them and work out a solution with the military officials in charge of the prison.
Lawyers say the protest began Feb. 6, when a relatively new officer in charge of camp operations, Army Col. John Bogdan, ordered an intensive search of the communal pod-like area where a majority of detainees are held. Guards confiscated personal items such as family letters, photos and mail from attorneys. The prisoners also said government-issued Korans were searched in a way they considered religious desecration.
Another apparent factor in the protest is the fact that the U.S. has largely stopped transferring and releasing prisoners because of security restrictions imposed by Congress and the administration of President Obama.
Durand said there had been no changes in the way searches are conducted. He said Korans are searched for contraband by Muslim translators, not guards, and are treated in a respectful way. The protest is simply a way to attract attention, he said.
“They have sort of fallen out of the public view and most of the legal issues have been settled,” Durand said. “If you want to burst back into the media then you have to start complaining about either Koran abuse or detainee abuse or deteriorating conditions.”
Hunger strikes have been a fixture at Guantanamo since shortly after it opened in January 2002. The largest one began in the summer of 2005 and reached a peak of around 131 prisoners, when the facility held about 500 detainees. The U.S. military broke the protest by strapping detainees down and force-feeding them a liquid nutrient mix to prevent them from starving themselves to death. As of Monday, the U.S. was feeding eight of the 21 prisoners on strike, Durand said.