By Nicole Jansezian
In 2021, when Israel and Hamas were engaged in an 11-day conflict, racial tensions between Jews and Arabs spilled over into Israel’s civilian sector.
Mixed cities erupted in violent and sometimes deadly clashes as Hamas launched 2,400 rockets into Israel and the Israeli army responded by bombing the Gaza Strip.
Following the Hamas atrocities of October 7, 2023 and Israel’s subsequent strikes on Gaza, many feared racial attacks among Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens would follow.
They haven’t—so far—but this could be due in part to people such as Saleem Shalash, the Arab pastor of Home of Jesus the King Church in Nazareth, who said his focus is on being a peacemaker.
“We are trying all the time to build bridges between Arabs and Jews and especially during these times that hatred is spreading all over, we try to be light in darkness,” Shalash told CBN Israel. “How? To take action and to show the love of Jesus.”
When local Christians help Israeli Jews, they are viewed with suspicion from both sides.
“From one side, if you stand for helping the Israeli families you become a spy for an Arab because they don’t understand your opinion or your vision,” he explained. “From the other side, to the Orthodox Jew, you are still Arab. You are not accepted, you are between. It’s hard. Sometimes you can’t explain it because you are in the middle.”
Despite the precarious position of being a minority of minorities in Israel, Shalash has always geared his humanitarian aid distribution to anyone in need, including Muslims, Jews and Christians.
So, when Israelis fleeing war zones began arriving in his neighboring city, Nof Hagalil, the mayor turned to Shalash for help in equipping the nearly 1,000 evacuees that have spread out into the city’s hotels.
“These people are here more than a month now, most of them arrived with only a bag in their hands,” Plot told CBN Israel. “Now we are in winter, in rain, and they have nothing suitable. Also, people aren’t able to work—their jobs are there, so here they have no work.”
After the war began in southern Israel, a few infiltration attempts and rocket attacks took place along the northern border as well, where Hezbollah is entrenched in southern Lebanon. Shortly after Israel evacuated communities surrounding the Gaza Strip in the south, the government expanded evacuation orders for the north resulting in more than 120,000 displaced Israelis.
CBN Israel partnered with Shalash to buy brand new coats, boots, and other winter essentials for those who ended up in Nof Hagalil.
“We are helping the evacuated families that came from both sides, from both south and north because they fled from their homes with nothing,” Shalash said. “They came during hot weather with short sleeves, and they have nothing.”
All the more poignant since the Hamas atrocities of October 7 is that an Arab ministry is leading the outreach—something that hasn’t gone unnoticed. Yehonatan Biton told CBN Israel it restores his faith in humanity.
“It has touched our hearts at this difficult time to realize that there are still hearts willing to give, that despite everything you see, and the terrible horrors, the heart is still open,” he said. “The world isn’t all bad, it’s not all evil. There is also a good side and it is amazing.”
Maia Barcelo-Shelef who picked up a coat at the distribution told CBN Israel that most evacuees are living with uncertainty and have no idea when they will return home.
“I never guessed we would be in a situation like this waiting, one more week, one more week. We don’t have a deadline, that’s the worst,” she said.
Shalash hopes that outreaches such as this will help heal the trauma of war.
“What happened was very hard and it will take time to get better. We will not forget, because those who lost a son or daughter will not forget. But we are trying to show the love of Jesus and trying to bless these families,” Shalash said.
In Nazareth and many Israeli cities, where Jews and Arabs mingle in shops and restaurants largely without any racial tension, Shalash believes that such love will overcome racial divides.
“The media shows the worst examples, but there’s a lot of good things happening,” Shalash said. “God wants to gather His family again, His Abrahamic family—Isaac and Ishmael together.”
Nicole Jansezian is the media coordinator for CBN Israel. A long-time journalist, Nicole was previously the news editor of All Israel News and All Arab News and a journalist at The Associated Press. On her YouTube channel, Nicole gives a platform to the minority communities in Jerusalem and highlights stories of fascinating people in this intense city. Born and raised in Queens, N.Y., she lives in Jerusalem with her husband, Tony, and their three children.