Christmas was cancelled in Bethlehem last year. Tension was high. Traditional celebrations were abandoned. The crowds stayed away. No one can predict the state of peace in Israel and the Palestinian areas as Easter approaches. Tit-for-tat killings, children wielding weapons, funerals and fanaticism continue to fuel the fighting. But behind the scenes there are sparks of reconciliation.

A pastor from Bet Jala who, along with his family, had been caught in the crossfire between Palestinian and Israeli gunmen said, "After or even during nights of bombardment and shooting, we receive calls from Messianic Jewish friends reminding us of their prayers and love." The Messianic Jewish pastor who made some of those calls said that although they all faced fear and hopelessness and many were suffering physical and emotional trauma "we have a means of encouraging one another in the hope of the Messiah, beyond the despair and discouragement that we see in the visible world".

Practical expressions of love have accompanied prayers for Palestinian Christians in the midst of the crisis. Israeli Messianic congregations and individuals have been donating funds to buy and distribute food coupons for Palestinian families who are unable to cross into Israel for work and are facing severe financial difficulties. These links have their roots in a reconciliation group called Musalaha, which began 10 years ago. Musalaha, which means forgiveness or reconciliation in Arabic, acts as a bridge between Palestinian and Jewish believers, providing a safe environment for relationships to develop and healing to take place.

Musalaha's founder, Salim J Munayer, grew up in a mixed society and reflects the complexity of nationality, religion, language and culture in the region. Salim was born in Israel into a Greek Orthodox Palestinian family. He attended several different primary schools, (Catholic, Jewish, and Arabic), and was attending a Jewish high school when the 1973 war broke out. "It was through a Bible study attended by a mixed group of Jewish and Arab students that I became a believer," he says. "At that time (1977 when he was 22), there weren't any messianic congregations really, so I became part of the moving of the Holy Spirit among young Israelis. Many young Jews were coming to Christ, so I found myself, an Arab, helping plant messianic congregations!"

After graduating from Tel Aviv University Salim went to the USA to study New Testament and Missiology and returned to Israel in 1985 to teach at Bethlehem Bible College, where he is now the academic dean. Late that year he met his wife, Kay. The couple married two years later and now live in Jerusalem with their four sons. Having lived in Israel among the Jewish community for much of his life, going to Bethlehem to work was a revelation, Salim says. "For the first time I was really exposed to the situation of the Palestinian Christians in general. I saw all the injustices and realised that the media was not reflecting reality on this." As well as working at the Bible college Salim was also involved in a Hebrew training programme taking messianic believers from discipleship to leadership.

"Because I was teaching Palestinian believers in Bethlehem and Jewish believers in Tel Aviv, I suddenly saw the gap in understanding. Both groups were believers but they were living in two different worlds. Most of them had never met a believer from the 'other' camp." Salim explains, "The whole concept of Jewish believers was so new it was really a surprise. The Palestinian Christians thought, 'Oh, they're Christians, they'll understand.' But we didn't realise how complex their relationship was with the historical church, even with the word Christian. It got to the point where believers didn't want to meet together because of all the political and theological arguments."

Musalaha grew out of Salim's longing to demonstrate the reconciliation all believers have in Christ. "I came to the conclusion that Jewish and Palestinian believers needed to be brought together face to face. Anything less would not work because to the dehumanisation and demonization going on from both sides." Desert encounters have formed the melting pot for Musalaha's reconciliation efforts. Salim describes the desert as, "… not Jewish … not Palestinian … not a classroom or a church. We're stuck there. We can't run away. It's like putting a man in a microwave. We've seen people with really extreme political opinions. After one day in the desert, there's a real change, a visible openness. It's amazing. You throw them into the desert and something happens. "Functioning together in the hardship of the desert, climbing, hiking, sharing water and food, and dealing with the basic needs of everyday life, highlights the reality that we are all created in His image.

"Travelling together in the harsh desert, we need to encourage each other through acts of faith. These acts are only possible because we are a new creation in Christ, created henceforth in his image." These desert encounters bring together people of very different backgrounds.

On one trip to the desert in Jordan, 27 people took part from Galilee, Haifa, Jerusalem and the West Bank. Geographically the area they came from is not much bigger than the South East corner of England, but within the group were people whose mother tongue was Arabic, Hebrew, Russian or English; no language was common to all. Passports spoke of the group's complexity: Israeli - both Jewish and Arabic, Palestinian (for the West Bankers) and Jordanian (for Palestinians living in East Jerusalem). And when the two from East Jerusalem reached the Jordanian border, they were turned away, in spite of their Jordanian passports. The reason given was that the Israeli Minister of the Interior had, 10 days before, made a decision to refuse work and entry visas for Jordanians to work in the construction industry in Eilat in Israel. They were victims of a political 'tit-for-tat'.

Bringing people together face-to-face helps overcome ignorance. The complex cultural origins of Jewish people present a challenge to the Palestinian believers who see Americans, Russians and other nationalities rather than Jews. As Salim says, "Most Palestinian believers do not know about or share the historical experience of Jewish people in Europe - the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, For many, it is an unbelievable story and they feel it has been used against them to justify the mistreatment of the Palestinian people. I encourage Jewish believers to better understand how to impart their story and experiences in a non-threatening way in order to further understanding and bring reconciliation between the two peoples." Similarly Jews are not always aware of Palestinian issues. When Israelis go into the army from the age of 18 to 21 any relationship with Palestinians has to be reported. No positive communication is possible and few believers have met Christians from the 'enemy camp'. But the desert trip makes a huge difference.

Evan Thomas, a Jewish believer born in New Zealand who now leads a Messianic congregation in Israel, is one of the Board of Directors of Musalaha. Following one desert trip he recorded some of its impact on individuals: After two days together despite minimal previous connection, a number of people began 'to take risks' and enter into sensitive subjects of discussion. Fuelled by the mid-afternoon sun the discussions began to get heated and many felt it was time to move on. This was just the opportunity we were waiting for - one 'engineered by the Lord' and we sent everybody off in groups of five to listen to the stories and pray for one another. This was the breakthrough we were waiting for!

Hanna shared her story with us and our hearts wept at her bitter-sweet testimony. She had come to Israel over 30 years ago from an ultra-orthodox Jewish background, married into the community and began to raise a family. Her own spiritual hunger led her to Yeshua the Messiah and, as she began to share her excitement with her husband, her 'baptism of fire' began. Over the ensuing years she would be dragged through the rabbinic courts, lose her marriage, children and community and even suffer the indignity of overnight imprisonment. Despite the enormous emotional pain she remained faithful to her new faith, her Jewish identity and her nation. She so loves the Lord and His grace is so apparent in her life.

In another group, 'Mahmoud', a young ex-Moslem serving in the security services of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank shared his story of finding Yeshua. This young man infused us with his joy and enthusiasm like a large puppy dog wagging his tail everywhere! What a blessing for him also to discover his Jewish brothers in faith and have fun and adventure together. Leor and Nassim were to discover one another and through their desert encounter, begin a process of heart change.

Leor is a young Israeli Bible college student and Nassim (a Palestinian) is a project manager for a large Christian organisation based in Jerusalem. He grew up in the West Bank and has lived many years outside the Holy Land. Despite their initial rather 'hot' interaction, and their many differences they requested to room together when we came out of the desert to Aquaba for our last night. They had stepped towards each other in response to the Lord's challenge. Once again God had invested a large portion of His grace among a few local believers to accomplish his goal to 'break down the barrier of the dividing wall'.

Musalaha works hard to keep the new relationships fostered by the desert encounters going once the trip is over. After a young people's desert break in 1999, Musalaha took about 25 Palestinian and Jewish young people to redecorate a Palestinian church and rooms nearby used by a Messianic congregation in Jerusalem. As well as keeping relationships alive, the project reached out to both Palestinian and Jewish communities, providing them with a tangible model of Christ's reconciliation and love.

A trip to join the Pavilion of Hope at EXPO 2000's World Fair, Bible studies and practical projects all help to keep believers communicating with each other. Even the simple choice of singing songs at Musalaha conferences in Arabic and Hebrew rather than English encourages Jewish and Arab believers to embrace each other. One Palestinian participant said, "I had resentment towards Jews which I couldn't explain. I would feel angry when I heard Hebrew being spoken around me.' As a result of joining the Musalaha trip to EXPO he said, 'God gave me a love I never had for Jewish believers and enabled me to develop relationships with them. I even spend time on my own worshipping in Hebrew now!" The route of reconciliation that Musalaha has chosen is slow. It does not start by confronting issues but builds bridges first. "In building relationships and trust," Salim says, "we must learn to listen to each other's history and embrace each other's culture. Experiencing koinonia is fundamental for any reconciled relationship. "There is an opportunity for reconciled Jews and Arabs to be an example and model to the whole of Israeli society. Even though the Christians are a small minority, we can be a vital voice."

For more news of Musalaha's activities or to contribute to their work contact Musalaha PO Box 52110, Jerusalem 91521, Israel. E-mail Contributions towards Musalaha's work can also be sent to the Restorer Trust (for Musalaha) St Peter's Parish Centre, 347 Church Road, Bolton, Lancs BL1 5RR.