Presentatoin of His Beatitude Michel Sabbah in the Ecumenical Conference in Germany on the 30 May 2003

1. The present situation; the facts on the ground:

1.1 The Holy Land, i.e. Israel and Palestine, is a land of about 27,000 km², and is the home of some 8,000,000 inhabitants, both Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims. In 1948 the state of Israel was proclaimed on 78%, and in 1967 Israel occupied the remaining 22% of the country, known since then as the Occupied Territories.

The State of Israel, on one hand, is a democratic state; 80% of its inhabitants are Jews and 20% are Muslim and Christian Palestinians. All citizens are declared equal before the law, enjoying same rights and duties. However, being a Jewish State, there has always been a big difference between those who are Jews and those who are not.

The Occupied Territories, on the other hand, the remaining 22% has not been annexed by Israel; it has always been administered by Israel as occupied Territory through a military regime.

In the aftermath of the Oslo agreement of 1993, a Palestinian Authority was established on a part of these Occupied Territories, under the supervision of the Israeli Authority. In 2002 with the outbreak of the second Intifada, Israel reoccupied most of the Territories, leaving the Palestinian Authority without any instrument of government. With this direct reoccupation, hard conditions prevailed on the daily life of Palestinians living in these occupied territories: Collective punishment measures inflicted upon them ranged from the general siege on towns and villages, to the demolition of access roads, to hundreds of military checkpoints, to curfews that are very frequently imposed impeding all movements inside the town, to the assassination of Palestinian leaders and activists, to the shelling and demolishing of houses and agricultural structures. This situation led to economic and social strangulation.

1.2 Both Israelis and Palestinians want peace and pray for it, despite the fact that the situation on the ground is far from being a situation of peace. It is rather a situation of cheer violence. Violence reigns everywhere you go in the Holy Land. Violent Israeli military occupation on one hand, and violent Palestinian resistance on the other hand, leading to terrorism in many cases. Meanwhile Israelis blame it on Palestinians and their terrorist attacks on civilians and non-civilians drawing the conclusion that they do not want peace, and hence it is impossible to live with. Palestinians, in their turn, blame it on Israelis and their protracted non-stop military occupation of the portion of land left for them, in addition to all the practices and collective punishment measures inflicted upon them indiscriminately by the Israeli troops. They too are reaching the conviction that Israel is not willing and do not in fact want to relinquish its military occupation and to give them back their freedom and independence.

2. In what consists the present-day conflict?

For the Israeli government it is a question of security and it is a fight against terrorism. This is how they explain the present-day violent situation and their on-going occupation of Palestine with all what this occupation means: collective punishment measures, assassinations, house demolitions…. For Palestinians it is a question of military occupation that is depriving them from their internationally recognized inalienable right to self-determination. This is how they justify their resistance and their attacks on Israelis.

As the facts on the ground demonstrate, there is an impasse at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian problem which is making it insuperably difficult to deal with. It is this utter incompatibility of their respective positions.

Palestinians, I believe, just like every people and nation on God’s earth, have the inalienable right to self-determination, a right – everybody is aware of – that has been repeatedly recognized by the international community. They have the fundamental human right to be free and independent on their own land. As for terrorism – that we all condemn and rebuke whether it comes from the Israelis or the Palestinians – it should be known that it is military occupation that generates it. Occupation is the fertile soil for terrorism.

However, it is not enough to condemn and rebuke terrorism. We are not talking about theoretical issues here. We are talking about innocent human lives, Israeli, Palestinian and other lives, that are being sacrificed on daily basis. We need to put an end to terrorism and this end would never come if we continue to wide-shut our eyes on the reasons leading to this situation. If the cause is uprooted the symptoms will automatically disappear. If we want to stop violence and terrorism we have to put an end to military occupation. Palestinians must be given back their freedom and their independence on the territories occupied back in 1967. Then, and only then, Israeli security will be reached and fear will disappear from their life.

3. Is peace possible?

Yes peace is possible; on two main conditions however:
1- Security for Israel;
2- Independence for Palestinians.
These conditions are complementary not contradictory. The creation of a viable independent Palestinian State will put an end to violence since military occupation, its main reason and cause, will disappear.

3.1 What is required for these conditions to be implemented?
Israel is by far the stronger party, it is up to it to take the first move in order to break this vicious circle of violence. Israel should put an end to its military re-occupation with all what this military occupation comes with and follow the diplomatic path of negotiations within the framework of the internationally recognized inalienable rights of the Palestinians. This is the only path for peace.

On the Palestinian side the, PNA and the representatives of the Palestinian people have already done their homework and made the internal transformation required by Israel and by the international community and are ready to go to peace talks.

The Arab world also has clearly expressed its decision to reach a comprehensive peace with Israel in the Arab summit of Beirut (Lebanon) in March 2002.

3.2 The roadmap proposed today can be the road to peace. However, we must remember and admit that through military power one can impose a peace treaty on a government but never on the soul of a people. Therefore if with the roadmap it is intended to give Palestinians their fundamental rights, this road will definitely lead to peace and to security also. If on the contrary it intends to impose more limits on Palestinians, limits which will hinder their freedom and independence, this road will never lead to peace. Peace treaties could be reached between the two governments, but the soul of the people will keep on claiming for their full rights.

It is high time to read history and to learn our lessons. This conflict is one hundred year-old now. Israel has won so many military battles, and so far it has been the sole victor, but without peace nor security. Military victories by themselves do not bring about security. Only peace, built on justice and the respect of human rights could bring about security.

3.3 Why did not Israelis decide yet to make peace when making peace is in their hands? Why do Israelis continue to refuse to give back to the Palestinians the Territories occupied in 1967, and which are only 5000 km² or 22% of the entirety of historic Palestine, of which the State of Israel today has 78%?

a. Is Israel still harboring the dream of having all of the Palestinian territories, EMPTY, without Palestinians? After one hundred years of conflict, it is time to realize that this dream is rather an impossible thing to reach. Today, three million Palestinians live in the Occupied Territories. Israel must face the living Palestinian reality and deal with it. Israel must stop harboring any transfer dream.
 b. Israel does not trust the Palestinians? It fears that they will not be able, once they have their independent state, to be peaceful neighbors? This supposition is unfounded. Manifestations of Palestinian hostility today are not due to inborn hostility against the Israeli people; they are rather an expression of the resistance of the Palestinian people against what they consider as tentative to dispossess them from their land. Once the conflict is over, the hostility will be over too.

3.4 If Israel truly does not believe that the end of hostilities is a possibility within the soul of Israelis and Palestinians, then the region is condemned to permanent war and violence. It will be an absolute deadlock for the region and for the survival of Israel in the region. The only way out of this deadlock is to believe in peace and to build it on justice and on equality of rights and duties.
Israel will always be surrounded by Arab countries, including Palestine. Until now, Israel did not succeed to have normal relations with them. The reason is that the policy followed so far by Israel and the international community, to protect the new State of Israel, while maintaining injustices against the Palestinians, have caused and nourished hostile feelings in all Arab countries. If you truly want to protect your friend, you do not surround him with enemies, but rather with friends.

In order to transform neighboring Arab countries into friends, the actual policy should then be changed. This transformation is not an impossibility. It is enough to implement justice for the Palestinians, to put an end to the occupation and to create the State of Palestine. Once the Palestinians are satisfied, once they are free and independent in their state, they will become friendly to Israel. Once the Palestinians are friendly to Israel, the other Arab peoples will be just as friendly. Only in this way, when Israel is surrounded by friends, it will live with the long wished for security.

 4. Where do we Christians stand in this conflict?
 The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is essentially a political one, between two peoples on nationalistic basis. Still it has religious connotations, as both peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, refer in this conflict to their religious memories and to their holy places. Therefore, this conflict has also a Christian aspect, because it is in and around the places where Christianity started. This conflict is also and mainly a direct threat to the survival of the small Christian community of these holy places.

In the Palestinian Occupied Territories Christians are Palestinians. There is also with them an important international Christian presence. In Israel also there is a local, although smaller, Israeli and Jewish Christian presence as well as an international Christian presence. On both sides Christians are an integral part of their people, they are an integral part of their aspirations, as well as of their sufferings. And they are paying the same heavy toll in order to reach peace, justice and security. 

In Jerusalem, we are thirteen traditional mutually recognized Churches: Orthodox (Greek), Eastern Orthodox (Armenians, Syrians, Copts and Ethiopians), Catholics and Protestants. All of us have a common reflection on the situation. The conflict and its sacrifices have their impact upon the daily life of our faithful in their parishes as well as of all Palestinians.

Our position as Churches is to be the voice of the oppressed and the poor. To give a voice to our faithful as well as to the international community inviting it to put an end to the tragedy of which both peoples are victims. What I have said so far is our common position.

“In the face of the Palestinians we see the image of God. In the face of the Israeli we see the image of God. And the love of God is addressed to them both. We see that the oppression imposed upon the Palestinians takes away this image, and we have to renew it constantly in the face of the Palestinian and in the soul of the Israeli. Today, whatever be the situation, we have to go back to the basic truth that both, the strong and the weak, have to recognize: no human being should remain a victim of the oppression of his brother. The Palestinian must not remain victim of the oppression. The Israeli must not remain victim of the fear in which he is living. Putting an end to oppression is at the same time putting an end to fear and insecurity. The basic evil must be eradicated, and the basic evil is occupation. Then the land will know security and live in peace with its two peoples Israeli and Palestinian. We believe in the grace of God who is the giver of peace and who can take away fear. We have to work together in order to accept and to recognize each other, instead of nourishing a mutual fear of each other”.

       +Michel Sabbah, Patriarch

Oekumenische Kirchentag – Berlin
30 May 2003