What do we mean by the word ‘peace’? Do we mean an absence of strife? Do we mean a forgetting? Do we mean a forgiveness? Or do we mean a great weariness, an exhaustion, an emptying out of rancour?
“What do we mean by the word ‘peace’? Do we mean an absence of strife? Do we mean a forgetting? Do we mean a forgiveness? Or do we mean a great weariness, an exhaustion, an emptying out of rancour? It seems to me that what most people mean by ‘peace’ is victory. The victory of their side. That is what ‘peace’ means to them, whilst to the others ‘peace’ means defeat.”
Susan Sontag, 9 May 2001
These portentous words – both in terms of their significance as much as omen – are excerpted from the acceptance speech that Susan Sontag delivered in Jerusalem last month when she was awarded the Jerusalem Prize. This literary honour has been given at the biennial Jerusalem International Book Fair ever since 1963 to a writer whose work explores the freedom of the individual in society.
In developing her theme, Susan Sontag also delivered a grave and unvarnished warning. If the idea takes hold that peace, while in principle desirable, entails an unacceptable renunciation of legitimate claims, the most plausible outcome will be the practice of war by less than total means. Calls for peace will become, if not fraudulent, then certainly premature. Peace, Sontag added, will then be transmogrified into a space people no longer know how to inhabit. Peace will then have to be re-settled and re-colonised!
Prophetic words indeed! And in so saying, Sontag fulfilled admirably her role as writer whose primary task is not merely to harbour opinions but to tell the truth and refuse to be an accomplice of half-truths and misinformation. Indeed, good writers should free their readers up and shake them up. They should open avenues of compassion and new interests. They should remind readers that they must aspire to become better than they are, and that they can change in their own perceptions and beliefs. In the words of Cardinal Newman, “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Words are arrows struck in the rough hide of reality.
These thoughts – and many more – crossed my mind following two distinct events that occurred last Wednesday! The first event was the meeting of the Middle East Forum of Churches Together for Britain and Ireland (CTBI). During the four-hour meeting at Inter-Church House in London, the Forum members – representing a motley of churches and church-related organisations in the UK – met with a number of delegates who had visited the Holy Land in March 2001 as part of a larger CTBI-led Church delegation to the Middle East. The visitors shared their impressions on their trip, and discussed somewhat cursorily the report on the visit meant to come out soon. Speaker after speaker described the suffering of the Palestinians. Speaker after speaker – some of them more emotively and volubly than others – exclaimed about the injustices faced by Palestinians and expressed their sadness at the unravelling of the peace efforts. They underlined that Israelis and Palestinians approach their ‘peace negotiations’ from different premises – a poignant reminder of what Sontag referred to in her speech regarding the definition of peace! They referred to the gutted Palestinian economy, and lamented the lack of prospects and frustration as much as hopelessness amongst people there.
That same evening, I watched a short documentary that Hilary Andersson (former BBC correspondent in Jerusalem) had done on the peace movements within Israeli and Palestinian societies for the BBC1 Newsnight television programme. Hilary is an outstanding and well-informed journalist, and her piece focused a fair bit on Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam. This is a unique inter-cultural and educational experiment for peace that brings together young Israelis and Palestinians in a genuine attempt to bridge gaps and draw the two peoples together. But the very use of this ‘oasis of peace’ (as the word means in both Hebrew and Arabic) as a peg for the documentary rendered the contextual reality more eloquent for me. It seems that the very notion of peace has been subsumed these days to the reductive role of a few young men and women in a compound! Once again, Susan Sontag’s words rang true. This piece had struck an arrow at the rough hide of reality in Israel and Palestine. It suggested that peace had to be re-settled and re-colonised if it were to stand a chance – ever!
But why has the political situation deteriorated to such a violent level of enmity and mistrust between the two erstwhile partners for peace? Can the George Tenets of this world impose a sheer ceasefire upon those warring sides? Will any such attempt at a cessation of hostilities succeed? I believe not!
I have argued in previous articles that this latest episode in violence is the result of a failure of the Oslo process to deliver any real peaceful dividends to the Palestinians. I have also argued that those seven years of ‘quiet’ negotiations or multi-tier diplomacy did not lead to any concrete gains for the Palestinians, and that the Camp David scenario would have placed the Palestinian territories into a quarantined and non-porous reservation! I have equally added that the past nine months have been a process of decolonisation for Palestinians against the occupation of their land by Israel.
As a committed Christian pacifist, I still insist that a cessation of all violence between the two parties is one of the rudimental needs for peace in the region. But I also add that such a move alone will not be sufficient. It is well nigh impossible to expect the Palestinians – whether they are affiliated to the PLO, Hamas or Islamic Jihad – to end nine months of an uprising that cost them – and the Israelis – hundreds of fatalities and thousands of casualties and return to the way things were before the fateful date of 29 September 2001. In order to achieve any progress between the two parties and foment good faith, Israel – as the party with the upper hand and the better stack of cards – has a solemn responsibility to make some fateful decisions.
So let me start first by expressing my belief that the Israeli doctrine of collective responsibility, as a rationale for collective punishment, is never justified – either ethically or militarily. Israel cannot use its disproportionate firepower against civilians, demolish their homes or destroy their orchards and groves, deprive their livelihood and their right to employment, schooling, medical services, let alone trammel any access to neighbouring towns or communities, as a punishment for hostile military activity – which may or may not even be in the vicinity of these civilians. For another, I also believe that there can be no peace between Palestinians and Israelis until the planting of artificial Israeli communities in the Palestinian territories is halted and is followed – preferably sooner rather than later – by the dismantling of a large number of settlements and the withdrawal of the military units amassed to guard them.
Just let me take Gaza as an example of this lack of parity. Gaza consists of 360 square kilometres of land. In 60% of this strip of land, 1.1 million Palestinians live in deplorable conditions. Well over 50% of the adult population are currently unemployed, and 72% of the children as well as 76% of the women are suffering from clinical post-traumatic disorder – with symptoms ranging from bed-wetting to nightmares – due to the shelling of their neighbourhoods by the Israeli army. In this strip, the refugee camp of Khan Younis houses 200,000 refugees and faces the Jewish settlement of Gush Katif. It has no central sewage system and dirt roads. Conversely, and on 40% of that same strip of land – which includes a fair chunk of the coastline and the underground aquifers in an area that is mostly sand dune and hardscrabble – 6000 settlers live and are guarded by 10,000 Israeli soldiers.
The Jewish settlers in Gaza, unlike some of those in the West Bank, claim no biblical justification for their presence there. They just see it as somewhere to live! In fact, Israelis who were looking for space to spread out were encouraged by successive Israeli governments to move to Gaza and settle on this land. They were enticed by government grants towards mortgages, reductions on income tax and cheap houses. Some work in hothouse agriculture on the strip whilst others commute to jobs in Israel.
The situation in Gaza is a rough microcosm of the pungent reality in most of the West Bank. The pervading poverty, the confinement to spaces that are tightly controlled and hemmed in, and the increase in Israeli settlements, have bred a generation of radicals. These people are ostensibly willing to die for their cause – as much out of conviction as out of a politics of despair. They are not going to accept a ceasefire that is imposed upon them without a radical improvement in their livelihoods – a return on their investment in the process.
Palestinians need to see an end to collective punishment and settlements. Israel needs to feel secure. The future prospects for peace and reconciliation for both sides depend on this bipolar approach. In a holy land immersed in a multiplicity of truths, it is imperative to meet the needs of the two peoples and three faiths on a symmetrical basis. This in itself implies addressing the concerns of two fearful – distressed – communities. What is required is a bold and proactive vision within a framework of global ethics that musters up the courage to offer concessions, abate stereotypes and persist in dialogue.
I would like to be a martyr, and I would like you to be safe all the time. I want to go now to the Zionist checkpoint. I will carry my knife with me, and I am going to be a martyr and will go to paradise. I will be a little bird in paradise. I will have a big palace, with food and water, and rivers of honey and yoghurt – everything that I could wish for. I can see it now. I hope, mum, that you will agree with my request. Don’t be sad. Don’t cry, because I will be very safe. I know you will cry, but don’t be very, very sad because all the people and children are going to be martyrs, and I want to be one of them
These are the words written by Alaa Abu Shamala, an 8-1/2 year old refugee child from Hay al-Amal / Hope Neighbourhood in the refugee camp of Khan Younis in Gaza. But a small child should not have to write such a note to her mother as she prepares to wage her own ‘war’ against Israel! Yet, the very fact that she has done so goes a long way toward extrapolating the Palestinian psyche today. It shows a sense of deep despair that is coupled with real anger and naA~