Is this the future that we all want for our children? Call from the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem to Palestinians and Israelis, 10 March 2002

Is this the future that we all want for our children?
Call from the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem to Palestinians and Israelis, 10 March 2002

* Prologue?

When defining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today, what are the immediate images that spring to mind? Surely, they are the harrowing pictures of ordinary lives being snuffed out and rent apart by a vicious cycle of violence and revenge that is fuelled as much internally by the fight for control of land as it is externally by international strategic interests. How many times have we watched such footage with furious inadequacy, and how many times have we witnessed human beings becoming cannon fodder to malignant designs? At one time or another, we have all squirmed with the prophets as the land where God chose to reveal His divine will has turned into one blazing killing field!

Just consider the overall figures! Last week, the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem put the number of deaths during the two Palestinian uprisings of December 1987 [prior to the Oslo accords] and September 2000 [following their failure] at 443 Israeli civilian killings (including 50 children) and 2137 Palestinian civilians (including 432 children). Since last week, the grim toll has mounted on both sides every single day with new outrages and fresh fatalities.

* Genesis?

Let me first create a context by turning back the dusty pages of history for a cursory refresher course on the origins of this conflict! As some people might still recall, the British government had declared with the Balfour Declaration of 1917 its support for the formation of a Jewish national home in Palestine. It was in 1947, however, that the UN General Assembly voted to partition British-mandated Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state – along with international trusteeship for Jerusalem. The neighbouring Arab states rejected this decision in 1948 with a full-scale war. By 1949, Israel had won the war and seized territories beyond the delimitation area agreed upon, resulting in a human mass of Palestinian refugees that fled their ancestral homes. Two more wars – the Six-Day War in 1967 and the War of Atonement in 1973 – led rather tortuously to the Madrid conference and later to the 1993 DOP accords. 

However, the famous handshake between PM Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yasser Arafat in Washington did not lead to a honeymoon!  Rather, what many people considered a marriage of convenience became a divorce of necessity. And as with many splits leading to divorces, the process was deeply painful and involved both parties giving up many dreams, as well as making many compromises, so that they could get on with their own lives in peace. The process became messier after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and it is now clear – from independent sources – that the last-minute ‘take it or leave it’ verbal offer made by former PM Ehud Barak was untenable. It will have resulted in a newly-emerging Palestinian ‘caricature state’ which will have been non-sovereign, non-contiguous, non-functional and vulnerable to Israeli political whims and military dictates! Moreover, Israeli settlements increased in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem – expanding the number of illegal settlers on Arab occupied land to about 400,000 and shrinking the Palestinian territories to an even smaller area that resembled isolated cantons in a larger Israeli landmass. 

* Peaks & Troughs?

In the current climate, the prospects for peace and reconciliation appear quite bleak. Many analysts believe that the region will continue to spin in its vortex of bloodletting a while longer before the conflict attains another peak and a new line is drawn. But even that outcome is not an absolute either! PM Ariel Sharon’s ‘vision’ seems to consist of pounding the Palestinians into submission before sitting down to negotiate with them. In the name of national security, his relentless tactics of targeted assassinations, sidelining Arafat, strafing Palestinian towns and villages with helicopter gunships and bombarding key Palestinian Authority installations, play directly – and some would say quite deliberately – into the hands of extremists. Allowing them to move into the power vacuum, it exacerbates further the violence, and in turn ‘justifies’ an even stronger crackdown by the Israeli military behemoth.

But why are the Palestinians responding with violence?  Simply put, they see it as resisting the occupation of their land. People who have lost all hope and hold no power over their own lives resort to freedom fighting or terrorism – and the label shifts depending on which side of the political fence one sits on. Although such acts are clearly wrong and horrific in themselves, history has shown time and again that violence becomes the last resort of a people starved of justice.
But Palestinians are also fighting with violence because the so-called Oslo process turned into a failure that did not deliver any concrete solutions. One just needs to look at the many Israeli settlements that have been built in strategically crucial locations – and with a system of roads or security highways – which splinter the Palestinian lands into smaller disconnected pockets with limited supplies of electricity and water. Engaged in a battle over demographics, Palestinians are not even allowed to build their own houses and a ‘matrix of control’ is gradually being imposed upon the occupied territories through Israeli settlements and house demolitions. (An estimated 17,000 houses have been demolished by Israel in the Palestinian territories since 1967, and this trend has accelerated in the past year.) Furthermore, a system of closure – through a network of checkpoints, curfews and unmanned roadblocks or trenches – now holds three million Palestinians in a stranglehold. This has resulted in a sharp rise in unemployment, hunger and hardship among Palestinians and has created a pressure cooker of resentment, rage, despair and thirst for retaliation.

However, I still believe the conflict is indeed attaining a peak that will compel both sides to stand down and enter into meaningful negotiations. I posit that once the pain threshold Israel suffers for not having peace far exceeds the threshold of having peace, then peace will become possible in the Holy Land. In the meantime, it is most unfortunate that many more Israeli and Palestinian children, women and men might lose well their lives before leaders with true statesmanship rise to the occasion. But visionary leaders who can achieve a breakthrough are scarce today. The Labour party in Israel – once an official opposition – is snuggling up to the government when it is not busy chasing its own tail. The Bush administration is engaged in tepid peace semantics (and despatching General Anthony Zinni to the region might be more an indication of an imminent attack on Iraq than any credible hands-on involvement with the conflict). The European Union is still away on indefinite sick leave! And the increasing disarray and hopelessness experienced by most Palestinians renders them even more dangerously self-sacrificial. In all, we are eyeing a recipe for disaster!

* Signs of Hope?

Yet, in the midst of this rubble we define as human behaviour, and despite the blood-curdling vengefulness and political posturing that have become the trends in the conflict, one can still detect some bleary signs of hope!

Two hundred Israeli families belonging to an organisation called the Parents’ Circle, and one hundred forty Palestinian families affiliated to the National Movement for Change, are one desperate illustration of this faint hope. They are men and women who have lost relatives during the past eighteen months but have still managed to come together to organise joint educational campaigns or talks as well as lobby politicians to get back to the negotiating table. Their members have been derided as traitors or have received regular death threats from extremists who abhor any contact between ‘enemy’ groups. But even when the situation has deteriorated, those men and women have continued speaking out publicly and organising poster campaigns or discussion groups. They have even staged displays of hundreds of coffins in public spaces to make people pause and reflect on the human cost of the conflict. Theirs is a brave voice of reason and justice, of tolerance and reconciliation, which is being lost in the wilderness of growing political extremism.

In the meantime, other non-governmental agencies and ad hoc groups are equally trying to monitor the situation. A group of around seventy Israeli women formed an organisation called Machsomwatch that monitors the action of soldiers and police at checkpoints. The report of one of the founders, Judith Keshet, suggests that Palestinian women are strip-searched at those checkpoints and that Palestinians are forced to sit in cars or buses for hours with their windows open in the pouring rain or shut in extreme heat. They are forced to stand for long periods with their hands in the air after having their Identity Cards confiscated. Another Israeli pressure group, Physicians for Human Rights, has recorded 221 instances of ambulances bearing patients in need of kidney dialysis and cancer treatment being turned back at checkpoints in the past eighteen months – resulting in twenty nine futile deaths. Indignities do not breed trust! 

* Political Theology?

These men and women are the hardy and admirable few who challenge our collective preconceptions about this asymmetric struggle! After all, this conflict can no longer be circumscribed exclusively to images of suicide bombers, vigilante settlers claiming divine right or ambulances hurtling from one hospital to another. It cannot be centred solely round occupation, hatred and anger. It should not be focused only on issues of peace versus security in a non-peaceful and insecure region! This conflict is as much about past dreams becoming present nightmares, and about forlorn hopes transmuting into actual fears. Breaking this cycle of mutual suspicion requires sacrifices that are based on a greater understanding by both sides of each other’s history and agonies. Palestinians should appreciate how deeply the horrendous crimes of the Holocaust are still embedded in the psyche of the Jewish people today. Conversely, Israelis should understand how great a disaster the founding of Israel in 1948 was for Palestinians, and how they have been expected to endure long-term oppression, humiliation, discrimination, subjugation and injustice for thirty-five years.
Indeed, what is happening today in Israel and Palestine touches the very core of every human being and blurs the sharp-edged distinction between predator and prey. The intensity of this conflict has become so self-defeating that it even led Israel to ban the renowned pianist Daniel Barenboim from travelling to Ramallah to play at a school for girls! As an Armenian Christian from Jerusalem, I have over the years forged precious friendships with Israeli Jewish men and women who have told me they were raised to believe that the birth of the state of Israel as a Jewish national homeland was an act of self-preservation. Many have grandparents who survived Auschwitz, whilst others perished in the infernal pain of the Holocaust. A lot of those outward-looking friends now portray some of their countrymen – particularly those racing ahead to build settlements – as the manifestation of a cancer at the heart of the state of Israel. The domination of another people has diminished them morally and corrupted the very lofty and inclusive fabric of the Jewish faith.

In an editorial entitled ‘The War’s Seventh Day’ in the Hebrew daily Ha’aretz on 3 March 2002, former Israeli Attorney-General Michael Ben-Yair (1993-96) writes about the creation of Israel. He states that ‘Israel was born because the Zionist movement realised it must find a solution to the persecution of Jews and because the enlightened world recognised the need for that solution’. However, he adds, Israel chose after 1967 ‘to become a colonial society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring settlers from Israel to the occupied territories, engaging in theft and finding justification for all those activities’. He believes that Israel ‘established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture’, and that Israel is ‘prepared to expand its control atop another nation’s ruins’ and thereby rob itself ‘of its moral justification’. Describing the Palestinian Intifadah as a war of national liberation, he writes that Israeli ‘security cannot be based only on the sword; it must rather be based on [our] principles of moral justice and on peace with [our] neighbours’. Referring to the security measures adopted by Israel to quell Palestinian national aspirations, Ben-Yair adds that ‘the non-existence of the occupation would render them unnecessary.  A black flag hovers over these actions’.  In short, Ben-Yair calls Israel to do away with the occupation. 

* Historical Perspective?

History teaches us that no nation is prepared to live forever under the domination of another. Indeed, Israeli policies today are reminiscent of those of France in early 1958 as the Algerian war approached its climax and brought about the collapse of the IV Republic. Then as now, an increasingly demoralised army confronted an elusive enemy that would stop at nothing. Then as now, terrorism provoked counter-terror, torture and attacks on civilians that merely cemented the bond between the rebels and the occupied Arab population. In the end, France tired of fighting a squalid war on behalf of a million French colonists in Algeria. Today, some Israelis are despairing of a conflict that the Leader of the Opposition in the Knesset [Parliament], Yossi Sarid, calls with some justification a ‘war for the settlements’.

I still think that the ferocity of the latest violence may be a last-ditch effort by some ‘extremists’ on both sides to block any compromise such as that envisioned a fortnight ago by the Saudi plan or even earlier by the Tenet and Mitchell plans. Their actions resemble the politique de pire of the French OAS terrorists who tried to prevent decolonisation in Algeria. It was precisely the threat to democracy posed by such terror tactics that led the broad mainstream of French opinion to conclude – if only for its own political health – that France must disengage from Algeria. It is also what Professor Martin van Crefeld, a Jerusalem-based military strategist, meant earlier this week by stressing that the Israeli political establishment safeguard democracy by reining in the army before it wreaks total havoc with its operations.  

Epilogue?

So what happens next? Can this paroxysm of violence become a psychological turning point in the conflict? I do not wish to assume the schoolmasterly profile of a Dr Pangloss who indulges in ‘perfect solutions’ that come straight out of a Voltaire satire! I am not such an immutable optimist, but I do strongly believe that Israel stands at a crossroads today. It alone holds all the cards. It faces a choice between retrenchment behind the 1967 borders or descent into further chaos. Like France during the Algerian debacle, Israel needs a leader whose strategy for peace and diplomatic vision transcends bullying tactics. As the only true regional democracy, Israel needs an avant-garde leader who takes the bold and unpalatable decision to pull back its army of occupation. Otherwise, the bloodbath will continue since the injustices will also be perpetuated, and the pain of both peoples will only be exacerbated further! Enemies must turn into allies.

Peace requires a leader with the self-confident courage to say ‘Enough is Enough!’  But where is that leader?

Repel a bad deed with one that is better and see: the one with whom you had enmity will turn to be a close ally
Holy Koran, 41:34

(c) harry-bvH @ 10 March 2002