Yesterday, the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem met with US Secretary of State Colin Powell. Representing all thirteen Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Churches in the Holy Land, they handed the American host-diplomat a letter in which they shared a common Christian vision for both Israelis and Palestinians to ‘live in their own state, equally, equitably, justly and peacefully’.








From Bethlehem …               to Haifa …   to Jenin …    to Jerusalem …

Justice and peace must kiss each other
Ps 85:10

Yesterday, the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem met with US Secretary of State Colin Powell. Representing all thirteen Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Churches in the Holy Land, they handed the American host-diplomat a letter in which they shared a common Christian vision for both Israelis and Palestinians to ‘live in their own state, equally, equitably, justly and peacefully’. In their letter, they stated that ‘the security of Israel is dependent upon justice for the Palestinians’, and reminded Secretary Powell that ‘justice must be implemented according to international legitimacy as represented by UN resolutions 242, 338 and 1397’. Stressing that all forms of violence by both parties must cease immediately, and that Israel must withdraw forthwith from the re-occupied territories, the clerics also asked for an international protection force to secure the lives of the people. They offered their own proposals to help end the painful stand-off at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and articulated the Christian timeless dream ‘that these two peoples who represent the three monotheistic religions may live in just peace and freedom, in security and reconciliation’.

Three days earlier, the South African writer Breyten Breytenbach – who had spent a week in Israel as part of the delegation of the International Parliament of Writers – wrote an Open Letter to General Ariel Sharon in the National Magazine. He made comparisons between the apartheid regime of South Africa and the policies undertaken over long years by Israel against the Palestinians in the occupied territories. He referred to ‘the disdain shown for the humanity of the Palestinians’, and the way in which the Palestinians were subjugated and humiliated at every crossroad. He described the Israeli illegal settlements as ‘armed colonies built on land shamelessly stolen from the Palestinians, and intended to thwart and annul any possibility of Palestinian statehood’. He accused Israel of perpetuating ‘the inanity of occupation, with detour roads as well as checkpoints, that have little to do with security and everything with the urge to humiliate, frustrate, harass and drive to insane rage an occupied population’.
A rueful axiom of Middle Eastern diplomacy is that progress may become possible only when the situation turns unbearable. With this in mind, Charles Hill, research fellow at the Hoover Institution and lecturer in international studies at Yale University, wrote an article in the Financial Times on 10 April 2002 where he argued that the American task now should be to structure two concurrent efforts. On the inner circle of the conflict, he wrote, it must work to see that terrorism is suppressed and the fighting on both sides reduced as far as possible. On the outer circle, he added, there must be an intensive effort to apply the pan-Arab peace plan that was adopted in Beirut some weeks ago. The plan stipulates a potential Arab willingness to accept Israel as a legitimate state in the region once the latter withdraws from occupied Palestinian lands. Since this bipolar plan enjoys the support of the Arab world, Hill believes that it would also empower the Palestinians to strike a deal for peace with Israel without feeling that they are defying the larger Arab consensus. As such, the inner and outer circles could meet up.

Jeremy Vine, presenter of the BBC2 Newsnight programme, has been covering over the past week the mayhem and carnage that have shaken the streets of Bethlehem, Haifa, Jenin or Jerusalem. He has referred to the incalculable suffering of both peoples and has admitted that ‘the hazards facing journalists and aid workers are a fraction of the big picture’. He has dealt not only with the perceptible effects of violence, but also with its deeper causes. In a sense, he has underlined a lesson of history that many colonised people have learnt at their own cost! When a people are systematically deprived of justice, livelihood and freedom, they either choose to fight for their cause or else die for their cause. To deal with this conflict, it is incumbent upon the USA to stop dealing superficially with the obvious symptoms but rather address realistically its one constant and underlying cause – the illegal occupation.

But what are the steps necessary to break this vicious cycle of violence? Can Secretary Powell succeed in his diplomatic mission by taking a leaf from President Theodore Roosevelt who reputedly said that ‘one needs to talk softly but carry a big stick’? Or would he resign himself to the ominous headline in the Jerusalem Post Sunday editorial that described his meeting with Chairman Arafat in Ramallah today as the ‘Colin Powell Suicide Mission?

When all is said and done, the key word to this whole conflict remains the occupation that has sadly resulted in murderous and wanton violence. Although former Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly been stressing in the USA this week that the Israeli military campaign in the West Bank is not different from the American one in Afghanistan, the analogy between those two cases does not stand up! Surely, it is obvious that Afghanistan – which produced terror and exported it to the outside world – is neither an occupied country, nor does it have pockets of illegal settlements dotted throughout its entire land! Politely put, Afghanistan is not Palestine!

In practical terms, a cessation of violence from both sides is vital to enable the overall political process to take off. But it cannot become an end in itself. Israel must realise that its long-term future security and prosperity lie in giving back to the Palestinians what is theirs under International law. MK Azmi Bishara (Member of the Israeli Knesset or Parliament) iterated today on CNN that Chairman Arafat could not possibly curb violence without being given the sound edifice of a state. But if PM Sharon refuses to budge on this issue, one begins to question his ulterior designs? Has the personal truly become the political between those two ageing warriors? Or could it be that the Israeli military incursion is meant to make the West Bank safer for Israel to stay rather than for it to leave after it has ended its ‘mop-up’ operations? This open suggestion was put forward by the New York Times columnist and three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize Thomas Friedman only two days ago.

For any American mediation to work, and for any cease-fire to hold, the following primary directives become vital:

* Resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians;
* Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories;
* Robust international observer presence separating the sides and monitoring their compliance with any accord;
* Firm times table for the chronology of negotiations between the two sides as much as the Israeli withdrawals.

However, those steps should not be undertaken simply to create the illusion of momentum. Rather, they should aim to conclude a final agreement that gives birth to a viable and sustainable Palestinian state next to Israel. Palestinians must know that an end of occupation is within reach, as Israelis must also know that permanent security is near.

The novelist F Scott Fitzgerald demonstrated the ability to function normally whilst holding simultaneously two opposing ideas in the mind. Similarly, Secretary Powell’s precarious assignment predicates an end to violence whilst at the very same time generating a time-specific political process that will address the occupation as the core of the conflict. Anything less will render his trip an unfortunate failure and lead to further sips of sour peace.

There is too much history, and too many prophets, in this small land
Mahmoud Darwish

(c) harry-bvH @ 14 April 2002