O God, grant peace to Your Holy Land and to the whole world. Root it deeply in the hearts of all humanity. Your divine peace is one that the world cannot give. It sets free all those caught up in the nets of physical and psychological violence, whether perpetrator or victim.

O God, grant peace to Your Holy Land and to the whole world. Root it deeply in the hearts of all humanity. Your divine peace is one that the world cannot give. It sets free all those caught up in the nets of physical and psychological violence, whether perpetrator or victim.

Prayer for Peace by the Churches of Jerusalem

Three portentous events marked the Holy Land last week. The first was a suicide bombing in Rishon Letzion, just outside Tel Aviv, which served as a stark reminder that the whole region still remains vulnerable to further mayhem and violence. Then, the siege of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem came to an end after thirty-eight challenging days when one of the holiest sanctuaries for Christianity had become the political pawn between two warring parties. Finally, a massive rally of well over 70,000 men and women was organised by the Peace Now movement at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. Speaker after speaker called for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza ‘for Israel’s sake’ and urged PM Ariel Sharon to pursue the pan-Arab [Saudi] peace plan. The rally coincided with an interview given by Israeli FM Shimon Peres to CNN correspondents Novak, Hunt and Shields in which he conceded that ‘a Palestinian state is inevitable as soon as possible’. ‘When I think back on Oslo’, he segued, ‘I feel maybe we made a mistake by not offering [Palestinians] a state of their own’.

Much like countless other peoples the world over, I shuddered with revulsion and pain at the television pictures of all those Israeli civilians who were murdered in the latest tit-for-tat killings. But I also celebrated the end of a most painful chapter in the history of the Basilica of the Nativity, and was heartened that the Israeli pro-peace voice had at long last chosen to articulate its own standpoint against the continuing folly of more bloodletting.

Today, I would like to sew together some of my thoughts on those developments that play a key role in the search for an equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have discussed those thoughts with men and women of different religious confessions, political persuasions and geographical locations, and am encouraged that there are many ‘silent bees’ working relentlessly toward a constructive vision for the future of this land.

Thought One

In a recent article, the Jerusalem-based Latin-rite Roman Catholic Primate of Jerusalem, Patriarch Michel Sabbah, tabulated twelve points that encapsulate the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. He stressed upon Israel’s unquestionable right to exist and live in security. He urged the Palestinian Authority, Israel and the international community to return promptly to the negotiations in order to put an end to violence. He also reminded Israel that the pan-Arab [Saudi] Plan of March 2002 represents a sign and an invitation to Israel that the Arab countries are ready to initiate peace with Israel both as a state and a people.

However, the one recurrent and consistent theme of the article was a reminder that the root cause of all the violence and instability in the region is the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian land, ‘with all that it implies of deprivation or limitation of freedom, suffering and humiliation’. In other words, the keyword upon which this high-ranking Christian cleric predicated his whole argument remained that of occupation. 

Thought Two

The prolonged saga of the Basilica of the Nativity was an indelicate chapter in the history of this holy place. An editorial in the Jerusalem Post on 7 May 2002 entitled ‘Danger Square’ attacked the armed gunmen who stormed into the church, took some 200 people hostage and used the church and their captives as shields. I too was unnerved when those armed Palestinians sought refuge in that church even though I understood their motivation. As a Christian, I was disturbed that a sanctuary of peace was in the grip of conflict and standoff.  However, I was equally distressed by the Israeli reaction that lay siege to the church and deprived a whole town of 100,000 inhabitants from sustenance and movement for well over a month.

The 17th century French playwright Molière once wrote that ‘hypocrisy is a fashionable vice, and all fashionable vices pass for virtues’. Indeed, what also astounded me was the loud silence of part of the Christian world when the birthplace of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ had been transformed into a war zone. With some notable exceptions, much of the Christian world did not manage to galvanise a concerted reaction, and it felt at times that universal Christianity was almost an absent player from a script that was nonetheless relevant to its history!
Thought Three

In one sense, the silence of the Christian world reminded me also of the words of greeting that Patriarch Michel Sabbah extended to Cardinal Roger Etchegeray in Jerusalem on 5 May 2002.  The Cardinal had flown to Israel in order to assist with the mediation efforts that brought an end to the standoff at Bethlehem. 

Patriarch Sabbah greeted his guest by asserting that it was high time to re-construct the peace and sanctity of the holy land. To achieve that goal, he added, it was important to perceive the mystery of God.  He wondered in what sort of God do the believers of the Holy Land – Jews, Christians and Muslims – place their faith?  Surely if everyone professes in the same God, then the point of encounter for all believers would be equal dignity for all peoples, an end to oppression by man against his brother, and an impermissibility to kill one another. 

However, he also threw down the gauntlet to the Churches of Jerusalem. He asked them to examine their role in society. Are they builders of the future or guardians of the past? Are they the educators of the faithful in the midst of a long and bloody confrontation between two peoples, or are they merely the keepers of rites and devotions in a political and social void that encourages local Christians to emigrate?

Not unlike the Latin Patriarch, the Jerusalem-based lawyer Jonathan Kuttab also laid forth his own challenge. In a recent article entitled ‘A Call for Non-Violent Resistance Strategy in Palestine’ published by the Centre for Policy Analysis on Palestine, Kuttab argued strongly for a ‘strategic, long-term commitment’ to non-violent resistance. He stated that ‘political discussion within the community must be revived so that participation is universal and everyone has a voice instead of a gun’. He called for fresh Palestinian elections, and focused his strategy largely ‘on the issues of the settlements and the occupation’ that he deemed winnable despite the virtual absence to date of a culture of non-violence within most Middle Eastern societies.

Thought Four

An analysis by Alan Sipress entitled ‘US peace effort hobbled by division’ published in the Washington Post last week concluded that the US administration is hopelessly adrift in its policy over the Middle East. It is also riven by fundamental theosophical differences – between the State department and Pentagon – over whether to pursue aggressively a negotiated settlement or give PM Sharon greater ‘latitude’ to eliminate Palestinian ‘militants’.

This uncertainty has led to massive confusion and a failed policy on the ground. According to Ivo H Daalder of the Brookings Institution, ‘when you do not know how to get from A to B, which is certainly the case with this administration, you are subject to the winds of the day’. Daalder added, ‘you are seeing a president and an administration that are not able at this point to make a decision one way or another. So you have a policy that is all over the place’. Echoing those words, Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, explained that, ‘The president is caught in the classic leadership dilemma of trying to find a balance between domestic considerations and tough foreign policy choices’.

Indeed, Israel along with its neo-conservative as much as fundamentalist Christian allies in the USA, want to make Chairman Yasser Arafat the focus of Middle Eastern diplomacy. Sharon’s insistence on seeing Palestinian political reform before embarking on new negotiations would mean putting off a political deal for the foreseeable future. Conversely, European and Arab allies of the USA want to make a political settlement the real focus. This would require pressing Sharon to drop his long-time unwillingness to negotiate over fundamental Palestinian political demands that first and foremost would bring an end to Israel’s 35-year occupation of land.

The Time magazine, in a major article by Tony Karon dated 8 May 2002, wrote that ‘the Bush administration agreed with Sharon – and with most Palestinians – on the need to transform the Palestinian Authority from Arafat’s corrupt and authoritarian personal fiefdom into a more transparent, accountable and democratic body.  But all have different ideas of what this may mean in practice. The Israelis want, primarily, to be rid of Arafat in the belief that an alternative leadership may be more inclined to accept Israeli terms. The Americans want good governance and an end to terrorism. And the Palestinians want to keep Arafat in power, but as the leader of an entity truly representative of the will and interests of its citizenry – and therefore in all likelihood less rather than more amenable to the sorts of deals Arafat embraced in the past’.

An editorial in the Financial Times entitled ‘Looking Beyond Violence’ dated 8 May 2002 supported the premise that a fresh but serious political initiative is crucial at this stage. It suggested that ‘the reform of Palestinian institutions in itself is not sufficient to promote peace and cannot replace the need for ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state’. It stipulated that President Bush must work with both parties in order to stop the violence and initiate a confidence-building process that tackles the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, as Stephen Sackur revealed last week in the BBC 4 radio documentary ‘A Lobby to Reckon With’, the powerful fusion of political influence, organised sentiment, Manichaeistic leverage, absolutist ideology and dedicated activism wielded by the different pro-Israel lobbies in the USA – and particularly in Congress – has meant that the Administration remains incapable of playing any role that even comes close to that of an honest broker. An article by Noam Chomsky in the Guardian daily entitled ‘The Solution is the Problem’ dated 11 May 2002, strongly reinforced this conclusion and challenged the US record or ability to be a peace-broker since its interests were twinned almost exclusively with those of Israel.

Thought Five

An article in the Financial Times entitled ‘The Endless Battle of Ariel Sharon’ dated 8 May 2002 sheds some additional light on the dangerous policies pursued by PM Ariel Sharon. Written by Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, the article enumerates Sharon’s list of failed policies. He mentions that Sharon’s ‘strategy towards Israel’s Arab neighbours has been, wherever possible, to employ overwhelming force to establish effective control. He has tried to manipulate their leaderships with the goal of putting in place compliant rulers’.

However, Alpher contends that Sharon has failed in every one of his endeavours. As Israel’s Minister of Defence in 1981, he set up the abortive Village Leagues in the West Bank and Gaza by installing and arming artificial clan leaders who opposed the PLO influence. He then watched as all his appointees either resigned under PLO pressure or were assassinated. In Lebanon later in 1982, he shattered PLO influence and installed Bashir Gemayel as president under virtual Israeli occupation. Mr Gemayel was assassinated days later, and it took Israel 18 years to extract its forces fully from the chaos of its neighbour.  And Mr Sharon’s campaign against the PLO was also designed to shift Palestinian hegemony to Jordan, topple the Hashemite regime and ‘solve’ the Palestinian problem by creating a substitute Palestinian state to the east of the Jordan river.

Although all these schemes failed, Alpher believes that PM Sharon now seeks to replicate the same disastrous strategy in the West Bank and Gaza. He wants to fragment and humiliate the Palestinian leadership and replace Chairman Arafat. He is not seeking ‘transparency and democracy’ but a compliant Palestinian leadership that will accept the territorial status quo and agree to run a barely autonomous and non-sovereign entity surrounded wholly by Israeli-held territory and enveloped within a belt of Jewish settlements. 

Thought Six

A symposium organised by the Steinmetz Peace research institute in Tel Aviv a fortnight ago threw up some interesting new data as part of their ongoing Peace Index. Over 40% of the Jewish population in Israel (with equal numbers of Likud and Labour voters) indicated that they were prepared to have international intervention in the conflict. Even more surprisingly, 35% of the interviewees said that such intervention could even be in the form of troops who would physically separate Israel from the Palestinian Authority.

Commenting on those figures, David Newman, chairperson of the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University of the Negev and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics, published an Opinion in the Jerusalem Post on 1 May 2002. He suggested that ‘Israel should be the first government to invite and welcome substantial international monitoring and patrolling of the conflict. Recognising the fact that a Palestinian state will sooner or later be back on the international agenda, there is every reason why this should now take place through the aegis of international forces and aid agencies’.

Newman added, ‘A peacekeeping and peace-building force (both components are necessary) would have to be perceived by both sides as not being biased, and it would also have to have some real powers and teeth to implement agreements. [] Now is the time for third-party intervention as a means of implementing peaceful, rather than violent, separation between the two peoples and their respective territories’.

Thought Seven

HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan is the moderator of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP). He is also chairman of the Arab Thought Forum and president of the Club of Rome.  He has been an ardent supporter of co-existence, dialogue and peace.  On 2 May 2002, he issued a call entitled ‘Peace in the Middle East’ on behalf of WCRP. Recalling that Jews, Christians and Muslims are children of Abraham the Father of Faith, he stressed that all religious leaders represented in the WCRP ‘are united in rejecting terror, the intentional killing of innocent people, whether perpetrated by individuals or states, and in their conviction that both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples have the right to live in neighbouring states in peace and security’.
Dealing initially with the crisis at the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the platform of recommendations espoused by WCRP could serve as an ethical chart for Palestinians and Israelis alike. It calls upon:

* Israeli and Palestinian leaders to work together to immediately (a) withdraw the Israeli military forces from all areas earmarked under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority; (b) reject, condemn and take legally permissible action against all terrorism; (c) effect a formal ceasefire; (d) respect human rights and the commitments under the mutual agreements concluded between them; and (e) begin political negotiations aimed at the establishment of a just and durable peace;

* Member states of the Arab League to continue their laudable efforts to establish a comprehensive peace;

* The United Nations to take immediate steps necessary to create peace through mandates and instruments available to it;

* All the states around the world to use their good offices in building peace and desisting from actions that could further exacerbate the conflict;

* The USA to actively exercise its peacemaking role, with the vigour commensurate with its capacity;

* The world community to unite in extending financial and technical assistance for the rehabilitation of war damages and the development of the Palestinian territories;

* Believers around the world, especially Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land, to unite in solidarity for Peace in the Land of Peace.

Thought Eight

Will PM Ariel Sharon be open to those influences encouraging him to lead Israel toward a just and durable peace with its Palestinian neighbours? Will he and his political allies heed the advice offered by the Leader of the Opposition Yossi Sarid or the Speaker of the Knesset Avraham Burg to withdraw from the occupied territories? Will he read the column published by Gideon Levy in the Ha’aretz Israeli newspaper making the point that Israel cannot reject and rebut all criticism simply by reciting forever the mantra that ‘the whole world is against us’? Will he also listen to Richard Cohen whose article ‘Who’s Anti-Semitic’ on 30 April 2002 cautioned that ‘to turn a deaf ear to the demands of Palestinians, to dehumanise them all as bigots, only exacerbates the hatred on both sides. The Palestinians do have a case. Their methods are sometimes – maybe often – execrable, but that does not change the fact that they are a people without a state.  As long as that persists so too will their struggle’.

What I have been saying today in terms of international legality and conflict resolution are neither new nor original!  But neither is the conflict! Flicking through David McDowall’s Report entitled ‘The Palestinians’ that was published as far back as July 1998 on behalf of the London-based Minority Rights Group International, the list of nine recommendations in that booklet co-habit most comfortably with what is being suggested today. Recommendation (1) sums it up when it states that a ‘broad principle of symmetry should be established between the two protagonists. Each party requires clearly-defined territory over which it is sovereign; each is entitled to proper security arrangements to minimise violence inflicted by the official forces or citizens of the other party; and each party should exercise full control over its own borders, including the movement of people’. 

Indeed, the reality has not altered much since then, nor have the perceptions of that reality shifted either. Wisdom, courage and long-sighted strategy remain the three cornerstones for a vision of peace. The Declaration by the leaders of Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia at Sharm el-Sheikh over the weekend provides yet another opportunity for peace. The Arab leaders of those three countries ‘rejected all forms of violence’ and expressed ‘sincere Arab determination to forge peace with Israel’. Will this declaration provide another window for peace?

Justice Oliver Windell Holmes, one of America’s leading jurists, is reputed to have once said that there is no use in telling ghost stories to people who do not believe in ghosts!  A majority of Palestinians and Israelis have long stopped believing in ghosts. However, many still clutch a dream that is predicated on justice, dignity, peace and security despite the pain, bitterness and rancour of the past twenty months. 

Will the world stop re-hashing lazy labels and make that dream come true?
(c)  harry-bvH @ 13 May 2002