The Holy Father, his entourage, and the international media are preparing to visit the Holy Land May 8-15. Pope Benedict XVI will undoubtedly encourage further peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
But the prospect of a two-state solution to the ongoing conflict has become more remote, as the situation on the ground is constantly changing. Here are the facts as they stand now, and which will confront the Holy Father when he arrives in Amman, Jordan on May 8:
1. The world’s oldest Christian community — the Christians of historic Palestine — will be gone within two generations if the Church does not act to protect them.
2. Estimates show that more than 10 percent of the Palestinian Christian community on the West Bank has immigrated in the last five years alone. There is a corresponding number of Palestinian Christians leaving from towns like Nazareth and East Jerusalem located within Israel.
3. Tension with Muslims is not the primary reason for the exodus — only 11 percent of Palestinian Christians cite it as a reason for immigration. In fact, these communities have historically coexisted peacefully, along with indigenous Jewish communities, for centuries before the birth of the modern Israeli conflict.
4. Palestinian Muslims are also leaving the West Bank for the same reason as Palestinian Christians: Living under a military occupation reflecting an unresolved geopolitical conflict destroys any hope of a future for their children.
5. Palestinian Christians have very little freedom of movement. Most have never worshipped in Jerusalem’s holy places, even though Bethlehem and Jerusalem are only a few miles apart and were historically connected for years. A system of segregated roads exists for Palestinians and Israelis, and checkpoints prevent Palestinians from traveling even between their own communities entirely within the West Bank. Many Israelis and official international observers say that these checkpoints and segregated roads are not there for Israel’s legitimate security interests, but to enable its illegal settlements to continue expanding.
6. Palestinians have been the subject of frequent attack — often with civilians and their homes in the direct line of fire. Since 1967, the Israeli army demolished more than 20,000 Palestinian houses, uprooted more than 3,000,000 trees, revoked residency rights of more than 6,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem, imprisoned more than 700,000 Palestinians for various periods of time, and killed or assassinated 15,000.7. Since Israel removed its settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2004, Israeli settlements have expanded at their fastest rate in history. Moreover, Israel has issued plans to build more than 150,000 illegal housing units in Israeli settlements. In 2008, amidst the “settlement freeze” agreed upon in the 2007 Annapolis framework, tenders for new settlement building increased by 550 percent. Actual settlement construction has increased by 30 percent since the launching of the new round of peace talks.
8. After Israel removed all of its settlers and its permanent military presence from Gaza, it actually tightened its control over the area, devastating the economy and destabilizing the political situation, and then increased its settlements at the fastest rate in history. Since it removed 8,000 settlers from Gaza, over 50,000 new settlers have come to the West Bank in less than 3 years. The Israeli army is still in effective control of 24 percent of the land along Gaza’s northern and eastern borders.
9. Since negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians began in 1993, Israeli GDP has increased by an estimated 250 percent, while Palestinian GDP has decreased by more than 40 percent. Palestinians have been locked in a series of virtual, disconnected, and militarily controlled “cantons.” This makes a fertile soil for extremists.
10. Israel’s 21-day incursion into Gaza left an immense humanitarian crisis: More than 50,800 Gazans were left homeless; 80 percent of the population are now dependent on assistance; between 35 and 60 percent of the agriculture industry was wrecked (60 percent of the agricultural land in the north of the Strip may no longer be arable); 219 factories were destroyed or severely damaged; 48 percent of the 122 health facilities assessed were found to be damaged or destroyed; 15 of Gaza’s 27 hospitals and 41 primary health care centers suffered damages; 14,000 homes, 68 government buildings, and 31 NGOs were either totally or partially damaged — as a result, an estimated 600,000 tons of concrete rubble will need to be removed.
The communities of Israel and Palestine are historically interdependent. Each must have the ability to live in dignity within its own community. The Church must offer a universal message of hope, while not neglecting to care for its own. Indeed, the fate of Palestinian Christians and the Holy Land itself are irrevocably linked to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.Benedict XVI, more than anyone else, understands the transformative power of faith and will bring that message to all the children of Abraham in the Holy Land.