From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Episcopalians: Israelis and Palestinians drift farther apart as peace process stalls
Thu, 19 Dec 2002 16:49:02 -0500
December 19, 2002
Episcopalians: Israelis and Palestinians drift farther apart as
peace process stalls
by James Solheim
(ENS) The first sections of a wall being built to separate
Israelis and Palestinians have been completed. It is called a
"security fence" by some, intended to prevent more Palestinian
suicide bombers from sneaking into Israel. But it's also been
dubbed the "apartheid wall," using the Afrikaner word for
"separation," by those who are convinced that it is intended to
trap Palestinians in small prisons surrounded by military
checkpoints and settlements.
A group of American journalists concluded after a recent visit,
coordinated by Peaceful Ends through Peaceful Means--an
ecumenical coalition operating under the umbrella of Church
World Service--that the wall is just the latest symbol of the
deteriorating relationship between Palestinians and Israelis. As
it rises on the landscape, it feeds a growing sense of pessimism
about the future, and a cynical conclusion that there is no end
in sight for the conflict so it must be "managed" somehow until
the climate improves.
Jeffrey Halper of the Israeli Coalition against House
Demolitions said in interviews that the finished
wall--encircling the West Bank, Jerusalem and Bethlehem--will be
three times longer than the infamous Berlin Wall, a symbol of
oppression all over the world. It will be six feet higher and
heavily fortified along its 230 miles, built three to six miles
inside the green line separating Israel and the West Bank,
trapping 100,000 Palestinians in a permanent corridor with some
of the most fertile land caught between the border and the wall.
"It will be amazingly oppressive," he added.
"Israel wants a Palestinian state so it can get rid of the
Palestinians, so the question is how to create one that relieves
us of the Palestinian population and leaves us in control,"
Halper said. He thinks that Gaza will become the Palestinian
state, that's why it's being left intact. "Israel needs Gaza as
a garbage can. It's a perfect place for a Palestinian prison, as
Sharon has said."
With elaborate maps he illustrates what he calls a "matrix of
control." With more than 400,000 settlers strategically placed
throughout the West Bank and Gaza, they have "tremendously
strengthened their position" by creating "ghettoes" where 95
percent of the Palestinians live on 200 islands in an area the
size of Delaware. They would occupy only 18 percent of the West
Bank, completely surrounded by Israeli territory, so that the
Palestinians are effectively "imprisoned."
Halper is convinced that Israel doesn't want reconciliation, it
wants separation--but adds that 65 percent of the Israeli public
doesn't want the continuing conflict or the occupation. The only
solution is an international presence, a campaign like the one
against South African apartheid, he argued, because "the
solution won't come from within. As Mandela made clear, there is
no compromise with the apartheid system." And yet, he warned,
calling the beast by its name "opens you to charges of
Violence sets everything back
Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious
activities for the American Jewish Committee, expressed
amazement that the Israeli democracy holds together as well as
it does, despite some serious flaws. "A Palestinian state is not
only essential but its creation is necessary for peace," he said
during an interview. Even during the recent increases in
violence, he pointed out that about 70 percent of Israelis think
the Palestinians need their own state in peaceful coexistence
"Violence sets everything back," Rosen said. And he admits that
Israel's disproportionate response to Palestinian violence has
created disgust among many people. "Israel can't live by the
sword indefinitely. And we have never been in such an economic
mess. People are traumatized so there are no fresh initiatives."
Yet he said the biggest tragedy for Palestinians is its
leadership. "There is no way to expect Palestinian leaders to go
out on a limb because Palestinian nationalism is too strong," he
said. "But Arafat blew itWe could have been where we are going
back in 1947," when the British ended their mandate over the
region by proposing Israeli and Palestinian states. "It's
obvious where we have to go--and we will get there, but how much
violence in the meantime?" While he thinks that the settlement
program "is not smart," Rosen does not accept the argument that
the settlements are illegal or that they are the source of
Palestinian violence. "There are no guarantees that, if Israel
got out of the West Bank, the violence would end," he said.
Rosen said that it is difficult to expect people to reach out to
others because "everybody here sees themselves as a victim." He
shares the opinion that "world Christianity has a special role
to play here, as a reconciling force. They are part of
international communions that should be a source of bringing all
people together." As many mainline churches become more critical
of Israeli policies, however, he said that "conservative
Christians are Israel's only friends," even if that support is
often suspicious and deep down could represent "the other side
He offers a final piece of advice: "Express your criticism in
language that shows you care for us."
Waging peace not war
Ghassan Andoni, executive director of the Palestinian Center for
Rapprochement between People, is worried about the new wall
because it will further limit mobility and take away land,
turning Palestinian villages into refugee camps by destroying
village life. "For peace you need an active Palestinian
resistance and an Israeli peace movement. It's not waging war,
it's waging peace," he said during an interview in Beit Sahour,
a village just outside Bethlehem.
As one of the founders of the International Solidarity Movement
(ISM) two years ago, he helped shape the strategy built on
attempts to break down the system of control through
disobedience--especially challenging the system of roadblocks.
"We're trying to change the dynamics of the conflict rather than
solve it. We wanted people to realize they could challenge the
instruments of control," he told the journalists. That is why
international ISM volunteers pushed past soldiers to enter the
Church of the Nativity and also Arafat's compound last spring.
They have also helped Palestinians harvest olives, trying to
limit the intimidation. That has lead, however, to direct
confrontations with settlers bent on violence, and some injuries
among the volunteers.
>From control to suppression
The Rev. Naim Ateek, an Anglican who is founder and director of
Sabeel, a Palestinian liberation theology think tank, said that
there has been a significant shift in the politics of the
government of Israel in recent years. "All Palestinian
resistance must be broken, no matter how it is done. And any
criticism must also be broken, even if it's Jewish dissent," he
said. "We have moved from a system of control, which Israel has
perfected, to a system of suppression. Control creates
separation but suppression is much more danger system that
crushes people, humiliates and dehumanizes them, a system that
moves closer to genocide, elimination and expulsion." He said
that signs and posters in Hebrew are popping up all over
Jerusalem that say "Transfer=shalom+security." This used to be a
fringe view but today it is moving more to the center stage,
promoted by several government ministers.
Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, president of the Union of Palestinian
Medical Relief Committees, said during an interview in Ramallah
that the settlement activity has been ferociously expanding
because the 1993 Oslo Agreement did not deal directly with the
issue. He said that the maps make it clear that there will be no
Palestinian state. "All we will end up with is bantustans,"
referring to the reservations created for the blacks under South
Africa's apartheid policy. "So much of what is happening is
Hanan Ashrawi, an Anglican who has served as spokesperson for
the peace process and now heads the Palestinian Initiative for
Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy, said, "We are being
neglected in a way I haven't seen before." Because of the
alliance of the pro-Israeli lobby and the Christian right,
"mainstream Christians must tell the truth, presenting the real
version of the situation to counter distortions." A peaceful
solution is still "marginally possible," because "we have not
reached the point of new return yet." Arafat is a convenient
scapegoat for everyone, she argued, effectively powerless but
still blamed for everything. She said that any "gleeful rush
into military offensives would be bad for our region and create
tremendous instability in the Arab world." While she admitted
that Iraq's Hussein had few friends, it would be better to lift
the embargo and allow them to develop their own style of
freedom. "We are worried about a real transfer, even though they
are doing it gradually."
Arafat in precarious position
Arafat sits huddled in what is left of his compound in Ramallah,
surrounded by piles of crushed motor vehicles--after a year one
of the most famous prisoners in the world. Rumors about his
possible exile or even assassination swirl about him as he tells
visitors, "No people have faced what we are facing." The
statistics of deaths and injuries roll off his tongue as his
demeanor becomes ever more grim. He pulls photos from a huge
pile that almost obscures him from sight, describing how the
Israelis have systematically destroyed the Palestinian
Authority's infrastructure. "Why does the world keep silent?" he
asks. "The Israeli Army and the settlers continue with their
Israelis continue to withhold over $2 billion in "precious
taxes" so that the PA can't pay salaries. "I haven't been able
to move from here for over a year--not even to go to Bethlehem
for Christmas services last year." He still feels deep loss of
his "partner in peace," the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin
who was murdered seven years ago, and finds his only hope in
Israelis who are working for peace--and he is buoyed by the
majority of public opinion in Israel favoring peace and a
Arafat will be blocked again this year from attending Christmas
Eve mass at Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It will be
another grim Christmas in the "little town of Bethlehem" where
Israeli tanks patrol the streets and park in Manger Square. The
city is still showing depressing signs of the Israeli incursion
last spring and the 39-day stand-off at the Church of the
In Bethlehem residents risk their lives by defying the curfew
and attempting to buy food. They also risk their lives by trying
to attend worship services during the Advent season. The Rev.
Mitri Raheb, pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church, said in a
newsletter that he sneaked out to ring the church bells,
admitting that it was "for me an act of non-violent resistance.
We will not let them steal from us even the sounds of the bells
calling for worship."
As members of the congregation also managed to evade the patrols
and slip into the church a few blocks from Manger Square, they
lit candles. "What comforts us is that there are so many friends
worldwide lighting candles on our behalf, enabling us to
continue to spread the light in a context of darkness, despair
There is growing concern about the survival of Bethlehem. "The
Israelis are suffocating Bethlehem--trapping us in our own
ghettoes," says Jad Isaac, director of the Applied Research
Institute near the checkpoint in Bethlehem. He warned that
cutting off the city from Jerusalem, where so many seek work and
worship, will be "the kiss of death" because it depends so
heavily on Jerusalem--or did before tourism, responsible for 60
percent of the economy, dried up.
Unemployment is running about 80 percent in Bethlehem, the
journalists are told. Vendors in Manger Square rush the few
tourists, begging them to buy something "for the sake of my
children." "Bethlehem will be an isolated backwater, with no
chance for economic development, and people will just leave,"
Isaac said. A spokesman for the Israeli Ministry for Internal
Security said, "The town's dead already. Tourism is on
life-support" and Christians are "streaming out" because of the
War with Iraq?
The possibility of a US invasion of Iraq strikes fear into the
hearts of many Palestinians who are convinced that Israel will
use the war as an excuse to "transfer" them out of the West Bank
and Gaza. The idea has moved from whispers in the corridors of
power to open support by government and military officials and
the general public. Memories of 1948 run deep, when about
800,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes and became
refugees--and more than 500 of their villages were erased from
the map. In the 1967 war another 400,000 were displaced.
Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human
Rights in Gaza, worries that Israel may use a similar strategy
under cover of a U.S.-led war with Iraq. While a forced transfer
of Palestinians into Egypt, Jordan or Lebanon would be
difficult, "with enough pressure they will willingly leave." To
understand what "transfer" could mean, he suggested looking at
the refugee camps in Lebanon where several generations of
Palestinians have been languishing, ignored by the rest of the
"We Palestinians have a lot of hard work to do and will need the
help of those in the international community who understand the
situation," said Sourani. He thinks that Mandela's strategy
against apartheid in South Africa might work, slowly gathering
support among groups of women, students, intellectuals, churches
and world leaders.
Adoni thinks any transfer of Palestinians "can't happen without
genocide," while admitting that the possibility is more tempting
than ever before. Nothing could stop Israel if it decides to
move on that option. Some observers warn of the possibility of
"ethnic cleansing." Others warn that its a phrase and concept
that should not be used lightly.
Rachel Greenspahn, development director for B'Tselem, an Israeli
human rights organization, argues that "in many ways Israel is a
healthy democracy." Yes, there have been mistakes and innocent
civilians have been injured or killed but "that is not the same
as ethnic cleansing. To fight occupation is legitimate but not
to attack civilians," she said. "The Palestinian Authority has
an obligation to prevent children from involvement in
violence--and allowing militants to use civilian property." She
warned that "exaggeration is a disservice and blurs the issues."
She admits that her organization, because it serves as a
watchdog on human rights violations, is accused of undermining
the security of Israel "but we seek to support moral and ethical
behavior of the state." She is encouraged that more and more
Palestinians are interested in non-violence but "Palestinians
must take stronger stands against attacks on civilians."
Bishop Riah Abu el-Assal of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem
said that "the situation is deteriorating, politically and
economically." He said that Israeli policies were trying to
"kill hope in the hearts and minds of people." He is among those
who think that Israel is seriously considering some form of
ethnic cleansing. "Some in Israel, certainly the settlers in the
West Bank, are in favor of ethnic cleansing," he said.
Determination to resist
Christian leaders continue to report that many people are
leaving, including Palestinian Christians who have been the
backbone of the dwindling presence. "Yet there is a
determination to persist--and resist," said Ateek.
Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
Jerusalem and Jordan said that any strike against Iraq "would
increase hatred between the Arab world and Americans--and would
encourage extremists. And who will suffer? We would only enrich
the merchants of war and death." The bishop agreed with other
church leaders who said that "it isn't possible to kill the
vision of the people for a better future."
Riah is also defiant. "Not one of us will leave. I'd rather die
in my homeland than live as a refugee," he said. "Get ready for
4.5 million body bags."
Riah sees some hope that the international community will
realize what's going on and try to intervene with Israel and the
U.S. "The only way forward is non-violence and reconciliation
--James Solheim is director of Episcopal News Service and
participated in the visit by the American journalists.
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