From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Episcopalians: Israelis and Palestinians drift farther apart as peace process stalls

Date 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 
with Israel. 

"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 
of anti-Semitism."

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 
Palestinian state.

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 
and hopelessness."

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 
between neighbors."


--James Solheim is director of Episcopal News Service and 
participated in the visit by the American journalists.

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