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Africa and the Middle East
Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb
Middle East Advocacy
Difficulty of talking about this topic:
I believe that every one in this gathering knows how difficult it is to speak on this particular topic at this particular time and in this particular context. How can we speak of a hopeful vision, when Prime Minister Sharon has just been re-elected in Israel, when settlements are expanding throughout the West Bank like mushrooms, when an eight-meter-high wall is being built as we speak around Bethlehem, transforming the little town into a big prison for 170,000 people? How can we speak of hope at a time when preemptive-war is becoming a legitimate option and tool in international politics? Aren't we out of context? Are fear, war and conflict not the bitter realities of this, our world? So are we here today speaking about a hopeful vision to escape reality? Are we afraid of facing the bitter reality of this world? Are we trying to cling to a utopia? Or are we so depressed by the current situation that we are looking to hear something hopeful that makes us feel good?
Isn't the vision for peace that of a two-tates solution with a shared Jerusalem? A detailed description of this vision is found in the last chapter of my book, I am a Palestinian Christian, under the title "I have a dream." What can we add to this vision? All of us in this room know the solution by heart, and yet we are still far away from it.
Usually, we speak of hope when we are still expecting something good to happen, even if the possibility is minimal. But how can we hope at times of despair? When there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel? No future to hope for! Not much progress expected! How can we hold to hope, when the hope longed for seems to be shattered... lost like never before?
Yet isn't the current crises that of a lost hope, of an absence of vision?
In Palestine, in the course of recent history we went through very difficult times: 35 years of Israeli occupation, four years of uprising 1987-1991, the Gulf War in 1991. During these years we had often to stay under house arrest because of curfews imposed on our cities. Many young Palestinians were shot, wounded and killed. Others including church members were put into jail and imprisoned.
But with all of that, there was hopeful vision. Hope that one day justice will prevail.
A vision that one-day Israelis and Palestinians will be able to live together in peace.
A vision that one day occupation will end and that Israelis and Palestinians will discover the human side of the other. The peace process in 1993 was an expression of this hope and of this vision.
However, in the last two years this hope started to vanish and evaporated almost completely. Israeli tanks surrounded the Palestinian towns and villages. Apache helicopters were used to fire on Palestinian neighborhoods. The past few months in Bethlehem have been filled with the sounds of missiles and tanks bombing the city, as well as the screams of little children scared to death. Israeli tanks and munition destroyed much of what we had built for the millennium celebrations around our church in Bethlehem.
Over 2 million of our people were put for months under house arrest. We never felt so helpless as in those last two weeks. Not only all the projects, buildings, progress that we started in the last 12 years were suddenly at stake, but our physical life, and those of our members, friends and children were endangered and at risk.
The first victim of the last two years was hope. Hope was assassinated. Suddenly a vision for peace became something unrealistic, justice impossible, co-existence nothing but a myth.
The critical moment in Palestine today is this: the majority of Palestinians, as well as the majority of Israelis, has lost their hopes and visions.
Palestinian children in the last two years could not dream any more. They had only nightmares. Youth and adults have the feeling that there is nothing to hope for anymore. Nothing to long for, nothing to dream about. The suicide bombing is an expression of this hopelessness: people believe in a life after death, true, but for them there is no life before death that is worth living! This is the crisis.
The current crisis in Israel/Palestine is that of a leadership lacking vision. Mr. Sharon has no vision whatsoever for peace. His only vision is that of the old apartheid of South Africa. The PLO's only vision was that of liberating Palestine rather than building it stone by stone. It was therefore not able to transform itself from a liberation organization into an organ of a democratic state.
The same is true of the international community. In the last 30-some years of occupation, the international community was not able to develop a hopeful vision for the region. Its role was basically to "manage the conflict," to "keep the status quo" of occupation, and to help contain serious escalation. And this U.S. administration has chosen to not interfere in this particular Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They gave up on it. At least it's not one of the priorities on their agenda.
And the U.N. gave the Palestinians many resolutions, but failed to implement any of them. "My colleagues, we have an obligation to our citizens, we have an obligation to this body to see that our resolutions are complied with." was the conclusion of Secretary of State Colin Powell in his address to the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 6. We wonder how the same countries and the same council have been dealing with their obligation towards the Palestinian people. We would like to see Powell presenting the satellite pictures of the illegal yet expanding Israeli colonies in the West Bank and Gaza. We ask ourselves why it is that the same country and the same council is tolerating total non-compliance by Israel with its many resolutions in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel is even refusing to allow U.N. inspectors into the West Bank and Gaza. A double standard is very obvious here. Iraq is oily, Israel holy. Palestine is worth nothing, it seems.
A hopeful vision cannot be mere words, statements or resolutions. In fact people gave up hope because there was a clear discrepancy between what they were seeing and what they were hearing. They were hearing the false prophets saying "Peace...peace," but on the ground there was no peace. They were hearing visions of a new prosperous Middle East, but they were seeing nothing but the good old Middle East. And the peace process proved to be more process and less peace.
The real challenge today for Palestinians in general, and for Christian Palestinians in particular, is: How to hold to a hopeful vision in a context of despair and to peace in times of bitter conflict and war? This is so important. And as the Bible says: Without a vision, the people vanish.
1. A Hopeful vision is crucial
A hopeful vision is crucial. A hopeful vision is not, anymore, that tomorrow is going to be better. It is not that progress is expected. It is not a light at the end of the tunnel. It is not that things are in any way improving, and that all we have to do is to sit back, wait and watch. Waiting, being passive, being optimistic toward the future is this false hope. Developing a hopeful vision is to challenge the prevailing realities. It is about developing a strategy, a work plan, and getting involved.
A Hopeful vision for the Palestinians
Hopeful vision is a powerful and critical concept in the context of conflict. There is a great need to redefine and reclaim hope and vision, especially among the oppressed. Hope and vision are powerful if they are owned and lived by the oppressed. It is very rewarding because it offers a real alternative. It opens a window of great opportunities, and it sets free the creativity of the oppressed.
To those suffering it is so important to shift from a "pre-linguistic state within which one is overwhelmed by the extent of the suffering," to the point where one can take control of the suffering by developing a vision for one future. Having a hopeful vision means you resist becoming data to be gathered or a case for research on human rights violation, someone to pity or to something to observe.
Rightly understood a hopeful vision is nothing less than getting in control of one's own destiny. The vicious cycle of conflict is often so powerful that the oppressed become double victims, victims of the oppressors and victims of a set of actions and reactions, which harms them much more than it harms their oppressors.
A hopeful vision is the power to dare to break this vicious cycle. It is the art to interrupt the established pattern of events, not out of weakness but out of strength, out of one's own will, at one's own time and out of one's own decision. Holding a hopeful vision is to resist heightening the potential for self- and mutual-destruction. In that sense to hold to a hopeful vision is the art - to save the "soul" of your nation or group.
A hopeful vision starts with developing a pro-active strategy. You learn to stop being be a mere victim, (even one who has a just cause) who does not know how to achieve goals and dreams. A hopeful vision is to move from being interested in earning the solidarity of the world into a state of empowerment, where one starts planning and strategizing.
A hopeful vision does not stop resistance but rather moves to start reflecting on how to resist. Resistance does not become an end by itself but rather a plan within a well thought out strategy.
A Hopeful vision for the Israeli
I can't speak here for Israelis. They have to see how they can get in control of their lives, for their own sake and that of their children. How they can stop the ambitions of their military government, and start expressing the policy they want implemented "in their name." They have to overcome their fears as we overcome our fears.
A Hopeful vision for both Israelis and Palestinians
A hopeful vision is the ability to rethink one's own story and history, and at the same time to challenge that of your "enemy." It is the art to see things from a different angle, from a different perspective and not just from your narrow own perspective. Unless one can put him self in the shoes of the other, one will never understand how the chain of reaction is set.
They have proven that they can make their lives and that of their enemies very bitter. They made the point that they can destroy each other. What they need is a vision of how to live together.
The vision for Israel and Palestine is to realize what benefits a country if it wins the support of whole world and loses its neighbor. What is the benefit if the Jews win the support of AIPAC and the Christian right and yet lose their Palestinian neighbors? What is the benefit if the Palestinians win the sympathy of most of the Arab and Islamic countries and lose their Israeli neighbor?
Israelis and Palestinians have to question much of the support they are getting. Is it a real support, or a burden? Isn't this support often nothing but a way for people with bad conscience to pay for their salvation by supporting radical policies? They pay dollars and make us pay with blood.
A hopeful vision for Israel and Palestine is that of a just and comprehensive peace. Although there is a just and comprehensive peace, there is no such thing like a lasting peace. Peace does not last by itself. Peace is fragile. Peace is the outcome of a cumulative process. Peace is very difficult to achieve and yet very easy to lose. As much as it is a gift of grace, it is also a responsibility.
A Hopeful vision for the American Christians
Having a hopeful vision as Americans and as Christians is important as well. Not because you are pro-Palestinians, but because you need to stop being spectators in your own country. We are not asking you for more statements on the Middle East, but we are asking you to become pro-active. Not to let AIPAC and the Christian Right run your country, but to stand up for a hopeful vision for the Middle East, to speak out, to lobby. Not for our sake, but for your own sake and that of your country. Because you don't want your money to be spent to subsidize the Israeli or any other occupation, because you have a vision for America and for its involvement in the Middle East and you lobby for it.
As for churches and statements, we have to understand how to translate our vision into a language that is understood by the powers of this world, including those on Capitol Hill.
You are our hope as you gather here, as you train for advocacy, as you go out to advocate, as you partner with us, as we share a joint hopeful vision for Israel/Palestine despite all the despair. You decided not to be spectators any more. My vision for all of us is a very simple one: I am not asking for the moon nor for the stars. I am asking us to be involved together, Palestinians, Israelis and Americans. To stop being spectators and to become actors. Together we can make a difference.
2. A personal testimony: Come and See
"My captor daily seeks to make life harder for me. He encircles my people with barbed wire; he builds walls around us, and his army sets many boundaries around us. He succeeds in keeping thousands of us in camps and prisons. Yet despite all these efforts, he has not succeeded in taking my hope or vision from me. He could not imprison them. His suppression could not keep me from thinking of a joint future with him. His brutality did not succeed in discouraging me from dreaming of a peaceful coexistence with him." (I am a Palestinian Christian, Mitri Raheb)
Destroying our heritage, rebuilding it
They make our life bitter so that the best would immigrate, we create new opportunities for our young people to come and participate. They destroy our windows; we gather the glass pieces and transform them into pieces of art. They close our schools; we develop distance learning.
They want to silence our story; we create ways to give a voice and a face to the voiceless. The build walls around our cities, we jump over them. They build settlements; we resist an apartheid system.
3. Planting a tree
As Christians we should not be spectators in this world anymore. We are actors on Christ's behalf. There are times when we feel that the world in which we live has become a hell, depressing, with no progress, but our faith is in Christ who is the life. The hell is already overcome. Our call is not to transfer this hell into a paradise, but our call is to transfer this hell into a world in which life is possible again.
Christian hope is that it's never to late for faith in action and for acts of compassion. Christian hope is not to surrender to the forces of death and despair, but to challenge them. Christian hope is to call upon those in the dark tunnel, in the valleys of death to "come forth" because here is Someone who is the resurrection and the life.
Holding to a hopeful vision in a context of war becomes a new meaning. It is not any more something we see but rather something we practice, something we live, something we advocate, something we plant. At times when there is a strong feeling that the world is coming to an end tomorrow, our call is not to wait, not to cry nor to surrender. Rather our only hopeful vision is to go out today into our garden, into our society and plant olive trees. If we will not plant any trees today, there will be nothing after tomorrow. But if we plant a tree today, there will be shade for the children to play under, there will be oil to heal the wounds and there will be olive branches as a sign of the peace to come.