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|Ecumenical peace delegation finds Middle East in the grip of fear
by James Solheim
A high-level delegation of American church leaders spent an intense week in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in mid-December, discovering that the area is in the grip of fear and anger. The hastily planned visit was an attempt to explore the underlying causes of the conflict, express solidarity with the dwindling Christian community, and try to shape a response the 26 members of the delegation could take home to their churches—and to the U.S. government.(Photo: Israeli flags fly from a home near a Muslim mosque inside Jerusalem's ancient walled city. A high-level delegation of American religious leaders visited the Middle East Dec. 7-12 to express its solidarity with churches there and to lend support to a growing chorus calling for a peaceful solution to the crisis in the area. Photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service.)
The visit came at a particularly tense time, with escalating violence in the wake of the collapse of the peace process, a sense of betrayal in the 1993 Oslo Accords and the eruption of a new "intifada" (Arabic for "shaking off"). The 1987 intifada that emerged from the refugee camps in Gaza and pitted boys with stones against a heavily armed Israeli Defense Force. While both sides have guns this time Israeli military superiority is not in question. The result is a daily body count that has already passed the 300 mark, the overwhelming majority Palestinian youth, with thousands more wounded.
Violence erupted September 28 with what even the Israelis admit was a provocative visit of right-wing Likud leader Ariel Sharon to what the Israelis call the Temple Mount, home to two of Islam’s holiest sites. The visit was defended by Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert (Jerusalem Municipality) who told the delegation, "If Jews can’t visit Temple Mount then what is the meaning of religious freedom?" He said that "nothing was desecrated, not one stone was moved." While it may have been provocative, "the answer to this mistake is shooting?"
Violence fueling pessimism
Conversations with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders revealed a deep sense of gloom and pessimism, especially around the issue of violence. "There is no freedom in the land when there is war," said Avi Granot during a visit to the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "We hold Arafat responsible for turning back to violence."
In response to a question about restrictions on the Christian population, Granot said a "time of war" meant limitations on movement, "but without exception it is because of the need for security." That is why only Muslims over the age of 45 are allowed to pray at the Dome of the Rock and al Aqsa Mosque in the Old City.
Deputy Mayor Ziad al-Bandak of Bethlehem told the delegation during a meeting with municipal leaders that violence erupted when it became clear that seven years of negotiation had not produced peace. As Prime Minister Ehud Barak reverted to militaristic thinking, "We are in a war," one fought against a highly sophisticated Israeli Defense Force. "The whole region is boiling," he said, from both a military and a political point of view. "Christmas in Bethlehem will be sad this year," he added. "The religious ceremonies will take place but there will be no joy—and no tourists."
(Photo: Bishop Viken Aykazian of the Armenian Apostolic Church (center), part of a delegation of U.S. church leaders to the Holy Land, joins a candlelight procession through the streets of Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service.)
During a visit to the Bethlehem area, members of the delegation talked with Christian families whose homes had been destroyed by Israelis, in response to sniper fire aimed at the neighboring settlement of Gilo Tiptoeing through the shattered glass of the homes and a nearby sports center in Beit Jala terrified residents described the intense shelling that drove them from their homes. Some members of the delegation picked up shell fragments clearly identified as "made in USA."
At the beginning of each conversation, members of the delegation described a vigil for peace that was started on Advent Sunday, December 3, and continuing until there is peace. (For details see www.loga.org.)
Violence won’t work
"Our problem will not be solved by violence but by the power of logic," said Faisal Husseini, representative of the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem during a conversation at Orient House in East Jerusalem. He said that "not only throwing stones and shooting are violence but also the destruction of homes by soldiers is violence—and the use of identity cards that consider people as foreigners in their own city."
Palestinian leaders are very clear that there is only one path to peace. "There will be no solution, no stability, without solving the Palestinian problem," he warned. "And that means a Palestinian state," and dealing with obstacles such as Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, the status of Jerusalem, return of Palestinian refugees, and settling property claims.
The settlements are a particularly thorny problem, Husseini said, because they are not only illegal but are "a time bomb that could explode at any moment." There is no way that Palestinians could accept settlements in their state because "it would cut the Palestinian state into islands." He refused to capitulate to pessimism, however. "There is still a possibility for peace," he said while stressing the difficulties.
A conversation at the Applied Research Center, a local non-governmental agency in Bethlehem, illustrated attempts to isolate and strangulate Palestinian areas in the West Bank. In a thorough and sobering presentation, Dr. Jad Isaac used a series of overhead projections to show how Israel was systematically creating "cages" for the Palestinian population, leaving them surrounded by Israeli settlements and a road system bristling with Israeli checkpoints. By taking as much space as possible, the Palestinians are being left in increasingly dense population areas that won’t be sustainable, what he called "a recipe for disaster."
Despite the gloomy predictions, he held out some hope that "everything is still achievable if we can find a way—and if Israel stopped dealing with us in a master/slave relationship." He is convinced that "things may quiet down for a while but will explode again because peace efforts are not built on pillars of justice."
Facing a disaster
Perhaps the gloomiest voice the delegation heard came from one of the principal players in the whole peace process—Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. "We are facing a disaster," he said during a grim conversation. "Unless we can put an end to the confusion" between what the politicians are talking about and what the military leaders are implementing, the situation could become "very, very dangerous."
He pointed out that "all of our cities and towns are under siege. What they are doing in Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour is unbelievable—a big crime." The three West Bank towns have been shelled recently and Israeli military authorities have closed access. In spite of what he called "more aggression," Arafat said that "we are doing our best to return to the peace process." He asked for help from the churches. "With your help we will be able to overcome what we are facing."(Photo: Bishop Herbert Chilstrom (left) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America speaks with the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michael Sabbah, during a visit to the Patriarchate in Jerusalem. Photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service.)
Palestinians returned to violence out of a deep frustration and a need to be heard, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah said during his meeting with the delegation. "The Palestinian people are under Israeli military occupation and they want to be given back their freedom."
He contended that "Palestinians don’t want to kill Israelis, they are asking only to be free—and that freedom is in the hands of the Israelis," he said, who "may have won wars but they have not won the peace." He agreed with others that the peace won’t be won through violence, calling for "another vision," one that moves beyond violence. "If we have peace, it will be thanks to the Israelis."
"As Palestinians we deserve to live in peace—just as other nations," said Sheikh Muhammed Husseini in his opening comments to the delegation, jammed into his office near the Dome of the Rock. "We have hopes that your churches will carry the message to government officials."(Photo: Sheikh Muhamed Hussein, preacher of El Aqsa Mosque, visits with a delegation of American church leaders during their visit to Haram esh-Sharif in Jerusalem. Photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service.)
Palestinians are seeking "international legitimacy," including full implementation of the United Nations resolutions that call on Israel to move back to boundaries prior to the 1967 war. "Sometimes it seems hopeless," he admitted. "Our people will live side by side with the Israelis, but only with dignity." He described the relationship between Christians and Muslims as one of "family with the same pains and the same hopes. We have full respect for each other."
De facto apartheid
The collapse of the peace process and the renewed intifada is creating what amounts to social and economic suffocation in the occupied Palestinian territories, a "de facto apartheid," argued Raji Sourani, director of the Palestine Center for Human Rights in Gaza City.
"No one should have any illusions about what is happening here," he said. "They are building Berlin Walls all over the occupied territories. How can victimizing human rights be the price of peace?" he asked.
He talked about the "vicious cycle of blood" and said that the intensity of the Israeli military actions are the worst he has seen since the 1967 war when Israel recaptured the West Bank, including East Jerusalem And he is worried that people are beginning to become insensitive to the violence.
(Photo: Palestinian farmer Abu Houli shows a delegation of American church leaders what remains of his home, orchard and well house after the Israeli Army bulldozed parts of his family farm near Deir El Balah in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip. Photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service.)
The delegation was exposed to the harsh realities of the situation when they traveled south of Gaza City to meet with farmers whose homes and orchards had been destroyed recently. Walking though a field where almost 500 trees had been systematically bulldozed by Israelis who claim that youth were stoning convoys of settlers on the nearby road, the delegation heard cries for help. The bulldozers came without warning in the middle of the night and the families were forced to flee, leaving everything behind. "How can you explain this to your children when you are trying to teach them peace?" asked one of the farmers. He is convinced that Israel wants to "eradicate our history and make it difficult to live here. But we are here to stay. We’re not going anywhere."
"We ask for international protection," pleaded nine-year-old Maran. She described her walk to school, a detour around Israeli tanks deployed to block the main road through the area.
The future for Christians
Palestinian leaders like Isaac are deeply concerned about the future of a Christian presence in the area. "Palestinians are caught between our national and religious loyalties—and we are getting close to distinction," he told he delegation.
Christian leaders were blunt. "The number of Christians in Palestine is dwindling so much that the situation is becoming dangerous," Armenian Patriarch Torkom II warned. "But we are here, and we will be here in the future because the holy places are not museums." He expressed regrets that "so far we have not succeeded in stopping the violence—and this is not a local concern but one for the whole world." It is an explosive situation complicated by "the presence of extremists on both sides," he said.
"You must not allow the Christian witness to cease," Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and Palestine said during an ecumenical conversation at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.
"We believe very strongly that this place is one where Christians, Muslims and Jews should be able to stand together and have freedom of expression," responded John McCullough, executive director of Church World Service, the relief agency of the National Council of Churches. "We are sad to hear about the migration of Palestinian Christians."
Confronting the fears
In a very frank and emotional conversation, a group of rabbis and peace activists who are working for human rights expressed their own fears. "We are passionate Zionists but see the claims of justice," realizing that it is necessary to "redeem Israel as well as protect Palestinians," said Rabbi Levi Kellman.
With the new outbreaks of violence, "tribal fears have been unleashed and many Israelis feel threatened." He described his own fears for the safety of a daughter serving in the army in Gaza. Yet he is convinced that "our existence is predicated on building a just society and a relationship with our neighbors." Being a peace advocate during times like these can be lonely, the rabbis agreed.
Yehezkel Landau (Open House Center) deplored the pervasive "mythology of military solutions," adding that Israelis are "stuck" in a readiness to "do unto others before they can do it to you." He thinks that the mythology that you can solve problems by military force is everywhere. "My nightmare scenario is that we will make peace but only after many more graves."(Photo: Yehezkel Landau (right) helps relate Jewish tradition and spirituality to issues of peace, justice and reconciliation for a delegation of U.S. church leaders in Jerusalem. At left is the Rev. Canon Brian Grieves, director of Peace and Justice Ministries for the Episcopal Church, a member of the delegation. Photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service.)
Yet Palestinians don’t help the situation because "they push our fear buttons." And Landau said that "there is no gain if we get a freedom without reconciliation."
Political leaders clinging to power "miss the moral point and we swing down into a vortex of violence…. We know Palestinians are leaving but now we begin to see some Jews ready to leave, too, and that is unprecedented in all the years I have been in Israel," he added.
"Fear for us is existential—anxiety about terror bombs," said Rabbi Ron Kronish. Morning radio forecasts how dangerous specific areas of the city are. "Of course Israel has the military power but that does not stem the fears," he said.
Breaking the pattern
Landau said, "We must have both Palestinian freedom and independence—and Israeli security. It is both or neither." It will also be necessary, he added, to "address the grievous wound of 1948 for Palestinians," the formation of the State of Israel, because "it won’t be safe for Israelis until we heal this." He is convinced that it is "time to break the pattern, learning from mass tragedy and genocide in the 20th century, time to re-humanize each other, find space in our hearts for the other, stretching our hearts to be more inclusive."
"We are near an abyss of further catastrophe," warned Kronish. "Israeli gains are not necessarily Palestinian losses. We need a good settlement for all," he said. "We must end occupation, not necessarily through force, but we must get out of this together."
The peace camp in Israel is shocked by the new violence, said Kellman. "We had seemed so close to a deal. Barak made unprecedented concessions at Camp David but when he was refused there was shock all over Israel, with an outpouring of hate against Israel by Palestinians."
Landau wishes that Arafat had seized the moment to argue that there was not enough for the Palestinians in the deal and offer some alternatives. "Instead he retreated into silence," he said. "Of course the settlers should not be there but it is not possible to condone attacks that kill civilians on either side… We must face the realities as people of faith; we must teach, guide and educate, breaking others out of their fantasies. Jews can intellectually make peace but must go through the pain to make true peace—and that requires that they know each side deeply."
Steps toward justice and peace(Photo: Mary Ellen McNish, general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, lights a candle in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service.)
"We are persuaded that the peace which must come for all—Israeli and Palestinian alike—can only be achieved on a firm foundation of justice," the delegation said in a final statement issued December 12. The statement made "an urgent plea that all parties heed the moral imperative to do justice," and it urges "the community of all nations and all people who love mercy to recognize and condemn this new apartheid that oppresses the Palestinian people."
The statement said it is necessary for peace that Israel withdraw from Palestinian territories it occupied in the 1967 war, in fulfillment of United Nations resolutions, and it offered some concrete steps to achieve justice:
--James Solheim is director of the Office of News
and Information for the Episcopal Church. He served as press officer to
the delegation. Daily reports and photos, as well as a list of delegation
members, are available at www.loga.org. For further
information on the visit contact the Rev. Mark Brown at
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