image of jerusalem 2013

Reconciliation … What Reconciliation?
Reconciliation: in Context or in Vacuum?

23 December   |   2000   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

“Highlighting old scars, And flashing them around like decorations. I hate it. I always hated it. I am a part of it myself”

This short excerpt from a poem by Seamus Heaney entitled ‘The Cure at Troy’ was recited by the President of Ireland Mary McAleese at the Congress Centre in London some three weeks ago. The theme of her address was ‘Reconciliation: the Millennium Faith Challenge’. As she referred to the situation in Northern Ireland, Mary McAleese added that she knew, “at least a little of what happens when hearts harden, fired in the oven that is fuelled by sectarian or ethnic hatred, political oppression, territorial disputes and a culture of endemic violence.” She stressed that part of the task of reconciliation is that of leaving the past to the past, and that futures are not built only with grand gestures, but above all with small acts of friendship between people. Only then, she added, can there be lasting change.

Back in Jerusalem, and in the midst of all the sadness, bereavement, angst and frustration that continues to be experienced in this land on an almost daily basis, the concept of reconciliation has become again a point of reflection for me. With Barak and Sharon jostling for power in Israel, with a whole country that has witnessed a massive breakdown in communication and trust between Palestinians and Israelis, and with hardy attempts by some politicians to go back to the negotiating table in the United States, the whole concept of reconciliation has become even more crucial for the future of peace in this land.

So, encouraged by a close friend and colleague of mine from Denmark, I skimmed last weekend through a book entitled ‘Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies’. Written by the Mennonite peace researcher John Paul Lederach, the author affirms that “reconciliation represents in essence a place, the point of encounter where concerns about the past and the future can meet. Reconciliation as encounter suggests that space for the acknowledging of the past ad the envisioning of the future is the necessary ingredient for re-framing the present. For this to happen, people must find ways to encounter themselves and their enemies, their hopes and their fears.”

In a sense, there is a fair amount of syllogism between Heaney’s poem and the proposals put forward by Mary McAleese and Jean Paul Lederach. After all, the experiences of South Africa - and to a lesser extent Northern Ireland - indicate that it is always essential in reconciliation to overstep the pain of the past and to avail oneself of the space that is necessary so that people can engage each other as people and express openly their feelings whilst also recognising their shared future. No other than the social anthropologist James Eberson suggests that any two conflicting parties need to be offered a ‘click’ or ladder that would help them come down from their high trees and meet each other halfway.

Can this theory - for all its seamless elegance - work in the Holy Land? And what has happened with all the previous attempts at reconciliation that have taken place over a stretch of many years in this land of rent hopes?

Political Realities in Conflict

“Too little, too late!”

This was the terse comment made by an Israeli Jewish woman to Emma Klein, BBC Jewish Affairs correspondent, whose recent article entitled ‘Turmoil in Israel’ appeared a fortnight ago. The article highlighted the varying opinions and perceptions held by many Israelis in relation to the conflict with their neighbouring Palestinians.

What was offered to the Palestinians at Camp David was indeed too little. But is it also truly too late to reach an agreement at this stage? I believe implicitly - perhaps even naively - in the principles of reconciliation. In my own life, and at times of conflict, I often try to bend backward in order to secure an outcome that would be no less than a win-win solution. But to achieve such a level of understanding and reconciliation, anybody engaged in the exercise of reconciliation ought to compromise on some of their sacred - maximalist - principles in order to attain the goal of resolving the conflict at hand.

However, reconciliation - whether in the public or private domain - cannot succeed unless certain criteria are prevalent. One such criterion is the good will and good faith of both parties. Another criterion - as the South Africa experience evinces - is that such reconciliation usually comes as a consequence of admitting one’s wrongs or resolving one’s disputes rather than as its pre-condition. It is only then that one moves to the stage of getting people to engage with each other. As such, how can two states or entities attempt at reconciliation when the asymmetry of power is such that one party literally dictates to the other? And when mutual trust is almost non-existent?

Let me share with you summarily four elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that set the variables of non-reconciliation:


A large number of the four million Palestinians abroad live in refugee camps - primarily in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan but also with another twenty seven camps within the Palestinian territories. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 194, calling for the right of return of those refugees and for their compensation, has gone unheeded. Masses who lost their homes and properties have been left disenfranchised and without recourse to restitution. What do they do? Disappear .?! Without so much as an acknowledgement of responsibility - however partial - by Israel ..?


The population of the settlements, including those of the Golan Heights, total some 300,000 men, women and children. Ever since the Oslo process began, a mean average of thirty seven square kilometres of land has been confiscated for the construction of settlements, and their overall population has increased by around 50%. In fact, 32,750 new housing units have been built since 1993 and some 3000 alone since Ehud Barak became Prime Minister. Imagine that there are 400 settlers in Hebron in the midst of 150,000 Palestinians. Another 6000 settlers versus 1.2 million Palestinians in Gaza can be found on 33% of Gaza that has not been returned to the Palestinians as yet. Most of the flash-points today are around such ‘expedient’ settlements as Netzarim, Kfar Darom or Psagot. What happens to those intrusive settlements? Grow bigger .?!


Such hermetic closures are putting a whole population under siege and severing Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. Equally, the southern parts of the West Bank are also being dissected from their northern counterparts. The collective punitive measures against a whole people - including a Jerusalemite who cannot even leave the country these days - are being exacerbated by the deteriorating economic / employment situation in the Palestinian territories. Are they supposed to be polite victims and simply suffer in dignified silence? Perhaps raise a docile objection or two .?!


Any Israeli Jew knows in his or her heart that the eastern sector of Jerusalem is Palestinian in identity, geography, demography and population. Yet, not only did Israel annex it as far back as 1968, it still insists on the eternal and undivided nature of the city as a capital for Israel. Where do the Palestinian claims go? Blown in the wind .?! Where are the creative minds that can find acceptable solutions and viable outcomes ..?

Churches & Institutions

“Love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will embrace. Man’s loyalty will reach up from the earth, and God’s righteousness will look down from heaven” - Ps 85: 10-11

The whole ethos of the Christian Church is one that encourages and promotes the ministry of reconciliation. After all, it is an indissociable component of the Christian belief, and Jesus’ life and death are also seen as a means of reconciling humankind not only to God but also to each other. In his Letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 5:18), St Paul refers to Christians as ambassadors of reconciliation. But is this prerogative - quite clearly stated in many instances in holy scripture - being faithfully observed by the Churches and their institutions? Or do some of them wander away at times on ego-trips that promote their own status or sense of self-importance? Are they true to themselves as much as to others, or have they become politicians with partisan beliefs and tendencies? Are they being prophetic in their humanity or human in their prophecies?

Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith at the Vatican, answered this quandary on the meaning of prophecy in 1969 when he averred, “The meaning of prophecy is not so much in predicting the future as in the prophetic interest against the self-righteousness of institution. God, throughout history, has been not on the side of the institutions but on that of the suffering and persecuted.” It is vital that Churches and religious institutions re-assume and re-confirm indefatigably the integrity of their ministry of reconciliation - irrespective of the odds and challenges ahead of them.

Concluding Thoughts

“History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, but if faced With courage, need not be lived again.”

A few months ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke on St Patrick’s Day at Armagh cathedral. He quoted the poet Maya Angelou as he outlined the ingredients necessary for reconciliation. And if I were to transpose his words to this biblical land, I can also add that what is perhaps lacking in this part of the world is not an obviation of history, but rather the inability to learn from the lessons of history and the consequential courage to face those lessons with equanimity.

>Yet, I also know that it is difficult to embark upon reconciliation when the yoke of the occupation continues unabated. What in some sense is happening today is a process of decolonisation within the Palestinian territories. The current Intifada of Al-Aqsa has been viewed by some as an attempt at ridding the Palestinian people of a colonising power. Whether it will succeed or not is unclear to me, but it is a serious reminder to the whole world that a just solution is required for this land.

One imperative that could help achieve a reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians is the ability of both peoples to go beyond their past and move onto the future. Both peoples are saddled with collective memories and bruised psyches that are both painful and debilitating. A purification of the memory - a Jubilee theme by itself - might be helpful if both Israelis and Palestinians were to stop harping over the past alone but also move beyond to the future.

But with the pressures of the occupation, the blatant injustices that are being perpetrated, and the primal fear of the other, this might well be quite a difficult feat to achieve today. As we approach a new year, it is my wish that the true spirit of reconciliation will be discovered by both parties. I hope that the future will be more attuned to those thoughts expressed by Seamus Heaney, Maya Angelou than to those of power, domination and subjugation. The two peoples and three faiths of this land have a long way to go, and a lot of emotional baggage to unpack, before they can truly home in on the essential concept of reconciliation. A prophet is needed for the Holy Land.

I wish all Friends of Reconciliation a Blessed and Peace-Driven 2001

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2000   |   23 December


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