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Walking Together into the Unknown?
Are we once again heading toward the unknown? Perhaps even an ominous unknown?...

9 October   |   2000   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... According to some political commentators, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now doomed to an endless and timeless spiral of indecision, disorder and violence! But how did this come about, and what does the future hold for the main protagonists in this conflict?

There is no doubt that the latest spark which ignited once again the tinderbox was the visit by MK Ariel Sharon, leader of the Israeli Likud opposition party, to the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem. The Haram is the third holiest Muslim sanctuary world-wide and embraces the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosques. But Sharon’s justification for this visit - executed in military style with a ring of policemen and women protecting him and his retinue - was that the site is also a most sacred one for Judaism. Indeed, Jewish faith adherents believe that the Temple stood on that same space prior to its destruction some two thousand years ago. As an after-effect to this visit, and less than one day thereafter, the collective religious anger of the Palestinian Muslims eructed dangerously and led to the first batch of victims whose numbers have now reached almost ninety. But assuming that MK Sharon truly believed he had to assert his right as an Israeli Jew and visit this site, was he nonetheless correct in exercising it in this way?

My answer is a clear-cut no! As I see it, there is a major difference between a right and its application. Much as he might have wanted to exercise such a right - and I have serious misgivings about the legitimacy of his intent - Sharon should not have applied it nonetheless. Just imagine for one moment two similar scenarios that carry the same lethal logic! Every Israeli Jew has the right to walk through the Jewish ultra-orthodox religious neighbourhood of Mea She’arim. But can the reader think of the consequences if a liberal and secular Israeli Jewish woman walks through that neighbourhood in a tight-fitting strapless tank top and mini-skirt? Or even less provocative, can one envisage Peace Now - a left-leaning Israeli peace movement - opening up an office in the virulently right-wing neighbourhood of Kiryat Arba? In theory, both options ought to be possible since the right is cogent. But in practice, they are not applied since nobody would wish to cause such wanton provocation and untold violence. As Calev Ben-David, the Israeli columnist in the Jerusalem Post put it, the same principle would apply to this particular situation too.

However, I doubt that the explosion we saw last week - dubbed the Aqsa Intifada - was solely religious. Instead, I would suggest that what started out as a religious outburst transmogrified rapidly into political outrage. This political outrage by the Palestinians - Muslim and Christian grass roots alike - related to the accumulated frustrations of a people who have been patiently waiting - for almost a decade now - for the implementation of the accords reached between the Palestinian and Israeli negotiating sides. From Madrid to Oslo to Camp David - passing by Sharm el-Sheikh and Wye - true peace that brings with it dignity, justice, security and prosperity for both peoples has been an illusion at best and a chimera at worse. Just scrutinise the dynamics that both sides control to realise why the formula has not been a win-win one so far! Where peace matters most for Palestinians is in their freedoms and in their pockets - to move, travel or pray freely in their land and to enjoy some economic return. But any statistical study of the reality shows that this is far from the truth! What Oslo has done - a given point for its detractors as much as for its supporters - is that it has shifted the densely-populated areas to Palestinian control whilst leaving much of the land itself in Israeli hands. Otherwise put, when it is said that over 90% of Palestinians now live under their authority, I translate that as meaning that Israel has rid itself of a demographic headache but kept the geographic rewards!

However, Oslo goes beyond this fact in terms of its failing achievements. This document has institutionalised the status quo in the territories, and has led to a situation whereby the current standstill could be stalled for years! Oslo can keep things on hold for ages, but would the Palestinian patience for self-determination remain mute for so long once it becomes clearer that the real dividends of peace are simply not round the corner? Again, I fear not!

On the other side of the political fence, though, we can also see that the majority of Israeli Jewish population - who are away from the live points of contact, tension and friction - is largely unaffected by all the anxieties and uncertainties that plague Jerusalem and its environs. Perhaps out of sight is indeed out of mind, confirming the local adage that the most popular road leads away from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv! Indeed, this coastal town is light years away from the troubles of Jerusalem, and remarkably impervious to its struggles.

So, what is the solution? Or more to the point, and according to many politicians today, is there a solution anymore? After all, did the incumbent Israeli Prime Minister not offer a golden handshake to the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David some short weeks ago? Did Ehud Barak not show willingness to return around 90% of the West Bank to Palestinian rule? And did Yasser Arafat not reject this offer, despite all the palliatives and pressures from many countries - not least the United States of America?

Here, I think, is where we can come up with different explanations - some more diabolical than others! However, I am going to err on the side of caution and offer a rational explanation instead of looking for a Machiavellian one! I believe that the Israelis and Americans on the one hand, and the Palestinians on the other, were operating at Camp David on different wavelengths. The dialogue - or lack of it - was one of the deaf! Granted, the offer that Israel made to the Palestinians - if reported correctly in the whispering corridors of the political world - was generous in comparison to preceding ones. But it fell seriously short of the Palestinian - and thereby Arab and Muslim - expectations. It partitioned the eastern (read Arab) sector of Jerusalem - including the Old City - into salami-like chunks that were nothing more than administrative cantons. Such an offer will have been unacceptable - and unworkable - from a Palestinian viewpoint even if there were many people who would have jumped at it willingly.

The answer, in my own opinion, lies with what has now been coined - rather quaintly in pseudo-academic circles - as the principles of international legitimacy. Otherwise said, there are certain parameters - notably the United Nations Security Council resolutions - that were confirmed at Madrid many years ago. They alone can serve as the yardstick upon which the negotiations must proceed in future. Some slight deviations or creative interpretations away from those parameters can obviously be made from the Palestinian and Israeli sides by mutual consensus, but the broad brushstrokes of the agreement can only be found in those international and binding legal instruments.

If this were the case, does it mean that the future is all doom and gloom? And do we have to experience round after round of disproportionate violence and reckless terrorism before the clocks are set back and the negotiations resume afresh? Mark Twain once said, “There is nothing easier than to stop smoking. I have done it a hundred times.” Indeed, but do Palestinians and Israelis have to jump-start the process a hundred times in order to prove that they can actually do it - or more importantly, that they are eventually bound to do it? I certainly hope not! As an Armenian who appreciates the diversity and richness of Jerusalem despite its multiple flaws and hang-ups, I cannot subscribe to this scenario - nor can I condone it. From my own perspective, what are needed at this moment are some urgent reminders to the politicians - reminders that also serve as faith-centred tenets to the adherents of three monotheistic religions. Might they perhaps take a leaf from those teachings?

  • A change in mentality is needed badly. Institutionalised discrimination, powerful violence and brazen arrogance are as bad as religious unease, corrupt nepotism or mob violence can ever be. Two wrongs do not make one right! It is important that all sorts of insidious discrimination stop, as much as it is important for all sorts of violence to stop too. The pictures I saw last week - of Israeli live bullets, rockets or helicopters assaulting Palestinian ‘positions’, or of Palestinian mobs attacking Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, must be halted promptly.
  • Strenuous efforts must be deployed to combat the chronic frustration and deadly despair that are felt by the Palestinians after endless years of bartering and negotiations. Most human beings usually react on a gut level, and Palestinians are also human beings whose future looks pretty grim and uninspiring today.
  • Hatred as a malignant feeling has crept once again into the fabric of Palestinian-Israeli human relations. It must be addressed seriously and expeditiously. I could detect so much hatred this week - as much in the eyes of the Israeli soldiers or police as in the eyes of the stone-throwers or tyre-burners. Such blinkered hatred blinds us to the humanity of the other, and dwarves us in the eyes of God and humankind alike.
  • What has happened to forgiveness? It can be found in the faith traditions of all three religions living cheek-by-jowl in this small biblical land. Yet, despite it being such an essential ingredient in our respective religious diets, it is nonetheless a rare commodity in most peoples’ souls, minds and hearts.
  • Last and not least, good faith and good will are urgently needed today. But they cannot easily be detected - neither in my own conversations with different people, nor in the negotiations that have taken place to date.

But all those five items on my ‘must-do’ list are not easy ones! And this is where men and women of vision - including the different Churches and their leadership - must be galvanised to become proactive. This is indeed their prophetic challenge, and it can neither be achieved by strutting in front of television cameras all the time, nor in competing for attention, popularity or fame. Rather, it is in providing a moral lead as that of a shepherd to the flock, and in living the definition of the Church Universal for martyrdom, that this prophetic challenge can be met valiantly. It is in harnessing their spiritual authority to promote the ideals that I have just enumerated, rather than by mere headline-grabbing, that the so-called church-related organisations can aspire to render a service to their communities and help to heal many festering wounds. Mind you, I over-state the Christian onus simply because I am a Christian believer myself! The same onus - and admittedly an even heavier one - lies upon the Muslim and Jewish religious leadership. Instead of dividing, can they assemble? Instead of attacking each other, can they utter the truth? Instead of being led, can they lead?

As I write these words, the situation in Jerusalem remains volatile and fragile. Just scan the headlines of today! Hizbullah has kidnapped three Israeli soldiers. The fatal confrontations across the Arab towns in northern Israel, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza continue relentlessly. Israel is ordering the destruction of Palestinian buildings and the hewing of orange groves near the Netzarim junction of Gaza. Israeli settlers are threatening Palestinian neighbourhoods in and around Jerusalem. International and UN-based initiatives are gathering momentum. Raw fear, real concern and sheer triumphalism are in the air in equal measure. In the middle of this dizzying maelstrom, and as I myself come closer to being lurched into the abyss of the unknown, I pray and hope that cooler heads and calmer hearts will prevail so that they can address the political morass in which Palestinians and Israelis now find themselves.

Can we redress the political inequities of the moment, as much as the hugely larger inequities in our hearts, in order to leap forward with truth and righteousness? This is the plea I suggest today, one that is equally moral and holistic. I suggest it whilst appreciating that people would prefer to hear bold statements. I suggest it whilst confessing that my simple vision is absurdly naïve and does not meet the morbid despondency of the moment. But I refuse to be tempted by such feelings since I also believe that our Christian faith preaches compassion and tolerance. It believes in the light of the Resurrection that comes after the darkness of the crucifixion. If I cannot defend my beliefs, but gloss over them with a veneer of bombastic statements, I am not living my faith truthfully.

But can my words find any echo - in solitary Palestinian or Israeli hearts? Today, the jury is still out!

Where, Death, is your victory? Where, Death, is your power to hurt? - 1 Cor 15:55

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2000   |   9 October


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