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Truth, Peace & Harmony … in the Holy Land?
I. Introduction to Peace

18 November   |   2000   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

“He becomes endowed with that kind of wise insight which allows him to see all beings as on the way to slaughter. Great compassion thereby takes hold of him … and he radiates great friendliness and compassion over all those beings, and gives attention to them.”

In the wisdom literature of Mahayana Buddhism, this short excerpt is often quoted to define the person who has made peacemaking a vocation in the face of the manifold threats challenging our global village today. Indeed, this passionate sense of solidarity with the whole human family - with those who suffer everywhere as much as with those who do not yet know what suffering may await them - is not simply a matter of ethics or politics. In its essence, it is the ultimate intersection where the vertical dimension of our highest spirituality must cross the horizontal dimension of our broadest humanity. It is the place in our lives where love becomes the beginning and the end of our being.

I have been thinking a lot about peacemaking these days. And when I have not thought - or written - about it, others have awakened in me through their statements, analyses or articles a miasma of beliefs - and prejudices - that colour my own position. It suffices that a person start talking about the role of religion in situations of conflict, or to excoriate - whether intelligently or unintelligently, knowingly or unknowingly - the attitude of religious communities toward those who have been impacted by this conflict, that my mind simply shifts gear and goes into overdrive!

So this article will attempt to address - albeit briefly - three compartments of thought. The first part will relate to the role and viability of religions in peacemaking. The second part will provide a personal analysis of the situation today - both in political and human terms. The final part will suggest the bare bones of a tentative scenario for peace in the Holy Land.

II. Religions and Peacemaking: Any Common Threads?

“It is one of the major tragedies of the world that the great religions instead of unifying mankind in mutual understanding and goodwill divide mankind by their dogmatic claims and prejudices. They affirm that religious truth is attained in this or that special region, by this or that chosen race, condemning others either to borrow from it or else suffer spiritual destitution.”

This is what the great Hindu thinker Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan once wrote, and one can almost imagine an audible sigh as he concluded this sentence! Yet, despite the fact that religion has often been misdirected or misused, it is also true that many religions - whether Christianity, the two other monotheistic religions or some of the polytheistic ones - believe firmly that their own spiritual heritage can be a bridge for reconciliation and a force for non-violence. So what are those spiritual themes and resources which project our visions of peace and thereby shape a theology of peace? By and large, religions:

  • Profess visions of God as loving, merciful and compassionate - the source of inner peace, as well as peace in relationships amongst persons and nations;
  • Proclaim the unity and inter-dependence of the whole human family;
  • Affirm non-violence and reconciliation - not only as matters of principle but as active powers for overcoming hostility;
  • Repudiate egotism, racism, jingoism, xenophobia and materialism - by asserting the humanity of the ‘neighbour’;
  • Stress justice for the poor, oppressed and marginalised;
  • Exalt the value and power of the individual human spirit;
  • Promise life after death - in other words, immortality and continuity.
    Different religious traditions express these themes with different methods or emphases. But if we truly aspire to emulate the biblical concept of shalom as mentioned in the Book of Isaiah (Is 32:15-18), we must become more inclusive in our attitudes toward others and aim for harmony with health, wholeness and peace in a community replete with love and justice.

III. Where are We Today?

“A universal compassion is needed, to be extended to all living beings … All sentient beings are involved in suffering; all are struggling in a dark ignorance that blinds them to the truth of their own nature and the laws that govern their existence … If each of us were to realise that whatsoever he does to another he does in effect to himself, through the law of reciprocal compassion, this world would become a happy and peaceful place.”

None other than U Thant, a former secretary-general of the United Nations, uttered those words in a discourse he gave in New York in 1967. To come to terms with such words, it is important to examine conscientiously and truthfully the existential realities that beset both peoples of this land today - well into the seventh week of the Intifada of Al-Aqsa - and to highlight those areas that are ostensibly impacting the fragile relationships betwixt Palestinians and Israelis here and now.

  • The confrontations that have stubbornly engaged most Palestinian towns of the West Bank and Gaza are deadly and painful symptoms of the failure of Oslo as a framework for negotiations. With a political handshake in 1993, Oslo was meant to engender a momentum that broke down the barriers between two peoples and led toward a just peace;
  • But Oslo introduced instead a piecemeal approach to the Palestinian situation where the geographical contiguity and human proximity of a people were seriously compromised. By dragging its feet in the implementation of the accords, as much as by using the USA as the sole broker for peace, Israel turned Palestine into Swiss cheese with small holes that represent pockets of so-called self-authority. The major issues were left unresolved, and uncertainty abounded. Therefore, a realisation dawned gradually upon people that the sole means of achieving a genuine peace in this land is by implementing the principles of international legality as represented by the binding UN Security Council resolutions;
  • One result of the Intifada is that it has strengthened the unity amongst the Palestinian grass roots. The previous tensions and fissures between Muslim and Muslim, Christian and Christian or Muslim and Christian have diminished to a large degree. A sense of solidarity has crept into the relationship between all Palestinians - Christians and Muslims alike;
  • A new word - at least for me - of mousta’ribim or mousta’rivim has re-entered into the political lexicon. Loosely translated into English as arabists, these people are Israeli Jews disguised as Arabs who are allegedly infiltrating into Palestinian towns and then notifying the Israeli establishment of the Palestinian positions or movements;
  • Israel often states that the Palestinians started the Intifada, and that Israel is merely defending itself. Israel further adds that it is exercising restraint in its counter-measures. True, Palestinians started the Intifada after the visit of the Israeli Opposition leader to the Muslim Noble Sanctuary. Palestinians also throw stones and even molotov cocktails at the Israelis, and at times fire at Israeli positions during the confrontations - be those military targets or settlements;
  • However, I still find the Israeli response disproportionate. It reminds me of an Armenian folk tale where a man uses a gong to swat a fly! Whilst Palestinians are certainly not flies, the imagery stands well. Does Israel need to shell houses with bombs in response to a few bullets? Is this excess meant to calm down - or more likely to exacerbate - the tense situation in this land? Is Israel not falling into the same trap it did with Oslo when it dictates its terms to Palestinians?
  • The Israeli closures of the West Bank and Gaza are stifling a whole people. With a system of curfews, products and commodities are now scarce, the economy is losing 200 million dollars per day, 32% of the erstwhile labour force in the West Bank and 40% in Gaza are on the dole, and people cannot move from point to point - even to pray! This form of collective punishment cannot be viewed as the ideal way to appease a people or to convince them to cease the Intifada. Nor can it prove to Palestinians that they have the beginnings of what could be defined as an (in)dependent state;
  • Palestinians and Israelis must both stop the incitements and sensationalism that appear regularly on television screens and in newspapers. Although there might exist a certain domestic logic to such actions, I maintain that the graphic relay of each death or funeral hypes up Palestinians for another confrontation. Equally, a graphic relay of fire exchanges between Beit Jala and Gilo also hypes up both Beit Jala residents and Gilo settlers. Fear-mongering, crisis election and visual angst do not help calm the psyche of two peoples who feel - in their own right - outraged, injured or violated;
  • Palestinians should exert every possible effort to keep young and under-18 children away from the flash-points or hot-spots. This is a national responsibility commensurate with article 1 of the Optional Protocol of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It does not matter whether the deaths of so many children occurred on their way home or to school, as accidental passers-by, as innocent adventure-seekers or as premeditated stone-throwers. The priority - as Mrs Mary Robinson, UN Human Rights Commissioner put it - is to protect those young generations.
  • However, a corresponding responsibility lies upon Israel since it is inadmissible under any international norm to aim at heads (eyes) or chests (hearts) in any confrontation. Alternative means of riot control must be used by the Israeli army;
  • The Intifada of Al-Aqsa that began on 28 September 2000 has gradually transmogrified into an Intifada for independence. In other words, an initial religious reaction has now assumed ethno-national dimensions. Hence, it is cardinal for Palestinians to ensure that they possess the appropriate tools, structures and strategies that define their long-term objectives. It is quite dangerous to allow oneself to be led by sheer momentum;
  • Stereotypes that Palestinians and Israelis project of each other are becoming increasingly demoniac and shrill. There is a critical level of rage, hatred and frustration - conscious or unconscious - in both peoples’ hearts. I see so much evidence of it - in the slogans being used by each side, in the way one side describes the other, in the graffiti on walls in Israeli and Palestinian neighbourhoods. Such behavioural patterns are denigrating and ultimately destructive.

IV. Tentative Vision for the Future?

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it … Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred: only love can do that.”

These are strong and uncompromising words coming from Revd Martin Luther King. Not only do they initiate a debate on the nature and forms of violence or apply directly to the confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis in the Holy Land today. They also provide a window of hope for the future. As a priest friend of mine from Jerusalem told me last week, “one must look, evaluate, and then act.” Having looked at the religious and scriptural standpoints, and having then evaluated the situation, let me now act by sketching my broad personal map for the future. I am confident that a battery of experts, lawyers and technocrats can flesh out any such agreement with the necessary political logic and language.

However, let me also add that I am not engaged here in producing a political paper or initiating a nationalist discourse. My concern focuses on the human dimension. The Christian faith I struggle to uphold is predicated upon the belief that we are all born equal in the image and likeness of God. How can this belief be transposed onto a political reality?

  • I am starting off with the premiss that the historical land of Palestine - in other words the territories of 1948- has already been left out of the ambit of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. This implies that any negotiated settlement resulting in a viable and acceptable Palestinian statehood would also translate into a recognition of Israel by all Arab countries. It also means that the Palestinians will have kicked off their negotiations with a large territorial concession of their own, and that the claims of intransigence against them do not echo the truth in real historical terms;
  • The starting point for the negotiations should be the status quo ante that existed on 4 June 1967. This emphasises the inadmissibility of the acquisition of land by force as embodied in UNSC 242. It means that the territories of the West Bank and Gaza that are still occupied by Israel should be returned to full Palestinian sovereignty. Nonetheless, and given that the larger Israeli settlement blocs constitute a human, geographic and demographic realities, territorial modifications or swaps could be made to the map. The more remote and smaller settlements strewn all over the West Bank and Gaza should be dismantled and their residents compensated fully in order to help them re-locate elsewhere;
  • Claims that Jerusalem is the ‘eternal capital of Israel’ are indefensible! God alone is eternal - not a capital! As a multi-faith hub, Jerusalem would remain an open city. The western part would become a capital for Israel, and its corresponding eastern part a capital for Palestine. In the old city, the Christian, Armenian and Muslim quarters would come under Palestinian political control, whilst the Jewish quarter and the Western Wall would remain under Israeli political control. The three faith communities would administer their own holy sites. Finally, to ensure success in its implementation, this accord would be buttressed up by international guarantees from a UN-like international body;
  • Insofar as the refugee issue is concerned, Israel must recognise the principle of a right of return and compensation for Palestinian refugees as incorporated in UNSC 194. I personally believe that very few refugees would actually return to Israel, and that most of them would either opt to stay in their adopted countries or else re-settle in Palestine. However, acceptance of the principle itself by Israel will indicate its adherence to international obligations and lead to a ‘purification of memory’ that will inevitably foster some measure of goodwill amongst both parties;

V. Conclusive Remarks

"Is there anyone among you who is wise and understanding? He is to prove it by his good life, by his good deeds performed with humility and wisdom. But if in your heart you are jealous, bitter and selfish, do not sin against the truth by boasting of your wisdom. Such wisdom does not come down from heaven; it belongs to the world. But the wisdom from above is pure first of all; it is also peaceful, gentle and friendly; it is full of compassion and produces a harvest of good deeds; it is free from prejudice and hypocrisy. And goodness is the harvest that is produced from the seeds that peacemakers plant in peace.” - Jas 3: vv13-18

Throughout my article, I have constantly used the words ‘peace’ and ‘compassion’. I have argued that it is possible to reach a peaceful and just settlement between Palestinians and Israelis if both sides are willing to be peace-driven and compassion-bound. They should be willing to rely on a wisdom that is peaceful, gentle, friendly and full of compassion. They should free themselves of prejudice and hypocrisy, planting instead the seeds of peace in their societies. As St Paul writes in his Letter, “don’t do anything from selfish ambition or from a cheap desire to boast, but be humble toward one another, always considering others better than yourselves. And look out for one another’s interests, not just for your own” Phil 2: vv 3-4.

Making peace is hard! After all, the expression goes that one sues for peace! And making peace on the basis of Christian values becomes even harder since the goalposts are so much higher! But peacemakers should persevere in their irenic task since establishing peace in this land also means planting at long last the first saplings of justice too. I remain convinced that both peoples are not only meant to live together - as politicians constantly remind us - but actually can live together. Bereft of stultifying ideologies or stunted stances, and annealed in a vision that is inclusive, it is possible for both Palestinians and Israelis to rise above their mutually negating differences and to aim for a neighbourliness that remains healthy and rewarding for both peoples. But so long as vested interests play their part, the challenge becomes even more defiant.

In an article in the Tablet on 11 November 2000, Rabbi Lionel Blue from England writes, The present problem is not ownership but the fear and hatred which have become endemic in a small area about the size of Wales, with two nations claiming the same capital, and three religions each of which has its own memories and hurts … Two states must be accepted in that small country and must share Jerusalem equally and fairly. Israel-Palestine is home to all in it and all who regard it as home, whether Palestinian refugees or persecuted Jews. The heroic intelligence and determination which created the State of Israel can accomplish that too if it enables expensive ‘swords’ to be turned into ‘ploughshares’ of technology. The cost of the settlements which have held Israel to ransom is too high.”

Is any of this feasible? I do not know! Would either party respond to it? Who knows! Is it likely that people would smirk and then dismiss it as being far too impractical or partisan to one side or other? Probably! But should it be done? Definitely!

The longer the problem is left unresolved or patched up shabbily, the higher the price of peace will be for both sides. My heart grieves for each and every Israeli or Palestinian - every boy or man, every girl or woman - who dies in these
confrontations. Every news-flash that announces another bereavement - irrespective of its source, ethnicity, family or origin - is a cause for mourning by all peacemakers. Surely, Israelis and Palestinians deserve happiness and fulfilment - peace, justice and security - in their lives?

Having already developed a theology of land for their rights, is it not time to stretch that theology a bit further and develop a theology of peace that by its very definition is also tantamount to a leap of faith in the land of prophets?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2000   |   18 November


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