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Unyielding Challenges of the Holy Land
We are closed in, and the key is turned, On our uncertainty; somewhere, A man is killed, or a house burned; Yet no clear fact to be discerned. - Meditations in Time of Civil War, by W B Yeats

29 December   |   2001   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)


In a key presentation he made in Strasbourg on 11 December2001 , His Beatitude Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, threw down the gauntlet to both Israelis and Palestinians. Addressing the issue of violence in the Holy Land, he reminded all believers that dealing with this parcel of land implies dealing with the land of God. God does not accept violence just as he does not accept the death of Abel - whether Abel is Palestinian or Israeli, or whether Cain is Palestinian or Israeli. Jerusalem is a holy city, he added, and the font of peace for humanity. Only those living up to its challenge merit it, can own it and live in peace within it.

These are compelling words! They are also words that challenge the world in its dealings with the Holy Land - or to put it differently, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole. So I would like to use this article today to highlight some of the challenges of this hallowed parcel of land, as much as to underline the issues that need further reflection and action if true peace between Israelis and Palestinians were to be achieved at long last.

The Challenge of History?

Let me start off my set of seven challenges with a historical perspective. And let me therefore ask quite bluntly what purpose does the Israeli military occupation serve? Is it a19 th century style 'civilising mission' meant to improve the lives of Palestinians living under occupation? Or is it a20 th century nationalist - and extrinsically irredentist - agenda that aims to use all methods in order to clear the conquered land for its own settlers?

Mark Mazower, Professor of History at Birkbeck College in London, draws an analogy with other19 th century empires when he suggests that the conquest of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Habsburg troops in 1878 was conceived - and marketed - as a first step in a 'civilising mission'. Although this occupation met with fierce resistance, some accommodation was reached once the Austrians invested massive amounts of money into modernising the region as an advertisement for the benefits of their rule over that of the Ottomans.

The advent of an era of nationalism in the20 th century, however, meant that different states used military force rather differently against civilians in conquered territories. In the Balkan wars, invasions often led to huge flights of populations and consequential 'ethnic cleansing'. The French occupation of the Ruhr area after WWI was designed to consolidate control over the region's economic resources and to guarantee the payment of reparations. And with Nazi rule across Europe after 1938 - the classic laboratory case for occupation policy - both the demographic and economic aspects of conquest came to the fore. Some regions were annexed and incorporated into the Reich. Most were never intended to form part of Germany but remained under the control of the Wehrmacht or the SS. The chief goal of military conquest was to create the enlarged and racially purified state of a German master race. Non-Germans were driven off land intended for settlement, while ethnic Germans were encouraged to build a new life in border areas wrested from Polish or Soviet control. Economies were looted, and food stocks plundered. The losers starved and mobilised in resistance. In vain, collaborators such as the Vichy leader Marshal Philippe Petain, King Leopold of Belgium and Norway's Vidkun Quisling tried to impress upon Hitler the importance of making military occupation seem not an end in itself but rather an opening to a new inclusive political dispensation. But not even Benito Mussolini could make the Nazis recognise the self-defeating character of their national chauvinism.

Soviet policy in post-war Europe formed a contrast. Military occupation by the Red Army was a means to a political end but that end, although no less totalitarian, differed sharply. Military domination helped the Nazis loot and plunder resources, but it could help much less with the long-term Soviet goal - the social transformation of the region by planned industrialisation. Hence came about the demobilisation of the Red Army, its withdrawal from many territories in Eastern Europe and Moscow's policy of dominating satellite states less by force than through one-party rule, security services and the police. Although there were some huge forced population movements, notably in the Baltic States and Poland, the stress on creating ethnically purified lands was far less marked than with the Nazis. So whilst the Nazis responded to armed resistance with a draconian policy of reprisals and mass shootings, the Soviet strategy was much more akin to a long-run colonial combination of political warfare and police surveillance, using regular amnesties and the lure of joining the winning side. As with the Habsburgs, the Soviets offered those they had occupied the prospect of modernisation.

So let me come back to my original question! What purpose does the Israeli military occupation serve? What are the objectives of the Israeli government vis-à-vis its occupation of Palestinian land? It is certainly not modernisation, and there is no 'civilising mission' whatsoever! Not only that, but when faced with armed resistance, the Israeli government expected the Palestinian Authority to police the territories. When this failed to happen, Israel assassinated its opponents and used overwhelming military force. But with the effort to turn the Authority into a surrogate police agency having seemingly flopped, what is the alternative to the military option?

As in WWII, the Israelis may now be discovering that overwhelming military power can generate the very opposition it seeks to destroy. Wartime Poland demonstrated that mass resistance often emerges as an alternative underground society once an occupying power has destroyed existing institutions and offered no plausible likelihood of helping build new ones. Hitler and Stalin used mass population movement and large-scale killing to try achieving their ends. But we are not in the1940 s now, and those policies are inconsistent with the ideology of the modern State of Israel or the values of the international community. Yet, the Sharon-led government is taking the country down a path that cannot possibly lead to long-term success. After1967 , the military occupation failed to integrate newly conquered lands into Israel proper. Now it is also failing to guarantee even the safety of Jewish settlers. These failures underline the glaring political limitations of military subjugation in the modern world.

The Challenge of Statistics?

One visible result of the recent spate of suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa is that the Israeli population no longer feels secure. Its confidence in the process of peace with the Palestinians has also been battered severely. Moreover, those bombings have abetted Israel in its attempt to de-legitimise the Palestinian Authority and put the Palestinians face-to-face with the spectre of civil strife.

>An off-shoot of these developments is that Palestinian public opinion also shifted visibly toward stronger support for the Intifada and much less in favour of the process for peace between the two parties. When the Camp David II talks broke off in July2000 , only24 % of Palestinians believed in this process. When Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister of Israel in February2001 , the support level hit the floor at11 % only.

Parallel to these new developments, new percentages were already impacting the Palestinian street. This was due to a belief by some Palestinians that their Authority was failing to manage the conflict through its negotiations with Israel and that it had equally failed to edify a democratic and corruption-free society within its territories. This also translated into some stark figures. As the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research indicated in a recent article, the popularity of Chairman Arafat and Fatah fell to33 % and29 % respectively - compared to47 % and37 % before the Intifada started on 28 September2000 . Conversely, the popularity of the Islamic movements rose from17 % to27 %. Further, only20 % of Palestinians felt that their institutions were democratic. Such statistics translated into a new feeling within the larger Palestinian society that helped shift the internal balance of power and nudged ahead a new generation of leaders from within the national movement.

Israel confronted the dynamics of the Intifada with an even harsher siege of Palestinian territories and sterner collective punishments. The measures it adopted have touched most Palestinians by blocking their freedom of movement and destroying the fabric of their economic and social lives. But they only managed to deepen the sense of humiliation, oppression and hopelessness felt by Palestinians who came to consider political negotiations as pointless, and doubled their support for violent resistance - now resting at around80 % of the population.

Despite those gloomy percentages and dire conditions, though,75 % of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza still support a historic conciliation between the two peoples based on the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state adjacent to Israel. But this flank of support cannot be nurtured in a vacuum. It needs to be strengthened by the parties, but this can only be achieved if the negotiations were to be resumed soon.

The Challenge of Terrorism?

With depressing predictability, writes Quentin Peel in the Financial Times, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict blew up again just as the US-led campaign in Afghanistan seemed to be reaching its end game. And what a coincidence too! It had been clear from the start that the confrontation over Israel was one issue behind the terrorist attacks and that it would have been dragged into the fallout. Hardliners on both sides wanted it to be so.

Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, and harsh military suppression of dissent, has provided Islamic radicals with a fertile cause for recruitment. That is true even if their mixed and multiple targets are Muslim autocrats and modernisers alike as well as much of the modern world rather than just the state of Israel! On the other side, PM Ariel Sharon and his government are urgently seeking to ensure that the terrorist threat they face in Israel is seen in Washington as identical to the anti-US onslaught by Usama bin Laden's al-Qa'eda network. Sharon wants the US 'war on terrorism' to become synonymous with his own war against Hamas and Islamic Jihad. And there lies the rub! The Middle East is … not Afghanistan, just as Kashmir is not Afghanistan … either!

The war against Afghanistan has been 'easy' in the sense that the Taliban regime was a clear target, lacking any significant international support, and capable of being overthrown by traditional military tactics. But the future fight against terrorism - against a tactic, not a target - needs to be delineated clearly.

Let us start with the definition of 'terrorism'. The United Nations has been struggling to accomplish this task for decades. Last month, its best legal brains failed again to reach any conclusion! They could not agree on a request by several Arab states that the definition of terrorism should allow the concepts of 'self-determination' and 'resisting foreign occupation' to be included as exclusionary loopholes within it. Indeed, Washington managed to maintain a somewhat arcane distinction between the 'global terrorism' of al-Qa'eda and what might be termed the 'nationalist terrorism' of other movements the likes of Hamas, the IRA in Northern Ireland and the Eta separatists in Spain. This distinction would not be sustained for long, nor would it stand against the scrutiny of reason.

It is a truism, as much as a political reality, that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. For many Israelis, Chairman Yasser Arafat remains a terrorist since he allows organisations like Hamas to operate from his territory. However, to many Palestinians - including those who do not support Hamas, as well as many Arabs in the Middle East - PM Ariel Sharon is worse. His deliberate use of massive force to counter the suicide bombers and his extra-judicial assassinations are precisely designed to cause terror in the Palestinian population. Few people in the Arab world forget his alleged part in the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatilla camps in Lebanon in1982 . It remains a moot point whether that makes him a war criminal or a terrorist in the eyes of Palestinians. But does yesterday's terrorist who becomes tomorrow's peacemaker still remain an ex-terrorist nonetheless? Terrorism cannot be defined in black and white - there are many shades of grey!

I believe quite strongly that terrorism is too nebulous a concept and cannot be a target in itself. It is primarily a tool of the disempowered to fight the overwhelmingly powerful. It is most often a tactic of desperation, espoused no doubt by many who are pathological killers, but also by others who see themselves as idealists. The danger of declaring 'war on terrorism' is that it implies using the overwhelming power of the USA - or, in the case of Israel, that country's relatively serious power against the Palestinians - to crush those organisations espousing terrorism. But that will not remove the tactic of terrorism from the armoury of the desperate. If anything, it will reinforce its use as the only possible weapon - a self-evident point that was demonstrated by the bloody spate of Palestinian suicide bombs.

The answer, - and it is inevitably long-term and hard to acknowledge - is to seek and tackle the causes of terrorism rather than merely its manifestations. For prognosis and diagnosis to correlate, and for settlement and resolution to twin up, it is vital to go for the cause roots rather than doctor the symptoms alone! But this is not a very popular strategy in Washington today. For a start, it sounds too much like condoning terrorist acts. It also seems far too impractical for those who want nice and clear policies to deal with obvious problems. But if we treat terrorism as an end in itself - a target in itself - that can simply be snuffed out by the use of force, we run the risk of stoking up an ever-growing peril.

The Challenge of Interventions & Monitors?

Despite the fact that Usama bin Laden is still taunting the free world with his videotaped pronouncements, it seems to me that the West has largely won the war in Afghanistan. But what about the Middle East - from Iran to the Arabian Gulf - where the players on the chessboard of diplomacy often tend to checkmate each other?

The contrast between Afghanistan and the Middle East is quite crisp, and the players of the war on terrorism are somewhat harder to identify! Iran appears to be slowly abandoning its revolutionary past. The Gulf States no longer enjoy the potency of oil and are under intense scrutiny for responsibility in the outburst of international terrorism. Israel enjoys clear military superiority over all its neighbours put together. The outline for an arc of stability against fundamentalism - possibly comprising Turkey, Iran and Israel - is not too far-fetched a scenario.

But is it possible to achieve such larger goals when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not yet been resolved? How vulnerable does Israel remain today? Palestinians from their end perceive Israel as a colonial oppressor. So, they often imagine that Israelis will eventually leave the territories. Israelis on the other hand - partly because of their own historical experience of horrendous suffering, but mainly because any occupation corrupts - are too often blind to the suffering they inflict upon others. Even if one rejects a moral equivalence between the systematic murder of Israelis by suicide bombers and the collateral damage inflicted on Palestinians by the Israeli army, it cannot be denied that the bombers' fanaticism is as much a product of despair as it is of indoctrination. Both sides today have reached a critical phase where they need to face some uncompromising truths and make some painful choices. But can they?

As Dominique Moisi of the Paris-based Institute of International Relations asks in a recent article, why must the situation in the Middle East get even worse before it gets better? Why does the international community persist in exhausting all alternatives before coming to the conclusion that it must intervene - and massively so! True, the violence and hatred have gone too far. However, the new diplomatic environment created by 11 September 2001 - a rapprochement between the United Nations and the USA, the positive approach of Russia and the growing diplomatic role of Germany within Europe - creates an opportunity that both PM Sharon and Chairman Arafat seem unable to seize for now. The international community, on the other hand, can - and therefore must! The conflict is not only costing far too many innocent lives; it also represents a source of permanent tension between the western and Islamic or Arab worlds.

This is why I view with extreme sorrow the US veto of the proposed United Nations Security Council Resolution of 15 December2001 . This was the third aborted attempt by the UN in a year to establish a monitoring force in the occupied territories. The wide-ranging resolution received support from twelve members of the Security Council while Norway and Britain abstained. Yet, the UN remains the sole international body with legally binding powers that can be instrumental in constructing peace. The establishment of a UN monitoring presence is a concrete and positive step that the international community ought to take seriously. It would foster a calm and non-violent atmosphere that could well help put an end to the dangerously escalating cycle of violence and draw both parties back to the negotiating table.

The Challenge against Intransigence?

A spine-tingling statement issued on 2 December2001 by the Israeli peace movement Gush Shalom following the horrific suicide bombings began with the chilling statement 'We expected it - which doesn't make it less horrifying'. The statement added that 'every new round of blunt aggression is more cynical and blind'. Talking about the escalating rounds of violence, the statement ended with an almost resigned sigh, 'And you re-iterate - also on such a day - that it is the occupation which is the root cause, that the cycle of bloodshed cannot be broken without an end to the occupation, or at least a clearly visible step in that direction'.

In a short article entitled 'The Chanukah Miracle', Rabbi Michael Lerner raises a similar question. He refers to the Talmudic rabbis who were worried during the ancient times that the celebration of Chanukah would miss its mark by focusing too much on the victory of the Maccabees. He then pursues with his analogy and states that 'we have not learnt that the anger which brought the attacks of 11 September 2001 had everything to do our insensitivity to the pain of people around the world. He adds, 'the only path out of this is for Israelis to open their hearts to the Palestinian people, and for Palestinians to do the same for Israelis. But both sides have the fantasy that power is what will save them'.

Intransigence, coupled with an obsessive Israeli hold on territory contrary to the principles of international legitimacy, should yield to an understanding that no people can be dispossessed of their land and then forced to sue for peace.

The Challenge of Hope against Reality?

In his Christmas message to the world a few days ago, HH Pope John-Paul II said he was bearing in his heart the tragedy of the Holy Land, and that his mind was on the Bethlehem of yesterday and the Bethlehem of today.

Ever since the Second Intifada started, Israel has been strangulating the Palestinian territories with closures that have almost crippled the Palestinian society and economy. A recent report released by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) - responsible for providing many of the services in the West Bank and Gaza - makes for grim reading and offers some dismal facts:

  • The long-term effects of the restrictions imposed by Israel mean that those Palestinians who used to work in the fields, in factories and in Israel, are now without gainful employment;
  • Prices of food have gone up as the closures limit supplies and increase the cost of transport;
  • Closures have also reduced peoples' access to healthcare and education. In the past 15 months, home births have increased by26 % as women find it hard to get to hospital. Still births have risen by 11 %;
  • Educational achievement has suffered too, with a dramatic drop in results in Arabic, English and maths.

An excerpt from an earlier report in the Olive Branch on the decimation of a whole infrastructure pointed out that:

  • 27,000 trees were uprooted in an agriculture-based economy;
  • 12,000 dunums ( 1acre = 4 dunums) of land were levelled in the Gaza Strip;
  • 3,200 buildings, of which1 , 200were houses, have been destroyed.

This devastating reality is one that is sowing the seeds of further radicalisation within ever-increasing sectors of the Palestinian population. The statistics I used earlier in this article are not created in a parthenogenesis that is barren from logic or wisdom. Rather, they are the product of a serious erosion of confidence in a process that has metamorphosed the hope for peace into a reality of war. To succeed, the hope for peace should be coupled with an improvement of the living conditions of those living in the territories - otherwise, it is a redundant hope. Placing Palestinians in pseudo-cages unfortunately makes an equal mockery of those in the cages as much as those holding the keys to those cages.

The Challenge for the Future?

A statement last November by the Presidents and Bishops of the Catholic worldwide grassroots movement Pax Christi laid down the challenge for the future. Quoting the prophetic words of the late Pope Paul VI, it reminded its constituents that 'if one seeks peace, one has to work for justice'.

This document referred to the legal and political foundations of a future peace-anchored regional vision that embraces both peoples. Its main recommendations included an acknowledgement of the right of self-determination for Palestinians as much as the right of Israel for recognised and secure borders. It also re-iterated the need for an Israeli withdrawal from the territories it occupied in1967 , the right of return for refugees and the respect for human rights by both parties. The document then called for a show of goodwill by all Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders in order to 'smash the walls of hostility and division, and to build together a world based on justice and solidarity'. Finally, the report included an appeal to the USA and the EU to become more actively engaged in the quest for peace and the implementation of those [Mitchell Report] steps that would encourage the peace-builders within both communities to labour for peace.

This document from Pax Christi resonated well with another document. Entitled 'A Proposal Regarding Peace in the Middle East', authored by Bassam Abu-Sharif and dated 11 December2001 , it called for confidence-building measures and misconception-clearing steps that will begin to heal the hostility and mitigate the grudge that have become prevalent within both communities. To achieve this, it suggested drawing up a vision of the solution from the end game and then working out the means and mechanisms that could translate this vision into reality.

In a nutshell, the process will be initiated by Israeli and Palestinian public figures. They will sign a charter together spelling out their vision for peace. They will then appear together, and meet the media together, to promote their vision to the Israeli and Palestinian populaces. Their primary focus - that of psycho-political counsellors as much as initiators - will be to arrest the festering animosity that has slithered into the hearts and minds of both peoples.

The main components of the putative charter will include:

  • A condemnation of terrorism, and a rejection of the methods of violence, by both sides in this conflict;
  • A recognition for the States of Israel and Palestine to live next to each other within recognised borders;
  • A commitment for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem;
  • Jerusalem will become a shared capital with open borders and free access to the holy places;
  • The right of return for refugees that is guaranteed by legal mechanisms that would preserve the demographic integrity and cultural identity of both states.

Implicit in the five points are the following necessary pre-requisites:

  • An Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories;
  • A complete freeze on settlement construction, land confiscation and home demolition;
  • An immediate ceasefire from both sides;
  • An international peace-monitoring force to be sent to the region with a clear UN-empowered mandate and supported both by the USA and the EU.


As an Armenian Christian from Jerusalem, I have shared many of the highs and lows of both peoples, but I have also experienced the stark imbalance of power between the two parties. There is a frightening asymmetry in the variables of the conflict between both peoples. Justice is on the side of the Palestinian people - it is their land that is occupied, their identity that is marginalized and their rights that are violated in different ways every day.

It is true that both peoples are suffering the consequences of this conflict, and I deeply mourn the grief of many Israeli orphaned children and widowed partners who have been blown away in a heinous show of inhumanity. But I also deeply mourn the grief of many Palestinian orphaned children and widowed partners who have been killed in an equally insidious show of inhumanity. Neither is good for either people! Two wrongs do not make one right!

In his 'Dimbleby Lecture2001 ' in London earlier this month, President Bill Clinton spoke eloquently about the struggle for the soul of the21 st century. Referring to its future shape, and using the Israeli-Palestinian dimension as one yardstick, he alluded to the global challenge for a common humanity that transcends global differences. Quite true! But such a challenge inherently exacts an honest revision of the way we view the conflicts of the world. There has to be the leading will for political action to tackle some of the long-standing problems that are like tinderboxes waiting to go up in flames - over and over again! An attempt to struggle for the soul of the new millennium, and the zeal to define a common humanity, can only become possible if vested interests were replaced by a more just view of the world.

Can we perhaps find within ourselves the courage, sagacity and resourcefulness to take up the gauntlet thrown down to us all by HB Patriarch Michel Sabbah in Strasbourg some three long weeks ago?

We must be the change we wish to see! - M K Gandhi

The author is an International lawyer, as well as Ecumenical, Legal and Policy Consultant to the Armenian Apostolic Church, in London. He has been deeply involved for many years with the religious and political aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This article is an edited version of a lecture presented at the Middle East Strategic Forum in Washington DC.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2001   |   29 December


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