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Can We Retrieve Our Humanity?
In his path-breaking book entitled The Invisible Man, the African-American novelist Ralph Ellison wrote, I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me

12 August   |   2001   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

His powerful expression about wilful exclusion - the decision we all can make to demote the humanity of others - intruded painfully into my mind yet again this week. Indeed, like scores of peoples across the orb, I followed with frustration the latest saga of tit for tat violence wracking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But only one week earlier, on 6 and 7 August2001 , the World Council of Churches in Geneva had put together another consultation on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The outcome of this gathering of familiar faces disappointed me in that it went back to the age-old but safe custom of setting up a specialist committee mandated with the task of pursuing the dynamics (as if the dynamics are not already known to peoples of different persuasions and perspectives!) of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It also regurgitated some of the recommendations that have been adopted time and again by a number of church-related organisations world-wide. However, what impacted me most about this consultation is a small interlude that marked the whole event. In his opening worship sermon, Anglican Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal from Jerusalem pointed out to the fact that Jesus had blessed peace-makers rather than peace-talkers. In so doing, Bishop Riah reminded the audience that Jesus had adopted a proactive agenda and had challenged the status quo rather than merely analysed it!

How true are his words! In fact, I just concluded this weekend a consultation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict organised by a very reputable Central European think-tank. Guided by the Chatham rules, the two key sessions took place on the day of the suicide attack at the Sabarro pizzeria in west Jerusalem and the subsequent closure of Orient House in east Jerusalem. I stood up to deliver the paper I had written on the ‘variables’ of the conflict. But looking at the specialist audience of men and women assembled in the hall, I veered away from my prepared text and focused instead on the human dimension of the conflict. After all, ten bloody months of an Intifada that is tantamount to a Palestinian decolonisation process have resulted in hundreds of lamentable deaths on both sides. Surely, in an almost Abel versus Cain scenario, we can no longer tolerate so many ‘fratricidal’ and ‘neighbourly’ killings? And surely, in an equally Hegelian sense, we cannot indulge in the notion of super-men who deem themselves more powerful - and by implication much wiser - than their Creator?

It seems to me that many people have become entrapped in the abstract academia of the conflict - for reasons too embarrassing and critical to enumerate in this article. Yet, as Professor Richard Falk (an international jurist from Princeton University and member of the Human Rights Inquiry Commission) mentioned in his recent report, it does not take most Israelis or Palestinians much effort to appreciate the ‘dynamics’ of this pernicious conflict. By and large, they include the issue of a large number of Israeli settlements that have sprung up unlawfully in many parts of the West Bank and Gaza, the future of the Palestinian refugees who have lost home and property in 1948 and1967 , and the future of the eastern (Palestinian) sector of Jerusalem. All the other issues - from water to infrastructure to closures to economy - are either attached to or associated with those core issues.

However, what needs to be done at this stage is to take on board much more actively the human toll of this conflict. What about the visceral hatred of Palestinians and Israelis for each other? What about the fear they experience toward each other? What about all the orphaned children who have lost mothers and fathers? Or the mothers and fathers who have lost their sons and daughters? I believe that the Mitchell Commission Report - which underlines the freezing of all forms of Israeli settlements and the implementation of international monitors as predicated by a cessation of hostilities between the two unequal warring sides - provides one adequate answer.

And that answer, in its Christian kernel, also contains the seeds of a non-violent resistance that should be as much the concern of the Churches as of their related organisations. After all, if the argument states that an injustice has been committed against the Palestinians, then that injustice needs to be redressed. But could such redress be achieved non-violently and through an effective - dare I add creative - strategy at a time when both sides do not trust each other as far as they can throw them, let alone shoot them? Could we re-read some of the arguments being put forward by a host of Christian contemporaries - many of whom like Father Raed Abu Sahlieh are Palestinian themselves? Can we then attach those arguments to the wider structure of beliefs inherent in the schools of thought of many Jewish and Muslim scholars, practitioners and institutions in the region?

I am often dumbstruck by the very circular nature of the arguments between Israelis and Palestinians. Let us take the latest chapter alone! Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insists that he will not budge on anything until the Palestinians stop totally the Intifada. Notwithstanding, he continues apace with the targeted assassinations and punitive measures. In return, the Palestinians insist that they cannot silence the stones or bullets unless Israel recognises their legitimate rights and provides a solution based on the principles of international legality. So, the Intifada continues too. Israel then takes this continued struggle as proof that the Palestinians are not a peaceful people and implements its repressive and coercive measures. Does anyone miss the vicious cycle .?!

I come back to my constant argument that a legitimate solution which calls for compromise also requires the courage, vision, good will and good faith of those empowered to execute it. During a recent meeting in Geneva of the Commission on Human Rights, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, ‘We are all of equal worth, born equal in dignity and born free and for this reason deserving of respect whatever our external circumstances. We belong in a world whose very structure, whose essence, is diversity almost bewildering in extent and it is to live in a fool’s paradise to ignore this basic fact.’

Indeed, it is time that the human toll of this conflict becomes our ascending concern. But in order to achieve this goal, it is important for the world to remember that the Palestinian people cannot be made invisible, and thereby their aspirations will simply not drift away. It is indeed high time for Palestinians to be offered their dignity and freedom so that their sense of self-worth can be restored too. And in so doing, it is also my perfervid belief that Israelis will attain the security they so richly and truly deserve in their own lives and societies. Anything else will be nothing more - and nothing less - than singing in the wind. Or even worse!

Can we be truthful to ourselves, or will we use our own political version of the truth to perpetuate our own interests? Can we become peace-makers? Or will most of us remain peace-talkers ..?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2001   |   12 August


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