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Deadlocked in Bloody Violence?
While we, citizens of Israel, totally condemn acts of terror against civilians, we regard the Palestinian revolt against colonial occupation as legitimate. Despite the fact that many innocent Israelis have been victims of this revolt, we understand that there can be no moral and military symmetries between occupiers and occupied. The occupation itself is morally and politically wrong - Israelis for International Peace Force - 10 May 2001

16 May   |   2001   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Definition of Violence …

350 Israeli professors and intellectuals recently signed this bold and challenging statement. In view of the ever-spiralling cycle of violence in the Holy Land, and the concomitant polarisation within both Israeli and Palestinian societies, it was a significant development in the contextual discourse over violence. But what is our own understanding of violence in 2001 anyway? And equally importantly, how do its different forms impact a Holy Land that cradles two peoples and three religions?

The Oxford dictionary defines violence as 'an unjust or unwarranted exertion of force or power, as against rights or laws'. Synonyms include 'hostility', 'aggression', 'brutality', 'cruelty', 'fury', 'bloodshed' and 'carnage'. But how do we define it in our common parlance?

Let us forget for one moment those political outcries about ‘violence’ that are media-friendly and thereby compulsory sound bites. Rather, let us focus more pointedly on facts. Ever since 29 September 2000, Israel has consistently been accusing the Palestinian leadership and masses of ‘terrorism’ (sic violence) whilst the Palestinians are mitigating the ongoing ‘confrontations’ (sic violence) by stressing out that they are seeking due justice for their cause. Whilst Israelis are relating to such 'violence' from a parameter of security that is detached from a cause, Palestinians are attaching a cause it to. This cause is the establishment of a sovereign and self-sustaining Palestinian state. The principles of international legality indicate that justice can only be assured through the return of lands occupied by Israel during the Six Day war of 1967.

Constituents of Violence

So, what constitutes violence? What are its causes and how can one tackle its effects? What is the road ahead for Palestinians and Israelis who are ostensibly betrothed to peace but effectively sworn to war?

Based upon Christian teaching and universal morality - let alone worldwide juridical and anthropological definitions - violence is not only physical. It could also be structural, psychological and legal. True, its crudest physical sense involves depriving another human being of his or her life, or else causing them harm - be it through assassinations, bombings, extra-judicial executions, summary judgments, torture or other execrable means of inflicting pain. But violence can also be exercised through much more subtle and less incondite means. Locking people into their own towns or villages and disallowing them any access to the outside world is violence. Demolishing houses, uprooting olive or orange groves and sequestering arable land is violence. Humiliating the dignity of a whole people for the sake of exercising power and control over them is violence. Abusing men and women verbally and discriminating against their human rights in every sphere of officialdom is violence. Applying policies that strive to perpetuate subjugation, nepotism or corruption is violence too.

Sadly enough, such manifestations exist in ample supply in a ‘holy land’ of life-givers and life-takers alike! Palestinians and Israelis are killing each other with impunity. Each side is vengeful and chary of the other. How many Israelis would think twice or three times before venturing into any Palestinian area? And how many Palestinians would willingly enter a Jewish area or pass freely through a settlement? Are Palestinians to Israelis today what native Americans were to white Americans less than two centuries ago? Or have Palestinians today become in some Israeli eyes the ‘niggers’ of American yesteryears? Conversely but equally true though, have Israeli Jews not also become the homepage of visceral and frightening hatred from most Palestinians? The present reality is ugly and uncompromising. It simply refuses to go away, and events have shown us that it is becoming worse every single day with every single tit-for-tat killing! With both parties deadlocked in bloody violence, where is the skeleton key that unlocks the door to peace?

Causation of Violence

In an interview in the Ha’aretz English-language daily on 12 April 2001, and then again in a subsequent interview in the New York Times on 6 May 2001, PM Ariel Sharon stressed that all settlements - even the smallest and remotest ones - would not be dismantled under his leadership. However, many political commentators are convinced that the most menacing issue obstructing any future meaningful accord between Israelis and Palestinians remains by far that of settlements. A poll - taken after the gruesome bludgeoning of two Israeli schoolboys last week - showed nonetheless that 55% of the Israelis surveyed wanted their government to freeze all settlement building in return for a cease-fire with the Palestinians.

So, let me paraphrase the columnist Anthony Lewis and explain why settlements are a grave obstacle toward peace, and why their true implications are not always self-evident. Just consider the seven following points!

  • It is misleading to view those settlements as ordinary villages or towns where Israelis only want to live in peace with their Palestinian neighbours. They are in fact concrete structures imposed by superior Israeli military force upon Palestinian territory. Many have been built precisely to perpetuate Israeli power or ownership. They are militarised encampments, not peaceful villages.
  • Imagine yourself - a resident of a neighbourhood in Copenhagen, Seattle, Tokyo, Yerevan, Brussels or anywhere else in the world - waking up one morning to find a foreign power building flats under armed guard across the street from your house or business! You would find those flats provocative and would resist their illegal intrusion. By the same token, local Palestinians deem settlements provocative.
  • The settlements impinge forcefully on the daily lives of Palestinians in grinding and humiliating ways. In an over-crowded Gaza of one million Palestinians, a handful of Jewish settlements occupy well over a quarter of the choicest land and seafront! And in the West Bank, settlements break up the territory so Palestinians have to pass Israeli checkpoints simply to go from one Palestinian town into another.
  • Bulldozers have sliced off hilltops and cut more than 300 kilometres of by-pass roads through valleys and woods in order to build settlements in the West Bank or connect them with one another. To ensure free-fire zones in Gaza, Israel has razed many citrus groves and olive trees that are as much national symbols as they are agricultural products for Palestinians.
  • Contrary to many impressions, the building of settlements has not slowed at any point since the Oslo agreement of 1993. Ever since, the settlement population has risen by a whopping 72%.
  • Those claims being made that Israel is building more settlements in order to 'settle' the Jews making aliya (immigrating into Israel) are fallacious. There are many settlements that already have a large number of uninhabited flats. Settlements have become a manifestation of an uninhibited gusto toward expansionism through the process of appropriation of land belonging to others.
  • For Palestinians, settlements are a mortal threat to their hope of ever having a viable state of their own. Their perception is that Israel is creating for them a cluster of non-contiguous ghettoes that can easily be contained or encircled - somewhat akin to the reservations provided for native Americans.

However, Israelis in increasing numbers are themselves beginning to appreciate that settlements are a recipe for endless conflict. They are a threat to their own strategic interests. They are not only an ideological obstacle to peace, but a physical one too. They are points of friction since most of the recent violence has swirled around them. The recent appeal dated 10 May 2001 by Israeli professors and intellectuals - coming on the heels of the Mitchell Commission Report - stated that "Jewish settlements in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 are an ongoing act of aggression against the Palestinian people. Massive construction of new Jewish settlements and expansion of existing ones have continued relentlessly even after the signing of the Oslo agreements."

Indeed, the best chance for both parties to begin anew the process of extricating themselves from the present violent impasse is a ceasefire that respects the status quo ante and comes hand-in-hand with a freeze on all settlement building. This would obviously be a true blessing for the Palestinians. It would also be a true blessing for peace. But I believe it would also be a true blessing for Israel. The settlement policy is not just a danger to the political character of Israel. It imperils its moral fibre too.

Observers Against Violence …

As a Christian, as much as a practitioner in conflict resolution, I am much taken by the non-violent teachings of love and truth expounded by Mahatma Gandhi and his latter-day disciples. I am also deeply influenced by the writings of HB Patriarch Michel Sabbah in Jerusalem. His Beatitude often asserts that Christians must speak out about forgiveness and reconciliation as much as work for peace despite the insuperable difficulties along the way. But how can any such laudable step ever be taken given the polarisation that cripples two peoples? How can one preach pacifism - which reeks of defeatism let alone surrender, and which perpetuates occupation - when gross violations are happening day in day out? How is it possible to educate the ordinary people of the need to resort to pacific resistance when history shows that 'justice' can best be driven through might alone?

As HB Patriarch Michel Sabbah said in a recent interview to a French paper, what peace requires are political leaders who are endowed with a vision, but who also have the courage to sacrifice their own narrow interests for the sake of this larger vision. Indeed, as the recent statement from Israelis for International Peace Force dated 10 May 2001 also stipulated, one constructive way to consolidate the fundamentals of peace and get out of this morass of violence is through the initiation of an observer force. Mandated by the UN, the EU or the OSCE, those international observers would be despatched alongside the demarcation lines that separate Palestinians from Israelis. But their presence should not be toothless. Rather, it should enjoy a clear mandate to stop the killing and maiming of human beings who are exercising their elementary right to claim political freedom. Therefore, both Israel and the Palestine National Authority should empower them with the freedom of movement and the persuasive authority of an enforceable mandate. Only then will those observers be enabled to mediate between both parties following the rules and norms of international dispute resolution.

What would be the nationality of those observers? They could be chosen from the UN Security Council member countries. Who would they be? They could be men and women from different wakes of life. However, churches worldwide also possess the spiritual vocation and practical experience of conflict management from other regions such as South Africa. Therefore, I believe that such a contingent should also include in its midst a number of Christian observers. They would provide the witness of solidarity and sustenance - both to the Christian communities in the Holy Land as much as to the larger Palestinian population. Their mere presence as bridge-builders would raise awareness of the dynamics of the conflict in this riven land.

Violent Present or Non-Violent Future

The message coming out of this reciprocal violence is that Palestinians have embarked upon a decolonisation process. Given that the Oslo process has collapsed, they cannot continue to live tamely - and endlessly - under the yoke of occupation. But is equally incontestable that Israel should enjoy an absolute right to exist within secure borders. Blend both those factors together, and one can easily chafe the sparks of violence. However, in order to reconcile both peoples to peace, it is high time that the political leadership discard the sclerotic arguments of an ossified ideological past and deal with the pressing realities of today. Neither side can afford the on-going confrontations - both economies are suffering, their tourism industries have come to a shuddering halt, and the human toll - physical and psychological - of the violence to date is grotesque on both sides.

Can Israelis and Palestinians afford to sue for a genuine and comprehensive peace? Can they divest themselves of bellicose attitudes that are rending the very fabric of a land that Jewish, Christian and Muslim prophets once called home? Will Israel put an end to settlements as one major step in the right direction? Will it also agree to international observers to ensure a transition that fosters good will and mutual trust between the parties again?

The alternative is frighteningly clear to me! It is much more violence - labelled by its real name.

Only a revenge-seeking fool could believe that eliminations and missile fire, the demolition of neighbourhoods, the killing of soldiers and civilians and the destruction of houses could restore personal calm and security … Many politicians on both the left and the right already know that the use of ruthless force has no purpose, and that we are galloping toward disaster. But it is not too late. - Yediot Aharonot Israeli Newspaper - 14 May 2001

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2001   |   16 May


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