image of jerusalem 2013

Caught Up in a Crossfire?

Date to be added   |   2002   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Sir Andrew Green, head of a medical mission that visited Israel and Palestine, was quoted three weeks ago as saying that the situation in the Palestinian territories is shocking. He exclaimed that ‘ditches and barbed wire now surround Palestinian towns. Palestinians need a permit from the Israelis to leave their own town. Even then they are kept waiting for hours at check points. This is having a serious effect on medical services but there are also wider implications. As some Israelis are now themselves saying, this amounts to the systematic oppression and humiliation of an entire people. The inevitable result is anger, frustration and a desire for revenge that bodes ill for any prospect of peace. If the Israelis think they are rooting out terrorism, they are sadly mistaken. They are engendering it’.

These unvarnished words come from a man of considerable political stature. So why did it all go horribly wrong?

Major Problems?

Palestinian Borders & Settlements

It might be possible for Israel to give Palestinians full sovereignty over the whole of the West Bank and Gaza Strip - as it did with Sinai in 1979 - were it not for the 163 Jewish settlements encroaching upon the Palestinian landscape. Since the Oslo process began, the number of Jewish settlers in the Palestinian territories has doubled to over 214,000.

Only last month, and according to B’Tselem, PM Ariel Sharon gave the green light to Israeli settlement agencies and settler organisations to found three dozen new settlements on occupied land. Avigail is one such example! It is literally a collection of four mobile homes on a hilltop about 16 kilometres southeast of Hebron. It consists of four men, a woman, four soldiers and two dogs. Such settlement development is a breach of the Geneva Conventions under International law that forbid a country to transfer ‘parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies’.

Just consider the facts today:40 % of the West Bank that the PA once partially controlled is divided into 8 separate security zones, 120 military checkpoints and 220 enclaves! In his article entitled ‘Incarceration or Transfer: the Post-Incursion Plan’, Jeff Halper who is Professor at Ben Gurion University and Director of the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, focused on a new fence that Israel is erecting which separates it from the Palestinian territories. 215 miles long, 10 feet high and costing $ 400million, ‘this fence extends some10 - 20kilometres into Palestinian territory, and constitutes a separation that will annex another15 % of Palestinian territory under the guise of security’ let alone strangle even further Palestinian freedom of movement and economic prospects.

Palestinian Refugees

More than623 , 000refugees are living in 27 squalid camps across the occupied territories - from Jabalia in Gaza with102 , 000to Beit Jibrin in Bethlehem with1800 . An additional 612, 000live in 32 camps in three neighbouring countries. They have been awaiting the right of return for generations, and they remain dispossessed. Many attempts have failed at resolving this issue, and both parties remain at loggerheads as to the best way to tackle this demographic issue.


The motto is two capitals for two states! However, the divergences are wide between both parties. The Palestinians insist on sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif, but Israel cannot give up the ground underneath where the Western Wall and the remnants of Solomon’s Temple lie. All attempts made to date have not cracked this issue either, and this city holy to three monotheistic traditions remains a hot cauldron of exclusive claims and counter-claims.

Tentative Suggestions?

At a time when mutual trust between Israelis and Palestinians is virtually non-existent, and when the parties are talking at each other rather than to each other, the best way forward for the whole region seems to be the adoption of the pan-Arab [Saudi] peace plan. This should take place at an international peace conference convened under the auspices of the USA, the European Union Presidium and Russia and that brings together the two warring sides.

But is that feasible today? Being an optimist who breeds on pragmatism, I have not given up! Nor have many others! So it might be instructive for a reality check that quotes an excerpt of an article by Shlomo Ben-Ami, former Israeli Foreign Minister who led the negotiations at Camp David and Taba, published in the Financial Times on 5 June2002 .

In his article, Ben-Ami writes, ‘Success would depend on a strict framework for peace based on Israeli withdrawal, the dismantling of settlements and a practical solution to the problem of refugees that does not entail their “return” to the state of Israel. The parameters for peace set out by the Clinton administration are still the most advanced and precise set of principles on which a reasonable compromise with overwhelming international legitimacy could be articulated’.

He adds, ‘In addition to overseeing the reform of the Palestinian system, the international taskforce would facilitate and monitor the evacuation of occupied territories, the dismantling of settlements and the resettlement of refugees in the Palestinian state’. How unfortunate it is that his words have not been heeded to date by an omnipotent and omnipresent but hardly omniscient US Administration in Washington! Indeed, and as Robert Fisk wrote in the Independent this week, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems so urgent for the US that it now needs action, but yet not so urgent that it necessitates a proper and US-slotted timetable yet!

But Ben-Ami’s Israeli Jewish plea for a solution sits quite well with the Palestinian Christian prophetic plea of the Lutheran pastor Mitri Raheb! In his article ‘Winning the Enemy’, he writes that ‘the conflict underlies the stereotyping of the two peoples. The Israeli occupation fuels existing anti-Semitism and the Palestinian need to resist the occupation fuels the stereotyping of Palestinians as terrorists. For the last hundred years, both our Israeli and Palestinian fathers were busy pushing the neighbour to become the enemy. [] It is now time to think of transforming the enemy into a neighbour (Lk10 :25-37) and for Palestinians and Israelis to re-discover the humanity of the other. Reconciliation is the possibility to move beyond the concept of “winning the war” into “winning the enemy” - that is to transform each into a potential neighbour. [] People who are not courageous enough to cross boundaries to meet the other will soon find themselves prisoners of their own constructed ghettoes. [] Our role as Christians is to restore justice by ending the Israeli occupation and to work for peaceful co-existence of the two peoples and three religions in two states’.

This article ’Caught Up in a Crossfire’ originally came about as a talk delivered recently at a commemorative evening organised by the London-based Armenian Institute to mark the third anniversary of the death and the70 th anniversary of the birth of Catholicos Karekin I. Karekin I was the131 st Catholicos of All Armenians from 1995 to1999 . A Middle Eastern by birth, and a man of remarkable intellect, charisma, learning, humour, experience and savvy, Karekin I was also a committed Armenian and an every-day-born-again Christian.

The first in a series of books containing the complete writings of this remarkable spiritual man will soon be published as a tribute to his memory. The first238 -page volume, entitled ‘In His Own Words’, has already come out and is an introduction to the series with a narrative of his service and a celebration of his life.

Suzan Sahori, an employee at the Beit Sahour municipality, echoes the same message in a personal plea entitled ‘The Continuation of the Deadly Cycle’ that she wrote on 20 June2002 under curfew from her home. She said ‘Those of us who believe that only fair negotiations will bring peace and justice for both sides are disturbed at this critical deterioration of the political conflict. It is driving us all into a well of blood where only the innocents lose their lives’.

Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his work against apartheid in South Africa, also contributed an Opinion to the International Herald Tribune on 14 June2002 . Entitled ‘Build Moral Pressure to End the Occupation’, he wrote that ‘almost instinctively, the Jewish people have always been on the side of the voiceless. In their history, there is painful memory of massive round-ups, house demolitions and collective punishment. In their scripture, there is acute empathy for the disenfranchised. The [Israeli] occupation [of Palestine] represents a dangerous and selective amnesia of the persecution from which these traditions were born’.

The archbishop’s article also finds strong resonance in a recently published letter ‘Not in My Name’ that was signed by Ronnie Kasrils, Max Ozinsky and several hundred other prominent South African Jews who were heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle. The letter drew an explicit analogy between apartheid and current Israeli policies.

Possible Directions?

Dr Gershon Baskin is the Israeli co-director and co-founder of the Israel / Palestine Centre for Research and Information. In an article entitled ‘A Civil Society Contract for Peace’, he observed wryly about the situation on the ground. He wrote that ‘military operations conducted by Israel create a public illusion that terrorism can be beaten by force. The Israeli public is blinded by its fear and anxiety from seeing the suffering of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian people are untouched by the terror that Israelis feel in their streets as a result of terrorist suicide bombers’.

In his article, Dr Baskin also lamented that ‘the media on both sides beats the drums of war in the name of patriotism. Public debate and political opposition supporting options for peace are virtually non-existent on both sides’.

As I also mentioned earlier in this article, Dr Baskin underlined that what needs to be done is the building of international support with a UN Security Council mandate for an imposed peace plan built around the Taba + Clinton Principles and the Saudi initiative. Such a mandate should be coupled with international forces and observers between the sides to buffer them, as well as on the external borders of Palestine to insure implementation and enforcement of the agreed arrangements’. He added that ‘when governments fail, it is the job of civil society to take responsibility and to play a more substantial role. [] While our governments are leading us towards doom and destruction, the leaders of civil society must stand up together and create partnerships’.

Lord William Wallace, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, opined in an article in the Financial Times on 27 June 2002 that EU perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict differ from those of the USA. They are shaped by a different interpretation of the roots of terrorism and of approaches to resolving the conflict.

Indeed, at a time when there is a wider European loss of confidence in US policy towards the Middle East, and an increasing unease at what is seen as high-handed American foreign policy-making, this re-doubling of efforts by the EU becomes almost mandatory. President Bush has accepted a two-state solution as the only way forward. The EU, perhaps through PM Tony Blair, must now impress upon the USA that a broader peace conference drawing together existing political leaders from across the region and beyond is the only way to reverse the dreadful spiral of violence.

In the midst of all those bald challenges and bare odds, the Churches of Jerusalem - Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant - are struggling to infuse that sense of justice and partnership into this political conflict. And in so doing, I am also aware that they are fulfilling their roles as moral compasses within their own societies.

Their task is far from easy! Yet, and despite insuperable human and financial obstacles, they have been calling for an end to the conflict that secures the legitimate rights of all Palestinians to live in an occupation-free state of their own as much as guarantees the legitimate rights of all Israelis to live in security in their own state. Church-related organisations in Israel and Palestine have also been encouraging the development of a partnership within a stronger civil society that would serve the basis of a future guiding beacon for both sides. Their humanitarian appeals - from the most distant to the most recent - are a testimony to their unrelenting faith and untiring efforts.

What one now also expects more audibly in this multi-faceted equation are the Jewish and Muslim voices! Many are those who criticise the churches - both in the Holy Land as much as abroad - for not speaking out clearly and loudly. They are not always too wrong in their criticisms since the churches are at times mired in their ecumenical and power-hungry squabbles. But I would like to submit that the churches have been fulfilling their religious role much more adequately than the Jewish or Muslim religious leaders, scholars and counterparts. With some notably resounding and scholarly exceptions, few are the leading Jewish or Muslim rabbis or sheikhs who have spoken out on the conflict. Perhaps Jews and Muslims too should look more closely into their faith-based traditions, examine their scriptures and consciences and come out with an assessment of the mechanisms that would help resolve a political conflict that has become a human travesty for so many men, women and children from the region.

Are we all meant to stay caught up in a crossfire that is both consuming and unrelenting? Or can a determined, sustained and bold vision transform the conflict? I am afraid that time alone will tell!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2002   |   Date to be added


Print or download a copy of this article.


Google: Yahoo: MSN: