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Skidding Out of Control?
There comes a time when silence is betrayal (Martin Luther King, Jr) - Concerns & More Concerns

6 April   |   2002   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

I was watching on TV the gut-wrenching pictures of the asymmetric war between Israel and the Palestinians when the camera zoomed in for a few seconds on a number of Christian clerics standing at the checkpoint that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem. I recognised the face of the Latin-rite Roman Catholic Patriarch Michel Sabbah, alongside those of Anglican Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal, Syrian Orthodox Mar Swerios Malki Murad and Lutheran Bishop Mounib Younan. They, and many other Christians, were trying to cross into Bethlehem to pray at the Church of the Nativity - the traditional birthplace of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, but also a recent battleground between warring Palestinians and Israelis! These people of faith had decided to defy the political odds and strive to cross into Bethlehem in solidarity with its besieged people - knowing full well that their endeavour was futile.

This attempt to ‘cross’ into Bethlehem coincided with an Appeal by the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem in which they expressed horror and distress at the suffering and destruction in the Holy Land, and voiced their readiness ‘to serve as mediators between both sides’. Pope John-Paul II followed on with his own moral call for all believers to build a more just humanity. Dedicating Divine Mercy Sunday [ 7April2002 ] as a day of prayer for peace in the Middle East, the Holy Father said, ‘It seems that war has been declared on peace! But nothing is resolved by war, it only brings greater suffering and death. Nothing is resolved through reprisal and retaliation’. Dr George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, appealed for Israelis and Palestinians to step back from ‘the brink of catastrophe’. He continued that ‘it is the ordinary citizens of both countries who are paying the price of political failure. This cannot continue. It is the duty of political leaders to work for a sustainable way forward, not towards a dead end’. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, President of the Catholic Conference of Bishops in England, stated that ‘it is imperative that the international community redouble its efforts to assist in this search for a just peace’. He added that such a peace should recognise ‘the rights of the Palestinians to live in a state of their own, free from domination and military repression, and the right of Israel to peace and security’. Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Great Britain reflected his ‘deep concern for the way in which the conflict was consuming the whole region and compounding the unjust and undue suffering of innocent peoples’. Pax Christi International requested the deployment of ‘an international presence, either in the form of international peacekeeping mission or monitors’.

Analyses & More Analyses!

In an interview this week with BBC2, former US mediator Dennis Ross expressed his alarm that the war of attrition between Israel and the Palestinians ever since September 2002had now turned into an all-out war. Whilst underlining his belief that the USA should apply a hands-on approach towards the conflict, Ross endorsed the Israeli need for security from the devastating suicide bombings that have targeted largely civilian populations. But he also linked that sense of security - in first-time clear American terms - with the need for a simultaneous political process that will tackle the root cause of this conflict. The root cause, he averred, is an Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

Bernard Wasserstein, Professor of Modern History at Glasgow University and author of ‘Divided Jerusalem’, wrote an editorial in the Evening Standard on 3 April2002 in which he expressed serious doubt as to whether terrorism could be eradicated by military means. Disagreeing with the notion that Sharon’s war targeted merely Chairman Yasser Arafat as part of a personal vendetta, he identified seven aims behind PM Ariel Sharon’s latest military attacks. He adduced that the Israeli goals consisted of much broader - albeit in his opinion unworkable - aims.

  • Crush the Palestinian Authority so that it can no longer exercise effective independent political action;
  • Sweep aside the last vestiges of the Oslo process inaugurated by the legal framework of the agreement in1993 ;
  • Restore Israeli security control over the whole of the West Bank and Gaza;
  • Negotiate a ‘long-term interim agreement’ with ‘compliant’ Palestinians that will provide for some form of Palestinian autonomy - perhaps including nominal statehood on a restricted area of the West Bank and Gaza;
  • Continue in the meantime with the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories;
  • Stimulate a ‘creeping transfer’ of Palestinian Arabs away from their land;
  • Reinforce the Israeli hold over the east Jerusalem.

Earlier in the week, Gideon Levy wrote an article in the Ha’aretz Hebrew-language daily entitled ‘No Holiday There, No Holiday Here Either!’ His demographic analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict led him to conclude that the crux of the problem lay with the [rapidly expanding and illegal] Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

Levy traced the origin of ‘the settlement enterprise’ to Rabbi Moshe Levinger who established his first pocket of settlers in Hebron on the eve of the Jewish Passover in 1968. He added that ‘the great success of Zionism has so far realised its major historic purpose of thwarting any prospect of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Today, the 200, 000settlers are the major stumbling block to an agreement, and they are also an obstacle to the achievement of security in Israel’. He blamed the successive Israeli governments for ignoring this aspect of the problem, noting wryly that no one ignored it at his peril more than former PM Ehud Barak who added a record6 , 045building projects in the settlements. Gideon Levy concluded his article by warning that ‘the violent, lordly, provocative behaviour of some of the settlers, together with the unjust division of natural resources and civil rights, have compounded the Palestinians’ just feelings of bitterness and hatred’.

Designs & More Designs!

But what are PM Ariel Sharon’s true designs? According to Professor Wasserstein again, Sharon’s intentions must be seen through the prism of his actions since he came to power over a year ago. Last December, he wrote, Arafat dowsed Palestinian suicide bombings awhile but Sharon retorted with targeted assassinations. And last week, he added, when the bloodbath in Netanya spared Israel from the need to address the pan-Arab peace plan, he elected a military course.

I agree with Wasserstein that Sharon’s seven-point grand design is disputable and is unlikely to achieve its long-term goals. Instead, as with Lebanon, Sharon has plunged the country into a morass. Eventually, again like Lebanon, Sharon’s over-stretched imperial edifice will succumb to the force of gravity. It might push the conflict toward a dangerously higher peak, but it is also likely to leave human, political and physical debris strewn over a wide area.

So what design can possibly redeem Palestinians and Israelis alike from another chapter of human misery and suffering? What will provide peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians? What is going to shield Israelis from the age-old tactics of further suicide bombs? What will spare those hapless civilian men and women from acts of desperation that go back as far as biblical times when Samson tore down the pillars of the temple at Gaza?

Positions & More Positions!

There is mounting consensus in Europe that the key to this conflict lies in an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure and recognised Israel. Responding to a recent statement by President Bush that there will never be peace in the Holy Land so long as there is terror, Dr Bernard Sabella, Executive Director of the Jerusalem-based MECC Department for Service to Palestine Refugees explained, ‘there will never be peace so long as there is occupation’. However, the fact remains that the US is the only power with enough leverage to achieve this overarching aim. Yet, many accusations are being levelled at the Bush Administration that it is ‘asleep at the switch’ and that it is now being dragged back into the conflict kicking and screaming! So, what is the reason for this US bias towards Israel and its obvious reluctance to become involved in the conflict?

>Writing in the Financial Times on 3 April2002 , Gerard Baker offered three main reasons for US policy-making.

  • Many lobbyists in Washington derive their unequivocal support for Israel from the Christian fundamentalists in the southern states of the USA. These Christians perceive no problem with the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, and quote from the Old Testament to claim that God gave the Promised Land to the Jews.
  • The neo-conservative flank of the US Administration (known as the ‘neocons’, and including Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Minister Donald Rumsfeld) views Israel as the strategic ally for America in the region. For them, Israel is the bulwark against any anti-American Islamic militancy from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea. In this regard, General Powell, US Secretary of State, is the most iconic object of their contempt.
  • Following11 September2001 , many Americans bracket the terrorist hijackers who hit New York and Washington with those suicide bombers in Haifa and Tel Aviv. They equate suicide attacks with homicide ones and are not ready to draw distinctions between terrorism and freedom fighting. Criticism of Israeli policies is immediately equated with support for terrorism, and they justify their attitude through President Bush’s oft-repeated statement that ‘He who is not with us is against us’ - a reminder perhaps of Vladimir Lenin’s own revolutionary writings!

Questions, More Questions!

In an article entitled Sharon’s Easter War, Yisrael Shamir writes that ‘[PM] Sharon’s troops invaded Palestinian towns where they effectively eliminated the Palestinian self-rule and carried out intensive searches, mass arrests and cold-blooded executions’. He further adds that the Palestinians did not offer any serious resistance to the invading army because ‘the disparity of force is too big for the poorly equipped Palestinians to take on the third strongest army in the world and because it is backed by its tame American Juggernaut’.

However, Shamir also adds that a second [largely unspoken] reason is that the Palestinian Authority has not become a credible national symbol worth dying for and that ‘life under the PNA remained life under Jewish rule’. I have heard this argument put forward by a number of intellectuals and activists. I might even agree that the Palestinian leadership has not pulled up its socks and made a full effort to improve the daily lives and livelihoods of its people. Nevertheless, this does not give any third party the right to make the choices for Palestinians. Internal accountability, house cleaning and political change would become imperatives only once the Israeli occupation is over. It cannot happen now when the Palestinians have been ‘offered’ ghettos of autonomy with a serviceable Authority that enjoys no independence and is severely limited in its self-rule. In fact, this arrangement is not far too different from the ‘enlightened’ solution proposed to the Jews around Lublin, an area in Poland with a big Jewish population, by Germany during WWII.

Suggestions & More Suggestions!

So what can be done to close the current chasm between the two conflictive parties rather than extend it? How can Palestinian and Israeli pain be metamorphosed into Palestinian and Israeli gain? On 4 April2002 , the Holy See issued a statement on the Middle East crisis and re-affirmed five points which combined tactical and strategic aims.

  • Unequivocal condemnation of terrorism from whatever side it may come;
  • Disapproval of the conditions of injustice and humiliation imposed on the Palestinian people, as well as reprisals and retaliation, which only make the sense of frustration and hatred grow;
  • Respect for the United Nations resolutions by all sides;
  • Proportionality in the use of legitimate means of defence;
  • Duty for the parties in conflict to protect the sacred places [which are] very significant for the three monotheistic religions and the patrimony of all of humanity.

Further, and in a television interview with Channel Four on 3 April2002 , Senator George Mitchell - author of the Mitchell Report - stressed that the present high levels of violence and raw emotions necessitated a next-phase high-level US initiative that married the political process with the security plan. He admitted that a cessation of violence in itself was unsustainable in the absence of any credible political process. To my mind, his thesis translates into a simple proposal! If the world comity subscribes to the principles of international legality enshrined in the UNSC Resolutions, Israel should then withdraw from territories it occupied in June1967 . ‘Land for peace’ - as the pan-Arab plan suggested at the Arab League Summit in Beirut - still constitutes the most valid and cost-effective principle for peace.

Despite my shuddering abhorrence at the wanton violence that has claimed so many innocent lives from both sides, I believe that occupation remains the root of the problem no matter what gloss or spin we apply to it! I always recall Patriarch Michel Sabbah’s mantra that Israel can easily realise its ultimate goal of security by giving the Palestinians their land back. The security on the land, he often said, comes when people enjoy peace in their hearts. But in the sorry absence of a culture of non-violence in the Middle East that could emulate the South African example of yesteryears, it becomes obvious that a viable and determined third-party mediation alone can extricate the parties from this impasse.

So it is perhaps high time for the USA to stick to this ‘ethical’ script and play a more just and proactive role for peace and reconciliation between the two parties. As General Colin Powell packs his bags to travel to the region on Sunday [tomorrow], he should perhaps remind himself of the American popular saying that ‘It is okay talking the talk, but you’ve got to walk the walk’. Otherwise, this unholy conflict shows every sign of skidding out of control.

I am worried about a deterioration that has no end-point! (Dennis Ross, 2 April2002 )

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2002   |   6 April


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