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The Road to Nowhere?
Life, spirit, love and most importantly, regeneration! - Paul Marantz, twin-beam tribute in New York to the people killed on 11 September2001

17 March   |   2002   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Old Dogs, New Tricks!

The medium was television, and the channel BBC2. The programme was Newsnight, and the presenter Kirsty Wark. The date was 11 March2002 , and the sombre occasion the six-month anniversary of the wanton terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York. The theme was the speech delivered by President Bush, and the upshot that the status quo with Iraq was no longer acceptable. War had become inevitable - we were told - and no later than the end of this year.

The short exchange of viewpoints between the three participants in the Newsnight studio focused not so much on whether a phase-two attack on Iraq was imminent but on the conditions that would render feasible a broad coalition for such a war. All three participants made distinctions between President Saddam Hussein as a vile and dangerous leader, and the suffering that the hapless people of Iraq have been enduring for well over a decade.

Another point emerging from the discussion was a consensus that the Arab and Muslim streets would not tolerate an attack on an Arab country. After all, Iraq has been peddling its own brand of nationalism and resistance toward the USA ever since the last Gulf war when the ‘father’ pulled back from toppling the Iraqi leader.

Finally, the interviewees made the association - one apparently raised by PM Tony Blair with US Vice President Dick Cheney in London last week - that an attack on Iraq must go hand in hand with a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In other words, it was high time to impose a solution upon Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Similar Conflicts, Dissimilar Variables!

Let me start with the first point! There is little doubt in my own mind that President Saddam Hussein is a ruthless but wily leader. Like some other leaders the world over, he has amassed immense power at the expense of his own people - often wiping them out with impunity and without equivocation. The marshes are replete with his murderous testimony.

However, he is not alone in the world to have grossly misused - and abused - power. There are other countries with ‘evil’ records both within the so-called American ‘axis of evil’ and elsewhere across different continents! Targeting Iraq as the sole source of all [chemical, biological and traditional] evil reeks of personal vendetta, and is ill fitting of a super-powerful democracy. But perhaps more importantly, other primary measures ought to be taken first in order to bring Saddam to account rather than heaping further misery upon the people of this fertile and once-rich country!

No matter how insufferably harsh the Iraqi regime has been against its own people, and regardless of the potential menace to neighbouring states, it is a fact nonetheless that the sanctions against it have had a deleterious and damaging impact on the Iraqi people. A rich country whose proud citizens once enjoyed many benefits - Christian Aid is a church-based organisation that can say much about Iraq today - has been brought down to its knees through sanctions that have induced massive misery. However, if the sole target were to get rid of Saddam Hussein, I would suggest that removing the regime of sanctions would in itself break Saddam’s power-base or control and get shot of him as leader.

As far as Arab and Muslim reactions are concerned, I believe that the majority will view an attack on Iraq with cynical resignation. In my opinion, and given other precedents, the European fear of a negative reaction far outweighs the actual reaction itself. Sad as it may seem, the majority of the masses will come to accept this war too - just as they have accepted previous wars - with eloquent verbosity and furious impotence! Perhaps anti-Americanism as a large-scale feeling will become even stronger, and anti-Israeli sentiments will rise another decibel or two, but the people of the Middle East are simply too weary to do much else at this stage. Besides, even if ‘the masses’ were to react with protests, many of the ruling regimes will deploy those measures necessary to control, mute and even stifle any unrest - just as the Spanish police did with the anti-globalisation demonstrators at the Barcelona summit earlier this week.

However, what I do fear much more seriously is that an attack on Iraq could cause large-scale regional destabilisation once this country is hewn into small parcels of land. Whether coming from within the variegated ethnic pockets in Iraq itself, or from its neighbours, the map of the region could well shift dramatically. And should it all go horribly wrong, the implosion would generate a domino-type effect that could lead to incalculable tectonic changes in the whole region.

Finally, the third dimension of the television discussion regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes a potent factor too. There are strong - and quite justifiable - Arab and Muslim perceptions that the USA applies double standards when it comes to its treatment of Iraq and Israel in terms of their non-implementation of UNSC resolutions. I tend to agree that the legal nature of those resolutions - one sets out principles, the other specifies mandates - are not stricto sensu of equal enforceability under International law. However, the USA can only garner regional support for an attack against Iraq if it ensures that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also dealt with too - urgently and honestly.

Different Dynamics, Helpful Pointers!

I believe quite strongly that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains at the very epicentre of any stability in the whole region. As such, and looking at the recent Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory, I can detect a scenario that is painstakingly unfolding despite the concomitant loss of life, mayhem and carnage. In the past few weeks, I have maintained that the conflict is peaking toward some resolution. Indeed, the arrival of General Anthony Zinni to the region last Thursday - for an indeterminate period of time and with a small number of monitors - heralded perhaps the possibility of some sort of an outcome that oversteps a mere cease-fire and aims for a broader resolution.

And some facts are indicative of this peak. For instance, the UN Security Council for the first time passed a resolution on 12 March 2002 calling for a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The UN-drafted and Ireland-managed landmark document ‘affirming a vision’ of a Palestinian state was backed by 14 out of 15 members of the Security Council. Resolution 1397 demanded the ‘immediate cessation of all acts of violence, including terror, provocation, incitement and destruction’ and urged Israel and the Palestinians ‘to take steps toward resuming peace talks’. Earlier, the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had described the suicide attacks against Israeli civilian targets as ‘morally repugnant’. He had also added that he was ‘profoundly disturbed’ by Israel’s use if heavy weaponry in civilian areas and its use of a whole batch of repressive measures against Palestinians in the occupied let alone ‘autonomous’ Palestinian territories. A declaration along similar lines, and in support of the Saudi paper, was also adopted at the EU Summit in Barcelona.

So in an effort to help nudge forward the process for peace between Israel and Palestinians, let me suggest a few facts, debunk a few myths and posit a few imperatives. In so doing, I rely not only on my identity as an Armenian Christian from Jerusalem but also on my years-long experience and involvement in forgiveness, conciliation and peacemaking.

  • The first point is a poignantly emotional one for both sides. It deals with history, identity and collective memory. Palestinians should appreciate more vividly how deeply the heinous crimes of the Holocaust are still embedded in the Jewish psyche today. Equally, Israeli Jews should understand how a great disaster the founding of Israel in 1948 was for Palestinian Arabs. It is a fact that ha-Shoah and al-Naqba are defining albeit different milestones for both peoples. However, it is also self-defeating to indulge sine die in historical analogies or comparative martyrolgy. Rather, both peoples must move forward and begin the process of healing their wounds. Israelis cannot simply reside in a historical time warp, and the world-wide recognition of the Holocaust should encourage them to overstep that chapter of human suffering and move forward. Palestinians must accept that Israel is an unmoving reality, and that they cannot constantly harp back to the lemon trees in their ancestral gardens. Both peoples could achieve the goal of liberating themselves and the next-door neighbour - Israelis with a peace that will purge the past from their psyches, and Palestinians through justice that will redress their cause.
  • In order to get there, it is imperative that Palestinians are granted their inalienable right to self-determination. They should be allowed to secure their own independent and viable state within internationally recognised borders. This entails a full, uninhibited and expeditious withdrawal by Israel from lands it occupied in1967 .
  • In equal measure, Israel is entitled to peace with borders that are internationally recognised and secure. This can come about quite easily once Palestinians obtain justice for their own state. The Saudi paper - before it gets dramatically watered down - is the latest example of how this dual objective could be achieved at long last.
  • Hand-in-hand with the above developments, it is imperative that all acts and forms of physical, judicial and psychological violence, terrorism and counter-terrorism by both sides cease as soon as possible. But this cannot happen in a vacuum, and requires a series of real confidence-building measures that will facilitate its enforcement.
  • To encourage this process along, Israel must cease to treat Palestinians to a daily and unrelenting staple of humiliation and indignity. It cannot talk of peace and calm whilst perpetrating a system of checkpoints, closures, house demolitions and illegal settlements against a whole people and their legitimate aspirations. As many people from Spinoza onward have constantly affirmed, peace is not merely the absence of physical warfare or violence.
  • The international community should address the issue of the Palestinian refugees who lost their homes and lands in1948 . Controversial as it might seem, I believe that the majority of those refugees living in camps today do not realistically expect to re-possess their ancestral homes. Israel will not absorb such an influx, since this would alter the demographic make-up of the state in one full swoop. An awareness-raising programme must be launched to assist those refugees in assessing their options. One tangible option is a return to Palestine (once this physical entity also becomes a legal reality), with the international community devising a system of reparations that will trigger a raft of humanitarian law and financial measures - akin to those applicable elsewhere. After all, the tiny kingdom of Jordan has [almost] single-handedly borne to date the [major] brunt of the refugee crisis - physically, logistically and legally. It is time for the world to address this issue in a comprehensive manner.
  • It is equally important to lay to rest once and for all the bulimic myth that Israel offered the Palestinians97 % of the occupied territories - and that Chairman Arafat refused the ‘generous’ offer! The closest the two parties ever came to this ‘scenario’ was at Taba when former Prime Minister Ehud Barak made his verbal offer to the Palestinians only to sever the negotiations with them shortly thereafter and head for home. In fact, the so-called ‘deal’ that the Palestinians were offered would have resulted in a state that was non-contiguous, non-viable, non-sovereign, non-economic and entirely non-workable. To be offered as home a series of cantons, much like the sad holes in a blob of Swiss cheese, is untenable let alone offensive. To paraphrase the Jewish historian Isaac Deutscher, Israel must simply let go of occupation and desist from being the Prussia of the Middle East.
  • It is useful to maintain a distinction between scriptural and political arguments about the conflict in the Holy Land. Christians are labouring for justice, and the occupation - with all its nefarious symptoms - is a jarring example of a gross injustice being perpetrated and perpetuated against a whole people. But Christian theologians must be careful not to extrapolate Israel as a political plan with Judaism as a faith. They should be careful how they interpret the doctrine of replacement theology as a scriptural way of responding to all Jewish claims in the Holy Land. For most Christians, Jesus is the new Temple. The New Testament reveals and fulfils the Old Testament. It clarifies it, and places it in a different context. However, it does not supplant it, nor does it write off a whole chunk of the Bible no matter how unpleasant some of its chapters are to many believers. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a political - not religious or ethnic - one and it is important not to parry with those who would like to change its reality unless the Christocentric ethos of the faith is being challenged for spurious political designs or manoeuvres.
  • Finally, the reason why both parties are engaged in so much blood-letting at the moment is due in no small part to the inertia of the Bush administration. For the past year, the US administration has pursued a hands-off policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unlike its predecessor regime, and despite the caution by many Arab and European allies that its absence from the diplomatic arena would exacerbate the situation, America has been out. It must re-engage itself in the process, and General Zinni’s arrival should only be a first step in this direction.

Anywhere, Somewhere, Nowhere!

This week, the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, the America-based Churches for Peace in the Middle East and the Administrative Committee of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued statements of concern about the situation in the Holy Land. Will their prophetic voices be heard in the midst of this latest round of diplomatic brouhaha? Will they make a dent in the moral argument today? Or are we driving on a road leading to nowhere?

Perhaps the renewing symbolism of the two blue-light beams in the skies of Manhattan - life, spirit, love and regeneration - should become an inspiration for Israelis, Palestinians and the international community alike. The latest chapter of fighting has proven that the Palestinians remain untamed, unbowed and unbroken despite the huge military retaliations and on-going repression of the past thirty-four years of occupation. What they are asking for is an end to the occupation so that peace with justice, and dignity with security, can be achieved for the two peoples and three religions of this hallowed land. After all, are Palestinians and Israelis not subjects to the same God?

Failing that, the dialogue being sought by negotiators, mediators and conciliators the likes of General Anthony Zinni will be no more than two separate monologues that will not intersect at any given point in time or space.

Israelis and Palestinians are on the brink of the abyss! - Terje Larsen, UN Special Envoy in the Middle East

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2002   |   17 March


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