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Future Forecasts?
Having come in late, my colleague Anthony and I had to take our seats at one corner away from the conference table...

20 September   |   2002   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... In fact, I had never seen the room quite so full in all the years I have attended on and off the meetings of the Middle East Forum for ‘Churches Together for Britain and Ireland’. This was certainly a capacity crowd, and the reason for this keen interest by representatives from so many different churches in the UK was largely due to the main guest speaker. Reverend Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Christian who is also the director of the Jerusalem-based Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre, had been invited by the forum to provide an update on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I had known this affable man for a number of years, and had always been struck by his honesty and integrity as much as by his faithful concern for the indigenous Christians of the Holy Land. I had also been quite influenced by his inclusive and scriptural interpretation of the ‘neighbour’ - whether that neighbour was the next-door Palestinian Muslim or the Israeli Jew in the cities and towns within Israel. If anyone could contextualise the situation, this was the man.

Reverend Naim Ateek started off with a warning that his views might startle some people! Indeed, both the tenor and tempo of his assessment were not too far from being apocalyptic - something he admitted that many Palestinians shared today. He indicated that the levels of despair within the Palestinian community were so high that many people thought the only solution to this conflict lay in divine intervention. To date, I had not heard any warning in such chilling terms.

Ateek then went on to outline the three methods by which Israel was controlling the Palestinians. Segmentation and fragmentation came first whereby Palestinian lands were being segmented by settlements and fragmented with by-pass roads. Although the settlements take up 2% of Palestinian aggregate land, the by-pass roads now control17 % of this same territory. The second method was the co-optation of certain informers from within the Palestinian community so that Israel kept the upper hand in terms of intelligence feedback and compliancy with its wishes. The third method fostered economic dependence so that the Palestinian economy - and thereby survival - depended upon Israel alone.

According to ‘Assis Naim’ (as he is known in Jerusalem), this erstwhile system of subtle controls by Israel has now yielded to a system of unrestrained suppression. In his view, this is being done in an intentional and structured manner through the provocation and harassment of Palestinians by the Israeli army as much as the wholesale humiliation of a nation. Such measures are inexorably leading to the gradual and deliberate dehumanisation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. According to the Israeli B’Tselem human rights organisation, 70 Palestinians have died at checkpoints, 39 women have given birth at checkpoints, and15 ambulance drivers have been killed.

Assis Naim also cited different writers and analysts to unfurl what he considered to be the Israeli strategy in the Palestinian occupied territories. Referring to the policy of closures, targeted assassinations of the Palestinian political leadership and expansion of settlements, he suggested that the primary Israeli focus today was the massive expulsion and staged transfer of Palestinians from their homes. He believed that a war with Iraq and an unstable Middle Eastern region could provide Israel with an ideal cover for presenting itself as a country under siege, and encourage it to use self-defence to tighten up its strategy of a creeping transfer of Palestinians out of their homes and birthplaces.

Naim Ateek concluded by reminding his audience of the perils now facing all Palestinians - Christians and Muslims alike - and the need to stave off an impending ‘genocide’ or ‘apocalypse’. He gave the example of posters that have crept up in different neighbourhoods of Jerusalem stating in Hebrew that the transfer of Palestinians [to next-door Jordan] is the only means of heralding peace and security for Israelis. He indicated that this option is now being openly debated within a large cross-section of the Israeli Jewish populace, and he linked these posters with the Torah [the first five books of the Bible] where it says that the way to deal with indigenous people is either to expel or destroy them.

Having served as political consultant and ecumenical facilitator to the Churches of the Holy Land during the Oslo years, I was deeply perturbed by this critical degree of political corrosion. And for someone who has been proactively - and at times stubbornly - working toward reconciliation between Jews, Muslims and Christians, I was also troubled by the painful ferocity and staggering bluntness of those new developments. After all, could they not threaten to destabilise a whole region and thereby eliminate the Palestinian reality by eliminating a large swathe of its people too?

Once the forum meeting was over, though, I realised that the speakers had ‘analysed’ the ever-worsening situation but had not adopted any practical ‘church-based’ plan of action. True, the factual mastication of symptomatic realities had been impressive, but nobody had managed to come up with a viable plan that engaged the future. Given the cruel on-the-ground realities for both sides, that is the real and just challenge today. But the silence was sadly deafening!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2002   |   20 September


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