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The Road to Perdition!
Writing, or even reading, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict these days is a valiant effort against moral lassitude on the one hand and political inertia on the other...

13 May   |   2004   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... After all, what can I contribute to the discourse today that is radically different from my erstwhile thoughts over the past three months? However, and much as I hesitate to put even more words on paper, I also realise nonetheless that my fundamental message seems not to be sinking in!

But what is the fundamental message that addresses itself to this conflict? And how do others perceive it?

In order to avoid regurgitating some well-known themes, I only wish to highlight a few limbic reflections, associations and conclusions. Perhaps they might help shape a clearer pattern, or an even more robust message, at a time when the protagonists themselves perceive this conflict as a zero-sum game. Each side thinks that they are the ‘victims’ whilst the others are the ‘terrorists’. Following any act of violence, one side labels it as ‘terrorism’, and the other as ‘retaliation’!

On 26 April2004 , fifty two British diplomats sent a letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair in which they expressed their deep concern about the policies being followed on the Arab-Israel conflict, in close cooperation with the USA. Commenting on the ‘roadmap’, the letter said that after all those wasted months, the international community has now been confronted with the announcement by Ariel Sharon and President Bush of new policies which one-sided and illegal and which will cost yet more Israeli and Palestinian blood. One day later, 108 Members of Parliament - including 87 from PM Blair's governing Labour party - signed a motion condemning Bush's endorsement of the [now defeated] Sharon plan, which called for a limited Israeli pullout from the West Bank and refused any right of return for Palestinian refugees.

On 29 April2004 , a Statement by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said that a return to negotiations and the primacy of international law is vital if the tragic impasse is to be resolved with justice. We ask all parties to cease their use of force so as to allow a space in which negotiations can resume. The recent meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon was deeply damaging in its endorsement of the continued existence of Israeli West bank settlements in defiance of international law. A two-state solution agreed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, with internationally-agreed borders that allow the Palestinian state to be viable, remains the only clear way forward.

On 6 May2004 , a BBC3 digital television programme entitled Conflict: Israel and the Palestinians tackled suicide bombings and talked about the dire conditions facing Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Churning out statistics, it reminded viewers that50 % of Palestinians today are below the poverty line, and60 % are unemployed. It focused on the 2895 Palestinian and 923 Israeli men, women and children killed since2000 , and applauded the efforts by the joint Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families Forum to bring support and counselling to those who have lost kith and kin alike.

The programme also touched upon the separation wall being built by Israel (at the staggering cost of £1.4 million per mile) that is meant eventually to be 480 miles long and encircle Palestinian towns and villages. It also showed some of the 392 checkpoints or barriers dotted across the whole West Bank that hamper any Palestinian freedom of movement. The programme lamented the efforts invested in maintaining the conflict, and said that there was no visible exit strategy for either side since both have seemingly built their credibility on the notion of retaliation.

A day later, on 7 May2004 , fifty leaders of evangelical and mainline Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches and church-related organisations in the United States delivered a letter to President Bush asking for a full understanding of ‘the crisis in the Holy Land confronting Christian Palestinians, Christian institutions, and those who wish to visit the birthplace of Christianity. Referring to the separation wall Israel is erecting in the West Bank and East (Arab) Jerusalem, the letter stated that even if the barrier is intended for security, it has had the very real effects of separating students and faculty from their classrooms, families from one another, farmers from their fields, and Christian worshippers from their churches. We find it difficult to be assured by your description on 14 April of the barrier as ‘temporary’ in light of Israel’s plans to extend the barrier far beyond the 1967 Green Line, encompassing on the Israeli side those large West Bank settlements that you implied would remain part of Israel.

Finally, in a thought-provoking series for C4, Dominican-trained Mark Dowd embarked upon a personal journey to the Holy Land, Egypt, Turkey, Bosnia and the USA to explore the shared roots and deep enmities of the three faiths, and to discover if there is hope in a shared future. Entitled Children of Abraham, he portrayed the Jewish, Christian and Muslim descendants of Abraham as a squabbling and dysfunctional family despite their shared origins and the reconciliatory promise to Abraham that ‘all the tribes of the earth shall be blessed by you’ (Gen12 :3). Dowd also grappled with the issue of how some people abused religion to demonise their enemies whilst others used it to build bridges. He spoke with a vitriolic Jew who wanted to dismantle the Al-Aqsa mosque tile-by-tile and send it to Mecca by post, whereas an equally vitriolic Muslim convert thought that the murder of all Jews through suicide killings was permissible under Islam.

Dowd concluded his series by challenging the descendants of our forefather Abraham. Was it indeed a case of man serving God, or of God serving man, he soliloquised? He concluded wryly that this is the biggest test on how we all treat the ‘other’ who is radically different from us. His sad rejoinder reminded me of Jonathan Swift’s conclusion some three hundred years earlier that we have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.

So what are the dynamics of the conflict, and therefore what are the variables for any solution?

Over the past three years, ever since the second Intifada wrought havoc upon the Holy Land and turned many Israelis and Palestinians into blinkered and vengeful automatons, the issues defining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have become blurred again. Whereas the years leading up to the Oslo process focused on the rudimental issue of occupation by Israel of Palestinian land as the main reason behind the conflict, things altered radically thereafter. Now, the world is viewed and handled through the exclusive lens of9 /11. Whether it is our ‘new’ understanding of terrorism as it applies to our immediate political neighbourhoods or to the remote parts of the globe, or whether it has to do more with the rise in Muslim radicalism that has led to the excoriation and demonisation of Islam, the variables are no longer the same. There has been an undeniable shift in the universal jigsaw, and the visible diffidence against anything that is not politically, economically, militarily, culturally or socially ‘western’ has become a punching factor in most of our lives.

This reality has also been transposed on the whole Middle East, including Israel and Palestine. No longer are we now talking of International law or the innumerable UN Security Council or General Assembly Resolutions. No longer do we refer to international legitimacy or recall that the22 % of Palestine [that survived the UN Partition Plan of1947 , the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 or the War of1949 between Israel and its Arab neighbours] is now occupied territory. No longer do we discuss the huge settlements or mobile outposts built by Israel on Palestinian land. No longer do we even pay lip service to the principle of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Nor, for that matter, do we talk about the fact that Palestinians are not allowed to move from one hamlet to another by checkpoints that are impeding their mobility. Or about the bulldozers that, according to UNRWA figures, regularly raze Palestinian homes and render their owners homeless. And of course, we avoid discussing the separation wall that is isolating Palestinian communities from each other. We might waffle politically every now and then, but then we tuck those systemic realities under the carpet!

Mind you, I also disagree with those claiming that the whole blame lies with Israel for its aggressive and oppressive policies, or with the USA for its one-sided brokering of this conflict. If I were ever to find myself in their shoes, I might even take a leaf from their book. The blame is to be shared by many parties! Palestinians have allowed severe corruption, maximalist dreams, incompetent politicians and unrealistic strategies to wrest their national cause. Several Arab regimes have proven time and again their impotence on the international scene as much as their servility to their own personal interests at the expense of their national interests. And the European Union (as one-fourth of the Quartet) has also been quite ready to express its dissatisfaction with the situation but has contributed nothing resolutely political … or European.

To my mind, the essence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about Palestinian occupied land. It is about the collective memories of both Israelis and Palestinians as it is about Israeli expansionist designs. A viable compromise must therefore come out of this zero-sum approach, but this requires each side to surrender a portion of its own national narrative. For the Palestinians, though, it is critical that any negotiation start with an affirmation of their right to recover territories occupied by Israel in 1967 and of the right of return for refugees. They, as much as Israel, know fully that they will have to cede a portion of their claim in a final settlement, but they can do so only after the legitimacy of their claim is properly acknowledged by Israel. By denying the Palestinians those critical elements of their national narrative would only strip them of negotiating leverage and thereby handcuff them into immobility again.

So does my article point the way out of the bleakness of this situation? Can the stranglehold be loosened so Israelis and Palestinians manage to find the compromise that gives them both the hope to think of their future? After all, a story of endeavour, fate and resilience - no matter how brave or heart wrenching - is never complete until it finds closure.

I do not hold a key that would resolve this37 -year conflict. But I know that its reality is echoed in the debilitating occupation, and that its solution lies in ending that occupation. Should we not cease from treating Palestinians and Israelis as dispensable statistics or disposable fodder? Should we not help both sides to stop mourning their dead and start re-building their lives by stating the unvarnished truth about the conflict? Or should we simply give in to a reprehensible lack of goodwill and good faith in enforcing the truth today? After all, that lack of enforcement is the missing link today.

That missing link is a searing and deadly reality for both peoples, placing them inexorably on the same road to perdition!

If the universe is non-ethical by our present standards, we must really consider these standards and reconstruct our ethics - H G Wells (1866-1946)

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2004   |   13 May


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