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Is the Time Ripe to do what is Right?
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

30 May   |   2006   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

So much that is both critical and consequential is happening these days in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last week alone, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, launched a controversial political gamble when he gave Hamas ten days to decide whether it would accept a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip - with its capital in Arab east Jerusalem. Otherwise, the president added, he would call for a referendum on his plan.

This political démarche by a president considered by some observers as far too US-friendly, inactive or drab also relies in its astuteness on the fact that it is founded on a document drawn up by Marwan Barghouti, the charismatic Fateh leader now languishing in an Israeli gaol. Besides, the document has amongst its signatories a number of leading prisoners from the Hamas movement, and therefore carries with it additional moral authority let alone political clout.

This challenge by Abu Mazen - to Hamas in one sense - is also a challenge to Israel, the USA, the whole Quartet and ultimately the international community. As I wrote in Where Do We Possibly Go Now? ( Epektasis , 28 April 2006), Israel has been persisting in the construction of a separation wall that is slowly sealing off Jerusalem as much as the Jordan Valley from other Palestinian territories, folding in the major Israeli settlement blocs on the West Bank (thereby expropriating even more Palestinian land) and bisecting the West Bank into non-contiguous and irrelevant parcels. To top this up, the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, obtained recently US President George Bush' conditional support for a unilateralist strategy that would allow Israel to delineate its own future borders with the Palestinians. If this were to occur, when coupled with a policy of creeping annexations, it becomes evident that Palestinians would lose yet another chunk of the paltry 22% of landmass they had pragmatically accepted as the basis for their future "sovereign" state.

I met PM Ehud Olmert when he was mayor: even if Hamas were to accept the Abbas ultimatum, or if a referendum were to be held that in all likelihood would be endorsed by a majority of peace-seeking Palestinians, Israel under Olmert could still shilly-shally by re-ventilating the otiose roadmap process and demanding that Palestinians fulfil their obligations prior to any negotiations. But we have already been there, many times over, so we also know that Israel would flinch once more at the idea of, say, the right of return for Palestinian refugees. However, as the Financial Times editorial reminded its readers last week, the Arab peace plan of 2002 calls for a "just solution" to the refugee problem, and even the final peace talks in 2000 dealt more with compensation than with the full-fledged return of 4 million Palestinians.

Could the ball be in the Israeli court now, and has Abbas truly outflanked an intransigent Israel that has stalled the process by claiming that there is no negotiator on the Palestinian side? The flaccid Quartet, so keen on undoing the recent election results, should dredge up enough political chutzpah to revive the process of peacemaking between the two countervailing parties. A lot is at stake at the moment, and bold steps rather than mediocre ones are necessary.

But bold steps are not the homepage of politicians alone. In a Middle Eastern scenario, civil society and religion also have their say in the quest for a just and durable peace. Only last week, for instance, I was invited by the ever-growing Alliance avec les Chrétiens en Politique (ACEP) to lecture on the political role of churches and related organisations in the conflict(s) of the Middle East. After all, it is my belief that our faith should engage us more ethically (and proactively) in the political field - whether in advocacy, strategy building, negotiation, mediation or reconciliation.  

This is why I reproduce today the recommendations from a statement entitled The time is ripe to do what is right by the Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva during its meetings 16-19 May 2006. The statement articulated the sober conclusion of the WCC that 'peace must come soon or it may not come to either people [Israelis and Palestinians] for a long time.' In its statement, the WCC Executive Committee:

  • Urges the international community to establish contact and engage with all the legitimately elected leaders of the Palestinian people for the resolution of differences, and not to isolate them or cause additional suffering among their people;
  • Strongly supports, and calls the international community to support, two-way and equitable negotiations as the path to mutual recognition between Israel and Palestine and to the resolution of other contentious and substantive obstacles to peace as noted in the succession of United Nations Security Council and General Assembly resolutions;
  • Recommends that, in the interests of equitable treatment and as a new foundation for peace, both parties to the conflict be held to one and the same standard for ending violence, meeting their existing agreements and recognizing each other's existence including the 1967 borders;
  • Insists that all High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention (including Israel, the U.S., States of the European Union, Russia, and the repository state, Switzerland) ensure the well-being of the occupied population. Urgent actions include ending the punitive measures imposed on the Palestinian people in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and its prohibition of collective punishment - including the tax, aid and travel restrictions imposed after their recent democratic elections - and requiring the occupying power to fulfil its responsibilities for the well-being of the population in all areas it controls, including the Gaza Strip;
  • Reminds the United Nations and its member states of UN responsibility to make Jerusalem an open and inclusive city for the two peoples and three religions, shared in terms of sovereignty and citizenship;
  • Encourages the government of Israel to base its security on peace with all its neighbours, including the equitable negotiation of final borders with those neighbours and excluding the unilateral imposition of borders on those neighbours;
  • Encourages the Palestinian Authority to include parties across the political spectrum in the processes of democracy and of non-violent conflict resolution, to protect the democratic rights of its people from external pressures as legitimate rights under international law, to maintain the existing one-party cease-fire toward Israel and extend it to cover all parties, and to demonstrate that all forms of violence and attacks across the 1967 borders between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories against innocent civilians on either side must stop.
  • Calls member churches and the WCC to share solidarity with people on both sides of the conflict as a witness for peace:
  • Advocate for the measures indicated above, reflecting world-wide church concern at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the implications of the conflict in different regions, and the ever more urgent need for remedial actions by the responsible authorities; use legitimate forms of pressure to promote a just peace and to end unlawful activities by Israelis or Palestinians;
  • Find constructive ways to address threats experienced among the Jewish people, including the nature, prevalence and impact of racism in local, national and international contexts;
  • Heed calls for help from the churches of Jerusalem at this time of trial, assist them in their service to society and support church aid work with people in need; seek help from churches in the Middle East to educate churches elsewhere about the conflict, the region and the path to peace; pray for peace;
  • Send church members to Israel and Palestine as part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel until the occupation ends;
  • Engage in dialogue with churches that link current events in the Middle East with certain Biblical prophecies. Such dialogue would include concrete and legitimate political perspectives on justice, the impact of such linkages on the presence and witness of the Christian churches of the region, and discussions about the nature of Christian witness for peace in the Middle East;
  • Work to enhance the security of all people in the region, in accordance with the WCC Ninth Assembly Minute, by urging relevant governments to support the establishment in the Middle East of a Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone to include Israel and Iran;
  • Requests the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs and related church organizations to use their capacities to fulfil the recommendations here expressed .

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail to fellow clergymen on 16 April 1963, Dr Martin Luther King wrote that "[W]e will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people ... We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right". Indeed, only last week, the participants at the ACEP colloquium were asking me how they could best contribute toward the irenic resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I admit that the WCC document is not a panacea for all the issues, but it remains a laudable basis for renewed negotiations, as it re-visits with integrity and sobriety a conflict that has been expediently shelved for more than three years now. The failure to harness this conflict means that the whole region could polarise increasingly more against a perceived Israeli-American-European bias, and any attempts to change its dynamics through democracy would then be viewed as yet another fig leaf for fresh colonialism.

The time is both right and ripe today, and we should desist from engineering subtle ploys and clever tactics in order to spin our way out of this challenge or duck our responsibilities ... once more.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2006   |   30 May


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