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Hungry for Peace & Food!
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

20 June   |   2006   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

A Palestinian Christian friend from Bethlehem was describing to me earlier this week how the situation had alarmingly deteriorated in his own town and elsewhere in the West Bank over the past few months. According to him, almost 70% of all Palestinians in Bethlehem now live below the poverty line as a result of the cuts in international aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. Indeed, Open Bethlehem (a civil society initiative established in response to the state of emergency in Bethlehem) cited recent figures from Christian Aid purporting that three out of four Palestinians will be living below the UN poverty line (of US$ 2 a day) by 2008.

I doubt if anyone could argue that such figures and prognoses do not augur well for the future. No wonder then that a number of religious leaders have yet again spoken out against this ever-worsening situation facing Palestinians today. On 29 th May, for instance, the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem issued an Open Letter in which they sought "support for their work as peacemakers and carers whilst pleading that [the international community] ensure that the demands of International law be upheld equally for Israel and the Palestinians." Their letter also "condemned acts of violence and terrorism regardless of the perpetrators."

On 15 th June, the Holy See issued its own statement in which it "appealed to the international community to rapidly activate the means necessary for humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian population." It "associated itself in urging leaders of both peoples to observe above all due respect for human life, especially that of defenceless civilians and children, and that the path of negotiation be resumed with courage." One day later, on 16 th June, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool and Vice-President of the Catholic Conference of Bishops of England and Wales, the Most Revd Patrick Kelly, who had just returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, issued a call to prayer for the Holy Land. He stated, "we have been made very aware in recent days of violent death in the Holy Land. It is clear that many people in the area within the Palestinian Authority are experiencing severe financial problems affecting the lives especially of the most vulnerable."

Moreover, on 18 th June, the Coadjutor Bishop of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, warned that "the crisis of the Palestinian population is dramatic" and bordering "on civil war". The archbishop added that he prayed "to God that leaders of the two peoples will carry out courageous gestures to build mutual confidence and resume the dialogue. What is needed is that the international institutions, policies, and NGO's bring tangible aid. And the same must be done by all the dioceses and local Churches of the world."

Such statements by Christian leaders indicate that the situation on the ground is perilously close to meltdown. A recent report by UN agencies in Gaza stressed that "the humanitarian situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has deteriorated rapidly in 2006, a result of the fiscal crisis facing the Palestinian Authority following the election of Hamas" as well as continuing "Israeli security and access restrictions". Moreover, the UNOCHA referred to "a deepening humanitarian crisis" as it increased its 2006 emergency donor appeal for the Palestinian territories up by 79% from US$ 215 million to US$ 384 million. In a parallel move, UNICEF tripled also its appeal for the Palestinian territories to US$ 22.7 million, stating that one in three newborns is "at risk of dying in the hospitals of Gaza" and that 9% more Palestinians in Gaza are below the poverty level in 2006. The World Food Programme also increased its supplies by 25%.

This week also, the Quartet indicated that it is backing the release of US$ 120 million of EU funds in order to provide support for local health services, guarantee fuel supplies and provide for the basic needs of Palestinians. To date, the EU has been the biggest aid donor with €500 million a year to the Palestinians. Despite the suspension of direct aid to or through the Palestinian Authority, the EU has expanded its assistance to help meet Palestinian basic needs. €154 million has been made available since the beginning of 2006, which includes €64 million for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, €40 million to ensure uninterrupted power supply and €34 million in humanitarian aid.

In this respect, the Emergency Services Support Programme (ESSP) of the World Bank will be expanded to cover essential supplies in the health sector and basic allowances to those who are providing care in hospitals and clinics. While implementation procedures are being developed, the European Commission will coordinate with the World Bank in providing immediate and direct allowances to the health care sector from the community budget. The Interim Emergency Relief Contribution (IERC) of the European Commission will be reinforced to ensure uninterrupted supply of essential utilities such as fuel. Also, a Needs Based Allowance programme will be developed as quickly as possible to create a 'social safety net'.

Such increasing misery in economic levels in the Palestinian territories indicates the increasing need for an overarching political solution to this conflict. But Israelis and Palestinians cannot tailor such a solution alone. The referendum of 26 th July called for by Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, might be one more indication of the way Palestinians are thinking today, but it is not an answer by itself. Nor is the constant pumping of emergency aid into the Palestinian territories. It is essential that Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Quartet (US, EU, Russian Federation and UN) and the Arab League come together and consider three politically osmotic scenarios as starters for a resumption of peaceful negotiations. The first scenario is the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum of 1999 that preceded the collapse of the process for peace. The second scenario is the Arab League Beirut Initiative of 2002 whilst the third one is the Prisoners Initiative of 2006.

Expanding or even modifying the Temporary International Mechanism (TIM) for the purposes of funding basic Palestinian services is clearly a positive step that would help alleviate the pressures upon Palestinians. But it must surely be clear to all parties that the real way forward is the re-engagement of both parties in bilateral and multilateral negotiations that pave the way for a resolution of this conflict. With the world focused on Iraq to a large extent, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dropped to the margins of international concern, and this is detrimental not only to that small parcel of land but also to the whole Middle Eastern volatile region as well.

The region is hungry for peace (as it is for the principles of democracy, human rights and the fundamental freedoms of worship and expression for all that would go hand-in-hand with peace) just as some of its people are now also hungry for food. With an ongoing national dialogue between Palestinians that might hopefully produce a consensus of sorts between different Palestinian factions and defuse those factionalist confrontations that are as dangerously counter-productive as they are elitist, and with a new Israeli government swaying between unilateralism and direct negotiations with Palestinians, it is high time to re-introduce the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the international political agenda. All parties should strive toward a just and lasting solution through the sole path of negotiation - one, incidentally, whose parameters have not truly shifted too radically after almost forty years of occupation. It seems to me that the political players - be they Israelis, Palestinians, other Arab countries or Quartet-linked - know full well the ultimate configuration of the solution and the modifications that are necessary to make it viable.

The key question is whether they have the will let alone integrity to make it happen today.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2006   |   20 June


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