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Peace & Goodwill unto the Middle East?
This week, men, women and children in numerous Middle Eastern households - from Jordan, Syria and Lebanon to Egypt and the Gulf countries - will unavoidably be caught up in the yuletide spirit...

28 December   |   2010   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... They will hope for a more peaceful world in 2011 and wish for the welfare and happiness of kith and kin alike. But how realistic are those sanguine hopes, and how palpable are the prospects today for peace and stability in the Middle East? Or to paraphrase loosely the Dutch philosopher Spinoza, how brutal is the lack of peace in this region?

Since the end of a year is not the time for political pedantry or for philosophical sophistry, I will unburden the reader of too many facts or figures and will simply glaze over 2010 with a couple of key issues from Israel-Palestine and Iraq that - apart from the ongoing WikiLeaks saga - have tenaciously courted the headlines in the European media over the past year.

In Israel-Palestine, following a spate of unyielding negotiations, the consensus seems to be that peace between Israelis and Palestinians has now become even less achievable. The Israeli waves of settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank are almost unstoppable. The expansion of the large settlements of Ma'ale Adumim, the Gush Etzion block, Beitar Illit and Modi'in Illit continues unabated whilst there is also a fierce growth in the smaller and more remote outposts such as Tapuach, Talmon, Ofra, Eli and Shiloh. Even the recent American "sweeteners' to Israel in the form of a US$3 billion security assistance package, diplomatic cover and advanced F-35 fighter aircraft have failed to coax Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to agree on a paltry 90-day settlement freeze that would help resume the stalled negotiations with Palestinians. Today, there are over 300,000 Israeli illegal settlers in the West Bank and 200,000 Israeli Jews living in East Jerusalem. When coupled with a 45% rise in home demolitions (according to UNRWA 2010 reports), the eviction of many Palestinians or the expropriation of acres of their arable lands, the season surely cannot feel too festive for many Palestinian Muslims or Christians.

Is it any wonder that the Hebrew University philosopher Moshe Halbertal argued lucidly in a recent op-ed that the window for a two-state solution is closing rapidly and that the Palestinians will soon lose their right to a sovereign state? But if this were to happen, Israel will then permanently occupy the West Bank and end up with a one-state solution that will have inside its belly 2.5 million Palestinians without rights of citizenship, alongside 1.5 million Israeli Arabs who hail from al-Nakba of 1948. Can such a state exist peaceably without sliding down the road of apartheid or, worse, internal combustion? No wonder then that a number of Latin American states have lent their de jure - albeit clearly not de facto - recognition of Palestine as a way of circumventing a moribund peace process and helping Palestinians achieve their statehood.

Sadly though, Palestinians at times behave as their worst own enemies. Over the years, they have committed egregious errors - not least amongst themselves, as well as with Jordan and Lebanon. But no single people deserve homelessness, and the EU today by and large still supports the two-state solution despite its failure to qualify as a competent midwife for this ectopic pregnancy.

In Iraq, and putting all political shenanigans aside, one primary concern is the ostensibly deliberate targeting of Christians by extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq that is allegedly linked to al-Qa'eda. Such attacks were occurring for a while already, but they became more vehement after the deadly attack on the Church of Our Lady of Salvation on 31st October. In fact, the situation is getting increasingly unsafe for Christians - let alone for other small communities such as Yezidis and Sabean-Mandaeans - and one senses from the Iraqis themselves as much as from the Christmas messages of Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Rowan Williams of a looming threat to the very existence of those communities. This sombre reality was highlighted again last week when the UNHCR stated that Iraqi Christian numbers had shrunk to roughly 500,000 from 1.4 million just before 2003.

Bluntly put, those Iraqi Christians who have been an integral part of the fabric of Middle Eastern society for two millennia are now on the run. Some are heading for cover in Kurdish regions such as Qosh whilst others are leaving for Syria, Jordan and even Turkey or Lebanon. But violence, forced displacement, discrimination, marginalisation and neglect have shaken their belief in the authorities and it is no surprise that churches prudently cancelled many of their Christmas celebrations out of concern for their faithful. Other Christians are seeking the support of European institutions - not least the European Parliament - but again with scant success. Yet in the midst of much pessimism, one still finds prophetic Iraqi voices the likes of Fr Meyassir, a Chaldean Catholic priest, who advised his congregation, "Be careful not to hate the ones killing us because they know not what they are doing. God forgive them".

Alarmingly enough, though, it seems that the policies of intimidation and / or division of Middle Eastern Christians are turning them broadly into sitting ducks in some parts of the region. Only this week, a massive suicide bomb attack against the Coptic Al Qiddissain (Two Saints) Church in the middle-class district of Sidi Bechr in Alexandria, Egypt, resulted in deaths and injuries. Moreover, Archbishop Bechara Rai, President of the Episcopal Commission for Mass Media in Lebanon, urged the Lebanese officials to exert their utmost efforts in order to prevent the infiltration of terrorists into Lebanon. Whether wilful or otherwise, and irrespective of the many possible perpetrators and reasons behind those attacks, they are regrettably producing fear in many communities and fomenting tensions between different Christians and Muslims.

One Christmas carol recites the words of the angel, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward all men". But in many parts of the Middle East, these words will not be conspicuous only by their biblical mistranslation since their warmth and fuzziness will also sound quite hollow. In many hearts and hearths, the woes and hardships of 2011 will be at the forefront of peoples' daily realities. They will worry about their lives and livelihoods and wonder if their children and grandchildren will ever discover the elusive peace and harmony that the carol proclaims during this season.

But such a breakthrough requires men and women of responsibility to nurture enough good will in order to help foster an inclusiveness leading toward peace - be it in Israel-Palestine, Iraq or the region as a whole. Only then will the prospect of 2011 become more encouraging.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2010   |   28 December


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