Friday, 2 January 2009

holy land reflections (3) - conflict

New Jewish Settlement under construction outside Bethlehem

This Christmas period has been a miserable time for the land of Christ’s birth and like many others I have been watching the unfolding tragedy of recent events with a sense of helplessness and despair. So far I have been reluctant to blog about the political situation in the Holy Land (this seems to me to be the least emotive title to describe the area) because the situation is so complex and so much that I have read fails to do justice to the people on all sides who are caught up in the conflict. These are just a few observations drawing on my experience of the place and the people.

Firstly I want to say how fortunate I was to visit the Holy Land when I did. Had I been there a few days later it would have been impossible to travel around as we did both in Jerusalem and in places like the West Bank. St. George’s College, Jerusalem has a full programme of courses for 2009 but if the present crisis continues it is inevitable that their programmes will be greatly curtailed and the opportunities for course members to encounter the land and people will be heavily restricted. So my thoughts and prayers are with Stephen and Jill Need and the rest of the staff at the college and particularly I pray for Andrew Mayes, the new Course Director at the college, who is due to lead a Palestine of Jesus course in the next couple of days.

One of the reasons I find it difficult to tease out my reflections on the political situation is that I was struck by the number of perfectly reasonable people on all sides of the conflict who have a real desire for peace but also fear that the chance of securing that peace is diminishing as extremists set the agenda.

On the Jewish side there is a genuine fear that they must do whatever it takes to secure their safety and that includes the construction of the separation barrier/wall and military intervention. In recent years Jewish communities in Israel have had to endure a steady stream of missiles raining down on them from across the Lebanese border and from Gaza. Many of these devices may be crude and poorly directed but that does not diminish the fear that this constant bombardment has created and the demand that the authorities do something about it. One of the most pathetic comments I heard came from a Palestinian with his explanation that 90% of these missiles fall on open agricultural land and so the threat is greatly exaggerated by the western media. Well I’m sorry but the fact that people aren’t very skilled at targeting their missiles isn’t very comforting.

You only have to spend a few minutes in the holocaust museum to understand the Jewish determination that they will never let this happen again. That determination is reinforced by the pronouncements of some Palestinian and Arab leaders who continue to deny Israel’s right to exist (Hamas and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran for example). It is not good enough to argue that these pronouncements are simply for internal consumption and that they won’t actually act on these sentiments – Jewish people have been there before. By the way, I thought Channel 4’s decision to invite Ahmadinejab to give the alternative Queen’s speech on Christmas Day was an example of the worst sort of publicity seeking act of stupidity by a supposedly responsible media organisation. Peter Tatchell’s comment piece in The Guardian very effectively exposed that mendacious nonsense.

The problem is that the measures taken by the Israeli authorities seem to be exacerbating the situation. The security wall has been effective in preventing the incursion of suicide bombers but it has also been effective in increasing the searing resentment in the West Bank as has the blockade of Gaza following the election there of Hamas. The wall doesn’t follow the boundaries of the Palestinian territories as internationally agreed and in many places has effectively annexed some of the best agricultural land and crucial water supplies. The wall has had a major impact on the economic, social, religious, mental and physical wellbeing of Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians.

Israeli settlements continue to be built in the West Bank despite Israel’s commitment to stop them and they often secure the best land and facilities at the expense of the Palestinians; I saw this at Bethlehem. Seeing the infrastructure being put in place I cannot see how these settlements will ever be abandoned and this makes the likelihood of a two state solution less realistic by the day. It will not be long before there is no area that could form a Palestinian State as it is reduced to little more than a series of rump communities cut off from each other. This was a fear I heard expressed by both Israeli and Palestinian representatives who came to speak to us.

The new road systems being built across the Holy Land made our movement around the country swift and comfortable. However, I was disturbed to learn that cars with Palestinian number plates are effectively banned from these roads and many of the roads they are allowed to use are falling into disrepair; in some cases they suddenly come to a stop as they have been blocked off by the security forces. I just don’t see how these policies are going to lead to anything other than greater resentment as they concretise a structure of apartheid.

The same could be argued about the present military action by Israel in Gaza. I have yet to read one politician or commentator who can explain how the policy being pursued by Israel is going to bring about her stated desire for peace and security. It is a short term response to the understandable demand that something be done about the shelling of Israeli communities from Gaza, against the backdrop of the general elections taking place in the next couple of months. However, the action seems doomed to the same failure as the War in Lebanon of 2006.

One of the writers who has best summarised the present situation in my view is David Aaronovitch writing in The Times. He comments:

The historian Tom Segev, writing in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, yesterday reminded readers that “all of Israel's wars have been based on yet another assumption that has been with us from the start: that we are only defending ourselves”, but that “no military operation has ever advanced dialogue with the Palestinians”. He wasn't saying that Israel hadn't the right to stop the rockets from being fired from Gaza, but that it would get the larger process precisely nowhere.

Adamant though I am about the need to combat Islamist violence, it is hard not to see Western and Israeli policy towards Gaza since Israel's unilateral withdrawal in 2005 as one huge strategic error. There was the refusal to deal with the Hamas Government elected in January 2006, the siding with Fatah in the subsequent internal dispute, the imposition of an effective blockade on Gaza that amounted to collective punishment.

My personal opinion is that the best way forward is a two state solution but that the longer implementation is delayed the less likely that solution will be possible given some of the factors I have mentioned above. President elect Obama and his new administration in the U.S.A. will have a crucial part to play and George W. Bush’s failure to invest any effort into the peace process until the last moment is one more indictment against his bankrupt (in every sense) presidency. The Israeli elections in February will also be critical and one can only hope that the extreme religious and political forces which have so often dictated policy can be marginalised. On the Palestinian side one can also hope that those who only see resolution to the issue through the missile, suicide bomb and eradication of the State of Israel are rejected by the people, though the present crisis makes that less likely. I am convinced that the vast majority of Palestinians and Jews want peace but it has to be based on a just and equitable settlement.

One is tempted to despair that any peaceful way forward is possible and then I remember the words of a member of the P.L.O. Negotiations Affairs Department who spoke to us while in Jerusalem. He urged us not to give up hope, to become better informed and above all to pray for the situation. Seems pretty good advice to me so that is what I plan to do.

Israeli soldier checking our passports at a Bethlehem border crossing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,
I too had the joy of visiting the Old City, with the great joy of sleeping the night within its walls, near the Jaffa Gate, that was in 1998 when Israel celebrated its 50 anniversary and they were flying in jet loads of gas masks.
The only good thing from a tourist point of view was that the old city was virtually empty and I could walk up to the Wailing Wall and say a prayer.
I could write a whole blog about it, but I would value your thoughts on Armaggedon, you know, that 'orrible place mentioned by John the Divine.
I look forward to reading a article, the longer the better, you thoughts especially in the current climate when Megiddo seems to have moved down to Gaza.
Warm regards, fellow believer