A PRAYER FOR HOPE:
Can We All Overcome ourFear of Peace?
by Dr Harry Hagopian,
''He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.. Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no will make them, afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken." Mic 4:3a, 4
Five years ago, a handshake on the White House lawn symbolised the hopes of the majority of Palestinians and Israelis for a new dawn between two long-suffring peoples. That historical handshake became a sign of the pregnant promise of a peace called Oslo. No one who truly understood the complex histories or realities of the two peoples expected that moment to simply erase years of distrust, fear, hatred or even terror and bloodshed. But for many, it marked the likelihood of a different future. For Palestinians, the long-held dream of moving toward self-determination and nationhood seemed almost at hand. For Israelis, the prospect of peace with security inched closer toward a palpable reality.
Yet, despite the long-overdue political 'breakthrough' last weekend at the Wye Plantation, the state of peace today between those two parties still hovers precariously on a razor-thin edge separating success from failure.The vision for a new day, one of reciprocal human regard and a positive psycliological climate where the other is as important as the self, needs to be renewed. Many of the initial hopes for developing new relationships of mutual trust and partnership had been dashed over the last five years and need to be revived Today, Palestinians and Israelis are almost further away from mutual understanding, respect, hope, goodwill and peace than ever before.
In making my assessment, I am aware that both panics face serious internal issues, concerns and dilemmas which need to be tackled. The unrelenting fragmentation and theocratisation of Israeli Jewish society is re-enforcing the dominant precept that Israel is an exclusively Jewish state where the rights of other so-called 'minority communities' are subsidiary. The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, has to examine its structures. It needs to assume more diligently its human rights resporisibilities regarding the rule of law, due process and judicial procedure, and to consider all Palestinians equal under the law. Flowever, this dichotomy on both sides does not mask the fact that the prevailing asymmetry of power in terms of politics, economics and security unarguably and heavily favours Israel. Much of what we need to address as peace-makers or peace-builders cannot be done properly so long as Israel maintains the ability to control and stunt the development, livelihood and borders of the Palestinian people.
While numerous problems have become roadblocks toward a credible and tasting peace among the two peoples, I will highlight today six major issues which underscore the difficulties faced by the majority of Christian and Muslim Palestinians. Unless those are dealt with soon within a workable framework of the promise of good faith held in the crucible of Oslo will be lost for many generations to come. To find a solution, we no longer can afford simply to paper over the cracks. We need to resolve those issues that have consistently hampered the process of peace.
1- Roadblocks Toward Peace
Conflscation of Identity Cards and Revocation of Residency Rights from Palestinian Jerusalemites
Followjng a recent Israeli High Court ruling (Minuhim 7316/95), the Ministry of Interior (MOL) was compelled to release its figures on the numbers of Identity cards confiscated from Palestinian Jerusalemites between 1967-1998. The incomplete figures obtained did allow nonetheless numerous Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations, such as B'tselcm, HaMoked and Badil Resource Centre, to document that there has been a 600% increase in actual cases within the last two years of the number of Palestinians whose ID cards were confiscated. This escalation, which impacts literally tens of thousands of Palestinian Jerusalemites, is a result of a change of interpretation in Entrance to Israel Regulations of 1952 and 1974.
Today, the MOI demands that Palestinians prove that their centre of life is in Jerusalem. This change has impacted many different groups: those who have had to leave the country for a number of years due to higher education or employment, those who have had to move outside the Israeli-defined municipal boundaries of Jerusalem because of a lack of available or affordable housing, Palestinian women married to men from other West Bank cities who do not have permits to live in Jerusalem or finally Palestinians who carry another citzenship.
The result of such discretionary procedures - legally dubious and practically dangerous - is that Palestinian Christians born in Jerusaleni are losing their rights to live in it. Treated by the Israeli government as mere resident aliens, these native sons and daughters of the Holy City find themselves forbidden to enter their own city whether they are looking for housing, employment. education or health care, Palestinians are treated with fewer rights than tourists or foreign-born workers - let. alone Israeli Jews. The city of their birth is closed to them.
2- New or Expanded Jewish-only Settlements in the West Bank and Gaza
Many pundits agree that the most consequential roadblock to a lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis is the presence of Jewish-only settlements within the West Bank and Gaza. According to various land use agencies, over 60% of the West Bank and 40% of the Gaza strip have been expropriated to allow for the construction of settlements in breach of the Hague Regulations 1907 and the Fourth Geneva Convention 1949. This policy has also required Israel to increase its military presence in the Occupied Territories to provide 'securityt for the settlers. The Oslo accords postponed the discussion on the future of these settlements until the Final Status negotiations. While there were promises by the former Labour government that no new settlements would be started, this evidently did not preclude the expansion of existing ones. In 1996, the Jerusalem-based Land and Water organisation (LAW) published a report which showed that the Labour government had invested 1.4 billion shekels (about $46 million) on the settler population, a figure much greater than its Likud predecessor. And, during the Rabin-Peres administrations, the settler population increased by 48% in the West Bank alone.
From the start of PM Netanyahu's present coalition government, the commitment to settlements has remained strong. The most significant public declaration was the decision to build homes for a projected 25,000-30,000 Jewish Israelis on Jabal Abu Ghneim / Har Homa near Bethlehem. And while the eyes of the world were focused on that specific new site, expansion of older sites continued without notice. In 1998, a report from Reuters stated that the Netanyahu administration has approved the construction of an additional 5,000 units spread throughout a number of West Bank settlements.
The delays in the Oslo process have allowed for thousands of more dunums of land to be expropriated for these Jewish-Israeli only settlements and the 'necessary' construction of new by-pass roads and surrounding military security areas. Contrary to the Oslo accords. the creation of small Palestinian enclaves has further disrupted territorial contiguity within Palestinian-administered areas. Given this demographic reality, hopes for the development of a viable Palestinian state become impossible..
3- Demolition of Palestinian Hounes in West Bank
The demolition of houses is not a new phenomenon in the West B ank and has been taking place ever since 1967. But since the signing of the Oslo accords five years ago. the Israeli military authorities of the West Bank have confirmed that approximately 650 homes have been destroyed in the West Bank, and hundreds of families now possess demolition notices. Of that number, almost half of the homes have been destroyed since 1997. This figure represents thousands of Palestinians who have been made homeless.
Since 1995, nearly all of the homes which have been demolished or which have existing orders for demolition are near by-pass roads, Jewish settlements, military installations or the Green Line. Having those houses removed prevents contiguity between different Palestinian-administered territories. In late spring 1998, Parastou Hassouri reported in a paper done for LAW, "This reflects a specific political intent. Instead of an 'administrative act', Israel is using house demolitions as a means of reducing or eliminating a Palestinian presence in areas that it seeks to retain in any final status arrangements with the Palestinian Authority''.
When challenged on demolition, the Israeli government most often responds that the homes demolished or facing demolition were built without the appropriate permits and are illegal structures. Many Palestinians in the West Bank, however, confirm they have almost no hope of obtaining 'legal' building permits. This practice destabilises an already fragile political climate as it creates a populace who is bitter and angry at Israel for its actions and at the Palestinian Authority for not being able to prevent this human tragedy.
4- Impact of the Closures of the West Bank and Gaza upon the Palestinian Economy
By 1994, the former Labour goverment began to require Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza to acquire permits to enter Jerusalem and the rest of Israel. This policy of closures is tantamount to collective punishment, and contravenes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1961. It is applied across the board for employment, higher education, worship in churches or mosques in Jerusalem, health care or social visits. These permits have severely limited the 'legal' access of West Bank and Gaza residents to these areas, particularly for employment possibilities. At times, such as those following various suicide and terror bombings over the Green Line, many parts of the West Bank and Gaza have been 'sealed', with neither people or goods able to cross in or out of the Palestinian areas. While the exact number of permits granted has fluctuated over the last four years - from zero during the periods of 'total' closure up to approximately 80,000 at the highest end - the overall impact of this control has been to devastate a fledgling Palestinian economy.
For example, in Guza, the Karni horde crossing was established to allow the flow of goods in and out of Gaza at all times - even during closures. Yet, during one period in mid-spring 1997, it was closed for a penod of 15 days. The Palestinian Centre for human Rights in Gaza (PCHR) reported (27 April 1997) that the economic losses were estimated at $500,000 per day for vegetable produce and over $1,000,000 per day in the agricultural sector as a whole. In addition, during periods when permit restrictions are somewhat 'eased', employment is often still as high as 40% in the Gaza strip due to the inability of the local economy to absorb the available work force.
[)uring the years of the occupation, the Palestinian economy was slowly transformed into one heavily reliant on migrant labour across the Green line. PCHR contends that this shift was primarily a result of a deliberate policy to inhibit or reverse economic development, creating a compliant market in the Occupied Territories Little investment has been permitted within the Palestinian areas over the years between 1967, the signing of Oslo and now. Israel has equally been able to prevent the movement of goods and work force from the Palestinian administered areas. As such, the development of a sustainable and healthy Palestinian economy has become almost impossible. I hope that the building of the Gaza harbour and the opening of its airport will allow Palestinians to move their goods.
5- Water - A Resource for All or a Pressure Point?
Water is a precious and limited resource of the world over. But it becornes more so in the dry and arid climate of the Middle East. Unfortunately for Palestinians and Israelis, water has become another 'chip' to be negotiated witlin the framework of Oslo. The main source of water in the region is the Jordan River basin, with its headwaters high in the Golan Heights and in Southern Lebanon. This river basin, along with numerous underground springs and surface water, provides this essential element for survival.
Although the 1993 Declaration of Principles recognised Palestinian water rights, the terms were vague on who would control the water resources during the interim period. The May 1994 Cairo Agreement did little to clarify the issue. On 14 August 1998, the Palestine Report wrote that the Multilateral Working Group on Water has made little progress on the issue, due partly to Israel's refusal to address water allocation and water rights, and partly due to the absence of Syrian or Lebanese participants with their important riverine estuaries.
Israel has refused to provide adequate amounts of water to Palestinian towns and villages for years. Dr Jad Isaac. Director of the Applied Research Institute, reported in 1994 that an average Israeli consumes 379 cubic metres of water annually, while a Palestinian averages only 107 cubic metres. However, the allotment of water to settlements works out to an annual average of 650-1,714 cubic metres of water per settler, depending on which settlement one is referring to. This summer has been one of the hottest in well over 35 years. For the residents from Hebron. Bethlehem, Jenin and their respective surrounding areas, no running water has been available for periods of two weeks to three months. The B'tselem human rights organisation issued a repent on 9 September 1998 in which it stated that the Israeli Mekorot national water company drastically cut water to Palestinian communities to meet increased consumption in Jewish settlements. B'tselem added that Israel has imposed obstacles to drilling new wells and has established quotas on the water drawn from wells.
So long as Israel maintains the severe disparity in the allocation of water between Israelis and Palestinians, and refuses to assist in the upgrading of the water systems for which it has been responsible during the years of occupation, Palestinians cannot look favourably on their neighbours who have 'made the desert bloom at the expense of Palestinian lives and agriculture.
6- Jerusalem: Has Pluralism Become Redundant
For all the children of Abraham, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, the city of Jerusalem is an important component of faith, history and current experience. For the peoples of al three traditions, a future without the Holy City as an integral part of their own spiritual and existential realities is unimaginable. Jerusalem is crucial to all for a multitude of reasons, not least because of the diverse. and rich mosaic of its peoples' cultures, faiths aud traditions.
Due to the importance of this city to both Palestinians and Israelis, the Oslo accords relegated all questions concenitng Jerusalem to the Final Status negotiations. These talks were to have begun in May 1998. They were predicated on the hope that the preceding negotiations would establish trust, co-operation and mutual respect between the parlies in order to make one of the most difficult questions more negotiable. But in the ensuing years, the hope of a more fertile soil of goodwill and good faith to sustain such conversations has dimmed away.
While an unravefling in the negotiation process concerning Jerusalem is of utmost concern, there is also an ongoing effort to replace the diverse mosaic of Jerusalem with a more homogeneous Jewish milieu. Ever since 1967, the pluralist character of Jerusalem has been stymied at both the municipal and national levels, thereby decreasing its local Christian and Muslim populations to make room for Jewish residents. While differences in emphasis have existed between the various Labour and Likud governments in their approach to Jerusalem, both have pursued the goal of physically annexing as much land as possible within the Israeli-designated Jerusalem municipal boundaries.
In contravention of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and in order to accomplish this creeping homogenisation of Jerusalem, Israel has adopted a hybrid methodology which incorporates land expropriation, blunting of Palestinian development, constructing Jewish-only settlements and revoking Palestinian residency rights. Added together, these factors have helped lsrael in its stated goal (determined in 1973 by the InterMinisterial Committee to Examine the Rate of Development in Jerusalem) to achieve an approximate 70% Jewish majority in all of Jerusalem. In a book published by the Palestinian Academic Society' for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA) in 1997 entitled 'Judaisation of Jerusalem', its author Allison Hodgkins wrote that the national blueprint of the Israeli Ministry of Interior has made ambitious projections of a Jewish majority of 77% in the wider Jerusalem region by the year 2020.
The six issues I have attempted to underscore to you today are amongst the most critical in relationship to the mood of frustration and despair which has gripped the vast majority of Palestinians and a large swathe of lsraelis, If anything, they prove that the Oslo process faces serious challenges that could well undermine its viability. And yet, polls continually indicate that a majority of Palestinians and Israelis desire peaceful co-existence with each other. It is due to the aspiration of both peoples that I appeal to you to exercise your considerable moral authority to urge the Israeli government to address these critical points of tension. We all want peace. We all want security. But we all need justice. We all need dignity. We all need respect as human beings created in the image arid likeness of God. These are absolute truths that are steeped in our Christian tradition.
Your Excellencies, Jerusalem is the tender cradle of three monotheistic faith communities. In the words of His Beatitude and our MECC President Patriarch Michel Sabbah, Jerusalem is a city of two peoples and three faiths. From Abrahami, Sarah and Hagar to Isaac and Ishmael, from David to Jesus to Mohammed, its significance to Jews, Christians and Muslims has been co-equal and goes back for centuries. But that same Jerusalem today still remains very much in the shadow of heaven. Is it not our prophetic role to dispel those shadows?
"I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed fro her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dewelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" Revelation 21:2-4
© By Dr Harry Hagopian