Israelis and Palestinians drift farther apart as peace process stalls

December 18, 2002

The first sections of a wall being built to separate Israelis and Palestinians have been completed. It is called a 'security fence' by some, intended to prevent more Palestinian suicide bombers from sneaking into Israel. But it's also been dubbed the 'apartheid wall,' using the Afrikaner word for 'separation,' by those who are convinced that it is intended to trap Palestinians in small prisons surrounded by military checkpoints and settlements.

A group of American journalists concluded after a recent visit, coordinated by Peaceful Ends through Peaceful Means--an ecumenical coalition operating under the umbrella of Church World Service--that the wall is just the latest symbol of the deteriorating relationship between Palestinians and Israelis. As it rises on the landscape, it feeds a growing sense of pessimism about the future, and a cynical conclusion that there is no end in sight for the conflict so it must be 'managed' somehow until the climate improves.

Jeffrey Halper of the Israeli Coalition against House Demolitions said in interviews that the finished wall--encircling the West Bank, Jerusalem and Bethlehem--will be three times longer than the infamous Berlin Wall, a symbol of oppression all over the world. It will be six feet higher and heavily fortified along its 230 miles, built three to six miles inside the green line separating Israel and the West Bank, trapping 100,000 Palestinians in a permanent corridor with some of the most fertile land caught between the border and the wall. 'It will be amazingly oppressive,' he added.

'Israel wants a Palestinian state so it can get rid of the Palestinians, so the question is how to create one that relieves us of the Palestinian population and leaves us in control,' Halper said. He thinks that Gaza will become the Palestinian state, that's why it's being left intact. 'Israel needs Gaza as a garbage can. It's a perfect place for a Palestinian prison, as Sharon has said.'

With elaborate maps he illustrates what he calls a 'matrix of control.' With more than 400,000 settlers strategically placed throughout the West Bank and Gaza, they have 'tremendously strengthened their position' by creating 'ghettoes' where 95 percent of the Palestinians live on 200 islands in an area the size of Delaware. They would occupy only 18 percent of the West Bank, completely surrounded by Israeli territory, so that the Palestinians are effectively 'imprisoned.'

Halper is convinced that Israel doesn't want reconciliation, it wants separation--but adds that 65 percent of the Israeli public doesn't want the continuing conflict or the occupation. The only solution is an international presence, a campaign like the one against South African apartheid, he argued, because 'the solution won't come from within. As Mandela made clear, there is no compromise with the apartheid system.' And yet, he warned, calling the beast by its name 'opens you to charges of anti-Semitism.'

Violence sets everything back

Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious activities for the American Jewish Committee, expressed amazement that the Israeli democracy holds together as well as it does, despite some serious flaws. 'A Palestinian state is not only essential but its creation is necessary for peace,' he said during an interview. Even during the recent increases in violence, he pointed out that about 70 percent of Israelis think the Palestinians need their own state in peaceful coexistence with Israel.

'Violence sets everything back,' Rosen said. And he admits that Israel's disproportionate response to Palestinian violence has created disgust among many people. 'Israel can't live by the sword indefinitely. And we have never been in such an economic mess. People are traumatized so there are no fresh initiatives.'

Yet he said the biggest tragedy for Palestinians is its leadership. 'There is no way to expect Palestinian leaders to go out on a limb because Palestinian nationalism is too strong,' he said. 'But Arafat blew it…We could have been where we are going back in 1947,' when the British ended their mandate over the region by proposing Israeli and Palestinian states. 'It's obvious where we have to go--and we will get there, but how much violence in the meantime?' While he thinks that the settlement program 'is not smart,' Rosen does not accept the argument that the settlements are illegal or that they are the source of Palestinian violence. 'There are no guarantees that, if Israel got out of the West Bank, the violence would end,' he said.

Rosen said that it is difficult to expect people to reach out to others because 'everybody here sees themselves as a victim.' He shares the opinion that 'world Christianity has a special role to play here, as a reconciling force. They are part of international communions that should be a source of bringing all people together.' As many mainline churches become more critical of Israeli policies, however, he said that 'conservative Christians are Israel's only friends,' even if that support is often suspicious and deep down could represent 'the other side of anti-Semitism.'

He offers a final piece of advice: 'Express your criticism in language that shows you care for us.'

Waging peace not war

Ghassan Andoni, executive director of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement between People, is worried about the new wall because it will further limit mobility and take away land, turning Palestinian villages into refugee camps by destroying village life. 'For peace you need an active Palestinian resistance and an Israeli peace movement. It's not waging war, it's waging peace,' he said during an interview in Beit Sahour, a village just outside Bethlehem.

As one of the founders of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) two years ago, he helped shape the strategy built on attempts to break down the system of control through disobedience--especially challenging the system of roadblocks.

'We're trying to change the dynamics of the conflict rather than solve it. We wanted people to realize they could challenge the instruments of control,' he told the journalists. That is why international ISM volunteers pushed past soldiers to enter the Church of the Nativity and also Arafat's compound last spring. They have also helped Palestinians harvest olives, trying to limit the intimidation. That has lead, however, to direct confrontations with settlers bent on violence, and some injuries among the volunteers.

From control to suppression

The Rev. Naim Ateek, an Anglican who is founder and director of Sabeel, a Palestinian liberation theology think tank, said that there has been a significant shift in the politics of the government of Israel in recent years. 'All Palestinian resistance must be broken, no matter how it is done. And any criticism must also be broken, even if it's Jewish dissent,' he said. 'We have moved from a system of control, which Israel has perfected, to a system of suppression. Control creates separation but suppression is much more danger system that crushes people, humiliates and dehumanizes them, a system that moves closer to genocide, elimination and expulsion.' He said that signs and posters in Hebrew are popping up all over Jerusalem that say 'Transfer=shalom+security.' This used to be a fringe view but today it is moving more to the center stage, promoted by several government ministers.

Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, president of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, said during an interview in Ramallah that the settlement activity has been ferociously expanding because the 1993 Oslo Agreement did not deal directly with the issue. He said that the maps make it clear that there will be no Palestinian state. 'All we will end up with is bantustans,' referring to the reservations created for the blacks under South Africa's apartheid policy. 'So much of what is happening is irreversible.'

Hanan Ashrawi, an Anglican who has served as spokesperson for the peace process and now heads the Palestinian Initiative for Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy, said, 'We are being neglected in a way I haven't seen before.' Because of the alliance of the pro-Israeli lobby and the Christian right, 'mainstream Christians must tell the truth, presenting the real version of the situation to counter distortions.' A peaceful solution is still 'marginally possible,' because 'we have not reached the point of new return yet.' Arafat is a convenient scapegoat for everyone, she argued, effectively powerless but still blamed for everything. She said that any 'gleeful rush into military offensives would be bad for our region and create tremendous instability in the Arab world.' While she admitted that Iraq's Hussein had few friends, it would be better to lift the embargo and allow them to develop their own style of freedom. 'We are worried about a real transfer, even though they are doing it gradually.'

Arafat in precarious position

Arafat sits huddled in what is left of his compound in Ramallah, surrounded by piles of crushed motor vehicles--after a year one of the most famous prisoners in the world. Rumors about his possible exile or even assassination swirl about him as he tells visitors, 'No people have faced what we are facing.' The statistics of deaths and injuries roll off his tongue as his demeanor becomes ever more grim. He pulls photos from a huge pile that almost obscures him from sight, describing how the Israelis have systematically destroyed the Palestinian Authority's infrastructure. 'Why does the world keep silent?' he asks. 'The Israeli Army and the settlers continue with their crimes.'

Israelis continue to withhold over $2 billion in 'precious taxes' so that the PA can't pay salaries. 'I haven't been able to move from here for over a year--not even to go to Bethlehem for Christmas services last year.' He still feels deep loss of his 'partner in peace,' the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin who was murdered seven years ago, and finds his only hope in Israelis who are working for peace--and he is buoyed by the majority of public opinion in Israel favoring peace and a Palestinian state.

Arafat will be blocked again this year from attending Christmas Eve mass at Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It will be another grim Christmas in the 'little town of Bethlehem' where Israeli tanks patrol the streets and park in Manger Square. The city is still showing depressing signs of the Israeli incursion last spring and the 39-day stand-off at the Church of the Nativity.

In Bethlehem residents risk their lives by defying the curfew and attempting to buy food. They also risk their lives by trying to attend worship services during the Advent season. The Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church, said in a newsletter that he sneaked out to ring the church bells, admitting that it was 'for me an act of non-violent resistance. We will not let them steal from us even the sounds of the bells calling for worship.'

As members of the congregation also managed to evade the patrols and slip into the church a few blocks from Manger Square, they lit candles. 'What comforts us is that there are so many friends worldwide lighting candles on our behalf, enabling us to continue to spread the light in a context of darkness, despair and hopelessness.'

There is growing concern about the survival of Bethlehem. 'The Israelis are suffocating Bethlehem--trapping us in our own ghettoes,' says Jad Isaac, director of the Applied Research Institute near the checkpoint in Bethlehem. He warned that cutting off the city from Jerusalem, where so many seek work and worship, will be 'the kiss of death' because it depends so heavily on Jerusalem--or did before tourism, responsible for 60 percent of the economy, dried up.

Unemployment is running about 80 percent in Bethlehem, the journalists are told. Vendors in Manger Square rush the few tourists, begging them to buy something 'for the sake of my children.' 'Bethlehem will be an isolated backwater, with no chance for economic development, and people will just leave,' Isaac said. A spokesman for the Israeli Ministry for Internal Security said, 'The town's dead already. Tourism is on life-support' and Christians are 'streaming out' because of the situation.

War with Iraq?

The possibility of a US invasion of Iraq strikes fear into the hearts of many Palestinians who are convinced that Israel will use the war as an excuse to 'transfer' them out of the West Bank and Gaza. The idea has moved from whispers in the corridors of power to open support by government and military officials and the general public. Memories of 1948 run deep, when about 800,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes and became refugees--and more than 500 of their villages were erased from the map. In the 1967 war another 400,000 were displaced.

Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza, worries that Israel may use a similar strategy under cover of a U.S.-led war with Iraq. While a forced transfer of Palestinians into Egypt, Jordan or Lebanon would be difficult, 'with enough pressure they will willingly leave.' To understand what 'transfer' could mean, he suggested looking at the refugee camps in Lebanon where several generations of Palestinians have been languishing, ignored by the rest of the world.

'We Palestinians have a lot of hard work to do and will need the help of those in the international community who understand the situation,' said Sourani. He thinks that Mandela's strategy against apartheid in South Africa might work, slowly gathering support among groups of women, students, intellectuals, churches and world leaders.

Adoni thinks any transfer of Palestinians 'can't happen without genocide,' while admitting that the possibility is more tempting than ever before. Nothing could stop Israel if it decides to move on that option. Some observers warn of the possibility of 'ethnic cleansing.' Others warn that its a phrase and concept that should not be used lightly.

Rachel Greenspahn, development director for B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, argues that 'in many ways Israel is a healthy democracy.' Yes, there have been mistakes and innocent civilians have been injured or killed but 'that is not the same as ethnic cleansing. To fight occupation is legitimate but not to attack civilians,' she said. 'The Palestinian Authority has an obligation to prevent children from involvement in violence--and allowing militants to use civilian property.' She warned that 'exaggeration is a disservice and blurs the issues.'

She admits that her organization, because it serves as a watchdog on human rights violations, is accused of undermining the security of Israel 'but we seek to support moral and ethical behavior of the state.' She is encouraged that more and more Palestinians are interested in non-violence but 'Palestinians must take stronger stands against attacks on civilians.'

Bishop Riah Abu el-Assal of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem said that 'the situation is deteriorating, politically and economically.' He said that Israeli policies were trying to 'kill hope in the hearts and minds of people.' He is among those who think that Israel is seriously considering some form of ethnic cleansing. 'Some in Israel, certainly the settlers in the West Bank, are in favor of ethnic cleansing,' he said.

Determination to resist

Christian leaders continue to report that many people are leaving, including Palestinian Christians who have been the backbone of the dwindling presence. 'Yet there is a determination to persist--and resist,' said Ateek.

Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem and Jordan said that any strike against Iraq 'would increase hatred between the Arab world and Americans--and would encourage extremists. And who will suffer? We would only enrich the merchants of war and death.' The bishop agreed with other church leaders who said that 'it isn't possible to kill the vision of the people for a better future.'

Riah is also defiant. 'Not one of us will leave. I'd rather die in my homeland than live as a refugee,' he said. 'Get ready for 4.5 million body bags.'

Riah sees some hope that the international community will realize what's going on and try to intervene with Israel and the U.S. 'The only way forward is non-violence and reconciliation between neighbors.'

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