Little peace evident in Middle East peace process

By on July 1, 1998

Jerusalem

IN THE PECULIAR logic of the state of Israel, when a Palestinian leader dies under violent and unexplained circumstances, every fellow Palestinian in the country pays a price.

The checkpoints go up, manned by heavily armed Israelis, most of whom look no older than high school students; troops and police, surly and officious-looking, are deployed throughout the city and random checks of pedestrians and vehicles begin in earnest.

To some, the checkpoints are momentary inconveniences, over with a glance at passport, visa or travel documents; to Palestinians, however, they are time-consuming and intimidatingly thorough searches of person and vehicle, coupled with lengthy, not-at-all-polite interrogations. If all is not in order, on-the-spot arrests are made.

Jerusalem, in the wake of the death of Muyideen Sharif the weekend before the start of Holy Week, resembled nothing so much as an armed camp.

Described variously as a patriotic Palestinian leader or a professional terrorist and bomb maker, Mr. Sharif died in a car explosion in Ramallah, a West Bank city north of Jerusalem. The explosion may have killed him, or he may have been placed into the car already dead from a number of bullet wounds before the explosion.

Nothing could convince Palestinians that Mr. Sharif was not assassinated by the Mossad, the Israeli secret service. Nothing could convince Israelis that he was not the victim of an internal power struggle within the leadership ranks of Hamas itself.

Whatever, his death cast a pall over the Holy Week celebrations in Jerusalem. The tourists and pilgrims still came in droves, but travel was difficult and the air was anything but festive. Instead, everyone throughout the heavily crowded Holy City waited for one or more bombs to go off. People weighed decisions about what to do, where to go or not to go, against speculation on where the suicide bombers might strike and where they have struck in the past. There was sporadic rioting in Ramallah the day of Mr. Sharif’s funeral and, for a while, the city was sealed off.

Everywhere along the city streets and the surrounding highways, even along the Via Dolorosa in the Old City, jammed-packed with locals and tourists, there were random checks. One kind for tourists, another for Palestinians.

“When an Israeli asks for my passport, I hand it over and he takes it,” said Michael Sellors, the British dean of St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem. “When a Palestinian hands his identity documents over, they snatch it. It’s the arrogance of it, the violence even in very subtle form.”

In the West, news consumers are fed endless stories about progress or impasse in what is usually described as the Middle East “peace process.” The phrase itself has a connotation of optimism that does not exist in Jerusalem. Here, no one sees a happy outcome to the Israeli presence in the Occupied Territories. The rancour runs too deep, the injustices of displacement, bulldozed homes and Israeli settlement on Palestinian lands too recent.

Cab drivers, restaurant workers, liberation theologians and church leaders have different, more or less well-considered responses when asked where it will all end. But the bottom line, no matter how carefully phrased or couched in politically correct terms, is the answer given by a driver who took us from Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv to Jerusalem late one night.

“There will be war,” was all he said when asked to gaze into his own personal crystal ball.

Another Palestinian, asked the same question, put it somewhat more subtly. “In Israel,” he said, “you have Likud and you have Hamas. You understand what I mean?” Irresistible forces on paths inevitably set for collision.

The Anglican Church in Jerusalem is heavily committed to the Palestinian cause. St. George’s Cathedral, a stone’s throw from the walled Old City of Jerusalem where all the tourists are drawn to all the religious sites, is staffed only by Palestinians. In fact, it is possible to spend a great deal of time in or near the cathedral compound which also includes St. George’s College and never meet an Israeli or a Jew – except, of course, at the nearby security checkpoints beyond the compound walls.

Everyone who speaks to us has a message to relay to the western world and to Anglicans abroad, based on the common premise that the real story of the plight of the Palestinian people is not being told or not reaching people abroad. If it is, people ask endlessly, why are the churches’ voices not heard more eloquently? Why is there not for Palestine the concerted church campaigns that were instrumental in bringing down apartheid in South Africa? Why is there not the opprobrium for Israel that the churches direct to other tyrants?

“People in your country have got to be made to realize that Israel is nothing more and nothing less than a political state,” said Bishop Riah Abu El Assal, the Anglican coadjutor bishop in Jerusalem slated to replace retiring President Bishop Samir Kafity later this summer.

“Israel,” he added with considered emphasis, “is not the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. People in the West think that. But it isn’t.”

An interview with Bishop Riah is laced with details on the history of the Palestinian people and about the road that has led to today’s impasse. In the bishop’s rambling analysis, there is plenty of bitterness at the failure of the West to do all he thinks it should to help the Palestinians and to pressure Israel into better, more just treatment of them.

“The church in Canada,” he said, “must act with regards to Israel and the oppression of the Palestinian people as it acted with regards to South Africa and the oppression of black people. The church in the West is under an obligation to do all that it can to remedy the injustices done in the Holy Land.

“It may be that there is a way to peace and justice in this troubled land,” he added, “but peace and justice will not be established on land where homes have been bulldozed. Peace must be built on justice and that means that Israel must get out of the Occupied Territories.”

Of equal concern to Bishop Riah is the fact that in the struggle between Palestinians and Jews, Christians have also suffered and all too often been forgotten. The exodus of Christians from the Holy Land has been well documented. To Bishop Riah, it is a tragedy, compounded by the apparent indifference of Western churches and society.

“The American churches,” he said, “have supported the state of Israel with billions of dollars over the years. It is tragic that they have forgotten to support the Christians of Palestine.

“I call on the people of the church in Canada to wake up before it is too late – and to see that the Christians of Palestine are supported and not forgotten. If the Jews of New York are so ready to support the Jews of Israel, why can we not look for a similar support from the Christians of Canada?”

His sentiments are echoed by Rev. Hanna Mansour, a young Anglican priest in the West Bank city of Nablus, north of Jerusalem.

“We are losing the Christian presence in the Holy Land,” he said. “Each year, Jerusalem gets millions of tourists. I was in the marketplace in the Old City yesterday and I saw thousands of them. They visit the holy sites; they cross themselves; they kiss the holy stones; and they completely forget about the holy people. We cannot be shy in decrying this. If we are shy, we will die.”

Bishop Riah, who was interviewed both in the diocesan offices in Jerusalem and at his home base in Nazareth, has a vision of the Christian church in Israel that would see it play a leadership role in the Anglican province. The church in Jerusalem is entitled to this role, he argues, by virtue of the mere fact that it is in Jerusalem. His is a position not shared by everyone in the Anglican Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East, but it is historically tenable, if controversial.

It is, however, not likely to happen. The new president bishop of the province, elected to replace Bishop Samir Kafity who was in the United States the week we visited, does not preside from Jerusalem. He is Bishop Ghais Abdul Malek of Egypt.

* * * *
Each passing day of Holy Week, 1998, during which a bomb did not explode in Jerusalem and people did not die to atone for the controversial slaying of Muyideen Sharif, seemed like a reprieve. In the end, all of Holy Week passed without the dreaded and anticipated suicide bombers implementing their revenge, despite repeated calls by other leaders of Hamas to spill Jewish blood. Thus, the tourists and the pilgrims were spared the embarrassment of overt violence in the Holy Land as the Israelis and the Palestinians squabbled over who had murdered Mr. Sharif. Violence there was, but quiet and subtle. The everyday kind.

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