Only new leadership will end the violence

Published May 1, 2002

THIS EDITION OF the Journal goes to press as the world watches a rapid and deathly serious escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As of this writing, the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority is in shambles, the future of the Authority’s leader, Yasser Arafat is uncertain, and in a piece of symbolism strong enough to evoke tears, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Christ, is under siege. In a message delivered to the nation on Easter weekend, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, was unequivocal in defining the road he has set his nation on. "We must fight this terrorism, in an uncompromising war to uproot these savages, to dismantle their infrastructure, because there is no compromise with terrorists." The prime minister’s hawkish, blunt language is suddenly in vogue. Since Sept. 11 last year, a great many appalling acts have been justified in language associated with war on terrorism. Mr. Sharon’s speech to the nation was in effect an after-the-fact declaration of war. He spoke several days after his armed forces had begun an assault on Ramallah, where Mr. Arafat’s headquarters are, and on other Palestinian strongholds – an assault unprecedented in violence and vigor. In a sense, the Israeli action was entirely predictable, the result of an apparently endless Palestinian intifada which had, in recent weeks, escalated to an almost daily ritual of mayhem wrought by fanatical suicide bombers. The Israeli casualties, at the hands of these bombers, have been far from negligible. And the state of Israel has never been one to turn the other cheek. Thus does terrorism, Sharon vintage, come face to face with terrorism, Arafat style. The Middle East, a powder keg for generations, seems, as of this writing, to be into a downward spiral that will maintain this volatility for yet another generation. That Israel is engaged in a life-and-death struggle against Palestinian terrorists is undeniable. And yet, the prime minister’s choice of words in a clear attempt to seek legitimacy for his acts through a perverse linkage to the U.S. “war on terrorism” simply adds another despicable dimension to a deplorable situation. The Israeli state is clearly on a course aimed at the elimination of Mr. Arafat and the annihilation of the Palestinian Authority. It can therefore be of little surprise to hear Ariel Sharon describe the Palestinian Authority and its leadership in words that U.S. President George W. Bush has used to describe Osama bin Laden for more than half a year. A war on terrorism, it seems, is licence for everything a state can do these days despite the fact that mere words do not, of themselves, confer any moral authority. If Israel succeeds, it will leave a total and ominous vacuum in the Middle East where several other Arab states remain wild cards. The world, in the past year, has not so much turned as it has gone into convulsions and tailspins. Less than a year ago, this newspaper carried a lengthy report on a trip to the Middle East made by a group of Canadian church leaders, who traveled there to meet Christian leaders and learn first-hand what it is like to be a Christian in the Holy Land at the dawn of the twenty-first century. In the course of that trip, they saw many guns, they had the turrets of tanks follow their progress down a country road, and they were, at one point, enveloped in a frightening tire-burning protest on a highway out of Gaza City. They heard predictions aplenty of impending apocalypse and talk of a looming bloodbath. And yet how mild all those experiences seem today in light of all that has happened since then. A year later, buildings the delegation visited in Gaza City have been blown up, and the road they traveled to Bethlehem is a shambles. Palestinians and Israelis have died by the dozens. Tanks reply with carnage to the carnage caused by teenage girls who walk as human bombs. The West speaks outrage, yet acts complacent and the language of terrorism is on everyone’s lips. Among the church leaders the Canadian delegation met a year ago who described the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is one, in retrospect, who stands out for his sagacity and foresight. Michel Sabbah, the Latin (Roman Catholic) Patriarch of Jerusalem, spoke of a conflict that would not end until the present generation of leadership is gone. It would, he said, take the passing of a generation ingrained in conflict on both sides of this unbridgeable chasm for a new dawn to rise in compromise, peace and coexistence. It would take the deaths, violent or otherwise, of all the Sharons and the Arafats, and the devolution of leadership to younger people who, though certainly far from immune to the pervasive violence, is less steeped in it culturally as the only possible solution. It would be easy, at this point, to pray for the quick passing of both the Sharons and the Arafats. But instead, let us allow the final prayer to the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, Riah Abu El-Assal, who wrote this on the same Easter weekend that Mr. Sharon declared war: “The unquiet heart in each peace loving Child of God will keep us going. We continue to hope, pray, work and look forward to transforming the present reality of death and great suffering, to a more pleasant future; one that respects the noble qualities of humanity. Once we break with the old and come to terms with the new, the world at large will celebrate a Holy Resurrection indeed. In spite of the pain and suffering of Good Friday 2,000 years ago, as well as today, we continue to believe that good will overcome evil and peace will prevail over war.” If Bishop Riah, from his vantage point, allows himself this hope, perhaps we can share in it a little.


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