Note to readers: Churches for Middle East Peace is a coalition of 21 Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant denominations and institutions that advocate with the U.S. Congress and Administration in search of Israeli-Palestinian peace. A delegation from the coalition, including Maureen Shea, director of government relations for the Episcopal Church, visited Syria, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories March 31-April 12. The group met with Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders, human rights and relief and development organizations, as well as government officials. The following is Maureen Shea's report on that trip.
Each day brings disturbing news from the Holy Land as Palestinians and Israelis deal with newly elected governments and the issues that have plagued efforts for peace. As part of the Churches for Middle East Peace delegation visiting the region March 31-April 12, I was anxious to see how the situation in the Holy Land had changed from my last visit in 2004 with a group led by Massachusetts Bishop Thomas Shaw (story online: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/3577_41103_ENG_HTM.htm).
Again, there were many difficult issues to confront, and some signs of hope -- but sadly, this visit showed fewer of those. That sadness was only compounded when a few days after we left, a suicide bomber attacked a Tel Aviv falafel shop during Passover, killing nine and wounding many more. (The Presiding Bishop's statement about that attack is online at: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/3577_73809_ENG_HTM.htm)
Increasingly, the trauma of the past and of the present makes it almost impossible for either Palestinians or Israelis to hear each other's pain. Palestinians, whether or not they voted for Hamas -- and it is important to note that a majority did not vote for Hamas, which won because of the structure of the legislative elections -- are asked to pressure Hamas to recognize Israel and past peace agreements.
Palestinians respond that the result of the P.L.O. agreeing to those same conditions was the building of the wall, more settlements, and greater restrictions on movement and commerce. For Israelis, they feel that they left Gaza, showed a willingness to dismantle settlements, and the result was the continuation of rocket attacks from Gaza and the Palestinians electing a government that calls for Israel's destruction.
It is little wonder, then, that if there is to be a peace agreement, there must be third-party intervention. At this point, there is scant evidence from the United States Government and/or the Quartet that serious intervention is underway. There is, however, immediate focus on the impending humanitarian emergency among Palestinians. The emergency results from the cut off of funds to the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) in light of Hamas's election victory and designation as a terrorist organization.
Former World Bank President and special Middle East envoy James Wolfensohn wrote in February: "If we don't get this right, I am afraid past investment in the Palestinian development will be lost, a Palestinian economy will not be sustainable, the Palestinian people will live off humanitarian handouts, and security for both Palestinians and Israelis will be in greater jeopardy than it has been for years."
A few statistics from the United Nations help explain the situation: the Palestinian Authority can no longer pay it's more than 152,000 employees whose salaries, in turn, support one-fourth of the population. Those P.A. employees, approximately one-third of whom are women, staff more than half of the primary health clinics and primary and secondary schools. Furthermore, the U.S. government has yet to determine how existing law will be interpreted regarding what would constitute "contact with" or "material aid to" the Hamas led P.A. Those rules will in turn determine what funding agencies can and cannot do to help the Palestinian people. Even if it had the funds to do so, the U.N. has made clear that it is not in a position to take over all the functions performed by the P.A., much less those of humanitarian agencies. There is much scrambling among NGOs, USAID and others, to try to determine what to do. There is general understanding that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians can be secure if there is chaos in Palestinian society and infrastructures.
While the aid and development barriers are being debated, the Israeli Government continues to build what it calls the "security barrier," often usurping Palestinian land beyond the internationally recognized Green Line. In some places it is a "fence" -- a road with high-tech electric fence and sensors on both sides -- in others it is 12 to 27 feet of vertical concrete. To many Israelis the barrier's sole purpose is security. To Israeli human rights activists and Palestinians, it is a potentially permanent land or water grab which further weakens any hope for a viable Palestinian state.
As the barrier/wall expands, Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem are less and less able to navigate the challenges of travel, whether to schools, jobs, visit family or religious sites. Both Palestinians and Israelis must have permission to visit one another outside of Jerusalem, so those contacts are ever more limited.
If a Palestinian man in Jerusalem marries a woman from outside of the city, she will have a different residence card and will not be able to cross the check point to join him in Jerusalem. If she sneaks in -- which is less and less likely as the barriers are completed -- she is there illegally and could be sent back at any time. The Jordan Valley is now totally closed off to Palestinians. At Abu Deis outside of Jerusalem, where the barrier/wall cuts right through the historic road to Jericho, a Palestinian family has just lost a court case which means that the concrete wall will soon separate their backdoor from that of their long-time neighbors. Many now see the continued settlement expansion as another version of the barrier/wall, further dividing Palestinians and Israelis and erecting "facts on the ground" that could be impossible to change even if there were final status negotiations.
There are some, albeit few, signs of hope. In both Bethlehem and Jerusalem, it was clear that there are more pilgrims and tourists than there were even two years ago -- and not just during Holy Week. Attendance at courses at St. George's College is up. The International Center of Bethlehem, the vision of Lutheran pastor Dr. Mitri Raheb, is open for overnight visitors and conferences and doing well.
Corinne Whitlatch, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), broke into a broad smile when she saw modern stained glass windows decorating the Center. They are the work of a former student of hers -- a woman who had been a maid and asked if she could join a course Corinne taught while in Bethlehem on sabbatical.
In Beit Sahour, the Greek Orthodox Church is opening much needed apartments and there is discussion among Christian activists of how to encourage reverse immigration. Mark Brown of the Lutheran World Federation hopes to break ground this year for 84 apartments on the Mount of Olives for Christians in Jerusalem. Israeli human rights groups continue their important work in documenting the growth of settlements, helping those at check points get permission to travel, and following and raising objections to the route of the separation barrier when it diverts from the Green Line.
Overall, there is a continuing sense of uncertainty. Quietly, the Palestinians will say they don't yet know what Hamas will bring. Already, more women are covered. In a society which has historically been secular and religious pluralism a given, it is not clear what changes will come. In answer to our questions about the viability of a two-state solution, most shrugged their shoulders and said there was no better alternative. One Palestinian leader said if they made two states based on the present settlements and barriers, it would be like Swiss cheese -- and the Palestinians would have all the holes.
Along with Churches for Middle East Peace and others and based on resolutions of General Convention and Executive Council, the Episcopal Church will continue to work for a negotiated settlement which will bring two viable states, Israel and Palestine, together with secure and recognized borders. We will seek ways for humanitarian and development assistance to continue for the Palestinians. We ask of Hamas that it continue its year-long cease fire and commit to nonviolence, recognize Israel and accept previous agreements. We ask the Israeli Government to reject unilateral actions that prejudge final status negotiations and to reject violence. We ask that our own government play a strong leadership role and oppose unilateral actions that will predetermine the outcome of final status agreements, including borders, settlements, refugees, water and the sovereignty of Jerusalem. It is a long agenda and one that will require all of our hard work and our prayers.