By Fr. Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor, Pax Christi International
The border wall between Israel and the West Bank is among the most forbidding and hostile in the world. Viewed from up close, whichever side you find yourself on, it rears up from the ground, overwhelming and dominating you. It is dispiriting, intimidating, oppressive, and otherworldly. On each side of the wall lives a different people. It is a monument to one of the world’s most intractable disputes.
I have been following the Israeli – Palestinian conflict since 1981. The conflict became increasingly complicated and, above all, unworthy. However, I could never believe that from 2002 on (during the Second Intifada) a wall would be built by Israel between the two communities. Since then I have been able to follow the construction of the wall, which has recently been completed and built on Palestinian territory. The divisions between Israel and Palestine are well established. You have to cross checkpoints in order to get in the other community, if you are allowed to do so. I regret that some visitors of the Holy Land look at the wall as “conflict tourists.”
Gaza and nonviolence resistance
The situation in Gaza can explode any minute. The Gazans are left behind and have to deal with their own suffering. The circumstances can have repercussions outside of the Gaza Strip. Gaza is not only a humanitarian problem (the water is unclean; more than 60 % of the youth is unemployed; only three hours electricity a day). It is politically a hot potato. No solution has been found between Hamas and Fatah to transfer all authority over Gaza back to Ramallah.
Israel built a security barrier on the border with Gaza, begun in 1994; it is nearly 40 miles long. In addition, a 152-mile-long fence along the Egyptian-Israeli border was completed in 2013 and has halted illegal immigration from a variety of African countries (Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia). In 2016, Israel announced a plan to build an underground wall, more than a hundred feet deep, to prevent armed groups from emerging from tunnels to attack Israeli border towns. In Israel, the protection of the citizens comes first.
The Israeli blockade against the Strip is cruel, inhumane and a violation of civilizational standards. When can Palestinians return to their human dignity and their right to self-determination? The political problem is that Hamas controls everything in Gaza, dominating all aspects of life. They established a network of social welfare and educational systems around the local mosques that endeared the movement’s leaders to the people. There seems no political space for alternatives. Since 2008, I have visited Gaza several times. Complicated to get in! You need a permit from the Israeli authorities to enter Gaza. The small territory is isolated from the rest of the world by fences and barriers. It is an open prison! The small Christian community, numbering perhaps fewer than three thousand people, feels under pressure, and many are trying to leave.
Gaza is home to almost two million Palestinians, the majority of whom are long-term refugees (a further 3.25 million Palestinians live in the West Bank). Hamas has run Gaza since the elections in 2007. Hamas is a radical ideological movement that is deeply anti-Israel. Israel, the USA and the EU among others designate the group as a terrorist organisation. The question is: do you talk with Hamas or not? Some say “yes” you have to maintain contacts, talk, and others certainly say “no”: you never talk to a terrorist association.
On 30 March 2018, a “March of Return” started as a Gazan civil society initiative expressing people’s desire to live with dignity and with hope of a better future. The plan was to hold every Friday a peace march until the 15th of May, Nakba Day. The weekly demonstrations along the Israeli-Gaza border have increased their intensity in numbers, locations and frequency. Despite the nonviolent character of the March, IDF snipers have killed more than 240 (young) Palestinians. Critics said the Israeli forces sometimes opened fire even when two crucial conditions of international law for using lethal force were absent: the targeted individual posed a danger and the threat was immediate. The Gazans asked for the end of the Israeli-Egyptian siege on Gaza. It is about putting an end to the totally unacceptable cage that Gaza has become over the past 10 years.
Palestine has de facto two separate entities. The distance between them is not the issue. If all sides could agree, the 25 miles of intervening Israeli territory could be overcome with a highway bridge or tunnel. However, the two regions remain separated not just by geography, but also by politics and ideology. Fatah officially accepts the concept of “two states for two peoples”. They expect the same policy from the other partner Israel. Hamas rejects, at least formally, any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea. All parties in the conflict should recognize each other’s existence.
Behind the great security barrier live 2.5 million Palestinians. Life in West Bank is hard, but easier than in Gaza. The health care is of a low standard and that is why thousands are treated in Israeli hospitals. Work permits are hard to obtain. Palestine is hardly an open society. The Palestinian leadership is in a deep crisis. The political leadership and the political apparatus urgently need renewal, rejuvenation and transparency. Palestine will remain a house divided.
There is no real political peace process between Israel and Palestine. It has been tried several times already: Oslo in 1993; Camp David in 2000; Taba in 2001; the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002; the Roadmap for peace in 2003; Annapolis in 2007-2008; and the efforts of former US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014-2015. All attempts have failed because of a lack of political will. The involvement of the international community is essential and that is lacking as well. It needs more vigour and teeth to bring pressure.
Israel has no real desire to unify the Palestinian people and to negotiate a peace treaty with them that would cost Israel the need to withdraw from territory in the West Bank and allow Palestinians in Gaza to enjoy a normal life of freedom and a chance of hope for a better future.
Political life in Israel
It is expected that in 2019 new national elections will take place in Israel. Israeli governments are always formed by coalitions. All Israelis want their country to be strong, stable, democratic, safe and at peace with its neighbours. The sense of unity is high among the Israelis (especially when war comes) although major differences occur on the relations between the state and the role of religion as well as on the position of the Israeli Arab citizens (a fifth of the population). Israel keeps conquering land from the Palestinians illegally. The issue of the settlements divides Israeli public opinion; the wisdom, legality and morality of their existence are always fiercely debated. Gaps between different groups in Israel are widening and poverty is growing. Differences within society also affect the political sphere. Most in the secular category see themselves as Israeli first and Jewish second. Most Orthodox sees themselves as Jewish first and then Israeli. Religious political parties are almost components in coalition governments. Religious parties tend to dominate matters of education and religion. In recent years, the political and democratic space for NGOs, journalists and writers has shrunk.
Walls are containing the violence. Walls should be temporary. That temporality is long gone. For that to happen an agreement will be needed not only between the two sides, but also within them. New leaders should be chosen who would invest in building bridges, not walls. Books, not weapons. Morality, not corruption. To ever renew negotiations between Israel and Palestine, it is necessary to believe that there are partners for peace on the other side.
Many believe that the only viable way of finding a way out is the Two-State Solution fulfilling the aspirations for peaceful coexistence among Israelis and Palestinians. This option must be repeated on a regular basis what the Holy See for instance is doing.