Peace

A wall without a future: Israelis and Palestinians live in two different worlds

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.

West Bank

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.

Political process

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.

Conclusion

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.

Nonviolence, Peace, Refugee Stories

Building bridges of hope, not walls of despair

By Scott Wright,
Director, Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach

A Gathering of Parents and Children at the US – Mexico Border

I have just returned from the US – Mexico border, on a journey of accompaniment sponsored by Maryknoll and hosted each year by the Columban Mission Center in El Paso, Texas. I have been to the border many times, but this time in particular was especially heart-breaking and painful. There we met immigrant parents and children who had been detained and cruelly separated from each other for two months; there we witnessed their joyful but often painful reunion at a refugee shelter; there we prepared and shared a meal with them at the Columban Mission Center.

At Nazareth Hall, a former nursing home for Catholic nuns converted into a refugee shelter, I spoke with a young Honduran father who had made the journey north with his three-year old son Jose, now lying face-down on the ground, rejecting his father’s attempts to console him. A young teacher in our group who works with pre-school children on an Indian reservation tried unsuccessfully to console him. In the end, as we left the shelter, Jose gave his father a tearful hug, as his father’s eyes filled with tears.

Later that night, at the Columban Mission Center, I sat across from a Guatemalan father, who talked about how he was treated in an immigrant detention center north of El Paso. “We were treated worse than animals,” he told us. “They didn’t even call me by my name, only the number over my bed.” As he spoke, his 12-year-old daughter Jasmine sat silently next to him, only her eyes indicating she was listening attentively to every word. They had not seen each other for more than two months; both had been detained in separate immigration detention centers, with little communication between them.

Today, of the 2,500 children who were forcibly separated from their parents under the “Zero Tolerance” policy of the current administration, only 1,800 have been reunited with their detained parents, who have been released with ankle bracelets to monitor their activity as they pursue their asylum claims. Nearly 700 children remain in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and at least 400 of their parents have already been deported or have opted to depart voluntarily, often with the promise that they would be reunited with their children.

As a nation, and under successive administrations, we have failed miserably to build bridges, not walls.

A Critical Time for Bridge-Building Everywhere

Last week, more than 500 moral theologians from 80 countries around the world gathered in Sarajevo, Bosnia to reflect on the theme: “A Critical Time for Bridge-Building, Catholic Theological Ethics Today.” During the Balkan war in the early 1990s, a war in which entire Muslim villages were “ethnically cleansed” and the city of Sarajevo – once was home to Bosnian Muslims, Croatian Catholics and Serbian Orthodox – was besieged for three-and-a-half years by the Serbian military. More than 100,000 people were killed in the conflict, and entire communities that once lived peacefully together, were torn apart.

Pope Francis sent a greeting to those gathered last week and acknowledged the great symbolic importance of Sarajevo to “the journey of reconciliation and peacemaking after the horrors of a recent war that brought so much suffering to the people of that region”:

“I encourage you to be passionate for such dialogue and networking … to be faithful to the word of God which challenges us in history, and to show solidarity with the world, which you are not called to judge but rather to offer new paths, accompany journeys, bind hurts and shore up weakness.”

He noted that Sarajevo is “a city of bridges,” and called attention to “the need to build bridges, not walls,” and he highlighted the many challenges facing the world today, including the global climate crisis and its impact on the environment, the crisis of migrants and refugees, and the failure of political leaders to respond effectively to these tragic human situations.

What we witnessed last week on the US – Mexico border must be set against a global context in which millions of people are crossing borders every day, sometimes fleeing violent conflicts in their home countries, sometimes fleeing from climate disasters or extreme poverty, and more and more facing rejection rather than welcome at the borders of neighboring countries. In the past twenty years, the numbers of migrants in the world has increased 60%, reaching its current number of 257 million. Many of these migrants, 68 million this year, are forcibly displaced by violent conflict, and of those 68 million, 40 million are internally displaced, 25 million are refugees, and 3 million are asylum-seekers.

Each one of them has a story, like the Honduran father and his 3-year-old son Jose, or the Guatemalan father and his 12-year-old daughter Jasmine. Many of them, perhaps more than half, have a child’s story to tell, and a child’s tears, like Jose’s, or a child’s tears that have dried up from too much pain, like Jasmine’s.

Return to Gospel Nonviolence

What is the message at the heart of the drama of families and children separated at the US – Mexico border, and the survivors of war and ethnic cleansing a generation ago in Sarajevo? In a word, it is to remind us that we are one human family, that we have a special obligation to welcome migrants and refugees fleeing violence as we would welcome Christ in the world; and we have a special obligation to address the root causes of war and violence so that people are not forced to flee in the first place.

Sarajevo is also known as the city that set in motion the greatest war known to the world a century ago. The assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire that took place in Sarajevo in 1914 set the stage for the First World War, a war that convulsed the world and ended one hundred years ago this November. Sixteen million people were killed in that war, and another 20 million injured. The First World War and an imperfect peace gave way to the Second World War, a war in which 60 million were killed and many more injured, and we are still living with the consequences of our failure to live together on this planet in peace.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to visit Sarajevo with my wife, a third generation Croatian. In that brief visit, we heard stories from Bosnian Muslim survivors, and we visited the museum to commemorate the horrendous killing of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica. We heard also the amazing story of the cellist who played his cello every day for 22 days in a market square in Sarajevo during the war, to mark the place where a Serbian mortar shell killed 22 people waiting in line for bread. It is a story of moral courage and outrage at the destruction of war, but also the power of beauty and culture to remind us of our common humanity, to invite us to build bridges to embrace our differences, not walls to divide and separate us.

Pope Francis chose to take the name “Francis” as the saint who would inspire his witness as the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church. In the five years since he was elected pope, he has woven together St. Francis’ love for the poor, for creation, and for peace, and encouraged us by his example to care for our common home, and to embrace migrants and refugees as our sisters and brothers.

At the heart of this witness of justice and mercy is Pope Francis’ growing desire to affirm the vision of Gospel nonviolence at the heart of the Church’s witness for peace. That was the theme of his 2017 World Day of Peace message, following a historic gathering convened by Pax Christi International in Rome of peacemakers from nations around the world, including many that had experienced the cruelty and pain of war. They gathered to address the theme “Nonviolence and Just Peace” and to urge the Church to return to the witness of Gospel nonviolence.

In his 2017 message following the gathering, Pope Francis concluded: “When victims of violence are able to resist the temptation to retaliate, they become the most credible promoters of nonviolent peacemaking … To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.”

Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Pope Francis is no stranger to these places of suffering. In 2017 he visited the U.S. – Mexico border, and two years earlier, in 2015, he visited Sarajevo, where he addressed tens of thousands of people during a morning mass in the city’s stadium, acknowledging the pain and suffering of “children, women and the elderly in refugee camps,” and “countless shattered lives.” During that visit to Sarajevo, Pope Francis heard stories from survivors of the war that brought tears to his eyes:

“We see so much cruelty,” he began, and he urged those who had shared their stories with him to “always do the opposite of cruelty. Have attitudes of tenderness, of forgiveness … and be small witnesses of the cross of Jesus … Today, dear brothers and sisters, the cry of God’s people goes up once again from this city, the cry of all men and women of good will: War never again!” he exclaimed.

What unites the U.S. – Mexico border to Sarajevo is a cry that goes up from the victims of violence and war, the cry of the migrant and refugee parents and children, the cry of the victims and survivors of war.

This week we commemorate the tragic conclusion of another war, that ended in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945.

As he did at the U.S. – Mexico border, and as he did in Sarajevo, Pope Francis reminds us that we share a common humanity, and we share a common home. That is both a gift, but also a responsibility: “The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing are a lasting warning to humanity … Nuclear weapons create a false sense of security, and the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is firmly to be condemned.”

We have a choice to make, and each day we are invited to choose life, to embrace peace.

At the conclusion of his World Day of Peace message, Pope Francis reminds us that “Jesus himself offers a manual for this strategy of peacemaking in the Sermon on the Mount … Blessed are the meek, Jesus tells us, the merciful and the peacemakers, those who are pure in heart, and those who hunger and thirst for justice.”

So we must continue to hope, with eyes wide open, but our hearts firmly planted in our faith. The Gospel invites us to build bridges of hope, not walls of despair.

* Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera.
Peace, Refugee Stories

Fine-grained: Bus from Bethlehem to Jerusalem

by Toine van Teeffelen
Arab Educational Institute, Bethlehem

This Sunday I took the Palestinian bus from Bethlehem to Jerusalem over the bridge and through the tunnels, along the new road 60. This is a road mainly used by Israelis from the settlements in the southern West Bank who commute to Jerusalem. The Palestinian bus takes passengers from Bethlehem and Beit Jala. Most of them are Jerusalem ID holders, as the checkpoint system is so fine-grained in its restrictions that Palestinians from the southern West Bank in the possession of a permit are only allowed to use the other checkpoint (300) between the Bethlehem area and Jerusalem.

The checkpoint leading to the bridge and tunnels is – how shall we call it – a more ‘flowing’ checkpoint to suit cars from the settlements. They should not be too much hindered in their movements. Note that Israeli cars rarely stop in front of the checkpoint; they usually just keep driving slowly. Israeli drivers do not need their IDs to show, their cars are waved through. Palestinians have to stop and are checked.

Anyway, at the terminal bus station in Bethlehem the driver warned the passengers that those without a valid Jerusalem ID should not join because soldiers were strict these days. When caught, people would have to walk from the checkpoint back to Beit Jala for quite some distance and uphill. I suppose he himself and the bus company also did not want to get into trouble.

When arriving at the checkpoint 6 or 7 passengers, mostly middle-aged or older, did not have a valid Jerusalem ID. They were taken out. The moment the bus left we saw them remain sitting at the checkpoint, humiliated. Passengers in the bus clicked with their tongue. What a way to treat people...

Click here to read the rest of this story.