The Church’s Witness on Issues in the Arab/Israeli Conflict

 

Introduction   

            This is a discussion of the witness of the American Churches with regard to the Arab/Israeli conflict.  Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East is concerned that a bias against the state of Israel has emerged within many of the mainstream Christian denominations.[1]  This prejudice is reflected in a troubling willingness to lay the blame for the conflict in the Middle East on Israel’s shoulders while saying very little about any culpability the Palestinians or Arab nations might have.              An example of this bias is found in the Divestment and other resolutions that have been passed by various Protestant denominations since 2004.  In these resolutions, history seems to begin after the 1967 Six-day war ended, and the “occupation” and Israeli policies are focused on as the sole cause of the conflict.   Some of the Christian commentary on the conflict has become quite extreme, with accusations of apartheid, Nazi-like behavior and  attempts at ethnic cleansing, all aimed at Israel.  This does not serve the cause of peace and justice. 

            In the past year there has been an increase in attacks on the  fundamental legitimacy of a Jewish state.  That begins to send out very serious warning signals.

            While some of this we understand is rooted at least partly in a wholesome, righteous, gospel centered and legitimate concern for Palestinian suffering, it incorrectly assumes that the party suffering the most at a given moment is the most innocent party and it is flawed in its refusal to acknowledge the complexity of the situation.

Historical Context of the Conflict

            We study history for a reason.  A complex situation can not be understood by looking at it in snapshot version, which is what many people tend to do with the Arab/Israeli conflict.   It is helpful to frame this particular conflict within both historical and theological contexts.

            The Israelites first settled in the land that became their nation in about 1200 B.C.  There were periods of foreign occupation, but other than a  forced 50 year exile in Babylonia (587 B.C.- 538 B.C.), the Israelites, or the Jews, lived in this land as a nation for over 1,000 years and it became central to their religion and to their identity as a people.

            After the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. and Jerusalem was sacked in 135 A.D.,  most of the Jewish population was killed or dispersed.  Many of those who survived and remained in Israel moved up to the Galilee. Those who left initially stayed in the area before fanning out into the larger Diaspora.  They joined ancient existing Jewish communities throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin and founded new ones.

            From 135 A.D. until the end of the British Mandate and the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948, Israel/Palestine was not a nation.  It was a province with shifting boundaries and shifting populations ruled or controlled by a succession of conquering empires  (Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Christian Crusaders,  Mongols, the Egyptian Mamelukes, the Ottoman Turks and finally the British). 

The Islamic Era     

            The Islamic era in Palestine/Israel began when Jerusalem was captured by Caliph Umar in 638 A.D.  The Dome of the Rock, Islam’s third holiest site,  was completed in 691 A.D.   Near the Dome of the Rock, also on the Temple Mount, is the Al Aqsa mosque which was built about 20 years later.   The Dome of the Rock encloses the rock from which the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have ascended to heaven and back after falling asleep while praying in Mecca.  After  hearing the angel Gabriel call to him he traveled on a winged horse to the “furthest place.”  The rock is also the Foundation Stone where the binding of Isaac by Abraham for sacrifice took place according to Jewish  and Christian tradition and where the First and Second Temples stood.

Jewish Resettlement of Palestine/Israel

            The Islamic era ended when the Christian Crusaders arrived in 1099 A.D.  Muslims,  Jews and Greek Orthodox Christians were slaughtered by the Crusaders.  Jews returned to Jerusalem after Saladin reconquered the city in 1187 and during most of the intervening centuries between ancient and modern Israel, Arabs and Jews lived intermingled or in their own neighborhoods.  Jews lived in Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias, Safed and other towns in Palestine/Israel.  There was an Arab majority, except by about 1845 by which time Jews formed the majority population in Jerusalem.

             Serious Jewish resettlement of Palestine/Israel began during the Ottoman Era in the early1880s, first with Arab Jews (from Yemen) and then Russian Jews.   The region was largely depopulated at that point -- the total population being about 550,000.

            There was also a significant Arab immigration into Palestine/Israel during that time and non-Arabic non-Jewish immigration as well.    There was a significant ethnic mixture --  according to the 1931 census the non-Jewish population of Palestine/Israel listed 24 different countries as their place of birth. The non-Jewish population included Balkans, Greeks, Syrians, Latins, Egyptians, Turks, Armenians, Italians, Persians, Kurds, Germans, Afghans, Circassians, Bosnians, Sudanese, Samaritans, Algerians, Motawila, and Tartars.

            By 1948, there were approximately 1.35 million Arabs and 650,000 Jews living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.  These were more Arabs than had ever lived in Palestine/Israel before, and more Jews than had lived there since Roman times.

The Collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Mandatory Period


            The Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of World War I.  The  League of Nations was formed in 1919.  Under the mandate system which was established by Article 22 of the Articles of the League of Nations, Britain and France redrew the map of the region and laid out the new borders of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire.

            Initially there were  twelve Arabs states (ultimately to become self-governing) which were formed on about 3,500,000 square miles from previous Ottoman territory and former European colonies in the Middle East and North Africa.

            The area that includes modern day Israel, modern day Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza -- 45,000 sq. miles --  was given to the British, under the Articles of the League of Nations, to hold in trust for a Jewish homeland.  This was the British Mandate for Palestine. 

            The Articles of the League of Nations however, specifically allowed the British to subtract the area east of the Jordan River (4/5 of the Mandate) from the Jewish state.  The British did this in 1922 when they created another Arab state -- Jordan -- out of that area.  That left 11,000 sq. miles for the Jewish homeland.

            There was violent resistance to Jewish immigration as more and more Jews started coming into Palestine/Israel which the British did little or nothing to stop.  The Jews in turn formed defense forces.  By 1920 they had formed the Haganah which acted according to principles of self-defense.

            After the Arab riots in 1929 (which started as a dispute over Jews praying at the Western Wall and then spilled out from Jerusalem into Hebron where 67 Jews were killed and the rest had to be permanently evacuated), some members of the Haganah felt that the self-defense approach was ineffective and formed the Irgun.  The Irgun was dedicated to violent offensive action as opposed to self-defense.

            In 1936 following the beginning of the Arab revolt the British Peel Commission recommended partitioning the Palestine Mandate further into a Jewish state and an Arab state.  The proposed Jewish state would have comprised a tiny strip of land running from Tel Aviv to Haifa and a little strip east of Haifa.   This was about 20 percent of what remained of the Palestine Mandate.

            The Zionist Congress accepted the idea of partition in principal although they did not like this specific plan. The Arab leadership however, rejected partition and the British decided it could not work.

The Creation of Modern Day Israel

            In November1947 after World War II, the United Nations General Assembly recommended a partition of the  British Mandate for Palestine into a Jewish State and an Arab State. This was U.N. Resolution 181.

            The U.N. partition plan was based on population demographics -- majority Jewish areas would be part of Israel, majority Arab areas would be part of a new Arab state.

            Although partition was in some ways an inherent injustice to both people, it was a political solution to a situation where two peoples had legitimate claims to the same land. 

            The Jewish Agency (the precursor of the Israeli government)  accepted the U.N. Partition Plan.  The Arab League met in December 17, 1947 however, and announced that it would prevent partititon by force if necessary.

            Violence had broken out in the immediate aftermath of the United Nations’ approval of the partition plan.  According to the U.N. Special Commission nearly 1,000 people were killed and 2,000 people injured during the period beginning in December 1947 and ending in January 1948 alone.  The actual war began when the British withdrew and Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948.  Over the next few days the Arab States surrounding Israel (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq ) each invaded the new Jewish State, vowing to wipe it off the face of the earth.  The resulting war lasted from May 1948 until February 1949.

            There was a lot of dispossession on both sides as a result of this war.  Arab and Jewish and in roughly equal numbers.  And there has not been total honesty on either side as to how this came about.

             People dispute the exact numbers, but some 650,000- 800,000 Palestinians left their homes in 1947-48 and for a variety of reasons. Thousands of wealthy Arabs left in anticipation of a war.  Once the war started some left to get out of harm’s way. Others left not to appear to be traitors.  Many Arabs left after being told  by the attacking Arab nations that they would destroy the Jewish state and then the Arabs could go back.

            Some Arabs were forced out by the Israelis -- especially Arabs living along supply routes and borders.  There was a war going on --  once the Arabs rejected the partition plan this was not a friendly situation on either side.

            The Arabs that stayed in what became the borders of Israel became Israeli citizens.  The Arabs that fled or were forced out became refugees.  For the most part they were never resettled and the United Nations maintained and continues to maintain them as refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and in what we now call the Palestinian territories under a special agency created only for Palestinian refugees -- United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East

 ( UNWRA).

            During the same time and after, a roughly equivalent number of Jews became refugees.  They fled or were forced out first from the Arab-controlled areas of mandatary Palestine (where not a single Jew was permitted to remain).  For example, the entire Jewish population of the Old City of Jerusalem was driven out by force during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War .  Jews also fled or were forced out of the Arab countries where they and their ancestors had lived for centuries, or in some places for millennia.  No special provisions were made by the international community for these Jewish refugees.  Most went to Israel, some went to other countries, where they were resettled.

            What happened was an exchange of populations substantially like what had happened on the Indian subcontinent the previous year, when British India was split into India and Pakistan.  Millions of refugees there fled or were driven out of their homes. Hindus fled to India, Muslims fled to Pakistan.

            But whatever the numbers, and whatever the causes for fleeing in Israel/Palestine, had U.N. Resolution 181 been accepted, there would have been no refugees and an independent Arab Palestinian state could have existed peacefully beside the Jewish state.  That is the tragedy.

What Happened to the Arab State that U.N. Resolution 181 Would Have Created?

            The territory that was to have been the new Arab State under U.N. Resolution 181 disappeared.  Gaza/Sinai was taken over and administered by Egypt.  Jordan  occupied and annexed the area West of the Jordan River (the “West Bank” and East Jerusalem).

            This was the status of what we now call the Palestinian territories until 1967.  There wasn’t really a concept then of Palestinians with a separate national identity, and perhaps thats why neither Egypt nor Jordan was called upon by the international community to create a Palestinian state.   

Christian Attitudes Towards Israel  in 1948

             In 1948, perhaps because of the shock of the Holocaust, Israel had if not the wholehearted support at least the tolerance of the mainstream Protestant churches.  And while Catholic policy toward the Zionist movement in the 19th and 20th centuries had been somewhat negative, the Holy See accepted the recommendation of the U.N. Partition Plan in 1947, which would have included making Jerusalem a separate political entity (a corpus separatum) under international rule.  Clearly, one concern of the Vatican was the nature of Jerusalem as a city with great religious significance to Christians.

Unfortunately Sides Were Drawn After the 1948/49 War

            For their homeland, Jews felt that they had no choice but to go to Israel.  From their perspective this is where the Jewish story began and where it reaches it final moment. Why did Jews some 40 years after 1948 walk for three weeks in the desert from Ethiopia to the Sudan to get to Israel?  Why had Jews in 1880 walked across the desert from Yemen?  Why did some 30,000 Jews leave Iraq to go to Israel after 1948?  Why do Jews leave New York in 2007 to go to Israel? They were returning home.  And in 1948 they saw the Arabs as the latest Nazis trying to wipe them out and destroy them. 

            And the Palestinian Arabs in turn, saw the Jews as the latest colonialists.   And with their history of being colonized, they had no choice but to resist it.

            It was an encounter between two victims, rubbing eachother’s raw wounds. 

            Israel survived the 1948/49 war.  At the conclusion of the war the Arab countries that had invaded Israel signed cease fire agreements with Israel. These agreements specified temporary or interim borders which became known as the “Green Line.”  The Green Line however, is not an internationally or legally recognized border because there were no peace treaties.

            There was a second war of aggression against Israel in 1956 when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal.  The 1956 war ended without any territorial changes.

            It was the next war however, that had profound geopolitical consequences.

1967 War and the “Occupation”[2]

            On May 16, 1967, President Nasser ordered the U.N. buffer force which had been put in place after the ‘56 war out of the Sinai Peninsula.  Egypt openly announced that “[t]he battle has come in which we shall destroy Israel” (Cairo Radio).  President Nasser blocked the Straits of Tiran cutting off Israel’s only oil supply and the collective armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria with assistance from Iraqi, Saudi, Algerian Kuwaiti, Sudanese, Tunisian, Libyan and Moroccan  troops lined up on the borders of Israel.  

            Israel was in an extremely tenuous position.  We often forget that today when we discuss the consequences of the ‘67 war.   For a period of three weeks, Israelis waited while Arab troops and armor amassed on their every border.  The surrounding Arab nations were openly and rather jubilantly broadcasting that the final war for the extermination of Israel was imminent.  Israel was outmanned and out weaponed by the collective Arab armies.  It had to mobilize its entire reserve army. Israeli society and economy basically ground to a halt as it awaited a massive attack. 

            Israel’s military leaders understood that their country’s survival hinged on a successful attack on Egypt’s air force.  They launched a pre-emptive airstrike on June 5, 1967 after receiving intelligence that Egypt was within hours of attacking them.    Israel had about 200 war planes in its arsenal, compared to the Arab air forces’ combined 900 planes.  And it sent the bulk of the planes out on what turned out to be for Israel a successful mission.  If it had not been successful, Israel would have lost the war and would not exist today.            The Israelis did not want a military confrontation with Jordan.  They asked King Hussein of Jordan to stay out of the conflict and made it clear after the war with Egypt had begun that they had no intention of attacking Jordan if they were not attacked. Hussein did  attack Israel and as we know he lost.

            The 1967 war lasted six days.  Israel acquired the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights defending itself in this war.

            Days after the 6-day war ended  Israel tried to open back door negotiations (no Arab country had diplomatic relations with them) for land in return for peace treaties.  On June 19, 1967, Israel’s National Unity Government voted unanimously to return the Sinai to Egypt and the Golan Heights to Syria in return for peace agreements.  The Israeli government also resolved to open negotiations with King Hussein of Jordan regarding the West Bank.

            The League of Arab States (eight Arab heads of state) however, had a summit conference in Khartoum, Sudan from August 29 - September 1, 1967 and officially adopted a policy at that time of  no peace, no recognition, and no negotiations with Israel.                  

            This is how the “occupation” that we talk about to this day came about. 

            After the Israeli conquest of the Palestinian territories, a large settlement effort began.  There are now hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers in these territories, though Israel dismantled and evacuated all of its settlements in Gaza in August 2005 as a part of Israel’s unilateral disengagement plan.

            There was another war in 1973 when Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated surprise attack against Israel on the Jewish High Holy Day.

The Six-Day War and Changing Christian Attitudes                    

            It was Israel’s military victory in 1967 that seems to have been a turning point in attitudes towards Israel within the mainstream Protestant world with sympathies turning largely and in some cases ultimately fiercely against Israel.  There has developed an almost preoccupation with the “occupation,” and since 2003, Israel’s security barrier as if these were the sole or root causes of the violence in the region.  This position seems to be coming from the leadership of some of the mainline denominations.

            The Roman Catholic hierarchy, on the other hand, has remained a neutral voice.  While we do see a certain anti-Israel bias coming from some of the Catholic Religious Orders, NGOs,  some of the Catholic social justice groups, and some of the Catholic press, it is not coming from the Roman Catholic hierarchy.        

            Following the Israeli capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, the Vatican stopped calling for a corpus separatum for Jerusalem, as had been envisioned under U.N. 181.   The Holy See  instead took the position that there should be a special statute or treaty governing access to the religious sites in the city that would be guaranteed by the international community.

            1967 was two years post-Nostra Aetate which had forever and radically changed the relationship between the Roman Catholic church and Jews and Israel.  Nostra Aetate repudiated supersessionism, condemned anti-Semitism as a sin and repudiated the teaching that all the Jews at the time of the crucifixion and any Jews today were guilty of deicide.  

            But how a post-Nostra Aetate Church would understand a modern State of Israel -- as distinct from the people or the land of Israel, was not so clear. The Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews addressed this point in 1985 and adopted a distinction between the theological and political-historical aspects of Christian attitudes toward the modern State of Israel.  Catholics should: no longer consider Jews as punished and  divinely separated from the land of Israel;  consider the continued existence of the Jewish people (the people of Israel) as God’s will;  and respect and seek to understand Jewish attachment to the land of Israel.  The existence of a modern State of Israel however, should be interpreted not theologically, but according to international legal principles.[3] 

             The Holy See and the State of Israel established formal diplomatic relations on December 30, 1993, when they signed the “Fundamental Agreement,” and in so doing the Vatican clearly recognized the right of the State of Israel to exist.  The Holy See also recognizes the right of a Palestinian State. It is a neutral position that champions everyone’s well-being but remains silent on specifics.

Jewish Nationalism

            The Modern state of Israel was created in 1948 in the aftermath of the Holocaust.  But the world did not need the Holocaust to justify the creation of a Jewish state.  Jews, just like any other people, defined in terms of a shared ethnicity, language, history, culture and/or religion, have the right to constitute an autonomous and sovereign political community.  We find it a matter of great concern therefore  that some of the current anti-Israel rhetoric coming from some Christian groups includes attacks on the legitimacy of the very notion of a Jewish state,  taking the position that a Jewish state is somehow inherently racist.  Frequently the very same people who hurl the accusation of inherent racism at Jewish nationalism extol other forms of nationalism as liberation movements and as heroic.

            And just as the world did not need the Holocaust to justify the creation of a Jewish state neither did the world need the Holocaust to justify the creation of a Jewish state specifically in Palestine/Israel.

            Jewish historical connection to the land of Israel goes back 3000 years.  The Jewish people lived there as a nation until 135 A.D.  They were the only people who had a national identity associated with Palestine until 1960s.  After 135 A.D. small numbers of Jews continued to live in scattered locations in Palestine, such as Jerusalem, Tiberias and Safed. Large communities were reestablished in Jerusalem and Tiberias by the ninth century.  In the 11th century, Jewish communities grew in Rafah, Gaza, Ashkelon, Jaffa and Caesarea.  

            In addition to this 3,000 year physical presence all of  Jewish spiritual rootedness and religious practice is focused on Jerusalem. The Jewish people have an “incarnational” relationship to the land of Israel.   No group other than the Jews needs Zion/Jerusalem to fulfill its religious identity.  If the Jews are not in Israel,  they are in exile.  

            And on a practical level Jews routinely suffered in exile.  In two millennia of living without their own homeland, Jews were continually at the mercy of others, who often did not display much mercy at all.  They suffered in Christian Europe and they suffered in Muslim Arab nations.

            Under the laws of Dhimmitude, conditions for Jews in Arab Muslim lands were more formalized and generally better than those of Jews in Christian Europe.  But the position of Jews within Arab societies was always precarious. On the one hand there were a sizeable number of Jews who were able to attain high positions, power and financial influence under Arab Muslim rule.  But on the other hand there were persecutions, arbitrary confiscations and attempted forced conversions.

Palestinian Nationalism

             And while Jews have suffered, so have Palestinian Arabs suffered.  Palestinian Arabs are in some ways unique in the Arab world.  Like everyone else, they were subjected to a measure of Turkish brutality during the Ottoman era, then British rule under the Mandate.  But they were also subject to political arrest by the Jordanian monarchy, displacement either voluntary or involuntary during 1947-48, extreme discrimination from their hosts in Arab countries after 1948 and more recently and especially since the Second Initifada, very tough restrictions and controls under the Israelis.  They alone have not yet attained sovereignty. They have found themselves scattered and rejected in the Arab world at large, excluded from participation in the Arab nations where many settled after 1948 and confined to refugee camps, and victims of the venal politics of their own leaders.  They have suffered and continue to suffer powerlessness and deprivation.

            A specifically Palestinian Arab national identity may have begun to develop after Israel declared independence in 1948, but it emerged fully in 1964 when the Palestine Liberation Organization was formed by the Arab League in Cairo.  Palestinian nationalism gained impetus in 1967 when Israel acquired the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza during the Six- Day war.


Arab/Israeli Conflict

            This is a situation of competing claims.  There is a legitimate Jewish claim to Palestine/Israel.  And there is a legitimate Arab Palestinian claim to Palestine/Israel.  And both claims can and must be accommodated.  

            Prior to the 1948/49 war,  Israel had agreed to what we now call a “two-state solution” (1936 and 1947).  But after the war, until 1980s, we believe that both the Israelis and the Palestinians were guilty of not recognizing the peoplehood and the nationhood of the other. 

            By the mid-1980s the vast majority of Israelis again supported a two-state solution.  The First Intifada in 1987 (the War of Stones) was probably a turning point for many Israelis who came to see the Palestinians as a people prepared to sacrifice for their nationhood, just as the Israelis had been doing since 1948.  And they began to accept that the Palestinians also had a claim for nationhood, in spite of the enmity that existed between the two people. 

             The result was that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was elected in 1992 on a two-state solution platform. Israel was taking a big chance because Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat had not shown very much if any good faith at that point. 

Oslo/Camp David

            Israel  signed peace treaties with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994) and established permanent and legally recognized borders with both of these countries.  But neither Egypt nor Jordan wanted the Palestinian territories.   Jordan withdrew its claims to the West Bank and Egypt withdrew its claims to Gaza.  This left the territories in the hands of Israel, with any negotiations  having to take place with the Palestinians.  These negotiations  began in 1994 with the signing of the Oslo Accords and the creation of the Palestinian Authority (the “P.A.”).

            Under Oslo, the P.A. was given 6.5 billion dollars in aid to start the process of state building.  But that money was not used for state building.  Not one road was built, not one school was built.  The money apparently went into the pockets of Palestinian leaders and to militias.  The Palestinians were betrayed by their leaders at that time as they have been repeatedly.

            Under Oslo the Palestinians were given the right to have elections, a 45,000 man security force and more and more control over the Territories.  But there was never a serious attempt on the part of the P.A. to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, organize effective security forces or to educate their people for peace as they were obligated to under the Oslo Accords.  Yasser Arafat actually set up fourteen rival security forces in the Territories – a certain prescription for failure.

            On the Israeli side there was no serious attempt to curtail the settlement activity and Oslo did not commit Israel to a well-defined course of action in limiting and rolling back settlements.

            During the two-and-a-half decades from 1967 until the Oslo Accords, there had been little “armed resistance” from the Palestinians.  Most terrorist attacks in Israel during those years came from outside the territories, from Jordan in the late 1960s, later from Lebanon.

            Oslo however, was followed by the first wave of Palestinian terrorism inside Israel emanating from the West Bank.  About 270 Israelis were killed in suicide bombing following Oslo.  And this was the beginning of the undermining of the peace process.  Everytime a bus would explode Israelis would lose faith in the process.  Then the Israelis would respond by enforcing closures, making arrests and the Palestinians would in turn also lose faith in the process.

            According to the Oslo peace process, a final accord was to be reached by September 13 of 2000.   Accordingly, a summit was held at Camp David in July of 2000.  Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made an initial offer through President Bill Clinton which involved portions of the West Bank. Yasser Arafat rejected the offer, made no counter offers and walked out of the summit.  On September 29, 2000 the Second Initifada began as an endless series suicide bombers started coming over from the West Bank killing and horribly maiming thousands of innocent Israeli men, women and children.

 

Taba/Washington D.C.

            In December, just as his presidency was coming to an end, President Clinton made a final proposal to both sides.  It was offered expressly as a last and final deal -- with no more negotiations allowed.   President Clinton verbally proposed that the Palestinians would get all of Gaza, about 97 percent of contiguous West Bank territory,  East Jerusalem as the capital of a State of Palestine, three out of four Quarters in the Old City, sovereignty over the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque and a  30 billion dollar fund to compensate Palestinian refugees.

            Prime Minister Barak accepted and agreed to dismantle some 200,000 Israeli settlers to make this happen. Yasser Arafat on the other hand did not agree.

            So there was no peace agreement -- and instead, the Second Intifada continued.

The Second Intifada Continues

            As part of the Oslo Accords,  the Israelis had handed over weapons and control of the territories to the Palestinians.  Now they found that Palestinian security forces that they helped arm and train were themselves acting as terrorists in some cases.

            There was very little Israeli military response to the Palestinian terror attacks which began in September 2000, until March 2002 when there were 47 suicide attacks in one month including a massacre at a Passover Seder in Netanya. That is when Israel set up an extensive system of roadblocks and checkpoints and eventually (Spring 2003) started construction of the security barrier ( almost three years after the suicide bombing began). 

            The security barrier cut down on suicide bombing up to 90 -95 percent or more.            Approximately 95percent  of the barrier consists of a chain-link fence system. It slows would be terrorists down by about fifteen minutes and gives the Israeli Defense Forces warning that they are crossing over into Israel.

             Only about 5 percent of the barrier is the concrete wall that most people are used to seeing in pictures. The barrier is a wall in Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala where a wall was necessary because snipers were shooting at Israeli vehicles from rooftops on the West Bank.  It is also a wall where there was not enough space to construct the fence (which is by its nature wider) in parts of Quaquilya, Tukorim and Jenin.

            Israel’s security barrier and the checkpoint system cause severe hardship and inconvenience for many Palestinians on the West Bank.  120,000 Palestinian workers that used to cross into Israel for their jobs have been cut off from employment.  In some cases it may limit access to worship. Palestinians can’t get to Israeli hospitals, the barrier breaks up some families who are split between the West Bank and East Jerusalem, houses were demolished to build the barrier on both sides (Israeli and Palestinian).  And while the barrier has 124 gates, so people can, for example,  get through to their orchards and farms, Palestinians frequently have to wait hours for an Israeli soldier to come and let them through.  The barrier is choking the Palestinian economy.

             But hundreds of people were killed in the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada and thousands terribly maimed.  Yet, the outcry in many of our churches is only against the security barrier -- not the terrorism.  This raises the question, how do people have the right, in the name of peace and justice,  to tell other people not to try to preserve their own lives?

            There is an inherent right recognized  in International Law to self-defense.  Why would we deny Israelis this most fundamental of rights?

            Security barriers have been built around the world, often in disputed territories, with the purpose of disrupting the movement of terrorists, smugglers, and illegal immigrants. These barriers frequently cause difficulties for civilians living along the border zones, just like Israel’s does.

            Why was it only Israel’s decision in 2003 to build a security barrier to protect itself from suicide bombing which was met with protests by our churches?  No other security barrier has ever been met with such resistance.

Gaza

            In September 2005, Israel uprooted 8500  settlers and withdrew from Gaza unilaterally, without any concessions from the Palestinians.

            This could have been the beginning of Palestinian state building.  But instead, Palestinians looted the Greenhouses that Americans had bought for them, almost immediately started digging infiltration tunnels into Israel and smuggling weapons through the Rafah border with Egypt.  There has been daily firing of Qassam rockets into Israel rendering life in Sderot to this day unlivable.  There has been more suicide bombing and the election of the terrorist organization Hamas in early 2006 to 74 out of 132 Legislative Council seats.  Following an extremely bloody civil war in the summer of 2007 where some 400 Palestinians were reportedly killed by other Palestinians in a matter of days, Gaza is now under the control of Hamas and Fatah is in control of the West Bank.                 

Current Situation in our Churches             

            Israel is a country that has been under siege for the entire sixty years of its existence.  And it seems that any military or even passive action -- such as the security barrier –  it undertakes to defend itself it gets put under the ethical microscope of American Christians who feel compelled to repeatedly examine and find fault with it.

            Ignoring any history of Arab rejectionism, ignoring suicide bombing even  -- it is the Israeli “occupation” and the separation barrier, or whatever the named Israeli sin of the day is -- always somehow the misdeeds of Israel are to blame.

            No reasonable or honest person would find Israel blameless in this conflict.  But that is not the issue here.  The issue is, -- when do we stop holding Israelis to a higher standard than we hold the rest of the world and grant them the privilege of being allowed to act like regular people?  When do we stop asking them to sacrifice their lives and the lives of their children in order to prove to the world and specifically the American Christian community that they are a bunch of superhuman angels? When do we stop branding them Nazis and ethnic cleansers and perpetrators of apartheid?  And when do we in the churches finally stop questioning the right of the Jewish people to statehood?

            These accusations and this questioning of national legitimacy seems to be deliberately intended to stigmatize, delegitimize  and even to demonize the very population that the church has a 2,000 year history of persecuting and discriminating against.   It does not seem to be designed to promote the causes of peace, justice and reconciliation which we should be promoting.

Based on a speech given by Sr. Ruth Lautt, O.P., Esq. at Boston College, November 14, 2007.



[1]               Our focus is on the mainstream or liberal denominations as opposed to those Fundamentalist and Evangelical churches which espouse a Christian Zionist theology and tend to be one-sided, uncritical supporters of the State of Israel.  No one in Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East (“Fair Witness”) is a member of one of those Churches and we are not Christian Zionists.

 

[2]               The use of the term “occupation” serves a political agenda by: (i)  effectively denying any Israeli claim to the land; and (ii) not leaving any room for territorial compromise in the West Bank.  However, there is actually no legal or historical basis for the use of this term in the Palestinian territories because the last legal owners of these territories, after the Ottoman Empire, were the British who held it only “in trust” for the Jewish homeland.   

 

[3]               See Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church, VI(1).