Tuesday, 26 June 2018
Ancient History Print
Wednesday, 13 February 2008
no peace without justice

In June 2002, Fr Gerard Burns, of St Anne's Parish, Newtown, travelled to Israel and Palestine as part of an International Caritas mission. In the article below, Fr Burns unravels some of the history and injustice which underlie the current conflict, and links this to the blight it has spread on the lives, livelihoods, and human rights of ordinary Palestinians.

Claudette and Ahmed look at the house they lived in as children. They watch the family who now occupy it. They wonder whether they will ever get it back?

Claudette and Ahmed are Palestinians. In 1948 their family had lived in Jerusalem for generations, but in 1948 they became refugees as Jewish fighters took over West Jerusalem where they lived. They became refugees in their own land. Following their dispossession their house was declared abandoned and given to one of the new Jewish families that had come to settle in the land. Claudette and Ahmed settled in a refugee camp where they have lived ever since. Their hearts are heavy when they get the chance to see their old house with its memories. Now they are no longer fully citizens of the land in which they were born.

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is often presented as so age-old, complex and deep-rooted that it's better not to even try to understand it or to get involved in its resolution. There are indeed many factors involved but the situation is not impossible to understand. Indeed, given its centrality to much of the wider situation in the Middle East, it is vital that people do understand it.

The area covered by present day Israel and Palestine, is part of a land bridge which has been inhabited for a very long time - at least 100,000 years according to anthropologists. Christians are familiar with the Biblical story of the people of Israel: their descent from Abraham, the promise of land and their eventual settlement in the land of Canaan (later known as Palestine). Canaanite was the name given to the indigenous population at the time of the arrival of Abraham and his descendants. The Philistines lived along the coast and it is from them that the name Palestine was derived. The Bible recounts two traditions about the settlement of the Jewish people in Canaan. The first in the book of Genesis tells of a peaceful entry by the semi-nomadic Abraham and his descendants. They settled in the lands not occupied by the Canaanites. The other tradition in the book of the Exodus tells of a military conquest by Joshua, exterminating the Canaanite population and parcelling the land out among the twelve tribes.

These accounts combine history, legend and the point of view of the victors, so modern archaeologists and historians have analysed them to reconstruct a general account of what took place. This points to a gradual infiltration of semi-nomadic tribes from Aramaea into the land of Canaanite city-states. There was also the arrival of a group of Hebrews from Egypt (the Moses tradition). There were some fierce local skirmishes but the Canaanites were not annihilated. Instead, the tribes lived in the pastoral areas alongside the Canaanites. It was the threat of the cultured and technologically advanced Philistines from the coastal region that welded the Hebrews and the Canaanites into one people. King David managed to restrict the Philistines to the coastal region where they remained till Roman times. The Canaanite language became known as Hebrew but the Israelite tribal traditions dominated the popular culture. Under David and Solomon the Israelites enjoyed a golden age with a mini-empire but the bigger powers to the south and east often subsequently invaded the land. Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans successively dominated them.

The Jewish population of Palestine was almost exterminated by Roman massacres following uprisings in 70 and 135CE. The Romans forbade Jews to re-enter Jerusalem except for once a year and repopulated the city with Graeco-Syrians from the surrounding area. They followed a policy of Hellenising Palestine except for Galilee where the Jewish presence remained strong. Small groups of Jewish people remained in the land through the centuries of successive domination by various empires - Byzantine, Arab, Seljuk, Crusader, Mamluk, Ottoman. The Palestinian people have the blood of all these people coursing through their veins just as the Jewish people have fusion of Aramaean and Canaanite origins along with some other ethnic influences from the time of the Hittite empire and the many foreign wives of Solomon. At the beginning of the 20th century Jewish people comprised only about 5-10% of the population of Ottoman-ruled Palestine. It was overwhelmingly inhabited by Arab people mostly Muslim but including Samaritans, Christians and Druzes.

At the end of the 19th century the Zionist movement began in Eastern Europe following pogroms against the Jews in Russia. The movement was organised principally by the Hungarian Jewish lawyer and journalist Theodore Herzl after the 1894 Dreyfus case in France. This movement among Jews advocated the founding of a homeland where Jews could be safe. Places in South America and Africa were considered but eventually Palestine was chosen as the preferred site. Zionism was originally a secular movement and was opposed by many conservative religious Jews. Over the years Zionism came to have various versions - some involving a simple sanctuary within historic Palestine, and others with a more aggressive agenda to pursue a Jewish state in at least the whole of Palestine and if necessary the expulsion of the non-Jewish population. It must be said that not every Jewish person accepts Zionist ideology and Judaism is not necessarily dependent on the existence of the state of Israel.

It was World War I (1914-18) that dramatically altered the situation of the Holy Land and opened the way for an eventual Jewish state in Palestine. The Ottoman Empire crumbled when Turkey was defeated along with Germany. Britain stepped into the political vacuum. From the time of the Napoleonic Wars Britain had developed a political and religious interest in the Holy Land. The political interest was to develop a shorter, direct route to India. This was achieved through the opening of the Suez Canal in 1875. The religious interest came via the evangelical revival of 19th century which looked forward to the Second Coming of Christ. This event would be preceded by the conversion of the Jews to Christianity and it was felt that a requisite for this was the return of the Jews to the Holy Land. This led to the founding of missionary societies for the conversion of the Jews to Christianity and the establishment of an Anglican bishopric in Jerusalem. British religious, political and colonial motives worked through the 19th century to facilitate the Jewish settlement in Palestine. They coincided with the Zionist movement among Jews.

To undermine the Ottoman Empire during the war the British had made contact with the Arab tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. In 1915 in return for Arab attacks on the Turkish forces the British promised an Arab state in the post-war dispensation.

The Zionist movement had also established contact with the British government. This brought about the Balfour declaration of 1917, which promised a Jewish homeland when Palestine became a British mandate. However at the end of the war when Britain and France divided the area between them these promises were put aside. Palestine became part of the British Mandate.

However more and more Jewish settlers began to arrive particularly in the 1930s as Jews began to be persecuted in Germany. Under Zionist ideology and British indulgence the settlers formed very self-contained and enclosed communities, refusing to adapt to local customs, even to the point of having their own courts. Conflicts grew with the local Arab population. During World War II Zionist guerrilla groups began to attack the British administration.

Britain became tired of the struggle in Palestine. After WWII as the Empire began to be dismantled Britain handed the problem to the newly formed United Nations. A commission was appointed to study the question and draw up a solution. By this time the Jewish population had reached 30% of the total. They owned about 6 to 8% of the land. In only one or two areas of the region had they become a majority. The UN commission was driven by the powerful US lobby and gave 55% of the territory of the Palestinians to Israel. Jerusalem and Bethlehem were to have a special international status because of their importance to the three Abrahamic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The Arabs refused to accept this solution as fair. In practice neither did the Zionist settlers. Zionist groups had armed themselves to ensure they would be able to claim and defend the land given to them and to grasp whatever else they could of what had been put aside for the Arab population. On the 14th of May 1948 as the last British soldiers were departing the new state of Israel was proclaimed. Zionist forces had occupied large chunks of territory designated for the proposed Arab state as well as parts of Jerusalem intended for international administration. There were already 300,000 Arab refugees.

The Palestinian Arab leadership was weak, ineffective and absent. They had not foreseen the need to have a standing army. The surrounding Arab nations were also taken by surprise and did not have the resources or arms ready for an adequate response. They presumed that the simple threat of their advance into Palestine would bring an international intervention on behalf of the Palestinian Arabs. This did not eventuate. Arab forces did enter Palestine on the 15th of May and helped to slow the Zionist advance but they were naively commanded and between ceasefires were pushed out by the Israeli forces. Most of the fighting pre-15th May was done by Arab villagers with antiquated weaponry but without communications nor co-ordination. A key part of the Zionist strategy was to drive out the Arab population and following the massacre in early April of some 248 people in the village of Deir Yassin (18 miles outside the borders of the proposed state of Israel) many of the Arab population fled or were forced out. About 800,000 became refugees in the surrounding nations of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. At the end of the war the Israeli forces had 78% of the land of Palestine. The remaining 22% was on what became known as the West Bank (of the Jordan) and the Gaza strip. The West Bank was later annexed to the neighbouring state of Jordan.

The Arab nations surrounding Israel did not accept the expulsion of the Palestinians. There were wars in 1956, 1967 and 1973. In the 1967 war the Jewish forces managed to take control of East Jerusalem and the West Bank and Gaza. They have never relinquished control of these areas.

Jewish settlements began to be established in the Palestinian territories. This brought much anger from the Palestinians who saw continued loss of land and resources as the new settlements took most of the water for themselves. The Palestinian group internationally recognised as representing the Palestinians is the PLO which was established in 1964. In 1993 through the Oslo agreements the PLO accepted the right of Israel to exist. They did this on the basis of accepting political reality but also in the hope of getting in return the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

The Oslo agreements were to be a step-by-step withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian territories and the setting up of a form of Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and Gaza under the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat. The problem was the Israeli withdrawal did not take place and that the building of settlements continued. In fact the number of settlers seems to have doubled between 1993-2000. This brought great anger among the Palestinians. When the final negotiations failed at Camp David in 2000 it did not take much for this rage to be triggered into a renewed intifada (an uprising - literally a shaking off).

This intifada continues until now. It has brought a renewed Israeli occupation and control of the Palestinian territories. Curfews, roadblocks and passes restrict the Palestinians to work, trade, study and live. Their economy has gone into reverse, malnutrition is growing and so is their anger. Some groups and individuals resort to making suicide-bomb attacks on Israelis. These too are criminal attacks but given the situation of hopelessness and collapse of dreams experienced by the Palestinians who see every avenue of legitimate protest being stifled, the wonder is that there is not more of these attacks. It is worth noting that in the 2 years of the present intifada 3 times as many Palestinians have been killed as Israelis. They feel their lives are not counted as worthwhile. And while the US and Britain are prepared to go to war with Iraq over unfulfilled UN resolutions no one has suggested such action over the hundreds of UN resolutions that Israel has ignored. There is an international blindness and culpability here.

Much of the Church's Social Teaching is expressed in human rights language, not just because it is a contemporary jargon but because the Church believes that human beings carry with them an intrinsic, God-given dignity. The protection of human rights and the negotiation of international conflicts need to be mediated through legitimate international authorities. The Church sees the UN as such a body and that in so far as its rulings are just then its rulings and decisions should be followed. The UN's resolutions on the establishment of the state of Israel, about withdrawal from the West Bank and the return of refugees are central planks of a fair and just settlement. Human beings are ineradicably social beings. Human rights apply not just to the individual but to beings-in-society. The right of life, home, a culture, freedom of speech and movement are applied to peoples as well as individuals. The right to live in security and to respect and safety as a nation is legitimately safeguarded by what is known as a nation-state.

The Arabs of Palestine were promised a state of their own by a legitimate authority (the UN in 1947). The fact that this promise has never been seen through is a stain on the UN's history in the region. In fact, the Palestinian people are now prepared to accept a much-reduced state. A real basis for a solution to the conflict is for Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian territories, to stop building settlements in those territories and to allow the return of refugees.

There remain of course many complexities in the situation, in particular the support given to Israel by the US; Muslim sensibilities and other religious elements. Sometimes it seems two incompatible claims have been made for the area that is covered by Israel and the Palestinian territories. On one side, that Israel has no right to exist and should be eradicated. The other that the land of Israel from the sea to at least the Jordan River was give by God to the Jewish people and no one else has a right to it. Curiously at the beginning of the Zionist movement many of the most conservative Jews opposed the establishment of a state of Israel as they felt it was presumptuous for humans to try to achieve what is was for God to achieve. This is not now held by the conservative Jews within Israel. In fact Zionism began as a secular movement, but the secular desire for power and the religious belief in the extent of biblical Israel have driven much of Israeli policy. On the Arab side there has generally been an acceptance that Israel is here to stay even if there is ongoing anger over its treatment of the Palestinians.

Complicating the scene is the heavy support that Israel gets from the US government and wealthy individuals in the US. The US has supported Israel as a bulwark of Western interests in the Middle East region. It is the biggest recipient of US aid in the world. During the Cold War this was partly to counter the Soviet influence in the neighbouring Arab countries but it also involved acting as a base to watch over oil interests in the region. This support has been constant under all US administrations and because of that the US is a key player in any settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. But it is not a neutral one in terms of its ongoing financing and arming of Israel. The early Jewish settlers obviously felt they had to be strong to stand up to the threat from hostile neighbouring Arab countries. But the state of Israel now has the strongest defences in the region including extensive nuclear capacity. It has more than enough ability to defend itself.

Some paint this conflict in religious terms: it is the Muslim world trying to destroy the legitimate right of the Jewish people to their own land. Thus Muslims should be opposed because every people has a right to sovereignty and because Israel assists Western (Christian) interests. It is worth noting that Christian Palestinians also support the cause of Palestinian self-determination. In other words it is a question of national rights not of religious domination. There is another aspect to the religious question though and that is the unconditional support that some Christian groups give to Israel because they believe that only when all Jews return to Israel will the prophesies be fulfilled allowing the return of the Messiah. Once that happens the end of the world can come and the saved be taken into heaven.

In the midst of all the politics, are the ordinary Palestinian people, cooped up in the Gaza Strip, under curfew in Ramallah, in a refugee camp in Jenin or exiled in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. They are trapped, humiliated, and hunted. Like Claudette and Ahmed, they dream of returning, and long to live in dignity, and to give their children a secure future. They remember what was promised to them by the UN in 1948, and what they ended up with. They know where their villages, olive groves, and orange plantations once stood. They live daily with the further losses of 1967 and they see the continuing building of settlements on their land. Their position is weak in terms of military might.