5th Sunday of Easter year C

Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories

I’d like you to imagine you are living in a country where over half the people are unemployed.   Where almost three quarters of the population are subsisting on less than £35 a month – just over £1 a day.   Where malnutrition affects one child in every ten.   If you are a farmer, there is a constant risk that your land may be confiscated, or that you may be shot if you try to harvest your crops.   Roads are often blocked, and you have to pass through military checkpoints to make even the simplest of journeys.


This is not Stalinist Russia, nor South Africa under apartheid.   It is the reality of life in Palestine today.   As you may have seen in news reports, many Palestinians are now living under the shadow of a new form of partition:   a security wall and fence – eight metres high, the height of a house – which will separate the West Bank from Israel.   This, according to some Palestinians, will create the world’s largest open-air prison.


On the other side of the wall, of course, life for the Jewish people remains anything but secure.   Numerous families and communities have suffered from the effects of the two intifadas , or Palestinian uprisings.   Suicide bombings remain a constant threat in many parts of Israel.  


I was prompted to speak today about the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories by a conference I attended in Chesterfield two weeks ago, organised under the auspices of the Diocesan Council for Mission and Unity.   At that conference we heard two very powerful addresses by speakers who have first-hand knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:


(i)            Youssef Hajjar, who was originally from Syria, spoke about the determination of all the main political parties in Israel to create and consolidate what he called “Greater Israel”, a state extending from the Jordan Valley to the Mediterranean Sea.   He described the enormous imbalances in economic, political and military power between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the powerful influence which the pro-Israeli lobby exercises on the media in the USA and UK.   Youssef Hajjar acknowledged that the Palestinian Authority had not been effective –   indeed, it has been widely criticised for being corrupt and failing to control the suicide bombers.   He said, though, that if it had had more time to establish itself before the second intifada broke out, it might have been more successful.


(ii)           Angela O’Donoghue, from Sheffield, had recently spent three months in the occupied Palestinian territories as a member of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme.   This is an initiative, supported by various churches, which monitors human rights in Israel and Palestine.   Angela described the effects of the Israeli occupation in graphic terms, saying that it bred extremism and violence. It dehumanised the occupiers as well as the occupied. The military checkpoints restricted access to health care and education, and could make family visits difficult.   Frequent curfews were another great restriction on the lives of Palestinian people. She quoted a woman who asked how it was possible to raise one's children ethically, in view of the oppression of the Palestinian people.  “How can you teach children to act in a civilised way”, she said, “if they see their father being humiliated at a checkpoint?”


At the conference, most of what we heard was from the Palestinian perspective.   I mentioned earlier the very real anxieties and fears of many of the Israeli people, caused by the violence of recent years.   It is of course important to hold both perspectives in balance.   But as we try to understand the Israel-Palestinian conflict,   it is important to remember that it is, at its heart, a struggle over land and resources.   Both sides argue that they have a historic right to the contested territory; both sides’ positions are reinforced by powerful ideological and religious beliefs. The desire by the Israeli people for a secure Jewish state arose after many centuries of being scattered throughout Europe and further afield, culminating in the massive influx of refugees into Israel following the Holocaust.   The Jewish right to such a state is, however, understandably contested by Palestinians who have made the land their own over a period of some two thousand years.


The speakers at the Chesterfield conference were not optimistic.   They saw an hardening of attitudes on both sides.   The Israeli government was pushing ahead with policies designed to impoverish Palestinians by means of restrictions on their exports, limits on access to water, and the continued development of illegal settlements on the West Bank.   Last month the United Nations had to suspend food aid to Gaza, as a result of Israeli restrictions – this could cause 600,000 people to face hunger. The latest policy announcement on the occupied territories by Prime Minister Sharon, endorsed by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, will make compromise and co-existence increasingly unlikely, and reinforce the oppression of Palestinians.   The Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies at the root of much of the tension between Islam and the West; the longer it persists, the less likely it is that other related conflicts will be resolved.


It is difficult to know what difference ordinary people in countries such as our own can make, in the face of such entrenched positions and ancient animosities.   We must not lose hope, though, that the combined effects of people of goodwill around the world may eventually sway the decision-makers.   Remember how intractable apartheid in South Africa seemed to be, and how unbending the Iron Curtain appeared.   Yet both of these disintegrated with astonishing speed when the right conditions were put in place.   In both cases the Church played a crucial role both in confronting oppression and helping to put new political structures in place.


The first step to take is to inform ourselves.   The regular news reports which focus on the violence must not blind us to the underlying causes of the conflict, and to the humanitarian crisis which has resulted.   We must not forget that there are around 100,000 Palestinian Christians; this is not just a conflict between Jew and Arab.  Those of you who are on the internet can learn more about the conflict by visiting the new Derby Diocese World Development Forum website – www.ddwdf.org .   On that site you can read a report of the Chesterfield conference, and follow links to other resources.   You can comment on the conference report by means of a ‘discussion area’; there are also suggestions for letters to your MP and the government.


In our own immediate area, we need to do all we can to increase mutual understanding between ourselves and those of other faiths.   There is a large Muslim community in Derby, and we are currently launching the Derby inter-faith forum.


But finally – we must pray.   The division of Jerusalem, the Holy City for Jew, Muslim and Christian, in many ways epitomises the enduring wounds which have set the three great monotheistic faiths against one another.   We should therefore pray for the peace of Jerusalem; but also, of course, for the peace of the entire Middle East.   The New Jerusalem which is described in the book of Revelation must not be just a utopian vision.   It should, rather, be a symbol of all that reconciles, builds up, and puts past hostilities behind us, as we trust that the love and justice that come from God will ultimately prevail over human fear and vengefulness.