The Holy Land is precious to North American Christians, but it is also highly confusing. Unlike believers who live in the region, we find it difficult to comprehend the wedge of resentment between Palestinians and Israeli Jews. Peace accords seem to last only through the ceremonies at which they are announced, and televised images of bloodshed terrify us. Retaliation after retaliation, we wonder if it will take the Second Coming to end the violence in the Holy Land. It may be impossible to evaluate the situation in a purely objective manner. But those immersed in the conflict can give us insight into the issues that plague the land that holds so much sacred history.
The following account comes from Palestinian Christian and human-rights lawyer Jonathan Kuttab, who moved his law practice from Wall Street to Jerusalem 20 years ago.
Many Christians and others concerned about peace in the Middle East lament the breakdown of the peace process and the recent outbursts of violence. We correctly fear that widening hostility, with overtones of religious warfare and animosity on a worldwide scale, will take over the entire region.
Yet in mourning the collapse of the peace process, we need to understand the situation preceding Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount on September 28. It is simply too easy to blame Sharon for igniting the powder keg, or to blame Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for not doing enough to contain the protests. Instead, we need to ask, What was going on that ignited so much anger and frustration?
During recent years, the sequence that began with such high hopes for an end to occupation and a historical reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians had quietly degenerated into a "process." Since its beginning in the Oslo I Agreement in 1993, the peace process had developed a life of its own; focusing on the process allowed, and even legitimized, Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. The process became the defining feature of Middle East politics and "the only game in town."
Activists and church groups reduced their involvement and left matters to the politicians. They declined to boycott settlement products and activities for fear that their protest might upset the peace process. The process determined the way people judged movements, individuals, and events. Authorities dismissed perfectly good ideas and valid actions as "not helpful to the peace process," while excusing truly objectionable behavior in the interest of maintaining the process.
The High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Convention balked at an attempt to convene an international conference to deal specifically with their responsibility toward Israel's continuing violation of the Geneva Convention. U.N. security forces also refused intervention when Israel clearly violated international laws. It seemed as if international laws, morality, and U.N. resolutions ceased to be reference points, giving way to the Oslo Accords. The realpolitik of the peace process drowned voices calling for justice and genuine reconciliation.
The Oslo Agreements were a great first step, but their vagueness tripped up the negotiations that followed. The process mandated a five-year interim during which negotiations for permanent status would be carried out. Whether it was deliberate from the beginning (as detractors alleged) or whether it was a subsequent development, there is no question that the process did nothing to end the Israeli occupation, dismantle Israeli settlements, or address the needs of the Palestinian people such as statehood and return of the refugees.
To the contrary, the Oslo accords birthed a strange alliance between the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian leadership. The process seemed to groom the Palestinian leadership for a secondary role of controlling its own population on behalf of the occupation, not for statehood and sovereignty. It appeared that Israel intended to dole out symbols of sovereignty to the Palestinian leaders only as rewards for serving Israel's security.
The complex mechanics of the process involved dividing the occupied territories into three categories of jurisdiction. Area A consisted of the heavily populated centers of the Palestinian towns, which Oslo I required the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) to administer. But the Israeli forces still controlled travel, economy, water sources, and legislation in these areas.
Area B consisted of the villages in the West Bank and Gaza, with the PNA having civil control and the Israelis retaining security control.
Area C contained the Israeli settlements, military installations, and "everything else"—about 70 percent of the West Bank at the time—which remained under full direct Israeli control. The peace accord called for more of the West Bank to be turned from Area C to B, and then to A, over time, in order for these areas eventually to come within the control of the PNA.
Status quo: Israeli occupation
The process also entailed making agreements about how these territories were to be turned over to gradual Palestinian control. But since Israel controlled the land, it also dominated the negotiations. In the absence of any rules, laws, or a reference point, internal Israeli politics became the most important element in determining the pace of turning over the territories (from Area C to B and from Area B to A). Average Israelis felt they were making concessions every time they turned over properties, and such steps increasingly became unpopular and politically costly for Israeli leaders.
On the other hand, average Palestinians were frustrated by the slowness of the process, and felt little improvement in their daily lot, even in the areas that were turned over to the PNA. Israeli concerns, including security and settlements, remained under exclusive Israeli authority. Not so with issues of interest to Palestinians: Matters of Palestinian refugees, Palestinian statehood, an end to Israeli settlements, and Jerusalem were hostage to a large number of joint committees in which Israel had veto power. Progress or action on even minor peripheral matters required Israeli cooperation, which often was seemingly withheld at whim.
Just to maintain normal operations, the PNA had to bow to Israeli wishes and demands repeatedly. Israel collected the revenues and customs, controlled imports and exports, controlled movement from and within the territories, and monopolized the economy. Gradually, the PNA ended up playing the role of a stooge for the occupation. Its own inefficiency and corruption (conveniently ignored by Israel and the United States) did not help its credibility.
In addition, the process had no mechanism for enforcing the Oslo agreements, or for meaningfully resolving disputes and disagreements. The parties were supposed to agree, and if they failed, they could (but only if they both agreed to do so) ask the U.S. for help in resolving disputes. The plan failed to discuss arbitration, the role of international or u.n. law, or outside third-party intervention. This meant that the more powerful party, the one with control on the ground, ran the process. The weaker party, while bound by unbalanced agreements, had no recourse if the stronger party failed to carry them out or desired to change agreements.
It was to its own demise that the peace process left for later discussion the most crucial issues for the Palestinians: the return of Palestinian refugees, the control of Jerusalem, the fate of Israeli settlements, and final borders. In the absence of such provisions, Israel continued to build and expand its settlements, to prevent Palestinian refugees from returning, to exercise illegal sovereignty over East Jerusalem, and to transform its demographic and physical character.
In other words, Israel carried on with the occupation. The Israelis asserted that the Oslo Agreements did not forbid their continued expansion during the peace process, and they viewed Palestinian protests as violations of the agreements. Palestinians, for their part, feared that postponement meant forgetting issues that mattered to them, since the status quo could only be changed by mutual agreement, and everyone knew where Israel, the stronger party, stood on these issues.
Certain Israeli leaders hoped, and Palestinians feared, that the intermediate agreement would formally become the final settlement. A quick look at the map—almost never shown on U.S. television or newspapers—explains those fears. The West Bank appears as a collection of disjointed areas, surrounded by Israeli settlements and their bypass roads, with Israel maintaining access to the outside. Movement toward statehood depended on Israeli acquiescence. Failure to agree, it became clear, simply maintained the status quo.
Breaking the camel's back
The marathon talks at Camp David last year attempted to hammer out a final solution. Yet the negotiations took place within the same flawed framework as the rest of the Oslo process. True, Israel reportedly agreed to transfer further portions of Area C to the Palestinian authority, and the talks even discussed the fate of Jerusalem. But Israel insisted that Arafat publicly declare the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at an end and that the Palestinian people make no further claims or demands. When Arafat balked at this, he was told to be grateful because the Israeli offer was all he was going to get. He then decided he had no option but to say no.
Many were surprised by Arafat's response. For seven long years, and at every juncture in this drawn-out process, his options were either to submit to Israeli dictates or to stand his ground and watch the negotiations come to a halt. Since he chose to say no, the process came to an end.
Israel asserted that in the absence of an agreement, it was satisfied with the status quo and would execute its authority to the fullest. If Israeli sovereignty over the Muslim shrines in Jerusalem was a problem for Arafat—the Israelis seemed to reason—we'll show him who is really sovereign there. It was precisely in this context that Sharon visited the Al-Aqsa mosque with a heavy army presence. The provocation aroused Palestinian anger and announced the death of the already stalemated peace process. And when the Palestinians rejected the frenzied attempts to resurrect the process by merely renewing "security cooperation," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced that he no longer had "a peace partner," implying that the two nations had nothing to discuss if Arafat was no longer willing to play the role set for him in the peace game.
Where do we go from here? It is clear that the two nations cannot return to the Oslo process. Arafat can no longer allow himself to play the role of a puppet for the Israeli occupation. Furthermore, the Israelis can no longer trust him in that role after his own police and members of the radical Fatah movement used their weapons against Israeli settlers and soldiers.
The use of weapons by Palestinians—Israelis had always used weapons—introduces a further complication. Given Israel's overwhelming military strength, and its doctrine of disproportionate response, the situation poses danger of a world war. The massive response of the Arab and Muslim people makes it difficult for their leaders to do nothing if the situation continues to deteriorate.
But because crisis produces opportunity, this crisis creates a great occasion to pray and work for justice and for peace.
Be sure to read Christianity Today's related timeline "Conflict in the Holy Land | A timeline of trials for the most contested piece of real estate in the world."
The Israel, Palestine, Jordan Confederation provides links to historic agreements like the Oslo Accords and the Wye River Memorandum.
View a map of territories in the Oslo Agreements through 1999.
Visit the official homepage of the Palestinian National Authority.
Read more about Ariel Sharon and his role in the current conflict at CNN.com. You can also learn more about Yassar Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin.
Previous Christianity Today stories about conflict in Israel and Palestine include:
Christmas in Palestine: Hunger and War | Starvation threatens Palestinian villages if U.N. aid continues to be delayed, Vatican official warns. (Dec. 13, 2000)
Between the Temple Mount and a Hard Place | Palestinian Christians want both peace in their villages and justice for their Muslim brothers. (Dec. 5, 2000)
Lutheran Bishop's Appeal from Jerusalem | Religious leader's letter requests prayer for Christians, Jews, and Palestinians in troubled region. (Nov. 10, 2000)
Latin Patriarch tells Israel to Surrender Lands to Palestinians | Catholic leader says Israel will never have peace unless it "converts all of its neighbors to friends." (Nov. 1, 2000)
Fighting Engulfs a Christian Hospital in Jerusalem | Lutherans call conflict on their hospital grounds "an affront" to humanitarian purposes. (Oct. 16, 2000)
Preparing for Pilgrims | Religious rivalry complicates millennial planning. (June 14, 1999)
How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend | (October 5, 1998)
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