The Common Good
September-October 2001

Against Impossible Odds

by Jim Wallis | September-October 2001

You wouldn't know it from media reports, but there's a hopeful movement being born in the Middle East—interfaith, rooted in nonviolence, and containing the seeds of a just peace. ...

I arrived at the Tel Aviv airport and after clearing customs rode the 35 miles to Jerusalem, where I would attend an international peace conference convened by the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. Everywhere I looked were enormous Israeli settlements, always on the highest ground, with the most modern, first-world living conditions anywhere, towering over the much-poorer Palestinian villages down in the valleys.

I saw on this trip how Israeli settlements loom over the West Bank and Gaza-and likewise loom over the chances for peace in the Middle East. They are the "facts on the ground" that shape virtually everything about Middle East politics today. Long before he became prime minister, Ariel Sharon controlled the future as the chief architect of the settlement policy. Settlements are aggressive forays into Palestinian territory by people who believe that God has given them all the land. Each one makes lasting peace that much more difficult. It's obvious now that this was the intent of the policy from the beginning.

Many of the settlers are American Jewish immigrants to Israel. Picture an SUV pulling up alongside a Palestinian family whose roots go back 10 generations. An American Jew from New York City, here only two weeks, screams at the Palestinian family: "Get off this land! God gave it to us!" With the settlements policy, that's now happening. Israeli soldiers are in the West Bank and Gaza not to keep law and order, not to protect Palestinians from violence or crime-but only to protect the settlements and the settlers. Control the roads, control movement, control the daily life of the entire Palestinian population-that's the settlements policy.

Most people in the Middle East and elsewhere have accepted the logic of a two-state solution and the formula of land for peace. But after days of watching, listening, and talking to both Palestinians and Israelis, I began to feel that the Oslo process lulled many of us to sleep. Oslo turned a Palestinian liberation struggle into a "peace process." Jean Zaru, a Quaker leader in the Middle East, says, "Oslo became the structure for our domination."

The more I saw, the more it reminded me of apartheid South Africa. There is no contiguous Palestinian territory in the West Bank or Gaza, no such thing as a Palestinian state nor one in the making. There are only pieces of Palestinian territory, with Israel controlling everything in between.

Rabbi Michael Lerner says the situation is as if somebody took your house away (the way Israel took Palestinian land in the 1967 war), and then says they'll give you parts of your house back (in the Oslo accords). But they still control the hallways and the bathrooms! Palestinians can't get from one bedroom to another without going through a hallway controlled by the Israelis. As long as the settlements remain, the only possibility is disconnected territories housing the Palestinian workers who service the Israeli state.

The Israeli policy is called closure. Everything gets closed down in the West Bank and Gaza, and Palestinians are not allowed to move freely-to go to school, to work, or even to visit family. All Palestinians are required to have permits and pass through interminable checkpoints. Our group was stopped at every checkpoint, even though we were an international delegation in large buses. We had some clout and were no threat to the Israelis, and they still held us up for hours. If you are a Palestinian, you wait. And you wait. I heard many stories-for example, of a woman in labor, stopped at a checkpoint on the way to the hospital. She was forced to deliver her baby in the back seat of her car, waiting at the checkpoint. The soldiers ordered her outside the car, where she collapsed on the ground in utter exhaustion, with the umbilical cord still attaching her to her baby, while Israeli soldiers laughed. In July, another baby born at an Israeli checkpoint died before reaching the hospital. These women experienced the extreme of the type of indignities visited on Palestinians every day.

ONE OF THE MOST passionate and visible critics of the closure policy is Israeli journalist Amira Hass. When I met her, she admitted to being "obsessed" with her government's practice. She, like many other Jews both in Israel and America, believe the policies of settlements and closure are as morally damaging to the Israelis as they are oppressive to the Palestinians. Hass describes the closure policy as "the theft of spontaneity."

If you were an activist in apartheid-era South Africa, you could be pulled out of bed in the middle of the night and killed. But ordinary South Africans, though poor and oppressed, could still visit their mothers or join their buddies to play soccer, and generally they were able to move freely around the country. Palestinians, however, can't just wake up in the morning and decide to go visit a friend, or end the day by going to see the sunset at the water's edge. The theft of spontaneity. Jean Zaru told me she hadn't worked with her assistant face to face for three months, because they couldn't get in the same room at the same time. It was easier for international visitors to come to the Sabeel conference in Jerusalem than for local Palestinians to get there from their own villages and cities.

There is indeed Palestinian violence against Israeli settlements. Shootings and even mortar shells have been aimed into them. Some people have been killed, and the fear is very high. There have been casualties even among Israeli children. Two 14-year-old boys were found dead in a cave near their settlement, their bodies battered and mutilated with rocks, killed by Palestinians. And we've seen the results of suicide bombers, including at a Tel Aviv disco. In my opinion, attacks against civilian populations are terrorism. Such terror can never be justified. Never.

But the Israelis use such incidents to justify shelling Palestinians in massive, disproportionate retaliation. They've even resorted to bombing Palestinian targets with F-16 fighter planes. The casualties are enormous, including Palestinian children and infants caught in the middle of attacks against civilians that must also be called terrorist.

The Israeli army is shelling the most exposed houses in Palestinian villages directly from the settlements, knowing they're attacking unarmed civilians with families and children. I went into Palestinian homes that had been shelled, met the families. In one I saw the huge shell hole in the wall of the children's bedroom. The kids were scared that night, cowering in their parents' room down the hall, or they surely would have been killed.

By the end of June, 558 people had been killed in the current wave of violence-78 percent of them Palestinians (92 percent of those injured are Palestinians). More than 100 children under the age of 17 had died-86 Palestinian children, and 18 Israeli children. In a very moving moment at the start of the Sabeel conference, we named each victim of the violence, from all sides. Every individual life counts in God's eyes.

Movements are responsible for the images they project. When the Israeli military shot and killed 12-year-old Mohammed Dura in his father's arms as they cowered in fear against a wall in Gaza, the powerful images went around the world. But three days later, two Israeli soldiers were captured and lynched by angry Palestinians in the city of Ramallah in the West Bank. The image flashed around the world was that of bloody hands raised by an angry Palestinian mob over the lynched soldiers' mutilated bodies. If the images from Birmingham and Selma had been dead cops, we wouldn't have won the civil rights struggle in America.

There is no "symmetry" in the violence of the Middle East today. Israeli violence is enormously disproportionate to Palestinian violence. That includes the violence of the settlements and closure policies themselves and the Israeli military practices, especially in their retaliation against Palestinian attacks. Despite this lack of proportionality, there is no moral or strategic justification for the Palestinian violence in response to Israeli domination, especially when it targets civilians. No argument, even lack of symmetry, will suffice.

THE GOOD NEWS in the Middle East today is that voices are emerging to call for nonviolence. New conversation is occurring in the Middle East, the United States, and Europe in support of a nonviolence campaign to redress the injustice of the current deadlock. It is far too early to say whether such discussions will lead to significant action that might make a difference for peace. But at least the right questions are beginning to be discussed. A growing number of people and organizations are committing to nonviolence. They are the signs of hope now.

I visited the Christian Peacemaker Team in Hebron, one of the most conflicted areas in the West Bank. The Jewish settlements are actually inside the city of Hebron, so there are street confrontations nearly every day. The only force between the warring factions is the CPT, which consists mostly of Americans and Canadians. Days are spent offering presence, relationship, and accompaniment for those who need it. For example, a group of Palestinians were on their way to the mosque for worship, and Israeli soldiers stood in their way. The Muslims went to their knees to pray, refusing to disperse, and the Israelis trained their guns, apparently about to open fire on an unarmed crowd. A 23-year-old American woman and a young man from Canada, both from the CPT team, jumped in front of the soldiers with their arms spread, and said, "Please, these are unarmed people, do not shoot them!" That stopped the soldiers from shooting, but they put the two CPTers in jail for the night. When they came back to the city, people said "it was like welcoming Jesus" because they had saved countless lives.

The Christian Peacemaker Team is both a heroic and practical project of nonviolence in the Middle East, but it's very, very small. Expanding the CPT style of presence in several other areas is one idea under discussion.

Discussions are also underway about sending interfaith teams-Christian, Jewish, and Muslim-to the Middle East in large and small numbers, both for critical moments and situations as well as for long-term presence. What came to mind for me were invitations from South African anti-apartheid leaders asking many of us to join them for crucial periods in their struggle, and Witness for Peace in Nicaragua, which sent more than 5,000 North Americans to conflicted war zones.

I was most impressed with people-Palestinian and Israeli-who hadn't given up on peace. The peacemaking conference was sponsored and attended by some of the most committed and influential Palestinian activists for peace, many of them Christians. I also spent time with Jewish peace activists who made a deep impression on me. One, Jeff Halper, of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, has done things like lay in front of bulldozers that are about to run over Palestinian houses. Halper helped me understand Jewish feelings today better than anybody I'd heard before.

Israel is strong, Halper said-the fifth largest military power in the world, economically dominant, deep in leadership cadres, healthy in civil society and culture. "But we don't know we're strong," Halper said. "We still believe we are victims. As long as you believe you're a victim, you are not accountable." Israelis do not feel accountable for what they are doing to Palestinians because they believe they are still victims. As victims they must defend themselves whatever the cost, whatever the consequences.

Nonviolence must address what's happening to Jewish souls as well. Not surprising, spousal abuse is at an all-time high among the Israeli population. Jewish therapists say that they're treating many young men who scream at night, unable to sleep because of what they did to Palestinian children. Any movement for nonviolence aims at the souls of all those in conflict.

WE HAVE TO TURN from an ineffectual peace process to an effective peace strategy. The Jerusalem conference created real solidarity for the Palestinian situation. But solidarity is not the same thing as strategy. It's time to move from solidarity to strategy. Most at the conference believed the most effective strategy would focus on the settlements and on ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. A parallel nonviolence movement in the Middle East and in the United States is needed. We cannot call for nonviolence in the Middle East unless we are prepared to enter into nonviolent campaigns on our own turf as well.

Christian Palestinians make up 2 percent of the population, and a nonviolence movement seen to be coming mostly from the Christians will feel like a Western movement to the Muslim Palestinians. There are also Muslims who believe in nonviolence, who believe the Quran forbids the violence and terrorism that others use their faith to justify and defend. Any successful movement based in nonviolence will have to be Christian, Muslim, and Jewish.

There are new hopeful signs of that, both in the Middle East and internationally. We are beginning to see a coming together of people and organizations in the United States for a new nonviolence campaign. Jews United for a Just Peace, or "Junity," had its first conference in May. A new effort, Olive Tree Summer, sent North American Jews and others to the Middle East this summer for a series of high-profile protest activities.

I was most lifted up by the tremendous determination of my Palestinian friends who persevere in the midst of an almost impossible daily situation. Their energy, their faith, their passion, and their determination deeply impressed me. But they know that they can't win by themselves. It will take an international movement to press for a just and lasting solution.

While Middle East leaders and American politicians debate timetables for cease-fires and cooling off periods-all very important-momentum has to build for an end to the violence and for a just peace. We have friends, both Palestinian and Israeli, who are putting their lives on the line for that kind of peace. We can't continue to let them suffer or struggle alone.

Jim Wallis is the editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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