Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Summary and Closing Thoughts

I have been back in the USA for about a week now and am getting settled back into my comfortable American life. As expected many of my friends and associates have asked me about how I felt about my time there and more specifically the solutions for peace. Frankly the solutions are less difficult to articulate than the path to them. While three months of relationship building with Palestinians and Israelis clearly does not make me an expert on the situation I, like millions of others, have an informed opinion. I want to close out my posts to this blog with a summary of my experience as an Ecumenical Accompanier in Palestine and Israel, and my observations on the potential for peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

My three month adventure was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I am incredibly thankful to my family and my business partners who took on added responsibility to allow me to take a mid-life pause. It was not easy on them and I feel blessed to have their support. As I reflect on my experience I find that I most value the opportunity to have made so many new friends and meet so many interesting people. I met people from all walks of life, including doctors, lawyers and other professional people, religious leaders, shopkeepers, laborers, goat herders, politicians, peace activists and just plain good people. It is these people that will be etched in my memory long after the images of the places and events I witnessed fad away. I would love to introduce you to all of them but there are so many that I would need to write a book to tell all their stories. While Israel/Palestine can be a depressing place that is filled with anger and tension rooted in the oppression of occupation, it is held together by people with the optimism that a better day is possible. Many have dedicated their lives to that effort. They are the ones who give me hope for a just peace.

I found the Palestinians, almost to a person, to be genuinely warm, congenial people. They have a pervasive culture of hospitality that is disarming and humbling. They will readily share whatever they have and accept you as a friend until proven otherwise. While I found Israelis to be much more guarded and wary as a rule, I found many among them who are as warm and inviting as the Palestinians. I made many Israeli friends and find that they have more in common with their Palestinian neighbors than they realize. I was saddened by the fact that the crafters of the occupation have created a culture of demonization between these two wonderful groups of people that have so much shared history. Suspicion and fear is perpetuated by the very limited contact that takes place between Israelis and Palestinians. The social and physical barriers that have been erected over the last decade have only served to fuel the view of the other as demons who are some how less than human. I firmly believe that this, more than anything else is the barrier to peace. Peace must be rooted in one-to-one relationships that are built on a foundation of mutual respect and trust. I have seen these relationships develop and the power that they have. Goodwill is contagious and can overcome the fear that drives decision making on both sides today.

While I have worked very hard to understand both sides of this conflict I have found that at the end of the day it is an occupation not a bilateral conflict. It is easy to look back into history, point fingers and find rationales for actions both parties have taken that have escalated hostilities. Peace will not be formed or shared by those in the past. It will only benefit those in the present and future. It is with those people in mind, and with the current realities, that peace must be viewed. As long as people continue to justify their actions based on what happened in the past, the spiral of hatred will continue to escalate until we have the end of mankind in the form of nuclear war. A frightening graffiti on a wall in West Jerusalem that says, “War is forever” puts voice to the escalation. If war is forever, ultimately, mankind is not and that must give us pause

Some would argue that the conflict is a religious struggle. For the same reason I do not believe war is forever, I do not believe that Gods vision for his people includes escalating hatred and ongoing war. While I am a person of faith I also believe that God’s will is not ours to steer and that our call to be peacemakers and share the world God created for us trumps any efforts to see prophesy fulfilled. Those of any faith background who call on men to make decisions in the name of the fulfillment of the will of God, or call for “holy war” are acting out of human frailty and fear. As people of faith we are called to first love our neighbor as ourselves. This simple theme is common among all faith communities in the world. That fact alone should give us the clue that it is God’s highest expectation of all people on earth.

What is going on today is an oppressive and brutal occupation of the Palestinian people by the country of Israel. It is an ethnic cleansing initiative that is engineered to disposes the Palestinian people of their land and their dignity, in an effort to force them off of land that a Jewish religious minority believes to be the exclusive God given territory of the Jewish people. The fact that Palestinians have lived there as long, or longer than the Jews means nothing to these zealots. The harsh reality of today is that while it is clearly a one sided fight militarily, the Palestinian people have persevered. They are not, and will not leave. It is only because of the world’s indifference and the protection of the United States that the occupation has been allowed to plod on in a man made effort to fulfill prophesies. The increasingly brutal efforts of the Israelis to force the Palestinians out by demolishing their homes, restricting their movement with walls and checkpoints, bombing them, and generally making their live as miserable as possible, is not having the desired affect. The Palestinian population is growing. Perhaps that should be a sign that ethnic cleansing is not sanctioned by God as the perpetrators of these crimes have convinced themselves.

A significant driver of the Occupation is the historical oppression of the Jewish people. Like a battered child who grows up to become a child abuser, Israel is repeating history. They are doing to the Palestinians, what was done to their ancestors. I consider myself a Zionist. I believe in the need for a homeland for Jews to offer them a sanctuary of religious freedom. I believe in the right for Israel to be a religious state. I do not believe that right extends to the oppression of other indigenous people. While the occupation is an unjust dominance of the Palestinian people and should be ended based on that alone, it is also tearing at the fabric of Israeli society and the Jewish soul. For their own sake the people of Israel need to end the Occupation. It has spawned militarism within Jewish society leading to an acceptance of violence that is impacting family life and personal well being on a mass scale. The actions taken by young Israelis as a part of their required military service have called them to question the morality of their government and forced them to examine their own morality. This breakdown in the moral fabric of the society has lead to an escalation of the conflict and lead to an increasingly negative view of Israelis, isolating them as a member of the world community. I have personally witnessed the increasing impact of the occupation on both Israelis and Palestinians. For the sake of all of the people of the region and the world the Occupation must end.

So what does a peace settlement look like? In one of my very first posts here I introduced you to Gila Svirski, The Israeli peace activist who founded Women in Black over 20 years ago. I told you about her view of a just peace. Over these past three months I have talked with people of diverse views of the occupations, both the occupiers and the occupied. I have asked them what peace looks like to them and have found that Gila’s summary of the issues is representative of broadly held mainstream views on both side as to what a just peace looks like. The issues can be summarized into a few succinct areas.

Settlements - There are today 400,000 Jews living in illegal settlements in the West Bank, east of the green line. Of those 200,000 are in greater Jerusalem, including 30,000 in Ariel and another 30,000 in Mali Adumin. Clearly not all of these Jews can be relocated to Israel so there will need to be a land swap whereby Palestine would receive land that is currently part of Israel. This would require the relocation of about 200,000 settlers. Gila has a great idea for how to get them to move. Over a five year transition period you pay the settlers to relocate to Israel on a decreasing basis, i.e. full payment in year one decreasing to zero in year five. If after year five they choose to stay they are no longer Israeli citizens and they can become citizens of Palestine.

Jerusalem - The city of Jerusalem which is cherished by three religions needs to be shared, as it has for century's, and be the capital of both Israel (West Jerusalem) and Palestine (East Jerusalem). The best solution I have heard for this sharing is to make Jerusalem an “international city” similar to the Vatican. It would not be controlled by either Israel or Palestine but would be controlled by a unique international body formed to govern it under international law. The focus of governance would be religious freedom and equal rights for all inhabitants.

Refugees - In 1948 the Jews forced 700 thousand Palestinians into refugee camps in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Jordon and the West Bank. Since that time the Palestinians have continuously demanded a right to return to their homes under international law. Gila says this issue appears more difficult than it is. This issue has more to do with the acknowledgement of the injustice that was done to the Palestinians than their actual relocation after all these years. There are two components to the solution that she says is consistent with Middle Eastern culture where it is OK to say one thing and do another. The first step is the key which is to acknowledge the injustice and the right of return provided for under international law. A small number of Palestinians would become citizens of Israel based on family reunification needs. The remaining refugees would be made citizens of their host countries and paid reparations by Israel.

Water - Existing water resources need to be shared ratably by both countries and a major international investment in desalination plants needs to be made to assure water resources for both countries. Today Israel has gerrymandered the border in order to control both the water and tillable land. Palestine needs to get back the tillable land east of the green line and the water to produce crops on it.

As I said in my introduction, the solutions are less complex than the path to them. It has become clear to me that the two state solution whereby Israelis and Palestinians each have their own sovereign state on land they alone control is the only logical answer. The borders must be negotiated by the parties and agreed to by both sides and the peace agreement must be viewed by the Palestinians as just. There can be no peace without justice. Gaza has proven that “unilateral withdrawal” will not work. Israel can not define peace alone and the concept of ‘economic peace’ without justice simply will not work. Israel is in control of peace. Either they will formalize their occupation by making all of the West Bank and Gaza part of Israel and in keeping with the principals of democracy, give all the inhabitants equal rights and a vote, or they must negotiate with the elected leaders of the Palestinian people (including Hamas) to form an independent Palestinian state. The choice of a single state with equal rights for all would mean that it would have to be a secular state that respects religious freedom of all people because the Palestinian population is growing at a much faster rate than the Jews. Israel was founded on the principals of a religious Jewish homeland so this path would rock the very foundation of the State of Israel. It is for this reason that the two state solution is the only choice. Time, however, is running out. The increasing number of Israelis that would need to be relocated back into Israel from the Occupied Palestinian Territories makes the two state solution increasingly complicated to execute. This is exactly what these settlers who are the most fervent of the religious zealot minority that have driven the occupation to its current level, have been trying to accomplish.

The government of Israel does not have the will to make these decisions which is a major reason the Occupation has persisted. Israel’s international protector, the United States through President Obama must force Israel to make the hard decisions it must make to ensure its long term viability. Israel must have peace to survive. To get peace it must negotiate a just settlement with the Palestinians. A window of opportunity is now open. If those in the United States who have been looking to fulfill biblical prophesy through US foreign policy can be marginalized, peace is possible. President Obama must demand it as a condition of continued US support. I believe he has the understanding of the issues to execute a strategy that will lead to peace if Israel wants peace. If they make the decision that they do not want peace, our country must discontinue its tacit support of the Occupation and join the rest of the world in its condemnation of Israel for continuing it.

It is in the genuine interest of the United States and the world to see a just peace in the very near future. Ongoing conflict between the Arab and Western worlds will continue to escalate in the absence of peace between the Israeli’s and Palestinians. All of the terror groups that have threatened world peace have their founding in fundamentalists movements that point to Israeli and US support for the ongoing Occupation. It is time we worked to take the fuel out of this fire by solving the root issue.

In closing, I have been asked several times about the most memorable experience during my three months. I would have to say that waiting quietly in the olive grove on the top of the Mt. of Olives for the sun to come up on Easter morning would have to be it. Easter means new life for Christians and the rising sun demonstrates God’s ongoing commitment to that new life. A new day is possible for the people of Palestine and Israel if our government will commit to demanding it.

I want to thank those of you who have followed along with this amazing journey. I hope that I have been able to provide you with some small insight into the lives of some wonderful and interesting people, who like everyone else in the world want nothing more than a better life for their children. They deserve peace and I will continue to work and pray that they get it.

60 Minutes - Is Peace Out of Reach?