Peacemaking is hard. It is harder in a complex conflict in which the parties more than occasionally engage in unhelpful behaviors, and hardest when influential peacemakers take a side. For over six decades, the three realities have made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one of the world’s most intractable. As the world awaits the political component of the current U.S. administration’s peace plan, there are genuine questions about whether its approach—whatever it may be—will make any difference. With the legal, political and diplomatic frameworks for the peace process in disarray and a dysfunctional and fractured Palestinian leadership to boot, prospects for peace seem nonexistent. But if they dare, Christians may have the power to change that.
As I wrote in my post on the Golan heights (March 27), support for Israel among U.S. Christians runs deep. Indeed, some might even consider it not just politically risky but un-Christian to question it. Over the years, however, this often unquestioned commitment has blinded enough Christians to the ways in which they may not only be shaping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also arguably becoming an obstacle to the peace they seek. I’ll highlight just two blind spots here.
First, because many Christians tend to understand the conflict primarily in biblical-theological terms, they abstract its daily on-the-ground realities, and ordinary Palestinians are too often the casualties of this abstraction. Not only are the human rights issues they face daily largely unknown to U.S.-based Christians because of underreporting in the major media outlets, the significance of the few that do come to light is obscured by a theological conviction that is too often, unfortunately, tinged with an understated but powerful us-versus-them politico-cultural hue. The result has been an empathy gap that lessens the gravity of the human rights issues Palestinians face, effectively diminishing their humanity. This has, in turn, lessened the sense of urgency that ordinarily accompanies violations of fundamental human rights and delayed calls for resolution.
It’s time more Christians acknowledge and play an active role in addressing the human rights issues confronting stateless Palestinians.
In his 2019 report, the United Nations’ independent Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories presents an especially troubling portrait of Palestinian life in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Among many problems, he notes housing discrimination that makes it difficult for Palestinians to obtain permits to build homes, the detention of Palestinian children usually for offences such as stone throwing, administrative detentions wherein Palestinians are held in Israeli prisons for purported security reasons on secret evidence and without trial, the punitive demolitions of the homes of the families of suspected terrorists that result in displacement, the lack of accountability among Israel Defense Forces for the wrongful killings of Palestinians, and violence against Palestinians by Israeli settlers in the West Bank.
The report also details the dire economic condition of Palestinians. Citing the International Labor Organization’s finding that the unemployment rate in the Occupied Territories is the highest in the world, the special rapporteur notes that partly because of Israel’s blockade on Gaza, which significantly restricts the ability of Gazans to exploit the full economic potential of their resources, two-thirds of Gaza’s estimated 1.8 million inhabitants live on less than $3.6 USD/day and 68% are food insecure. The latter is particularly concerning given that 35% of Gaza’s farmland is, according to report, within an area Israel has designated a “buffer zone.” B’Tselem, an Israel-based non-governmental organization, has also reported Israel’s use of Palestinian land to treat its industrial waste, an issue that is contributing to environmental degradation and posing a threat to people living in the vicinity of the waste treatment facilities.
Water has become a potent symbol of the conflict. With Israel, since 1967, largely controlling the water resources in the Occupied Territories, the UN report notes significant problems in Palestinian access, usage and development of water resources. In the West Bank’s Area C, which makes up 60% of the territory, the Palestinian Authority reportedly does not have access to the agricultural lands and underground reservoirs. And while Israelis in both Israel and the Occupied Territories enjoy access to enough water for personal and commercial use, Palestinians experience frequent shortages because of both technical failures and Israel-imposed obstacles that restrict their ability to replace old pipelines and drill wells. In a 2016 report, the European Parliament Research Service found that residents of Israel and Israelis in Palestinian territories enjoyed three times as much water per person per day as Palestinians in the West Bank.
Gaza’s water problems are much worse. The special rapporteur describes them as “a crisis verging on humanitarian catastrophe.” An estimated 96% of the Coastal Aquifer, Gaza’s primary source of water, has been found “unfit for human consumption” because of over-pumping and the seepage of sewage. And, an estimated third of the monthly wages of the already underemployed and impoverished population is reportedly spent on water purchases, with many simply using the tainted water from the barely operational public taps. The latter occurs at a time when access to healthcare and essential medicines is already a challenge in Gaza due to war-related damage to infrastructure as well as severe Israel-imposed travel restrictions.
The well-documented violence in the territories persists, and instances of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank are reportedly increasing (and unlikely to stop as Israeli settlement building continues). In this climate of stress, fear and insecurity, the Humanitarian Country Team found that at least 260,000 Palestinians need mental health and psychosocial support.
Whatever differences may exist among Christians about Israel’s domestic politics or the best ways to address the state’s real and significant security challenges, all must at least agree that Palestinians, like all humans, should be afforded the opportunity to live in dignity. Christians ought to be especially aware of and sensitive to the impacts of the kinds of injustices described in the special rapporteur’s report. Christian reticence (and in many cases, silence) in addressing these human rights issues is too often interpreted as acquiescence in the perpetuation of human suffering.
Second, for far too long and consistent with the first problem, many Christians have largely supported one-sided approaches to the conflict—mostly carrots for the Israelis and sticks for the Palestinians—and failed to consistently demand from both parties the hard concessions required to make peace even remotely possible.
It’s time more Christians oppose one-sided approaches to the conflict.
In the last two years, the United States has closed the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) offices in Washington and cut off much needed aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In the same period, despite the troubling implications and international outcry, it has moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, proclaimed the Golan Heights Israeli territory, ceased to refer to the Palestinian territories as “occupied,” and threatened the International Criminal Court if it ever investigated any matter pertaining to Israel. Nothing appears to have been asked of Israel in return. In the face of such partiality, little wonder Palestinians have come to believe there is much more to lose from engaging in an American-led peace process than from abstaining altogether.
As a group with a peace-making mandate, Christians ought to be aware that successful peacemaking requires that both parties’ concerns are heard and legitimate grievances taken seriously. It also involves disrupting unhelpful entrenched dynamics and making hard and sometimes politically risky choices. It bears repeating that Palestinians are most concerned about their right to self-determination, a right enshrined in the first articles of the U.N. Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Israelis are most concerned about security, also a fundamental matter essential for every state.
To become better peacemakers in this complex and volatile situation, more Christians should (a) begin to see Palestinians first as people rather than as a problem to be overcome, (b) acknowledge the legitimacy of their human rights concerns, and (c) require that Israel, the more powerful party in that conflict, recognize the same. If Christians are unwilling to do this, they might as well simply ignore the oft-quoted biblical admonition to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Ps. 122:6) because through their silences and inaction, especially on the human rights issues, they are effectively working against it.