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Middle East: Israelis, Palestinians caught in “never” land

The shuttle diplomacy of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seems unlikely to bring Israelis and Palestinians much closer together after the recent heavy fighting in Gaza. More than 100 Palestinians died in clashes from Feb. 27 to March 3, leaving an already fragile peace process in tatters. Two Israeli soldiers died in the offensive. Rice flew to the Middle East on March 3 to try to rescue peace talks begun last November in Annapolis. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas suspended the talks after Israeli air and ground forces killed 54 Palestinians in Gaza on March 1 – the heaviest one-day toll in seven years.

The latest round of violence erupted after Israel said it was determined to suppress the almost daily launching of Qassam missiles from Gaza targeting Israeli communities. In the week before the Israeli incursion, one Israeli was killed and a child was seriously wounded in rocket attacks. A total of 286 Qassam rockets rained down on Israel during the five days of fighting in Gaza.

Mahmoud and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to meet every two weeks during the international conference President Bush convened in Annapolis. The two Middle East leaders also pledged to try to conclude a peace agreement before the end of 2008. In late February, however, Olmert said he was not sure the two sides would be able to reach an agreement this year. Abbas said if the U.S. did not make 2008 the year to broker peace, “there will never be any future chances to achieve this goal.”

The situation in the Gaza Strip is bleak. During a February visit to Washington, D.C., Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said 80 percent of Palestinian households in Gaza live in poverty, and the unemployment rate is 33 percent. 

Gaza’s humanitarian situation worsened in late January when Israel imposed a blockade on fuel oil for several days, leaving thousands of homes without heat or light. One measure of Gazans’ desperation was the hundreds of thousands who streamed into Egypt after Hamas breached a border fence Jan. 23 using explosives and bulldozers. Gaza residents seized the opportunity to buy food, fuel, medicine and other goods in Egypt before returning home.

“You cannot leave 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza without much to lose. I think that's really a huge mistake," Fayyad said. He added, “Let me be clear that we are totally against the firing of rockets against Israeli towns from Gaza. And just as I reject the firing of rockets and all forms of violence from Gaza, so too do I reject the disproportionality of Israel’s military actions and the collective punishment it has imposed on our people in Gaza.”

A UN official called the Gaza situation “a crisis of human dignity” during a public discussion March 3 in Washington, D.C. Hansjoerg Strohmeyer of the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) also said too much discussion of what is often called Gaza’s humanitarian crisis diverts attention from the real issue: a political crisis that requires a political solution.

Meanwhile John Holmes, UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, attracted Israeli ire during a February trip when he referred to the “cycle of violence” that is causing suffering on both sides. Aaron Abramovich of Israel’s Foreign Ministry protested that the phrase equated Israeli self defense with terrorism.

Unfortunately, the Israeli protest might only reinforce the faulty thinking that one party is obliged to make unilateral concessions before peace can go forward. The 2003 Road Map set a peace process in motion with the principle that Israelis and Palestinians were to carry out their obligations in parallel. Until February there had been no suicide bombings in Israel in over a year. Further steps toward peace might have been possible if Israel had fulfilled its obligation under the Road Map to freeze all settlement activity in the occupied territories, for example.

Historically, Israelis and Palestinians have taken positions allowing little room for compromise. Even now Israel says there can be no agreement with the Palestinians as long as Hamas controls the Gaza Strip. Hamas says there will be no ceasefire unless Israel ends its military operations in Gaza and the West Bank.

The clock is ticking. Preliminary findings of a census conducted by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics indicate there could  be a Palestinian majority in the area comprising the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel in as little as five years. As peace negotiations drag on with seemingly little progress, support could grow for a single nation of Arabs and Jews in which Palestinians would be the majority – an idea that is anathema to most Jewish Israeli citizens today.

Still on the table since 2002 is an Arab initiative offering Israel diplomatic recognition in return for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a Palestinian right of return.

Tragically, the violence suffered by both Israelis and Palestinians seems sure to continue until the larger issues are honestly dealt with. As long as the violence is treated in isolation without acknowledging its underlying causes, negotiators will never reach a peace settlement. And never is a long, long time.

Faith in action:

Write to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Express your concern for the security of both Israelis and Palestinians. Ask that the U.S. use its influence to help bring about two secure, independent and viable states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace. Ask that the U.S. be even-handed in its support of Israelis and Palestinians as they negotiate an end to the occupation and a just sharing of Jerusalem as the capital of both states.

For more information, see:

Religious leaders' letter on Gaza crisis (Churches for Middle East Peace)

U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation


March 5, 2008

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