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Israeli-Palestinian Conflict - Background Document on the Situation in the Middle East

29 January 2000

Commended to the churches for their study and urgent action by the Central Committee, Potsdam, Germany, 29 January - 6 February 2001.

Since the Preliminary Report on Public Issues was prepared, the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel has further intensified. As noted in that earlier report, the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) of the WCC sent a delegation comprised of representatives of member churches in Palestine and led by a member of the WCC Executive Committee to the Fifth Special Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights called last October to consider the implications of Israel's disproportionate use of force. In a written submission to that meeting, entitled "Sharing the Land, the Truth and the Peace," the WCC noted that

events following the provocative visit (of Ariel Sharon) on 28 September to Al-Haram Al-Sharif have again shown that the consequence of (Israel's) repeated defiance of international law, of continuing systematic violations of human rights, including the application of collective punishments, has been to incite to violence and to deny peace and security to both peoples. Israel's particularly harsh response through the use of excessive force against its own Palestinian minority in recent days has contributed to their further vulnerability and alienation and to a deeper polarization of Israeli society.

It went on to say that

Most Israelis and Palestinians fervently desire peace, but many also despair at the lack of progress towards it. Jerusalem - home to Arabs and Jews, and considered holy by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike - has been regarded as the most complicated and difficult issue and has repeatedly been left to the end of the negotiation process. Believing that a resolution of this question could open the way to agreements on equitable sharing of the land and resources in Palestine, the last WCC Assembly (Harare, 1998) called upon the parties not to postpone further but to include final status negotiations on Jerusalem as an integral part of negotiations on a general settlement of the wider Middle East conflict. In fact an approach along these lines was taken during the most recent talks in Camp David. For the first time, both sides tabled constructive proposals for shared sovereignty in Jerusalem. Recent events have cut short this hopeful process. Once again the exercise of peoples' rights to peace and sovereign development has fallen victim to the enemies of peace.

It was not surprising that these confrontations began in Jerusalem, the nerve center of the conflict. In a resolution adopted on 29 September the WCC Executive Committee nevertheless shared the conviction expressed by Their Beatitudes the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches and Christian Communities in Jerusalem in their statement of 26 September 2000 that a successful conclusion of final status negotiations on Jerusalem would contribute greatly to "true peace with true justice and security for the ‘two peoples and three religions' of this land - Palestinians and Israelis, Jews, Christians and Muslims alike." The WCC is firmly convinced that God intended the Holy City to be a source of peace, stability and coexistence rather than of the division and conflict that destroy human dignity and hope. We hope that the present special session of the Commission on Human Rights will draw on the spiritual resources God offers through Jerusalem and contribute constructively to this end.

Few international conflicts have been so marked by the dominant power's defiance of its obligations under the Charter to abide by decisions of the Security Council and its treaty obligations such as those of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Here as elsewhere self-asserted claims to impunity pose barriers to peace and reconciliation between nations and peoples. Thus the WCC welcomed the important decision of the Security Council in res. 1322 (2000) that stressed "the importance of establishing a mechanism for a speedy and objective inquiry into the tragic events of the last few days with the aim of preventing their repetition". Such an investigation could provide an essential beginning to revealing, sharing and mutual acceptance of the truth about past systematic violations of peoples' rights. Without such a process there can be little hope for justice, peace or reconciliation between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Christians and Muslims within and beyond Israel's legitimate borders.

On 10 October 2000 the General Secretary wrote to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, offering support and prayers for the success of the mission he had undertaken to the region. Dr Raiser said there:

Both sides have suffered from this renewed violent confrontation. But once again it is the Palestinian people, especially Palestinian youth, who pay by far the greater price in God-given life as a result of the disproportionate use of armed force by Israel.

We pray that Prime Minister Barak and President Arafat and all those caught up in the terrible, rising spiral of violence will respond to your initiative and to the appeals of governments and peoples around the world by stepping back from the brink before they and the region as a whole are cast again into the abyss of full-scale war.

This is not a time for ultimatums or threats of more violent acts of retribution, but the hour to join together in declaring a truce and days of public mourning for the victims of the violence on all sides.

WCC initiatives. As noted in the Preliminary Report on Public Issues, the WCC has paid regular visits to Palestine and Israel in light of the VIII Assembly Statement on the Status of Jerusalem. In addition to the steps reported there, the Deputy General Secretary and International Relations staff met in May 2000 with the Vatican State Secretariat to share the WCC's positions on the Status of Jerusalem and discuss common concerns. In June 2000 staff addressed an international human rights conference in Jerusalem on "Freedom of Access to the Holy City of Jerusalem," presenting the WCC principles on the Status of Jerusalem.

As part of its international advocacy efforts, a hearing for the international diplomatic, NGO and ecumenical community and press was held in Geneva on the Geopolitical Situation in Israel-Palestine, where the territorial and water issues at the heart of the final status negotiations were detailed after the breakdown of the Camp David talks.

During Advent, the General Secretary wrote a pastoral letter on behalf of the WCC Officers to the churches and Christian communities in Jerusalem. In that letter Dr Raiser reassured them of WCC's constant prayers, and recalled his Christmas message where he

…recalled the centuries-old unwritten rule that at Christmas a cease-fire be observed in all situations of military conflict. In both of these contexts I had particularly in mind our sisters and brothers caught up in the terrible new spiral of violence in Israel and Palestine.

Clearly a cease-fire is not enough. True peace is our shared goal, a peace built on the foundations of justice, so together with you we long for justice for the Palestinian people. Just peace and an end to the vicious cycle of violence demands a fundamental conversion of the human spirit, a recognition of the God-given dignity and the rights of the other, a change of heart. It was surely this that the Prophet had in mind when he foretold the coming of the Prince of Peace.

The current situation. Two weeks prior to this meeting, a small consultation with experts on and from the region was convened in Geneva by the CCIA to analyze the current situation and assess prospects for peace. In brief summary, participants there concluded the following:

  • The present Palestinian Intifadah (uprising) results from the growing frustration of the people with the Oslo Peace Process that after seven years the promises of the Oslo Accords had not borne fruit. The significant compromises made by the Palestinian leadership to meet Israel's demands had not been reciprocated by significant steps on the part of Israel to implement their commitments, but rather by reiterated delays accompanied by ever increasing demands on the Palestine National Authority to provide security, inter alia, for illegal Israeli settlers. In the view of many Palestinians, the moribund peace process was dealt a death stroke in Jerusalem with the massive show of armed force at the time of the visit of Ariel Sharon.

    The heart of injustice, and thus the greatest impediment to peace, is the continuing and in fact expanding occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel. Settlements increased rather than decreased during the seven years of Oslo, in violation of both the spirit and the letter of the Accords. Some experts estimate that the number of settlers has grown during this period from 95,000 to over 390,000 today, a growth rate three or four times that of the annual population increase in Israel itself. Rather than decreasing, illegal settlements in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem have also grown rapidly and have in fact accelerated since 1999, together with the construction of even more direct access highways and security roads throughout Palestine. The price continues to be paid by the Palestinians in further displacement, destruction of even more homes, and the alienation of property.
  • The last-minute effort of US President Clinton to "make peace" has again revealed that the future status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees' right of return remain still at the center of contention and a motivating factor at the heart of the present Intifadah. The ecumenical positions on Jerusalem are clear and relevant especially in the present context. The WCC also has a long history of involvement with the Palestinian and Jewish peoples, going back to the period even before the Partition and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. It has reaffirmed the principles embodied in UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948 that held that Palestinian "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which…should be made good by the government or authorities responsible." The implementation of these provisions is not only a basic human rights concern, but also a necessary precondition for a durable peace.
  • The disproportionately violent reaction of Israel to the present Intifadah represents not only a rise in the use of armed force, but seems to respond to a clear strategic plan aimed at strengthening Israeli occupation of land taken by force in 1967, its control over water and other resources in Palestinian lands, and the maintenance of dependency of Palestinians on Israel. That dependency has many facets, but the primary one strengthened in the present strategy is the economic control over Palestine by Israel. A 1997 World Bank report warned that "Since the signing of the Oslo Agreement, the economic situation (of the Palestinians) has continued to deteriorate. The decline in household incomes, a sharp increase in unemployment, and the general broadening of poverty pose serious challenges for economic sustainability." Israel's actions now of blocking Palestinians' access to employment both in the areas under control of the Palestinian National Authority and in Israel has only served to make this lasting situation more acute.
  • Israel's long-standing practice of sweeping closures of Palestinian areas, curfews and other forms of restrictions of free movement made Palestinians, even those now living under Palestinian control, prisoners in their own land. In recent weeks these practices have been taken to an extreme, blocking access even from one town or neighborhood to another, and thus to schools, medical care and places of worship in an apparent attempt to destroy the very fabric of Palestinian society. Palestinians, through the new Intifadah, signal their unwillingness to continue to live under siege from their powerful neighbor.
  • The international community, and particularly the United Nations, has continuing responsibility for the situation in Israel and in Palestine under international law. Israel, often supported by the USA, has managed especially since 1967 to act with virtual impunity, ignoring or openly violating admonitions and resolutions of the UN General Assembly and Security Council. It is clearly time for the international community, and perhaps especially for the European States to assume their responsibilities in a more determined way.
  • The violence generated by the present conflict is generally known as a result of massive media coverage of events. The second Intifadah demonstrates that the way to end the violence is not through simplistic appeals for a cease-fire. What is needed is a true change of heart, especially by the occupying power, and the engagement of new negotiations that will take advantage of the undeniable gains achieved by the Oslo Accords. The WCC Executive Committee welcomed the signing of the agreements in Oslo, but at the same time expressed serious reservations about the degree to which they would lead in fact to a just peace. The WCC long expressed the conviction that an effective agreement for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must be found in the context of an international conference. An urgent task now is to find a new, broader framework of negotiation that builds upon the achievements especially since the Madrid Conference in 1991.