The Middle East crisis did
not "start" at this or that point. Zionism is one of a number of aspects
of European nationalism, which itself has more than one genesis. Palestinian
nationalism springs from various sources, and it is a moot point whether
it grew in response to Zionism, or as a vision for a state that could
transcend clan rivalry. Israel-Palestine issues have multiple strands
leading back into many eras. The contemporary Middle East cannot be understood
unless one takes the effort to understand its history. Jewish people would
refer back to early biblical times. Palestinian Christians seek to remind
the world that Arabs were present on the day of Pentecost - as recorded
in Acts 2:11. Arabs are also mentioned in Old Testament writings.
The carving up of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I was crucial
to contemporary Middle East affairs. The British and French empires sparred
over divisions of power and patronage. Arabs and Jews alike believed that
they had been given promises by Britain - promises that intrinsically
could not be kept.1 Thus were planted seeds of conflict now being
harvested in the Middle East.
Towards the end of World War
I, Christian triumphalism was reinforced by the armed forces of the victors.
For instance, after the French commander, General Gourard, took Damascus
from the Turks he gave a speech at the grave of Saladin (Salah eh Din),
the famous conqueror of the Crusaders. He is reported to have said: "My
presence here consecrates the victory of the cross over the crescent".
In 1917, British Prime Minister Lloyd George declared that, in taking
Jerusalem, General Allenby "had fought and won the last and most triumphant
of the Crusades". A local anecdote refines that episode. Allenby was advised
by his Jerusalem hosts, the Spafforth family, not to ride through the
Jaffa Gate (as the Kaiser had done in 1898) but rather to walk, in order
to ameliorate the sense of triumphalist conquest.2
Any major historical beacons must include the Crusades. Massacres of both
Muslims and Jews by Christians, especially in the Christians' 1099 conquest
and sacking of Jerusalem, lives to this day in Middle Eastern consciousness.
Salah eh Din's famous victory over the crusaders on the 4th July, 1187,
is a golden era in the memory of present-day Arabs. Turkish, British and
French empires held sway for four hundred years before contemporary aspirations
and tensions emerged in the Middle East. Mix in the Cold War era; the
ascendancy of America as Israel's supporter; the many politically influential
players in western Asia and north Africa, and an educated awareness of
historical context is clearly essential for reading the present.
A range of metaphors crossed my mind as I pondered an analogy for the
current Israeli-Palestinian conflict - family feuds, or gang wars, or
unruly neighbours trying to monopolise a neighbourhood. Each analogy broke
down because it was too simplistic for the dimensions of this conflict.
But consider the region as like a stream. Time, like water, flows on.
In time whirlpools of violence drown civilians, soldiers, police. Other
parts of the stream are disturbed by the turbulence. Every act of violence,
of humiliation, gives birth to a wind that in its turn disturbs the waters.
Beneath the surface of the stream fresh whirlpools quicken. For outsiders
one could liken the sequential nature of events to pictures in an album.
Viewing the generations one sees the Palestinian children of the first
intifada (the uprising), grow into the young adults of the current intifada.
If no significant resolution of the present conflict occurs, then the
children of the present intifada will grow up committing their lives to
a future intifada. When politics and religion are mixed, as in Jerusalem,
factions in power and those aspiring to power vie for the high moral ground.
Israeli and Palestinian stories abound, frequently with radically different
interpretations of the same events. Consider the most powerful and tragic
story that Israeli Jews tell and retell - the account of the Shoah (the
This story is embedded in the psyche of Israeli Jews. Massacres chill
the blood - the killing of a million Armenians in 1915, the 'killing fields'
of Kampuchea in the 1970s, the slaughter in Rwanda in the 1990s, and the
massacre of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in
1982. But the killing of six million Jews was the most ruthlessly sustained
massacre in the statistics of genocide. In drama, in novels, in family
remembrance, the stories of the Shoah are told and retold. No more powerfully
so, for me, than in the children's memorial at Yad va Shem. I visited
that centre some thirty times as a group leader from St George's Anglican
College in Jerusalem. The vista of candles and the roll call of Jewish
children's names always deeply moved me. Palestinians could never deny
the enormity of the Shoah. But, as they rightly point out, this horror
was inflicted by Europeans, not by Arabs. The tragedy occurred in the
heartlands of Europe, not in Palestine. This cruelty was done by European
hands, not by Palestinians.
Yet, they assert, European powers paid reparation not with their own land,
but with Palestinian land. When the State of Israel was created as a refuge
for Jews who escaped the devastation of the Shoah, Palestinians were made
into refugees. Palestinians see themselves paying the price, in the coin
of their own homeland, for Western guilt.
Another genre of stories features the loaded word 'terrorism'. Even before
reaching Jerusalem I was alert to the rubbery use of this term. Did not
our neighbour Indonesia brand Fretilin fighters struggling for East Timorese
independence as 'terrorists'? Was not Nelson Mandela imprisoned by the
South African government for leading a 'terrorist' organisation? I recall
listening to the English news in Jerusalem and hearing references on the
same bulletin to activities by 'terrorists' in the Middle East, and by
'armed militants' in Northern Ireland. In 1999 Australian media coverage
of the civil war in East Timor described as 'militia' people who terrorised
the population with bashings, rape and murder. That being said, there
is no defence for terrorism. It has been perpetrated by small groups of
Palestinians and Israeli Jews. Bombs planted in Israeli schools, streets,
shops and buses have caused loss of life and shattered families, which
cannot be justified. The cold-blooded violence of Baruch Goldstein who
murdered worshippers in a mosque in Hebron chills the blood. I heard moving
stories from both the Jewish and the Palestinian experience of life in
the Middle East conflict.
A caring woman who baby-sat for my Jewish friends, Yehezkel and Dahlia
Landau, was killed by a Palestinian attacker as she was on her way home
in West Jerusalem. This act of violence served no purpose except to reinforce
prejudices throughout the country. On the other side of the divide, I
heard the story of a Christian Palestinian lad named Joseph who lived
in Beit Sahur, near Bethlehem. The intifada was in progress in this part
of the West Bank region occupied by Israel. The town had been placed under
total curfew by the Israeli military, which meant that no-one was allowed
out of their houses. Poor families had only meagre stocks of food. At
great risk to himself Joseph would defy the curfew to take food to those
in need. On one such errand he set off, but he did not return home. He
was killed by the security forces. His uncle recounted this story with
tears in his eyes:
"We are Christians. Jesus committed himself to gentleness. My nephew Joseph
- we will never forget him. His life will soften the world." Shock at
such killings reverberates through families, friends, through city and
nation. Attitudes to the Israel-Palestine question are shaped at the heart
level by tragic stories such as these. At head level one can read of past
and contemporary events to gain some understanding of the many dimensions
of the problem. At the gut level however, reactions can be violent, especially
from those whose lives are irrevocably affected by the Israel-Palestine
dynamic. Revenge, depression, stereotyping the enemy, are countered by
the determination of some to keep working for peace despite the tragedies.
A grieving mother, Alla Nelimov, wrote this to pay tribute to her daughters'
lives: My name is Alla Nelimov… My two daughters, Yelena, 18, and Yulia,
16, were killed in the terrorist attack at the Dolphinarium discotheque
in June (2001).
They were two of twenty-one young people killed that evening… My family
came from Ural, Yaktrinburg, in the former Soviet Union. As a divorced
single parent, I lived with my three children, two daughters and a son…
On the day of the bombing, Yulia and Lena were at school and then we went
to the market to buy new clothes. They planned to go to the discotheque…
They modelled and posed in different dresses. I took pictures which I
still have… They put on makeup together in front of the mirror and my
mother and I watched them. Lena had on green nail polish, and I put Yulia's
hair into two little pigtails. Later, when I looked for them in hospitals
and the forensic center, we found them because I gave identification signs
- the green nail polish and pigtails.3
Her article was circulated by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Amidst many
accounts of suffering and death experienced by the Palestinians comes
this brief communiqué dated 18 March 2002: The tragic and dangerous situation
is illustrated by the case of Rana Adel Hamad, 18 years old, from Qur
village near Tulkarem in the West Bank. The expectant mother went in to
labour at 9am yesterday morning, but due to Israel checkpoints and closure
she was unable to reach hospital in Tulkarem. Instead she and her family
went to a midwife in a nearby town, and after a difficult labour gave
birth to a baby who died. Rana's condition worsened and the family made
another attempt to reach hospital. Again they were denied permission to
travel for more than one hour. After eventually arriving at the hospital
Rana was dead. At that time Rana was the fifteenth woman prevented from
giving birth at hospital. She and her baby brought the total number of
people who had died from the Israeli policy of preventing access to medical
treatment to 36, and the total number of Palestinians killed in the intifada
Such incidents generate on both sides anger, anguish, an ardent desire
for revenge, hopelessness, fear, despair, grief. Appeals by naïve Westerners
for people to be "reasonable" cannot touch these passions. With the present
conflict and crisis in view, Israeli novelist Amos Oz, writing in The
Guardian5, speaks of two current wars: Two Palestinian-Israeli
wars have erupted in this region. One is the Palestinian nation's war
for its freedom from occupation and for its right to independent statehood.
Any decent person ought to support this cause. The second war is waged
by fanatical Islam, from Iran to Gaza and from Lebanon to Ramallah, to
destroy Israel and drive the Jews out of their land. Any decent person
ought to abhor this cause. Amos Oz speaks for many Israelis when he opines
that "Arafat and his men are running both wars simultaneously, pretending
that they are one".
Given his foundational support for Peace Now it is no surprise that Oz
advocates a policy favoured by the Israeli left in regard to what he sees
as the first war. Israel must step down from the war on the Palestinian
territories. It must begin to end occupation and evacuate the Jewish settlements
that were deliberately thrust into the depth of Palestinian lands. As
regards the second war, he speaks in terms of Israel fighting "fanatical
Islam", of a "Muslim holy war" against Israel. He considers that Israeli
determination will be so absolute in that war that it will not be budged.
But wars are not so easily predicted. Wars are not easily controlled.
I am by nature an optimist.
Optimism is in very short supply in regard to the present situation in
the Middle East. However I proffer the following glimmers of hope. Contrary
to popular Western misconceptions, conflict in the Middle East is not
predestined, or eternal, or inherent in the people but is historically
shaped and contextually varied. There has been over the past ten years
a growing readiness on both sides to compromise and to change entrenched
positions. There has been acceptance of what was once deemed unacceptable.
Let me give three examples: Political perceptions, messages and actions
evolve much more quickly in Israel-Palestine than in Australia. Until
1993 it was anathema to propose dialogue with the Palestinian Liberation
Organisation in the public arena of Israeli politics. Such a proposal
was out of the question for both the major political parties, whether
Likud or Labor. Yet, in the mid-1990s we witnessed three Israeli Prime
Ministers - Rabin, Netanyahu and Barak - negotiating with Yasser Arafat.
A second and parallel
phenomenon was the issue of a Palestinian state. There is growing acceptance
within Israel of the inevitability of a Palestinian state. Even Ariel
Sharon and an American President (George Bush Jr) have spoken of the possibility
of a Palestinian state. (Admittedly the viability and full independence
of that state is questionable. Palestinians do not trust Sharon on this
issue.) Thirdly, Yasser Arafat has publicly accepted Israel's right of
existence. (Admittedly, his commitment to that is not beyond question.
A great majority of Israelis believe that he is lying.) The long term
interests of both Israel and its supporter the, USA, require the latter
to build positive links with Arab countries, and for Israel to build bridges
of peace. There is now more balanced reporting of the Palestinian-Israeli
conflict in the Western media, compared with a pro-Israeli bias in the
Western media over the past 50 years. For Palestinian Christians any hope
for peace involves Palestinian nationalism overcoming the negative impact
of clan rivalries, terror tactics of zealot nationalist and Islamic groups,
and violence against women through patriarchal honour/shame codes, as
well as the eradication of economic and political corruption.
An important challenge facing the Palestinian Authority emerging under
Arafat's leadership is human rights. Widespread support for the Palestinian
Liberation Organisation amongst Palestinian Christians was generated by
their desire for a democratic, secular state in which respect for human
rights would be essential. Alternatives amongst the various Arab states
- absolutist rule (Iraq, Syria) or an Islamic state (Iran) - held no attraction
for them. Respected Palestinian Christians, such as Hanan Ashrawi, have
sought to keep human rights high on the Palestinian agenda. This issue
is pertinent to ongoing relations between Israel and Palestine. Israel
is a democracy. It seems to this observer that democracies offer the best
political framework within which human rights can be honoured. Although
there is no perfect system - witness the tragedy of deaths of Aboriginal
prisoners in the jails of democratic Australia. To live in Jerusalem is
to live in a city of inherent tension. Both peoples claim Jerusalem as
the capital of their respective states. Israeli Jews speak of Jerusalem
as the 'eternal capital'. I was struck by the words of Meron Benvenisti,
an Israeli veteran in Jerusalem's dynamics and administration. He observed
that one can have Jerusalem or one can have peace. But one cannot have
During the time that I and my wife Dorothy lived in Jerusalem, we were
inevitably outsiders. We held Australian passports. Thus the anguish,
the grief, the yearning, the hopes - these we could know only in small
part. Yet it has been our aim, since returning to Australia, to share
with our fellow Australians some of the dimensions of anguish and hope,
peacemaking and despair, yearnings and frustration, of Israelis and Palestinians.
It is impossible in a brief space to convey in any depth the labyrinth
of factors shaping the Palestine- Israel question. People are keen to
know more, but one encounters deeply entrenched stereotypes of both Jews
and Palestinians in our culture, not least in newspaper cartoons, and
in ethnic jokes. "One can have Jerusalem or one can have peace. But one
cannot have both."
adds a cruel twist, with its apocalyptic (I would say diseased) visions
of End Times in the Middle East. This spawned in the era of the Gulf War,
and is no doubt spreading again with news of the current conflict. Fundamentalist
theology is at best a waste of time for Israeli-Palestinian relations.
At worst it is an abomination. At the time of writing there are no negotiations
occurring between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Fragile trust has
been destroyed by Palestinian suicide bombings and by the Israeli army's
invasion of Palestinian towns and villages.
For Israeli political leaders, whether Labour or Likud, even to shake
the hand of Yasser Arafat will require a long stretch across a negotiating
table. For Palestinian leadership to acknowledge the de jure as well as
the de facto existence of Israel is a large step, both in consciousness
as well externally on the political map.
Two organisations committed to peace in the region are listed below. One
is a Jewish group - Peace Now.
The other is a Palestinian Christian group - Sabeel. I stress that these
are minor voices. The mainstream of Israeli public opinion supports the
present invasion of Palestinian towns and the concurrent killing of Palestinian
people. So Peace Now, in opposing that invasion, is a minority voice.
Palestinian Christians make up only about 4% of Palestinians in the West
Bank and Israel. So Sabeel is a minority voice, a small group seeking
for peace, motivated by a Christian faith that is coloured by Palestinian
nationalism. As noted earlier, for Palestinian Christians a secular, democratic
Palestinian state is their best guarantee of security.
Dr Ray Barraclough is a Brisbane-based
theologian and lectures at St Francis College.
Peace Now - Israel: http://www.peacenow.org.il
Americans for Peace Now: http://www.peacenow.
Colin Chapman, Whose
Promised Land? Lion, Oxford, 1992.
David Fromkin, The
Peace To End All Peace - Creating the modern Middle East 1914-1922,
Penguin, London, 1991.
Elias Chacour, Blood
Brothers, Kingsway, Eastbourne, 1990.
Naim S. Ateek, Justice
and only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, Orbis, New
Marc Ellis, Toward
a Jewish Theology of Liberation, Orbis, New York, 1989.
Amos Elon, Jerusalem
- City of Mirrors, Collins, London, 1991, 247.
Ernst Pawel, The
Labyrinth of Exile - A Life of Theodor Herzl. London, Collins Harvill,
Part of this article appeared
Came and They Saw - Western Christian Experiences of the Holy Land,
ed. Michael Prior C.M., Melisende, London, 2000.
1. David Fromkin, The Peace
to End All Peace, Avon, New York, 1989, 173-87, 276-83.
2. Bertha Spafford Vester, Our Jerusalem - An American Family in the Holy
City 1881-1949, Jerusalem: Ariel, 1988, 278-79.
3. 22 October, 2001, The Jerusalem Report, 28-29.
4. Email transmitted by Carol Morton - 18 March, 2002.
5. 7 April 2002, The Guardian.
6. Cited in Amos Elon, Jerusalem - City of Mirrors, Collins, London, 1991,