What is the Root Cause of the Middle East Conflict

On Thursday 16th March 2006 I attended a talk given by Bishop Riah, the Bishop of Jerusalem, on the situation in the Middle East at All Hallows on the Wall Church in the City of London. The bishop was introduced by Rev. Garth Hewitt of the Amos Trust who had organised the meeting.

Summary of Bishop Riah’s talk.

In his talk he said that he was totally committed to cause of peace in the Middle East and that once peace comes to Jerusalem it will come to the whole world. The root cause of the lack of peace is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the separation wall, which separates Jerusalem from the West Bank, separates families and communities and frustrates free movement for the Palestinian population. He said that 46% of the West Bank has already been lost to Israel to make way for the settlements. Settlers around Jerusalem number about 200,000, with another 200,000 in the rest of the West Bank. He said there is 70% unemployment, 40-45% in West Bank, 80% in Gaza. 53 Palestinians per month are being killed and 4000 Palestinian homes have been demolished since 2000.

For the sake of Israel he advocates a two state solution which the Arab world would accept if Israel withdrew to the pre 1967 borders. Critics of Israel are often accused of anti-Semitism. The Arab world is not anti-Semitic. The Arabs have lived with the Jews for centuries and would do so in peace if Israel did not act aggressively towards the Arabs. The region could become a Switzerland of the Middle East with different people living side by side and trading with each other and living in peace with each other. The Church has a role to play in restoring hope to the Palestinians. The call to disinvest shows the anger of Christians with occupation. Sanctions should be put in place against all goods produced in settlements. The occupation is the root cause of the conflict. Terrorism is the response to this situation and would cease if there was a just settlement.

Response to Bishop Riah’s talk.

Occupation or Arab rejectionism the root of the conflict?

The Bishop claimed to be totally committed to peace. But in the whole talk there was no mention of Arab rejectionism as a root cause of the conflict. In 1948, 1967, 1973 Israel fought wars against Arab armies committed to their destruction. The issue was not the occupation but the existence of Israel. On May 27th 1967 Egyptian President Nasser said, ‘Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel’. After the 6 Day War Israel offered to return the territories in return for peace and recognition from Arab world. This offer was rejected at the Khartoum Conference of the Arab League. On September 1st 1967 they issued a resolution announcing the three ‘No’s’: ‘No peace, no recognition, and no negotiation.’

In the question time Bishop Riah compared the 6 Day War to European wars. These were in the past but now Britain, France and Germany are no longer minded to go to war. This is a false comparison. Large elements in Arab society have the same view as the one expressed by Nasser above concerning Israel, including the party now ruling the Palestinian Authority.

The shock election victory of Hamas over the Fateh party in the Palestinian elections in January 2006 means that the government of the Palestinian Authority is now in the hands of people who are committed to the elimination of Israel. The Charter of the Hamas movement makes this absolutely clear.

Article Six
The Islamic Resistance Movement [Hamas] is a distinct Palestinian Movement which owes its loyalty to Allah, derives from Islam its way of life and strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine (i.e. Israel and the West Bank and Gaza must ultimately become one Arab Muslim
entity).

Article Eight
Allah is its goal, the Prophet its model, the Qur’an its Constitution, Jihad its path and death for the case of Allah its most sublime belief (i.e. this is as unchangeable as the Qur’an is for the Muslim).

Article Eleven
The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine has been an Islamic Waqf (a possession of Muslims which cannot be given to non Muslims) throughout the generations and until the Day of Resurrection, no one can renounce it or part of it, or abandon it or part of it. This is the status [of the land] in Islamic Shari’a, and it is similar to all lands conquered by Islam by force, and made thereby Waqf lands upon their conquest, for all generations of Muslims until the Day of Resurrection (i.e. any land once Islamic must be returned to Islamic rule and remain so until the end of the world. No treaty or agreement which contradicts this has any validity).

Before the election Hamas leader Khaled Mash’al spoke at a rally in Damascus broadcast on Al-Jazeera TV (30/12/05): ‘Who can tell, my brothers and sisters, when we will celebrate, on this podium, the liberation of the West Bank? When will we celebrate the liberation of Jaffa, Haifa, Safed, and the Negev? When will we celebrate the departure of the last Zionist from our land? Yes. Some people ask when this will happen. Say: It could be soon. Such is our faith in Allah. We have no doubt that victory will come, and that just as we liberated Palestine from the Crusaders and from the Mongols,
we will regain it – pure and purified – from the Zionist occupiers.’

Hamas is more extreme than Fatah but the Palestine National Covenant, the guiding charter of the PLO also calls for the destruction of Israel by armed struggle.

I would counter Bishop Riah’s position by saying that the fundamental cause of the conflict is Arab rejectionism of the right of Israel to exist. In fact the cause of the Israeli occupation of the territories (Golan, West Bank, Gaza, Sinai) in the first place was Arab rejectionism of Israel. One could even say that the retention of these territories relates to Arab rejectionism, with Sinai returning to Egypt when President Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel, but the Golan not returning to Syria because of Syrian rejection of Israel.

What about Arab Christians?

Since Bishop Riah represents Arab Christian interests one would expect him to be concerned about the Islamic aspects of the Hamas charter. Already in Gaza there are attacks on Christians and death threats to the Bible Society operating there. Israel within the pre 1967 borders gives freedom to Arab Christians to organise their communities in ways which are totally denied them in parts of the Middle East where Islamic fundamentalism has power. In his talk there was no mention of the sufferings of Christians at the hands of Muslims in the West Bank and Gaza. One would imagine that all their problems are Israel’s fault. In a conversation I had with a member of the audience afterwards he told me that Israel was pushing the Christians out of the West Bank, which I strongly disagreed with.

A report in WND (World Net Daily) 27/12/05 says: ‘All this talk about Israel driving Christians out and causing pain is nonsense,’ a Bethlehem Christian community leader told WND. ‘You want to know what is at play here, just come throughout the year and see the intimidation from the Muslims. They have burned down our stores, built mosques in front of our churches, stole our real estate and took away our rights. Women have been raped and abducted. So don’t tell me about Israel. It’s the Muslims.’ The Bethlehem leader, like many Christians on the streets here, would not provide his name
for publication for fear of retaliation. Evidence for what he says is not hard to find.

Muslim-born, Ahmad El Achwal was a convert to Christianity. His home was an informal Christian centre, where he handed out Christian literature and informed others in his community about his new-found faith. Ahmad El Achwal was introduced to Christianity by a fellow prisoner in Central Nablus prison. He had been accused by the PA of dealing in stolen gold, charges for which he was later tried and acquitted. Once word of his conversion to Christianity spread, he was repeatedly harassed and abused. PA ‘security’ forces searched his home, confiscated his Christian Bibles and other religious books, interrogated him for days and arrested him for long periods, promising an end to his suffering and even a job within the PA if he would return to Islam. Ahmad El Achwal was repeatedly beaten. His life and the life of his family were threatened. His car and home were fire-bombed by men affiliated with PA security forces. The landlord of the fast-food shop he rented refused to renew his rental agreement, forcing him out of business. Eventually he paid with his life for the simple desire to live according to his conscience.

Christian evangelism and Muslims becoming Christians are intolerable
affronts to the norms and traditions in PA-controlled areas. Though the PA publicly proclaims protection of religious freedom, Islamic law (Shari’a) has been adopted into the PA Constitution and is the primary legal source governing everyone under PA rule, regardless of their religious beliefs. The Shari’a considers conversion from Islam can be punishable by death, which may explain why Ahmad El Achwal’s murderers were never found, never brought to justice, never sought by the local authorities.

On Saturday evening, September 2, 2005, more than five hundred Muslim men from nearby villages, chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (Allah is Great), invaded the Christian village of Taybeh, rampaged all night, and torched 16 houses and numerous cars. Several other houses were looted of jewellery, furniture, and appliances. Many families were forced to flee. The attack on the village was triggered by the accusation that a Christian man from Taybeh had the temerity to date a Muslim woman from a nearby village. While the attack is one of the worst against Christians in the West Bank in many years, such attacks are by no means ‘occasional’.

Terrorism and the security barrier.

When Arafat signed Oslo Accords Palestinians were required to cease
incitement to Israel’s destruction and to shut down terror organisations. Under Arafat’s rule the Palestinian Authority broadcast continual incitement against Israel with calls for the destruction of Israel coming from the mosques and the educational system. The glorification of terrorism was part of the way of life. We have clips from PA and Arab TV stations showing children as young as 5 being indoctrinated with incitement to terrorism
against Israel.

On August 19, Palestinian Clerics Association Deputy Director Sheikh
Muhammad Ali was interviewed by Hizbullah’s Al-Manar TV. In the interview, he discussed Jihad as the duty of all Muslims, and the coming conquest of all of Palestine through Jihad, not negotiation. Here are extracts of what he said (Information from Memri).

‘Regarding any land, any piece of land, which at a certain point belonged to the Muslims – it is the duty of all Muslims to do what they can to liberate this land, wherever it may be. True, many precious Muslim lands are under occupation today. They have been forgotten, and Andalusia (Spain and Portugal) is one example. Nevertheless, it is the duty of the Muslims to liberate them. But since we are discussing Palestine, Gaza, and so on, let us focus on this precious piece of Muslim land, especially since Jerusalem
and the Al-Aqsa Mosque belong to all Muslims, and have become a part of the Muslim faith.

‘Allah willing, we will enter [Palestine] as conquerors and liberators, not through negotiations, but through Jihad and resistance, because the hadith goes: ‘And the Muslims would kill the Jews’ – there is killing involved. This divine prophecy, which appears in the hadith and in the Koran, denies the legitimacy of normalization or any agreement, because it is only a matter of time, and the Muslims will eventually liberate Jerusalem and
regain Palestine.’

As this terrorism has been translated into action over and over again with suicide attacks on Israeli civilians in cafes, buses, and public places, clearly Israel had to do something to prevent this. In denouncing the wall (which for the most part is a fence) Bishop Riah said nothing about terrorism as a cause of its construction. The ending of terrorism and incitement is actually the basic necessity for peace in the area and the main people with influence to do this are Muslim clerics. The west and the churches should also unite to tell the Islamic world in no uncertain terms that as long as the terrorist issue is not addressed there is no way forward for any peace process.

Israel’s security fence is the product of Arab terrorism. Before September 2000 Israelis were crossing into the West Bank and even Gaza to buy and sell, Palestinians were travelling into Israel to work. Terrorism has changed all that. Unless the churches address that issue all its statements are empty platitudes.

Regarding settlements I would agree that there are wrongs done to the
Palestinian Arab population in relation to taking land and demolishing houses. However in principle as Arabs live amongst Jews within the pre 1967 borders of Israel, so it should be possible for Jews to live among Arabs in predominantly Arab areas as well. In fact the Gaza settlement of Gush Katif which has now been dismantled provided employment for about 5000 Palestinians in its agricultural development. Now that the Jewish settlers have gone the greenhouses and the agriculture of the region are being trashed and the employment opportunities provided by the settlement for
Palestinians are gone.

While it is true that the Palestinians suffer very high levels of
unemployment, it is not true to lay all the blame for that on Israel.
Before Arafat took over the PA in 1993 levels of employment and standard of living for Palestinians were much better as they were able to work in Israel, benefit from tourism and trade with Israel without the restrictions brought about as a result of terrorism. Terrorism and political strikes destroyed many Palestinian job opportunities. If an employer is faced with a choice of people working with him who are not going to turn up for work because a strike has been called and those who will work, he will obviously
choose those who will work. In addition there is the scandal of the vast sums of money which have been donated to the PA by the EU, America and UN which have disappeared without benefiting the people for whom the money was given.

Conclusion.

Opposing Israel has become the popular cause of the left which unites with Islam in denouncing Israel, America and Bible believing Christians. The church is dividing between those who support Israel and those who denounce it. Rational discussion of the issues involved is often very difficult with accusations of anti-Semitism being made on one hand and of supporting an Apartheid racist state on the other hand. It would be good to have the opportunity to have further discussions on these issues.