We need peace urgently, say Holy Land leaders

17 December 2008

by Gerald Butt MIddle East Correspondent

Festive display: fireworks explode during the Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, on Monday REUTERS

Festive display: fireworks explode during the Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, on Monday REUTERS

CHRISTIAN LEADERS in the Holy Land have asked for worldwide prayers for peace in the Middle East. In particular, they ask for in­ternational assistance in finding a solution to the crisis in the Holy Land itself.

In a Christmas message, 13 Patriarchs and heads of Churches in Jerusalem — including the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, the Rt Revd Suheil Dawani — speak of there being even more than the usual “darkness, conflict, and despair in the world around us”.

They say that they needed “the light of Christ to shine on this land to enable us to work more realistically for a two-state solution which would end the burden of restrictions arising out of [Israeli] occupation”.

The Jerusalem church dignitaries add that they were praying that the US President-elect, Barack Obama, and other heads of state and other world leaders would “see the urgent need for peace in the Middle East, and not least in this land”.

The 13 signatories also call the world’s attention to the Gaza Strip, where one-and-a-half million Palestinians have been living under an Israeli blockade for many weeks. Christians, the church leaders say, need “to see the situation in which many are suffering” in Gaza, and make “a determined effort to bring them urgent relief”.

While Palestinians as a whole have little to cheer about this Christmas, the prospects for Bethlehem look better than they have for several years. Throughout 2008, 1.3 million people visited the West Bank, nearly double the number last year. According to the Mayor of Bethlehem, Victor Batarseh, the town’s 19 hotels are fully booked during the holiday period.

Another source of hope for the months ahead is the arrival of a new American President in the White House. As George Bush steps down, many Palestinian commentators have pointed to his failure to meet the deadline set during talks at Annapolis in the United States in November 2007 for a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement to be reached before he left office.

There have been no visible signs of progress in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians over the past year, let alone a “new foundation of trust”, as Mr Bush claimed in early December.

Nor do the coming weeks and months offer much in the way of en­couragement for diplomatic progress. In Israel itself, the re-emergence of Benjamin Netanyahu as leader of the Likud bloc, current favourite to win parliamentary elections in February, is not seen by many as a helpful sign. Mr Netanyahu has described as “irrelevant” the core issues in the current talks with the Palestinians.

On the Palestinian front, there is uncertainty about what will happen when President Mahmoud Abbas’s term of office expires in January. The split between Mr Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas, which controls Gaza, means that elections will be virtually impos­sible.

The extent of that intra-Palestinian split is exemplified by recent state­ments from the two groups. A Fatah spokesman said the lifting of the Gaza blockade was in the power of Hamas: it should stop rocket at­tacks on Israel and join the peace talks. A spokesman for Hamas, on the other hand, repeated the Islamic group’s refusal to recognise Israel and its contempt for the peace process. He said that it would continue its policy “of stead­fastness, resistance, and adherence to rights and principles”.

On Tuesday, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution encouraging a final-status peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. Fourteen members backed the resolution. Only one abstained: Libya, representing the Arab lobby.

Given such complications and contradictions, Mr Obama is likely to find the Middle East crisis as hard to handle as his predecessors have done.

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