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Both need to abandon delusions

30 November 2012

Israel and Hamas should look to faith and law to address their conflict, says Yazid Said


Time to rebuild: the ruins of Hamas's interior ministry in Gaza on Monday

Time to rebuild: the ruins of Hamas's interior ministry in Gaza on Monday

WITH a sigh of relief, another ceasefire is now in place between Israel and Gaza. The optimistic gloss is that this will hold better than in previous times, especially given the prospect of opening up the blockade on Gaza, and the promises given from Hamas and from Israel that appear to prevent an irreparable breach of trust on both sides.

Past experiences, however, suggest that we need to be cautious about being over-optimistic. The eight days of fighting felt like a long time for many living here, as we saw the images of destruction, of slaughtered children in Gaza, and damaged infrastructure both in Gaza and in Israel. The images make us feel less hopeful about a sustainable settlement.

In such circumstances, secular NGOs in the Holy Land play an important part in providing humanitarian aid and some immediate repairs. Yet we need to be reminded of the important work of the Churches. The Anglican Church's Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza remains steadfast, despite its fragile budgets and the level of casualties that depend on its free services. A recent report suggests that it has been offered some options for keeping its ministry going, despite the withdrawl of funds from UNRWA (News, 22 June).

The truth is that NGOs would do a better job if they worked more closely with Churches, because Churches are better connected at the local level, while the NGOs often labour under abstract and secular assumptions. This, of course, puts a responsibility on the Churches to reach out to the NGOs, who could help them make a difference to communities. 

ALL of this, however, remains short-termist. An ecumenical prayer service called by Sabeel in Jerusalem reminded people of the need for justice. Now the nagging question remains: what do we mean by justice here? If we are concerned about a long-term settlement, justice cannot mean a comprehensive victory for one side over the other; both sides have their share of delusions.

We see these delusions at work when Israel is surprised that Hamas has the resolve to engage with escalation, despite Israel's superior power. Yet Israel continues to believe that its military sophistication could determine the result of the conflict. Its economic embargo on Gaza has not worked effectively, and did not achieve its diplomatic goals.

It is also a shame that every Palestinian, whether in Gaza or Jerusalem, becomes a de facto member of militant Hamas in the eyes of the security forces. Young Palestinian men are often seen harassed on the streets of Jerusalem when they are not carrying anything to suggest a threat.

On the other hand, Hamas's unfortunate delusion has been that further atrocities perpetrated by Israel could make the world take its side. It does not seem to mind that the infrastructure in Gaza is ravaged. Somehow, in God's future time, all will be restored, but this time under the banner of victorious Islam, as if Palestinian lives are cheap enough to be sacrificed as part of such a strategy.

It is important to register, too, that Christians in Palestine, like Christians in the rest of the Middle East, have concerns about the triumph of certain elements in the Islamic world - a fact that shows how much the state of affairs in the Holy Land is connected with the stability of the rest of the region. Of course, Israeli short-termist politics exploits that sensitive issue, but it remains a genuine concern for Christian communities. 

THE point remains that both sides need to come to terms with their delusions, and to accept that neither is going to win over the other in this kind of context. Israel has constantly argued that it has to defend itself against enemies who would not grant its right to exist, most notably Hamas.

But we have been reminded by various Israeli commentators this week that the problem lies less with aggressive neighbours than with a failure to tackle the underlying issues about Gaza's stability, economically and politically, which encourages a complex tit-for-tat policy on both sides, producing indiscriminate rockets and desperate anxiety in Israel over security.

So it remains important to clarify, under the ceasefire, who will take responsibility for mutual failed concerns that could threaten any stability that is achieved. Israeli and Palestinian, and perhaps Egyptian jurists need to explain more about what this ceasefire means in legal terms. Gaza needs to maintain the integrity of its civil society, and Israel wants assurances against further attacks.

This, of course, puts many responsibilities on both sides. Israel has to ask what sort of neighbours it wishes to have - stable or unstable? If Israel wants secure borders, it needs to work actively for the stability and flourishing of its neighbours.

Similarly, if Hamas is truly interested in enhancing a good Islamic ethos in Palestine, it could benefit from the teachings of the most celebrated medieval Muslim theologian, al-Ghazali, who focuses on self-reckoning for true reform. Hamas could do with a collective self-examination, like that which we are all called to carry out - muhasabah, as Ghazali called it - instead of finding solace in war. 

THE Israelis' fear and Hamas's unstable tactics have eroded the rule of law. Only the presence of law accepted by all would provide the guarantee for well-intentioned negotiations and the ability to exercise religion properly. Al-Ghazali, like Augustine before him, argued that good order in the world was the only guarantee for the good order of religion.

Similarly, the law is a gift in the Hebrew Bible, which regulates the affairs of the people of God, so that they can achieve what God truly calls them to be as free human beings. A common religious witness from the leaders of all the Abrahamic traditions on the need for law, let alone other humanitarian concerns, remains weak, but could have a strong impact.

The conflict urgently needs the resolve of a firm policy declaration from the UN, and perhaps more importantly, from the State Department in Washington. Meanwhile, I shall be praying for the BBC Arabic reporter, a Gazan Palestinian, crying and holding his dead newborn child, and for the many other wasted lives.

The Revd Dr Yazid Said is Scholar in residence at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem.

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