Progress in Palestine and how we can participate

Israel recently completed the evacuation of its remaining military units from Gaza. This brings to an end the painful process of removing all Israeli settlers from a territory home to more than 1.4 million Palestinians.

Months ago, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced plans to close the settlements in Gaza, he stated with a candor rare in Middle East politics that Israel could not keep 3.5 million people (the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza) under military occupation forever.

True to his word, and as the result of a stunning example of executive leadership, Sharon ended the 38-year-old occupation of Gaza has now ended. The Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rightly hailed this as an “historic” and “brave” step toward peace.

But Gaza still needs all the help it can get.

It is a miserable place of suffering. Two thirds of Gazans are refugees who fled from their now destroyed homes and villages in Israel during the war in 1948. For decades they have been housed in squalid refugee camps funded by the United Nations.

After 1967, Israel occupied Gaza (and the West Bank) and allowed Israeli settlements to be established. For the Palestinians, a bad life became much worse. Their lives were restricted by a large Israeli military presence which was required to secure the settlements. Severely limited travel produced crippling poverty. A permanent environment of mutual hate and violence was created. Gaza became known as the largest prison in the world.

That the majority of Israelis supported the end of Gaza’s occupation is encouraging. Militant religious Zionists–Jewish and Christian alike–have severely threatened the process. But realists have opted for peace.

And realism also demands that the remaining 2.5 million Palestinians still under occupation receive full authority over their communities.

Israeli human rights organizations such as Rabbis for Human Rights, Physicians for Human Rights and Women in Black, as well as Christian organizations such as Christian Peacemaker Teams, are working for the end of the occupation and the establishment of an enduring peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

For this peace to be achieved, the Palestinian community will also have to find the resolve to firmly reject violence against civilians as a means of achieving its goals.

How can we be a small part of Israel and Palestine’s search for a semblance of reconciliation?

Let’s decide to promote peace. That sounds obvious, but some have bought into the myth that there is an intractable hatred between Arabs and Jews. Others have concluded from their prophetic surmisings that peace is actually a betrayal of God’s will for Israel.

But the gospel of Christ is the gospel of peace. The good news is still “peace on earth, good will towards men.” Let’s work for peace.

Let’s promote human dignity. Uncritical nationalism (Palestinian or Israeli) is an intoxicating brew. When one drinks deeply from it there is a tendency to see those outside one’s national interest only as enemies. Christians must avoid the temptation of uncritical nationalistic loyalties in the Middle East and promote the ethic of Christ–to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

Let’s hold our prophetic interpretations humbly and critically. In the most agonizing way the evacuation of religious Israeli settlers from Gaza suggests that biblical interpretation–especially prophetic interpretation–can never be a justification for the disenfranchisement of another people.

Let’s learn to listen. I’ve often been asked about the situation in the Middle East and how one might learn more about it. My response is that if you want to really know what is happening in Israel and Palestine, listen to the self-criticism (not the propaganda) of each community.

My family and I lived in Ramallah for several years with a Palestinian Christian family. We were with them when the violence of the recent Intifada, or “uprising,” began in September 2000. I recall on one particularly tough day the lament of the elderly auntie who lived below us: “My whole life has been war.”

There must be something better for Palestinians and Israelis than war. The evacuation of Gaza was a significant step toward peace. Let’s stand with these peoples in their search for a final, enduring peace.

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