Monday, May 30, 2011

Conflict and Peace: Between Myth and Reality

On the Arab "Spring", Nakba, Hamas, Dhimmitude... and Sleeping Christians

In the last few months, it seems like the temperature has been steadily rising in the Middle East - and not only because of the nearing summer. The so-called "Arab Spring," initially carrying the hope that the fall of dictators in the Middle East would bring a blossoming of democracy and freedom in the Arab world, has already turned sour with bloodbaths in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The death toll at this point of some 13,000 and counting - with no sign of true democracy on the horizon - raises serious questions as to whether we are witnessing a "spring" at all.  As Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu noted in his recent speech to the U.S. Congress, other revolutions that had raised similar hopes in the not too distant past ended up disastrously:
This historic moment holds the promise of a new dawn of freedom and opportunity. Millions of young people are determined to change their future. We all look at them. They muster courage. They risk their lives. They demand dignity. They desire liberty... Yet as we share their hopes, we also must also remember that those hopes could be snuffed out as they were in Tehran in 1979. You remember what happened then.  The brief democratic spring in Iran was cut short by a ferocious and unforgiving tyranny.  This same tyranny smothered Lebanon’s democratic Cedar Revolution, and inflicted on that long-suffering country, the [dark] rule of Hezbollah. 
In Israel, so far largely untouched by the nearby revolutions and uprisings, the developments are nevertheless worrisome.  On May 4, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority signed a reconciliation agreement with the Islamist terrorist organization Hamas, which has been ruling the Gaza strip since the bloody conflict between them in 2007. Just a few days later, on May 9, Israelis tried to put their worries to rest for 24 hours as they celebrated the 63rd anniversary of their independence.

But what is a cause of celebration for some is a disaster for others: On May 15, Palestinians remembered "Nakba day" - the "day of the catastrophe" commemorating the displacement of Palestinian people that followed Israeli independence and the subsequent war launched by the Arab nations in 1948 (the discrepancy in the date is due to the fact that Independence Day is celebrated according to the Hebrew calendar, and "Nakba Day" according to the Gregorian calendar).  In addition to clashes and riots in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, in an unprecedented development, thousands of Palestinians and other Arabs marched towards the Israeli borders, and over one hundred protestors from Syria managed to breach the fence and entered Israeli territory - at the cost of more human life.

While the massive calls for a third intifada fortunately did not materialize and the violence quickly subsided, many challenges lie ahead in the coming months, with the interim Egyptian government flirting with the idea of cancelling the peace agreement with Israel, and with Palestinians expected to unilaterally declare statehood in September, causing Israeli police to prepare for wide-scale rioting.

With the ever-growing threats and attempts at delegitimizing the existence of Israel, what is perhaps most worrisome is the attitude of many Christians towards the conflict, ranging from misguided activism to naive passivity. I have recently been watching videos and visiting websites and Facebook pages of some Christian pro-Palestinian and "peace activist" groups, even engaging in conversation with some of them to try to better understand their point of view. These discussions, to be frank, were troubling.  I have found that the essential kernel of truth that they are supposed to stand for - which all Christians can agree with in principle - namely, the desire for peace, justice and dignity for the Palestinian people, becomes largely or even completely eclipsed by a number of nonsensical aberrations.  Some of these myths and lies are repeated ad nauseum until even sensible people start believing in them.  Here are some of the most prominent ones that come to mind:
  1. The disproportionate amount of time, resources and energy spent in delegitimizing and attacking Israel rather than in proposing concrete solutions for the Palestinians (such as, for example, the anti-Israel campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions).
  2. The disproportionate focus on Palestinian victimization and on Israeli injustices (some of which are true and certainly deserving of criticism, while others are greatly exaggerated), matched with a nearly total inability to see the "other side", namely the existential threat and fear of terror faced by Israelis almost on a daily basis.
  3. The Palestinian inability to take responsibility for or even acknowledge the horrific acts of terrorism committed year after year against Israeli civilians.
  4. The selective reading of history or even rewriting of historical facts.  Examples include the fixation on the Palestinian refugee problem while deliberately ignoring the story of the 800,000+ Jewish refugees who fled Arab lands in the years following the founding of the State of Israel, or more generally the myth of the vanishing Christian population in the Holy Land.
  5. The Palestinian culture of incitement and hatred against Jews, and the public glorification of terrorists by the Palestinian Authority.
  6. The propagandic use and wrenching out of context of hard realities such as the security fence/wall, originally built by Israel to stop relentless waves of terror bombings, but now used by Palestinian propagandists to symbolize an alleged "Israeli apartheid" - regardless of the fact that Israel is one of the most multi-cultural countries in the world.
  7. The systematic demonization of Christian Zionists and supporters of Israel, who are commonly falsely portrayed as Arab-haters, avid supporters of injustice, or apocalyptic doomsayers.
  8. The dhimmi mentality whereby out of fear for their safety, Christians oppressed under Islamic regimes prefer to remain silent or even claim that all is well with their Muslim neighbors to avoid further aggression, and instead blame Israel for everything.  
While one can appreciate the need to speak prudently in a situation of conflict with Islam, the absurd and disastrous result of dhimmitude is at least twofold: first, the one country that is most often singled out for criticism in the Middle East is ironically the one where Christians are entirely safe and enjoy full religious freedom, namely Israel.  Second, and carrying much graver consequences, the stories and reports that are told by many local Christians, increasingly tainted by fear, political correctness and dhimmitude, are forming a world opinion about the Middle East conflict that has more to do with caricature, fantasy and myth than with reality: this is the caricature of Israel the evil occupier, ruthlessly oppressing and dispossessing the poor Palestinians, and the fantasy that if only Israel would dismantle all settlements and grant the Palestinians their state, it would be the end of the Middle East conflict. Of course, as past Israeli withdrawals and concessions have demonstrated, nothing could be further from the truth.

Let's illustrate the problem with one small example. A few weeks ago, the Franciscan Media Center in Jerusalem interviewed Auxiliary Bishop of Jerusalem William Shomali on the Fatah-Hamas agreement. The news report claimed that the agreement between the two Palestinian factions could "mark a [positive] turning point in the Arab-Israeli conflict," and would somehow increase the Palestinian Authority's credentials to ask the UN for the recognition of a Palestinian state.  Msgr. Shomali claimed that the agreement would be an opportunity to "revive the [peace] negotiations," and that the freedom of local Christians (under a potential Hamas regime) would be guaranteed because "Hamas respects the freedom to build churches [and] to worship freely."

Over-zealous optimism, wishful thinking, or disconnect from reality?  It is hard to comprehend how Abu Mazen's agreement with the unrepentant terrorist organization, responsible for dozens of suicide bombings and the deaths of hundreds of civilians, could "mark a turning point" in the conflict or increase the PA's credentials. This is the same Hamas that has called for the killing of Christians and Jews "to the last one" and condemned the death of Bin Laden as the the murder of a heroic "Arab and Muslim holy warrior." Ironically, just two days before the bishop's interview was published, a Hamas MP and cleric said on Al-Aqsa TV in Gaza that the Jews were brought to Palestine for "the great massacre" whereby the Arabs will "have the honor of annihilating the evil of this gang," more dangerous than reptiles and lethal bacteria, so that "the land of Palestine will become the capital of the Islamic Caliphate."

An interesting basis for "reviving peace negotiations."

If this is not convincing enough, you can also read for yourself the Hamas Charter which openly proclaims that "Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors."  The charter also rejects all peace initiatives and praises Jihad and death for the cause of Allah as the Muslim's highest duty. As for Hamas guaranteeing the Christians' freedom of worship, this is the same Hamas that has relentlessly persecuted Christians in Gaza and is looking forward to the day when Rome and the rest of Europe will be conquered by Islam just like Constantinople was.

In this light, the "religious freedom" guaranteed by Hamas might of a rather peculiar type.

How the good bishop's rosy optimism can be reconciled with these basic facts on Hamas is a mystery. But this dichotomy between mythical opinion and sober reality demonstrates one thing: Christians around the world should be wary of passively swallowing any narrative or story coming from the Holy Land and Middle East - even when told by well-meaning Christians - without throwing in a good dose of critical thinking and fact finding. Things are not always as they seem. How many more bombings of churches will it take for the world to finally wake up and realize that Israel is not the problem?

Ariel Ben Ami