Nobel Laureate: There is a way toward peace for Palestine

A Palestinian boy stands near the closed Rafah Crossing in the Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)

The following is a speech delivered by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire at the seventh International Sabeel Conference in Jerusalem on 19 November 2008:

I am very happy to be here with you and to be invited to speak to you. I want to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Naim Ateek, and all those who helped to organize this conference. I am deeply grateful to have the freedom to come here to East Jerusalem and the freedom to speak and meet with you.

In this the 2lst century many of us take freedom for granted, but not everyone has freedom here in Israel/Palestine. I realized this, yet again, when I told a Palestinian friend I was attending this conference and he told me that though he was born in Jerusalem he is not allowed to come into East Jerusalem.

This brought home to me that East Jerusalem is indeed an integral part of the occupied territory of Palestine and many Arab people born here are not allowed into East Jerusalem.

Many Arabs who do live in East Jerusalem live in fear of their homes being demolished or expulsion by the Israeli Government — such as the al-Kurd family home in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem where the Supreme court has ruled on the expulsion of this family from their home. Since l967 almost 20,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished in the West Bank.

The expulsions and demolitions continue almost daily, along with continuing development of illegal settlements for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem, and the West Bank. A few days ago I visited the site in West Jerusalem where the Israelis are building a Museum of Tolerance upon an ancient Muslim cemetery, where the bones of the Muslims’ ancestors are being exhumed.

This is deeply painful to the Muslim people and I would like to appeal for this project to be cancelled. The Israeli Supreme court, whose role it is to uphold human rights and international laws, has agreed to this desecration of Muslim graves, and continues to rule in favor of many inhumane and illegal policies, directed against Palestinians, and against those Jewish citizens who have the moral courage to challenge this discrimination and destruction of Palestinian homes.

In spite of all this, I myself have great hope for change in the Middle East. I have hope because for almost a decade now I have been coming to Palestine/Israel and in that time I have met with many deeply committed people who have dedicated their lives to working for a peaceful, just solution to what is one of the longest running conflicts in the world. To all these people I offer my support for your nonviolent struggle for human rights and democracy.

I know that all occupations, and violent conflicts, sooner or later come to an end and that here in this part of the world, occupation will end, justice will reign, and reconciliation will flourish between the Israeli and Palestinian people.

But before peace can flourish, its roots of freedom, equality, justice, must be nourished with courage and truth.

It takes courage to speak truth to power when the consequences are often suffering. The truth shall indeed set your spirit free, but in this oppressive occupying power, the truth will also be physically, emotionally and in other ways very costly.

But we must challenge not only Israeli state injustice, but also challenge Palestinian armed militant insurgency groups to reject violence and use non-violent civil resistance — a political strategy which is not only morally right but in our Northern Irish experience does work. Still there have always been people in history, willing to tell the truth at great personal cost to themselves, and it is to such people we, the human family, remain indebted.

We are indebted especially to all those who continue to tell the truth of Nakba. In this the year of the 60th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, in l948, when 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes.

Today, the occupation continues also with the wall annexation of more Palestinian land, and the building of an apartheid racist system by the Israeli government.

Another great injustice is currently being perpetrated upon the Palestinian people by the Israeli government, with their blockade of Gaza. Recently, I went with the Free Gaza Movement by boat from Larnaca to Gaza to help break the siege of Gaza. This siege is a policy of collective punishment of one and a half million Gazans by Israel because they voted for a Hamas Government.

Collective punishment of civilians is against the Geneva Convention. The people of Gaza have been closed off completely from the world for two and a half years now, and their community and infrastructure is slowly being destroyed. There is a shortage of medicines, food, electricity and the basic necessities of life. But perhaps the worst form of torture for any human being is being unable to hold and touch the people they love, and the people of Gaza are not allowed to go across the now closed borders to be with their families. Hundreds of wives are parted from husbands in the West Bank, over 700 students cannot get out to go abroad to take up their positions in universities, sick people cannot get out to get hospital treatment, over 8O percent of the children are suffering from malnutrition, and they have no milk for the children.

Gaza is like a huge prison except the Israeli occupiers’ policy is depriving the inmates of sufficient food and medicines for survival, in this the world’s largest open-air prison. The International community and UN, should resume economic assistance as they have a responsibility towards the civilian population of Gaza, which is not dependent on whether Hamas satisfies the political conditions set by Israel or whether ceasefires hold.

In the face of all this injustice perpetrated upon the Palestinian community, The EU, European governments and much of the world community, have not only remained silent but have connived with this injustice by cutting off financial aid necessary for the Palestinians’ survival, and are thus complicit with these ongoing crimes against humanity.

I was shocked and saddened by the suffering I witnessed, but I took hope from the warmth and resilience of the people of Gaza. They want dialogue and unity with other Palestinians in the West Bank, and dialogue with the Israeli government based on justice and equality.

After meeting with Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh and speaking at the Hamas parliament, and at a meeting with over 100 political representatives, of all the political parties in Gaza, including Hamas and Fatah, I took away with me real hope that more and more Palestinians recognize that Palestinian national unity and nonviolent civil resistance are part of a political strategy that will work and give them great strength.

Increasingly they are recognizing that a divided Palestinian people, armed struggle and militarism will not solve their problem. I hope that all those of us who want peace in the Middle East, will support the rightful struggle of non-violent civil resistance of Palestinians for an end to occupation, a free Palestine, and the upholding of all UN resolutions including UN Resolution 194 — right to return of Refugees.

As part of this non-violent civil resistance struggle, I support the disinvestment campaign and the campaign to end the United States’ military support — US$10 million per day — to Israel which helps funds the military occupation of Palestine and other moves for boycott.

I also believe the Swiss Government, as repository for the Geneva Convention, should convene its members to discuss Israeli non-compliance of its obligations under the Geneva Convention. Also the Assembly of the United Nations should move to suspend Israel from its UN memberships, until it complies with all UN resolutions required of it.

It is to be hoped now that the Israeli government will recognize too that militarism, occupation and repression only feeds the violence and they will enter into serious dialogue and negotiations with Hamas and other Palestinian leaders, as the democratically elected voice of the Palestinian people. These negotiations should be within the framework of international law, particularly international humanitarian law and human rights law, and the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice and Security Council resolutions.

This year also the state of Israel celebrates its 60th anniversary.

I recognize the right of all people including the Jewish people to a peaceful existence. I also recognize the state of Israel but believe many of the Israeli government’s domestic and foreign policies are racist and uphold an apartheid system.

I believe such policies do not reflect the profound wise Jewish values of justice and peace. In an interdependent, interconnected world, where countries are made up of multi-ethnic, multi-religious, groups, we are challenged to build government structures which reflect the plurality of all citizens and whose laws are inclusive of all members of that society.

Governments cannot marginalize or have second class citizenship for whole sections of the population, as such injustice will result in violence. We learned this lesson in Northern Ireland, and are now moving towards a power-sharing all inclusive government.

I believe to have genuine peace, the Israeli government needs to move from a Jewish state to a power-sharing democratic state which is equal and inclusive of all its citizens and not just its Jewish citizens.

There is great hope for peace in Israel/Palestine, as this is a political problem with a political solution and the Israeli government and US, by treating Palestinians on a fair basis, and with real political will can help solve this historical conflict which has resulted in this inhumane occupation.

I recognize there is a deep fear of ethnic annihilation amongst many Israelis, but we, as the human family, must all learn to deal with our fears non-violently, and realize our best hope for human security is not in occupation but in implementing just and equal policies for all the people, and making friends with our enemies. Our security as the human family does not lie in militarism, nuclear weapons or war.

Another courageous voice who reminded us of this is Mordechai Vanunu.

Mordechai told the world Israel had nuclear weapons. He was concerned that possessing such weapons endangered Israel as it too could become another Hiroshima. For his act of truth telling he was punished by the Israel government and continues 22 years later to be held in East Jerusalem unable to leave Israel or speak to foreigners or foreign press.

For those of us who work to see a nuclear free Middle East, a nuclear free world, we remain indebted to Mordechai for his sacrifice on all our behalf, and we hope that Israel will uphold it International obligations to human rights and let Vanunu go free, and give leadership in the Middle East by abolishing its nuclear weapons.

We are all challenged to move from a culture of violence, to a culture of non-violence.

Last year the Nobel Peace Laureates launched a charter for a world without violence, in which they endorsed the words of the WHO “Violence is a preventable disease.”

I would encourage you to study this and campaign for your governments, religious institutions and non-governmental organizations to consider endorsing this charter.

The non-violent message in this charter is not new. 2,000 years ago Jesus said “Love your enemies, do not kill.”

The cross is for me the greatest symbol of non-violent love in action, and in the words of the late Father McKenzie “you cannot read the Bible and not know that Jesus was totally non-violent.”

Also to remember the words of one of the early Christians “I am a Christian, I cannot be a soldier.” What a great contribution we can all make to the world in helping bring peace, if we only take the message of love and non-killing seriously and live by it. Then we could with our brothers and sisters of all faiths and none, build a no killing, non-violent Middle East and world together.

Mairead Corrigan Maguire is Honorary President and one of the co-founders of the Peace People in Northern Ireland, along with Betty Williams and Ciaran McKeown. Mairead, along with Betty, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976. She is the author of The Vision of Peace: Faith and Hope in Northern Ireland and recently sailed into Gaza with the Free Gaza Movement.