The Road to Hell is Paved with Personal Commitments

Palestinians scuffle with Israeli soldiers during a demonstration against the Wall in the West Bank village of Umm Salamuna near Bethlehem, 15 January 2007. (MaanImages/Luay Sababa)


In her recent travels through the Middle East, United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brought with her, many have speculated, little more than another round of optimism. This familiar optimism was also found following the statements Secretary Rice delivered in her keynote address at the American Task Force on Palestine Inaugural Gala in Washington, DC in October of last year in which she declared her “personal commitment” to the goal of a “Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel.”

Whatever sense of optimism one might draw from such statements, it is predictably shattered when confronted with the worsening situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In one report, for example, UN human rights expert John Dugard observed that the human rights situation here continues to deteriorate and called the conditions “intolerable, appalling, and tragic for ordinary Palestinians.” And in an article titled “Israelis adopt what South Africa dropped,” Dugard made striking parallels between the situation in the Occupied Territories and his home country of South Africa under apartheid, going so far as to say: “Many aspects of Israel’s occupation surpass those of the apartheid regime. Israel’s large-scale destruction of Palestinian homes, leveling of agricultural lands, military incursions and targeted assassinations of Palestinians far exceed any similar practices in apartheid South Africa.” [1]

Whether it is more land being expropriated for the construction of a 430-mile or 700-kilometer separation barrier, the dramatic growth of illegal settlements, including in and around Jerusalem, the proliferation of a closure system of checkpoints and roadblocks that obstruct mobility, the demolition of homes and other forms of collective punishment, the one-big-prison-status of Gaza, or the continuing state of dispossession of seven million Palestinians refugees worldwide, Palestinian livelihoods are devastated by military occupation and their experience of dispossession continues unabated. Not a very optimistic scenario.

Yet optimism persists. It is in the context of such experiences of dispossession and occupation that Secretary Rice’s comments over her “personal commitment” to the goal of a “Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel” need to be examined.

Unfortunately, in this version of the language of “two states,” “the state of Israel” essentially equals annexing all major colonies in the West Bank, including “greater Jerusalem” and the Jordan Valley, with control over all of historical Palestine (fulfilling the vision of Ariel Sharon of “maximum territory, minimum Arabs”). [2] Subsequently, “the state of Palestine” equals several isolated islands of land on roughly 40 to 50 percent of the occupied West Bank (a recent report from the Foundation for Middle East Peace paints an even more depressing picture in which as little as 30 percent of the West Bank will remain for Palestinian autonomous regions) with Palestinians confined to these “reservations,” or, evoking South Africa under apartheid, “Bantustans,” which will be rendered “contiguous” by a network of tunnels controlled by the Israeli military.

In this context, it is difficult to find anything terribly comforting about Secretary’s Rice’s comments. It is this lack of a realistic perspective of events that clouds the language of “two states,” and which only makes the hope for a legitimate “two-state solution” to this terrible conflict seem all but lost.

And it is about the persistence of such dangerously misplaced optimism — the “too many mendacious statements of optimism from George W. Bush or Tony Blair or Condoleezza Rice” — that veteran British journalist Robert Fisk continuously warns his readers. What he calls the “reluctance to confront unpleasant truths” must concern us when we reflect on our efforts at advocacy. [3]

It is due to this misplaced optimism and the seemingly ineffective nature of political or legal mechanisms to find a just peace for this land that a conversation has developed about exploring alternative mechanisms to resist this occupation. Indeed, it was on the one-year anniversary of the International Court of Justice ruling condemning the route of the Wall as illegal that Palestinian civil society once again chose a nonviolent method to resist the Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestinian land by launching a boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign. [4]

Pursuing creative responses to resist injustice is key and, some would argue, the essence of nonviolence. Yet a growing popular response is one that discourages such “negative” or “critical” measures as divestment and instead suggests more “positive” approaches such as “investing” in the future of a Palestinian state.

But without freedom of movement or access to needed resources or services, such investments can hardly produce any “positive” benefits — economic or otherwise — for Palestinians. Ideas such as “cross-border industrial zones” built along the “borders” of these reservations will prove to be only another way for Israeli and Palestinian business elite to profit from the desperate and cheap Palestinian labor of a captive market. Is this type of future for Palestinians or Israelis that any of us want to invest in?

Getting Israel to move in a direction away from its colonization of the West Bank will not be possible simply with “positive” investments. “Critical” responses will be necessary. And as Jeff Halper, director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, points out:

“You can’t have it both ways. You can’t complain about violence on the part of the Palestinians and yet reject effective nonviolent measures against the occupation — such as economic sanctions — that support their right to self-determination. You can’t condemn the victims of occupation for employing terrorism while, by opposing divestment, sheltering the occupying power that employs state terror. You can’t end the isolation and suffering of people living under occupation while permitting the occupying power to carry on its life among the nations unencumbered by a boycott of its economic and cultural products.” [5]
How do we speak a word of hope that is not a “cheap” hope veiled in dangerously misplaced optimism? How should advocates for justice, peace and real security for Palestinians and Israelis respond to this current reality?

One point for us to consider might be to move beyond the conceptual bind of “statehood” — whether Palestinian or Israeli. Speaking as someone working for a church-related organization in the Occupied Territories, our concern and advocacy for a just and lasting peace should not ultimately be concerned with whether or not a Palestinian state comes into being because statehood, from a Christian perspective, is not an end in itself. Rather, what is a good in and of itself is the well-being of all who inhabit “Mandate Palestine” — that is, present-day Israel, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. If current realities have indeed rendered a two-state solution unfeasible, then those who care about the well-being and security of Palestinians and Israelis must imagine new ways for Palestinians and Israelis to live side by side in justice, freedom, and equality.

A much-discussed and controversial alternative to consider might be that of one binational state. [6] The struggle in this scenario would become one against an apartheid reality in the Occupied Territories and for equal citizenship in a binational state, in which Palestinians and Israelis are equal citizens before the law, in all of Mandate Palestine. This vision of one binational state poses several challenges to those who would advocate a just peace in this land, both in terms of discerning the on-the-ground meanings behind the language of “two states” as well as moving beyond that language to which we have become so wedded.

But what is more challenging is the necessary theological reckoning with Zionism that this vision would require of Christians, a reckoning that would lead to a confrontation with the question of whether the creation of a state which denies Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes and insists on maintaining a “Jewish demographic majority” is a theological, let alone moral or legal, good.

However one chooses to confront these unpleasant truths and challenging questions, recognizing that statehood is not an end in itself, begins with the confession that from a Christian perspective, we are called first and foremost to practice and witness for a politics of jubilee, one which brings liberty to the oppressed and a secure existence in the land (Luke 4; Leviticus 25) and to work for the day when each will sit under vine and fig tree without fear (Micah 4:4) — a vision that cannot be confined to our notions of “one state” or “two states.”

Despite the declarations of personal commitments, the “facts on the ground” largely remain the same. Palestinians and Israelis know more than anyone else that “peace” talk is cheap, and that rhetoric meant to foster such an optimism is dangerous, serving as a distraction and hindrance to genuine and sincere efforts to struggle for a just peace in this broken land.

Timothy Seidel is a peace development worker with Mennonite Central Committee in the Occupied Palestinian Territories where he has lived for the past two and a half years.

Endnotes
[1] John Dugard, “Israelis adopt what South Africa dropped,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 29 Nov 2006.
[2] See Tom Segev, “Maximum Territory, Minimum Arabs,” Haaretz, 13 January 2006; Tom Segev, “The Paradox of Jerusalem,” Haaretz, 10 June 2005; Akiva Elder, “The Road to Bantustan,” Haaretz, 17 November 2003.
[3] Robert Fisk, “The Age of Terror - a landmark report,” The Independent, 8 October 2006.
[4] For more on this campaign, see http://www.bds-palestine.net/.
[5] Jeff Halper, “The Narrow Gate to Peace,” Sojourners Vol. 34, No. 8, August 2005.
[6] Recent discussions on this include books by Ali Abunimah (One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, Metropolitan Books, 2006), Mazin B. Qumsiyeh (Sharing the Land of Canaan: Human Rights and the Israeli-Palestinian Struggle, Pluto Press, 2004), and Virginia Tilley (The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock, University of Michigan Press, 2005) as well as essays by Tony Judt (“Israel: The Alternative,” New York Review of Books, Vol.50, No.16, 23 October 2003), Virginia Tilley, “The One-State Solution,” London Review of Books, Vol.25, No.21, 6 November 2003), and Lama Abu-Odeh (“The Case for Binationalism: Why One State — liberal and constitutionalist — may be the key to peace in the Middle East,” Boston Review, December 2001/January 2002.