by The Rev. Tony Higton
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Ministry
in Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Issue 8 December 12th 2006
Ministries encourages Christians to understand and pray
about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, seeing it through
the eyes of both people groups involved, and taking the
needs, fear and pain of both sides seriously. Its director,
the Rev Tony Higton, who was Rector of a church in the Old
City of Jerusalem for a number of years, circulates this
email newsletter, speaks at seminars and encourages support
of indigenous reconciliation ministry in Jerusalem. The
is available free on request to those who add their email
address to our Newsletter update list, available on the top
of the 'Newsletter'
page. Alternatively, send your email address and name to
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Please encourage others to join the mailing list.© Tony
There seems to be a growing weariness amongst the vast
majority who are ordinary decent people in Israel and the
Palestinian areas. Hopefully there is a growing realisation
that violence only breeds violence, and doesn’t lead to
peace. It is not beyond possibility that some, though not
all, activists and men of violence will realise it too. It
is in this context that the current cease-fire should be
Recently Ghazi Hamad (a Palestinian government spokesman)
and Abdallah 'Awad, (columnist for the Palestinian Authority
daily Al-Ayyam), wrote highly critical articles about the
situation in Palestinian society. They condemned the
division and factional violence which “have led the
Palestinian people to the brink of national, political,
economic, and social disaster.” They lament the fact that
Palestinians are emigrating. The articles accused the
Palestinian leaders of self-serving and lying. The
oppression caused by the warring factions is described as
worse than the oppression resulting from Israeli actions.
Hamad wrote that violence “has become the master that we
obey everywhere - in the home, in the neighbourhood, in the
family, in the tribe, in the organization or the university
- and no place remains safe from it.”
He concluded: “We must call an 'Honesty and
Reconciliation' conference, in which we express regret for
mistakes and sins, acknowledge them, and undertake, before
Allah and before our people, to abandon violence forever,
and henceforth not to use bullets, shells, or disgraceful
words [and for] the spirit of tolerance and love to grow
As I write, news has come in of the horrific drive-by
shooting of three children of a senior Fatah intelligence
officer in Gaza City. The gunmen shot about 30 bullets into
the car, in a street crowded with hundreds of children.
Hamas condemned the attack but senior intelligence officers
are blaming Hamas for it. The incident has led to
widespread calls from Fatah, for Abbas to dismiss the Hamas
government. Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian
President Mahmoud Abbas commented: “This will lead us into
Abbas and Hamas have held exhaustive consultations about
establishing a unity government but Hamas refuses to accept
the conditions for removing the crippling international
economic embargo, which include recognition of Israel’s
right to exist. Hamas policy is clearly expressed in a
recent speech by Mahmoud Al-Zahar, the Palestinian Foreign
Minister, who stated that "Israel is a vile entity that has
been planted in our soil, and has no historical, religious
or cultural legitimacy. We cannot normalize our relations
with this entity. The history of this region has proven that
occupation is temporary. Thousands of years ago, the Romans
occupied this land and left. The Persians, Crusaders, and
English came and went. The Zionists have come, and they too
will leave. [We say] no to recognizing Israel, regardless of
the price we may have to pay."
Similarly, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya said:
"We [derive] legitimacy from the legitimacy of the jihad. We
are a government born from the womb of the resistance, from
the womb of the martyrs... We are a government that comes
out of resistance and jihad, and out of the desire for
resistance and jihad against the Zionist occupation..."
However, Abbas recently declared: "Bread is more important
than democracy." By this he meant that Hamas may have been
democratically elected but if – as is the case - it cannot
pay salaries and provide food it cannot continue to rule.
This is part of the evidence that he is indeed contemplating
dismissing the Hamas government before calling early
elections, and he is being pressed by the US and moderate
Arab governments to do so.
Hamas, which was elected for three years, claims he cannot
do this legally under the Palestinians' Basic Law. But he
could hold a referendum on early elections and so circumvent
All of this internal chaos and carnage is in addition to
attacks by the IDF which continued until recent weeks. The
worst event was the killing of 19 Palestinians, including 17
members of a single family, in Beit Hanun, N. Gaza, by IDF
artillery shells. 40 others were injured. At that time the
IDF were threatening a large scale military operation in
Disillusionment remains in Israel after the humiliation of
the war against Hezbollah and its implications. Hamas has
been seeking to stockpile large quantities of precision
Soviet missiles, smuggled from Egypt through secret tunnels.
There is evidence that attempts are being made to smuggle
these arms into the West Bank. It appears therefore that
Israel could potentially face the same sort of bombardment
from Gaza and the West Bank that it did from Hezbollah,
which caused the evacuation of a million Israelis. Also
Hamas has been building up a force of commandos in Gaza who
specialise in anti-tank weapons.
Opinion polls in Israel indicate that 80% of the population
are unable to feel pride in their country because of
corruption amongst its leaders, including allegations
against the prime minister and president. 51% do not trust
public institutions to help in a time of need (compared with
27% in 2003). Only 16% trust the police and 25% the courts.
25% don’t trust the military, 48% don’t trust the national
The IDF determined that the incident where 19 Palestinians
were killed in Beit Hanun was a tragic accident caused by
faulty radar equipment but some Israelis condemn the planned
strategy because it was aimed at a residential
neighbourhood. One Israeli journalist wrote: “The
overwhelming, crucial, shocking fact is that the IDF
bombards helpless civilians.” Others would disagree, but
such events add to the disillusionment in Israel.
The UN General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned the
Then there were, until the cease-fire the constant
bombardment of Qassam rockets from Gaza, especially on the
town of Sderot. 33% of Sderot children suffer from
post-traumatic stress disorder which involves acute anxiety.
One journalist wrote: “I sit in front of the television and
watch the disturbing images from Sderot. Frightened
residents seeking to flee to Eilat pile into a long line of
buses …. The pressure, the pushing, the mass flight. In a
single word, shame. The pictures on television said it all.
The shame of being a resident of the State of Israel, whose
great army cannot provide a minimum of personal security.
The shame of living daily in the shadow of the Qassams,
which are nothing more than primitive metal pipes filled
with explosives. The shame in the knowledge that a great
army with a very great budget cannot deal with a few
terrorists and some flying pipes.”
On a wider front Ehud Olmert reminded the Knesset that an
Iranian nuclear bomb would be "an
existential threat to Israel." Iranian President
Ahmadinejad said of Israel recently: "The existence of this
regime has been based on military threat, on military
strength, and on its myth of invincibility. Today, by the
grace of God, this myth has been shattered, with the help of
the believers in Palestine, and thanks to the self-sacrifice
and the belief of the Hizbullah commanders. Today, the
Zionists do not feel safe, not even in their homes, [or]
anywhere in the world."
Iran is gaining increasing influence in Syria. The murder
of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri in 2005 destroyed
good relations between Syria and moderate Arab governments,
driving the country more towards Iran.
Meanwhile, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah appear to be trying to
topple the Lebanese government. Hezbollah has been demanding
more than five Ministers in the government, out of 24.
Having failed in this, the five Hezbollah-aligned ministers
resigned from the government. The assassination of the
Lebanese minister Pierre Gemayel further destabilised the
situation. Hezbollah called thousands of its supporters out
onto the streets of Beirut to demonstrate against the
It is against this difficult background, for both Israelis
and Palestinians that the ceasefire was called from 6am on
26th November. Mahmoud Abbas had managed to reach
agreement with Palestinian factions to facilitate this. The
IDF were ordered not to respond to any Qassam rocket attacks
and they have kept to that despite rockets being fired by
extremists. Abbas deployed 13,000 Palestinian soldiers to
patrol the border to prevent further Qassam attacks.
Ehud Olmert made a major speech responding to the
cease-fire. He proposed negotiations with Abbas over the
creation of a Palestinian state that would enjoy territorial
contiguity in the West Bank and promised to evacuate any
Jewish settlements established in that new state. It would
a state with full sovereignty and defined borders.
His conditions were that the new Palestinian government
should be committed to the principles of the Quartet (US,
Europe, Russia and the UN, i.e.
recognizing Israel, relinquishing violence and accepting
previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements),
implement the road map, (i.e.,
disbanding terrorist organizations),
and release captured Israeli prisoners
(Israel would release Palestinian prisoners). He also urged
the Palestinians to give up their demand for the right of
return for Palestinian refugees from Israel. He made no
reference to the thorny issue of Jerusalem. There is now
evidence of secret contact between Olmert and Abbas, partly
through emissaries and partly by phone.
If the cease-fire holds, Olmert promised to reduce the
roadblocks and increase movement of people and goods to and
from Palestinian areas. Israel would also release frozen
Palestinian funds for humanitarian purposes and help with
economic reconstruction. It is thought that a summit between
Bush, Abbas and Olmert could take place.
Some people think that the cease-fire is an opportunity for
Hamas to rebuild its stock of weapons. Others, pointing to
previous cease-fires say that Israel will probably break it
with a targeted killing. But it seems to me that the
situation has changed. The weariness of violence and its
effects is greater. The humiliation of Israel in the recent
Lebanon war and its inability to deal effectively with
rocket attacks, together with the many Palestinians killed
in Israeli attacks and internal violence could make for a
lasting cease-fire. Israel’s willingness to exercise
restraint in the light of extremists firing rockets is
another positive factor (15 rockets were fired in the first
two weeks of the cease-fire).
However, the very divided situation in Palestinian politics
is still a major negative factor, as is Hamas’ refusal to
recognise Israel. But surveys indicate that the Palestinians
would not vote for Hamas again, so Hamas may, in the end, be
forced to be pragmatic.
Another positive factor is the Saudi Arabian peace
initiative (which is even supported by Syria and Libya). The
Arab League has appealed to the UN Security Council to adopt
this plan. So, for the first time, there is a pan-Arab plan
for peace with Israel. This
is a historic change. It is helpful also that the plan does
not mention the evacuation of Jewish settlements but allows
the possibility of exchanging them for territory elsewhere.
It also allows Israel to decide how many Palestinian
refugees would be allowed to return and under what
conditions. The Jerusalem holy sites, which have often been
a stumbling block, were also not mentioned.
The US Baker-Hamilton Study Group on Iraq recommends talks
between Israel, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians. There
are also voices in Lebanon calling for peace talks with
Israel. Even Syrian President Bashar Assad is calling for
talks with Israel. However,
Israel, with US support, does not believe it is time to
negotiate with the Syrians, though 50% of Israelis support
Olmert said recently: "The state of Israel is so strong that
it can allow itself to hold back, to give a real chance to
the cease-fire. After all, a cease-fire is not the supreme
goal. It is only a stage in the process, which we hope will
create the dynamic that will lead to negotiations and
dialogue, and perhaps will finally bring about an agreement
between us and the Palestinians."
As Winston Churchill said: “Jaw, jaw is better than war,
How do we pray?
For the Palestinians in their suffering as a result of
external and internal violence and economic hardship.
For the Israelis in their anxieties, particularly over
rocket attacks, and their disillusionment.
For a reaction against violence with the recognition
that it only breeds more violence.
For God to restrain the extremist men and women of
For God to strengthen the resolve of both sides to
maintain the cease-fire.
For God to bring about a stable Palestinian government
which recognises Israel and is committed to peace.
For Israel to continue its policy of military restraint.
For God to bring stability to Lebanon, to move Syria in
the direction of peace and to restrain the Iranians,
especially in their nuclear ambitions.
Finally, I wish you all a very happy Christmas. May the
Prince of Peace, who is also the
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God and the Everlasting Father,
bring peace dignity and justice to the war-weary people of
the Middle East: Israeli, Palestinian, Lebanese (and for the
people of Iraqi).