Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Statement on Gaza -- A Must Read from Sabeel

Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, a respected ecumenical partner of the churches that form the National Council of Churches, is led by Rev. Canon Naim Ateek (Anglican priest). With their statements, strong on justice for Palestinians, Sabeel has drawn the ire of my Jewish colleagues in the mainstream Jewish organizations in the US. As my Jewish colleagues would point out, I am always aware of the alternative narratives that are a part of this struggle. However, the following statement from Sabeel on the situation in Gaza is well done. It provides background, analysis of the situation on the ground, theological reflection and action steps. I commend it to your reading and reflection

The Arrogance of Power

“For [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).

In Palestine, rain does not fall in the summer. It falls during the rainy season between November and March. People wait with eagerness and thankfulness for the rain after the hot and dry summer months. In the Gaza Strip, rain hardly falls even in the winter. It is a parched land whose only freshwater reservoirs have been depleted by decades of Israeli occupation. The name of the Israeli army operation itself reflects a callous euphemism. By calling the invasion of the Gaza Strip “summer rains,” Israel has taken the word “rain” that stands for and represents a blessing to Palestinians and to all other people and turned it into a curse. It has taken God’s wonderful gift of nature that brings life, food, and health and instead used it to shower destruction and devastation on the people of Gaza. To name this brutal aggression “summer rains” is cruel. Since June 25, over 106 Palestinians have been killed, many of whom are young children, and more than 241 injured. During the same period, six Israelis have been killed with an unknown number of injured.

Since the outset of the second Intifada, under the pretext that there was no Palestinian partner, Israel has practiced unilateral policies violating International Humanitarian Law. This included the construction of the separation wall, settlement expansion and confiscation of Palestinian land. After the death of President Arafat in November 2004 and the election of Mahmoud Abbas in elections in January 2005, Israel also rejected him as partner and continued its plans. From the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip to the continued construction of the separation wall in the West Bank, there were no efforts at negotiations. In the last legislative elections, with the Hamas victory and the formation of its government, Israel again used this as a justification to continue its unilateral policies. Throughout, the Palestinian effort to hold together all political factions in a period of quiet (hudna) for eighteen months was never taken into account.

The recent events before the Gaza incursion were triggered by an attack by the military wing of Hamas on June 25 against an Israeli military post. Israeli columnist Gideon Levy in Ha’aretz, on July 3, 2006 spoke about the context for the recent chain of events: “The legitimate basis for the IDF's [Israeli army] operation was stripped away the moment it began. It's no accident that nobody mentions the day before the attack on the Kerem Shalom fort, when the IDF kidnapped two civilians, a doctor and his brother, from their home in Gaza. The difference between us and them? We kidnapped civilians and they captured a soldier, we are a state and they are a terror organization. How ridiculously pathetic Amos Gilad [major general in Army Intelligence] sounds when he says that the capture of Shalit was "illegitimate and illegal," unlike when the IDF grabs civilians from their homes.”

What We Should Consider

  1. The humanitarian crisis: Since the strike on Gaza’s only electrical plant on June 28, the 1.5 million Palestinians of Gaza are without electricity between 12-18 hours a day. Water utilities, dependent on electricity for pumping and treatment, have been reduced to 1/3 capacity.

  2. The lack of due process: Israel has seized the members of a democratically elected government including eight cabinet ministers and 34 legislators; and bombed its interior ministry, the foreign ministry, the economic ministry and the prime minister's offices.

  3. The collective punishment: These practices range from nocturnal "sound bombs" under orders from the Israeli prime minister to "make sure no one sleeps at night in Gaza"; to flyers that have told the civilian population to flee their homes; bombing of infrastructure; and shooting of hundreds of air to surface missiles and artillery shells that have terrified the civilians and especially the children.

  4. The loss of human life: The Israeli army has repeatedly fired missiles into residential areas, with multiple civilian fatalities including entire families. Although the “extrajudicial-assassination” policy has caused a large number of “unintentional” civilian causalities in the last months, Israel continues to shoot missiles into the crowded communities and streets of Gaza.

  5. The crisis of prisoners: In the last four years, as a condition for the release of Palestinian prisoners, Israel has demanded Palestinian political concessions and a complete cessation of “violence”. At each stage, after the goal was met, the prisoners have never actually been released. Currently there are around 10,000 Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli prisons including 380 children and 109 women, most without charges or if charged, given prolonged terms for belonging to political organizations. During this Intifada, prisoners have only been released en masse in response to a Hizballah kidnapping in 2004.

  6. The claim of self-defense: President Bush’s repeated saying that Israel has the right to defend itself is a distortion of the facts on the ground. What Israel is doing is tantamount to a defense of its occupation. Israel is occupying Palestinian land, denies Palestinians the right to resist and calls its aggression self-defense. It is the epitome of the arrogance of power.

  7. The prison of Gaza: With all entries and exits out of the Gaza Strip closed to the citizens of Gaza, Israel is creating a frustrated and radicalized population that feels trapped and isolated. This population has little hope and increasing bitterness.

What Must Be Done
  1. Immediate international intervention: According to international law, civilians under occupation have the right to protection and self-defense. Israel has been using excessive military force and violence to exert control and to suppress the Palestinians. Israel is incapable of protecting the Palestinians. Therefore, the deteriorating situation demands immediate international intervention. The international community cannot remain passive. It must step in and implement the demands of Humanitarian and International Law.

  2. Financial and infrastructural support: The people of Gaza need immediate humanitarian aid and social support to address this crisis. While we are thankful for the assistance of the international community, Israel needs to be held responsible for the damage it has caused. We believe that behind the carnage is an Israeli policy that aims at slowing down and impeding Palestinian progress. So long as other countries keep footing the bills of Israeli destruction, Israel will continue to create havoc and act irresponsibly. The international community must force Israel to pay for the rebuilding of the infrastructure, including new electrical and water plants, the building of bridges and highways and the reconstruction of demolished buildings. Israel must be held accountable.

  3. Due process for the prisoners: Palestinian prisoners deserve the same rights as political prisoners around the world. This includes due process for open trials and sentencing, adequate representation in their language, no administrative detention, and release once terms are served or if evidence is not provided. Taking Israeli soldiers captive has become the only way to force the release of prisoners. It should not be so. By respecting the rights of prisoners, Israel can reduce much tension in the area. The issue of the prisoners has been at the heart of so much suffering and violence. The prisoners themselves have tried peaceful means to raise attention including various hunger strikes all of last year but to no avail. The international community must take a stand and push for their civil rights.

  4. Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority: The US must pressure Israel into immediate political negotiations with the Palestinians. Military force will never solve the conflict. Only direct negotiations, with the sponsorship of the United Nations and on the basis of International Law, will achieve such a resolution. Israel cannot force its will on the Palestinians. Peace is possible today only if International Law is applied. The Palestinians are ready. Why does Israel continue to reject International Law? With vetoes and lobbying the US has weakened the only institution that could step in and bring about peace.

Theological Response
One of the beautiful and challenging sections in the Sermon on the Mount according to Matthew is found when Jesus exhorts his disciples to love and pray for their enemies,

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the
righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?
Do not even the tax collectors do the same? (Matthew 5:44-46)

Such words sound foolish to the ears of those who believe in violence as the way to deal with the enemy. We have become so enmeshed with violence that we cannot see the alternatives. Violence is our worst enemy and will not produce peace. The challenge before us is to try the way of nonviolence that can potentially turn an enemy into a neighbor with whom we can live in peace and security. This challenge is for the oppressor as well as the oppressed, the strong as well as the weak.

When Jesus described God’s love and mercy by sending rain to fall on the just and unjust, he was giving us one of the greatest and most essential lessons we humans need to learn. Jesus was not talking about cheap and sentimental love of enemies. In our own context of life, true and genuine love expresses itself in doing justice to one’s enemy. It is the love that is willing to share the country with the other for the sake of living in peace, love that respects the rule of International Law for the sake of oneself as well as for the sake of the other, love that is willing to show and accept mercy, love that respects the humanity of the other, love that extends and receives forgiveness from the other, love that seeks the peace and well-being of the other, love that wants to guarantee the security of the other as much as one’s own. This is the rain that God showers on us and this is the rain that we need for both the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Sabeel still says that a genuine and lasting peace can only be established on justice which is the other side of love. This is the shortest and surest way to a genuine peace. We call on our friends to pray and work for the end to this conflict. Human life and precious time are being wasted by dealing with the symptoms of the occupation rather than addressing the real problem. To End the Conflict, we must End the Occupation.

What can our friends do?
  • Use the above talking points for letters to the editors and articles for local press

  • Join in the various campaigns to raise financial support for the people of Gaza

  • Participate in building awareness about the forgotten residents of Gaza and the need for due process for the Palestinian prisoners with local rallies, forums and campaigns

  • Write your elected officials and demand both international intervention and immediate return to negotiations

Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center
July 18, 2006


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