Submitted to Evangelicals Now May 1997
"Hear this, you leaders of the house of Jacob, you rulers of the house of Israel, who despise justice and distort all that is right; who build Zion with bloodshed, and Jerusalem with wickedness...Yet they lean upon the Lord and say, "Is not the Lord among us? No disaster will come upon us." Therefore because of you, Zion will be plowed like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble, the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets." (Micah 3:9-13 NIV)
On Tuesday, March 18, 1997, on Jabal Abu Ghoneim mountain, near Bethlehem, bulldozers began to demolish the last remnants of any hope that Israel would implement the Oslo Peace Accord. Abu Ghoneim mountain is located at the northern borders of the town of Beit Sahour, the ancient site of the shepherds fields. It is part of the territory occupied by Israel during the 1967 war, which the international community has repeatedly insisted must be returned to its Palestinian owners. The mountain was originally declared a green belt and contains several sites significant to Christians including St. Theodore's well, Byzantine and Georgian monasteries and has strong associations with St. Lucas and St. Marinus. The insensitivity with which the Israeli government deals with ancient Christian and Moslem sites as well as its living communities is indicative of her attitude to the final status of Jerusalem.
The intention to build another 6,500 housing units exclusively for 25,000 more American and European Jewish settlers on 462 acres of forcibly confiscated Palestinian land could be the final straw that ignites war over Jerusalem. In the Arabic Paper al-Quds-al-Arabi, under the heading "The Battle for Jerusalem" the decision by Netanyahu's government to start building work at Abu Ghoneim was described as having, "lit the fuse that will trigger the war of Jerusalem ...oblivious to Arab and international warnings and deaf to all the expressions of condemnation and denunciation.. We can predict without hesitation that it will be a bloody battle..."
The Political Motive Why would Israel wish to violate both the letter and the spirit of the Interim Peace Agreement between Israel and the Palestinians by this provocative act? Quite simply the massive settlement at Abu Ghoneim closes the circle of exclusively Jewish settlements around the north, east and south side of Palestinian Jerusalem and changes the demographic character of the West Bank for ever. Har Homa is destined to give the Jews a strategic fortress as part of the process of "Judaising" Jerusalem before the final status talks. It lays siege to the Christian Palestinian communities of Beit Sahour and Bethlehem. It eliminates their land reserves, isolates them from Jerusalem and cuts them off from the rest of the West Bank to the north. It threatens the very existence of these ancient Christian communities.
According to Daoud Kuttab, a Christian Palestinian journalist, "A calculated and premeditated process of changing the character and the demographic nature of the Holy City... is taking place. Only 13% of the land of East Jerusalem remains in Palestinian hands. The rest has been confiscated for further exclusive Jewish settlements, by-pass roads or closed military areas. Israeli planning for "Greater Jerusalem" is an open secret. Israeli's assertion that Jerusalem will remain the "eternal and undivided capital of Israel" is a unilateral claim to exclusive Israeli sovereignty over the city that pre-empts genuine negotiation.
Under the Oslo Agreement, the Palestinians agreed to defer the status of Jerusalem in exchange for an Israeli commitment to preserve the territorial integrity of the West Bank and Gaza. Two years later, Palestinians watch this promise evaporating before their eyes as the Israelis continue to demolish Palestinian homes (700 have been issued with demolition orders), to expand exclusively Jewish settlements in the West Bank and undermine what is left of the area's historic territorial integrity.
The Military Strategy Netanyahu has shrugged off world-wide condemnation, Church protests, and threats of violence by frustrated Palestinians. Total Jewish control of Jerusalem is more important than anything else - including peace, he has said repeatedly. According to Eric Margolis, a specialist in military fortifications, this is because Har Homa is part of a Jewish Maginot Line. Immediately after the 1967 war, Israel began building `housing projects' on a broad arc from NE to SE of the Old City. `Housing' is really a misnomer. The image of benign British suburban housing estates could not be further from the truth. Margolis points out,
"These massive, ugly apartment blocs form a nearly unbroken wall, cutting off Jerusalem from the West Bank. Constructed of large stone blocks protected by earth revetments, and thick, steel-reinforced concrete, many are capable of withstanding 155mm howitzer shells and even direct fire by 105- 130mm flat trajectory shells. Narrow windows resembling pillbox embrasures face the enemy. These fortress blocs have underground shelters, magazines, and independent water supplies. Their residents are armed and organised to defend the complexes. The residential forts are designed, like Israeli border settlements and forts along the Golan, to delay an Arab attack, shelter civilians, and serve as tactical strong-points, or `schwerpunkt,' upon which offensive armoured formations can manoeuvre."
So the latest construction at Jabal Abu Ghoneim - is extremely significant because it effectively severs the only remaining `open' land corridor between Jerusalem and Palestinian-administered territory. By slamming shut this last gate into Jerusalem, Israel sends Palestinians the brutally clear message that Israel alone will rule Jerusalem. In the various arguments about claims to the land it must be remembered that it is Israel that occupies Palestinian land, not Palestinians who occupy Israeli territory. Israel is a threat to the Palestinians, especially the Christian Palestinian community, not the other way round.
The Economic Incentive This settlement is also part of a deliberate and ambitious plan to build a new tourist city on the northern entrance to Bethlehem called, "Bethlehem, Israel". Like ancient Nazareth, Bethlehem will become a place where tourists go only for a brief visit while the economic benefits are diverted and reaped by Israel. Tourists will be bussed into 'biblical' Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity then go straight back to "Bethlehem Israel" to shop, eat and sleep. This tourist centre, with its own olive-wood souvenir shops, hotels and restaurants will inevitably further suffocate family-owned Christian businesses in Bethlehem and Beit Sahour and deprive the already flagging Palestinian economy of badly needed revenue. According to Afif Safieh, the Palestinian General Delegate to the UK, and a Christian, "The economic repercussion of the Jabal Abu Ghoneim - Har Homa settlement will inevitably result in driving the Christian community into exile..."
The Religious Propaganda War It is no coincidence that Israeli officials and newspapers use only the Hebrew name of the site, Har Homa. This is no innocuous translation from Arabic into Hebrew. The cultural displacement of the Arabic name is inevitably followed by physical displacement. Palestinians know Jabal Abu Ghoneim as "Green Mountain" . The proposed new Hebrew name is "Har Homa" meaning "Mountain of the Wall". The difference in the names is as eloquent as the difference in perception. Thousands of locations in Israel and the Occupied Territories have undergone the same surgical process, cleansing them of their former Arab associations and rendering them full Hebrew and Israeli identity. So, for example, Palestine has become Judea and Samaria. This practice may sound phoney, but to Israelis it is both natural and has proved highly successful. The biblical origin of Hebrew enables the Israelis to reconstruct history in accordance with their Zionist purposes.
The "virtual reality" of resurrecting biblical hallucinations has become a very potent political lever, aided and abetted by Christian Zionists who naively equate contemporary Israel with biblical Israel. So when Jabal Abu Ghoneim has disappeared from the Israeli collective consciousness and is taken over by Har Homa, it will have become part of the nation's inheritance, to be "defended" at all costs. That is why the settlement is now exported to the world media only as Har Homa. Netanyahu reckons that the world will forget Jabal Abu Ghoneim soon enough. On the basis of numerous precedents, his deduction is likely to be accurate. By driving Palestinians out of Jerusalem and building exclusive apartments for Jews, the Israeli government is using administrative and legal means to ethnically cleanse Greater Jerusalem.
A Response by the Indigenous Christians In a statement released on Good Friday, Sabeel, The Palestinian Liberation Theology Centre, in Jerusalem asserted, "The project reflects the arrogance of Israeli power, its obsession with domination over, and economic exploitation of the Palestinians. It has and will fuel resentment, deepen the hate, ensure the passion for revenge, and bring about an inevitable future of bloodshed and violence...We in Sabeel condemn the violence of the construction at Abu Ghoneim, perpetrated by the State of Israel. It is a violence against the aspirations of a whole nation. It is a violence directed against the peace process. It is a violence against the future generations of Palestinians and Israelis who must live as neighbours in peace and security."
Patriarch Michel Sabbah, Roman Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, said last month, "The Confiscation of any land, in Palestinian Territories, can only provoke opposition to and endanger the peace process. We cannot understand such contradictory measures: from one side Palestinians are requested to make peace, on the other side, their lands are confiscated. These confiscations raise in all hearts frustration and despair and are one of the main factors which is exploited by extremists, and which lead to more violence."
The Middle East Council of Churches, similarly insist "In soil already bitter, it sows seeds of deep distrust and even deep despair." They urge churches, "to decry what is happening to the City of Peace, and to intervene with their governments in its cause. Our Lord blessed Jerusalem with his presence. He lived there. There he was crucified, dies and rose again. It is a trust upon us all, and beckons the faithful to preserve it as everyone's city, a city whose portals open upon eternity."
Conclusions: Options for Genuine Peace For there to be any lasting hope for peace between Jews and Palestinians, the government of Israel must interpret the biblical injunction which Christians share with Jews, 'love your neighbour as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31) as having an inclusive interpretation, which includes the Palestinians; it must accept the sharing of Jerusalem as a key to a just peace; it must terminate the building of settlements, which makes an idol of the land; like Switzerland is doing over Nazi deposits of Jewish property, Israel must similarly make restitution to Palestinians who have become refugees, returning their land and property. Both Palestinians and Israelis are strangers and sojourners on the land, which belongs to God: 'The land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants' (Leviticus 25:23). It must be shared under the one creator God who has placed both people's on it.
What can the wider international community do? Frankly the American response towards all this has been appalling. While "understanding the pressures" that Netanyahu's government is under the Clinton Administration "wishes" that they didn't build this settlement. However, by vetoing further condemnation of Israel's actions in the UN on the grounds that this is now an "internal matter" the United States has undermined the implementation of international law in the Middle East. It is ironic that it can support Israel annually with more than 3 billion dollars, spearhead continuing sanctions against Iraq, and lead the boycott of former Yugoslavia for its own policy of ethnic cleansing, yet on this issue apparently it cannot do any more than make a wish.
LAW, the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, has urged for a practical campaign, demanding the US government, the European Union and other foreign aid donors to Israel to deduct directly from foreign aid money $100,000 for each new unit constructed in a settlement and $1,000,000 for each house demolished in the West Bank resulting in the forced homelessness of Palestinian families. Were this to be implemented, Israel might be brought to realise that genuine hope for a real and lasting peace can only be based on justice for all.
In the words of Canon Naim Ateek, "Peace cannot be built on confiscated land" Having endured a prolonged Crucifixion, the Palestinians await the dawn of Resurrection.
Stephen R. Sizer 31 March 1997