On not choosing sides: The peacemaking challenge in Israel/Palestine

July 25, 2014

The recent escalation of conflict between Israeli and Palestinian forces helps make clear why the rhetoric among liberals and Christians about “the occupation” is woefully inadequate to the challenging call of peacemaking that we espouse. The occupation—which by now needs no subjects, objects, or qualifiers because we all supposedly know what we are talking about—has become the acceptable target that seems to provide a safe platform on which to mount the banner for peace.

If we protest Israel’s occupation of the West Bank as a distinct evil, it seems that we can duck the charge of delegitimizing Israel. We stay on the bright side of the line that gets drawn between criticizing Israeli policies and challenging Jewish sovereignty as a whole. We also get to stand courageously with people who live under daily duress and who have languished without their own sovereignty for far too long. A focus on the occupation gives us simpler options in a complicated conflict. Look at the West Bank and it is not hard to know on whose side compassionate people should stand.

But the violent events of June and July, the outcome of which is still beyond imagining, make it harder to know. Kidnapping and murder of teenage civilians by extremist elements, both Palestinian and Jewish; a barrage of rockets reaching deeper than ever into Israel; drone and missile attacks from Israel on targets precariously if not deliberately situated in dense, civilian neighborhoods—all of these and the clamoring voices that surround, incite, and report them underscore the point that choosing sides over the occupation is both difficult and dangerous, and it does not address enough of the factors that must be resolved if peace is to be achieved.

Choosing sides is difficult because the dynamics that now explain the occupation and prop it up have been so many years in the making, with so many players and so many motives. The land occupied by Israel was a disputed part of Jordan from 1948 to 1967. Like the ambiguous Egyptian rule in the Gaza Strip after 1948, Jordan’s claim to the West Bank was ceded to the Palestinians several decades after the war of 1967 as part of a peace negotiation with Israel.

The Oslo accords in 1993 consolidated negotiating authority under the Palestinian Authority and were aimed at establishing a Palestinian state that would assume sovereignty over the disputed territory. One can write the history of the Oslo process in many ways, but the failure to achieve its aim can hardly be laid at the feet of Israel alone.

Since 1993 negotiations and ex­changes between the Palestinians and Israelis have amounted to a deadly dance of mixed signals and defiant posturing by both, together with their various proxies and partners. Israeli governments as different as Yitzhak Rabin’s and Benjamin Netanyahu’s have proven as challenging for Palestinians to discern as the tug-of-war between Fatah and Hamas has been for Israelis. And so an ambiguous occupation draws close to entering a sixth decade.

Choosing sides is dangerous because both Jews and Palestinians live with mortal fear. Both peoples once again now hear their identity and legitimacy, as well as their claim and connection to their homeland, reviled and denied. Both hear calls from some segment of the other people to eliminate their presence, whether physically, culturally, or nationally. When people have reason to fear for their existence, anything that bolsters the case being made against them contributes to the conflict and not to its resolution. That includes simplistic parroting of the evil of occupation. Ratcheting up the fear in either people makes violence more likely, not less.

Moreover, when actually envisioning an end to the conflict it is dangerous to focus on only one party as its cause. If Israel is made the sole actor responsible for ending it, and we imagine that a transfer of territorial control—ending the occupation—will do so, we ignore other deadly forces which will still be at work in the region the day after withdrawal. It is all too apparent that such forces exist within both Israel and the Palestinian community.

So why do churches and people of goodwill focus on the wrong thing? Why is so much denominational time and energy expended debating proposals to undertake corporate divestment aimed at ending the occupation? Our actions are unlikely to move the levers of power in any substantial way or to affect the bottom lines of companies in which our shares represent a fraction of 1 percent.

A basic mistake accounts for such misguided efforts: confusing the expression of humanitarian concern with effective political analysis. Few can challenge the honest concern that rises in the heart when seeing the situation of Palestinian life on the West Bank. Nor can one argue with the imbalance of power that stands between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In the face of such realities, common human decency demands an empathetic, humanitarian, even pastoral response. In that regard, the occupation and its daily effects on Palestinian life have been exactly the churches’ proper focus, the place where we must start. To ignore or deny that suffering would betray the Lord who calls us to feed, clothe, heal, and comfort the afflicted.

But two other realities call us to move beyond that starting point. Those realities have come into sharper focus in recent events, which have quickly made our debates about the occupation into “the good old days.”

First, there is suffering and need within the Jewish community and Israel as well as in the Palestinian community. We have learned in our wealthy Western society that the outward trappings of success and comfort often obscure but do not erase the reality of pain, suffering, anxiety, alienation, and fear.

While some argue that these afflictions would be lessened if Israel ended its occupation of the disputed territories, there are much broader causes to consider as well. Israel has had to sustain a survival posture well into the third generation of its national existence, negotiating shifting international alliances and now dealing with an Arab world that is profoundly unstable. What should be the liberal, Christian humanitarian response to this suffering?

Second, our humanitarian concern rightly motivates us to analyze the causes of suffering and to work against them. Effective political analysis, however, must consist of more than listening to the perspective of the aggrieved. Our work must be effective in more than symbolic and sympathetic ways. Particularly when two parties can legitimately claim grievances, we must distinguish our analysis of the situation from our compassionate empathy with those caught on each side of it. That is patently true when open warfare looms, and it is no less true when relative calm prevails and “normalizing the occupation” is the greatest threat.

An understandable sense of desperate isolation prompts both Jews and Palestinians to court solidarity actions from churches and other civic institutions. Those actions can be as straightforward as a cup of water to the thirsty and a warm bed to the homeless. In order for actions in the policy arena to bring similar blessing, they must be as judicious and effective, in their own ways, as the cup of water or the warm bed.

Three key steps would make a good start.

Understand, appreciate, and respect the sense of threat that underlies each community’s motivating fear. Whatever we may think of its source or its legitimacy, it is a real factor that must be ad­dressed constructively and not simply dismissed.

Refrain from actions that add to the fear or that add the church’s weight to the sense of righteous victimhood or entitlement on any side. Expect partners and parties in the conflict to work responsibly toward peace in their own communities, not using the other’s inaction as justification for their own.

Encourage, empower, and reassure the principal parties that taking the risks necessary for peace will win support and respect and provide any assets we can to make that risk taking more viable and realistic.

Many of the best analysts and participants in the field have reminded us that progress toward peace cannot be achieved until the principal parties all find reason to believe that they will gain more from risking peace than from continuing the status quo. That means the status quo—including the occupation—will not end just because ending it is a good thing. It will end be­cause something better will become a realistic alternative for everyone.

While we work toward that constructive goal, our compassionate response to suffering must continue and our assessment of the causes of suffering must be acute. If in weariness or frustration or anger, however, we mistake our earnest human compassion for effective political analysis, we risk being drawn into the conflict simply as someone’s armament and supply against another. Then our true value as peacemakers is traded for empty gestures and passing good feelings. Both Palestinians and Jews deserve better from us.


looking toward the Middle East

Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry you may know well since it is affiliated with Cairn U., Langhorne, PA, through the Institute of Jewish Studies. I read their publication Israel My Glory and am most aware of the theological approach to our current subject, though not unaware - as FOI is not - of the various other considerations you have discussed so well. Thank you for your article.
Ellen Davis, theologian Duke Divinity, writes movingly in 2001 on p. 85 of her book Getting Involved with God :
"So we may pray that those who share God's love for the land of Israel, especially the Jews and Palestinians who live there, may love it patiently, with unswerving devotion in the absence of exclusive possession. Probably there is no emotional feat more difficult for peoples who know that they belong to the land more fully than it can ever belong to them."

We Can Do More

So all we as the people of God should do regarding the Israeli / Palestinian conflict is understand that both sides have fear, don’t take sides because that may add angst to the other side, and encourage the parties to “take the risk for peace”. I’m sorry; I’ve seen the suffering of the Palestinian people, and particularly our Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and that doesn’t cut it for me.
The article conveniently redirects focus away from the “the Occupation” , suggesting that to focus only on it misses the bigger picture and may be a convenient way to avoid charges of “delegitimizing Israel“. Pastor Pettit’s acknowledgement of the suffering on both sides, particularly by the Palestinians, is noble, and he acknowledges that compassionate people would stand with the Palestinians. But he says it is too complicated to take sides. I disagree. Let’s not forget that “the Occupation” is illegal according to international law and several UN resolutions. The continuous expansion of settlements in the West Bank is similarly illegal and contrary to US policy, but has continued unabated since 1967. There is no status quo here. The expansion into Palestinian territory continues, probably forever changing the facts on the ground.
The brief history offered leaves out a few key facts. The article suggests that the land occupied by Israel was a disputed part of Jordan from 1948 to 1967. Left unsaid is that that same land was Palestinian territory before 1948. The Palestinians were removed from that land without compensation as part of the creation of Israel after World War II. Also left unsaid in the description of the evolution of the West Bank, is that the West Bank has been under continuous occupation by Israel since 1967, with settlements, check points, and a barrier wall some of its key features. The Occupation is anything but “ambiguous” as suggested in the article. And our response should be more than humanitarian aid. We should advocate for a just resolution to the situation that acknowledges the rights and needs of both sides.
It’s not a matter of taking sides. It is a matter of pressuring the source of power. The focus must be on Israel, because they have the power. What are you going to take away from the Palestinians that they have not already lost? Their bargaining position starts with “how much of the current occupation are you willing to live with permanently? The answer is none of it. I think what we are seeing in the current conflict with the apparent inexplicable behavior of Hamas is utter frustration that they feel they have nothing to lose.
On the other side, who is the Occupier? Who is expanding settlements with every passing day while the Occupation drags on? Who receives over $3 Billion in unrestricted aid from the United States every year? Thus the secondary focus is our own government and the companies that facilitate and profit from the occupation. That’s why various movements focused on boycotts, divestments, and sanctions are effective. Their economic impact may be limited, but the public focus and awareness that the actions bring are very significant. If they weren’t there would not be the resistance to these movements that exists today.
So don’t be dissuaded by the message of this article. We can do much more than sit back and hope for peace in the Middle East. The situation will not change until Israel is persuaded to change its policy of occupation and blockades of the occupied territories. Our most effective action at the moment is to pressure our government and companies who profit from the occupation to cease and desist from this enterprise.

On not choosing

Peter Pettit’s article “On not choosing sides” advising Christian peacemakers to stay neutral while Israel acts with impunity to carry out its latest round of murder and mayhem in Gaza hardly speaks well for his peacemaking credentials. Patronizingly cautioning readers against “confusing the expression of humanitarian concern with effective political analysis,” the article skims along on misleading assumptions about equal victimization, balance, complexity, and other standard Israel lobby talking points, while containing no serious political analysis at all! It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Pettit’s piece is just another thinly veiled attempt to try and “delegitimize” the decision of churches to use divestment as a nonviolent tool for opposing Israel’s gradual conquest, annexation, ethnic cleansing, and dispossession of the Palestinian people.
Unfortunately, the observation made by award-winning journalist John Pilger during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 still holds true today: “A genocide is engulfing the people of Gaza while silence engulfs its bystanders.” Other knowledgeable political analysts (such as Ilan Pappe and Richard Falk, to name but two) see what is happening in much the same way. The point being that advocating silent neutrality in the face of a one-sided slaughter of Palestinians is not peacemaking – it’s complicity in crime. It amounts to nothing less than defending an unjust, illegal, and immoral status quo; one that also contributes mightily to the moral degeneration of Israel, and perhaps ultimately to its destruction.

Choosing Sides

In his op ed, (“On Not Choosing Sides”) Peter Petit misses the point. The media portrays the two sides as Palestine and Israel. But Christians belong on the side of peace, justice and human rights. We should stand against violence and terror, whether it comes from rockets or from an occupying army. If we stand there we will discover that we are standing with both Israelis AND Palestinians. The people on the ground working for peace in Israel and Palestine know this. There are many dedicated and courageous Israelis, Palestinians and Americans—Muslim, Christian and Jewish—who are boldly speaking out for peace and justice and building bridges of understanding. Christian churches and the United States need to choose their side.