By Stuart Littlewood – London
We are not here as politicians, they said. We come as representatives of the various churches in Jerusalem.
But the trio from the Holy Land showed they were more than a match for western politicians who fancy they know all about the Middle East.
Archbishop Theodosius Hanna (Greek Orthodox Church), Monsignor Manuel Musallam (Latin Catholic) and Mr Constantine Dabbagh (Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches) are courageous human rights defenders and spiritual leaders from Palestine. They have just completed a tour of Ireland to raise awareness of the situation in their homeland under Israeli military occupation and the plight of the dwindling Christian community there.
"We need only one thing, to be protected by the world against the crimes of Israel," was their central message.
The week-long visit was arranged by SADAKA, the Ireland Palestine Alliance (www.sadaka.ie) and part funded by Trócaire, the overseas development agency of the Catholic Church in Ireland, and Christian Aid.
After delivering a special Christmas greeting from the Holy Land to the President and the people of Ireland, the Palestinian church leaders were able to establish a mutual understanding with President Mary McAleese that peace is more than an absence of violence – “the only lasting peace is a just peace”.
During their visit the churchmen described the Israeli occupation as the “crucifixion of the nation of Palestine,” and made a plea to all of Ireland’s leaders to “act and intervene, or nothing will change”.
They met with other Irish government ministers and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs, whom they briefed on the reality of life in the Holy Land, where the Israeli occupation denies even freedom of religion.
Archbishop Hanna began by reminding the committee: "Palestine is the place from where Christianity comes. Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the Holy Land in general are very important for Christians… Everything that has happened to the Palestinians between 1948 and today has happened to all Palestinians, including Christian Palestinians.
"What we are after is freedom and dignity just as freedom and dignity have been bestowed on so many nations in the world. We want that too. When we speak about peace, we also speak about justice because it is impossible to have peace without justice. Peace is part of justice. Unfortunately, in the Holy Land there is no such thing as justice."
He explained that in Gaza 1.5 million live in an open air prison. "Christian or Muslim, we all are Palestinians and we all experience the same."
He said Jerusalem also was under siege. A Canadian could visit the city but Monsignor Musallam, who lives twenty minutes away in Birzeit, cannot. "What happens to him happens to all Palestinians in the West Bank. I was very happy to see Mr. Dabbagh [who lives in Gaza] over here because I cannot see him in Palestine. I had to come to Ireland to see him."
The Archbishop spoke briefly about the Kairos Palestine Document, the Christian Palestinians’ message to the world requesting the international community to stand by the Palestinian people who have faced oppression, displacement and apartheid for more than six decades. The suffering continues while the international community silently looks on. It asks Christians all over the world to stand against injustice and apartheid and to work for a just peace in the Holy Land.
The document declares that the military occupation of Palestine “is a sin against God and humanity, and that any theology that legitimizes the occupation is far from Christian teachings”.
'We Have Not Occupied Israel'
Fr Manuel Musallam told the committee: "I was in Gaza during the war [Operation Cast Lead] and suffered with my people for 22 days. I saw with my own eyes a phosphoric bomb in the school yard. I saw people injured by these phosphoric bombs, although these bombs are forbidden. These crimes against us were ignored by all the people of the world. No-one was courageous enough until now to say ‘No’ to Israel or ‘No’ to America or to say ‘Stop killing’ and ‘Stop making war’.
"What happened in Gaza was not a war. A war is a clash between soldiers, aircraft and weapons. We were victims, just victims. They destroyed Gaza. I was there and saw with my own eyes what happened. We in Gaza were treated like animals... We are not terrorists. We have not occupied Israel.
"We do not want to die to liberate Palestine. We want to live to build Palestine.... We are asking the world to give the Palestinian people their rights. The question is whether peace is possible. Despite all the difficulties, the crimes and the war, we as Palestinians say peace is possible if justice is possible."
Fr Manuel believes a religious war is brewing in the Middle East. "This war will not stop at the Middle East," he warned. "It will also happen here."
At some point a state should be recognised, he says. "From 1948 to the present, our state has no borders. It is the only country state without borders… They refused to discuss borders. They refused to end the state of war. Europe and America were partners in this war and all the crimes committed against us, because they set up Israel in Palestine. People were gathered from more than 20 countries...."
What Constantine Dabbagh said to the committee was clear and simple. "We want to live as Palestinians and for the two-state recognition to be applied in accordance with UN resolutions. This would mean that the Palestinian state would have the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, lands which were occupied in 1967.” He expressed appreciation for the world-wide support for justice but, he said, it evaporates when it comes to the rights of the Palestinians and the vetoes which are imposed by the United States and other governments.
"The occupation within Gaza has ceased but we are cordoned off and are living in a big prison... A population of 1.5 million people includes 2,000 Christians but we are part and parcel of this community. We have no problem with our Muslim compatriots but it is true that the extremists are growing and I repeat the warning on this point from Monsignor Musallam. This is as a result of the occupation, the oppression and humiliation and the poverty. These factors are making more people side with the extremists and this is what we want to stop. This will only happen with the support and help of the international community and the United States in particular."
At question time it emerged that even the Irish government has its 'Zionist Tendency'. Deputy Alan Shatter argued: "I find it extraordinary that a group such as this should make a presentation to the committee on the plight confronting Christians on the West Bank and Gaza and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without any particular mention or emphasis on the substantial difficulties that fundamentalism in the Muslim world has created, of the major difficulties in Gaza created by Hamas and of the significant problems for the Christian community posed by extremists within Gaza...
“It is my understanding that there have been a number of incidents in Gaza. When I met President Abbas he detailed many deaths that occurred in Gaza in the context of the Christian community. Fr. Musallam commented on one of the events, which was an attack and looting on the Latin Catholic church in Gaza and a nearby school run by nuns in 2007. From my knowledge of having visited Gaza, pressure has been put on the Christian community. There has been a series of attempts to impose a fundamentalist Muslim perspective on the workings in Gaza.
Archbishop Hanna was able to quickly put the Deputy in his place. "Deputy Shatter's speech was full of inaccuracies and non-factual statements,” he said. “We are not here as politicians; we are men of spirituality and are talking about peace. At one point, I believed the Deputy speaking was the Israeli ambassador, not an Irish parliamentarian.
“I urge the Deputy to check his facts. With regard to religious extremism and segregation, we are absolutely against any kind of religious fundamentalism, be it Jewish, Muslim or Christian. I and others from the Christian community and Muslim mosques, and even some Jewish people, work together against fundamentalism...
'We Do Not Need Cookies from Israel'
"The problem in Palestine has nothing to do with religion - it is not a religious issue. It is not a conflict of Christians, Muslims and Jewish people. It is a conflict between those who are the holders of a rightful cause and those who took away that right by military might. Palestinian people as a whole, including Christians and Muslims, have said repeatedly that what they want is peace. We want two states that live together in peace. However, the reality on the ground is that we are extremely far away from that goal because Israel does not want peace.”
He admitted there may be some Palestinian extremists who use religion in the wrong way, but he emphasised that the Church and its community stood against terrorism or violence wherever it comes from. Israel, he pointed out, has a violent attitude towards the Palestinians as a matter of state policy.
Fr Manuel added that Palestinians are not terrorists. "All we ask of Israel is to respect us and not treat us like animals. We also ask parliamentarians and governments across the world not to give us food aid. We do not need cookies from Israel. We do not even need to trade with Israel. All we need is to be protected. We are suffering a war that we have endured for more than 60 years.
"If we have Hamas, then Israel has Sharon, Avigdor Lieberman, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and others. We do not agree with any of these fanatic persons on either side. Does Deputy Shatter expect us as Palestinians to protect those who occupy us?
Hamas Protecting Christians
"As for the church, Christianity in the region has been destroyed not by Muslims but by Israel. Israel destroyed the church of Palestine and the church of Jerusalem beginning in 1948. It, not Muslims, has sent Christians in the region into a diaspora.”
He told his listeners how he had seen the Israeli army target the Christian school in Gaza. "Five Hamas Ministers visited the school after it was attacked and promised they would repair the damage. Someone intended to create havoc in the area, particularly when Hamas and Fatah were clashing. When I visited the school, a Hamas minister, a Muslim, picked up the Holy Bible thrown on the ground, kissed it and put it back on the altar. He said Muslims were forbidden to do such things to the Bible. Hamas paid more than $122,000 to repair all the damage caused.
"Afterwards I met the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh. When he embraced me he said this, and we believed it. He said: 'Go to your family, but be assured that Hamas will employ weapons against Muslims to protect Christians in Gaza.' This is the reality. Christians in Palestine are not suffering persecution, because we are not considered to be a religious community, but rather the people of Palestine. We have the same rights and the same obligations.
"Islamic fundamentalism… came about because of the occupation of Palestine and the different wars we have suffered. It is a fact that there is fundamentalism in Palestine, yet if the occupation continues it will explode and destroy the world, not just us.
He finished by telling them what it’s really like. "We have spoken to Israel for more than 18 years and the result has been zero. We have signed agreements here and there at various times and then when there is a change in the Government of Israel we have to start again from the beginning. We ask for our life and to be given back our Jerusalem, to be given our state and for enough water to drink. We want to be given more opportunity to reach Jerusalem. I have not seen Jerusalem since 1990.
He described the nightmarish system of entry and exit permits, which Israel invariably refused. "We want to see an end to this occupation, and please do not ask us to protect those who are occupying our territory."
'They Shoot at Farmers'
Mr Dabbagh rounded off the churchmen's contribution. "We are not just a community but part and parcel of the whole society. This does not mean that we have not encountered any difficulties. Such difficulties come from those extremists who derive their raison d'être, unfortunately, from the policies of the West. They are even very dangerous to Hamas, which is giving protection to the Christians, whenever it is needed.
"We hate to see rockets being launched from Gaza, but committee members should consider the state of Israel with its arsenal of weapons and the destruction which is being inflicted on Gaza. I would like them to come to Gaza again and witness the daily incursions over the border... These daily incursions are led by tanks and bulldozers. The Israelis keep a buffer zone of between 300 metres and 500 metres along a 45 km strip of the border with Gaza… They shoot at any farmer who tends to his land.”
As regards the two state solution, he asks what state they want Palestinians to accept. “Do they want us to have cantons here and there and call them viable? The state of Palestine next to the state of Israel should be in compliance with UN resolutions, which means that Israel should evacuate Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem to give Palestinians the opportunity to establish our state, in order to have security for Israel and for us Palestinians as well. “We are suffering from the siege. People cannot travel for medical treatment, for education, for normal business. I could not get into the West Bank or Jerusalem to attend meetings or prayers. A number of Christians in Gaza are given permits to go there at Christmas time and for the New Year, but many others are deprived. My children are under 35 years and they could not go. Are they not allowed to go to church until they are 35 and older? This is unfair.
"Muslims are deprived completely and this creates another struggle between Christians and Muslims. Muslims see a few hundred of us getting out at Christmas, but they are not allowed to get out to pray in Jerusalem.”
The inhuman conditions imposed by Israel should be stopped but that won’t happen, he says, “unless the international community brings a just peace, ends the occupation and allows for the establishment of a Palestinian state next to the Israeli state in accordance with UN resolutions".
Deputy Marie Crawley intervened with a no-nonsense challenge to a suggestion from another Deputy that the international community and the negotiations need to be approached with balance. ”This is not a balanced situation. This is not a conflict of equals. This is an occupation. We have an occupier and we have an occupied people. We have an oppressor and we have an oppressed people. We have a powerful people and we have a powerless people. To approach that situation with balance is to side with the occupier.
“The international community does not need to approach the situation with a sense of balance, but needs to exert pressure on the state of Israel until such time as it complies with international law and ends the occupation.”
Earlier, the church leaders met with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Michael Martin, and stressed the need for Ireland and other Western states to put pressure on Israel to comply with International Law and UN Security Council resolutions. They urged the Irish government to consider the preferential trade relations Israel has been allowed enjoy with the EU.
Mr Martin also agreed to raise the issue of Palestinian students being prevented by Israel from travelling to Europe to participate in the EU’s Erasmus Programme (a scheme for higher education students to spend part of their studies in another European country) while encouraging and allowing Israeli students to do so.
By coincidence John Ging, director of operations in Gaza for UNWRA, happened to be in town and bumped into the Holy Land trio at the gates of the Irish Parliament. Ging was pleasantly surprised to see familiar Gaza faces in Dublin.
- Stuart Littlewood is author of the book Radio Free Palestine, which tells the plight of the Palestinians under occupation. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Visit: www.radiofreepalestine.co.uk.