Recent acts of violence and the potential for violence against civilians intensify concerns for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In recent weeks, there have been several reports of violence against civilians in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as well as nearby countries in the Middle East region. These reports point toward an increasingly disturbing trend that may lead to more violence against civilian populations in the near future. This increased violence takes place within the contexts of 1) the ongoing series of revolutions in the Middle East known as the 'Arab Spring,' and 2) increased international diplomatic efforts for the recognition of an independent Palestinian state. The ELCA has important resources for reflecting on the trend toward violence in the region.
As noted in a recent Security Council briefing by Lynn Pascoe, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs,
"On 1 August, the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) shot and killed two Palestinians during a search-and-arrest operation in the Qalandiya refugee camp. Five Israeli soldiers were injured in that operation.... On 2 August, the IDF issued restraining orders against 12 settlers from a village south of Nablus who were suspected of so-called 'price tag activities' against Palestinians. The Secretary-General has consistently called for perpetrators of such incidents to be brought to justice."
Pascoe also reported that terrorists of unclear origins targeted several civilian vehicles and one military vehicle on August 18 in southern Israel.
"The coordinated attacks resulted in the death of eight Israelis, including two soldiers and six civilians. Egyptian security forces cooperated with the (IDF) on their side of the border to counter the attacks. However, five Egyptian security personnel died in the operation."
"Citing intelligence attributing the attacks to a Palestinian group based in Gaza, Israel conducted 45 air strikes on Gaza that killed 19 Palestinians, including three civilians. Thirty Palestinians, including at least 10 militants, were also injured. The IDF also conducted search operations in Hebron in the West Bank, reportedly arresting about 120 Hamas members and injuring 55 Palestinians. Gaza militants indiscriminately fired more than 100 rockets and projectiles into Israel, killing one Israeli civilian and injuring 27. The Secretary-General and the Quartet strongly condemned the terror attacks."
On August 29, eight people were wounded near a Tel Aviv nightclub by a suspect from Nablus who stole a taxi and crashed it into a group of border guards. He then attacked the guards and two others near the nightclub before being subdued and detained.
In Syria, long-standing grievances against the government of President Bashar al-Assad and that of his father, Hafez al-Assad, surfaced in March when protests over a lack of political and economic reforms began in Dar'a and quickly spread to other parts of the country. Based on reports of arbitrary arrests and detention, initially of youths and children, armed attacks on demonstrators and funeral processions, shut-offs of water and electricity supplies to towns, and denial of access to medical equipment, among other abuses, the United Nations Human Rights Council authorized a fact-finding mission in late April to investigate these and other reports.
The mission issued its report in mid-August and discussed it at a special session of the Council on August 22. At that meeting, Ms. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that the report which covered the period from mid-March to mid-July "found a pattern of widespread or systematic human rights violations by Syrian security and military forces, including murder, enforced disappearances, torture, deprivation of liberty, and persecution," and, she added, "there are indications that the pattern of violations continues to this day." The report said that the demonstrations were largely peaceful but that military and security forces attacked demonstrators, bystanders, and those who came to the aid of the injured. These constituted wide-spread acts against unarmed civilian populations.
In late August, media reports surfaced about plans by the Israeli Defense Forces to train and equip settlers in the West Bank with potentially lethal means to deal with Palestinian demonstrations. President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority (PA) had earlier called for demonstrations later in September at the time when the PA has announced it will petition the United Nations to admit Palestine as a UN Member State. He has repeatedly urged that any such demonstrations remain peaceful and that the participants be unarmed. Nonetheless, Ha'aretz, which broke this news, said that
"The army [the IDF] is establishing two virtual lines for each of the settlements that are near a Palestinian village. The first line, if crossed by Palestinian demonstrators, will be met with tear gas and other means for dispersing crowds."
"The second line is a 'red line,' and if this one is crossed, the soldiers will be allowed to open fire at the legs of the demonstrators, as is also standard practice if the northern border is crossed."
The IDF has declined to comment on the operational aspects of their preparations. However, a number of observers have expressed concerns about what the arrangements may portend. The Guardian reported:
"Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights said there were already 'serious questions and problems' with settlement security officials acting outside their designated boundaries. 'We're very concerned that [the IDF move] will not reduce conflict but increase it,' he said."
The trend toward more violence and the potential for violence against civilians should prompt members of the ELCA to reflect further upon the 1995 social statement, "For Peace in God's World", and the counsel it offers (under "Tasks") concerning peaceful conflict resolution:
Strengthen the will and ability to resolve conflicts peacefully. Disagreements, conflicts, and competition among nations, groups, and individuals are inevitable, but wars are not. One essential ingredient for reducing the likelihood of war is the steady resolve and intense effort of the parties involved to settle conflict nonviolently. Another essential ingredient is the ability to explore all avenues for common interests, to compromise interests, to conciliate differences, and to prevent, moderate, or isolate destructive conflicts. These ingredients are as vital for resolving conflict in international diplomacy as they are in families and communities.
Strengthen international cooperation. Belief in a common humanity, increasing global integration, and national self-interest all compel this task. In the Charter of the United Nations and in other international agreements, nations have stated how they believe their relations should be ordered. Normally nations comply with these principles. States pledge to respect the sovereign equality and territorial integrity of other states and not to intervene in their internal affairs, and to honor the self-determination of peoples. They also pledge to fulfill international obligations, to cooperate with other states, and to settle disputes peacefully. While states have the right of self-defense and may resist aggression, they are otherwise to abstain from the threat or use of military force. At present, such principles offer the best framework for a just ordering of international relations. Citizens have responsibility to hold governments accountable to these principles.
The ELCA's Churchwide Strategy for Engagement in Israel and Palestine is also quite clear about these matters. Among the political and humanitarian outcomes it says the ELCA has committed itself, especially relevant is:
An end to terrorism and violence by individuals, groups, and states.
This principle is one the church should continue to uphold and advocate, especially against the current trends in the region.
Dennis W. Frado
Director, Lutheran Office for World Community,
Congregational & Synodical Mission Program Unit
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