Pessimism Hangs Over Holy Land

Pax Christi Delegation Gives Its Impressions of Region

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BRUSSELS, Belgium, FEB. 26, 2001 ( An «open air prison» environment is how delegates of Pax Christi International described parts of the Holy Land.

Following a seven-day visit to Israel and Palestine, two members of the Catholic peace movement´s delegation reported their impressions of the troubled land.

The delegation included Bishop Ad van Luyn of Rotterdam, president of Pax Christi in the Netherlands; Willem van Genugten, professor of international law at the Catholic University of Brabant, and of human rights at the Catholic University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

Other delegates were Tijl Declercq, former Belgian and Council of Europe parliamentarian, coordinator of the Pax Christi Middle East working group in Flanders and former member of the executive committee of Pax Christi International; Paul Lansu, international secretary of Pax Christi; and Marjolein Wijninckx of Pax Christi in the Netherlands.

The trip was coordinated with Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem, international president of Pax Christi. Paul Lansu emphasized that the Pax Christi representatives carried out their work «in complete independence.» They spoke with Israelis and Palestinians, as well as political and religious leaders, and representatives of social and economic organizations.

The visitors´ first sight was of the Occupied Territories surrounded by the Israeli army and police, creating, in fact, an «open air prison,» Tijl Declercq said.

«In the village of Ramallah, north of Jerusalem, there is free mobility,» Declercq said. «However, to go in or out [of the village] can take as long as two hours. A truck full of earth or blocks of concrete is enough to close the road and establish a control post. Nothing can be done other than to arm oneself with patience. For how long? The answer is as arbitrary as the unexpected blockade of the road!»

«This kind of ´prison´ is even more unbearable, because it endangers health, if not the journey,» Declercq added. «What can be done when the blockade impedes the arrival of medicines, delays assistance to the wounded, or the urgent transport of a pregnant woman to hospital?»

In the Hebron region, the delegation said, Palestinians are harassed and displaced as the occupation by Israeli settlers continues to unfold.

«Former Israeli military men and paramilitary groups are in accord with the police and army, who do not intervene despite the humiliations to which the Palestinians are subjected,» Declercq explained.

This is a «strategy of terror,» the Belgian added. «By refusing to intervene against the abuses of the settlers, the Israeli police and army become accomplices of the anarchy.»

The Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories are a major obstacle to peace, according to Pax Christi International. Not only does their maintenance violate the elementary principles of international law, but the phenomenon has worsened since the Oslo agreement of September 1993.

To the 32,750 cells of family residences, established at the time in the West Bank and Gaza, 17,190 new cells were added up to July 2000. This addition of 84,000 settlers has swelled the total number to 200,000.

The question of the Palestinian refugees remains unanswered. In its statement, Pax Christi noted the refugees have increased from 750,000 in 1948 to 5 million, «parked in 59 camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, or dispersed in other regions.» These figures are taken from reports of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.

«The principal claims as regards the refugees are the right to return [home] and indemnification, as established in Resolution 194, voted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948. A first stage in the solution of this problem would be that Israel recognize the principal cause,» Pax Christi underlined. The movement will defend this position next month before the U.N. Human Rights Commission. This commission´s 57th session will also discuss the prosecution of Jewish settlements.

In addition to meetings with Patriarch Sabbah and Armenian Patriarch Torkom II, the Pax Christi delegation met with leaders of churches, rabbis and the grand mufti of Jerusalem.

«They all said they count on the solidarity of Christians with the victims,» Paul Lansu said. «Patriarch Sabbah insisted several times: solidarity with victims created by others. However, several also deplored that the role of the churches continues to be weak and very silent when hatred should be denounced.»

Regarding the status of Jerusalem, Pax Christi criticized the view defended last year by Ehud Barak. The then Prime Minister said that a small Palestinian community could be allowed in Jerusalem, under the sovereignty of the Jewish state, but without a direct link to the Occupied Territories. Pax Christi maintains that the holy places and religious symbols must not be used for political ends.

In the Holy Land, the Pax Christi delegation said, it found «no one who was optimistic.»

«The Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister has acknowledged, however, that the first victims of the situation are the Palestinians,» the delegation said in its statement. «Yet, the minister does not see the tragedy of the entire Palestinian people, violated in their rights for more than half a century, who continue to suffer the situation as ´an immense collective punishment´ because of their violent protest in pursuit of their dignity.»

On the contrary, the Pax Christi delegation heard the Israeli vice premier affirm that «to cede on the subject of the return of the refugees would be tantamount to signing the suicide of the people of Israel.»

«It is as though with every passing day, the misunderstanding between the two conflicting sides is aggravated," Pax Christi observed.

Pax Christi wants to help Palestinians and Jews to rewrite their history, beginning with schoolbooks, which often perpetuate old prejudices.

«Here, Palestinians and Jews seem determined to address this work,» Pax Christi emphasized. «As regards Palestinians, this educational work will require considerable material effort. Europe´s help would be very appreciated.»

«However, the role of Europeans should be addressed to an even greater extent,» according to the peace movement. The delegation´s observations, in both Palestine and Jerusalem, once again prompt the urgent question: «Where is Europe?» the statement concluded.

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