Securing the Agreement

The role of our Pontifical Mission in a new Middle East.

by Brother Donald Mansir, F.S.C.

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Recent events in the Middle East peace process – the famous handshake of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and the “Gaza-Jericho first” agreement – came as a shock to almost everyone, from the folks on the streets to the diplomats in Washington, D.C. The Norwegians, who sponsored the talks, kept a fine secret.

The sudden announcement of this agreement has excited the 1.8 million Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and millions in the diaspora. Excited, for there is renewed hope in a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Excited, because hundreds of thousands of dispersed Palestinians may be able to return to their homeland. Excited, because violence may end after decades of occupation.

However this excitement is tempered with caution. As of this writing, armed Israeli settlers continue to vandalize and torch Palestinian houses and cars. Military roadblocks remain in place. Permits are still required for Palestinians to enter Jerusalem, whether for medical care, education, employment or to attend religious services. The Israeli military continues to use anti-tank missiles to destroy homes. In Gaza, authorities continue to cut off electrical power for most neighborhoods. Last October, 11 Palestinians were killed, eight houses demolished, 1,750 trees uprooted, six mosques raided and three Gazan schools closed.

Militant Islamic groups have increased their efforts to sabotage the negotiations. Hamas, the most organized and best financed of these groups, continues to attack both Israeli and Palestinian civilians.

Although countries have pledged funds to the new Palestinian Interim Self Governing Authority, as yet nothing has changed in the day-to-day lives of the people – employment opportunities have not improved; access to health care remains difficult; and travel is almost always denied. The Israeli military has not yet withdrawn, leaving the situation almost exactly as it was before the handshake. Only the economy has been affected – the occupation continues to destroy what remains of the Palestinian economy.

However it is important for us, as Christians, to return to the causes of the excitement. While kept sober by reality, it is vital to support the handshake, to hold on, to encourage the parties to tighten their grip.

While waiting for the billions of pledged dollars, and in the absence of any significant progress, the Pontifical Mission’s Jerusalem office will continue to support Palestinian programs. Economic development, self-reliance projects and the support of cultural programs help sustain the population practically and morally.

Shimon Peres, Israel’s foreign minister said the standard of success in the peace process was not “political victory” but “economic victory.” No “political agreement,” the foreign minister continued, “would last if the people of Gaza and Jericho and the other areas don’t feel a tangible improvement in their living standards.”

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Tags: Middle East Palestine Israel Economic hardships Occupied Territories