Thursday, 13. May 2021

Violence, rockets and a new Archbishop

A snapshot of the current situation in Israel and Palestine

Screenshot from the livestream of the Ascension Day service: Israeli and Palestinian government and authority officials sat together in a pew.

A recent statement by Anglican Archbishop Hosam E. Naoum on violence in Israel and Palestine can be read here.

There are difficult times when a new archbishop can be inaugurated - and there are almost impossible times. On Ascension Day afternoon this year, it is probably the latter. As the Palestinian Hamas fires its one thousand six hundredth rocket at Israel from Gaza in just three days and Israeli pilots fly their six hundredth airstrike on Gaza, as street battles flare out between Jewish and Arab Israelis in several places, as people die, the new Anglican Archbishop Hosam Elias Naoum is conferred his insignia of office in a solemn service at St George's Cathedral in East Jerusalem. Despite the pandemic, some high-ranking representatives of the Anglican World Communion have managed to travel to the ceremony and many local clergy, church leaders, diplomats and the local community are also in attendance - because at least most people in Israel are vaccinated. However, most of the friends from other countries of the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East and from abroad are connected online.

Is it a resolute "despite everything" that has led the Anglicans to celebrate this service? Indeed, while death reigns outside, Archbishop Hosam delivers his sermon with Jesus’ words in John 10:10: "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (NIV) Under this motto, he unfolds his idea of a church that not only talks but is committed to and serves the people; a church that not only has the necessary unity in mind but above all the diversity entrusted to it; a church that lives in ecumenical solidarity, especially at the original source of Christianity, but at the same time, a church that is aware that it nevertheless represents only part of the larger Abrahamic community; finally, a church that, especially in crisis situations, keeps its institutions open for people in need, reaches out to people and lives worldwide solidarity. Naoum concludes with another Bible passage from 1 Corinthians 12:26: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.” (NIV)

Time and again during the service, my gaze wanders to the pew which is reserved for the official representatives of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. There they are, actually sitting side by side. On the right, the former Palestinian Minister for Jerusalem Affairs (a function which, according to official Israeli opinion, should not even exist) and the representative of the Islamic Waqf, Adnan Husseini, as well as the long-time advisor to the Palestinian President and minister responsible for the Christian churches, Ziad Al-Bandak. On the left, a representative of the Israeli City Council and Director of Christian Affairs in the Religious Affairs Department of the Israeli Ministry of Interior, Cesare Marjieh. Finally, in the middle between these four officials, acting more or less like a buffer, is Mr Marjieh's wife. They do not talk to each other during the service but obviously they did not indignantly reject this seating arrangement either.

What has led to the renewed escalation in Israel and Palestine that yet again appears to place such an amicable and peaceful coexistence in extreme jeopardy? Why did it have to come to mass suffering and death yet again? The situation is highly complex and simple judgements are out of the question. Massive rocket fire from Gaza onto Israeli territory and Israeli military action against the Hamas-controlled territory also occurred in 2006, 2008/09 and 2014. Apparently, Hamas has been able to massively rearm in the years since then - and more so than ever before. Once again, in world public opinion, some point the finger at Israel, while others never tire of emphasising that Israel has the right to defend itself against such rocket fire. Yes, of course, that must be the case. Of course, the State of Israel, like any other state, has the right to protect the lives of its citizens by force of arms if necessary. Questions about "proportionality" are simply pointless in view of the arsenal of weapons that Hamas has apparently been able to procure while living in the midst of an impoverished population that has very few prospects. But doesn't every state in the world community have a duty to promote peace in calmer times?

In recent years, there has been no movement towards peace between Israel and Palestine. The Israeli government seems to have settled into the stance that the threatening attitude of Iran and the forces it supports in the countries of the Middle East represent the real problem for Israel - and that the unresolved relationship between Israel and Palestine can be swept under the carpet, so to speak, with a little crisis management. In the meantime, the Gaza Strip has remained cordoned off between Egypt and Israel; settlements have continued to be built on the West Bank. But even on the Palestinian side, there has obviously been very little interest shown in conducting further negotiations towards a two-state solution; achieving regular international condemnations of Israel (e.g., by the UN) may have seemed more attractive and easier to some.

Then six factors came together, each of which has existed since time immemorial. In their unique combination, however, they now provided the fuse on the powder keg.

First: The unique situation in the East Jerusalem district of Sheikh Jarrah: Tensions have always been high in this district. It was occupied by Jordan from 1948 to 1967. Then – like the whole of East Jerusalem – it was first occupied and finally annexed by the Israelis. The district is actually regarded by the Palestinians as part of their future capital. In the early days of the First Intifada, this is the place where angry Palestinians already threw stones at many an Israeli bus making its way on line 23A to the Hebrew University in 1988 and 1989. Here lies the grave of Shimon Ha-Zadik, a Jewish scholar from the Second Temple period, as well as some houses that apparently had Jewish owners before 1948. According to Israeli law, it is possible for former Jewish owners to recover property lost in the 1948 war. Conversely, however, this opportunity is denied to Palestinians who lost their homes in the western part of Jerusalem at that time. The legal claims of former Jewish owners in what they call the "Shimon Ha Zadik neighbourhood" were addressed a few years ago by an Israeli NGO dedicated to settlement work in East Jerusalem. Now, yet again, some house evictions were imminent. Provocations occurred on a daily basis, near the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan of all times.

Second: Ramadan is a time of heightened tension in Jerusalem almost every year. The State of Israel claims with some pride (and probably not entirely unjustifiably) that, unlike all governments before it, it guarantees believers of all religious communities access to their shrines. However, when Muslim pilgrims want to visit their shrines in large numbers during Ramadan, they are repeatedly confronted with major obstacles. For security reasons - say the Israelis. For political harassment - say the Palestinians. House evictions were scheduled in Sheikh Jarrah and Shimon Ha-Zadik at this time of all times. And the "flag march" of "Yom Yerushalayim" was held.

Third: Yom Yerushalayim on the 28th Iyar of the Jewish calendar (usually in May/June) commemorates the day in the Six-Day War (June War) of 1967 when the Israeli army captured the eastern part of Jerusalem and with it the Temple Mount (Haram ash-Sharif) with its Western Wall ("Wailing Wall"). Under the leadership of Rabbi Yehuda Zwi Kook, a group of Talmud students marched to the Western Wall singing and dancing. Every year since 1974 on this date, large groups of national-religious youth in particular (especially from settlements on the West Bank) come to the Old City of Jerusalem to commemorate this event with a flag march. Rowdy behaviour is often the case on these occasions, punctuated by shouts of "Mavet la-Aravim" (Death to the Arabs), and Palestinians living in Jerusalem feel increasingly intimidated. The Israeli security forces were obviously aware that clashes were to be expected this year in view of the approaching end of Ramadan. They therefore severely restricted the marching route of the Jewish youths. At the same time, however, the square in front of the Damascus Gate was cordoned off for the Palestinians who like to meet here in the evening after breaking their fast - but this again led to an increase in tension.

Fourth: Attacks and smear campaign Against the backdrop of these tensions, video clips were increasingly circulated on social media showing attacks by radicalised Palestinians against Orthodox Jews - e.g., on public transport - as well as attacks by radicalised Jews against Palestinians. This also fuelled the tensions.

Fifth: The long-standing crisis in the Israeli government After four Israeli elections between spring 2019 and spring 2021, none of which led to the formation of a stable government, long-time Prime Minister Netanyahu faced losing power in real terms for the first time. However, this situation only came about because of the broadest possible coalition that had assembled to unseat Netanyahu – from "the right" (Yamina) and centre forces to at least one Arab party, all had joined together to form this alliance of convenience. It could be comparable in Germany if the AfD were to form a coalition with the SPD, FDP and the Greens, and then also brought the Left on board to force the CDU out of government responsibility, where the CDU has ruled for several decades under the leadership of Hans-Georg Maaßen. The escalation of violence has again broken the alliance of convenience against Netanyahu. Arab parties are now faced with the necessity of first showing their solidarity with their own section of the population, while Benjamin Netanyahu is once again given the opportunity to position himself as the strong man against Hamas terror.

Sixth: The long-standing crisis in the Palestinian government It was not only the Israeli government but also the Palestinian government that again found itself with its back to the wall. The administration of Palestinian President Abbas, which has long since lost its democratic legitimacy, had called parliamentary elections for the first time since 2006 - but cancelled them at short notice last April. Officially, this was because the Israeli authorities were obstructing the participation of Palestinians in the eastern part of Jerusalem. In fact, however, it was probably because they feared a landslide victory by Hamas. On the one hand, this step fuelled the frustration of large sections of the Palestinian population. On the other hand, it also provoked the anger of Hamas which has ruled the Gaza Strip since it staged a coup in 2007. As a result, Hamas saw itself deprived of its chance in the future of representing the population there with a solid democratic legitimacy. By cancelling the elections, Hamas saw itself absolved of any false consideration. Now Hamas has the opportunity to present itself as the only force of resistance against Israel and to practically push the Abbas government out of its way. It has chosen to do this in the form of a massive military attack on Israel and can be assured of the support of large sections of the population. This may even call into question the attitude of those Arab states that have recently concluded peace agreements with Israel - one might even call them alliances of convenience against Iran.

What is happening now could be similar to what happened in 2006, 2008/09 and 2014 - only on a much larger scale of escalation. Hamas is firing its arsenals against Israel. On their part, the Israelis continue to carry out massive military strikes against the Gaza Strip - either from the air or even in the form of ground operations. The result is an intolerable number of dead, injured, traumatised, homeless and hopeless people. At some point in time, a ceasefire will be reached under foreign mediation (probably by Egypt or Qatar). Peace will return to the graveyard. Sometime later, Hamas will start re-arming itself - until the powder keg is reignited by a spark in a few years from now.

There must be a way out of this vicious circle. Admittedly, it does not behove any foreign observer to force the umpteenth peace plan on the Israelis and Palestinians. Nevertheless, any way out of this situation will need to include some clear guidelines:

- All hostilities must cease immediately and without exception. This applies both to rockets fired by Hamas on Israel (as well as "fire kites" etc.) and to Israeli bombardments of the Gaza Strip. Both - regardless of the possibility or impossibility of political legitimacy - will claim a number of civilian victims that can never be legitimised.

- Israelis and Palestinians must come to the negotiation table again without reservation - first to talk about a modus vivendi that will permit both sides to live (and survive) without fear - and then about a lasting peace solution. The threat posed to Israel by Iran or Arab advances towards an international condemnation of Israel may not jeopardise such talks.

- Both sides must be prepared to confront their own populations with painful truths. For example, the Palestinian leadership must openly state that even a lasting peace settlement will never lead to a mass return of Palestinian refugees to "historic Palestine". Conversely, Israel must set a clear limit to its right-wing predominantly national-religious fringe groups which have meanwhile penetrated deep into the circles of political leadership. It is highly commendable that the house evictions in Sheikh Jarrah have been temporarily suspended. Evictions should now be permanently annulled.

These would only be the first steps. Others would have to follow. Some of them would be painful for quite a few people involved. However, the suffering resulting from current violence is even more painful. All this can only be negotiated by the parties involved in the conflict. Although this will hardly work without international support, all the actors should be aware that well-intentioned advice (also from Germany) is not without a certain amount of ambivalence. As stones again fly against synagogues, hate slogans are shouted against Jews and Israeli flags are burned, it is becoming patently obvious that the borderlines between an anti-Israeli stance, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are at any rate fluid (contrary to some statements to the contrary in recent weeks).

With the inauguration of its new archbishop in the midst of an environment full of suffering and violence, the Episcopal (Anglican) Diocese in Jerusalem and the Middle East has set a sign of hope. Heavy tasks and great challenges await the new Archbishop whose diocese spans Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. On behalf of the international EMS community, we pray for God's good spirit to strengthen and guide Archbishop Hosam Elias Naoum, his family and his whole Church. Last but not least, we pray for peace in all countries of the Middle East.

Rev. Dr Uwe Gräbe


The Episcopal (Anglican) Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East is a member church of the Evangelical Mission in Solidarity (EMS). It is also the sponsoring church of the Theodor Schneller School in Amman, Jordan and thus closely connected to the Evangelical Association for the Schneller Schools (EVS).

Rev. Dr Uwe Gräbe is Middle East Liaison Secretary of the EMS and Executive Secretary of the EVS.

The Anglican diocese also runs a hospital in Gaza, the "Ahli Arab Hospital", which is currently taking in numerous wounded. If you would like to support this work, you can do so by making a donation through the EMS. All donations are passed on in full to the Anglican diocese. We will gladly issue donation receipts. Here are the bank details:

Evangelical Mission in Solidarity (EMS)
Evangelische Bank eG
IBAN: DE85 5206 0410 0000 0001 24
Keyword: Hospital in Gaza

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