October 4 2010 16:30 | Ajuntament. Saló de Cròniques
Barcelona 2010 - Intervention of Datò' Seri ANWAR IBRAHIM
The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict and the Question of Jerusalem
In the prologue to The Wars of the Jews also known as The History of the Destruction of Jerusalem, Josephus states that works written earlier by others “were marred by inaccuracies and prejudice” and he “hopes to comfort the conquered and to deter others from attempting innovations.”
In Book II, Chapter XIV, we come across an account of one of the first massacres in Jerusalem. And if I may take the liberty to paraphrase:
After failing to get the Jewish high priests and the men of power and eminence in the city to hand over those who had offended him, the Roman procurator Florus flew into a rage and ordered his soldiers to plunder the Upper Market-place. The soldiers did just that as well as searched every house and killed its inhabitants; the people fled along the narrow lanes, but many were caught and the soldiers slew them as well; many were brought before Florus, who flogged them first and then had them crucified. All in, three thousand and six hundred people were murdered including women and children.
There are numerous accounts of similar episodes of murder and mayhem as we go through the texts but as we reach Book VI, events take a different turn as a prelude to the final destruction of the Temple. In Book VI, Chapter I, we are told how the Jewish rebels by their unwillingness to come to terms with the Romans, bring calamity upon the rest of the Jewish community. We read how the miseries of Jerusalem grow worse by the day with the people falling prey to famine. Josephus recounts how “the multitude of carcasses that lay in heaps one upon another was a horrible sight.” To venture out of the city to fight the enemy, the Jewish rebels must tread upon those dead bodies, and as they marched on, they neither pitied the corpses nor considered this affront to bode ill; Josephus goes on: But since their hands were already stained with the blood of their own countrymen, “they seem to … have cast a reproach upon God himself.”
Describing the landscape of Jerusalem as being transformed from a city of the most beautiful suburbs into a desert wasteland, Josephus prepares the reader for the final destruction of the Temple by the Romans. However, the blame is not on the Romans but the rebel Jews themselves for their acts of sacrilege, running through the Temple precincts with “hands still warm with the blood of fellow Jews.”
It has been said that Josephus employs the literary devices of “spectacle and tragedy” in order to convince his audience of the innocence of the majority of Jews in the rebellion and to highlight the tragedy of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.
I recount this story without purporting to be judgmental but to set the historical backdrop to addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In Josephus’s historical account, we can see how the mighty can lord over the weak and perpetuate cruelty and injustice. Whatever might have been the aims of the Romans, no one can really doubt with whose side our sympathy lies.
For centuries since, Jerusalem has been regarded as the casus belli for countless wars waged which encompassed not just cultures but entire civilizations. But as history can be servitude and history can also be freedom, we can look at the Jerusalem Question today as the rock (no pun intended) upon which the foundation of peace lies. Unfortunately though, it would be fair to say that the question remains intractable with both sides steadfastly holding on to their positions, regarding it as their eternal capital.
But since 1967, Palestinians have been prepared to settle for a partitioned Jerusalem, the western part being Jewish and the eastern, Arab. Since the Camp David accords of 1978, the Israelis too had been willing to settle by giving up occupied land everywhere else except East Jerusalem. The Palestinians maintain there can be no peace without East Jerusalem. And the circle goes round.
It was the Jerusalem Question which almost railroaded the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty of 1979 but the parties came to a compromise by keeping Jerusalem off the bargaining table or sweeping it under the carpet, as some would characterize it. Subsequently, Intifada spread to East Jerusalem, and in 1988 the PLO proclaimed Jerusalem as the capital of its newly established State of Palestine while signaling its preparedness to recognize the state of Israel. Jerusalem could no longer be swept under the carpet.
Since October 1991, various stages of peace talks had been under way including bilateral meetings, overt as well as covert, and the highly significant Declaration of Principles in Washington in September 1993. It still is significant because it demonstrated a clear commitment to peace from both sides with mutual concessions made and the undertaking to pursue the Jerusalem Question in 1996 when permanent status negotiations would begin.
In the meantime, the Beilin-Abu Mazen Agreement of October 1995 proposed among others, that people of all faiths would continue to have free access to the holy places in Jerusalem. The Western part was to be called Yerushalayim and the Eastern part Al-Quds, each recognizing the other as a capital. At last, prospects of a resolution to the Jerusalem question appeared on the horizon but tragically, shortly after the agreement was finalized, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. The rest as they say is history again.
As we arrive at today’s state of affairs, the peace talks revived a month ago are on the brink of collapse, yet again. Abu Mazen has threatened to pull out if the call to halt all new settlements in the Occupied West Bank is not heeded. It is said that while peace talks are still in progress, Israel continues to build the settlements. The Palestinians say that the continued growth of the settlements will make it impossible to establish a Palestinian state in the territory of their choice. It’s no use telling the Palestinians they can set it up outside the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
We are left asking: Are the parties doing all they can to achieve peace? If direct negotiations are no longer held, will there be any chance of even seeing the light at the end of the tunnel?
Needless to say, there must be a firm commitment from both sides to show that neither is going to ride roughshod over the views of the other. As long any party feels that it can ignore international law with impunity, attempts to reach a settlement will be futile. While both sides agree to keep talking via an intermediary, we hope this is a mere temporary setback.
Mutual recrimination won’t take us anywhere near peace. For instance, we hear about the purported refusal of Muslim Arabs to acknowledge the right of Jews to a nation as the cause of the problem on Palestine. And that it is Islamic anti-Semitism that has made the peaceful resolution of Arab-Israeli conflict impossible. But are these really legitimate grouses? We have already seen from the foregoing perspective that recognition of Israel’s is no longer an issue as far as the Palestinians are concerned. While it is true that outbursts such as “wipe Israel of the map” only add fuel to the fire, those who are in a position to negotiate know that such views are not reflective of the position of the parties in the Palestinian side.
What is certain is that any purported settlement that does not guarantee the Palestinian people a sovereign state of their own is doomed to fail. We also know that statehood without resolving the Jerusalem question will remain a mirage.
At this juncture, I would like to take some time off to address the issue of the misperception of this Middle East conflict. To many outside the region and perhaps even to those within, the Palestinian/Israeli problem is perceived as part of a bigger conflict involving Muslims on the one hand, and Jews and Christians on the other. We know that this is simply not true in as much as Palestinians also comprise Christians.
So, would this render it into a conflict between Muslims and Christians on the one hand and Jews on the other? Again, this is simply wrong in as much as the conflict arises from the question of the dispossession of the homeland of the Palestinians who also have a long history with the land. In this conflict, religion has a minimal role, if any, although this has not stopped certain groups from exploiting it and turning it into a question of jihad. These groups invoke jihad to legitimize acts of violence in varied forms and guises.
But this exploitation also comes from the other side. For example, opposition to the policies of Israel, is contorted into an issue of anti-Semitism. This is nonsense. But sadly, vindictive campaigns to flay those who have decided to criticize Israel’s policies towards Palestinians are a reality. This mindset has meant that critics must be silenced and demonized. Even those who express sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians run the risk of being labeled an enemy of the State of Israel.
This begs the question: What’s there to be coy about the plight of Palestinian refugees? And what’s there not to be enraged by the killing of women and children? To paraphrase Edward Said, few national groups have been stripped of their humanity in the eyes of the world more blatantly than ordinary Palestinian men and women. Under such circumstances, would it be surprising that Palestinians react the way they do? But we are not condoning violence in any way and precisely because the conflict has dragged on for so long at the expense of regional even world stability, we would urge that both sides remain committed to the peace process.