The pope's prayers for peace in the Holy Land are being answered, but not as we might think.

Having spent much of the past six years in and around the Holy Land, the current implosion of any sort of peace process, and the outbreak of waves of hatred, brutality and violence leave me desperately sad, and scrabbling to try and make sense of what is happening around me. As I write I can hear gunshots in the distance, and the other night the house was shaken by the explosion of a Hamas rocket. 

My main point of reference is Pope Francis’ visit. Just six weeks ago he stopped at the wall and prayed. Now, every night, the exact same spot is a place where soldiers and youths fight it out with tear gas, rubber coated bullets and stones.  Can we say with any sincerity that his prayers weren't anything more than a very public humiliation and a sign that the age of faith is finally over?

On June 12th, just four days after the Papal prayer meeting at the Vatican on June 8th, 3 Israeli teenagers from a Jewish settlement deep in the West Bank were kidnapped. Nearly 40 Israeli battalions were sent sweeping the entire West Bank. The Israeli government declared that the kidnapping was a 'golden opportunity' (sic) to smash Hamas, and to bring down the Palestinian unity government. In the chaos and turmoil, six Palestinians died at the hands of the Israeli security forces, including children and the disabled. Thus within a week the Papal prayer meeting seemed a deluded whim.

If the scale and actions of the security forces struck against our hopes for peace, the rhetoric of the Israeli establishment sought to pummel it into the ground. Peace depends on empathy, on finding space in one’s mental and emotional space for the humanity of the ‘other’, not demonising but re-humanising those with whom we live, even if in conflict. This humanising of the enemy is the basis for the rules of war, of the protection of civilians and the ideas of proportionality. It is also the path to a real and embedded peace as shown by South Africa and Northern Ireland. Humanity has to triumph over ideology, reaching beyond retribution rooted in raw and open wounds to the healing balm of forgiveness, sorrow and humility.

However, what the Israeli PM and his government did is set out in their own words: the Prime Minister didn't just denounce Hamas, but he spoke in these terms: that the teenagers “were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by wild beasts.” (my italics). Israel's Economic Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel would make membership of Hamas a 'ticket to hell', branding it one 'of the most "lethal, barbaric organizations in the world" and that both the PA and Hamas formed a 'complete culture where Israel is [perceived as] Satan''. Netanyahu explicitly lumped the Arabs in the occupied territories with the rise of extreme radicalised Islam: 'We're witnessing the unrestrained brutality of Islamic terrorism, both in Israel and around us', thus equating the kidnapping of three teenagers with the chaos and violence in Syria and Iraq, maximising the sense of fear and deepening the sense of alienation between Israeli Jews and their Palestinian neighbours. 

Yet Israeli military intelligence confirmed that Israel was working closely with the PA authorities (See Wiki)  and on 17 June, Israel defence sources said PNA assistance had been "very professional".(See Wiki)   Nothing of this was mentioned by any government minister. The unrelenting message was to make a clear divide between 'us' and a very evil and threatening 'them'. As a result fear and grief were easily fanned into that the venom of  hate.

The impact of this within Israel became tangible as hate of Arabs gripped Israeli society. Arabs going about their own business were assaulted in the street, harassed on buses and groups of Jewish youths rampaged through Jerusalem openly shouting 'Death to Arabs'. Then, the day after the burial of the poor Israeli lads who had been kidnapped and shot, a16 yr old Arab boy was dragged into a car, and in revenge for the deaths of the three Jews, was taken to a nearby forest, had petrol forced down his throat and then burnt alive. It was a horrendous event and it shook Israeli society profoundly. For a moment it seemed that the hate mongers might actually take a hard look and hold back, but things were out of control and the deluge of hate and violence entrenched itself. Meanwhile the hate spilled over on the other side, with violent riots breaking out not in the West Bank but among the Palestinian community in Jerusalem, and elsewhere in Israel itself. Deep tears have been ripped into the very heart of Israeli society, tears rooted in fear, injustice and the populism of politicians. 

How Israeli security forces got caught up in it all can be seen here. It shows a pair of Israeli adult policeman setting upon a 16 year old Arab boy, kicking, beating and hitting him. The boy's family maintain he was nowhere near the rioting and had not taken part in it. More poignantly not only was the boy an American citizen but he was also a cousin of the murdered Arab boy who only the day before was burnt alive. It is sobering to watch what takes place, as it shows the reality of what is tearing Israel and Palestine apart, not at the level of rhetoric and political posturing – for which all sides are guilty – but how it plays out in the life of one ordinary family and in the behaviour of those who have a responsibility to protect all citizens and visitors. The politics of fear, hate and of separating everyone into 'them' and 'us' has enormous consequences for the normality of ordinary people's lives. It is perhaps only because of the unforeseen coincidences of this lad being an American and being the cousin of the murdered boy that the poignancy brings so much more to light?

And of course since then, we have had the bombardment, yet again, of Gaza. As of now over 185 Palestinians have been killed and 1,385 injured as Israel assault enters its seventh day while among Israelis there have been a few injuries but fortunately no deaths. The Israeli government and Hamas have begun an escalating cycle of revenge, determined to carry on with this without any exit strategy, some commentators suggest that the Israeli govt has got itself caught up in its own whirlwind, in a cycle of violence and revenge which it now cannot easily control, let alone stop. Both Hamas and Likud and its allies seem now wedded to each other's mutual, blind destruction, but it is hundreds of civilians, especially children and the disabled, the defenceless in other words, that are paying the cost of political hubris. And the world now sees this in all its horror as social media beams out one bloodied young corpse after another. Is this really the way a Jewish state behaves? Is this really the face of Islamic society? Does neither side have no alternative than to play politics with the lives of others when the violence has no chance of reaching any of their goals, just an intense slaughter and a deepening of fear? Have they lost all capacity for empathy with their religious 'other' or is religion as an ideology more important than the humanity of those who follow them? Perhaps the time has come for these questions to be asked more thoroughly? It is a fair question to ask if religion here is part of the problem, and prayer far from its solution.

I list all this because it is the reality, it is what has taken place since the Pope’s prayers for peace in the Vatican. For many I guess it simply shows the impotence of God and the futility of such dreamers who follow him. It’s a powerful argument given this long and woe-filled tale, but the pope has made this comment: “Someone could think that such a meeting took place in vain. Instead no, because prayer helps us in not letting evil win nor resigning ourselves to violence and hatred taking over dialogue and reconciliation...” Pope Francis made this statement on July 13th 2014, 6 days into the violent attack on Gaza. Unlike many of us, I don’t think the Pope was under any illusion about the depth of the malaise in the peace process, and of the struggle that bringing peace to life as a real possibility would take.

He wasn’t praying from some lightening strike to come from heaven bringing everyone to their senses but of a much deeper process which is absolutely crucial if peace is to be built: a journey into reality, a journey into truth, with honesty and humility, a desperate struggle to resist the violence and hatred which lies like a coiled snake along the path, and so to walk in a much more difficult way that perhaps politicians would like to offer. In this Pope Francis was striking at the evil that has stalked the Holy Land since the time of Christ, that engulfed Bethlehem in the massacre of the innocents, and which took Christ through the brutality and agony of the Passion, costing Him his life.

What has happened since those prayers is that the reality has been unmasked, laid bare and thus the real business of dealing with it can begin. Prayer, Henri Nouwen said, is three movements: loneliness to solitude, hostility to hospitality, illusion to prayer. Prayer takes us from our self-obsessed preoccupation in which is rooted our alienation, fear and hostility towards others, and which traps us in a fantasy far from the reality of God, to a renewal of our capacity to love our neighbour as ourselves and to become intimate with a God who is all merciful and compassionate. The loss of empathy is the loss of the capacity to deal with reality, that we are not by nature isolated persons or insular groups but all sharers in the same God given humanity. Brutalising one another crushes this capacity, and drives us into fear and hatred, into demonising ‘the other’ and seeking ever more isolation, thinking that safety comes in loneliness, ie. being cut off from the other.

Our Lady of the Wall

In this fascinating article in the New York Times  Ethan Bronner explores how separation has brought about a real decay in the life of not just the Palestinians but also of Israelis. I have long thought the separation wall represents everything that is wrong here, and has literally cemented the most diabolical currents in the contemporary situation. Setting oneself apart, corralling the ‘other’, believing that safety comes from total segregation, all of these speak about a failure of politics, of a failure of people to live with one another, to see the ‘other’ as a neighbour, of the failure of people to live in the ‘polis’ in any sort of ordered and meaningfully human way. As this crisis deepens more and more is, in this way, coming into the open, and while dreadfully painful, perhaps it is the only way in which some real sense can be brought to the deep and complex realities which any peace process needs to address. This is, I would dare to suggest, the fruit of prayer, unmasking the roots and tentacles of evil so that it can be fought more effectively – the truth will set you free, what is in the shadows will be brought into the light, blindness gives way to clear insight. And once it is known, then fear can be calmed, as we often are more afraid of what we know than what we can only imagine. The prayer of Pope, Patriarch, Presidents and people of good will was such a surge that the masks have been ripped off and at least we have a situation which is much clearer to see.

Perhaps emblematic of this lifting of the veil, of a dawning transparency came even as those prayers were being offered. As President Peres joined the Pope and President Abbas to pray for peace, the Prime Minister of Israel visited an elite police corps. He told them that Israel had prayed for peace for 1000 years, and while they waited for that to happen they, these paramilitaries, were the ones he was relying on to deliver peace for Israel. He thus revealed that he had no faith in prayer, in any peace that wasn’t made at the end of a gun. Subsequently, last Friday he gave a press conference at which he said, in Hebrew, that there would never be two states west of the river Jordan. You can read the full account here but in summary he said that dealing with Hamas was the current priority, but that there would never, ever be a sovereign Palestinian state, because Israeli security could never countenance it.  He dismissed openly Kerry, Obama and the US general who was sent to advise on security as naive. This reveals just how dead the Kerry peace initiative was even before it started, and about what some of the Israeli participants wanted as an outcome.

And thus it makes clear what the real obstacles are in making peace even a remote possibility, and who the most courageous people are and the obstacles and challenges they have long faced. It also shows us that we need to begin to be clear about what ‘peace’ means, to give it back some actual meaning after the glib use of the term by legions of politicians.

Perhaps, then, amid the sadness, trauma, carnage, fear and drama of the past four weeks something good is happening, deep below the surface, as the scene is being re-calibrated, a clearer picture is emerging and thus a clearer sense of where people have to choose to stand. I for one, in thinking through the tragedies through which we have passed here over the past six weeks, am more certain than ever that the only hope lies in a renewal of humanity around the radicalisation of life which Christ brought, a faith in God that believes that loving your enemy is a Divine imperative, that forgiveness and turning the other cheek are the ways to make space that good might be done on earth and not just in heaven, and that all people need grace if they are to have any chance of finding the resources for such a gargantuan task. All of this comes at the heart of my faith in Jesus Christ, for whom I thank Almighty God from the depths of my heart. No, the prayers of the Pope, Patriarchs and Presidents are working, even if in ways which are hard to comprehend.


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