01-10-2011 - Traces, n. 9

beyond the UN

Without a Homeland
Church bell towers and muezzin... In the Territories, the celebration is shared. The echo of Abu Mazen’s request for the recognition of the Palestinian state resounds throughout the Holy Land and rocks the life of the Christian communities, where they hope for a new impetus for negotiations. And the people “are tired of violence”...

by Francesca Paci

“The West is very enthusiastic about the so-called Arab Spring, but it will soon realize that, starting from Cairo, the beneficiaries could very well be the Islamists, and we Palestinians have to think it over carefully,” says Elias. While President Abu Mazen holds Israel in check after having successfully appealed that the UN recognize the Palestinian state, Elias, a young vendor, roasts sausages in a leafy courtyard in Bethlehem and thinks about the long-term effects of the regional shakeup, a change whose outcome is not to be taken for granted, including by his people. He doesn’t want to cross swords with Hamas, the party in power in Gaza that has held the majority in various cities of the West Bank, including that of the Nativity, since 2005. He prefers Egyptian transference; that is, to speak of others’ problems, alluding implicitly to your own. The Christians of the Holy Land have always avoided emphasizing the differences with their Muslim countrymen, preferring to insist on occupation, the lowest common denominator of a people that is otherwise heterogeneous, from both a political and a religious point of view. And yet today, to understand how much the words of the heir of Arafat at the UN have left their mark back home, it is useful to investigate the situation in the shadow of the bell towers, where, in recent years, the extreme polarization of the conflict is most evident–Israeli hawks against Palestinian hawks to divide up what remains of the dialogue.
In the hours following Abu Mazen’s speech, a stream of men, women, and children poured into the streets of Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, Bethlehem, to confirm to the President that–with the exception of Gaza, silenced by the Hamas militias–the message had been heard loud and clear.

War without borders. “Abu Mazen seemed like a weak leader; no one would have imagined him waving our flag at the United Nations, challenging the threats of Washington. It was a heady moment and the population of Bethlehem took to the streets en masse in a way that I haven’t seen for years and years,” admits Elias. He is aware that what happened on September 23rd was merely a symbolic gesture; in the best case scenario, Palestine will obtain the rank of “observer” from the UN General Assembly, and will be a non-member state (like the Vatican) whose attributes will not have any practical effect on the daily routine of the people living in the Territories. But the peaceful demonstrations that have accompanied this gesture, and the approval rating of Abu Mazen, catapulted from a small percentage to more than 83%, prove how disappointed the Palestinians are with the war drums that have been beating in the background of negotiations for years without producing any results. Almost 20 years after the Oslo Accords and ten years after the serial suicide bombers of the Second Intifada, Israel still controls all of Jerusalem, the settlements proliferate, and in a Gaza governed by die-hards, the iron fist has only produced a surge in unemployment, while in the West Bank the economy has partially recovered. How much will the war-without-borders pay? For now, the answer is in the successful wager of Abu Mazen who, despite the boycott of Israel, the United States, and Hamas, has kept going on his path–the only one available given the deadlock of the negotiations frozen de facto until September 22nd–demonstrating that exercising “soft power” instead of threatening “hard power” doesn’t automatically spark violence.
“Abu Mazen mentioned everything, including the refugees; he spoke as any Palestinian would have spoken, without leaving out any part of our constant humiliation. Any one of us could have empathized with him,” observes Father Raed Abu Sahlia, Pastor of the Church of Christ the Redeemer in Taybeh, the only Palestinian village that is still entirely Christian. The evening of September 23rd, he rang the church bells in celebration, and the following morning he dedicated the Mass to the courage of the President, as did the former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Monsignor Michel Sabbah, in Nablus.  If all the Palestinians are on a high, he implies that his faithful are even more so. Between the disappointment over the lack of peace, the worsening of the occupation–sealed by the wall constructed by the Israelis to protect themselves from attacks–and the Islamization of Palestinian society, the Christians in Bethlehem have been reduced, from the early 1990s to today, to less than 12% of the 60,000 current inhabitants. And that percentage is still rather high with respect to the rest of the West Bank and Gaza, where they are now less than 2%. Though reluctant to speak out on an individual scale, they had been supporting Abu Mazen’s effort for weeks, even more so after the failure of Hamas to recognize the state of Israel with the 1967 borders. It was not confirmed by anyone, but one could sense the fear that, even in the Palestinian Territories, the wind of the Arab Spring would lead, though temporarily, to a resurgence of the most sectarian Islamist petitions, like in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Instead, a point was scored by the moderate and secular Abu Mazen, the leader who was reluctant to wear the kaffiyeh in front of the international community (at the cost of seeming to his own people to be the “puppet” of the West), “the only possible partner for the edification of two states,” according to Israeli President Simon Peres.
“We are all excited; the proof of how constructive the President’s speech was comes from the jump in his popularity, which is inversely proportional to that of Hamas,” notes the Mayor of Bethlehem, Victor Batarseh. The “Christian quota” in the city, guaranteed since the times of Arafat, is more and more sensitive to the call of the muezzin. “If we went to vote today, the Islamic party would surely lose.” Since the beginning of September, the principal Palestinian Christian churches (Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Copts) have been taking turns sending their support to the government of Ramallah “for the diplomatic efforts carried out to obtain the international recognition of the State of Palestine in the borders of June 1967.” The day after, independent of the outcome, is the day of thanksgiving.
“The people are tired of violence and I don’t believe in a Third Intifada; no group, faction, or individual wants to exploit the situation for aggressive ends,” comments the Custodian of the Holy Land, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, around the time of the appeal to the United Nations. “It’s painful to see that we have a new generation of young Israelis and Palestinians that was born into and grew up in violence. We have to let them play together,” echoes the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal. Like many Israelis, including the renowned writer Abraham Yehoshua, the Palestinian Christians are convinced that, far from being a provocation, the initiative of President Abu Mazen at the UN could become a stimulus to restart negotiations. And the invitation of the Israeli premier Bibi Netanyahu to take advantage of the occasion of finding themselves together in New York to start talking again, seems to confirm that a jolt was necessary, even though, with the current government, it couldn’t have come from Israel. It may be temporary, but the echo of Abu Mazen’s appeal continues to resound throughout the Holy Land.

The blue chair. From Nazareth, Bishop Giacinto Marcuzzo emphasizes that, after years of negotiations that have resulted in nothing, “the search for justice” expressed by the appeal to the UN, is “valid and justified.”  “The request of the Palestinians was made after more than 18 years of negotiations, begun in 1993. At this point, what was left? There was nothing better to do than to turn to the legal, accepted, recognized international organism.” In Jenin and Tulkarem, the inhabitants still pass around the blue chair with the number 194, the Palestinian seat at the UN, as part of a superstitious game. “If they are roses, they will bloom,” as the saying goes–without the insidious thorns that loom from the Arab Spring. For the moment in the Palestinian Territories, the church bells and the call of the muezzin don’t challenge each other to conquer the air saturated by invocations to God. The celebration is shared. Even in Gaza, where Hamas forbid demonstrations, tasting the bitterness of the success of the archenemy of Fatah, Abu Mazen, there are those who rejoice. Many, a law student reveals in exchange for anonymity, felt proud of the President the evening of September 23rd. A symbolic flash of pride, of agreement. But here symbols count a great deal, and they speak for everyone.