MAXWELL:  Israel controls future of Palestinians _ and the region

3/26/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Any ethical person who travels to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is moved by the profound suffering of the Palestinian diaspora, people scattered from their homeland. I have been to the West Bank several times and to Gaza twice, and, indeed, I empathize with the people’s plight.

In his first and only trip to the region, 79-year-old Pope John Paul II felt the people’s pain and said as much during mass at Manger Square in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where tradition says that Christ was born: “No one can ignore how much the Palestinian people has had to suffer in recent decades. Your torment is before the eyes of the world, and it has gone on too long. The Holy See has always recognized that the Palestinian people have the natural right to a homeland and the right to be able to live in peace and tranquility with the other peoples of this area.”

Doubtless, the time has come to re-establish a state of Palestine, a legitimate homeland for the Palestinian people who lost everything to Israelis in 1967 and were forced to live in refugee camps that dot the Middle East. John Paul described the conditions as “degrading” and “barely tolerable.”

Accompanied by Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat, the pontiff visited Dehaishem Refugee Camp. Here is the New York Times’ description of the area:

“Almost 10,000 Palestinian refugees, nearly all Muslim, live on less than one square mile of land here, crowded into concrete shacks that line alleys dotted with junked cars, stray coils of wire and trash. They have been refugees for 52 years, and many of them still keep the keys to the homes they fled or were forced to leave in the fighting surrounding the creation of Israel. … ”

Anyone who thinks John Paul is simply voicing the regrets of a sentimental old man would be wrong. None other than Ehud Barak, Israel’s prime minister and the nation’s most decorated military hero, comprehends the immorality of his nation’s treatment of the Palestinians. During a July speech to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, about peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, Barak said:

“It is our historic duty to finish the job and bring about a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, which has seen so many wars. It is our duty, to ourselves and our children, to take bold steps to strengthen Israel by ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. This government is intent on doing all in its power, taking every step and doing all that is necessary for Israel’s security, achieving peace and preventing war. … I know not only the suffering of my people but also recognize the suffering of the Palestinian people.

“My desire and aspiration is to put an end to the violence and suffering and to act with the elected Palestinian leadership, headed by Chairman Arafat, working in cooperation and with respect together to find a fair and agreed on arrangement for a coexistence of freedom, prosperity and good neighborliness in this beloved land in which two peoples will always live.” Yes, Israelis and Palestinians will always live here, sharing the same land. They are neighbors forever. For that reason alone, Arab radicals are foolish to plant bombs that kill Israelis. Israelis are foolish to perpetuate conditions that produce the nation’s own enemy _ its killers.

Conditions in the Gaza Strip symbolize the horror of being Palestinian under Israeli control. With a population of more than 1-million, the Gaza Strip, still called the “Soweto of Israel,” is not a state nor has it been annexed into Israel. Much of the crowding and squalor are directly attributable to Israel’s economic stranglehold over Gaza, which is fenced in from the Erez Crossing in the north to the Rafah Crossing at the Egyptian border in the south.

The Israel Defense Forces control all borders. Even with the recent establishment of a special passage from Gaza to the West Bank, if Gazans want to leave the area, they must obtain a permit from the Israelis. Unless the trip is work-related, most residents never get permits and, therefore, never travel into Israel or the West Bank.

I met many people _ born since 1967 _ who have never been out of the Strip, which is only 25 miles long and less than 4 miles wide in some areas. The region is trapped between the Negev Desert and the Mediterrean Sea.

Jewish cynics and radicals in Israel and the United States as well as Arab extremists here and in the Middle East condemn the pope’s visit. Well, they, too, are foolish and must be condemned. They thrive on mayhem and hatred. To them, peace is the enemy.

The big truth is that Israel, a powerful Western-styled state in its economy and its military, controls the destiny of the region. The burden of transforming life in this perpetual hot spot is that of Israel. Even with the sporadic acts of violence that they commit, Palestinians are victims of a nation that is propped up by the United States.

John Paul’s trip to Israel and the West Bank is significant because it highlights an international injustice that must be righted. “I hope and pray that my visit will bring some comfort in your difficult situation,” the pope told the multitude in Manger Square. “Please God it will draw attention to your continuing plight.”

When Israel degrades its Palestinian neighbors, all humankind is degraded. With their history, the Jews of Israel should know better than to abuse a whole people. That insight is central to the pope’s visit to the region.