August 2014

“Seek peace and pursue it”

Sion Sister, Mary Reaburn asks: what can give rise to hope in the seemingly hopeless situation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

BY Mary Reaburn NDS

We see the devastation on the TV and we know that human beings should not be in these terrible circumstances. This is our response to the scenes from Gaza. We see the suffering of ordinary Palestinians and we pray for peace. We feel helpless but not nearly as helpless as they do.

Sometimes I think that we Australians in an island continent – which is one nation with one political reality – have it easy. Borders are not so much a concern for us. Maybe it is only the sad efforts by our own government to ensure that those claiming refugee status are not ‘processed’ within our borders that have made us aware of the importance of borders.

Palestine, composed of Gaza on the Mediterranean coast and the West Bank on the west side of the Jordan river, has a complex history. It has never had an independent life, its borders have been fluid and its name and government has changed with history.

During the years 1517 to 1917, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire and, as such, ruled from Istanbul. After the First World War it was under British rule in the time of the British Mandate, a mandate given by the League of Nations. A United Nations resolution in 1947 spoke of establishing two states, one Jewish and one Arab. When Israel was founded in 1948 the Arab areas came under the rule of neighbours: Gaza to Egypt and the West Bank to Jordan.

The history and politics of the region are complex; the solutions are even more complicated. Talk is of a two-state solution, yet the reality of many large Israeli settlements makes this well-nigh impossible. Mistrust makes a one-state solution even more elusive. We know that the Palestinians want their own state and the right to make their own decisions. We know, too, that the Israelis want to live free from the threat of neighbours who do not want them to exist as a nation. What we do not know is how both these legitimate desires can be met.

Israel must defend itself from rockets fired from Gaza. Gazans rightfully want to be able to move beyond their own confined borders. Yet neither Egypt nor Israel allow them to cross their borders apart from exceptional circumstances. The disproportionate nature of the military response by Israel has left us gasping.

What can give rise to hope in this seemingly hopeless situation?

It seems to me that one thing we can do is hope and pray for peace, and we cannot do this if we do not believe that peace is possible. A Jesuit priest who lives in Jerusalem once told me that he believes that Christians have a responsibility to hold “hope” aloft in the midst of seeming hopelessness.

What can support our hope?

One thing which assists me is knowing that there are a number of groups on the ground working for peace. One such group is the Parents Forum. It describes itself in this way: “Parents Circle – Families Forum is a grassroots organisation of bereaved Palestinians and Israelis. It promotes reconciliation as an alternative to hatred and revenge”. This group was originally composed of parents who lost a child in the conflict and who determined that hatred was not their way forward. They now speak to groups – a Palestinian parent and an Israeli parent both of whom have lost a child in the conflict – hoping that by standing side by side and speaking for reconciliation, they can change the course of events.

There are other groups working for peace and understanding: Rabbis for Human Rights; Physicians for Human Rights; B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories; ICCI – Interreligious Co-ordinating Council in Israel. I am inspired by these, and similar groups, where Palestinians and Israelis work together to promote understanding and respect. Maybe you could choose to support one of these groups both by prayer and some financial contribution?

Another source of hope is the commitment to education. Palestinians have a great desire to see their children educated. The Latin Patriarch, the Franciscan Custody in the Holy Land and several religious orders are working hard to provide education for Palestinian children.

The Bethlehem University, run by the De La Salle Brothers, describes itself as an oasis of peace and a beacon of hope. All those working in education hope that educated young people will provide leadership for the future. What is lacking is political leadership for peace; what education can help provide is future leaders committed to peace and eventually reconciliation.

Even as I write, the cease-fire is holding and there is hope it will expand. Aid has begun to enter Gaza. A first step has been taken. May this too nurture our hope.

The question I pose to myself is: what are you doing to help build peace, Mary? This essentially entails a commitment to work for justice. Even if peace is established, without justice it will not last. I invite you to ask yourself a similar question.

In the words of the Psalmist (34:14): “Seek peace and pursue it”. We must do what we can.

Mary Reaburn

Dr Mary Reaburn is a Sister of Our Lady of Sion and a lecturer in Old Testament at Yarra Theological Union, Melbourne, with special interests in Jewish interpretation of the Bible, inter-faith dialogue and the biblical imperative for justice. The Sion Sisters conduct a Centre for Biblical Formation in Jerusalem and Mary has worked some months of each year in this Centre. She loves Jerusalem and its people.

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