How can Christians help to bring peace in the Holy Land?

Jerusalem the Golden is sacred to three great religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Today, it is not a happy place: the Israel/Palestine conflict provokes  so much fear, distrust and unfairness. What can Christians here do to change the status quo for the better? Pray for peace, and work for mutual security with justice for all, by asking our Government to  recognise two states – Israel and  Palestine – endowed with the same rights and responsibilities.

Christian Church Leaders have pointed the way. His Holiness Pope Francis did many good things during his May pilgrimage to the Holy Land. To mention three: he prayed for a just peace, called for an end to terrorism and of the Separation Barrier, and addressed President Mahmoud Abbas as the Head of State of Palestine. His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke rightly  in June last year of security for Israel and justice for the Palestinians, leading to peace for all. His Eminence Cardinal Vincent Nichols will revisit the Holy Land with his Westminster Diocesan Pilgrimage in November; he aims to go each autumn to give support to the Christian living stones, surviving – just – where Jesus walked. Archbishop Justin and Cardinal Vincent are joint patrons of the excellent non-political charity Friends of the Holy Land, helping Christian Palestinians to stay in the land of their birthright.

What more can we do, beyond prayer and alms giving? This is a profoundly political conflict, which needs a political, negotiated solution – Palestinian sovereignty over the land Israel has occupied since the 1967 war, in return for guaranteed Israeli security and the neighbourly coexistence of two states: Israel and Palestine. While we cannot presume to negotiate on behalf of either party to this conflict, we can speak the truth and seek justice – trying to do what is right.

It is right to condemn mortar and rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. Futile violence, and disproportionate violent deterrence, will not end this conflict. It is right to try to level somewhat the ground for those essential negotiations, between two peoples with the same needs, the same rights. One people has a state; the other merits one. I submit that now is the time for our Government to recognise the State of Palestine, just as we recognised Israel in 1950. The Vatican has recognised both Israel and Palestine – it is now for us do so.

British Government policy is to recognise states, not governments. So there is no question of recognising one Palestinian faction at the expense of another. The  State of Palestine we should recognise has borders based on the 1967 lines, comprises the West Bank and Gaza, and shares Jerusalem with Israel as the capital of two states. It has a President –  Mahmoud Abbas – whose authority our Government already regard as legitimate in both the West Bank and Gaza. Its ruling body, the PLO, has recognised the State of Israel, and forsworn violence.

What difference does recognition make? It  makes a difference to us, and to how we view the parties to this conflict – by recognising both, we show that we clearly see both peoples as equal in rights, responsibilities and human dignity. We played a big part in the founding of Israel, from the Balfour Declaration (1917)  through the Mandate period (1920-48), when we governed the territory. Today, our Government’s support for Israel’s right to security in statehood is rock-solid, as our Prime Minister made clear in his speech to the Israeli Parliament in March. The same commitment to the Palestinian right to security in statehood is needed to balance our approach. It will prove to ourselves, and to the world, that we stand for an equitable resolution to the conflict, serving the essential interests of both parties, while upholding the values of justice and equality which we profess.

For there is a moral aspect. Palestinian violence is wrong. So is Israel’s conduct of the Occupation, in several respects: over 600,000 Israeli settlers living illegally on Palestinian soil, the Separation Barrier confiscating 9% of the Palestinian West Bank, Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes with no shadow of a security justification… These repeated transgressions of International  Humanitarian Law require international consequences in deed as well as the condemnation in word which our Ministers rightly offer. However that may be, there is no detriment to the State of Israel in our recognising the State of Palestine on 1967 lines. Recognition strengthens the hand of those in authority in Palestine who have recognised the State of Israel, and – like President Abbas – follow the path of non-violence – indeed, of full security cooperation with the Israeli occupying power, while striving to end the Occupation by peaceful means. In Israel, it encourages those who believe in two states living side by side as the best, the equitable solution for both peoples, ending the Occupation which harms both peoples – the Occupied and the Occupying force.  That voice needs to be heard now, when the prospects for an early negotiated agreement are bleak.

Where the United Kingdom leads, other European states will follow: Ireland, Italy, France, the Nordic countries… The US Administration is not minded to go down this road, for political reasons – Congress will not permit strengthening the peaceful Palestinian negotiating hand with Israel, although that is precisely what is needed. The same political constraints have prevented the US from using the legal and moral power of a unanimously agreed UN Security Council Resolution to set the framework for negotiations to end the conflict. Time is not on our side, but there is still time for the US to allow the United Nations its proper role. In any event, the United Kingdom  has the freedom to do things which the US cannot do, or chooses not to do. Recognition of Palestine is one such.

Our Government will state their position on recognition of Palestine on 13 October, when the House of Commons debates a motion calling for recognition. Hitherto, the Government’s position has been to wait and see, saying  “We reserve the right to recognise a Palestinian state at a moment of our choosing, and when it can best help bring about peace”. Now is that moment. I believe that it  is the right, the just thing to do. It will make a difference – a positive difference. If you agree, please tell your MP before 13 October.

Sir Vincent Fean KCVO was British Consul General in Jerusalem from 2010 to 2014

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