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Hope for peace found at grassroots level


Catholic experts on the Middle East seem to concur on one point: If peace ever does replace the cycle of tit-for-tat violence between Israelis and Palestinians, it is unlikely such leaders as Yasser Arafat or Ariel Sharon will usher it in.

Instead, they say, the region’s last, best hope resides in its civil society, where grassroots initiatives and a simple desire for normal life survive against seemingly impossible odds.

At the same time, reactions voiced to NCR after a mid-December appeal for peace by John Paul II illustrate how deep the divisions run. The Latin-rite patriarch of Jerusalem blasted the Israelis for making unreasonable demands on Arafat, while the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See criticized the pope for labeling both Palestinian and Israeli violence forms of “extremism.”

Pope John Paul II convened a Dec. 13 summit of prelates from Israel and Palestine to discuss the future of what Christians call the Holy Land, along with bishops from the Roman curia and around the world. Among them was Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

At the summit, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano laid out a blueprint for peace. A deal, he said, must include “security for Israel, the birth of a state for the Palestinian people, evacuation from occupied territories, an internationally guaranteed special statute for the most sacred parts of Jerusalem and a fair solution for Palestinian refugees.”

Such ideals, however, can seem remote from bloody reality. In the 48 hours since Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat called for a halt to terrorist action, Israeli officials recorded a total of 17 new attacks, with one leaving three Israelis wounded in a drive-by shooting.

Is anyone really willing to give peace a chance?

One of the untold stories of the conflict, observers say, is that the answer is a ringing yes. They point to pioneers such as Bruno Hussar and Dalia Landau, and their Oasis of Peace and Open House projects.

Hussar, who died in February 1996, was the child of Jewish parents. He later converted to Catholicism and became a Dominican priest. During the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Hussar helped shape the document Nostra Aetate, which rejected the charge of “deicide,” or responsibility for the death of Christ, a charge that had been directed at the Jewish people over the centuries.

In the 1970s, Hussar founded the Oasis of Peace on a hilltop between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It’s a community of Jewish, Muslim and Christian families who regulate their lives in a democratic assembly.

The community runs a school where children learn both Hebrew and Arabic, and study one another’s religious traditions. There are two teachers, one Jewish, the other Arab.

Landau is a Jewish woman who grew up in Ramallah, in the occupied territories, after the 1967 Six Day War. One day a man knocked at her family’s door asking if there was still a lemon tree in the backyard. It was the former Palestinian occupant, expelled during the war.

A friendship grew between Landau and the Palestinian family, and today Landau runs a center called Open House dedicated to peace among Israelis, Palestinians, and the Arab nations of the Middle East. The center is based in the home Landau shares with its former Palestinian owners.

Italian religion writer Luigi Sandri profiles these grassroots peacemakers in his book Holy and Lacerated City: Jerusalem for the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims (Monti, 2001). He told NCR that people such as Hussar and Landau are creating the basis for peace.

“By itself, grand political negotiations cannot succeed if they are not preceded, sustained and accompanied by a climate that renders inevitable a diplomatic deal,” said Sandri, who spent years in Tel Aviv for the Italian press agency Ansa.

Sandri’s guarded optimism is shared by Jesuit Fr. David Neuhaus, like Hussar a convert from Judaism who became a priest and settled in Israel. He teaches at the Catholic university in Bethlehem.

“When I look for hope, I think about people on both sides who struggle to go about their daily lives,” Neuhaus told NCR in a telephone interview from his residence in Jerusalem.

“It can take our students, for example, hours just to reach the university. They try to get around the Israeli soldiers, and if they’re blocked in one place they walk miles to another. They will not give in to violence,” he said.

Neuhaus said many Palestinians and Israelis are “willing to live in the tomorrow,” in which two states coexist. “The problem is that we have political leaders who come out of a very aggressive, militaristic past with no vision,” he said.

It’s a concern echoed by Missionaries of Africa Fr. Justo Lacunza Balda, president of the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies in Rome.

“I do not believe for a second that Sharon and Arafat will bring peace,” Lacunza Balda told NCR. “They have a military background. They solve problems by the bullet and by putting people against a wall.”

“For peace to come,” he said, “civil society must be allowed to have a word.”

Neuhaus said he takes consolation in the fact that most common people he knows, both Israelis and Palestinians, are prepared for a two-state solution, under which Jerusalem would be the capital of both states under shared governance.

“Never has this been so widely recognized,” he said.

Yet reactions to the pope’s Dec. 13 appeal for peace illustrate that disagreements are far from being resolved.

In those remarks, the pope said the people of the Holy Land are being crushed “by two different extremisms.” Israeli officials criticized the pope’s language.

The Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, Yosef N. Lamdan, told NCR in an exclusive Dec. 18 interview that the pope seemed to “equate Palestinian extremism and fanaticism with the use of force by Israel to defend itself.”

“We were put out,” he said, adding that the Vatican has never officially informed the Israelis of the results of the Dec. 13 summit.

Meanwhile the Latin-rite patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, told NCR that the more objectionable form of extremism is the Israeli occupation. He said it is unrealistic to demand that Arafat stop Palestinian attacks before the Israelis withdraw.

“No leader can tell his people, ‘We cannot have our land. We have to accept the Israeli occupation,’ ” Sabbah said. “You can’t side with the occupier.”

Observers told NCR that Christian leaders in the occupied territories tend to be pro-Palestinian, in part because they are ethnically Arab, in part because they believe their political future lies with the Palestinian Authority and not with Israel.

Unsurprisingly, Lamdan struck a different note.

“The increase in violence has to be seen in the context on the unrelenting terrorist assault by the Palestinians on Israel’s civilian population,” Lamdan told NCR. “If Arafat stops the terror, there would be no reason for further Israeli military action in self-defense.

“As it is,” he said, “we are not willing to simply let our children be killed.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 28, 2001