Paul Bernard
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Why making peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict feels like mission impossible

Premier's political editor analyses the current situation in the Middle East

This Monday marked another stage in the tragic history of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At least 58 Palestinians were killed and almost 3000 injured by Israeli defence forces on the Gaza border. This number included more than 200 children and 17 medics who were certainly not trying to invade Israel.

The Palestinians have been protesting for the last six weeks, mostly about the building of Israeli settlements on land they consider their own, but the protests on Monday had a different focus - the opening of the new USA Embassy in Jerusalem by Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka. Both nations claim Jerusalem as their capital and hitherto Tel Aviv was where embassies were located.

Any serious analysis of this horrific incident and the long term conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has to take a binary approach. Peaceful protest is perfectly legitimate but allegations that Hamas, a terrorist organisation, was using the protest for its own ends have to be borne in mind. Equally, Israel has a legitimate right to defend its people from terrorist attacks but the scale and intensity of its response seemed to observers to be excessive. 

Predictably, the Israeli Prime Minister defended what his troops had done, claiming “every country has a duty to defend its borders”. The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas described Monday as “one of the most ferocious days our people have seen”. He blamed the USA as well as Israel. “Before we were suffering from illegal Israeli settlements. Now it’s another illegal settlement by Israel and the United States.” President Trump congratulated Israel and said the opening of the new Embassy was “a long time coming”.

Friends of Israel remind us that Hamas and Islamic Jihad have fired thousands of missiles from Gaza onto Israeli territory and built numerous tunnels through which their fighters can enter Israel to commit terrorist acts. Even if they recognise that some of the Palestinians are non-violent they believe that Hamas uses them as shields behind whom their terrorists can operate.

Most in the Israeli government cannot understand the Palestinian cause and most Palestinians cannot understand the Israeli perspective

What is obviously needed is a peace making process that stops clashes like those on Monday and finds a long term resolution to the conflict (most still advocate for a two-state scenario).

We must be honest and admit any progress right now appears impossible. Most in the Israeli government cannot understand the Palestinian cause and most Palestinians cannot understand the Israeli perspective. Those who do seek understanding are often ignored or silenced by the extremists on their own side. One of the most tragic examples of this is that of previous Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a fellow Israeli in 1995.

The USA had a potential role in peace-making but President Trump almost certainly destroyed that with his decision to move the Embassy to Jerusalem. Egypt has influence among the Palestinians but not the Israelis. 

A further obstacle to peace is the physical and political division of Palestinian territory into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The former, which is geographically East Jerusalem, is governed by Fatah and led by President Abbas, while the latter is ruled by Hamas. Abbas is seen as a moderate who accepts a two-state solution and is open to a peace process. Hamas is a proscribed terrorist organisation and seeks only the elimination of Israel.

Persuading these peoples, especially Hamas, to sit down with Israel in a peace process is currently beyond any would-be mediator. Those who rightly deplore Monday’s massacre and the leaders on both sides responsible for it, have no way of bringing them together to work for peace. If ever there was a need for prayer for God’s merciful and gracious involvement, this is it.

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