The conflict over Palestine has been simmering for almost a hundred years, at times reaching boiling point and vacillating continuously between low and high intensity strife. Since the Madrid conference in October 1991, Palestinians and the Israelis have been attempting to achieve a settlement to the conflict through peaceful negotiations.
The negotiations between the two sides have also gone through a number of stages with interim agreements marking important milestones in their journey on the road to peace. Some of the most critical and difficult issue were postponed to the final status negotiations. Chief among them are the final demarcation of orders, Palestinian refugees, water resources, Jewish settlements and Jerusalem. Final status negotiations were supposed to commence in May 1996 and span a three- year period. A perfunctory meeting was held towards the beginning of May but due to the impending Israeli elections no substantial progress was expected and the meetings were postponed until after the elections 29 May 1996.
Jerusalem has become a microcosm of the whole conflict. Both Palestinians and Israelis consider Jerusalem to be the heart of the conflict. Each side is doing its utmost to substantiate its claim over the city. What becomes of Jerusalem, therefore, will determine whether the whole conflict will be resolved on the basis of justice or injustice. In turn this will determine whether the region will enjoy the peace and security or not.
For a number of years, it has been evident that the Israeli government has intensified its efforts to Judaise and Israelise Jerusalem. Over 27,000 dunums (a dunum, 1000 square metres, is approximately one quarter of an acre) of land have been confiscated from Palestinians. Over 55,000 settlement housing units have been built for the exclusive benefit of Jews. More than 160,000 Jews have been placed in these settlements which are actually colonies referred to by Israel as neighbourhoods. These demographic changes have been carried out by Israel in defiance of international law. Moreover, Israel has insisted all along that Jerusalem remain the united eternal capital of Israel and the Jewish people.
In light of these facts and the approaching final status negotiations, Sabeel Liberation Theology Center decided to call for an international conference to discuss a Christian approach and a Christian contribution to the peace of Jerusalem.
The Christian approach must be placed in its broader matrix. The Christian community in Palestine and Israel has decreased numerically due to a number of reasons, chief of which is the political instability in the region. Other reasons include economic, educational, and social factors most of which are the ramifications of political circumstances. Palestinian Christians are currently 2% of the population of the land. This fact has caused many people to underestimate their significance politically and religiously. Furthermore, it has caused some people locally and abroad to marginalise and peripherise their role. Indeed, many people in the world, including Western Christians are not even aware of their very presence. Their invisibility has contributed to the rise of a modern myth that the conflict is really between Islam and Judaism, or more precisely between Muslims and Jews, as if the Christian voice does not really matter all that Christians should ipso facto take the side of Jews against Muslims. In the light of these myths and misconceptions, it was important for Sabeel to clarify the stance of Palestinian Christians, to show them their true name and face, to allow them to speak for themselves, and to make their prophetic voice heard throughout the world. It is important to emphasise that the identity of indigenous Christians is both Arab and Palestinian. At the same time they are authentically Christian and proud of our will Christian faith and heritage that was handed down to them from their ancestors ever since the first Pentecost in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. These Christians wanted a platform from which to raise their voice and make themselves clearly heard and understood. They stand for justice. Without justice for the Palestinians there will never be peace or security for Israel. Justice today is determined basically by the establishment of a Palestinian state on the whole of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, alongside the state of Israel.
Palestinian Christians, though numerically small, have played a significant role in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Their dedication and commitment to truth and justice have been exemplary. Their influence and impact has exceeded their ratio in society. In the conference they capitalise on another source of strength. Palestinian Christians are aware that they are part of a much larger community that spans the globe. They are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrew 12: 1). The call to the conference was heated by a number of their brothers and sisters from all over the world. Christians of different nationalities stood in solidarity together for truth, justice and peace. Indeed, we are all called to be God’s witnesses in this God’s world as we work for justice and peace. It has to do with keeping our baptismal vows, ‘to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being’. It is all about our faithfulness to God.
Most of the speakers in the conference were Palestinian Christians along with a number of internationals. We were joined also by a few Muslims and Jews who introduced their own community’s perspectives. Sabeel, however, was not hesitant to emphasise that the conference was intended to be by and for Christians. Admittedly, Palestinian Christians and Muslims stand together in solidarity as one Palestinian people in the struggle for a just peace in Palestine. They are also joined by a number of Jews who work for a just peace. The conference, however, was meant to raise the Christian voice to power in people weather in Israel and Palestine or abroad. It was to send a message to Christian brothers and sisters inside and outside Palestine so that they might know what Palestinians themselves believe and say regarding the conflict.
We, therefore, humbly submit the fruit of this international conference to our readers. It is our contribution in a continuous process that aims at saving the Palestinians and Israelis from unnecessary pain by basing the future peace on a firm foundation of justice. We plead for open eyes to see the impending dangers of injustice and for open ears to hear and listen to the cry of our people for justice. We plead for hearts and minds that are ready to commit themselves to work for a better world. We invite you to share with us this ministry for peace through justice.