South African churches propose bold Middle East conflict transformation process
Looking to end a crisis which has already cost over 300 Lebanese and 45 Israelis lives during the past fortnight, a leading ecumenical church organization in South Africa has suggested that the present phase of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians could be addressed by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission modelled on its own post-apartheid settlement.
The South African Council of Churches (SACC) says that the Pretoria government could help broker a Middle East peace settlement by inviting representatives of the Israeli, Palestinian and Lebanese leaderships to South Africa to negotiate a way forward in a different style to the usual top-down approach.
The idea is to find some concrete steps beyond the present bloody standoff ñ and to recognize the need to broaden the current international peace negotiation partners. At the moment Israel is suspicious that the United Nations is too pro-Palestinian, and the Palestinians regard the USA and the West generally as pro-Israel.
The South African Council of Churches, which brings together all the countryís major Christian denominations, believes that a better way forward would be to look to the global South rather than just the West for answers. It suggests that practical conflict transformation techniques need to be given space over political manoeuvring.
SACCís notion is that the process would be facilitated by the South African government, and modelled on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) headed up by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others.
Observers say that the key difference is that this was an internal development in the immediate aftermath of a conflict. But they say there is no reason why a TRC-style gathering should not operate on a third-party principle, and point out that confidential meetings in South Africa played a little-publicised role in the fragile Northern Ireland peace process a few years ago.
Calls by the United Nations for an end to immediate hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah have so far been rejected ñ and UN Secretary Kofi Annan is today (25 July 2006) caught up in a dispute over an apparently deliberate Israeli air strike on an observation post in south Lebanon which killed four neutral observers.
Meanwhile US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who has visited Lebanon, will attend international crisis talks in Rome with representatives of five European and four Arab nations.
The South African Council of Churchesí move has been welcomed by the UK-based religious think tank Ekklesia, which says that it is ìhighly creative in thinking about a different kind of talks process, a different location, and different mediating partners.î
ìThis idea breaks the mould of superpower politics,î says Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow. ìOne can imagine the big dealers brushing it aside without much thought, but we need to face the fact that established routes have failed to transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over many years, and that imaginative new approaches are needed ñ ones which may inevitably raise a few eyebrows at first sight.î
The South African Council of Churches has also expressed support for the call made by the Middle East Council of Churches, urging the international community to ìput pressure on all sides concerned to engage in a political dialogueî.
ìIt is our view,î said SACC media spokesperson Fr Jo Mdhlela, ìthat there will be no winners in this conflict unless there is a negotiated settlement accompanied by a process of reconciliation. We are calling the South African government to work vigorously with other governments and international institutions for the realization of a lasting and just peace in the Middle East.î
He continued: "[Recent events] call for an immediate, but also a wise and measured, response. The SACC is committed to playing a meaningful role by sending South Africans to be a non-violent presence in the conflict-ridden area. We do this in order to gain a better understanding of the situation in the Holy Land and to demonstrate our concern for the well-being of all people in the region.î
[Also on Ekklesia: Why violence cannot solve Lebanon or Gaza Strip showdowns 24/07/06; Christian Aid emergency appeal swings into action 24/07/06; Mennonites issue action alert on Middle East crisis 24/07/06; Middle East churches document and condemn Lebanon horror 23/07/06; US churches appeal to Bush as Israel seizes Lebanese village 23/07/06; Aid agencies say Blair must call for immediate Middle East ceasefire 22/07/06; WCC urges churches to support Middle East appeals 21/07/06; Churches redouble efforts and prayers for an end to Middle East hostilities 21/07/06; Williams laments Lebanon vicious spiral of violence 20/07/06; Gaza, Israel and Lebanon crises are imperilling Middle East security 19/07/06; Historic Galilee sites hit by rocket attacks 18/07/06; Pope condemns Lebanon raids as G8 converges and Blair blames Iran and Syria 17/07/06; Christians call for end to Lebanon violence as Israel vows revenge 16/07/06; Middle East Christians in anguish over Lebanon violence 14/07/06; Embattled Hezbollah backs Iraq 'doves of peace'; Christian warnings substantiated as Israel targets Hamas; Ex-spy wages peace on terror in the Middle East]