During the past week, men, women and children in numerous Middle Eastern households will unavoidably have been caught up in the yuletide spirit. They will have hoped for a more peaceful world in 2011 and wished for the welfare and happiness of kith and kin alike. But how realistic are those sanguine hopes, and how palpable are the prospects today for peace and stability in the Middle East? Or to paraphrase loosely the Dutch philosopher Spinoza, how brutal is the lack of peace in this region?
Since the end of a year is not the time for excessive political pedantry, I will unburden the reader of too many facts or figures and simply glaze over 2010 with a couple of key issues from Israel-Palestine and Iraq that – apart from the ongoing WikiLeaks saga – have tenaciously courted the headlines in much of the European media over the past year.
In Israel-Palestine, following a spate of unyielding negotiations, the consensus seems to be that peace between Israelis and Palestinians has now become even less reachable. The Israeli waves of settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank are almost unstoppable. The expansion of the large settlements of Ma’ale Adumim, the Gush Etzion block, Beitar Illit and Modi’in Illit continues unabated, while there is also a fierce growth in the smaller and more remote outposts, such as Tapuach, Talmon, Ofra, Eli and Shiloh. Even the recent American 'sweeteners' to Israel in the form of a $3 billion security assistance package, diplomatic cover and advanced F-35 fighter aircraft, have failed to coax Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to a paltry 90-day settlement freeze that would help resume the stalled negotiations with Palestinians. Today, there are over 300,000 Israeli illegal settlers in the West Bank, while another 200,000 are living in East Jerusalem. When coupled with a 45 per cent rise in home demolitions (according to UNRWA 2010 reports), the eviction of many Palestinians or the expropriation of acres of arable land, the season surely cannot feel too festive for many Palestinian Muslims or Christians.
Is it any wonder that Hebrew University philosopher Moshe Halbertal argued lucidly in a recent op-ed that the window for a two-state solution is closing rapidly and that the Palestinians will soon lose their right to a sovereign state? But if this were to happen, Israel will then permanently occupy the West Bank and end up with a one-state solution that will have inside its belly 2.5 million Palestinians without rights of citizenship, alongside 1.5 million Israeli Arabs who hail from al-Nakba of 1948. Can such a state exist peaceably without sliding into apartheid or, worse, internal combustion? No wonder then that a number of Latin American states have lent their de jure - albeit clearly not de facto - recognition of Palestine, while the West is also upgrading its missions as a way of circumventing a moribund peace process and helping convince Palestinians that their statehood is not a spent dream.
Sadly, Palestinians at times also behave as their worst own enemies. Over the years, they have committed egregious blunders – not least against each other, as well as with Jordan and Lebanon. But no single people deserves homelessness and injustice, and the EU today still largely supports the two-state solution, despite its failure to act as a competent midwife for this ectopic birth.
In Iraq, and putting all political shenanigans aside, one primary concern is the ostensibly deliberate targeting of Christians by extremist groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq that is allegedly linked to Al-Qaeda. Such attacks have become even more vehement after the deadly one on the Church of Our Lady of Salvation on October 31. In fact, the situation is getting increasingly unsafe for Christians, let alone for other small communities such as Yezidis and Sabean-Mandaeans. Not to mention that one senses from the Iraqis themselves, as much as from the Christmas messages of Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Rowan Williams, a looming threat to their very existence. This sombre reality was highlighted again last week when the UNHCR stated that Iraqi Christian numbers had shrunk to roughly 500,000 from 1.4 million just before 2003.
Bluntly put, those Iraqi Christians who have been an integral part of the fabric of Middle Eastern society for two millennia are now pretty much on the run. Some are heading for cover in Kurdish regions such as Qosh, while others are leaving for Syria, Jordan and even Turkey or Lebanon. But violence, forced displacement, discrimination, marginalisation and neglect have shaken their lives further, and it is no surprise that some churches prudently cancelled their Christmas celebrations out of concern for their faithful. Others are seeking the support of European institutions - not least the European Parliament - but again with scant success. Yet in the midst of much pessimism, one still finds prophetic voices the likes of Meyassir, an Iraqi Chaldean Catholic priest, who advised his congregation to “be careful not to hate the ones killing us, because they know not what they are doing. God forgive them.”
One Christmas carol recites the words of the angel, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward all men.” But in many parts of the Middle East, these words will be conspicuous not only by their biblical mistranslation but also by the hollowness of their warmth and fuzziness. In many hearts and hearths, it is the woes and hardships of 2011 that will be at the forefront of people's daily realities. They will worry about their lives and livelihoods and wonder if their children and grandchildren will ever discover the elusive peace and harmony that the carol proclaims so melodiously during this season.
Peace and goodwill unto the Middle East? Such a breakthrough requires men and women of responsibility in Israel-Palestine, Iraq and elsewhere to foster an inclusiveness that leads toward an irenic outcome. Otherwise, the words of the Christmas carol will remain - alas – redundant
(c) Harry Hagopian is an International lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris, and he is a regular Ekklesia contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly, he was Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches. He is a member of, and adviser to, the Armenian Orthodox Church, a Knight of the Order of St Gregory, a consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK) and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net