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Cautious Optimism in the Middle East

Sunday, April 3, 2005

This article was published in The Co-operative News  26th March 2005.


Events over the past few weeks in Israel/Palestine give us hope. The election of Mahmoud Abbas as President of the Palestinian Authority, the ceasefire, and then Israeli Cabinet agreement to a withdrawal of Jewish settlers and Army from Gaza, allow for guarded optimism.    


Before being elected Mahmoud Abbas had gone on record as saying that the armed struggle did not have any place in achieving an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. President Abbas deployed his security forces to stop rockets being fired into neighbouring Israeli territory. The Palestinian Parliament then refused to accept a Cabinet composed mainly of Arafat’s ‘corruption-tainted’ old guard, forcing a new Cabinet including 17 newcomers.


All this has strengthened the new President’s authority, enabling him to take further positive steps, in stark contrast to the years of deadlock while Arafat ruled. In July the Palestinians will have Parliamentary elections, the first for nine years, and how well the younger more progressive elements do will be watched with interest.


During a recent visit I met with senior members of the Israeli National Security Council and the Israeli Defence Force, including the architect of the Gaza withdrawal plan. They expressed their conviction that security will bring peace and not the other way round. Establishing peace through improved security - chiefly the security fence and a cessation of the armed struggle in the occupied territories - this they believe will allow trust to build up between the two communities.


I also met Israeli Labor Party politicians, who accepted that entering a coalition government with Ariel Sharon was risky. However, in their view it was essential that the withdrawal from Gaza happen - potentially an enormous positive step. Within Israel it was extraordinary to see Ariel Sharon effectively forgoing the support of significant numbers of his own party to form a government of national unity in order to complete the disengagement.   


Seeds for the Future

One project I visited gave me real optimism for the future: the new primary school at Kfar Kara. Based in an Arab village but having both Jewish and Arab pupils, it opened in September with 106 children ranging from kindergarten through to the third grade. The new school has gone beyond the expectations of the members of the project - Jewish parents are sending their children to the school in the Arab village to give them the experience of learning alongside Arab children.


The school is part of the ‘Hand-in-Hand’ enterprise which comprises three schools, this new one, another serving the Jewish area of Misgav and the Arab towns of Sakhnin and Shaab, with the third based in Jerusalem. While most Arab citizens of Israel understand or speak Hebrew, it is rare for Jews to speak Arabic. Each of the three schools is headed by two principles, one Jewish one Arab, and each class is taught in both languages.


The children learned and played together as any other children. At recess three children, two Arab, one Jewish were hiding together behind a bookcase in a game of hide and seek. The schools try to foster better understanding of each community and help the children to face the realities of how they live - for example children talking about a bomb that had exploded near the school. One young boy was asked what he thought should happen to resolve the problems of the land in Israel and Palestine. In halting English he replied that everyone should sit down round a table and decide how to divide the land. What should happen if they can’t agree he was asked? Then no-one should have the land, was his reply.


I write this just before the Palestinian Conference starts in London, one of a number of signs that there is a real opening for the peace process once more. Inevitably groups on both sides of the divide will take what opportunity they can to try and stop the process. But the children at projects like these remind us that hope for the future must not remain just a dream. Small projects will not in themselves achieve peace and justice. But, by continuing to search for better ways of living together, and by raising the next generation to understand each other, they should be supported and encouraged. 


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