[Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part interview with Issa J. Kassissieh, Ambassador of Palestine to the Holy See and to the Sovereign Order of Malta.]
ROME – As the war in Gaza drags on, Palestine’s Ambassador to the Holy See offered an update on the situation on the ground and praised the Vatican’s support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, saying it is the only path to a lasting peace.
“If we talk about a durable and comprehensive peace, this is the only path,” Ambassador Issa J. Kassissieh, who serves as Palestine’s envoy to the Holy See and to the Sovereign Order of Malta, said of the two-state solution.
“Many don’t believe in it anymore, and there is no trust on either side,” he said. However, when it comes to the Holy See, “they did their duty by recognizing the State of Palestine based on the borders of ‘67. I believe that the Catholic world should have followed suit with His Holiness and respected his step.”
Kassissieh spoke to Crux during a wide-ranging sit-down interview at the Palestinian Embassy to the Holy See, speaking of the current situation in Gaza, the need for a de-escalation, and Pope Francis’s advocacy.
“We’re living the season of Christmas and if we talk about the season of Christmas, our eyes are directed toward the Holy Land, toward the city of the birthplace of the baby Jesus, toward the Nativity church. There, we had the message of peace, the message of hope. But what is going on there is completely opposite of what should be,” he said.
The situation, he said, “makes you so sad; rather than decorating and lighting the Christmas tree, you are watching destruction, and the miseries of the families there.”
Kassissieh also spoke about the June 2014 prayer for peace that took place in the Vatican Gardens shortly after Pope Francis’s visit to the Holy Land, attended by the late Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and the potential for a special commemoration for the tenth anniversary of the event next year to keep hope alive.
Please read below for excerpts of Crux’s interview with Ambassador Issa Kassissieh.
Crux: The Vatican has always supported a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Is this solution still possible, given where things stand? If so, what role do you think the Vatican might have?
Kassissieh: If we talk about a durable and comprehensive peace, this is the only path. Many don’t believe in it anymore, and there is no trust on either side. Extremists are controlling the scene, but you have our president and the Arab world, they stick to their peaceful strategy of the two-state solution based on the international resolutions and international legitimacy, including the Arab Peace Initiative, it’s still on the table, we have to keep it in mind.
For the Holy See, they did their role by recognizing the State of Palestine based on the borders of ‘67. I believe that the Catholic world should have followed suit with His Holiness and respected his step. The Europeans have recognized the international resolutions related to the Palestinian question. As they support in principle our self-determination as our inalienable right, then recognizing the state of Palestine is a must, this is a moral obligation, a legal obligation, and a fulfillment of the two-state formula. It is mentioning here that the window of the two-state formula is closing down so quickly. People should look into the realities on the ground to understand that this opportunity is evaporating.
I believe if the Europeans and others recognized the State of Palestine, we would have been in a different (position). Our people, having high hopes at the eve of launching the Middle East Peace process, believing that they are close to reaching their national aspirations, rather they have seen other policies, illegal policies, including oppressing their national aspirations. It has reached the point that truly for the young generation, they don’t believe anymore in the two-state solution. I believe the same applies on the other side. In fact, if the Europeans took such a step, they would have strengthened the moderate forces, they would have shown our people that the path of diplomatic engagement and political negotiations would get us to a positive result, a recognition.
Still, I personally, like our president, believe that it is still possible, but the Europeans should be courageous enough to come out and recognize the State of Palestine, and they should engage the Americans as well the world community, work with us for a roadmap with benchmarks and a clear timeframe to ensure that we have an endgame with an international mechanism to ensure the implementation. The endgame might take two years to rebuild confidence, trust, and to prepare the ground, but at least this time we have to be sure that at the end of the tunnel there is a light. And lesson learned, we should avoid the mistakes of past negotiations. Ending the settlement enterprises would be the first concrete step towards de-escalation.
It’s possible now to take the moral stand as His Holiness did when he made his pilgrimage visit to the Holy Land in May 2015. He came with a chopper from Amman to Bethlehem directly, and that was the first signal from His Holiness that he intended to recognize the State of Palestine. Then, he did the peace prayer in the gardens of Vatican City. We also signed the comprehensive agreement between the Holy See and the State of Palestine on June 26, 2015. So, the Holy See showed that they hold a vision, and that this vision is the right path for a durable peace. The Europeans and others should endorse this vision, but at this moment all efforts should be focused on the ceasefire.
So, it’s fair to say that you are satisfied with the Vatican’s support of the two-state solution and with the pope’s engagement on the current war?
Who am I to be happy with His Holiness? He did his conscience; he fulfilled his beliefs. He moves and he formulates his decisions out of the Gospel, and the Gospel is the path for rightness, justice and self-peace, for eternity and for salvation.
What is the current status of the Christian community in Gaza?
You have to refer to the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who invoked Article 99 of the UN Charter, urging the UN Security Council to act on the war in Gaza. You also have to refer to other international organizations who speak with infographics on the devastating situation in Gaza. The other day the Brazilian President Mr. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva described the war on Gaza as a genocide. What makes me sad (is) seeing the world leaders watching this disastrous situation, the indiscriminate killing of children, women, and innocent people, but they don’t act accordingly to put an end to this madness. Our people taking a shelter in the vicinity of the church describe the situation as hell. One told me that the description of hell is in the Gospel but in reality, we live hell for the last 60 days, so this must stop. Who would want to live in this hell? It is a disaster for the whole of humanity.
Let us carry the torch of hope and salvation as we are heading toward Christmas. Indeed, we’re living the season of Christmas, and our eyes should be directed toward the Holy Land, toward the city of the birthplace of the baby Jesus, toward the Basilica of the Nativity church. There, we had the message of peace, the message of hope. What is going on in our area is completely opposite of what should be. It makes you sad; rather than decorating and lighting the Christmas tree, you are watching destruction, and the miseries of the families there, and the collapse of the whole system in Gaza. What is happening contradicts with the message of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Talking about Gaza and talking about the dangerous escalation in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, requires everyone to say that this must stop, there should be a whole change of atmosphere towards hope. Violence breads violence. If we don’t have hope, we don’t have life, and there is no life now.
And as His Holiness says: ‘war is a defeat.’ It is a sin. Of course, when we talk about Christians in Gaza, we should talk about Christians in the West Bank. As long as we have this separation wall, separating the Nativity church from the Holy Sepulcher church in the Terra Sancta, thus separating the Christian families from each other, this bitter reality doesn’t give hope for the very presence of Christianity in the Holy Land, but you also have the psychological wall; not just separating families, but also separating the two peoples from each other. His Holiness Pope Francis made the point when he was visiting Bethlehem back in 2014, and he stood opposite the wall and touched it, while he prayed for bridges of compassion and forgiveness to be built and not walls. The Berlin Wall fell at one point in history, and so the case is applied here. The mentality of segregation and exclusion shouldn’t prevail.
Actually, we cannot talk about Christianity in the world without giving the utmost attention to the cradle of Christianity in the Holy Land. If we talk about the future of Palestinian Christians, then we cannot but allow for the families to grow without any hurdles. The issue of no reunification for the families, and the revoking of the residential identity cards, is a serious hurdle for a real future for the very presence of Christianity. The numbers of Christians are dwindling rapidly. We can’t talk about Christianity without preserving the living stones. The political instability is one of the main reasons for the decreasing number of the Palestinian Christians.
I believe His Holiness Pope Francis also requested this during his visit in 2014 from the Israeli authorities, to allow for the reunification of families so that we preserve the mosaic of the Holy City under the current political status quo. I don’t think that His Holiness’s request was fulfilled, but I take this opportunity to urge the Holy See and His Holiness to give their utmost attention to the Holy Land. His Holiness spoke the other day about the need for a special status to Jerusalem with an internationally guaranteed mechanism. It is our hope that we see words would transfer to deeds, to protect the cradle of Christianity and to work diligently with the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches of Jerusalem.
Within this context, the Holy See should take note of the many appeals issued by the heads of church in the last two years. Anyhow, the elevation to the dignity of Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa signaled that the Holy See is giving attention to the Holy City of Jerusalem.
You mentioned the need for de-escalation. In terms of the current conflict, there was a brief truce, but fighting began again. What will it take for a lasting ceasefire and de-escalation to occur?
To stick to the words of His Holiness: a ceasefire, humanitarian aid, the release of hostages, and keep in mind also, from the Palestinian side, there are political prisoners, there are people held in administrative detention that were arrested without any charges, and dozens of bodies held in the Israeli mortuary refrigerators. So, it is all about heartbreaking stories and miseries. But at the end, there should be a courageous leader to take the region out of this circuit of violence and hatred and bloodshed, to a different stand. President Abbas extended his hand to peace. Pope Francis praised him as a man of peace.
So, the de-escalation would start really from a permanent ceasefire, humanitarian aid, and a credible process of intervention by the international community. Enough of bloodshed. There should be a real effort to shift our region to a different direction, to allow our youngsters to compete with others on IT, and on smart technology and to have a viable economic development, to have prosperity, to have a normal life. People would ask the families in Gaza and in the West Bank, what do they want in the end? For sure parents want to get bread on the table for their family and they want to feel secure, and to be respected and to feel that they are not humiliated, but that they have dignity, and that dignity is respected. In other words, an end of occupation is the path to self-salvage for all.
I personally spent most of my career focusing on the peace process, I am one of those who was engaged in negotiations. Believe me, we have tens of thousands of documents and policy papers related to the final status files, including state-to-state relations, but actually what we are in need of is a political will to strike a deal. We don’t need any more negotiations. The parameters for peace are there. We need a leader convinced of peace and ready to strike a deal to take the region from hell to heaven. Prime Minister (Yitzhak) Rabin was the one, but unfortunately, he was assassinated. Prime Minister (Ehud) Olmert was also there to make peace but was assassinated politically.
Can you speak briefly about the peace prayer event that took place with President Peres, President Abbas, and Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2014? Are there any plans for a commemoration of the tenth anniversary next year?
His Holiness had this peace prayer at the vicinity of the Vatican City. It was immediately after his pilgrimage visit to the Holy Land, and there we had President Peres, President Abbas and the entourage. It was a very special moment for peace and justice in the Middle East.
Now, next year, will commemorate 10 years of the planting of the olive tree, and I’m sure that His Holiness will continue the path of coordinating and working for justice and peace in the Holy Land, and I’m sure with the commemoration of 10 years of having this peace prayer and of planting the seeds of peace via the olive tree in Vatican City, that next year, His Holiness will give a signal, will share something so that he makes the point that this is the only path and that the two sides should come together and engage constructively to end this conflict.
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