After latest conflict in Holy Land, South African bishop expresses Palestinian solidarity

After latest conflict in Holy Land, South African bishop expresses Palestinian solidarity

Smoke rises during an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City May 20, 2021. (Credit: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters via CNS.)

Bishop Victor Phalana, the chairperson of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Southern African bishops’ conference, told Crux the bishops of South Africa support a two-state solution in the Holy Land.

YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – During the 1970’s and 1980’s, Israel and apartheid-era South Africa developed close ties, due to both governments’ estrangement from much of the Arab and African world.

When apartheid ended in the 1990’s, the relationship cooled, since the new Black-led South African government sympathized with the plight of the Palestinian people in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Bishop Victor Phalana, the chairperson of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Southern African bishops’ conference, told Crux the bishops of South Africa support a two-state solution in the Holy Land.

“The two-state solution won’t right every wrong committed in the course of the conflict. It will create two flawed societies, not a utopia. It will be an imperfect, workable compromise between both peoples’ hopes and needs,” he said.

What follows are excerpts of that interview.

Crux: The SABC says the crisis has its roots both in history and more recently «conflict over the statehoods and nationhood of Israelis and Palestinians. » What are the historical roots of this conflict?

Phalana: More than 50 years ago, the state of Israel shocked the world when it seized the remaining Palestinian territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, as well as the Syrian Golan Heights and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, in a matter of six days.

In a war with Egypt, Jordan and Syria, known as the 1967 War, or the June War, Israel delivered what came to be known as the “Naksa,” meaning setback or defeat, to the armies of the neighboring Arab countries, and to the Palestinians who lost all what remained of their homeland.

The Naksa was a continuation of a prior central event that paved the way for the 1967 war. Nineteen years earlier, in 1948, the state of Israel came into being in a violent process that entailed the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

Zionist forces, in their mission to create a “Jewish state”, expelled some 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland and destroyed their villages in the process. Shortly after Israel declared statehood, units of the neighboring Arab country armies came in to fight for the Palestinian nation.

The 1948 war ended with Israeli forces controlling approximately 78 percent of historical Palestine. The remaining 22 percent fell under the administration of Egypt and Jordan.

In 1967, Israel absorbed the whole of historical Palestine, as well as additional territory from Egypt and Syria. By the end of the war, Israel had expelled another 300,000 Palestinians from their homes, including 130,000 who were displaced in 1948, and gained territory that was three and a half times its size.

Although Palestinian citizens of Israel are entitled to vote and participate in Israeli political life, and several Palestinians are members of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), they do not receive the same treatment as the Jewish citizens at the hands of the government. Israel still applies over 50 laws that privilege Jews over Arabs. This is a form of apartheid.

For example, the 1950 Law of Return grants automatic citizenship rights to Jews from anywhere in the world upon request, while denying that same right to Palestinians. Government resources, meanwhile, are disproportionately directed to Jews and not to Arabs, one factor in causing the Palestinians of Israel to suffer the lowest living standards in Israeli society by all economic indicators. Nearly 25 percent of Israel’s population is not Jewish. This is obvious to us who visit the Holy Land. The inequality is glaring.

The soaring settlement project, which is in direct contravention of international law, has brought around 600,000 Israelis into dozens of Jewish settlements throughout the occupied West Bank. Israeli authorities expropriate Palestinian land and carry out home demolitions on a regular basis, most commonly to expand existing settlements, or occasionally to build new ones. There is an attempt as we speak, of moving about 50 Palestinian families from East Jerusalem, to make way for settlers. We oppose this move. We used to experience that in South Africa, and it was called “Forced Removals.”

Checkpoints and Israel’s separation wall have further hindered Palestinians’ freedom of movement. Israel is totally in control of the Palestinian territories – not just the West Bank, but also Gaza. The Gaza Strip, home to about two million people, has been under siege for more than a decade. In 2007, after the election victory of Hamas and the group’s assumption of control over the territory, Israel imposed a strict land, aerial and naval blockade. The fact of total Israeli control of 100 percent of Palestine is precisely and fundamentally why you can’t have a two-state solution.

But the bishops have made the case for a two-state solution. It’s a proposal that has been on the table for a long time. Why is it so difficult to implement?

Today, there’s a rock-solid international consensus on how to solve the issue: Two states with a border along the ‘1967 line’ (with agreed swaps), a shared capital in Jerusalem, and a deal to compensate Palestinians displaced by the conflict. The Palestinian Authority recognizes Israel’s right to live in peace and security. The Arab League – once Israel’s sworn enemies – have offered its full recognition- in return for the creation of a Palestinian state.

Even the hardline Netanyahu was obliged, in 2011, to declare his support for the idea of Palestinian statehood. Many churches and countries have stopped campaigning for Palestinian statehood. Instead, they advocate solving the conflict by creating one democratic, secular country for everyone, based on the principle of one person, one vote. This seems most unlikely.

The two-state solution won’t right every wrong committed in the course of the conflict. It will create two flawed societies, not a utopia. It will be an imperfect, workable compromise between both peoples’ hopes and needs. But as the Israeli author Amos Oz has written, ‘the opposite of compromise is not idealism. The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death.’ We support this ideal: a Two State solution.

In your opinion, how should the issue of Jerusalem be handled?

The matter of Israel’s capital city has long been a source of dispute. Although nearly all foreign embassies in Israel are located in Tel Aviv, the country considers Jerusalem to be its capital. Jerusalem, which is one of the oldest cities in the world, has been formally divided between Israel and Palestine for nearly 70 years, yet changed hands many other times throughout the course of its over 5,000-year history.

Israel and Palestine’s dueling claims to the city are steeped in decades of conflict, during which Jewish settlers pushed Muslim Arabs out of their homes and established the state of Israel on their land in the middle of the 20th century. But the claims are also tied to the religions of Judaism and Islam, both of which recognize Jerusalem as a holy place.

Jerusalem was the capital of King David’s Israel in the Hebrew Bible, as well as the city where David’s son Solomon built his temple. In biblical times, Jewish people who could not make a pilgrimage to the city were supposed to pray in the direction of it.

According to the Quran, Jerusalem was also the last place the Prophet Muhammad visited before he ascended to the heavens and talked to God in the seventh century. Before that, he was flown from Mecca to Jerusalem overnight by a mythical creature.

Both this miraculous night journey and his communion with God are important events in Islam. During the night journey, Muhammad was purified in preparation for his meeting with God. Once in heaven, God told Muhammad that he should recite the salat, or ritual prayer, 50 times each day. However, Muhammad begged God to reduce the number to five times a day, which is the current standard for Muslim prayer.

Close by is the Muslim Dome of the Rock from where Mohammed ascended, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites. Christians travel to Jerusalem to follow the path Jesus walked before the crucifixion and visit the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre built by Crusaders in the 12th century over the site of Christ’s tomb.

Jerusalem, the Holy City for the three monotheistic religions, has a unique value not only for the region but also for the entire world. Thus, Jerusalem is and has to be a universal symbol of fraternity and peace.

This uniqueness has to be preserved, and the Church Universal has the right and duty to show its interest when the local situation leads to conflict, injustice, human rights violations, restrictions of religious freedom and conscience, fear and personal insecurity.

Jerusalem, the city where the three monotheistic religions have their spiritual roots, is also home to two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians. The declaration of Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel undermines this reality.

I support the position of the Holy See. The Holy See would like to preserve the uniqueness of the most sacred parts of the city, called holy places, so that in the future, neither of the parties and none of the three religions can claim them exclusively for themselves, because they are part of the patrimony which belongs to the whole world.  The Holy See is convinced that the uniqueness and sacredness of the city can be preserved only by a special status internationally guaranteed.  The special uniqueness of Jerusalem can lead to a situation where Jerusalem is put under the administration of the United Nations and is shared by these three religions.

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