On 7 May this year (2020) the Patriarchs and Heads of the Holy Land Churches published a common declaration, calling on the new Israeli government to “refrain” from its planned a partial annexation of West Bank land. The Israeli Prime Minister plans to formally present his strategy on 1 July this year. Already rejected by the Palestinians, the plan envisages in particular the annexation by Israel of the Jordan Valley and many Jewish colonies in the occupied territories of West Bank. ACN International spoke recently with Auxiliary Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Patriarchal Latin Vicar for Jerusalem and Palestine, who warned that this “unilateral” decision would, directly or indirectly, provoke violent reactions and prompt a new wave of emigration among Christians. At the same time he made it clear that his view reflected the general expression of the views of all the Christian Churches of the Holy Land – as witnessed by their recent joint statement. He was interviewed by Christophe Lafontaine.
The new Israeli coalition “unity” government was put together in response to the Covid-19 crisis. But is it taking advantage of the pandemic in order to push ahead with its plans to annex parts of the West Bank?
It is easy to understand that the formation of a national “unity and emergency” government in Israel, which was finally sworn in on 17 May, would have been encouraged by the need to tackle the numerous issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the equation “pandemic = push ahead with the annexation of parts of the West Bank” is not altogether clear. Even though we already know from experience that every opportunity, good or bad, is often exploited in order to achieve a particular objective and divert world attention from other important questions.
According to the statement by the Heads of the Christian Churches of the Holy Land the proposal to annex parts of the West Bank “raises serious and catastrophic questions about the feasibility of any peaceful agreement”. Why is this?
This proposed annexation is not merely one obstacle among many others but would in fact be the final nail in the coffin for any possibility of achieving the creation of a Palestinian state that could coexist alongside Israel, within the internationally recognised frontiers and with Jerusalem as the capital of both states. This so-called “two state solution” seemed until now to be the sole reasonable, peaceful solution possible for an end to this “eternal” conflict, and the only possible opening for peace in the Holy Land. So the reaction is one of despair. Sadly, though, we know from experience in the Holy Land just what despair leads to. And what makes this despair all the more painful is to witness the incapacity of the international community, the weakness of Europe and even the indifference of certain Arab countries in the face of these flagrant injustices.
Who will be the principal victims of such a plan?
This unilateral decision is unjust, from a historical, moral and human rights perspective. It is contrary to all the international decisions, contrary to any sincere search for peace. When the injustice happens, all the people of Palestine will suffer the consequences. But the Christians, as a minority, will undoubtedly suffer more.
What will be the practical consequences for Palestinian Christians?
We do not yet know the practical details of this proposed annexation, and so we cannot yet gauge the extent or gravity of all the negative implications. But we can already be sure that several of the territories within the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, one of the most important ecclesiastical bodies in the Holy Land, will be directly affected by the annexation, as will be a number of Christian communities.
Besides, the maps published by the press showing the possible fragmentation of these lands are quite striking. If you consider that the territory of the entire Jordan Valley, plus hundreds of colonies scattered throughout the Palestinian territories, could end up being annexed by Israel, along with all the road networks linking them together, you can imagine the total absence or sheer difficulty for any form of Palestinian territorial continuity that would result from it.
This action would still further compound the problems that already exist. Certain lands (a valley, a mountain, wherever they have built a kibbutz or a colony) would become part of the State of Israel. Now those who own these lands are frequently Palestinians, including many Christians, who live in the nearby Palestinian Arab villages or towns. As a result, there will be numerous legal, and above all practical problems, such as the question of any eventual expropriations, the separation wall, and indeed the simple impossibility of being able to go and work on one’s own land without a permit, and undoubtedly the difficulty of everyday life, of travelling to hospital, to school, to church, to market or simply meeting together as a family… And even the other communities and the lands not directly affected, will still suffer from the general upheaval caused by the fragmentation of the West Bank.
How do the Christian faithful see the future?
Generally speaking our faithful express their views via the “unhappy” refrain of emigration – right now, just as they did during and after the intifadas. This is what concerns us so profoundly and what we are fighting back against so energetically. But how can we truly help them in the face of political decisions of this kind? And what is more, this proposal comes at an already difficult time for the Holy Land due to the Covid-19 crisis, which has brought about the demise of the pilgrimage economy. Certainly, the emergence of the virus has prompted a great wave of solidarity among the whole Christian community, both here and abroad. But that was for a very limited time only, and only in certain specific instances. But what is one to do against the upheaval caused by the annexation of these territories, and which will have such extensive social, economic, family and personal repercussions?
Are you afraid that the proposed annexation will plunge the region into violence?
Sadly, yes, and that is our great fear for the immediate future! The annexation will set off a firestorm of reactions, protests and violence throughout the region. Not simply at the local level among the ordinary people. It will most probably also draw in other neighbouring countries. As far as possible, as you can read in our statement, we are calling on the citizens to cling firmly to their right to justice and to remain united, but to refrain from any futile provocation that could lead to bloody and violent clashes. In its pastoral work the Church in the Holy Land has over the course of history always pursued and upheld two goals and two approaches, namely justice as the fundamental basis, and peace and reconciliation as the ultimate goal.
Subsequently, in a communiqué issued on 20 May 2020, the Holy See reiterated that “respect for international law and the relevant United Nations resolutions, is an indispensable element for the two peoples to live side by side in two States, within the borders internationally recognized before 1967.” The Holy See also expressed “concern about any future actions that could further compromise dialogue”, while also expressing its “hope that Israelis and Palestinians will be soon able to find once again the possibility for directly negotiating an agreement, with the help of the International Community, so that peace may finally reign in the Holy Land, so beloved by Jews and Christians and Muslims.”