'The Problem Is Occupation'

RABOUEH, Lebanon — His Beatitude Gregory III Laham has been patriarch of the Greek Mel-kite Catholic Church since 2000. Prior to that, he served as patriarchal general vicar of Jerusalem for 26 years.

Born in Syria, Patriarch Laham was raised in Lebanon. Register correspondent Doreen Abi Raad spoke to him from his office in Raboueh, Lebanon, about the conflict in Israel.

You have witnessed the problem of the conflict in Israel up close. To help Americans understand the reality of the situation in Israel, can you give a simple analysis of the problem?

The problem is occupation. Unfortunately, no one is acknowledging it. You always hear in the news about violence, terrorism, weapons and chemicals but never about occupation of Palestinian lands.

We cannot ignore the fact that young Palestinians are carrying out suicide attacks with the objective to kill as many Israelis as possible.

It is true, but have we ever stopped to think of the reasons behind the attacks? When you take from someone their lands, their means of survival, their dignity, what's left? Some people call it terrorism, but other people will call it resistance.

Why do you think the road map for peace didn't show any meaningful success until now?

The road map is a very good plan for peace, but it cannot be successful if the Israelis are still occupying the Palestinians’ land. In principle the road map is a great plan — it provides the Israelis security and the Palestinians economic stability. Working hand in hand would be the success of this plan.

Why is it so difficult?

If each is going to stay one-track-minded, the violence on both sides will never end.

I think the Palestinians and the Israelis should put aside their differences, respect each other's beliefs and each other's borders, and work for their common interest so they can go ahead toward peace.

What about those who say the Palestinians are terrorists?

Terrorism is a broad word and each has his own definition. You can't put all people into one bag.

For the sake of argument, if there are terrorists among the Palestinians, so there are terrorists among Israelis as well. But again, people [should] look into the reasons for people to react violently. If those reasons are eliminated, the terrorism will be eliminated as well.

Terrorism is a word that is being used in a very discriminating way. By continuously calling Palestinians terrorists, psychologically you're turning them into terrorists.

When will this cycle of violence stop?

Every day we delay the peace, new generations will have even more reason to be violent — that goes on both sides, Palestinian and Israeli.

Do you think the security wall is helping the situation?

No, I don't. It is unrealistic. By having the wall built where it is, it has parted children from their schools, farmers from their land, workers from their jobs and sick people from the hospitals. All that will make the Palestinians more and more violent and create hatred against the Israelis.

The money spent to build the wall should have been used for peace and unity rather than to separate them.

Is there any hope for peace at this point?

I always have been optimistic. Besides, we have no other alternative but to make peace.

By involving more countries, such as [those in] Europe, and the United Nations, it will increase the chances for fairness and peace. With many respects to the United States, to be alone to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unreasonable.

Do you think the United States trying to solve the problem itself is part of the problem?

It is the problem. By seeking involvement form other countries, it would create a better understanding of the Middle East. It is for the benefit of the United States to be more connected with Europe and to give more acting roles to Europe in the peace process.

What does it take, in your opinion, to solve the Israeli-Arab conflict?

There are two major points in this conflict. First, a better understanding of the Arab world, and this is where Europe's involvement is a must because it has a better understanding of the region.

Second, acknowledging Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands. By acknowledging the occupation, you can put an end to it and move forward to peace. Without an understanding of the region's mentality and the acknowledgement of the invasions, there will be no room but for violence.

What can the Church do? Is the Church doing enough?

The Church is not apart from the whole situation. Patriarchs and bishops from all the churches are meeting regularly and discussing the situation, providing relief to the people of the Holy Land. They are working with Palestinians as well as Israelis.

The patriarchs and bishops are looking at the future of the Holy Land. They are playing a role of reconciliation by inviting groups from both sides to do more for peace. The Church is for everybody and will continue to work for both sides.

What can American Catholics do?

American Catholics are doing a lot through different organizations to help the relief of the refugees as well as other projects to lift the burden. But I invite Americans to be more involved and have opinions after their own assessment of the situation. Here in the Arab world it's always thought that the Jews influence the American government.

I would like to hear more about the Catholic Church's involvement in the politics of the United States. After all, the Holy Land is the heritage not only of the Jews but also to the Christians as well as the Muslims. The Holy Land represents to the Jews the Promised Land, for the Muslims an Islamic land and, for us Christians, the Holy Land is the source of Christianity, the cradle of Christianity.

Do you have any last comments?

Jesus’ words say it all: Love each other. With love, many things will be solved. We don't realize how strong the word love is in our lives. We should realize that love is a gift of God, and it's a way of how we give ourselves to each other. That's what we need today.