Waning Hope

Holy Land Christians’ reaction to President Obama’s proposal for Middle East peace was mixed, but many residents seem to be losing hope.

JERUSALEM — Exhausted by decades of conflict, residents of the Holy Land are pessimistic that the peace initiative unveiled by President Barack Obama on May 19 will lead to peace.

Local Christians, though deeply rooted in their faith, say they have pretty much given up hope that there will ever be an end to the suffering.

Ethnically Palestinians, they believe that Israel has only its interests, and not theirs, at heart.

Alex, the owner of a Christian shop in the narrow alleyway leading to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City, laughed ruefully when asked about his hopes for the future.

“You’ve come too late, my dear. There is no future,” said Alex, who appeared to be in his 50s and declined to provide his last name.

Obama’s peace plan asserts the rights of the Palestinians to have a nation of their own and for Israelis to live in peace with defensible borders.

It calls on Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate land swaps with the 1967 borders as their starting point. Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Speaking to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group, May 22, Obama said that his original message had been misrepresented, and he sought to clarify it.

“I said that the United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine,” he told the AIPAC gathering. “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.”

He also sought to clarify his reference to the 1967 lines.

“By definition, it means that the parties themselves — Israelis and Palestinians — will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967,” he said, referring to the day preceding the outbreak of the Six-Day War.

“That’s what mutually agreed-upon swaps means. It is a well-known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years. It allows the parties themselves to take account of those changes, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides. The ultimate goal is two states for two people: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state in joined self-determination, mutual recognition and peace.”

Since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the territory has been a launching pad for Palestinian rockets into Israel.

During his visit to Washington the week of May 23, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated that Israel would be prepared to make “painful concessions,” including a withdrawal from much of the West Bank, but vowed never to relinquish East Jerusalem.

As church bells chimed, Alex doubted out loud whether the parties will ever be able to agree on the issue of Jewish settlements, the future status of Jerusalem, and, perhaps most thorny of all, whether millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants should be allowed to move to Israel even when a Palestinian state is established.

Israelis maintain that a mass influx of Muslims and Christians would soon turn Jews into a minority in their own homeland.

The Holy Land, Alex noted, has been ruled by many nations, and none has brought lasting peace.

“The Turkish, the British, the Jordanians, the Israelis, the Palestinians — yet there is no permanent peace. We have hope for Jesus, but no hope for us here in the Holy Land.”

Although most Christians have left the Holy Land to escape wars and to go in search of financial stability, Alex said he has no plans to leave.

“My family keeps me here, and I’ll stay,” he said. “But I don’t have hope. Jesus was crucified here, but after that, hope died.”

‘Where Would I Go?’

Ibrahim, the 75-year-old owner of another Christian shop up the street, also said he has no plans to leave.

“Where would I go?” he asked.

For Ibrahim, a “just” peace treaty would include financial compensation for the property his family lost in wars and the right of return to what is now Israel.

“I’m a refugee. Other people live in my home. Will the American president or [Palestinian leader Mahmoud] Abbas or Netanyahu return it to me? What’s new in all this? Tell me. Nothing!”

Calming down, Ibrahim acknowledged that both Palestinians and Israelis have suffered grievous losses and have been stubbornly clinging to their positions.

“As a Palestinian, I’d like to see Jerusalem Palestinian. The Jews want Jerusalem to be Jewish. This country will never see peace,” he said. “Never.”

Painting a delicate design on his signature pottery, Harout Sandrouni, an Armenian Orthodox Christian whose family owns a store and workshop in the Old City, said that although he doesn’t see any immediate solution in sight, he is not ready to abandon hope completely.

“I always wish for the best. I want to ensure that the next generation will have a decent and happy life,” said Sandrouni, who has a daughter.

‘Peace Means Justice’

Father Samer Haddad, the parish priest of Aboud, a West Bank village, is also fairly pessimistic about the chances for peace.

“For me, a priest and a Christian, peace means justice, and justice means balance and equality. I think it’s clear to everyone here that Palestine’s borders will not be those of 1967.”

The problem, Father Haddad believes, is Israeli settlements.

“My fear is that the settlements will remain,” Father Haddad said, referring to the largest settlement blocs — some of them small cities — located just a few miles from Jerusalem. “They were built to become a natural border for Israel.”

Having followed the proceedings in Washington closely from his office in East Jerusalem, Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, identified some positive elements in Obama’s speech.

“It was positive when he spoke about Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and the creation of a Palestinian state there,” Bishop Shomali said. “It was positive when he asserted the rights of the Palestinians and accepts the principle of occupation of the land by Israel.”

Bishop Shomali could not say the same about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s May 24 speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress, where he received more than 50 standing ovations.

“I believe that Obama is courageous, even if he backtracked a bit in his subsequent speech before AIPAC,” Bishop Shomali said.

Sami Awad, the executive director of the Holy Land Trust, a Bethlehem-based Palestinian non-governmental organization, agrees that Obama’s speech was unprecedented: “He said publicly what everyone knows must happen.”

Awad said he isn’t optimistic in the short term, “but I feel optimistic that, on a grassroots level, more people, especially Christians, want an end to the conflict.”

Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.