There are no words to describe the horrific despair that must permeate daily life in Israel and the occupied territories of the West Bank. In the bomb-lashed markets and streets of Jerusalem, and the tank-shelled alleys of Palestinian refugee camps, violence continues to leave its bloody impression and evoke its hollow mockery of human life.

When a 17-year-old Palestinian girl loaded herself with explosives and pressed the detonator in a Jerusalem supermarket just before Passover last month – killing herself and a young Israeli woman in the sudden, vile process – the soul-rending irony exceeded even the common grief of those of us safe and far away in America. Now such grief has become nearly a daily burden not only for the Holy Land, but the watching world.

Christ knew this land of agony as well. Even in his time, the back country of Galilee, and Jerusalem and its environs, were places of occupation and violence, of unrest, of imperial dislocation. Herod, the Sanhedrin, Pilate, even Caesar could find counterparts in today’s rage, so little has the scenery changed.

For now, as for months, the suicide bombings and the tank incursions continue, drowning out even the loudest appeals for withdrawal or truce, much less for peace, which spoken by figures in a war like this sounds almost like an obscenity.

Both Israeli leader Ariel Sharon – who fomented the intifada with his arrogant subsuming of Islamic holy sites – and Yasser Arafat, who apparently wields only vague jurisdiction over his beleaguered Palestinian Authority, seem to have forgotten the language of concord altogether.

Sharon has done more than most could to destroy a decade’s advances toward peace. And he seems little interested in building any new diplomatic bridges, other than those leading to Israeli dominance in the region. More to his liking is the isolation and subjugation of the Palestinian people, most of whom have lost nearly everything in the dispute, but who return the threat with astonishing and debasing fury every time another person is strapped with a bomb and explodes.

What makes this war so hard to negotiate is its lack of a clear moral victor, without which American intervention, or policymaking, is impotent. At best, American involvement in Israel and Palestine has been as a facilitator, holding the middle ground while both sides settle their disputes through open and, to a degree, enforced dialogue. This is a strategy that several presidents, from Carter to Clinton, have excelled at. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be part of our diplomatic vocabulary at the moment, though with time it could be.

Further complicating the situation are the dark currents of violence that resonate from the deepest core of Israeli and Palestinian culture – currents wrestled amid often fierce disputes for more than two millennia. Fueled and fanned by so much religious fervor, these cultural disputes are virtually insurmountable, short of a miraculous realization that the marginalizing of Palestine will never afford its conquerors any sleep. New generations of discontent and fresh waves of terror will always ensue.

One thing is clear, however. The violence of the past 18 months has been animalistic in its scope and magnitude. If either side believes it can still invoke a clear spiritual justification for such violence, then we do not understand such delusional religion, any more than we can accept the zealotry of thugs like bin Laden or his quasi-Islamic assassins.

We also should question, as Christians and as a nation, the right of any group to lay exclusive claim to land or holy sites that attract almost universal reverence. That so much blood should be shed over these sites – and by three factions that claim to worship the God of Abraham – is blasphemy of a high order.

Such an impasse as exists now requires one side to make an earnest and definitive move to end violence that in many cases it initiated. In keeping with a recent United Nations resolution condemning the fighting, the first to accede should be Israel.

With its military superiority in the region assured – and no real objectives left other than decimating Palestine’s infrastructure and killing more people – Israel has no moral course but to withdraw its defense forces from the West Bank immediately, and without leaving a landscape of scorched earth in its wake.
Otherwise, there is no hope, and really no future that anyone would want to live in anyway.

Reprinted with permission from the Mennonite Weekly Review.

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