Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, on land it captured in 1967, are a major impediment to peace with Palestinians, according to both Israelis and Palestinians. So far, the Netanyahu government has rebuffed the White House’s directives to halt the outposts. And yesterday, a news account quoted Israeli settlers intent on defying Barack Obama, who one settler belittled as “that Arab they call a president.” I interviewed a prominent Palestinian about the settlements – and heard his surprisingly optimistic outlook. Naim Ateek, an Anglican priest who directs the Sabeel theology center in Jerusalem, is traveling around the United States to talk about his new book, “A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation.” A brief part of my interview with Rev. Ateek was published earlier this week in the San Francisco Chronicle, but here is a fuller version, which offers a unique approach to solving the issue of settlements.
Q: Your San Francisco talk was titled, “Is there hope for peace in the Middle East?” From your standpoint, is there?
A: I think Barack Obama has given a new impetus and new hope for peace. Many of our people throughout the Middle East are waiting to see whether President Obama is going to follow up on what he has said. So many times in the past, our people have been disappaointed (but) they hope Obama will do something.
Q: What’s different about your solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question?
A: Sabeel was probably the first to say that all Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – built on Palestinian land by American money, largely by Palestinian labor – should become part of a Palestinian state. We’re not asking the settlers to leave. We’re telling them, “If you’d like to continue living in Palestine, you’re welcome.” In this kind of two-state solution, Palestinians will get back 22 percent of the land. I’m not saying that this is eventually what’s going to happen, but it’s a vision for peace that can work in a nonviolent way. We are thinking creatively. We hate to see billions of dollars that have been spent on building the settlements go to waste. So let the settlements stay. If Israelis want to become Palestinian citizens they can stay there. If not, then the settlements will be part of Israel’s compensation to the Palestinians. Or if some settlers leave, then Palestinians take their place. It’s a creative way of thinking about the solution. We have Israeli citizens who are Palestinians – why not have also Israeli Jews who are Palestinian citizens?
Q: Your non-violence approach contrasts with that of Hamas. How much influence do you have among Palestinians?
A: Nonviolence has not been tried in the way that it should be tried on a bigger scale. It’s going on all the time in a small scale, in some of the villages where Israeli Jews and Palestinians are doing nonviolent resistance. But in large scale, it has been not really been used. I’d say we need to have a movement within the whole of the Palestinian territories that is nonviolent. I believe that, if every day, tens of thousands of Gazans go and march toward the Israeli border, this kind of nonviolent message will be more effective than any rocket.
Q: Have you been to Gaza and talked with Hamas leaders?
A: I can’t go to Gaza. I’ve been refused permits for over 10 years. I have not been able to meet any of the leadership of Hamas. On the West Bank, I talk to my Muslim friends. Not all Muslims believe in the armed struggle. Many of them believe in the power of nonviolence. And at times, I’ve asked to lecture to Muslim groups and I always talk about the power of nonviolence. And I think many of them believe that and are practicing that. But the general impression is that all Muslims want violence or the armed struggle, which is not true. President Carter has been to Gaza and every time he goes, he talks about nonviolence. I met with Carter recently in Jerusalem. There are people who are encouraging the nonviolence aspect. And I hope we’re moving toward that.
Q: Palestinian Christians are a minority in the West Bank and Gaza. A recent National Geographic article profiled the diminishing numbers. Any thoughts on the subject?
A: Since the time of Christ, Palestinians have been living in that part of the world. From the very beginning, they were ethnically mixed, multi-racial communities because of the nature of the Christian faith. By the end of the fourth century, Palestine had become a Christian country. Many of our people became Muslim after the seventh century, and most of them became Muslim because they wanted to escape the special tax that non-Muslims had to pay. So slowly, we started losing our majority status. Then there were different waves of Palestinians leaving the country. The last devastating wave was from the creation of Israel in 1948. Many of our people wanted to go back but Israel would not allow them. We went from being almost 100 percent a Christian country to less than two percent.
Q: Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote the foreward to your book, and you’ve been referred to as “the Desmond Tutu of Palestine.” How alike are you two?
A: I am humbled whenever people use that reference. Whether I am or not (like him), that’s for history to judge. I feel personally that I must remain faithful to God and in working for a just peace through nonviolence. That’s my commitment. It’s the commitment of my faith. And it’s also my commitment for the people of Palestine and for the people of Israel.