With significant contribution from Mike Jennings
While the door to a viable Palestinian state is “closing rapidly, if it is still open at all,” the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) should support efforts for a political arrangement that accords with its values, including but not limited to a two-state solution and a Jerusalem where Jews, Muslims and Christians have access to sites considered holy in their faiths.
That’s part of the findings in a 56-page report just released by the Study Team on Prospects for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine. The team’s report and recommendations will go before the 2016 General Assembly, which will meet in Portland in June.
The 2014 General Assembly instructed the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy to review the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s support for the “two-state” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The new report fulfills that mandate.
The new report, “Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Just Peace,” says the PC(USA) has clung for years to the international consensus favoring separate states for Israelis and Palestinians, with a shared Jerusalem. During that time, it says, Israel’s “trajectory of continued settlements and brutal occupation” has made that goal “difficult if not impossible” to achieve.
“De facto annexation, land confiscation, and government subsidized settlement growth have increased” since the signing in 1993 of the first Oslo Accord, which was supposed to chart the path to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the report says. It says the “systematic violation of Palestinian rights and democratic values” has eroded Israel’s moral legitimacy.
The report finds that the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords produced limited successes, including creation of the Palestinian Authority, conditions have “stagnated or worsened” on several core challenges. It notes that:
- East Jerusalem, which the Accords envisioned as the capital of a future Palestinian state, has been cut off from the rest of the West Bank, and that Israel has annexed the entire city.
- Palestinians’ right of return, guaranteed under international law, remains unfulfilled, while Jews are granted immediate Israeli citizenship.
- More than 650,000 Israeli settlers inhabit settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that are considered illegal under international law.
- Security for both Israelis and Palestinians remains “an existential concern.”
- Borders have become less clear, due in part to Israel’s construction of a fortified wall in defiance of a ruling by the International Court of Justice.
- Israel severely limits Palestinians’ access to transportation, raw materials, Internet access and even potable water.
The report says deprivation and suffering among Palestinians living in Gaza have been especially severe. The entire population there “is being punished collectively” by Israel because of the anti-Israel ideology of the dominant political and military power in Gaza, Hamas.
The report holds out little hope that this steadily deteriorating situation will change in the near future. Not only does Israel wield far greater power than the Palestinians, but the U.S. government’s assistance to Israel “vastly overshadows” its assistance to the Palestinian authority, it says.
“In this situation, the Church should foster relationships with partners who share its values, be they Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or secular, without being misled by mirages of peace agreements ungrounded in realism about power,” the report says. It denies any intent “to demonize any people or belief system, but says its aim is rather to show “the results of giving one group greatly disproportionate power over another.”
In the past, the report says, as part of the “overwhelming support” for Israel in the United States, the PC(USA) and other Christians have been complicit in enabling Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. But the report also spells out the series of steps the PC(USA) has taken since 2006 to bring moral and financial pressure on Israel to alter what the church views as policies of unjust occupation and exploitation.
Those steps included the 2012 General Assembly’s recommendation that members and congregations avoid buying goods manufactured in illegal Israeli settlements and the 2014 GA’s recommendation that the church refrain from investing in three U.S. companies that supply equipment to the Israeli Defense Forces.
The report recommends that the PC(USA) work to uphold these values:
- The dignity of all persons, despite our universal capacity to do harm;
- Self-determination of peoples through democratic means;
- The building up of community and pursuit of reconciliation;
- Equality under the law and reduction in the separation that fosters inequality;
- Recognition of our complicity and the need for confession and repentance; and
- Solidarity with those who suffer.
The study group also encourages the 2016 General Assembly to adopt a series of recommendations. Among them:
That the PC(USA) “urge the Israeli government, as a matter of policy and practice, to stop the collective punishment and isolation of broad sections of the Palestinian population— the blockade of Gaza, the demolition of Palestinian homes and the administrative detention, the torture and forced feeding of Palestinian detainees—and to restore the ID documents and citizenship status that have been stripped from Palestinians in East Jerusalem and elsewhere.”
- That Presbyterians “be encouraged to provide vigorous support if the Government of Israel and representatives of the Palestinians (Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, at present) come to an equitable agreement on a new political arrangement— possibly with two-sovereign states as envisioned at Oslo…”
- That Presbyterians urge the United States government not to “exercise our nation’s Security Council veto over Palestinian efforts for statehood or standing in international courts and treaties, nor oppose investigations and possible censure or penalties for human rights or war violations committed by either Palestinian or Israeli entities.”
- That “Israel, as a member state of the United Nations, be requested (again) to permit the presence of UN peacekeepers on the borders of Gaza and Israel and at checkpoints, despite previous refusals to follow UN resolutions or permit access to UN investigators.”
- That the General Assembly urge the U.S. Congress “to hold hearings into the use of US made and subsidized military and police equipment by the Government of Israel in carrying out policies that abuse human rights, violate Geneva Accords, or oppose American principles of religious liberty and non-discrimination.”
- That the General Assembly emphasize the importance of having “vital communities” of Jews, Muslims and Christians in Jerusalem, in accordance with the United Nations’ intention that Jerusalem become “an international city to honor and provide access to the holy places” of all three faiths.
- That “the Presbyterian Foundation and Board of Pensions refrain from investments that support violence against Israelis or Palestinians, including finance and support for the economic activity and expansion of settlements outside of Israel’s internationally recognized borders, in accord with previous General Assembly actions.”
- That appropriate PC(USA) agencies “support measures by the Internal Revenue Service (or related units of the United States government) to investigate and possibly revoke the 501(c)(3) status for organizations, and tax deductions for individuals, that promote and finance the development or operation of Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law and obstacles to peace.”
Members of the study team are:
- Mark Douglas, professor of Christian ethics, Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.
- Sam Jones, principal at Third Coast Consulting, formerly of the Carter Center, from Atlanta.
- Leila Richards, a physician and former medical volunteer in Southern Lebanon and Gaza, of Pittsburgh.
- Douglas Tilton, political scientist and Southern Africa Coordinator for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, based in South Africa.
- Steven Webb, economist formerly with the World Bank and a member of ACSWP, from Reston, Virginia.
The study team also sought written comments last fall from those interested in the issue, and held a listening session in Washington D.C. last September.
The full report and recommendations can be found here: Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Just Peace
Update on March 3, 2016
In recent years, the PC(USA)’s debates over Israeli-Palestinian relations have drawn much scrutiny and incited considerable passion – particularly a controversial decision by the General Assembly in 2014 to divest roughly $21 million from three firms (Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions) that it determined were involved in non-peaceful activities in the region. Advocates of divestment contended it was a way for the PC(USA) to take a moral stand against oppression of Palestinians, but opponents and some Jewish leaders condemned the action as reflecting animosity towards Israel.
The report from the Study Team on Prospects for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine did not immediately generate the kind of heated backlash that divestment proposals in prior years have done.
A few weeks before the study team released its report, the group Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, a grassroots advocacy group which opposed the PC(USA)’s decision to divestment from the three firms, also released a report on the two-state issue.
That report, called “Two States for Two Peoples,” acknowledges that currently, the likelihood of a viable two-state solution “is being called into question by both Israelis and Palestinians, as well as some in the international community.”
Despite those challenges, however, “the two-state solution remains the best and most viable path towards ending the conflict and establishing sustainable peace,” the organization’s report states. “The two-state solution is just and recognizes the rights and aspirations of both peoples. It is the only plan with significant support from Israelis, Palestinians, and advocates for both peoples around the world.”
It also states that Christians are called to be peacemakers, and “we must respect the rights, dignity, and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians. We must also act with Christian humility, and recognize that peace will come from Israelis and Palestinians reconciling with one another and a negotiated solution that cannot be imposed from the outside. Our role must be to support people of good will on both sides of the conflict.”