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The Peace Deficit

William Bell, Christian Aid Policy and Advocacy Officer

15 December 2014 - Across Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT) levels of violence are increasing with innocent civilians still paying the price for political failure.

Despite a summer of extreme violence in Gaza and rising tensions in Jerusalem marked by regular reports of death and destruction on both sides, the international community appears, as usual, unable to act at a time when Palestinians and Israelis seem unable to prevent a descent into chaos.

While Palestinians still lack inclusive and unified government, Israel seems to be pursuing contradictory policies. As many in the international community acknowledge, illegal Israeli settlement expansion and land seizures only serve to push the elusive two-state solution further from reach. As Israel faces new elections, one issue that the new Knesset is expected to debate is the Nation State Bill which emphasises Israel's Jewish character above its democratic nature and will confer national rights upon the Jewish majority. It is likely to undermine the position of Palestinian citizens of Israel, sometimes referred to as Israeli Arabs, not least through the potential down-grading of Arabic as an official language.

Indeed, Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, recently offered his party's view of peace which includes 'economic incentives' for Palestinian citizens of Israel to move to a Palestinian state. Therein lies one of many problems. How do Israeli policy makers reconcile their desire for a Jewish state at the expense of equality for the 20 per cent Arab minority while actively obstructing moves to facilitate a sovereign Palestinian state?

Christian Aid works with both Israeli and Palestinian civil society organisations that tackle endemic poverty and promote the protection of rights for all regardless of race or religion. As those who are affected by the current increase in violence and a potential political trajectory that threatens greater marginalisation, we asked them to consider how they regard current developments and their future.

Our partner, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) considers that any attempt to define the identity of the state that might contradict the foundations of democracy should be unequivocally avoided. This law would be a basic law, constitutional in nature. The principle of equality requires that the state not distinguish between the rights of different citizens based on their national or religious identity. However, this law would cement the privileged status of Jewish citizens over non-Jewish citizens whose relationship to the state is more tenuous.

It is not without reason that hundreds of Israeli Arabs started stamping their Facebook profiles with Second Class Citizen in recent days.

The Arab Association for Human Rights, based in Nazareth, argues the bill as it currently stands provides no obligation for the state to ensure the equal civil rights of non-Jewish citizens; indeed it would legitimise the widespread discrimination they already face. Adopting a constitutional definition for any state should be undertaken on the basis of broad civil consent. This is clearly not possible while discrimination persists within Israel.

Another partner, the Palestinian Centre for Peace and Democracy, reports the worrying concerns expressed by groups of young people in the OPT whose lives are largely defined by rigid movement controls and a 'de-developed' Palestinian economy with, according to the United Nations, a quarter of Palestinians unemployed, rising to 45 per cent in Gaza, and little prospect for any improvement while current restrictions exist.

They are worried that the conflict could change from one about claims to the land into a religious one, with settlement expansion increasing to accommodate a growing, ideologically motivated, settler population. In their experience this will be accompanied by more checkpoints and closures and could see the Palestinian economy further fragmented. Some expressed the view that the Palestinian dream of self-determination has all but vanished as people's priorities shift to feeding and protecting their children.

Such concerns are not unfounded. Last year the United Nations recorded an increase in demolitions by Israeli authorities in areas where Palestinians cannot receive building permits, some 60 per cent of the West Bank. In East Jerusalem, house demolitions went up by 50 percent. Similarly, they documented an increase in settler violence.

The current political climate in Israel and the OPT will only incubate further violent attacks. The fatal attack on the Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue in Jerusalem and constant speculation over the future of the Al Aqsa compound are exacerbating religious and ethnic tensions with few political leaders inspiring restraint. And whilst Gaza is separated from Jerusalem it is worth remembering that what happens in the latter has prompted violence in Gaza.

The renewed violence in Gaza this summer was the price for a lethal combination of international political impotence and indifference to decades of Palestinian dispossession and displacement. The international community expressed financial generosity in October's donor conference in Cairo and recognised that returning to the status quo would be unsustainable. The challenge for them is to avoid that through political intervention.

Recently some EU member states have voted to recognise a Palestinian state; the EU Parliament will soon be debating the issue. On one level this displays a degree of frustration among some MEPs about the abuse of Palestinian human rights and their desire for change, but on another, it doesn't actually recognise anything: no Palestinian state currently exists and thus it is recognising an illusion, albeit a politically charged one. Whilst it keeps the idea of two states alive, it actually avoids tangibly dealing with the impunity of Israeli actions that challenge the possibility of such an outcome. It also doesn't help address the lack of unified and effective Palestinian representation.

To bring about the genuine security of both Palestinians and Israelis it is imperative to treat and regard every life as sacred and of equal value. At present there is a vacuum that is in danger of being filled by greater polarisation and more violence. The longer the international community puts off dealing with the root causes of this conflict the harder it will get.

This blog first appeared on the Huffington Post

Notes to editors:

1. Christian Aid works in some of the world's poorest communities in around 50 countries at any one time. We act where there is great need, regardless of religion, helping people to live a full life, free from poverty. We provide urgent, practical and effective assistance in tackling the root causes of poverty as well as its effects.

2. Christian Aid’s core belief is that the world can and must be changed so that poverty is ended:  this is what we stand for. Everything we do is about ending poverty and injustice: swiftly, effectively, sustainably. Our strategy document Partnership for Change explains how we set about this task.

3. Christian Aid is a member of the ACT Alliance, a global coalition of more than 130 churches and church-related organisations that work together in humanitarian assistance, advocacy and development.  Further details at http://actalliance.org

4. Follow Christian Aid's newswire on Twitter: http://twitter.com/caid_newswire

5. For more information about the work of Christian Aid visit http://www.christianaid.org.uk

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