Today, June 6, Palestine marks 50 years of illegal occupation by Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967 — and none of the major powers of the world seems to care much about it, particularly the “quartet” on the Israel-Palestine peace process — the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia. In fact, the Centre for Middle East Policy concluded as far back as 2012 that the quartet had “reached the limits of its utility”.
Given the current state of affairs, it looks as if there is not much hope that this occupation will end soon. That is why 1 500 of the 6 500 Palestinian detainees (including some 300 children) in Israeli prisons have resorted to a hunger strike. About 500 of the detainees are held under Israel’s “administrative detention” laws, which are akin to what in apartheid South Africa was called “preventative detention” — that is, detention without trial.
At the height of our struggle in South Africa, thousands were detained without trial for resisting or opposing the racist apartheid system. I was detained incommunicado under the draconian laws a number of times, the longest period being for more than 400 days in the mid-1980s. I am told that there is a Palestinian who was held under Israel’s “administrative detention” laws for about seven years without trial — a gross violation of human rights that the modern world should never allow.
The world’s major powers have closed their eyes to this tragedy — the worst injustice in our lifetime. If gross violations of human rights don’t involve one of the superpowers or those supported by them, they close their eyes to them. An example is the Guantanamo Bay detainees the US has held for many years without trial.
It is therefore not surprising that 1 500 Palestinians in Israeli detention centres decided on the most painful form of protest — a hunger strike. As I was writing this article, some had exceeded the 40-day mark — the most risky stage of a hunger strike. It is said that, after a month, hunger strikers begin to lose up to 20% of their body weight. Having consumed all its fat reserves, the body begins to eat its own proteins, which first affects the muscles and then the organs.
Dr Zeratzion Hishal, from the International Committee for the Red Cross, is one of the few foreigners granted access to Palestinian hunger strikers. She said that, “on a hunger strike, you eat yourself”.
This was our experience during the 1980s in apartheid South Africa. As the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), and following intense pressure on the apartheid regime, I was allowed to pay a pastoral visit to some of the hunger strikers who were being held incommunicado. It was devastating to see their life-threatening state of health. I also became involved in negotiations.
Having had this experience, we South Africans have good reason to be concerned about the Palestinian situation. We must act in solidarity with these detainees and prisoners in Israeli jails, most of whom should not be there because an occupying force cannot take prisoners to its own prisons in terms of international law. It is a gross violation of the rights of the occupied.
My last visit to occupied Palestine was in May 2015 for the global congress of the Empowered21 movement of spirit–empowered (that is, classical Pentecostal and charismatic) churches and ministries. On Pentecost Sunday, some of us chose to attend a church service at one of the evangelical churches in Bethlehem, an occupied Palestinian territory on the other side of the massive Israeli wall. After church, a Palestinian invited us for lunch at his restaurant. During this lunch hour we learned of the pain and suffering they were subjected to as an occupied people without the right to a sovereign state, to self-determination, to live in their houses now occupied by Israelis and so forth.
He then said — with a broken heart — that he was “born occupied and is still living under occupation 48 years later”. That he “knows no other life of a free person other than being a subject of occupation”. He ended by saying: “And no one cares”.
He also made disturbing statements about the Christian world, saying it does not care about Palestinian Christians because of Zionist theological perspectives that support this illegal and inhuman occupation by Israel.
This message has reached many around the world, especially those who understand that if God is God of the whole created reality, He can’t be a “tribal God” who treats Palestinians differently from Israelis. If all of us are created in the image of God, God can’t treat us in a discriminatory way — or be an “apartheid God”.
The ecumenical movement, represented in the main by the World Council of Churches, has taken a view that the occupation of Palestine must end, because it is illegal in terms of international law. In this regard, the Jubilee Campaign was launched, in keeping with Judeo-Christian biblical tradition, to agitate for the return of land or property lost during the past 50 years to its rightful owners.
The question is whether this can be realistically achieved and, if so, how? One option is the two-state solution — a compromise position resulting from the Oslo Agreement. The expectation was to have a Palestinian and an Israeli state living side by side in peace where all Palestinian refugees would be allowed to return to their homes, with a solution on East Jerusalem. This has not happened. Instead, there is more encroachment on to Palestinian land by Jewish settlers.
Over the past 50 years, the occupied areas have been reduced to scattered pieces of land as the illegal settlements of Israelis increase. This makes even the compromised Oslo Agreement unimplementable and leaves the Palestinians and Israelis with only one option — a “one-state solution” where all can live together in peace without discrimination. South Africa is a good example of this option.
The SACC recently held a workshop to reflect on this tragedy, following an appeal by Palestinian Christians. The outcome of the workshop, which was endorsed by the National Church Leaders Forum, was that the only way to achieve a just peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians was to reach an agreement that treats everyone as equals before God and before the law. Such an agreement would acknowledge that both nations have the right to self-determination or the right to live together as citizens of the larger historical area of Palestine.
Second, the SACC called on its members to look critically at their theological perspectives that tend to veer in the direction of Christian Zionism. Third, it resolved that, if church groups visit the Holy Land, they must be able to see both sides of the conflict.
The parties in this conflict have come a long way since the 1948 war and the establishment of the Israeli state. None of the parties wanted to recognise the right of the other to exist, including their right to statehood in a sovereign state. The compromise of the two-state solution was intent on crossing this bridge. It also meant that Palestinians in Israel would have the same rights as Israelis, thereby ending the apartheid system in Israel.
We must restate that either we have a genuine two-state solution, where all have the sovereign right to govern themselves, or a one-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians will live together in peace as citizens of the same country.
The bottom line is that, whatever solution is produced, it must be a just one for all the people of the region. No amount of power and violence can produce lasting peace. In fact, it is in the interests of all the inhabitants of this region to find a just solution to guarantee the future of their children and the generations to come.
This is our prayer and this is our plea to the international community: end the pain in Israel and Palestine.
The Reverend Frank Chikane is the senior vice-president of the South African Council of Churches