Broken trust: Ambassadors weigh in on odds against lasting peace in Holy Land

The gold-covered Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount complex is seen in a 2017 overview of Jerusalem's Old City. (OSV News photo/Debbie Hill)

ROME (OSV News) ─ A series of deadly raids by Israeli authorities in the West Bank and attacks on Jewish civilians in the first month of the new year have made the goal of a lasting peace in the Holy Land seemingly unattainable.

The Jan. 26 raid in the West Bank city of Jenin, which resulted in the deaths of 10 Palestinians, including an elderly woman, as well as the shooting to death of seven people near a synagogue in Jerusalem by a Palestinian gunman, prompted a heartfelt appeal by Pope Francis for both sides to lay down their arms.

"The spiral of death that increases day after day does nothing other than close the few glimpses of trust that exist between the two peoples," the pope said during his Sunday Angelus address Jan. 29.

"From the beginning of the year, dozens of Palestinians have been killed during firefights with the Israeli army. I appeal to the two governments and to the international community so that, immediately and without delay, other paths might be found that include dialogue and a sincere search for peace," he said.

Both sides view the conflict in very different ways. The Israeli government views its actions as a legitimate defense against “terrorists” in the region that seek to destroy the Jewish state, while Palestine considers Israel’s frequent incursions in Palestinian territories as an "illegal occupation."

Yet both sides wholeheartedly agree with Pope Francis’ assessment: The sense of trust between the two sides is at its breaking point.

"I believe that this is a very central element," Ambassador Raphael Schutz, Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, told OSV News Feb. 9. "It's very difficult to build peace when there is no trust."

His counterpart, Ambassador Issa Kassissieh, Palestinian ambassador to the Holy See, also agreed with the pope, noting that, "unfortunately, the situation is deteriorating more and more."

"We see an escalation of the situation on the ground rather than seeing de-escalation on the ground," Kassissieh said in a Zoom call from Jerusalem with OSV News Feb. 14.

However, both ambassadors offered contrasting views as to how the conflict has reached this point.

Citing the synagogue attack, as well as a Feb. 11 attack that killed two Israeli boys and a young man in Jerusalem, Schutz said violence against Israel by Palestinians is part of a "culture of hate" and claimed that the Palestinians allegedly celebrated in the streets "and were bragging about this 'act of heroism,' as they called it."

The Israeli ambassador to the Holy See also said that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas "doesn't condemn such attacks."

"They are not taking responsibility for anything. And they are also not saying out loud that they recognize, at the end of the day, the right of Israel to exist as the nation state of the Jewish people," Schutz told OSV News.

He said that there was a time where he felt hopeful for a peaceful future in the Holy Land after the signing of the Oslo Accords, a historic series of agreements that saw the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, as well as the Palestine Liberation Organization’s recognition of the state of Israel.

"Back in '93, I was not only happy, I was also very much optimistic about the future. And right now, I must confess that I am less optimistic, especially because of the lack of trust," Schutz said.

For his part, Kassissieh told OSV News that such attacks by individuals against Israeli citizens are "unacceptable." However, he added, it also is important to look at "the roots of such incidents.

"I would ask, who is the occupier, who is the oppressor and who is under occupation? From here we (must) start. And when people are in despair and they're crushed, unfortunately, individuals out of frustration act not in the right way or appropriate way."

Noting that former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon condemned the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, Kassissieh said it has a negative effect for both sides.

"Occupation corrupts and many, many Israeli security agents talked about the negativity of occupation in Israeli society. And you cannot be proud and talk about your democracy while you are controlling the lives of other people against their will," he said.

The Palestinian Authority, he added, recognizes the state of Israel. But, "it's time for the Israelis to look at us equally as human beings, (as) people that have the very basic right of self-determination, the very basic right as humans to be an equal part in dealing with each other."

Yet, despite the grim prospect of peace in the Holy Land and a two-state solution, both ambassadors said that not all hope is lost.

"Well, you know, as a principle, I say we should never give up, and we should always try to find a common denominator and speak with each other," Schutz said, adding that he is "a very strong believer that peace will come when Israelis and Palestinians will sit together."

"I think that right now, again, what we should try to see is to find ways to speak with each other, because this lack of dialogue is really among the principal disadvantages or factors that make the situation on the ground worse," he said.

Kassissieh expressed his hope that Israel will one day "look at us not as a threat, but as partners for the future, for generations to come."

"When it comes to negotiations, I personally believe that if both sides are in the room alone and there is a will, they can strike a deal and they can finalize the issue," he said.

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Junno Arocho Esteves writes for OSV News from Rome. Follow him on Twitter @arochoju.



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