by The Rev. Tony Higton
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Ministry
in Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Issue 7 October 18th 2006
Ministries encourages Christians to understand and pray
about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, seeing it through
the eyes of both people groups involved, and taking the
needs, fear and pain of both sides seriously. Its director,
the Rev Tony Higton, who was Rector of a church in the Old
City of Jerusalem for a number of years, circulates this
email newsletter, speaks at seminars and encourages support
of indigenous reconciliation ministry in Jerusalem. The
is available free on request to those who add their email
address to our Newsletter update list, available on the top
of the 'Newsletter'
page. Alternatively, send your email address and name to
us via our online
Please encourage others to join the mailing list.© Tony
Who won the
Who won the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah? The
answer is complicated. Hezbollah humiliated Israel by
showing that the sixth most powerful armed force in the
world could not wipe it out, but rather left it with the
ability to attack Israel again. However, Hezbollah was, it
seems, genuinely taken aback by the ferocity of the Israeli
response and, given the huge damage to its host country
Lebanon, might think twice about any serious new attack on
Israel was, of course, seeking to restore its deterrent
power. It destroyed a good deal of Hezbollah and forced the
Lebanese to take seriously the need to curb Hezbollah’s
power. However, it is clear that Israel cannot trust simply
in the deterrent power of its massive armaments (as the US
and other western powers are discovering in Afghanistan and
Lebanon has benefited in that it can, for the first time in
31 years, regain control of the south of the country with
international backing, albeit with a strong Hezbollah
presence, but without a Syrian presence. However the cost in
terms of loss of life and devastation has been extremely
high. And a great deal depends on whether the international
force really implements UN Security Resolution 1701.
Israel’s security situation has changed a great deal. Over
two million Israelis live within range of Hezbollah
It must be remembered that Hezbollah still has many missiles
and it is likely they will be re-supplied along the
Iran-Syria route. There is, of course, also a danger that
the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank will be
emboldened by Hezbollah’s performance to attack Israel in
similar ways. And Israel now knows how very difficult it is
to defend itself against such attacks. Senior IDF staff
believe that there could be another conflict with Hezbollah
in the near future and that the only way to stop Iran
supplying Hezbollah with weapons through Syria would be by
Israel attacking the supply lines.
However, there are much more widespread threats to Israel’s
security. The Iranians, who have signed an agreement to
defend Syria from any Israeli attack, are issuing
blood-curdling threats against her and clearly have
sufficient military power to back them up.
President Bashar Assad
having spoken of making peace with Israel, has said that
Syria expected Israel could attack them at any moment so
they were heightening their preparations for war. He added
that, given the popularity of Hezbollah, it would be
impossible for them to stop the supply of Iranian weapons
passing through Syria. Meanwhile, a new organisation has
been formed to resist Israeli control of the Golan Heights
and to “liberate” them using Hezbollah’s tactics.
One of Hezbollah's main pretexts for continued attacks on
Israel is the claim that Israel occupies the Sheba'a Farms,
an area of about 40 sq km (about 24 sq miles) on the slopes
of Mt. Hermon, which is Lebanese territory. However,
until the Six Day War in 1967, it belonged
Syria and the UN rejected Lebanese
government claims, declaring it part of the Golan Heights.
A larger-scale change is taking place though which is
reminiscent of cold war politics. Iran, supported by
Russia, is obviously making a bid to become the dominant
regional power in the Middle East. Russia is seeking to
gain dominant superpower influence in the Middle East, now
that the US is seen as bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan
and is losing influence as a result. Despite rhetoric,
America is unlikely to use military power against any other
nations in the foreseeable future. Iran knows this and is
successfully defying American power. The danger is that
relatively moderate powers like Egypt and Saudi Arabia could
lose influence to Iran backed by Russia.
In early October Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned:
"The Middle East is on the verge of exploding." Around the
same time Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said: “For
the first time in my life I feel that there is an
existential threat against the state of Israel.” Another
Israeli commentator wrote: “It is hard to believe, but only 60
years after the Holocaust the Jewish people is once again in
danger of being destroyed - at least in its own state, where
40 percent of the world's Jews are concentrated.”
There is a good deal of disillusionment in Israel. Despite
an 11 billion dollar annual defence budget, the armed forces
performance against Hezbollah was deeply disappointing to
many. They seemed somewhat unprepared for the conflict and
there appeared to be serious intelligence failures.
Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah remains alive and
defiant. Like many of their enemies, Israelis are amazed the
IDF could not bring a terrorist organisation with less than
1500 combat activists to its knees in a whole month of
warfare, when over a million Israelis were confined to bomb
shelters, 163 died, 427 were injured and $1.1 billion worth
of damage was caused in Israel. Instead, its missiles remain
pointing at the northern region of Israel. Many are also
aware that Israel’s military deterrent is seriously
It is also now clear that the policy of unilateral
withdrawal (from Palestinian areas or Lebanon), in which
many Israelis trusted, doesn’t work. The response to it is
attack by missiles.
Little wonder Ehud Olmert became the least popular Prime
Minister in Israel’s history.
The situation in South Lebanon
Two-thirds of Lebanon lies in ruins. A million Lebanese were
forced out of their homes and some 250,000 left the country.
Huge damage was done to infrastructure: roads, bridges,
banks and financial institutions. Their great suffering
caused the Lebanese people enormous resentment against
Israel and conversely huge support for Hezbollah. According
to the UN, some 1,183 people, mostly civilians, died, about
a third of them children, and 15,000 civilian homes were
destroyed. Lebanese authorities say 4,054 people were
The Lebanese Army and the UN force can stabilize South
Lebanon but it seems that the demilitarization of Hezbollah,
as is detailed in Security Council Resolution 1701, will not
be carried out.
Nasrallah stated: “We did not think that the capture [kidnap
of the Israeli soldiers] would lead to a war at this time
and of this magnitude. You ask me if I had known on July 11
... that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do
it? I say no, absolutely not.” He added that Hezbollah
would keep to the ceasefire. However, on another occasion,
he said that the raid was meant to preempt a planned IDF
offensive against Hezbollah and to provoke Israel to react
at a time when it was not ready.
Did Israel commit war crimes in Lebanon?
Some Israelis justify Israel’s actions by pointing out that
no sovereign nation can allow its citizens to be subjected
to rocket attacks form across its borders. They point out
that this was a just war in that it was a battle for
survival, not for territory and a battle to protect innocent
civilians, not militant settlers. They add that Hezbollah
deliberately hid itself and its rocket launchers in civilian
areas so that Israel was faced with a huge moral dilemma
and, in order to attack Hezbollah, could not avoid extensive
but unintentional civilian casualties. Furthermore, they
argue, many of the civilians involved actively consented to
assisting Hezbollah, so they have, in effect, become
Defenders of Israel also claim that her reaction to
Hezbollah’s attack was not disproportionate because in war
proportionality does not relate to the proportion between
the damage experienced by a country and the force used in
retribution. Rather it relates to the proportion between the
amount of force used to the amount required to achieve a
justified objective, in this case, destroying Hezbollah.
Another argument used by those defending Israel is that
since the terrorists, with government connivance, use the
Lebanese infrastructure Israel is justified in attacking it.
Other Israelis say that Israel used
excessive force without distinguishing between the civilian
population and Hezbollah. They add that widespread bombing
of infrastructure such as power stations and bridges is
unethical because it punishes the entire Lebanese civilian
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the use of cluster
bombs by the Israel Defense Forces. These bombs explode
while still falling and scatter over a broad area. About 10
percent fail to explode.
The Palestinian situation
Despite being overshadowed by the war in Lebanon, the
immense suffering of the Palestinian people continues.
Since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, 500 Palestinians
have been killed and over 3,000 wounded, and more than 150
homes have been demolished. There is huge damage to the
infrastructure with sewage flowing in the streets, etc. 60%
of Gaza’s electricity was provided by the destroyed power
plants (the other 40% is purchased from Israel). The
irregular electricity supply has caused severe water
shortages. Much food has been lost through lack of
Many thousands of Gazans used to work in Israel but can do
so no longer. Subcontract goods for Israeli firms and
agriculture products are blocked at the Karni crossing,
which is closed most of the time.
Unemployment is 50%, which causes some to turn to
There are an estimated 70,000 automatic weapons in Gaza,
excluding antitank weapons and shotguns. Anarchy reigns with armed
gangs, family feuds, tribal warfare and murders. Violent
demonstrations broke out because international sanctions
have meant the government could not pay its 165,000
employees for the past six months. Fatah encouraged tens of
thousands of teachers, health workers and other government
employees to go an open-ended strike.
Hundreds of Palestinian policemen and security officers
blocked the main roads in Gaza City in protest against
unpaid wages, firing their rifles into the air. Hamas
security forces attempted to stop Fatah security forces
demonstrating and this led to fighting in which Palestinians
were killed and injured. After Saudi Arabia and Qatar had
made funds available, Abbas distributed about £190 ($350)
each to PA employees.
PA Government Spokesman Dr. Ghazi Hamad said in the PA daily
Al-Ayyam: “The reality in which we are living in Gaza can
only be described as miserable and wretched, and as a
failure in every sense of the word. We applauded the
elections and the unique democratic experience, but in
reality there has been a great step backwards. We spoke of
national consensus, [but] it turned out to be like a leaf
blowing in the wind...” The situation in Gaza is a powder
keg ready to explode.
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Palestinian
Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas
agreed to form a
Palestinian national unity government. Fatah and Hamas
agreed to continue the temporary cease-fire with Israel.
However the international community made it clear that the
terms for the unity government were not acceptable because
the original foundation document (drawn up by Fatah and
Hamas prisoners in Israel) had been amended. Originally it
included an implicit acceptance of Israel’s right to exist
within the 1967 borders. The amended version excluded this.
Mushir al-Masri declared: “The Hamas movement will not
recognize Israel even if all its members are killed.”
Hamas turned down an Israeli offer to free between 900 and
1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captured Israel
Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit. Then the government of
Qatar proposed a plan to establish a Palestinian unity
government. This entailed, in effect, recognition of Israel,
acceptance of agreements made with Israel, and an end to
violence. Abbas agreed to this but Hamas rejected it.
Haniyeh said Hamas was willing to have a temporary ceasefire
but only if Israel agreed to Palestinian refugees returning
from Lebanon and Syria.
Where do we go from here?
After the events of the last three months, Israel could
decide to bolster its military ability, training its armed
forces, which are more used to low key conflict in the
Palestinian areas, to cope better with more serious
conflicts like that in Lebanon. She might decide that it is
pointless to talk with her neighbours. There is evidence
that more Israelis are now swinging to the right
politically. But that would be very sad. It seems that what
has happened recently gives an incentive and an opportunity
for serious negotiations to be held between Israel and her
neighbours, especially the Palestinians and the Lebanese,
and even the Syrians. This has not happened for six years
and there is evidence to suggest these three are willing to
talk with Israel. The Arab League resolution and the Saudi
initiative suggesting a way forward should not be cynically
dismissed, especially in the light of the threat to the Arab
world, as well as the West, from Iran and Al Qaieda. In a
survey 67% of Israelis support negotiations with a
Palestinian national unity government and 56%, favour talks
with the present Palestinian government, led by Hamas (cp.
48% in June).
It must be remembered that some of Israel’s enemies are
determined to destroy her. And some of those Arabs
suggesting a ceasefire intend that it should only last until
Israel’s opponents are strong enough to attack her
successfully. But, as noted above, it seems clear that
military force and trusting in deterrence is seriously
inadequate to provide security for Israel. Also unilateral
withdrawal from occupied territory has proved not to achieve
peace. Instead there is a serious threat to Israel now a
small terrorist organisation has proved it can withstand
Israel’s military might. Also the balance of power in the
Middle East could move away from moderate nations in favour
of extremists like Iran, now American influence has been
Israel needs to realise that without international support,
ensuring the security of internationally accepted borders,
the conflict will continue. She needs to negotiate with the
backing of the international community. The Lebanese
government is a respectable partner in negotiations despite
the presence of two Hezbollah representatives. It is
encouraging that Olmert has called on Lebanon to join in
peace talks but the Lebanese prime minister has refused
until Israel returns the Sheba'a Farms. Mahmoud Abbas may
not be the strongest of political leaders but he is someone
Israel should take seriously.
It is encouraging that, at the end of September, Ehud Olmert
said he would meet with Abbas. He has also said, with US
backing, that he will help Abbas to “create a better
environment” and return to peacemaking.
Israel also needs to seek to improve the Palestinians’
conditions, partly for strong ethical reasons and partly for
its own welfare. The current dire situation, especially in
Gaza, is not only terrible, but it fosters extremism and
could lead to an explosion of violence.
How should we pray?
For all affected by the violence, the bereaved, injured
and homeless in Lebanon, Israel and Gaza.
For Lebanon as it reconstructs the south of the country.
For the people of Gaza facing such terrible conditions
plus the anarchy and violence which is rife.
For the relevant national leaders to have the courage
and skill to negotiate for peace, backed by the
For the frustration of the aims of men and women of
violence, including those who desire the destruction of
For restraint on Iran, especially in its threatened
development of nuclear weapons.
For peace and security with justice for Israel, Lebanon
and the Palestinian areas.
For Israel and her Muslim neighbours to turn to God who
alone is their true Rock and Fortress.
Pray also for me, newly invited onto a very significant
group working with high-level political and religious
leaders for relief and reconciliation in the Middle East
(more details next time).