Fear and a Desire for Peace Unite Both Sides, Franciscan Says
"Jews ... Are Beginning to See That Israel Is No Longer the Ideal Place"
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Father Arthur Vasaturo, 50, a Franciscan of the Holy Land Custody, serves in an Arab area surrounded by Jewish families. With a degree in history of the Jewish people from Jerusalem´s Jewish University, he can talk about the ongoing Mideast strife from both sides.
The priest said that the problem of peace in the Holy Land cannot be reduced to the question of terrorism and Osama bin Laden.
Peace is possible, he said, but on three conditions: Jewish settlers in Palestinian territories must leave; security for Israel must be guaranteed; and international control must be established. He spoke with the Vatican agency Fides.
--Q: Is peace still possible or are we on the brink of an all-out war?
--Father Vasaturo: Both the Jews and the Palestinians have had enough of this violence, which leads nowhere. All they want is peace and tranquility.
There remains a doubt that someone, outside our situation, might want the conflict to continue. In Jerusalem and in the territories, Palestinians are exhausted. All they ask for is respect, to be treated as human beings, without being constantly checked, controlled, watched with suspicion, with obsession, as enemies.
I am convinced that the people want peace, but there seems to be a sort of overriding mafia working against it: Every time peace seems within reach, something happens to make it fly away again.
--Q: How is life in Jaffa after the latest attacks?
--Father Vasaturo: The Jewish population lives each day as it comes. They know that every new day can bring new acts of terrorism so they make no long-term plans.
Sometimes I go out late in the evening to visit the sick and it is terrible to see Tel Aviv streets empty, the seafront deserted. People live in fear and they are tired of it.
Many Jews would never admit it openly but they are beginning to see that Israel is no longer the ideal place where the Jewish people can live happily and securely. Abroad, Israel appears to be a military power, but Israeli mothers are tired of seeing their boys and their girls in army uniform. They supported Sharon because they hoped this would lead to a lasting peace.
--Q: What is the obstacle to real peace?
--Father Vasaturo: Several prominent Jews say that Israel should withdraw from the territories to establish peace. The question of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories is crucial. To eliminate violence they must leave the territories.
The 200 to 300 settlements in the West Bank are a contradiction: They want to give Palestine autonomy, but they want the settlements to remain and the settlers to remain citizens of Israel.
What is more, as the second intifada continues, the settlements are spreading. Nothing is said of this aspect, and the bugbear of terrorism is used as a cover-up: The Israeli government wants to avoid internal problems with these settlers and so it prefers to fight a foreign enemy.
--Q: Has the war in Afghanistan made things worse?
--Father Vasaturo: The second intifada broke out more than a year ago: It did not need bin Laden to start it. But it is also true that in the past Muslim fundamentalism against the West -- and against the Jews, America, "Christians" in the West -- first appeared after the establishment of the state of Israel.
However, to call it all terrorism and blame everything on bin Laden would seem to be a very superficial attitude.
--Q: But is coexistence still possible?
--Father Vasaturo: The day they handed over the cities of Jenin, Jericho Ramallah, etc., to the Palestinian authorities, the people celebrated; even the Jewish soldiers were happy. Someone wanted to see this idyll destroyed.
Now the path is: the withdrawal of Jewish settlements from the territories; guarantee security for the state of Israel; international control, because hatred on both sides is too deep.
I give you just one example. After a group of my students was attacked by Jewish students, I had a meeting with a representative of the Education Ministry.
He lamented the fact that now it has become impossible to organize meetings for Jewish and Arab students. Until recently we had regular meetings, opportunities to discuss and encourage coexistence. Today no one believes in this sort of initiative. And, worse still, no one has a solution. This is the saddest thing of all.
--Q: And the Palestinians?
--Father Vasaturo: Palestinian citizens of Israel also stay at home, afraid to go out. Very often I see them speak Jewish instead of Arabic, to avoid being looked at with suspicion. There is tension in the air. People are mesmerized by television news and anguish grows.
Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are even more desperate. The territories have been made into ghettos. No one can leave, no one can go to work in Israel. There is no food, the economy is collapsing, the economy is breaking down for Israel too: 50% of a flourishing tourist industry has disappeared. This is why both peoples long for a normal life again.
--Q: Do the Palestinians support Hamas?
--Father Vasaturo: At the moment the Palestinian world is in chaos and confusion, but only a few support the Hamas group. This group wants to take control of the whole of Palestine. No Arab wants this: It would be anti-historical.
Confusion is due to the bad functioning of autonomy structures, although it should be said that the Palestinian authorities have not had the time to get organized and grow.
In the meantime, reducing the territories to ghettos makes the Palestinians angry. They want freedom of movement and they are shut up in a corner, they are desperate, with nothing more to lose. This means they are ready for anything, even extreme violence.
On the contrary someone who has a job, someone who works all day to bring home food for the family, wants peace, only peace. However, what the world must realize is that the people are tired. If the people are guaranteed respect, human rights, peace, autonomy, then life will be good again in Israel and Palestine.
--Q: The Pope has encouraged prayers and fasting for peace everywhere in the world. Was this noticed in your part of the world?
--Father Vasaturo: Religion can make an important contribution to peace. Most people see Israel as siding with the West, and many Muslims see the West as Christian. The Pope encourages religions to come together.
Prayer and fasting is common to all three of the monotheistic religions and so the Pope´s call will be appreciated on all sides here, especially by the Arab world which, in the case of Palestine, is the weakest and the most in need of support.