Evangelische Akademie Loccum Demilitarizing Conflicts. Learning lessons in Northern Ireland, Palestine and Israel.
International Conference 17-19 October 2008.
“Ten years ago exchanges between Unionists and Republicans had as little to do with actual discussion, were in fact a great deal worse, than this,” one Irish participant to the conference said, referring to volleys of accusations flying back and forth between Palestinians and Israelis. Specialists and accomplices to both the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the formerly insoluble Northern-Irish quagmire had descended upon Loccum, a rural community of the German state of Lower-Saxony, famous for its Pied Piper legend, to ponder parallels between both low-intensity wars and ways to bring about reconciliation. Shockingly, or rather un-shockingly little headway was made. The very first announcement, that a handful of Palestinian interlocutors were unable to attend due to checkpoints and rejected visas, hardly augured well for the proceedings. The setting on the other hand was especially apt for the occasion. A former Cistercian abbey, the monastery managed after Reformation, to retain both its property, and more anomalously, the appellation of Abbot for its chief, more typically reserved for Catholic clergymen. In short; a suitable churchyard for hatchets.
“You are my enemy until you stop occupying my land,” said the Palestinian conferee. “I am regarded as pro-Palestinian in my community, BUT…,” began the Israeli academic. Tit for tat reigns supreme both in conflict, and, alas, in debates about conflict. “We’ve come a long way,” a former IRA combatant confided, “but signing an agreement is only the beginning of true reconciling. “This is when the healing can truly begin.” There was more than a bit of envy from the Middle Eastern attendants. Distinguished speakers from academia, media, politics, law enforcement, and civil society attempted different approaches as if attempting to land a rickety biplane in ever changing wind conditions. Language, touted a former IRA combatant, as potent a weapon as any, can serve as the flame melting swords to ploughshares.
An Israeli observer proffered these key ingredients to patching up; fatigue, external pressure, and the realization that nothing can be won with additional fighting. An Irish researcher proposed a people-to-people life-story telling approach, leading to each seeing the other as a human being, a return to the age-old precept of ‘every individual counts’. Various specialists mooted security-sector reforms, and gradual confidence-building measures as thé way forward.
And yet, the optimism inspired by the delightful Emerald example, failed to kindle gloomier Levantine spirits, even in close proximity of the congenial fireplace where after-dinner proceedings took on a less-than-formal hue. There, assisted by an array of local beers, earlier animosity subsided in favor of friendly reconnoitering, salvos of laughter, and a veritable cross-fire of business cards.
Listening, talking, sipping on that most splendid of German traditions, I let my own thoughts percolate onto a towering stalagmite’s worth of Middle Eastern falling out, a towering Babylon rendering moot or mute any attempt at comprehending. Let alone solving anything.
And yet, there remains a conviction that things are only as complex as either side’s unwillingness to compromise. Language is indeed key, and the outsider’s main challenge consists of recognizing widely divergent stories as describing the same event. A few examples, a historical overview; As the crow flies. Wrapped as a gift; Europe’s unbound contrition, the international community’s bestowal of a homeland in Palestine upon Jewish survivors of the Holocaust represented a rather poisoned chalice indeed. Arguably the act, rather than compensating victims of a horrible ploy, finished the job. Contrary to the Zionist dictum however, the people with no land had not arrived at a land without people. A war started and would in the coming sixty years, between lulls, cease-fires, agreements, and false dawns, flare up to the detriment of thousands.
The world’s remorse, and America’s initial championing of self-determination for the hapless and colonized, soon crumbled under the double yoke of Cold War, and a concomitant dash for man’s most questionable friend, oil. The Holy Land became a bridgehead for an important trade once more. Not of spices this time. Weak Arab governments equal cheap petrol. And hence the Jewish state immediately became the wedge, encouraged and armed, less homeland than baton, wielded by the West’s thirst for cheap energy. To the detriment of thousands. Palestinians. Israelis. Jordanians. Lebanese. Syrians. Egyptians. Etc… It is a long, sad story, with manifold personal tragedies, individual and collective guilt, missed opportunities, and the masterstroke perpetrated at the highest levels of marketing the conflict as a matter of guilt, religion, or so-called clash of civilizations.
When on a sun-spangled September morning two-dozen Arabs euthanized what was left of the Twentieth Century, they adhered to an atrocious, cynical logic that they were all too familiar with. To the detriment of thousands. Incited by a face that someone in the White House must have seen in those horrible clouds, the United States launched a thousands ships to salvage the old way of doing business, but even two pointless wars were unable to muffle the death knell of an epoch. Talk of energy-independence is all the rage now. The world must wean itself off carbs or face both geo-political and climatologic cardiac-arrest. In this painful knee-joint of time blood, thick and cloudy, will clot, and pulse toward a new equilibrium, the contours of which should already become apparent to astute observers. No longer a battering ram, Israel has no choice but to make peace in a region no longer solely defined as a global watering hole for automobiles.
It isn’t too late for the West, whatever that term still holds, to show actual, constructive remorse for the anti-Semitism that’s lead to so much suffering of all Semitic inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent soil; Palestinian, Israeli, and Arab. Talks of two states between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean, mere rhetoric so far, should be given a penultimate try. International guarantees, eventual EU membership for both entities, and boots on the ground are a possible carrot and stick to that end. Meanwhile Palestinians see their land slowly but surely gobbled up by what can only be described as a penniless restaurant-goer who orders more and more food to postpone an ever-increasing bill. At the end of the night, a less-palatable outcome looms. The overwhelming responsibility to finally pay the Piper belongs to all of us.