06/29/2006, 00.00
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Fr Jaeger: Peace between Israel and PLO only solution

While tension escalates in Gaza, the agreement announced among Palestinians, which would lead to recognition of Israel, is a positive factor, despite the risk of the "Islamisation" of the PLO. The tragedy of the Holy Land will only come to an end with an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. Then there is the difficult situation of Christians, and hopes that Israeli law will acknowledge the Agreement with the Holy See.

Rome (AsiaNews) – The rumble of Israeli tanks in Gaza; the detention of 20 Hamas MPs; the discovery of a settler's body, killed in captivity; the differences, even violent ones, pitting Palestinian factions against each other: all this goes to show how all hopes for "normality" for residents of the Holy Land must essentially come about through an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. A positive step in this direction appeared to be the announcement of an agreement between the Palestinians on the "Prisoners' Document". However, warned Fr David-Maria A. Jaeger, an Israeli Francisan who for decades has been an observer of political and religious affairs in the Holy Land, this development contains a potential threat, in that it paves the way for the entry of fundamentalists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the PLO, which would thus lose its secular character, with presumable consequences.  

In an interview with AsiaNews, Fr Jaeger also touched upon ties between Israel and the Holy See, overshadowed by the failure of Israeli legislation to adapt to what was stipulated in the agreement between Israel and the Holy See.

According to media reports, the national reconciliation agreement would unite Fatah and Hamas in recognition of Israel within the pre-1967 war borders, and in renouncing to armed activity and terrorism within these borders. Is there a groundbreaking development that may make peace possible – as some have said – or not?

It is too early to accurately assess the outcome. The text would need to be read carefully, and some days at least are needed to know exactly what the document is saying, who adheres to it and how those who seem not to want to adhere to it, like Islamic Jihad, will be treated. The original document, on which the latest agreement is said to be based, is certainly a significant step, that would have opened up new prospects, but it does not seem as yet certain that this "Prisoners' Document" – drawn up by militants belonging to different organizations who are detained in Israeli prisons – has been wholly accepted. It represented a burst of realism and expressed the impatience of all with the indefinite enduring of the current situation. Israel, somewhat surprisingly, rejected it immediately, describing it as a mere "domestic question" of Palestinian organizations. The document, as well as the announced agreement, also have a somewhat worrying factor, that is, the entry of Hamas in the PLO team, which risks profoundly changing the secular nature of the Palestinian national movement, with unforeseeable consequences for the future Palestinian state. In any case, at the moment, much depends on the manner in which the case of the Israeli soldier, captured by armed Palestinian men and detained in Gaza, will be resolved. A peace resolution, much hoped for by many, cannot but be good, while the opposite…

Shortly before the current, umpteenth crisis in Gaza broke out, a meeting took place between Olmert and Abbas, who pledged to meet again. Taken together with the stated developments in the position of Hamas, does this make the resumption of peace talks possible?

The meeting between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert took place at table, at the invitation of King Abdallah II of Jordan, and was a matter of courtesy. It is not yet known what the agenda may be of the next meeting, but it is probable that it will deal with current, contingent matters. It is always a good thing to meet. However, such meetings do not respond fully to the hopes of the two nations, and of the whole civilised world, which are directed instead to re-launching, not just any "talks," but formal peace negotiations, aimed at signing a genuine peace treaty between Israel and Palestine, which should put an end to the long-drawn bloody conflict, and ensure the freedom and security of both nations, in conditions of equal dignity, and with equal opportunities to prosper in the Holy Land, in which both have their home. In this perspective, Hamas has not so far been of any importance. It has only been elected to run the "Palestinian Authority," which is merely a temporary mechanism for managing certain parts of the Occupied Territories, pending a peace treaty. The authority to negotiate such a treaty belongs instead to the P.L.O., recognised by the Arab world, but also but the rest of the world – and since 1993, by Israel too – as the authoritative representative of the Palestinian People. That Mr. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is the President of the P.L.O. is the decisive factor, not that he is also, in addition, at present, the President of the Palestinian Authority. Now if the just announced signing by him of the common document of "national accord" with Hamas does indeed mean that Hamas – and eventually even Islamic Jihad (!) – become member bodies of the P.L.O., together with Al-Fatah (the hitherto always dominant secular party) and the smaller secular parties, the situation will become more complicated. If this happens, peace negotiations, but also – and above all – the putting together of a secular and democratic State in the formerly occupied territories could become much more arduous undertakings – but no less necessary and urgent for all that.

Right now, and who knows for how much longer, there is still the possibility of negotiations and the signing of the peace treaty with a secular P.L.O., which, having "brought home" such an achievement, would have been assured of the support of the very great majority of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. But the launching of such negotiations should be announced now, within days, to avert changes in the secular PLO, with the consequences this could bring.

After the victory of Hamas, the USA and Europe suspended aid to the Palestinian government. However, in the face of the people's dramatic plight, calls have come from many quarters, including the Pope, for aid for the Palestinian people. Is it possible to do this without reinforcing the fundamentalism of Hamas?

This is rather a "technical" matter – how to put together, and put to work the necessary mechanism. But the European Union, the U.S. and the World Bank have been working on it for some time now, and it appears that everything – or almost everything – is ready. But this is also a question of values, and of weighting them together with the objectives that have been defined: How much hardship would it be necessary to impose on the population in order to bring down the government, and at what point does the political objective ("régime change" in the Palestinian Authority) have to make way for humanitarian concerns. In any case, these too are only contingent questions – grave and urgent as they are – which run the risk of absorbing all the attention and distracting form the true objective, which alone could be a solution, the peace treaty. This, peace, is at the end of the day, the only way to halt the advance of "the fundamentalism of Hamas," which otherwise – in the absence of a peace treaty (capable of giving the Palestinians liberty, dignity and security) – seems destined to continue on its worrying course.

Addressing ROACO, Benedict XVI appealed for aid for Christians remaining in the Holy Land. The only Christian minister of the Hamas government has resigned. What is the current situation facing Christians, hard pressed as they appear to be between Muslims and Israelis? And what can be done concretely?

In the Occupied Territories, Christian Palestinians inevitably share the lot of their (Muslim) fellow nationals, as well as suffering, in addition, from the further discomfort arising from being a very small minority, in circumstances of generalised insecurity. Considerable resources, and great energies, are being praiseworthily deployed by so many ecclesial bodies in order to help meet their needs. The  intention is also to help them persevere in the land of their forefathers, and to make it less hard for them to resist the increasingly powerful temptation to emigrate. But the one thing truly capable of changing their situation fundamentally is, let one say it again, a peace treaty. Only this could create the conditions necessary for Palestinian Christians in the now Occupied Territories (a good part of the central regions of the Holy Land) to feel secure, and to have confidence in their future prospects. The greatest act of charity in relation to this community would, therefore, be precisely this, to promote genuine peace negotiations, to bring about the signing of a peace treaty.

The Israeli press reported that when the Tourism Minister met the new Nuncio, he mentioned preparations for the trip of Benedict XVI in Israel, next year, seen also as a means of promotion of religious tourism. In the Vatican, it has been observed that it would be difficult for the visit to take place if Israel does not acknowledge the Fundamental Agreement and sign provisions it contains. Where is the situation at? And what are the prospects?

As far as one knows (and one may not know everything, in the frantic media environment of today), there has not been any announcement by the Vatican of such a journey. Absent such an announcement, for others to speak of it may appear to be lacking in respect, and somehow intending to impose on the sovereign freedom of the Supreme Pontiff. Hence I can say nothing about this hypothesis. As for the other part of the question: Based on media reports (especially on the ample and detailed reports by AsiaNews) – a certain perplexity may be felt. The public record still carries the statement by the Government of Israel (given to Israel's Supreme Court) that it does not consider itself bound by Israel's "Fundamental Agreement" with the Holy See (though the Agreement entered into force as far back as 1994), while the date is not yet publicly known for the same Government, now presided over by Mr. Ehud Olmert, to take up again the negotiations – mandated by the Fundamental Agreement – needed to reach the "comprehensive agreement." The latter, as is well known, is required to safeguard ecclesiastical properties – especially sacred places – and to confirm the Church's "existing rights" in fiscal matters. As has often been reported by the media, these negotiations have been going on sporadically since 1999, without result. Given these reported facts, one is unable to make any predictions. I can only – as a Catholic and as an Israeli – express the wish that Israel show readiness to take up again  the negotiations, and that these take place continuously until the mandated agreement is reached; but, above all, that the State recognise once more -  publicly - the proper, binding character of the Fundamental Agreement, which it willed, signed and ratified, in order to remove any shadow of a doubt over the irrevocable nature of this "historic treaty" (in the words, recently carried by AsiaNews, of Henry Hyde, of the U.S. Congress), whereby it was believed the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish State was being normalised.

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