Friday, July 4, 2003

Nothing since 11 September has so shaken public faith in the future than the unrelenting tit for tat of Israelis and Palestinians. Many wonder if they could ever become friends.

Nothing since 11 September has so shaken public faith in the future than the unrelenting tit for tat of Israelis and Palestinians. Many wonder if they could ever become friends.

Yet if anyone sixty years ago had asked whether the French and Germans would ever give up their mutual hate few would have thought it possible. They had fought three wars in seventy years and were archenemies. Today their borders are undefended and even their historians unite on interpreting their past. The idea that they would go to war again is laughable.

Twenty years ago if anyone had suggested that the Soviet empire would implode and the cold war would become part of history they would have been written off as dreamers. Fifteen years ago every knowledgeable observer of South Africa was predicting a bloodbath when the country moved to majority rule. Today that is the least of their worries. Archbishop Tutu said in February in the US that it was not the barrel of a gun but forgiveness and reconciliation that brought peace to his nation: ‘These are the things which ultimately give a nation stability, like they are looking for in the Middle East.’ In
our preoccupation with today’s news we often fail to appreciative the progress that has been made.

For years Northern Ireland has been held up as a reproach to Christians. Who could have believed that by the new millennium, former enemies would be working together in a power-sharing government? Contentious issues remain but behind the scenes men and women on all sides are reaching out to each courageously.

A recent pocket cartoon had a dove at a job centre saying, ‘I need a career change. I’m getting nowhere in my current job.’ It is not true. All over the world, often away from the glare of publicity, men and women are working to break the chain of hate. The nature of news is such that you might easily have the impression that all is doom and gloom. But it is far from the whole picture. In the past few days news has come from places as far apart as Sri Lanka and Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, of substantial progress towards ending conflicts that have cost thousands of lives.

Such peacemakers come from all backgrounds and faiths. A group of Lebanese has just been visiting Europe to talk about how they are dealing with their past. One was a senior figure in the Christian militia and another was a Muslim militia leader. They fought on opposite sides in a civil war which left 70,000 dead and 17,000 still unaccounted for. At a meeting in London organised by Initiatives of Change they spoke together in an impressive display not only of unity but of friendship. The Christian, Assaad Chaftari, had shaken his country when he made a public apology in February 2000 for what he had done in the name of ‘Christianity.’ The Muslim, Moiheddine Shihab, mayor of a suburb of Beirut, admitted that he had committed ‘atrocities.’ ‘Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a man who fears for his life and property, ‘he says. ‘Self defence can quickly turn into vengeance and the wrongful taking of life. What motivated me and people like me to take up arms was absolutely evil. I want to say that I am sorry for what I did.’

For each one there had been a defining moment when they came to the realisation that violence was not the way forward. They had, at risk, to themselves, reached out to meet someone from the other side, discovering that ‘they were a human being just like me’.

It was a small symbol of hope from the war-torn Middle East. It may be fanciful to think of Israeli and Palestinian hawks picking up olive branches, but stranger things have happened.