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Cease-fire between Israelis, Palestinians called a ‘welcome’ sign to people of faith

SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt (BP)–A new opportunity for peace in the Middle East emerged Feb. 8 when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reached a verbal cease-fire agreement.

The two parties, meeting at a summit in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt, vowed to stop all military or violent activity against each other in an effort to end the four-year cycle of violence and resume peace talks, according to the Associated Press.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II hosted the summit and were optimistic that both Sharon and Abbas took the agreement seriously.

“The challenges today are large and deep, but the mission is not impossible,” Mubarak said. “If the road is long, we today took the first step.”

Details of the agreement were not disclosed, but Abbas and Sharon made brief statements following the peace talks.

“We have agreed with Prime Minister Sharon to cease all violence against the Israelis and against the Palestinians, wherever they are,” Abbas said.

If Palestinians end their violence against Israelis, Sharon said Israel will end its military operations in all locations.

“We really hope this day will be the day that marks the relaunching of the process for a better future that will lead us towards mutual respect and peace in the Middle East,” Sharon said.

The summit marked the first meeting between Sharon and Abbas since Abbas’ election as president of the Palestinian Authority following the death of Yasser Arafat last November. The Bush administration had refused to deal directly with Arafat, and peace negotiations had stalled. But in light of the new cease-fire agreement, President Bush has invited both sides to meet separately with him at the White House this spring. His last joint meeting with the two leaders was in Jordan in June 2003.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met separately with Sharon and Abbas two days prior to the cease-fire agreement during her first trip abroad since being sworn in as secretary. Rice called the agreement the “most promising moment for progress between Palestinians and Israelis in recent years,” but she cautioned that the road to peace would be long and would depend strongly on cooperation from other nations in the region.

Jim Sibley, coordinator of Jewish ministries for the North American Mission Board, told Baptist Press the cease-fire may provide more secure conditions for disseminating the Gospel in the region.

“While many Christians are not optimistic about long-term peace in the region, I am certain that Southern Baptist representatives and Jewish and Arab believers welcome any cessation of hostilities and yearn for peace,” Sibley said. “Of course, this is true for humanitarian reasons but also because peaceful conditions make ministry so much easier and safer. Ultimately, peace will not break out in the Middle East until the Prince of Peace reigns in the hearts of Jew and Arab alike.”

Tony Maalouf, associate professor of missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Baptist Press that any move toward the ending of bloodshed is greatly welcome.

“However, in view of the long history of struggle and the presence of extremist groups on both sides that are opposed to the peace process, I learned not to be overly optimistic,” said Maalouf, the son of Lebanese parents who was born in Syria. “From a Christian perspective, peace means a better ground for spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ, and [the Apostle] Paul extorted us to pray for that end.

Maalouf, author of “Arabs in the Shadow of Israel,” said his studies have led him to believe “in a big spiritual revival coming to the Middle East, the home of the early church,” and he said “the first signs of such an awakening” may be at hand. “I pray that the present dilemma will somehow come to an end and that both leaderships dare to make ideological sacrifices,” Maalouf said. “When Abraham, whom both sides claim as ancestor, received the promises, he dwelt in tents in the land as a foreigner for he was looking to the eternal city whose builder and architect is God.”

Samuel Shahid, professor of missions at Southwestern and a native of Lebanon, told Baptist Press his main concern about the agreement is that some factions on both sides may reject the truce and act against it.

“However, if both sides are able to control these elements or convince them to give the cease-fire a chance and then develop a more permanent agreement, then that would help stabilize the situation in that part of the world,” Shahid said.

Palestinians are likely to be interested in peace because their economy is suffering, Shahid added, but they would want their own state implemented with dignity and honor, not submission and humiliation.

“The worst thing that could happen would be to impose something on them that would hurt their dignity and affect their right to their own country,” he said. “It seems that this agreement — apparently with no conditions attached to it — is taking Palestinian dignity into account, according to what we are hearing. In the past there have always been conditions. Maybe this is goodwill from Israel that indicates their trust in the new leadership, but we don’t know for sure.”

The “road map” to peace in the Middle East sponsored by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations calls for a Palestinian state with temporary borders and a permanent state to follow. It requires of the Palestinians an immediate cessation of violence against Israel, the dismantling of terrorist organizations and the recognition of Israel’s right to exist in peace.

Of Israel, it requires the destruction of Jewish settlements constructed in the West Bank since March 2001 and the freezing of all settlement activity, an end to attacks on Palestinians and the destruction of their homes, and withdrawal to the borders in place before Israel gained new territories in the 1967 war. Critics of the plan say it would result in the division of Jerusalem between Palestinians and Israelis.
With reporting by Brent Thompson.

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  • Erin Curry