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Jerusalem looms as central issue for Israeli-Palestinian peace

JERUSALEM (BP)–As painful as it has been, Israel’s evacuation of nearly 9,000 of its own angry and heartbroken settlers from the Gaza Strip may be the last “easy” part of forging peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Many tougher issues remain, both sides agree. For starters: What to do about the much larger West Bank? How to deal with rapid Arab population growth within Israel itself? How to guarantee safe borders and peaceful relations between Israel and a future Palestinian state? How to end terrorist attacks once and for all?

Perhaps the toughest: What to do about Jerusalem?

“Gaza is kind of cut off over there by itself, so it was a lot easier to negotiate,” a longtime Southern Baptist representative in Israel said. “Once you start talking about the West Bank, you’re starting to talk about Jerusalem, and that’s where the peace agreement fell apart last time. It’s going to come down to Jerusalem.”

The holy city claims the hearts of Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. It is, in turn, claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as their eventual and “eternal” capital. East Jerusalem — which lies primarily within the West Bank controlled by Jordan before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war — is overwhelmingly Palestinian. A third of Jerusalem’s total population consists of ethnic Arabs. Conflicting political claims on the city must be settled before a permanent peace agreement can be completed.

But that’s getting ahead of the game.

The Southern Baptist worker cautioned that even the “easy” Gaza evacuation, though supported by a majority of Israelis, still might bring down the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. For years Sharon aggressively supported the settler movement in Palestinian areas. Now, ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlers who once hailed him as a hero and patron revile Sharon as a traitor to their cause.

“This is very risky politically for Sharon,” the worker said. “If the pullout goes successfully and the settlers are peacefully resettled within Israel proper, there’s a good chance he’ll stay in office. If they’re attacked or if terrorism starts coming back into Israel, then you have a really good chance he’ll lose his office. It’s right on the edge.”

Sharon himself came to power in 2001, the worker added, partly because many Israelis thought former Prime Minister Ehud Barak showed weakness by pulling the Israeli military out of southern Lebanon in 2000 without a formal peace agreement with Lebanon and Syria.

“That’s why Sharon is saying [to the Palestinians], ‘If you attack us when we’re pulling out, we will attack you without mercy,’” the worker said. “The Israelis know if they show weakness in the pullout then they could be attacked from every direction.”

Whatever happens politically, the worker believes only one person can bring true peace: Jesus Christ.

“We’re very pro-Israeli and we’re very pro-Palestinian, because we think they all need salvation,” he said. “We’ve got to pray for the peace of Jerusalem –- and we know that’s really praying for Jesus’ return, because that will be the true time of peace.”

The worker listed four other urgent prayer needs:

— For Messianic Jewish believers who follow Jesus as Messiah. They number in the thousands, according to estimates, but still face persecution in some areas. “Pray that they will know how to be strong and build the bridges necessary to communicate the Gospel and be peacemakers.”

— For Gaza and the West Bank, that new freedoms will be used for “the right things — and not just more oppression of the Palestinian people by other Palestinians.”

— For real religious freedom among Israelis and Palestinians. “If they’re free to choose and they really search for the truth, we know where the truth lies –- and that’s in Jesus.”

— For the disillusioned and despairing Jewish settlers, “that if they feel God didn’t work the way they thought, they would look to see who God really is and open their hearts and minds to Jesus when they see He is Truth.”

Another Christian worker who serves among Palestinians in the region sees sparks of light amid the continuing turmoil in Gaza, where 1.3 million Palestinians jostle for space on a narrow scrap of coastline.

Palestinian Baptists have begun a fourth year of visiting and distributing food among needy Muslim families in Gaza’s big, crowded refugee camps -– the traditional breeding grounds of violence and extremism. To date, the reception they’ve gotten has been overwhelmingly positive.

“People [in the camps] are still wondering why these Christians come to help when others don’t,” the worker said. “They also see the difference in the way Christian teams do it” -– i.e., providing aid based only on need, with no favoritism because of family ties or other factors. “That has led to a lot of opportunities for ministry.”

What’s more, a new Christian school will open in Gaza this fall. Most of the students will come from Muslim families.

Will peace break out in Gaza with the Israeli settlements gone?

“Who knows?” the worker said. “I think it’s going to be mostly peaceful. It’s hard to tell. If there is internal conflict among the Palestinian factions, then things could get nasty or dangerous for the [Christian] believers. We hope that the central government [of the Palestinian Authority] can be strong enough to ward off internal attacks. We are depending on believers everywhere to pray for and with Palestinian Christians during this critical time. We continue to believe that God has an excellent plan for a future and a hope.”

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges