Editor’s note: The names of people in this article have been changed to protect their identities.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–The Nov. 11 death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat turned the world’s attention back to the possibility of peace in the Middle East. For years the concept has seemed an impossible quest. But now, the potential could be greater than ever.
In fact, the question being asked in many circles is, “What happens now?”
“The hope of everyone is that this will open the doors to restart the peace process in sincerity,” John Darzie, a Southern Baptist representative in Israel, said. “The expectation of peace in Israel can cause the whole region to prosper as the desert after a good rain.”
Still, Israel was put on high security alert at the time of Arafat’s death, Darzie noted. “The U.S. Embassy has put out a warning to be very vigilant during these days.”
Another Southern Baptist worker from Alabama in the Middle East, Jay Burndon, who works among Arabs, said he also was hopeful it would lead to a breakthrough in the peace process.
“There was a personal animosity between Arafat and (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon, so the peace process couldn’t go anywhere with leadership on any side,” Burndon said. “Perhaps now we can move forward. We are hopeful there.”
Darzie said his fear is that there will be a unified front depicted early, but that it won’t last.
“My guess would be that there will be a time of cooperation between the factions as a show of unity for the world followed by an armed power struggle,” he said. “Once a society turns to bombs and guns to accomplish its aspirations, it is difficult to settle differences within the society without bombs and guns.”
Burndon said the potential for peace exists, but that the Palestinians must settle their internal struggles first. There have been problems from a recent election, and those concerns are still being settled, Burndon said.
“They will handle their struggles a different way than Americans would,” he noted. But because it is a religious time of year for the Palestinians (Ramadan), “we are expecting a smooth transition.”
“There is a method of choosing the new leader that is outlined by Palestinian law,” Burndon said. “We are hopeful that will be followed in an orderly manner.”
But Darzie said, “The fear is that the infighting within the Palestinians will bring only more bloodshed with no peace and no Palestinian state.”
If the new leadership is more determined to destroy Israel than the last, that would be the “worst-case scenario,” Darzie said, noting that a focus on violence would turn attention away from building an independent Palestinian state and living in peace with Israel.
“The hope is that the Palestinians can find leadership that will not be corrupt but that will build a strong and thriving economy that will change the desperate state of the normal Palestinian,” Darzie said.
Burndon believes this is possible but notes that Americans and Israelis should approach the new opportunities with a willingness to negotiate, not dictate.
“It is not up to the United States nor Israel to choose the Palestinian leader,” he said. “They can only negotiate with whomever the Palestinians choose. It is not our decision how they do things.”
This concept holds true for the way the Palestinians will deal with Arafat’s death, Burndon added.
“Palestinians are going to grieve differently than Americans would,” he explained, noting the chaotic mobs surrounding Arafat’s coffin and the shooting of guns in the air. “We need to give them the freedom and room to do that, not judge them by the fact that their grieving is different from ours.”
And when it comes to Southern Baptist work in the Middle East, Burndon said, “Southern Baptists have been ministering to Palestinians for 50 years.
“We’ve been there through the good times and the bad, and we are still there,” he said.
Noting an increased interest among the Palestinians in “spiritual things” over the past few years, Burndon asked for prayer about more opportunities in this area.