Paddy’s Battle for the Holy Land
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 19th May, 2007
Paddy Ashdown had his first airing as a major television documentary presenter this evening, with a two-hour film on Channel 4, on the thorny subject of Jerusalem. He was an inspired choice, given his personal experience of two other divided cities: Belfast and Sarajevo, both of which have subsequently enjoyed a degree of peace, if not total reconciliation, that has so far has eluded the spiritual capital of Israel/Palestine. Moreover, he can claim a degree of objectivity, as someone who believes in the right of the state of Israel to exist, in security, as well as demanding justice for the Palestinian people. The challenge is how to find a way forward to achieve both those goals, when there are plenty of people on either side who take an all-or-nothing approach.
In the film, Paddy said that Jerusalem was the most divided city he had ever encountered: between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, and numerous varieties of Christians as well. One of the more intriguing tangents explored in the story was the Byzantine manoeuvrings within the Greek Orthodox Church in the Old City, and its relations with the wider community. But the main focus was inevitably on the central Jewish-Muslim divide that has dominated the situation since the Six Day War and the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, 40 years ago. The late King Hussein of Jordan (which had administered East Jerusalem until 1967) had argued that the question of sovereignty would only be solved when people accepted that only God has sovereignty over Jerusalem — and after all, the three ‘Religions of the Book’ all have the same God.
Being a politician, rather than a priest or a king, Paddy came up with a six-point plan, as a blueprint for how things might be taken forward: (1) to accept that Jerusalem is at the heart of the Middle East conflict, which means that it is the issue that should be tackled first, not last, as has tended to be the case; (2) people need to recognise that the people of Jerusalem have a shared history, and that terrible things have been done by both sides in the Arab/Israeli conflict; (3) Jerusalem cannot be owned by one faith, so holy places must be shared; (4) there needs to be a status quo agreement for all holy places — as already exists between the different Christian denominations, in the previously disputed interior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – as well as a permanent forum for dialogue; (5) there should be a Charter of Rights for all residents of Jerusalem, irrespective of religion; (6) the Israeli Security Wall must come down, as part of an agreement that includes a gurantee of the ending of violent attacks against Israelis.
Can such a blueprint succeed? Given the intransigence shown by some people interviewed in the programme, the prospects might seem bleak. But such was the case in Northern Ireland, yet we now see Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams side-by-side. In the meantime, the situation in Jerusalem is being aggravated by a failure to hold proper consultations or negotiations; instead, there is a dialogue of the deaf. Moreover, as Paddy said, the discrimination against Palestinians by the Israeli authorities is not only unjust but stupid; it is counter-productive, engineering new resentments and hatred. That loathing and mistrust filters down right through the population. When I was in the West Bank for the BBC World Service a few years ago, making a radio documentary on the contrasting lives of one Palestinan Arab family and one Jewish settler family, the most troubling comments came from the youngest children of each. The little Jewish girl asked me if the Palestinian family would kill me when I went to visit them. And the little Palestinian boy, when I asked him what he thought of his Jewish neighbours, declared: ‘They are pollution!’