‘You never walk alone’, that song performed by Paul McCartney stays in my mind when thinking about the people affected by the Gaza war. What has happened since the last war between Hamas and the Israeli army has ended? In the Gaza strip as well as in Israel, especially near the border with Gaza, fear and mistrust of each other still have the upper hand. What can PAX do in situations where people are intimidated and where hope seems to have died?
Customs held him for seven hours for questioning. Different officers continuously came and asked him the same and other questions. They claimed he was lying. Afterwards he was refused entry to the country. Without any reason being provided. This was the fate that befell José Henriquez, secretary-general of our international Pax Christi peace movement, when he recently wanted to visit Israel and Palestine for a peace pilgrimage. I was detained separately for half an hour, also without being given any reason, but was allowed to enter the country. It makes you wonder what fear rules a state when it refuses entry to peace activists. Not only refuses them entry, but worse still, intimidates them.
Now back from a trip through the Middle East, this is what occupies me. I visited three neighbouring countries and spoke with people, peace activists and diplomats in or from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The main characteristic of this trip? Fear: people who are afraid and who are made to feel afraid. Afraid of all the violence. Afraid of the violence escalating. Afraid of each other. Afraid for the future of their country and above all their future and that of their children. As a traveller you also feel the tension at all the extra border controls and questioning. You feel dependent on a person and a system that can determine where you may and may not go. Palestinian children in Hebron, that have to go to school every day through checkpoints with heavily armed military personnel, feel this tension every single day. Syrian citizens that are arrested, released and hunted with threats, feel the repression every single hour of every single day. The state’s systems of power appear to be solely held in place by making people nervous, by propagating fear and intimidating them. And in a region where violence currently reigns supreme. Violence in the Gaza Strip. The daily intimidation and far-reaching occupation of the West Bank. The incredibly brutal fighting in Syria and Iraq, where human lives no longer appear to count. As well as increasing tension in the neighbouring countries of Jordan and Lebanon.
It is chaos and it is met with a chaotic response. Short-term or short-sighted interests appear to form the basis of many acts. Ambiguous, opportunist coalitions are forged whereby an enemy in one war becomes a friend on a different front. International oversight appears to be utterly lost; whether it involves the US or Europe, we seem to have lost the plot. For national, regional and international superpowers, the Middle East region appears to be nothing more than a chessboard, where the population is sacrificed like pawns. It makes me think of the song by Stef Bos: Figuranten (Extras). The population also senses that politicians have lost their way, that the only outlook that is presented is a scenario with even more violence, even more repression and even more fear. How long can you endure that?
It is all the more admirable that we still meet people, who despite everything, have the courage to continue to strive in situ to improve living conditions, to create a better society. Not because they expect to be able to bring the violence and the misery to an end right now, but because they want to continue to believe that a decent life and peaceful coexistence must be possible. If not right now, then in a more distant future. They want to resist the fear and the hopelessness that they feel in the very depths of their being, which has been forced upon them, for as long as possible. Sometimes with so much violence that it kills them or whereby they finally choose safety for themselves and their children, and flee. Thus I met our partner Sara, who still lives in Damascus, but moved to a safer district. She tells us about her 14-year-old daughter who was in the street with her friend when a grenade struck. Her friend was killed instantly; her daughter was seriously wounded. They still live in Damascus and don’t want to leave; they continue to strive for a Syria for all Syrians. But she lives with the fear of a subsequent grenade and the question, how long can we stay? When is it too late to leave? How and where will we find a safe refuge with our family then? I wonder: how long can she keep it up?
There are more people, PAX partners, who refuse to submit to the reality of fear and hopelessness of these times. During my travels, I felt more intensely than ever, how important it is that we let these people know that they are not alone. That we are aware of their situation today and of their wishes for the future. That we are united with them in the belief that peace is possible in the future and continue to support then in connecting with the forces of moderation. Because, that is the only realistic scenario for the long term. After all the military violence has subsided, the military parties will also announce that a political solution is the only way out. Just look at Iraq. Then the discussions will take place about the conditions for an end to the violence and the beginning of a peaceful coexistence. This is not a discussion involving extreme rulers or extremist fighters, but of the moderate majority. People who, in spite of their differences of opinion, are prepared to reach a painful compromise so that they can live in safety. This is why we must jointly keep these moderate forces alive and build a new leadership. Because when the time comes, these moderate forces can step forward. PAX aims to support our partners in this respect and call on the international players to make this long-term perspective possible. This is the perspective that keeps our partners going; it is the long-term strategy that continues to give our work direction and meaning. It is the hope that conquers the fear.