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MIDDLE EAST
from issue no. 01 - 2008

Still waiting for Palestine


Peace in the Holy Land requires respect for international law. “And when the ‘two-States’ solution prevails we will be ready to discuss all the proposals for the question of the Holy Places that are dear to the heart of the Holy Father”. A meeting with Shawqi Armali, the new Palestinian representative to the Holy See


Interview with Shawqi Armali by Giovanni Cubeddu


The barrier dividing Egypt from the Gaza Strip was broken down on 23 January 2008 by Palestinians who crossed the border to get essential supplies of food, fuel and other provisions

The barrier dividing Egypt from the Gaza Strip was broken down on 23 January 2008 by Palestinians who crossed the border to get essential supplies of food, fuel and other provisions

Shawqi Armali presented his credentials to the Holy Father on 10 December last, re-opening a direct channel of communication between the Holy See and the Palestinian National Authority broken off in October of 2005. That is when the previous Palestinian diplomat accredited to the Vatican, Afif Safieh, was sent to the PNA Center in Washington, before a successor was chosen. Now, in a far-sighted gesture, President Mahmoud Abbas has decided to fill the gap, hoping for beneficial effects and putting a stop to possible speculations about such a prolonged absence. But the task facing the new Palestinian general delegate – who ranks as non-resident ambassador – is no small one when one considers the historical situation in which he is called upon to operate. We met Armali during his last stay in Rome, between one meeting and another with the Vatican hierarchy

Mr Ambassador, after more than a two year gap your Office of Representation to the Holy See has a new Head.
SHAWQI ARMALI: Let me begin by confessing that it is a great honor for me to represent the Palestinian people to the highest moral authority in the world. We have always been aware of the concern with which events in the Holy Land are followed by the Holy See, and we know it is worried about the destiny of Jerusalem and the unilateral Israeli initiatives: from the occupation in 1967 up to the annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel, approved by the Knesset in the ’eighties. Such actions are altogether outside of international law and, in fact, numerous resolutions of the United Nations Security Council have declared them illegal. The same is true of the settlements and the lack of adherence to the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1948 that, as is well known, has never been observed by Israel, which is an occupying force. As it is right, and as is well known, the Holy See does not approve of such initiatives by Israel, starting from the occupation of 1967.
Is this what you said in the first round of meetings with the Vatican authorities?
ARMALI: We know that the Holy See can exert its moral authority not only on Israeli governments but also, and better, on the most influential nations in the international community – beginning with the United States – and on the European countries. I have received reassurance to that effect from the highest levels of the Vatican during my first meetings in Rome: even without resorting to official declarations, the Holy See will make every possible effort, in very discreet fashion, to support its own position on the issue of Jerusalem and the violation of human rights in our region. The suffering inflicted on the Palestinian people by the occupation is a daily matter, the humiliation inflicted on them at the check-points continues. Not to speak of the siege cutting off Gaza... I trust that the Holy See will succeed in diminishing the paroxysm which confrontation between occupant and occupied has reached. The only workable solution is respect for international law.
What degree of trust do you put in the indications from the Annapolis Conference?
ARMALI: President Bush has guaranteed his help in negotiations with Prime Minister Olmert and with our President Mahmoud Abbas and has expressed the hope that an agreement be reached within 2008. Obviously, the negotiations will not be a stroll, but all the tensions with which the Middle East is now freighted could be eased if a dignified solution were found to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. That is an aspiration of everybody, including Syria, that is still undergoing the occupation of the Golan Heights by Israel, but that could guarantee a real contribution to the peace process. Moreover, the proposals of the Beirut Summit of 2002 are still valid. At which the countries of the Arab League engaged to recognize the State of Israel on condition that creation of a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as capital goes through, Israel withdraws within the 1967 borders – something the Security Council has already demanded – and a just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees be found. On these points, if accepted, the start of a time of peace for the Holy Land and the whole Middle East is being staked.
Despite there having been numerous attempts in the past to achieve peace, without result...
ARMALI: The 1993 Oslo Agreements and all the later ones have not led to the results hoped for. We have great expectations of the promises made by President Bush. And this is the year of the last chance.
For what reason?
ARMALI: Should these negotiations – which are taking place under the direct responsibility of those who set up the Annapolis Conference, that is the United States – fail, the region will slip still further into the unknown and will grant a “victory” to the extremists on the Palestinian side – but also on the Israeli side (it’s enough to remember the murder of Yitzhak Rabin). And this strategic area would be destabilized. So, as Annapolis demanded, steps must be taken every month that instil renewed optimism both in the Palestinian people and in the Israeli people... who, I am sure, are not happy that the land of another people continues to be occupied and that the military efforts to subject the Palestinians are being multiplied.
Do you think that in Israel different responses than those of the leaders come “from below”?
ARMALI: All the surveys conducted in Israel indicate that the majority of the Israeli population wants peace and is in agreement with the solution of two States to coexist alongside one another. And so let this acceptable and dignified peace come, thanks to which the Palestinian people would have a State with East Jerusalem as capital, and there would be geographic continuity between East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Mister Ambassador, there is however, as you know, a peace agreement that would have to be reached beforehand between the Palestinian themselves: that between Hamas and Al-Fatah, so that speaking of territorial and political continuity between the West Bank and Gaza might make sense...
ARMALI: It’s true. The question has to be asked. At the moment we have on the one hand a Prime Minister of Israel who – although he came out intact from the commission of inquiry into the failure of the war with the Lebanese – remains very vulnerable politically, under attack from some Israeli parties in his government coalition. And on the other President Mahmoud Abbas, with the scourge of Gaza, where Hamas has carried out a coup d’état and controls the whole Strip. It is my conviction that we cannot allow ourselves, as Palestinians, to attempt to tussle with the Hamas militia, without being willing to start a civil war that nobody can see the end of. The only way out, I must repeat, is that President Abbas gradually gains concrete results from negotiations with Israel, demonstrating to the Palestinian public that he has obtained political concessions that at the end of the year can justify an agreement on the creation of the Palestinian State. Only in that way could we demote all the slogans of Hamas and the jihad, and find some balm for the bitter feelings that at the moment prevail among the Palestinians.
Are you aware of the difficulties in Olmert’s Cabinet?
ARMALI: Israel also has its parties that mirror Hamas: the extremist right of Avigdor Lieberman or the religious Shas party, that are threatening to bring down the Olmert government, should negotiations on Jerusalem even start... It’s up to Mr. Olmert to act in a responsible way and deal with such challenges, as a statesman would. It’s up to him, therefore, to make concessions on Jerusalem and the dismantling of the illegal settlements.
For what favorable political advantage?
ARMALI: On our part, as Palestinian Authority, we are ready to put into practice the first article of the road map. We have already begun bringing back legality and security throughout the West Bank, and Israel is required to respond by putting an end to all settlement activity.
What is your view of the breaking down by Hamas of the border wall between Gaza and Egypt, and what prospects would it open?
ARMALI: It has led to overturning the situation, among other things unacceptable, in which approximately a million and half human beings, that is the population of Gaza, were struggling: famine, paralysis of industry and the hospitals, because of the Israeli embargo on electricity and fuel supplies, patients deprived of medical help and the possibility of being treated in neighboring countries.
Israel has always emphasized that the embargo was imposed for security reasons, in order for example to deal with the launching of rockets from Gaza into its territory. After the breaking of the border there was a terrorist attack in Dimona.
ARMALI: Everybody knows that we have always publicly condemned these attacks. But that does not justify the business of subjecting more than a million and a half Palestinians to collective punishment, banned by the Fourth Geneva Convention. We are grateful to Egypt for its reaction to the situation, allowing the border to be broken down, and granting passage into Egypt for more than 500,000 Palestinians so they could get supplies.
It certainly can’t be the definitive solution.
ARMALI: For some time the Palestinian National Authority has been asking for the deployment of international forces from the UN or the “Quartet” [United States, Europe, Russia and the UN, ed.] not only along the frontiers with Egypt, but also between the West Bank and Israel, which has always rejected them. Now however the proposal should be re-examined. And were the Israeli rejection to continue, the Palestinian National Authority would be then ready to assume the administration of the frontier with Egypt, with the presence of international controllers, as has already happened. But it must never happen again that a million and a half human beings are left as hostages in the hands of the occupying power. At the end of January President Mahmoud Abbas met President Mubarak in Cairo precisely in order to discuss the matter.
Let’s take a step forward, returning more specifically to your diplomatic mission. A Palestinian State would be nearly totally Muslim: what possible development do you then see for relations with the Holy See?
ARMALI: I am absolutely sure that, year after year, relations between Palestine and the Holy See would become firmer and more and more interactive. Palestinian society is tolerant, it has a developed civil culture, and lives in the land where Jesus Christ was born, was crucified and rose again. All the places that testify to the life of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, and everything that is taught in the Catechism to all the Christians in the world, is in Palestine. That is why the Palestinians can and must entertain with the Holy See flourishing relations that, thanks not least to the numerous international conferences already being held among Muslim, Christian and Jewish authorities, are already in an advanced phase. It is important to stress that.
In the meantime the Christian minority in the Palestinian territories is set to disappear at this rate. Is it possible to give them a hand?
ARMALI: Twenty years ago the Christians represented between 8% and 10% of the Palestinian population. Today they are no more than 1.5%: in figures, no more than 45,000 Christians between the West Bank and Gaza. The occupation has now lasted since 1967. Many families are tired of the wrongs endured, every prospect of a future and work is lacking, and young people above all prefer to emigrate, usually to distant countries like North and South America, Australia... Once there, how many really think of returning to their native land? But a Christian presence, for us Palestinians, is necessary, President Mahmoud Abbas is absolutely aware of it and he has often repeated so to me personally. Therefore it’s necessary to find a way to support the Christian community of Palestine. I have already brought up the matter with the top officials of the Holy See that I have visited, asking for their contribution.
What kind of contribution?
ARMALI: That they should encourage the non-governmental organizations linked to the Vatican to give material support and exhort the Catholics who have the possibility to invest in Palestine, creating opportunities for the young people, so that they don’t dream of emigrating. Further aid could come from scholarships, that allow young people to study in the Catholic Universites of Europe. I have a well-founded hope that the Vatican become promoter of this initiative. So, all this would give a little breathing space to our Christians. And I feel the urge at this point to repeat that in Palestine the Christians – and I am Catholic – have never felt discriminated against or persecuted by the Muslim majority, but there has always been tolerance and brotherhood. Moreover, more than a few Christians hold posts of high government responsibility within the Palestinian Authority. It should be held in mind.
In conclusion, in what way do you think you will be able to facilitate the peace process in your new post?
ARMALI: Well, I have taken on this task because I am convinced that the Holy See will do everything that is within its possibilities. And when the “two-States” solution prevails we will be ready to discuss all the proposals for the question of the Holy Places that are dear to the heart of the Holy Father. When I arrived in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI had just published an encyclical on hope. For us Palestinians this is precisely the year of hope. By which, in my opinion, nobody will be disappointed.


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