Interview: Jesuit Father David Neuhaus says Jerusalem ‘is like a powder keg waiting to explode!’
In the few days left before the Israeli legislative elections, David Neuhaus, S.J., an Israeli priest and astute political observer, discusses in an exclusive interview with America why he thinks the Palestinian question is getting so little attention even though this has been the most violent year for Palestinians since 2015. The failure to address the sensitive question of the status of Jerusalem is opening the door to more violence. “Jerusalem,” Father Neuhaus said, “is like a powder keg waiting to explode!”
There is an increasing loss of support among Israelis and Palestinians for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Father Neuhaus said, drawing attention to the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Gaza, “besieged by the Israelis and ignored by the world.” He fears the outcome of the November elections “will plunge many Israelis who desire justice, peace and equality into even greater despair.”
This conversation has been edited for length, style and clarity.
The Palestinian question does not seem to be a priority for this election even though, as the BBC reported recently, 100 Palestinians have been killed already this year in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (including journalists like Shireen Abu Akleh) mostly by Israeli security forces, making it the most violent year for Palestinians since 2015. Why is this question being bypassed? What are the consequences of ignoring it?
Hardly a day goes by in which the media does not report on the gunning down of Palestinians. Almost always, they are presented in the Israeli mainstream press as terrorists. Shireen Abu Akleh, because she was a well-known journalist, a Christian and held U.S. citizenship, was able to escape being completely overlooked. But even her death aroused minimal interest.
The Palestinian Authority and other Palestinian organizations still lag far behind the professional and slick, official Israeli media, presentations that play to the international audience. The consequences of ignoring or whitewashing the violence are clear: even more violence. We can only cry out: “Until when?”
Are the divisions among the Palestinians making it easier for Israelis to ignore this question in the elections?
Undoubtedly, Palestinian divisions are another obstacle to the struggle against occupation and discrimination. Divisions among the various Palestinian movements have led to power struggles among Palestinians. These divisions are also pervasive among the Palestinian Arabs in Israel. If a united front could be formed, agreeing on the necessity to end occupation and discrimination, those outside the Zionist consensus could win almost 20 percent of the seats in the Israeli parliament.
A faint sign of hope amidst the despair is that, recently, the Palestinian factions reached an agreement on collaboration when they met together in Algeria. The sad part of this is that the agreement is partly motivated by the complete loss of hope regarding a dialogue with the Israeli administration among the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership.
The consequences of ignoring or whitewashing the violence are clear: even more violence. We can only cry out: “Until when?”
The Holy See, many European countries and the United States say they support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but none of them seem to be strongly pushing for this, and many (also Palestinians) now think it is no longer a realistic proposal and it does not seem to feature on the election agenda. How do you see it?
Seventy-five years after the decision to partition Palestine into two states, United Nations Resolution 181, the question is being asked: Is the two-state solution still relevant?
In his recent address to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 22, 2022, the Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid repeated the familiar mantra, “An agreement with the Palestinians, based on two states for two peoples, is the right thing for Israel’s security, for Israel’s economy and for the future of our children. Peace is not a compromise. It is the most courageous decision we can make.” He furthermore claimed that “a large majority of Israelis support the vision of this two-state solution.” He was immediately hailed as a courageous leader by the international community.
However, in polls recently published in both Israel and Palestine, support for the two-state solution has dropped. In a September 2022 poll of the Israel Democracy Institute, only 32 percent of Jewish Israelis expressed support for the two-state solution. In an October 2022 poll of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, only 37 percent of Palestinians in Palestine supported the two-state solution. Support has been much higher in the past.
Today, there are seven million Jewish Israelis and seven million Palestinian Arabs (five million in the lands occupied by Israel in 1967 and two million who are Israeli citizens) living side by side. 670,000 Jewish Israelis live in the West Bank, still largely controlled by Israel.
Fragmented pockets of Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank, known as Area A, mostly comprising the major Palestinian cities, are administered by a Palestinian Authority, weakened by internal dissension, corrupt administration and threats of anarchy. These pockets are encircled by Israeli military checkpoints, walls and security fencing. Within Israel, Palestinian Arab citizens constitute about 21 percent of the population and demand equal rights, expressing increasing disillusion with the political process in the country. At present, most Jewish Israelis are completely unwilling to compromise on the Jewish identity of the State of Israel and no resolution to the conflict seems likely in the near future.
The international community remains committed to the two-state solution. However, looking at the reality on the ground after decades of Israeli encroachment on lands occupied in the 1967 War—the incessant building of Jewish settlements, Israeli roads and other infrastructure—the two-state solution seems barely realistic today. If two viable, sovereign and secure states cannot be carved out in today’s reality, partition will not lead to the long-desired justice and peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Seventy-five years after the decision to partition Palestine into two states, is the two-state solution still relevant?
Are the Abraham Accords and the moving of embassies to Jerusalem making a two-state solution less likely?
The so-called Abraham Accords which Israel signed with Arab regimes in the Gulf as well as the commercial ties that have been nurtured with other Arab countries like Saudi Arabia give the impression that peace is coming.
However, these accords are another step in breaking the Arab consensus that since 1974 had insisted that the establishment of a viable Palestinian state within the territories conquered by Israel in 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital, was a condition for normalizing relations with Israel.
The assault on this consensus began with the signing of separate peace agreements with Egypt in 1979, Jordan in 1994, and more recently with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. “Normalization” without treating the root causes of the conflict is still widely seen as contributing to the problem rather than bringing a solution.
The recently achieved agreement brokered by the U.S. between Israel and Lebanon about their shared maritime border is an important achievement; however, the Lebanese have made it clear that they will not become part of the Abraham Accords, insisting on their solidarity with the Palestinians.
The move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is seen in a similar light. Ignoring U.N. resolutions calling for a just peace, ignoring Palestinian protest, the move was an attempt to normalize a situation which remains abnormal.
The assault on this consensus began with the signing of separate peace agreements with Egypt in 1979,
The Holy See, Jordan, most European states and the U.S.A. publicly claim to support the status quo in Jerusalem, but today the tensions around the Temple Mount and the al-Aqsa compound and the pressure to dispossess Palestinians of their homes in East Jerusalem seem to be paving the way for more conflict. Is this an election issue?
The status of Jerusalem is a particularly sensitive issue. Decades of Israeli rule, the annexation of the conquered parts of the city, the construction of Jewish neighborhoods there, the ongoing attempts to expel many Palestinians from the city, using a draconian system of identity cards and refusal to permit Jerusalemites to bring their non-Jerusalemite spouses and children to live in the city; and the relocation of government agencies in the occupied parts of the city have all intensified in recent years.
The Israeli authorities have also begun a process of claiming Jewish property from before 1948, land registration and city planning that prepares the ground for extensive land confiscation. Barring Palestinians from developing the city and building residential quarters and commercial enterprises continues. Many East Jerusalemites, unable to find housing in their city have been forced to migrate beyond the Israeli municipal boundaries of Jerusalem and often lose their Jerusalemite residency.
Particularly sensitive is the increasing flow of Jews who insist on visiting the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), where the most important Muslim places of worship in Palestine are. Jews claim this same space as the area of their ancient Temple (destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.). Among the Jews who come to the holy site under armed guard are those who make no secret of their desire to destroy the Muslim shrines and replace them with Jewish ones. In the past, there have been violent attacks, by radical Israelis, on the area.
The international community issues habitual condemnations of Israeli aggression whenever necessary but little more is done to ensure that Israel respects the sanctity of the site for Muslims. For their part, Israelis are becoming quite used to Jewish visits to the area, which decades ago would have been seen not only as provocative but contravening Jewish rabbinic injunctions that prevented Jews from going to the area for fear they might desecrate the place of the Holy of Holies.
Jerusalem, especially the Old City with its shrines holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians, is like a powder keg waiting to explode! However, until it does explode, many prefer to simply ignore it. Finding a solution that would satisfy the different parties seems completely impossible.
Jerusalem, especially the Old City with its shrines holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians, is like a powder keg waiting to explode!
Gaza is an open-air-prison and has been at the center of recent wars. Has this been reduced to a security issue only—and not an election issue?
Gaza is a humanitarian disaster; besieged by the Israelis and ignored by the world. The only time Gaza hits headlines is when missiles are fired at neighboring Israeli towns or villages.
Gaza has been under siege for years and held in check by an authoritarian Islamic regime. With its sprawling refugee camps, it is heavily over-populated with more than 70 percent of Gazans being descendants of refugees from areas of Palestine that became Israel in 1948. In fact, Gaza is the most densely populated place on earth; two million people living in a geographic area of 364 square kilometers. Unemployment is close to 50 percent; electricity is in short supply with no more than eight hours of electricity per day and there is almost no water or sewage infrastructure. Economic development is almost non-existent. The misery in Gaza is as proverbial as the vitality and prosperity of Tel Aviv.
Gaza is a humanitarian disaster; besieged by the Israelis and ignored by the world.
What is the situation of Christians in Jerusalem, Israel and the Palestinian territories today? Is the exodus continuing? Do many of them have a vote? Are they interested in the election or in voting?
Christians are part and parcel of the society they live in. Within Israel today there are about 170,000 Christian citizens (about 2 percent of the population). 75 percent of them are Palestinian Arabs who face the same challenges as the rest of the Arabs and vote predominantly as they do. Twenty-five percent of them, predominantly new immigrants from the ex-U.S.S.R., are integrated into the Jewish population and vote as Jewish Israelis do. The 50,000 Christians who live in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 do not have the vote.
These statistics do not include the large number of migrant workers and asylum seekers who are completely un-enfranchised. They number close to 150,000. A major concern for some among the church authorities is the future of this population as populist politicians seek to expel them from the country, repeating the slogans of populist leaders in the U.S. and Europe.
It is perhaps unfortunate that in recent years the local church (all denominations) has largely abandoned any attempt to speak out when it comes to formation of the faithful with regard to their Christian religious and ethical responsibilities in promoting justice, equality and peace.
It is perhaps unfortunate that the local church has largely abandoned any attempt to speak to the faithful about their Christian religious and ethical responsibilities.
What do you predict will be the outcome of the elections?
I expect though that the elections will leave us divided and confused, despairing and insecure. Election results will be influenced by the rate of participation of the Arab citizens. The rate of their participation has been falling, and polls show that this time the majority of Arabs will not vote. This phenomenon tips the balance in favor of the right wing. If Netanyahu does become the next prime minister, building a coalition with the extreme right, Israel’s international standing will take another blow and chances for moving beyond the conflict in the region will be very slim indeed. I fear that the outcome of these elections will plunge many Israelis who desire justice, peace and equality into even greater despair.