The WCC welcomes Israel's indication to return to the peace path with the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese, and Prime Minister Barak's promise to withdraw the Israeli Army from the so-called security zone of South Lebanon, occupied by Israel since 1982. The WCC is concerned however that violations of human rights and international law by the State of Israel continue. Information from Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations indicates that, while certain violations have declined since the signing of the Declaration of Principles, Israel's fundamental policy on the human rights of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories has not changed substantially, and some types of violations have even increased. In addition, Israel keeps up severe pressures on the Palestinian Authority with regard to security, leading to further violations of human rights of Palestinians under Palestinian administration. The Palestinian Legislative Council seems marginalized. The WCC recognizes that two democracies are needed to create a viable peace. Working for democracy is also the basis for a durable peace. Working for peace also means encouraging the creation and strengthening of a healthy civil society.
The WCC is committed to accompany the churches and civil society in Jerusalem throughout the negotiations on the Permanent Status in their quest for a just and durable peace.
Their Beatitudes and Heads of Christian Communities in Jerusalem issued a Joint Memorandum in 1994 on the Significance of Jerusalem for Christians. During the WCC General Secretary visit to Jerusalem the following year, they urged the WCC to keep the Status of Jerusalem and the settlement of the wider Middle East conflict high on the WCC International Affairs, Peace & Human Security agenda. The 1998 WCC Harare Assembly adopted a Statement on the Status of Jerusalem, informed by previous interfaith initiatives, earlier positions taken by the WCC and its member churches, visits to Jerusalem and consultations with Israeli, Palestinian and international legal experts and church leadership in the Middle East and Jerusalem.
International Affairs, Peace & Human Security staff provide analysis on the developments of the Middle East Peace process and guidance to its member churches and partners as well as a platform for discussion and international advocacy.
1. Final Status Negotiations and Jerusalem
Responding to the invitation of the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches and Christian communities to participate in a day of reflection with them on the status of Jerusalem within the present negotiations, former International Relations team coordinator Rev. Dwain Epps and the staff member responsible for the Middle East and Mediterranean region, Ms Salpy Eskidjian, attended a full day of closed sessions of Jerusalem church leaders on October 14th. The WCC team also included an international legal expert from the Netherlands, Prof. Paul de Waart.
The meeting attended by the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches and Christian Communities or their representative and MECC staff allowed for a rich exchange of views and furthered plans on the position of the church in the final status negotiations, especially on the status of Jerusalem. International Relations staff gave their commitment to continue to work closely with the churches in Jerusalem and all other parties concerned to ensure that the principles adopted in the 1998 Harare statement are taken into consideration in any final agreement on the status of Jerusalem and as the basis for a common ecumenical approach.
In addition to the official meeting mentioned above, Ms Eskidjian met with the Patriarchs and Bishops, the Apostolic delegate to Israel and the Holy Land, a Moslem cleric, high level Israeli and Palestinian political and civil society leadership, including academics, members of Israeli Knesset and the Palestine Liberation Organization. These meetings followed staff visits to Jerusalem in April and August of 1999 and meetings in Geneva with a delegation of the Higher Ministerial Commission for Church Affairs of the PLO in February 1999.
In Geneva, WCC International Relations staff attended an official briefing by the Israeli Ambassador in Geneva to Heads of International Organizations and UN Specialized Agencies on the Sharm-el Sheikh Memorandum on Implementation and Timeline of Outstanding Commitments of Agreements Signed and the Resumption of Permanent Status Negotiations (signed on 4 September 1999 in Egypt).
With this agreement, Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat confirmed their commitment to the Wye Memorandum, and in addition smoothed the way for the opening of negotiations on a final settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the setting of a timetable for the discussion on the most controversial issues: the future of Jerusalem, the definition of borders, the return of Palestinian refugees, and the independence of a Palestinian sovereign state at the side of a Jewish state. Negotiations are now underway to set a framework for the final status negotiations by February 2000.
Responding to the invitation of the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, Ms Eskidjian paid an additional two day visit to Nazareth, the City of Annunciation, where disagreements and violent clashes between Moslems and Christians had occurred over the disputed area near the Basilica of the Annunciation. During her brief stay in Nazareth visited the site and met with Mr. Ramiz Jeraisy, Mayor of Nazareth, Dr Azmi Bisharah, Arab member of the Israeli Knesset and HG Bishop Riah Abu El Assal, the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem. These natives of Nazareth reiterated their belief that this was not a problem between Christian and Moslem Palestinians. Christians in Nazareth were not against the building of mosques but believed that this special case was being manipulated by Israel to divide the Palestinian society along religious lines.
An Israeli Ministerial decision to give the go-ahead to build a mosque on the disputed ground in front of the Basilica of the Annunciation, despite the ruling of the Israeli courts that the land adjacent to the Basilica is not waqf (Islamic Endowment) property but state land, gave rise to further serious concerns by the Christian leadership and communities. In their communiqué released on November 4th, the Greek Orthodox, Latin and Armenian Patriarchs and the Roman Catholic Custos of the Holy Land said this decision "despite numerous and repeated interventions by different ecclesiastical and secular bodies" was a "disapprobation of all the Churches, whose rights had been summarily violated." In response they took the painful decision to close down all Sanctuaries of the Holy Land 22-23 November 1999 in sign of protest. In their letter the churches called upon their "Muslim brothers to support us in this action so that what befalls us today will not befall them tomorrow."
3. Advocacy at the European Parliament
In November Ms Eskidjian joined representatives of ICCO and EZE in the first meeting of the European NGOs Inter-network for Palestine, together with Palestinian NGOs, as members of the APRODEV delegation to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The Inter-network was established in June 1999 and represents some 100 European NGOs and six major European NGO and church agency networks, including APRODEV (Protestant Development Agencies), CIDSE (Catholic development Agencies), CLONG ( Liaison Committee of Development NGOs to the EU), ECCP (European Committee of NGOs on the Question of Palestine), EUROSTEP (Secular Development Agencies) and SOLIDAR (Independent Alliance of NGOs and Social Organisations).
In addition to this meeting the Inter-network organised a briefing session for European Parliamentarians, urging them to take the necessary steps to ensure a constructive role for the EU in the Middle East for the establishment of an independent, sovereign, democratic, viable and peaceful Palestinian State. They urged the EU to: