The following questions were submitted by the Dutch peace movement IKV to Fuad Giacaman, director of the Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem.
IKV: Could you in a few sentences define the core of the conflict in your country?
Giacaman: The historical core of the conflict is the struggle over land. At the beginning of the 20th century, Palestinians were the majority in the country and possessed most of the land. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which the British promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine, pushed the conflict. Because of the immigration of Jews, strikes and other protests followed. The declaration of the independence of Israel and its rejection by the Arab countries, and the subsequent war, added to the struggle. The eviction of many Palestinians from their homeland and their displacement up until today have preserved a longing among them to return to their previous houses. The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 has intensified the repression. The American bias towards Israel fuels the conflict. Obviously, there are economic and geographical-strategic dimensions too.
The negation of the Palestinian rights to freedom, independence and return as well as the violation of the human rights of Palestinians constitute the core of the conflict. At the same time, the conflict cannot be solved without raising a perspective of overcoming fear and providing safety to both nations. I write this while the shells are falling down on Bethlehem.
IKV: What has religion to do with the events in your country?
Giacaman: The struggle over the possession of the religious places is certainly a factor. Over time, the conflict became increasingly intertwined with the issue of the sovereignty over the Holy Places. The ideological and religious differences are presently escalating the conflict.
IKV: Could you illustrate, in relation to the conflict, what the role of religion is in daily life and in the minds of people?
Giacaman: Religion plays of course an important role in the daily life and minds of people. For many, Islam finds itself in an historical-ideological conflict with Judaism. Some local Christians share this view also. It has to be said that the minds of some ordinary Moslems, local and Christians worldwide and Jews are full of preconceptions and misjudgments against one another. However, there is no gainsaying that much Koranic and Biblical education nourishes mutually hostile attitudes and ideas. Some Islamic groups publicly state that the conflict is a holy, religious and national struggle.
IKV: Could or will (institutionalized) religion be of any help in solving the conflict or can it only fuel the conflict?
Giacaman: While it often fuels the conflict, institutionalized religion could play a very important role in solving the conflict, too. In adopting a positive role, those religious leaders who are in charge of our churches, mosques and synagogues must re-study their own dogmas, ideologies and practices and re-educate themselves to respect differences. They could plan together for a new inter-religious and intercultural joint curriculum. The churches, mosques and synagogues, here and elsewhere, should develop and detail concepts of inter-religious and intercultural peace education, such as values of mutual acceptance, tolerance, acknowledgement and respect of differences, and knowing the other. It is a great educational challenge to develop tools and techniques for giving these broadly formulated values relevance, specificity and applicability in our contexts. A joint and broad investment for a fundamental change in school and university curricula, developing value or peace education, human rights education and mass media education, would help transform the conflict into a peaceful direction. Open and public initiatives of the three religious leaders into this direction could definitely promote much-needed understanding, reconciliation and coexistence. I would encourage their joint appeals. They could result in programs for youth and teachers that may prepare the way for a better atmosphere to solve the conflict.
Right now, while parents, teachers and children in Palestine are struggling with questions of safety and fear, it is essential for community leaders to provide hope by overcoming fear and crossing boundaries towards other religions and cultures.
Arab Educational Institute
Bethlehem. April 20, 2001
The Arab Educational Institute works for community education in the Bethlehem-Hebron region of Palestine. It is a partner of the Euro-Arab Dialogue Project of the Inter-Church Peace Council (IKV) in The Hague and affiliated to Pax Christi International.