Palms Turn To Ashes


Universe Column

By David Alton

Our priests will take the unused palms from our Palm Sunday celebrations this week and burn them to become next years Lenten ashes.

The Church’s liturgies always have a purpose and behind this one is the simple thought that our triumphs can rapidly turn into failure and our successes can soon become disasters.

The cheering mobs at the gates of Jerusalem who greeted Christ astride his donkey quickly became the mob that howled for his death and chose Barabas instead of him.  Public opinion is fickle and events move fast.

This weekend in contemporary Jerusalem events have been moving fast and what looked like yesterday’s breakthroughs in a peace process, seem increasingly to point to outright war.

Many observers believe that we are moving towards an imposed partition between Israelis and Palestinians – first mooted in 1937.  The Palestinians have been seeking the right of 4.3 million Palestinians to return and live within the State of Israel. The Israelis will never agree to this and they see it as tantamount to the destruction of Israel.

Meanwhile, many of those same Palestinians are living in appalling conditions in refugee camps in the Lebanon and festering in their anger. Partition might lead to their dispersal to a Palestinian area but not to the right to return.

The Israeli settlers who are living on the West Bank, in Palestinian areas, remain vulnerable to attack and if partition were to occur they would be expected to move back within Israel’s borders.

Partition is not the same as two separate states co-existing side by side and will be a disaster. It will not work and it will not bring peace – anymore than the partition of black and white South Africans into separate settlements brought peace.

The United Nations Security Council and the United States both seem to belatedly recognise that peace in the region will only come when both protagonists can claim a State of their own. Israel cannot be pushed out of Jerusalem and probably the best outcome for that tortured city would be a “Vatican” settlement. The holy places would be internationalised and the west become the capital of the Palestinian State and the east the capital of Israel. Perhaps then Israel would have the security it rightly craves.

The United States, as ever, is the key player here. Only they can exert pressure on Sharon and Arafat, only they have the muscle to guarantee a peace settlement. Twenty years ago those two men began fighting one another in the Lebanon and both have tried to accelerate the conflict in the hope of forcing the other to a negotiating table on the best possible terms for themselves.  Is it any wonder that the carnage has simply got worse?

International experts describe the events in the Middle East and Iraq and the decision of the United States to provoke a new trade war over steel, as a “risk cascade.” Others talk about standing on a “catastrophe cusp.” Either way the prognosis is not looking good, and there is foul weather ahead.

America may have won a war in Afghanistan but it is in danger of losing the peace. The key to the second victory is at the gates of Jerusalem. They need to engage at the deepest level if the palms are not to be reduced to ashes.