Rifat Odeh Kassis.Rifat Odeh Kassis is a Palestinian Christian from the village of Beit Sahour, located on the outskirts of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. He currently serves as the president of International Executive Council for Defence for Children International (DCI) and the General Director of the Palestine section. In 2004, Kassis was one of the main actors in the formation of the Palestine National Coalition for Christian Organizations, and he has recently coordinated the creation and release of the Palestine Kairos Document, a call made by Palestinian Christians to end Israeli colonization of Palestine. On February 20th, 2010, the Alternative Information Center (AIC) interviewed Kassis at his hometown of Beit Sahour.
AIC: We think that we should begin talking about Jerusalem by stating the difficult fact that you, a Palestinian who lives only few kilometers from Jerusalem, cannot enter the city. What led to this situation?
Kassis: Jerusalem for me, as for all Palestinians, Muslims and Christians alike, is the city we love most and the city we visit less. My personal connection to Jerusalem goes back to even before the occupation; I still remember the trips which I used to take with my father using the very old road. It used to take us hours due to the “no-man zone” that forbade us from going directly to the city. At that time, I remember going to Jerusalem to be a very pleasurable event; going to Jerusalem meant that you will eat the sweets that you cannot find in your village and visit the holy places that we only heard about in school and church. It also meant that you are sick and you need to go and see a doctor, because at that time most of the doctors were based in Jerusalem. This is the sentimental relation I have to Jerusalem.
I used to work in Jerusalem during the 1980s. At that time I used to go driving my car to my office in the YMCA [Young Men’s Christian Association]. However, when the first Intifada broke Jerusalem became completely closed for us since we needed to have special permits in order to enter to the city. It is since that time that I stopped being able to visit Jerusalem legally. I couldn’t obtain any permit because of my past as a political prisoner, which meant that to the Israeli authorities I was on some blacklist. After that I did manage to enter the city from time to time. However, with the construction of the Separation Wall, visiting Jerusalem is now an impossible task and all entrances to the city as closed for me. Since 2002, I have never been to Jerusalem.
This is a great loss to me personally and to my family. I have a son, a young man who is now 25 years old, who has never been to Jerusalem (even though he probably has been to half of the world). Not going to Jerusalem not only has a sentimental effect on me, but also a psychological one; this is a place where people should go and should have the right to go, but I’m unable to go there.
AIC: What is the place Jerusalem occupies in your faith and struggle as a Palestinian Christian?
Kassis: Even though Jerusalem has a universal and sacred symbolism for many Christians all over the world, it is a normal and typical city for us Palestinians. For me as a Palestinian Christian, my relation to the city is twofold: the universal sacred place to where people go to pray and be connected to the holy sites; but on the other hand, Jerusalem is the capital of our country, Palestine. Up until now, or maybe until the recent past, Jerusalem occupied 40% of the Palestinian economy. It is the place for tourism, economy, health and education.
I enjoy a mixture of these two characters the city provides: it is the capital city that I cannot go to, and the sacred place to where to where I cannot go to pray and practice my faith.
AIC: Despite the centrality of Jerusalem in the Palestinian liberation discourse, the city, as you said, is a normal and typical Palestinian city. However, from your personal experience of working and praying in the city, how did Jerusalem help shaping your faith and politics?
Kassis: Jerusalem is the center of the Palestinian struggle, but it is also the center for Christian believers. It is from these two angles that I have developed my attachment to the city. However, I cannot differentiate myself from any other Palestinian Christian who looks to Jerusalem as the symbol of his faith, the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The birth of Christianity is Jerusalem; the first church, if you like, started in Jerusalem 50 days after the ascendance of Jesus Christ into Heaven. Also, Jerusalem was the place where pilgrimage started in the 300s AD after the first churches were born. To me, Jerusalem has this very long connection to my faith and to the centrality of my faith.
On the other side, Jerusalem occupies a central place in the Palestinian struggle. It is the place we Palestinians continue to fight for; the place of the beginning, and the end, of our struggle. According to the three religions, Jerusalem should be the place for reconciliation, but actually right now it is the place of conflict. Jerusalem embraces all these concepts.
Without Jerusalem, Palestine could have been like any other country in the East. I believe that the weight of the Palestinian cause is very much dependent on Jerusalem. But, it is important to note that by the same token Jerusalem occupied a central place for the Israelis as well. I think Jerusalem is also their symbol in order to attract Jews from all over the world. Currently, there are more Jews in the United States than in Jerusalem, and Israel without a Jerusalem cannot attract them. We fight on this symbolism of Jerusalem.
AIC: For Palestinians and Palestinian Christians, what do the holy sites of Islam and Judaism in Jerusalem, such as al-Aqsa and the Wailing Wall, represent?
Kassis: For us Palestinians, who have a deep respect for all religions, all of us believe that Jerusalem is a city for the three faiths and nobody should have a monopoly over it. It is sacred for everyone; al-Aqsa and the Wailing Wall occupy a central place in the faith and tradition of Muslims and Jews respectively. Nobody should go beyond the fact that Jerusalem is sacred for the three faiths. For me as a Palestinian, I do consider al-Aqsa as one of the most important symbols not only on a religions level, but also a national one.
Jerusalem should be open for all and without monopoly from anyone. This is exactly what we are facing now with the Israeli occupation. The Israelis are not only trying to find a place in Jerusalem, rather, they are trying to monopolize Jerusalem and exclude the Palestinian Christians and Muslims from the city. It is a perfect monopoly over the universality, centrality and sacredness of Jerusalem. This is something all peoples need to fight against.
AIC: What are your thoughts regarding the notion of “dialogue between religions” and the different programs and organizations the pretend to promote it? Do you support such programs, and if you do, what are the postulates according to which they should be constructed?
I don’t have anything against the so-called dialogue between civilizations and religions. However, in our reality, the construction of such dialogues bears a different meaning, and consequently they should have a different essence. Dialogue between different religions in Australia is completely different than dialogue between the religions here in Palestine. The issue here is justice and injustice. You cannot make a dialogue here with the purpose of understanding and harmonizing each other’s religion without approaching the main essence of the conflict that is in need of a dialogue. The issues of justice, injustice, and the military occupations should be the core of any dialogue, even the religions one. In principle I don’t have any problem in dialoguing with different religions as long as the core issue of justice is not neglected.
I am against dialogue which leads to normalization. If we dialogue under the umbrella of occupation without breaking the foundation of its injustice and oppression, then this is not a dialogue. It is the occupier normalizing with the occupied. We need to differentiate between the different dialogue programs that exist. There are ones that talk about the core issues, and there are others that serve the only purpose of feeling good about each other and convincing ourselves that there is a way out by talking people to people. The latter leads to normalization, because the environment continues to be the same. I support dialogues that only shake the foundation of oppression.
AIC: Now we ask you to talk to us about the Kairos Palestine Document, which was recently issued by the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem in December last year and which you have coordinated. What is the importance of having a Palestinian Christian call to end Israeli colonization of Palestine?
Kassis: The importance of the Kairos Palestine Document regarding the issue of Jerusalem is that it stems from the international, Palestinian and human legitimacy. The position regarding Jerusalem and what it means to Christians, as it appears in the document, repeats that of the heads of churches in Palestine that was published in 1994 and again in 2006. Sometimes, people tend to think that Jerusalem is only important to Muslims and Jews, not so much for the Christians. This is a mistake. Jerusalem is as important to Christians as to Muslims and Jews.
In the Kairos Document we also say that Jerusalem should be the place and model for reconciliation. However, Jerusalem now is the reason for our conflict. This is why we speak very clearly in the document that the issue of Jerusalem should not be postponed to the end. We should begin with Jerusalem, and it should not be left to the so-called final and later topics for negotiations. We should solve the issue of Jerusalem from the beginning, because this will provide a model for the two nations and even allow their aspirations for a just peace in this region to continue.
Moreover, the document states very clearly that Jerusalem, and especially East Jerusalem, is an occupied city. In addition, we state that occupation is a sin against God and humanity. The occupation of Jerusalem is a sin against God’s will and that of the international community.
Many other issues are highlighted in the Kairos document. We refer to the biblical and theological justifications of the Israeli occupation that appear in the West. We believe these justifications are hearsays and they are far from the real Christian teachings. Another issue we highlight is the right of the oppressed to resist oppression. We call on Palestinian Christians all over the world to change the current reality, and that Israel must stop to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from Jerusalem through the demolition of homes and the confiscation of lands. As I said earlier, Jerusalem should be there place where God reconcile with his people and the creatures of God reconcile with each other.
To conclude, Jerusalem is mentioned several times in the documents and it deserves all this weight. Only yesterday I happened to read an article by the Muslim scholar Muhammad Sammak in the Lebanese al-Mustaqbal newspaper, in which he states that a monopoly of Islam on Jerusalem in fact encourages the Judaization of the city because it excludes the Christians from participating in the struggle for Jerusalem. This is exactly what the Kairos document affirms: Jerusalem is equally important to Palestinian Christians; Jerusalem is sacred for the Palestinian people, Muslims and Christians alike. This is where the power of the document lies.
AIC: Jerusalem as a space, what does it mean? What are the boundaries of the city, geographically speaking?
Kassis: That’s a very good question. As you know, geographically speaking, the boundaries of Jerusalem were altered from time to time. Before 1948, Jerusalem used to be all of what we call now West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem. However, when I speak about Jerusalem, I refer to the Palestinian and international legitimacy, that is, to occupied East Jerusalem.
We should not restrict Jerusalem to inside the walls of the Old City and the holy places, because, even more important than the holy sites, there are the people of Jerusalem themselves. It’s true; Jerusalem should be conceptualized geographically and historically. But Jerusalem is also the Jerusalemites themselves. We are not talking about a Jerusalem that is empty from its people or about holy sites without the people praying in them.
Back to the question of geography, there are different scenarios when you speak of Jerusalem. One of them is that the city should be united, but with completely two different sovereignties: Palestinian and Israeli. Another scenario is to establish separation: East Jerusalem under the sovereignty of Palestinians and West Jerusalem under the Israeli. I cannot dictate what should be done now or in the future, but I can say that the future of Jerusalem will dictate the future of the solution of the conflict. If Israel keeps insisting on having what it calls Greater Jerusalem unified and under its exclusive sovereignty, what this means is that we are moving towards the one state solution. But if Israel decides to comply with the United Nations resolutions and with international legitimacy, then we are moving towards a two state solution. Either way, Palestinians should have the right to practice their sovereignty in the Eastern part of Jerusalem first. Therefore, when I speak of Jerusalem, geographically I refer to the international and Palestinian legitimacy.
AIC:Back to the question of resistance. In the document itself, you refer to resistance as a concept related to love. What is the correlation between love in resistance, and what type of resistance does the Kairos document promote?
Kassis: There exists is misperception of Christianity, deeming it as a passive religion. That if someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other. It’s true; Jesus did tell us to love our enemy. However, Jesus did not teach us to love the aggression and the oppression of our enemy. Consequently, in order to practice our love towards our enemy, we need to work on neutralizing him and to liberate him form the methods and means he is using to oppress and occupy us. In order to practice one’s love, one needs to work towards creating an environment in which people can live together. This is what we mean in the document by loving resistance. It is a resistance that comes neither from hate nor revenge, but from seeing God in our enemy and helping the enemy to see our humanity.
In the document we legitimize many forms of resistance against the occupation. But of course, we adhere to non-violent resistance and differentiate between resistance against the occupation and resistance against civilians. A loving resistance is one that is based on international norms and standards.
Our message is that Palestinians should not be passive; it is a call on Palestinians to resist in a non-violent and creative way, far away form revenge and hate. We have learned from history that resistance based on hate and revenge will bring to our destruction before that of the enemy. We are very clear regarding the difference between terrorism and the legitimate resistance of the Palestinian people. Israel and some other Western countries like to present our resistance as a form of terrorism, situating us at the front of the so-called War on Terrorism. In the document we are very clear regarding this question: without occupation there will be no resistance; the occupation is the root-cause of our resistance. It is from this angle the Palestinian resistance is to be conceived.
AIC: In the document itself you also endorse the BDS Campaign [Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions against Israel].
Kassis: The Palestinians and the international community are left with only two options: either to continue the war and bloodshed, or to exercise a serious pressure against Israel in order for it to comply with the international law and UN resolutions. There is no third option. Now, in the document we were very clear that when we boycott Israel, we do not boycott it out of revenge. We are boycotting Israel in order to help the Israelis to liberate themselves from the occupation. I can quote tens, if not hundreds of Israelis who support this line of thought. Neve Gordon, for example, who called on the world to boycott Israel academically for the future of our children on this land; another Israeli, Uri Avnery, calls on ending the occupation due to its corruption of Israeli society. I see the BDS campaign as a very legitimate, reasonable and non-violent method to stop this massacres and bloodshed here.
Many conceive boycott very negatively, drawing a relation between our slogan and that of boycotting the Jews during World War II. These are two very distinct contexts. Jews in Europe during the Second World War were the victims and the oppressed, and boycotting the oppressed is a crime against humanity. The persecution of Jews was a crime against humanity, and that’s why I still feel aligned to the Jews of Europe at that time.
When we call on boycotting Israel, we are not of course referring to the same Jews who were persecuted during the Second World War. We call on boycotting the oppressor who is stealing and occupying our lands. Now comes the question of what kind of boycott do we mean? Do we mean solely the occupation, or do we refer to Israel as a state? For us, our reality is clear; the occupation doesn’t work in a vacuum, and there is an occupying state that is practicing the occupation.
To be frank, boycotting Israel economically is not very promising when we consider the high subsidies that come from the United States. However, by boycotting Israel we are influencing the image of Israel as it chooses to express itself to the world: the only democracy in the Middle East in the midst of brutal and savage peoples. Boycotting Israel through the academy, sports and culture will open the eyes of the Israelis to the evil sin they are practicing against the Palestinians. After all, every single Israeli is benefiting from the occupation, and consequently every single Israeli should have the responsibility to stop the occupation. Our call comes out of love to the Israelis, asking them to open their eyes and look to the misery of the Palestinians. The Palestinians have already done their historical compromise, which is to accept the 22% from their land. What more is expected form us?
AIC: When describing the current state of affairs, one of the most repeated terms in the Kairos document is the word destruction. However, the document expresses a lot of hope for the future. Where is the source of this hope?
Kassis: Destruction is part of our reality. If you look around you, you see destruction everywhere; not only the physical presence of the people, but also their psychological and mental health. Destruction is an integral part of our reality today.
But, as you said, we also have hope. This hope is based on our faith, our Christian faith. Our hope is also based on the signs of hope you can see in the midst of all this destruction. Despite all the political and economical constrains, the Palestinian people are still steadfast on their land and refuse to leave. Palestinians continue to construct houses within their “ghettos” and send their children to universities. Another source of hope is the few voices that come from inside Israel and call on Israel to end the occupation. These are all sings of hope.
AIC: What positive role can Jews around the world play regarding the situation in Palestine?
Kassis: Jews can have an instrumental and essential role, for they are the ones who can tell the Israelis to stop committing crimes in their name. Israel claims that their policies are to provide a safe haven for the Jews all over the world; that Palestinians are needed to be persecuted the because Israel needs more lands in order to bring more Jews. In both direct and indirect ways, Israel is committing all its crimes in the name of Jews everywhere. Consequently, Jews everywhere can send a clear message to the Israelis and the Israeli government that their oppression of Palestinians can not be in their name.