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Too long a sacrifice: world's oldest grievance is forever wed to grief

IF you ever stand on one of those arid stony hills which populate the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria and watch a mediterranean sun sink slowly on the horizon, it can be a truly mystical experience.

For this is the soil that Jesus Christ walked on over 2,000 years ago. So too did many of the prophets who gave us three of the great world religions -- Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

The very land reeks of distant memory and the legacy of the ages. What happened here created for millions of people belief in a god which has endured the centuries.

But outside of Israel the names Judea and Samaria are rarely used. Much more common is the term which has peppered a myriad news bulletins over the past six decades -- the West Bank.

In simple terms this area is home to two million Palestinians, who have been under the control of Israel since it captured the territory in the 1967 Six Day War.

But this enduring Israeli military presence remains the most sensitive of all issues, for the country and its international reputation.

Hence the anger of the embassy here following comments made by Vincent Browne on his TV3 programme last week.

As with all conflicts involving land, religion, and politics, enmeshed in a quarrel scarred with generations of bloodshed, rational non-emotional discourse can be impossible.

Within Israeli government circles, Ireland is seen from a diplomatic viewpoint as an annoying irritant because of our perceived pro-Palestinian approach at the UN and other bodies over the years.

And from my experience nothing seems to irritate many Israelis as comparisons being made with the Northern Ireland peace process.

"This is a tough neighbourhood out here. Your Irish problem is namby-pamby stuff compared to the reality of life in the Middle East," I was told by one of their diplomats a few years ago.

Israel proper is a sliver of land about the size of Munster, surrounded by a vortex of deadly enemies, ranging from unstable Syria to a despotic Iranian regime in search of a nuclear bomb.

That's the external threat, which is not to be underestimated. But it should not be confused with the country' s escalating internal challenge.

What can be done with all these Palestinians should Israel ever allow them to set up a state of their own in Judea and Samaria?

But hopes of creating such a state are receding by the week as the number of Jewish settlers in the 'occupied territories' continues to grow.

So-called 'settlements', many of which are reasonable-sized towns, now have a total population of 500,000.

In any future peace deal it will be politically impossible to move such a huge swathe of population back to Israel proper.

However, if the creation of a functioning independent Palestinian state has become an impossibility, it means the Israelis are forever more 'stuck' with a demographic timebomb.

This poses problems on a massive scale. Israel is a modern democratic state, but it also has a theocratic dimension, in that it is first and foremost a homeland for the Jewish people.

It is a society which reflects Jewish law, culture and values and it will never offer citizenship or equal rights to such a vast number of non-Jews. I have spoken to various settlers in Judea and Samaria and, apart from a significant minority of religious zealots, many are reasonable people anxious to do right by their fellow man.

As they gaze out over the bewitching landscape, they speak movingly of the Jewish return to the promised land after two millennia in anguished exile.

But for the Palestinians over the brow of some hill, who have also lived in this land for centuries, they have no answers, no solutions.

Their presence is a dilemma many Jews increasingly choose not to think about.

They look the other way, rather than ponder the resentment and the hatred, particularly on the faces of younger Palestinians

Some settlers wish they would "all emigrate somewhere'' and be assimilated in some of the Arab countries dotted around the Middle East.

But of course they're going nowhere. There is nowhere for them to go; Judea and Samaria is their homeland too.

So they continue to live in their segregated zones, a form of separation increasingly akin to South Africa during the high point of apartheid.

From a military viewpoint Israel's war with the Palestinians is over.

The Israelis have won. But what they do with the vanquished will determine the country's moral authority in the future.

I remember the unyielding sense of ancient injustice manifest in a conversation I had with a woman settler in the flashpoint city of Hebron.

"This place and what it represents for all my ancestors is more important to me than life itself," she said. "This is the land of Israel promised to the Jewish people by God.

"The Jews have suffered for centuries. You Europeans never really came to our aid, even when millions of us were being murdered. So I just don't care about the Palestinians."

A line from a WB Yeats poem came to mind: "Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart."

Irish Independent