You have to stand around Jerusalem to see the offence of the settlements. The word ‘settlement’ sounds like a few houses clustered together – isolated and defenceless. But then you look over the valley and see hundreds of solid buildings, home to thousands of people who are occupying land that does not belong to them.
The problem is, however, that the settlers and their backers believe all the land is theirs, regardless of international agreements, legal ownership and humanitarian concern. Rights transcend justice, mercy is trumped by power.
When even the American Vice-President is complaining openly about Israeli behaviour, you know the patience is running thin. No doubt he will now incur the wrath of those who accuse of anti-semitism anyone who dares to question Israeli policy. But the provocative permission for the building of 1,600 homes on Palestinian land, agreed while Joe Biden is visiting the country and in the face of tentative moves towards talks about ‘peace’, looks like a deliberate gesture of power.
I have had several conversations with people recently who believe that God has given Israel the land – all of it – and that, therefore, the notion of ‘illegality’ in relation to occupation is a semantic nonsense. If the Israelis build a settlement in Palestinian territory, then this is their right and no one can complain without complaining about God himself.
So, what of God and justice and humility and the vocation of God’s people?
The complaint of the Hebrew Bible’s prophets against the people was that they took God for granted. They compromised their vocation to be the people who ‘look like’ God by looking nothing like the God they claimed to worship. Read Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Amos. ‘You can’t claim God’s name in your worship and then trample on the heads of the poor; you can’t pretend to love God and then treat justice as a product to be bought and owned; you can’t claim the favour of God and at the same time show none of the mercy that characterises your God.’
The warning of the prophets is clear: empires come and go. God will not be taken for granted. Justice will be brought against those who deny justice to others. Those who bear God’s name must reflect the character of God – who claims to be the liberator of those who suffer injustice. And judgement (not just charity) begins at home.
The tragedy of all this is that the legitimate case for Israeli integrity and security is undermined by the injustices to which they subject their neighbours. But, it seems that even their friends are too afraid to warn them and defiance of world opinion continues brazenly – apparently without fear of challenge.
Maybe Joe Biden is about to change that?