(RNS) — Last year, Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian lands in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza brought increased misery and property violations to the Palestinians: home demolitions, expansion of settlements, detention of Palestinian children, continued restrictions on movement and access and (particularly in Gaza) fears of annexation.
All this took place while the occupied territories were suffering the same scourge of COVID-19 as the rest of us.
The recent agreements between Israel and Arab states benefit these countries’ respective economies, but little or no consultation took place with the Palestinians, and the agreements did little to help end the conflict.
A new year, a new Congress and a new administration, however, offer an opportunity for the U.S. to play a constructive role to reach a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
RELATED: Armenian Christian community caught between Israelis and Palestinians
The fundamental question is how Congress and the administration can help build peace. On the question of annexation, the Israeli government needs to hear more clearly than it has from some American lawmakers that annexation of current Palestinian areas of any kind — de jure or de facto — is unacceptable. Palestinian Lutheran Bishop Sani Ibrahim Azar said last May that, for Palestinians, annexation is “certain to have severe consequences for Israeli and Palestinian people” and, first and foremost, for peace. The bishop said the real issue is “liberation, not annexation.”
Members of Congress and the administration also need to affirm that U.S. funds won’t be used to support annexation and that the Israeli government should be held accountable for any actions in this regard, which violate international human rights standards. Plans for annexation must not just remain suspended; they must be abandoned.
In the meantime, Congress and the administration need to commit the U.S. to restore robust humanitarian assistance to the Middle East region, specifically including the West Bank and Gaza. As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in these areas, Palestinians are experiencing the impacts of both a global health pandemic and continued occupation. This funding has already been appropriated by Congress and can be restored by the Biden administration without delay. The money will help support critical medical, educational and relief programs in Palestine.
Despite the inattention of the past few years, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still a major global crisis, and it needs to be addressed with even greater resolve. Religious communities in our country envision a U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East that is guided by a commitment to seeking equality, justice and peaceful resolutions to conflict.
Our newly elected leaders need to take such constructive steps if we are ever truly going to find lasting peace.
(The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton is Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon is executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace and a pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)