Last week’s visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Holy Land was a very significant and rare event. The last such visit, unusually, was in 2000 during the millennium celebrations in Bethlehem, with Pope John Paul II. Before that, the last papal visit had been in 1966.
The importance of the visit derives from two factors. First, the pope carries a lot of weight with public opinion across the world, particularly in Europe and the United States. This is an important fact for both Palestinians and Israelis, both always keen to have their respective positions heard by those audiences.
The second factor is the especially sensitive and tense relations between Israel and Christian churches in general and the Vatican in particular. These sensitivities result from a variety of issues, including immediate concerns such as the many valuable churches and Vatican properties that Israeli authorities are illegally putting under their control. That was one point of contention in this visit.
Furthermore, there is a long history of European discrimination against Jews, dating from medieval times until World War II. With the religious factor playing an increasing role in Israel due to growing radicalization and the gradual decline of secular forces, a certain tension was evident during the visit.
Palestinians were generally satisfied with Pope Benedict’s visit. The media coverage of the visit, including the pope’s speeches, helped bring to the attention of a worldwide audience certain aspects of Palestinian suffering that traditional media has recently been ignoring.
The rhetoric and the language of the pope appear to emerge from a different frame of reference compared to that of most other visiting dignitaries. The pope repeatedly called for justice in addressing the situation Palestinians are suffering under. Other dignitaries generally emphasize the idea of fairness, a more "pragmatic" perspective that contains within it the many compromises to ethical values that the imbalance of power between Palestinians and Israelis seems to impose.
For example, the pontiff referred strongly to the Palestinian refugee issue and the need to end the suffering of refugees at a time when the very term in reference to Palestinians is almost taboo for any high-level dignitary visiting the region.
He also referred in clear negative terms to the Israeli separation wall, and just as importantly, he allowed his main appearance on the Palestinian side to take place with the wall as his background. Moreover, he made clear and straightforward references to the need for Palestinians to enjoy freedom in a sovereign homeland.
While Pope Benedict is not a politician whose visit might lead to direct political consequences, he has left the region with a greater and closer understanding of the strategic realities Palestinians face. This will contribute to improving the understanding of western public opinion of the reality that the Israeli media, to a lesser extent the western media and certainly western politicians are trying to obscure.
It is this: when viewed without any lenses, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is very simple. Israel is occupying Palestinian land and denying Palestinians basic and legitimate rights, including their rights to freedom and self-determination, as well as the right of refugees to return to their lands and properties.
Only within the context of understanding and recognizing this reality can Israel achieve its legitimate objectives, peace, security and regional integration.