Saturday, December 06, 2008

Contention and peace

It is time for me to delve into my memories again, this time about Israel/Palestine. I am supportive of Israel and vehement in my opposition to anti-Semitism, including its current murderous manifestation in fascistic Islamist movements and their gruesome western apologists. Yet support for Israel should not result in the neglect of the Palestinian people's experience, of their rights and their own unique national history. And that recent history is one of dispossession.

There is not space here to discuss the development of Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel, but the displacement and dispossession of one people was the consequence of the national liberation of another, a liberation that took place under the shadow of genocide. Hanging over the whole conflict has been a fundamental failure. The United Nations promised partition into an Arab and Israeli state. The plan was not enforced and a combination of great power diplomacy and Arab regional ambitions meant that no Palestinian state was created. It is 60 years overdue.

It is now over twenty years since I was a volunteer English teacher in the Occupied Territories. I wasn't there for long but what I saw and heard then are some of my most vivid memories. There were the families I met where old men showed me their treasured deeds and the keys to the houses they had fled, kept in the main room as shrines to the dream of return, there were the families I visited in the ramshackle camps and was treated to overwhelming Arab hospitality by people living in shocking poverty, and there were the conversations, some chilling – "we need another Hitler to rid us of the Jews"; one, with a single man suspiciously living in a remote location, "all who arrived before 1918 can stay, the rest must go"; another family chorused, "six million were never killed" – some guilt inducing – "you take your photographs, but what do you bring us?" – the majority though were all the same – "there must be two states living in peace with good relations". It is the opportunity that has yet to be grasped and it is still there even though conditions have deteriorated further.

I remember too visiting the universities and the self-help projects, the women's education centres, the craft schemes, all, ironically, allowed to grow under the occupation when Palestinian education and development had been stifled by the Jordanians. And there were new opportunities that some people had never known, for instance I remember guiding the blind woman who was studying to be a lawyer back to the bus stop. I also remember the tear gas, the roadblocks and the harassment. I remember, too, running when the shooting was about to start and of the old woman in traditional Palestinian dress, a load on her head, walking deliberately, without changing her slow pace, through a cloud of tear gas and emerging unmoved from the other side, forcing an army jeep to swerve.

Then there was the vegetable market in Ramallah, a huge covered barn of a place, packed with stalls. There were my favourite sellers. One was 'cucumber man'. I taught him the English for cucumber whilst he tried to teach me the Arabic. Every time I walked in he would leap out from behind his stall with his permanent three-day stubble and toothless grin and shout "cucumbeeerrr!!!", brandishing one wildly above his head. The other was the fig seller. The first time I bought off him he glared at me – " British or American"? "British". "Good", he shouted adding an extra handful of fruit to my bag, " the British are our friends. Americans …", he turned his head and spat expressively on the ground, a respectable distance from my feet.

And it was in the vegetable market you saw the settlers. They were able to move more freely in those pre-intifada days and they were unmistakable, dressed in shorts with machine guns slung over their shoulders, usually sporting a New York accent. They were scary and bitterly resented. They would happily use the guns too, just as the local kids would throw rocks at their cars after they had left the city and were on the open road. They were not Hebron settlers though.

Hebron has more than religious significance for both peoples. It is a symbol of the cycles of violence that remain unbroken. In 1929 it was the scene of a massacre. Sixty-seven Jews were murdered by Arab mobs. It was an old community, without connection to the new immigration that started in 1881 and had intensified after the First World War following the Balfour Declaration. It was an easy target. The survivors were expelled cruelly; the historic Jewish presence was no more.

When Hebron fell under Israeli occupation in 1967 and the settler movement began, the restitution of the Jewish community was an obvious and deeply symbolic act. In different times it could have been a symbol of reconciliation; instead it was a provocation. The community was not the same as the one that had been murdered and removed, but consisted of the ultra-right. The constant security that had to be provided for the settlers made life ever more difficult for the Palestinian inhabitants. And the settlements spawned their own massacre too. They were the home of Baruch Goldstein.

Now they are in the news again, some activists are being removed from an illegally occupied house. Will sent me this excellent post by Aryeh Cohen – and make sure you watch the video clips.
Language is often a casualty of tyranny and terror. The house in Hebron which bears a sign which reads “God gave Israel to the Jews” is called the “House of Peace” by the Jewish community of Hebron.

The website of the Jewish community of Hebron has videotapes of the forced evacuation of the house which most of the media calls the “house of contention” and they call the house of peace. The footage is fascinating, in the way that a car wreck is fascinating. Sometime around two and a half minutes into the first clip, someone starts calling the Israeli soldiers “Nazis”. About a minute later somebody calls them “an occupying army.” The settlers wail and scream and curse the soldiers for forcibly evicting them from their homes. Their homes of a day, a week, several months. They run into the power of the IDF with the hubris of those who know that they won’t really be harmed. This is not the way the IDF evacuates Palestinians. … When the IDF evacuates Palestinians and destroys their homes, the rifles are cocked, the safeties are off and fingers are on the triggers. The Palestinians are marched out of their homes in their underwear and their homes are bulldozed. Palestinians don’t get to scream at the IDF face to face, as the Judaists from Hebron do.

The comparison is telling, the self-pity of the privileged against the fear of the occupied - and of the occupiers. But that is not the only point. The settlers, after putting up that show, can give up their ideological struggle and make a life anywhere in Israel or they can continue their protected existence as outriders for an aggressive, rightist, religious nationalism. The Palestinians have nowhere.

I keep repeating the following almost as a mantra whenever I am asked for my views. To be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli is not a contradiction. There is an identity of interest in a viable two state solution and a breaking of the cycles of war, violence and oppression. It is what the bulk of the people want on both sides. It is what the irridentist nationalists on both sides oppose and will do all they can to wreck.

This solution has been a possibility since 1948. It needs to be grasped. Sixty years is too long. Only then can the long, slow process of national reconciliation begin.


DorsetDipper said...

enjoying your memories Peter and find myself unable to disagree with your thoughts - excellent balanced post. Thanks

Terry Glavin said...

As mentioned elsewhere, that was magnificent. I have only one complaint.

You should be getting paid for this.