The following stories from my meetings with Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank have been overshadowed by the recent suicide bombing in Tel Aviv and by the killing of children in Nablus and Gaza.
But if a just peace is ever to be achieved, these stories deserve to be told and should not be stifled by charges of anti-Semitism. Before prospective critics reach for their telephones, pens or keyboards, let me say at the outset that I do not condone violence nor am I trying to minimise the consequences of speech or writing which is actually anti-Semitic and which should always be exposed and opposed.
In the London Review of Books last month, two distinguished political scientists from the universities of Harvard and Chicago published a paper entitled, ‘The Israel Lobby,’ which identified the influence of Israel on American foreign policy. Despite decades of evidence of such influence, documented in US government archives and in impressive books, these authors were branded as liars, bigots and anti-Semites.
Two weeks later, at an inquest in Britain, the parents of Tom Hurndell a peace worker who was shot dead while trying to escort Palestinian children away from an Israeli tank attempted to hold the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) accountable for their son’s death. Although an Arab-Israeli soldier had been jailed for shooting Hurndell, the IDF reportedly did not cooperate with the British inquest. The implication was that Israeli officers would never order such a shooting and Tom Hurndell’s parents should be very careful in their accusations.
Every day in the Occupied Territories, Palestinians are subject to checks, controls and numerous forms of humiliation. Journalists are punished by having their passes withdrawn. Medicines are denied to the sick. Children in hospitals on the one side of a checkpoint have been denied visits by parents on the other side. Water supply is limited and controlled. Young men are arrested and interrogated for being young men. Journeys which should take 35 minutes, as between Ramallah and Nablus, can last as long as five hours.
Citizens of East Jerusalem pay a substantial proportion of their earnings in taxes but their rights to travel, to speak and to write are severely curtailed. In their own land, they are non-citizens. Their options are to die, to leave if they can, or to be confined in enclaves – the Israeli equivalent of apartheid South Africa’s ‘bantustans.’
The experience of a Palestinian journalist highlights the absence of a free press in the West Bank and hence the difficulty of telling an outside world about human rights abuses. ‘Khalid’ ⎯ it would be dangerous to identify his real name ⎯ works for a news agency. Although Israel does not officially have ‘pass’ laws, Khalid cannot travel within the West Bank and cannot leave the country:
The holy town of Bethlehem is cut off by a wall up to 8.5 metres high. There used to be 80 flourishing shops on the main street that leads towards the Church of the Nativity they have now become 10 almost deserted businesses. Sixty per cent of the young people in this town are unemployed and have few hopes for the future. ‘They are trying to strangle us,’ said 27-year-old Wahlid, a Bethlehem resident, unemployed and desperate about his future.
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
Carol Dabdoub of the Open Bethlehem project insists:
This wall is allegedly for security but is really another means of stealing our land. Look at those olive groves. Look at the shepherds’ ancient slopes. The wall is stretching towards them. Soon they will be swallowed. These groves and slopes will no longer be part of Bethlehem. The Christian tourists and their coaches may still visit but they will not be told about this illegal grabbing of land.
The humiliations and cruelties suffered by Palestinians includes the building of this wall; the determination of the Israeli Government to draw permanent boundaries; and the persistent stifling of criticism with the charge of anti-Semitism. These events have produced a crisis for Palestinians and a not completely dissimilar crisis for Israelis. They are all hemmed in, all constrained by the desire of leaders to speak of security as though it is a military phenomenon and has nothing to do with human rights.
My observations may release a volley of charges of anti-Semitism. I simply ask those who may be tempted to respond in this vein to go to the West Bank, visit several military checkpoints, listen to residents of all ages from East Jerusalem, from Nablus, Bethlehem, Ramallah, or the refugee camps of Gaza and Qualqilya. Check and double check these people’s allegations about human rights abuses, or experience their generosity and hospitality irrespective of their daily humiliations.
If you cannot stomach hearing the voices of ordinary Palestinians, please interview leading Israelis who feel ashamed and pessimistic about a future where justice is denied. Please do not dismiss them as being from the ‘Left.’ This lazy label often means very little because it is used derisively, snuffing out reasonable debates as easily as the accusation ‘anti-Semitic.’
Peace with justice for the people of the Occupied Territories will require an analysis that challenges beliefs more deep-seated than the foundations of that appalling barrier being built across the Holy Land.
To merely shout ‘anti-Semitism’ in response to the above observations negates democracy, mocks free speech, and means we will seldom hear even modest criticism about an injustice that is the source of much anger, alienation and violence.
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