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Much Ado About Anything?
The last few weeks have been busy ones for the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians...

12 September   |   2002   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... But they have also been busy ones regarding the looming war with Iraq let alone the future of the whole Middle Eastern region. As such, a number of documentaries, statements, initiatives and articles have once more attempted to address those topical issues.

First, there were the documentaries! The first one was entitled Dangerous Liaisons and shown on Channel Four on 24 August2002 . It was a personal journey by Professor Jacqueline Rose, a British Jew, who has had a long-running interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever since she first visited Israel twenty years ago. On that occasion, after a chance meeting with a young Palestinian, she visited Ramallah (in the Palestinian West Bank) and then spent a few weeks living with Bedouin Arabs in the Sinai Desert.

In making the documentary, she investigated Israel’s relationship with America as the main country she believes holds the key to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She travelled from the war-torn West Bank to the American halls of power in Congress seeking to find a reason why peace in the Middle East has proven so elusive. Along her way, she met and spoke with many key political figures and intellectuals and tried to discover the level of responsibility that the USA bears for Israel’s current militant stance.

Jacqueline Rose argues that amongst the founders of the state of Israel were those who believed that the state could only survive if it were both aggressive in its own defence and blind to the humanity of the Palestinians. She thinks that amongst the many views battling for control in Israel today is this aggressive vision that happens to be the barrier to an Israeli-led peace settlement. With the death toll on both sides rising by the day and the situation more hopeless than it has been for years, she also argues that the one country with the power and influence to force the warring parties, America, is achieving nothing. With the current Israeli and Palestinian administrations leaving no room for negotiation, Professor Rose posits the belief that America is ignoring more creative voices in Israel today and embracing those extreme strands of Israeli thought and practice it should most reject.

To my mind, Dangerous Liaisons was a raw insight into the various links of a chain that joins Israel and America together so tightly. But one of those links in the chain also binds in the intractable problems of the Palestinian people. Therefore, when one link in the chain suffers an historic injustice, can the rest of the chain ever be wholly at peace?

An equally interesting documentary was aired on 25 August2002 . Promises provided a unique perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Featuring Israeli and Palestinian children living in and around Jerusalem, the film offered an intimate, refreshing, and sometimes hilarious insight at the heart of the crisis in the Middle East.

Living no more than twenty minutes apart, but locked in two separate but unequal worlds, Promises explored the ‘boundaries’ that lie between the Israeli and Palestinian children and told the story of a few who dared to cross the line to meet their neighbours. Aged between 9 and12 , those children were mirrors of their cultures and spokespeople for future generations of Israelis and Palestinians. They spoke directly, without self-censorship, and were neither self-conscious as teenagers nor polite as adults. Many of the children held passionate beliefs about the land rights that the ‘opposing’ side did not possess, and openly harboured fervent feelings of hatred towards their neighbours. The programme ended on a sad note that substantiated the wide political chasm existing today between Palestinians and Israelis. It showed young children, living in the Palestinian Dheishe Refugee Camp on the one hand and in the Israeli settlement of Beit-El on the other, who remain totally locked in their separate and exclusive worlds.

The End of an Affair was yet another documentary shown on 7 September2002 . It featured as presenter the Labour politician and Zionist Gerald Kaufman. A staunch critic of Israel and of PM Ariel Sharon’s government policies, Kaufman revoked his earlier promise never to revisit the land he used to love. However, travelling through Israel and the Palestinian Territories where he met many men and women from both sides of the political divide, he felt despair at the current levels of political polarisation. He left Israel with the renewed promise never to return to this land. Kaufman said that the documentary told of his infatuation with Israel, and how disillusion had cooled down that infatuation.

Then, there were the statements! In one of his rare public comments, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who leads the Orthodox Jewish community in Britain criticised Israeli actions against the Palestinians. He drew on the Bible and reminded his interviewers that the Book of Exodus instructs Jews not to ‘ill-treat or oppress’ others because ‘you were strangers in the land of Egypt’. He said that this command is repeated thirty-six times in the Mosaic Books and cannot be ignored by any Jew. Although his criticism was pungent and well-measured, it was much less so than that of his predecessor Lord Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits who had once condemned Israel for ‘lording it over’ the Palestinians.

The Central Committee of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC) also issued another statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on 2 September2002 . This ecumenical body, which includes as members the Orthodox and Protestant Churches, re-affirmed its earlier resolution in Potsdam in February 2001 and called for ‘an action-oriented ecumenical campaign to end the illegal occupation of Palestine, in support of reconciliation between Israelis, Palestinians and others in the Middle East and their co-existence in justice and peace’.

It further urged churches and church-related organisations to join the WCC in:

  • Supporting the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), as a concrete manifestation of Christian solidarity through active presence and witness of a non-violent resistance to the occupation of Palestine, working towards public awareness and policy change through advocacy;
  • Calling for the suspension of the EU-Israel Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement that conditions ‘relations between parties, as well as the provisions of the Agreement itself on respect for human rights and democratic principles which guides their internal and international policy and constitutes an essential element of this Agreement’, until such time that Israel complies with these provisions;
  • Pressuring governments, in particular the USA, to review economic aid to the State of Israel and to halt all forms of military cooperation with the State of Israel including instituting a strict arms embargo, until such time that Israel complies with UN Security Council Resolutions;
  • Providing generous financial resources towards the ecumenical humanitarian and human rights efforts that seek to respond to the ever increasing human suffering;
  • Praying together for peace and for all those who work for peace and an end to all forms of violence in the Holy Land, seeking to embody our shared hopes and aspirations for peace with justice for all the peoples in these lands where our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ was received as the Prince of Peace.

In an article that could double up as a statement dated 11 September 2002 and entitled ‘A Humanitarian Perspective on the Autumn of our Discontent’, HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan used his title of Moderator of the World Conference on Religions and Peace to encourage the quest for an end to violence and the search for commonality through a dialogue of universal values. He asserted that ‘What we need is to bring certain ‘unacceptables’ to an end - war, terror, violence and disregard for the inherent dignity of humanity’. He urged his readers that ‘We must become more sensitised to the concept of consequences: the consequences of poverty, illiteracy, oppression, lack of opportunity, despair and anger, which can all lead to the contemplation of violence’. Aspiring for an ethical code of conduct, he concluded his article with a visionary exhortation that all the victims of violence be ‘remembered as the souls who lit our humble, human steps towards a deeper understanding of each other for final peace’.

Then came the initiatives! On 4 September 2002, a group of Israeli reserve soldiers called on the Supreme Court in Jerusalem to rule illegal the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This is the first time that the Supreme Court has been called on to rule on the legality of the Israeli occupation and is likely to set a date for an oral hearing of the evidence within a fortnight. The seven petitioning officers and sergeants are among 500 members of the so-called ‘refusenik’ group of reservists who have declined to serve in the territories on conscientious grounds. One of the soldiers in the group said that they are the conscience of [our] country and feel ‘like the Chinese student who stood in front of the tank in Tienanmen Square’. All seven have been sentenced to military jail terms for failing to obey orders.

In an article by Harvey Morris in the daily Financial Times on 5 September2002 , the seven said that service in the territories was ‘illegal, unlawful and against their moral code’. They added that ‘the duties imposed on IDF soldiers in the occupied territories are immoral and illegal. Moreover, they do not serve the security interests of Israel’.

The petition that was submitted to the Supreme Court indicated that the occupation severely damaged the lives of thousands of innocent civilians who were confined to what had become ‘one huge jailhouse’. One former soldier, Ishay Rosen-Zvi, spoke out, ‘I cannot forget this picture - it is5 : 00am and there is line of hundreds of Palestinians waiting to pass the checkpoint. And you see in their eyes the humiliation, frustration and hatred. Israelis have the power, and Palestinians have no power. You can, at any second, take their Identity Card and they have nothing. Without identification, any soldier can arrest them. You are the man that stands there and keeps them without rights, without freedom’. The petition claimed that the army had breached almost every article of the Fourth Geneva Convention relating to the protection of civilians in wartime, and that its actions constituted war crimes.

Another global joint initiative was undertaken earlier this month by HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan and John Marks. The former is chairman of the Arab Thought Forum and president of the Club of Rome. The latter is president of ‘Search for Common Ground’ and the ‘European Centre for Common Ground’ which together constitute the largest NGO working in the field of conflict prevention.

They launched Partners in Humanity, a new body that will be a network of NGO’s, government agencies and international organisations and will act as catalyst and facilitator of Islamic-Western dialogue. It will ‘dedicate itself to preventing - and transcending - the clash of civilisations that some see as inevitable after11 September2001 ’. Both founders hope that the activities undertaken by Partners in Humanity will ‘help strengthen the forces of dynamic moderation [since] moderates need to be as energetic in their commitment as extremists are in theirs’.

Finally, there were the articles! Entitled ‘Confronting Anti-American Grievances’ and published as an Opinion in the New York Times on 1September2002 , Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote that ‘American involvement in the Middle East is clearly the main impulse of the hatred that has been directed at America. [] Yet, there has been a remarkable reluctance in America to confront the more complex historical dimensions of this hatred. [] To win the war on terrorism, one must set two goals: first to destroy the terrorists and, second, to begin a political effort that focuses on the conditions that brought about their emergence’. Sounding an ominous note, the former national security adviser in the Carter administration added, ‘Mr Sharon would welcome a deterioration in the United States’ relations with Saudi Arabia and perhaps American military action against Iraq while gaining a free hand to suppress the Palestinians’.

Brzezinski’s former boss was even more outspoken. Jimmy Carter wrote an article in the Washington Post on5 September 2002 entitled ‘The Troubling New Face of America’. As chairman of the Carter Centre in Atlanta, the former US president analysed the consequences of an American foreign policy that is being hijacked by ‘a core group of conservatives who are trying to realise long-pent-up ambitions under the proclaimed war against terrorism’.

Whilst applauding President Bush for his war against terrorism, Carter nonetheless hooked it up with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and wrote, ‘Tragically, our government is abandoning any sponsorship of substantive negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. Our apparent policy is to support almost every Israeli action in the occupied territories and to condemn and isolate the Palestinians as blanket targets of our war on terrorism, while Israeli settlements expand and Palestinian enclaves shrink’. He added, ‘There still seems to be a struggle within the administration over defining a comprehensible Middle East policy. The president’s clear commitments to honour key UN resolutions and to support the establishment of a Palestinian state have been substantially negated by statements of the defence secretary that in his lifetime “there will be some sort of an entity that will be established” and his reference to the “so-called occupation”. This indicates a radical departure from policies of every administration since1967 , always based on the withdrawal of Israel from occupied territories and a genuine peace between neighbours’.

So what do all the documentaries, statements, initiatives and articles conclude? And where do they leave us today?

I would like to suggest that the answer lies perhaps in another documentary, Palestine is Still the Issue, to be shown on ITV on 16 September2002 . It consists of a Special Report presented and written by John Pilger, an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. He returns to the West Bank and Gaza to ask why Palestinians are still caught up in a terrible limbo - refugees in their own land, controlled by Israel in one of the longest military occupations in modern history.

Pilger writes, ‘This occupation is condemned by the UN and almost every country in the world, including Britain. But Israel is backed by the United States as a very powerful friend. So in twenty-five years, if we are to speak of the great injustice here, nothing has changed’. He goes on to add, ‘What has changed is that the Palestinians have fought back. Stateless and humiliated for so long, they have risen up against Israel’s huge military machine, although they themselves have no army - no tanks, no American planes and gun ships or missiles. Some have committed desperate acts of terror, like suicide bombing. But for Palestinians, the overriding, routine terror, day after day, has been the ruthless control of almost every aspect of their lives, as if they live in an open prison. This Report is about the Palestinians and a group of courageous Israelis united in the oldest human struggle - to be free’.

In revealing interviews with both Palestinians and Israelis, John Pilger witnesses the daily humiliations imposed on Palestinians at myriad checkpoints and with a permit system not dissimilar to apartheid South Africa’s infamous ‘pass laws’. He goes into the refugee camps and meets children who, he says, ‘no longer dream like other children, or if they do, it is about death’. He asks each time for the solution, and is left in little doubt as to the answer.

To my mind, that solution - or that answer - might be complex but it still remains clear. As a first step, there should be a halt on suicide bombings that is also coupled with an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories. Palestinians can then proceed freely with the urgent task of weeding out corruption, installing a fresh and viable political leadership and re-engaging at long last in the arduous task of state building. This ‘model’ alone will provide justice and stability as much as the long-term strategic peace with security that both Israelis and Palestinians aspire for. All other violent measures – psychological, institutional or physical - prosecuted by both sides cannot provide the incentive for peace to grow in trust and security. Nor will they encourage a much-needed dialogue between Islam and the West.

Only then will documentaries, statements, initiatives and articles truly bear their worthwhile and measurable fruit.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2002   |   12 September


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