Palestine: A Challenge to Humanity

Before I begin my presentation, I’d just like to say a couple of things about myself and Australians for Palestine.

The first is that I am not myself a Palestinian and have no family, cultural or any other connection with either side of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. I am, rather, employed as the Public Advocate for Australians for Palestine and, for the most part, my role in this position is to explain the facts of the conflict to Australian audiences.

The second thing I’d like to say is that Australians for Palestine believe that, by explaining the facts of the conflict to the Australian public, we are also working towards its peaceful resolution

And it in this sense that we share in the mission of the Unitarian Church to "Seek the Truth and Serve Humanity."

Indeed it our view that these goals of seeking the truth and serving humanity are interchangeable. For clearly, no one can properly serve humanity in a state of ignorance. But it is also the case that the search for truth implies the service of humanity.

For the search for truth leads ultimately to knowledge and all knowledge has consequences. And the knowledge of injustice, in particular, has moral consequences.

And it is in this spirit that I wish to address you this morning on the issue of Palestine: as someone who believes

  • That knowledge implies obligation.
  • That the fulfilment of such obligation often incurs sanctions;
  • But that the true test of one’s humanity is and always has been the willingness to follow one’s conscience, regardless of the consequences.

Next Friday marks an anniversary that commemorates the turning point in the histories of 2 peoples: the Israelis and the Palestinians.

For the Israelis May 15 marks their Independence Day: the day that they celebrate not only the establishment of the state of Israel in the country, which, until that time, had been called “Palestine”.

  • But also what they regard as the transformation of the Jewish nation from a nation of exiles scattered around the world into a strong and proud European nation state
  • For, in Palestine, wrote Theodore Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement at the turn of the 20th century, “we shall be a sector of the wall of Europe against Asia, we shall serve as the outpost of civilization against barbarism.”

This idea of Israel of an outpost of Western civilisation, holding the frontier against the barbarians of Muslim Asia, I might add, persists until this day. Israel’s supporters, particularly within the churches, regularly claim that countries such as Australia share with Israel a “Judeo-Christian heritage” that sets us apart from the non-Western world.

And even relatively progressive statesmen such as Kevin Rudd euphemistically speak of “shared values” which in times of crisis, such as the recent assault of the Gaza Strip, can be called upon to rationalise Australia’s unconditional support for Israel and its right to defend itself against the non-Jewish populations that are living under Israeli occupation.

For the Palestinians, that is, for the barbarians of Herzl’s imagination, May 15 is remembered as A-Nakba, or The Catastrophe: the day in which they lost their homeland and began their history as a nation of refugees.

These two anniversaries, of course, are not unrelated: as Israel’s founding fathers understood only too well, in order to create a Jewish state in what was predominantly a non-Jewish Arab country, it was an absolute necessity to displace the country’s indigenous population.

But in 1967 a second turning point occurred in the histories of Israelis and Palestinians, when Israel completed its conquest of Palestine by invading the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, which since that time have been known as the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Once again, it seemed to the world that Israel had won a great victory and that it would continue to flourish at the Palestinians’ expense.

In hindsight, however, the real significance of the 1967 war for Israel was that it marked the beginning of its end as a Jewish state and its gradual but relentless transformation into an apartheid state.

I realise that by using the word “apartheid” in this context, some will feel that I’m exaggerating or being needlessly provocative, but I am using it purely in its technical sense to describe a state of affairs in which two populations living side by side in the same country are governed by different laws and who have differing access to resources.

This is indisputably the state of affairs that exists in Israel and the Occupied Territories today.

And ironically, it seems that one of the primary factors behind Israel’s transformation was the very speed and decisiveness of the its victory.

In 1948 Israel took 6 months to conquer the 78% of Palestine that is now Israel, giving it plenty of time to thoroughly depopulate the conquered territory of its Palestinian population.

In 1967, however, Israel not only defeated three Arab armies but conquered the remainder of Palestine in only 6 days. Leaving Israel, for the first time in its history, governing a territory that was heavily populated by Palestinians

The other factor that behind Israel’s transformation was its colonisation of the Occupied Territories with Jewish settlements.

At this stage, I just want to clarify what settlements are because there is a great deal of confusion surrounding them and certain apologists for Israel have tried to portray them merely as innocent Jewish colonies living harmlessly in the Occupied Territories.

The settlements are a weapon, the target of which is the Palestinian population of the Occupied Territories, whose lands they occupy.

Today Jewish settlements dominate fully 40% of the West Bank, which is now off limits to the Palestinians.

As well as taking Palestinian lands, the settlements also take the water. According to a report by an Israeli human rights group the settlers consume an average of 235 litres of water per person per day, while their Palestinian neighbours are forced to survive on as little as 30 litres of water per day

In addition to land and water, the settlements also need roads. In most countries, roads facilitate movement and commerce. In Palestine, however, the settlement roads are walled highways for Israeli use only. In 2003 the Israeli journalist Gabriel Ash described the impact of these roads on the Palestinians in the following terms:

Roads are long and wide and their trajectory can be shifted here and there to achieve maximum impact in terms of houses that must be demolished, orchards that need to be uprooted, and growth that can be stifled. Used properly, a road is a weapon of mass destruction. For example, road 447, which shortens the trip to the Settlement of Ariel by a full five minutes, “necessitated” uprooting one thousand olive trees and confiscating 75 dunams from residents of the two Palestinian villages that Ariel targets. In addition, every road that connects two Jewish settlements doubles as a road that separates two Palestinian towns.

Finally, there is the activity of the settlers themselves, many of whom are fanatical racists.

To give you some idea of the terror that these settlers inflict upon their Palestinian neighbours, I’m going to read a passage from a report published by two Israeli human rights NGOs on the settler violence in just one West Bank town called Hebron to give you a glimpse of the violence that is part of the daily life of Palestinians:

Over the years, [the report reads] settlers in the city have routinely abused the city’s Palestinian residents, sometimes using extreme violence. Throughout the second intifada, settlers have committed physical assaults, including beatings, at times with clubs, stone throwing, and hurling of refuse, sand, water, chlorine, and empty bottles. Settlers have destroyed shops and doors, committed thefts, and chopped down fruit trees. Settlers have also been involved in gunfire, attempts to run people over, poisoning of a water well, breaking into homes, spilling of hot liquid on the face of a Palestinian, and the killing of a young Palestinian girl.

The report goes onto to note the complicity of the Israeli authorities in these crimes:

Soldiers are generally positioned on every street corner in and near the settlement points, but in most cases they do nothing to protect Palestinians from the settlers’ attacks. The police also fail to properly enforce the law, and rarely bring the assailants to justice. By failing to respond appropriately to settler violence in Hebron, the authorities in effect sanction the settlers’ violent acts. These acts, in addition to being severe, have also contributed to the “quiet transfer” of thousands of Palestinians from the City Center.

“Quiet transfer” – the Serb militias in Bosnia had another name for such activity but the effect is the same.

I would note that the report I just cited was released two years ago and that since then there has been a surge in settler violence that even Israel’s last prime minister, Ehud Olmert, described as a pogrom against the Palestinians.

Appalling as things are in the West Bank, however, they are yet worse in the Gaza Strip, which is administered by Hamas, a party that insists upon the Palestinians’ right of armed resistance and refuses to unconditionally recognise Israel’s right to exist.

When I say that Gaza is administered by Hamas, it is important to note that Hamas does not actually control Gaza in the technical sense, under international law. Israel still controls Gaza’s territorial waters, airspace, electricity, water supply and access to the rest of the world.

And, since Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip in 2007, it has used this power to place the territory under siege by cutting off all imports and exports to and from Gaza, except for a very limited amount of food and medical supplies.

Last year the commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency described the situation in Gaza in the following terms, and I quote:

Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the knowledge, acquiescence and – some would say – encouragement of the international community.

What I have described was the situation in Gaza before the 27th of December. That is before Israel launched its 3 week assault upon Gaza: Operation Solid Lead.

I’m not going to describe the atrocities committed during Operation Solid Lead, since I’m sure most of you will already be aware of the UN, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch reports of families massacred inside their homes, of hospitals and schools bombed, of civilians shot by snipers as they fled the fighting and of military rabbis instructing soldiers to show no mercy, even to Palestinian civilians.

I’m just going to give you the raw facts and figures of the devastation that were compiled by the UN:

  • 1,440 killed (431 children)
  • 5,380 injured (1,872 children)
  • At least 4,000 houses destroyed
  • 17,000 houses badly damaged.
  • At least 100,000 displaced (56,000 children).

Today, almost all of these displaced people continue to live in tents because Israel’s blockade remains in place and no cement or building materials are being allowed into Gaza.

By providing the foregoing sketch of the situation in Palestine today, I am not of course, in any sense, describing the on the ground reality of life in Palestine. It is, of course, impossible for me to describe the reality of life for struggling families whose parents are unable to protect or care for their malnourished and sickly children.

But I would note that everything I have just described is happening right now in the Occupied Territories: the siege of Gaza, the building of settlements in the West Bank, the demolition of homes, the construction of settler roads and the “quiet transfer” of Palestinian from towns such as Hebron are the constants of life in Palestine today. They are not reported by the Australian media for a range of reasons, not least of which is because they are so banal.

What’s to report in the construction of new houses, or a new road, or in food parcels not being allowed through a checkpoint?

And it is perhaps the very nature of the violence in Palestine that makes it so easy to ignore.

At the beginning of this presentation I proposed that the knowledge of injustice implies a particular kind of obligation.

And in the time that I have left, I want to briefly discuss the nature of this obligation and the challenge Palestine presents both to humanity and to Australians in particular.

Last month, the United Nations held a conference in Geneva to discuss ways in which to combat racism around the world.

This conference was boycotted by the following countries: Israel, the United States, New Zealand, The Netherlands, Canada, Germany, Italy, Poland and Australia.

And all of these countries were quite open about their reasons for the boycott: because they feared that the conference would criticise Israel.

For Australia the scandal with regard to the boycott is that there was no scandal. The Australian government boycotts a UN conference about racism because it might criticise Israel and neither Phillip Adams, Clive Hamilton, Tim Costello, Archbishop Frier or any of our left-liberal culture heroes have anything to say on the matter.

Now, this was certainly not the case for the Australian right. In the weeks leading up to the conference Andrew Bolt, Greg Sheridan and the whole host of right wing political commentators were only too happy to attack it. But as far as the left intelligentsia are concerned, the conference seems never to have happened.

What is going on?

Well, I think we may gain some insight into this matter by taking account of the one exception to the Australian left’s silence on the conference and that is in the work of the exceptionally principled writer and commentator Antony Loewenstein, who was the only commentator on the Australian left with the courage to speak out on the issue of the Geneva conference.

In his groundbreaking book, My Israel Question, which is the only book of its kind to document the activities and tactics of the Israel lobby in Australia, he writes extensively of how Israel’s supporters have effectively intimidated would-be critics into a cringing silence by labelling any expression of sympathy or support for the Palestinians as anti-Semitism.

I would note that Loewenstein himself is from a Melbourne Jewish family and that his writings have and continue to provoke a furious tirade of abuse against himself and his family.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil,” Edmund Burke is said to have remarked, “is for good men to do nothing.”

For the first time since the end of the apartheid era in South Africa, the world is split over the issue of racism. And it is the persistence of apartheid in Palestine that lies at the centre of this split.

Australia, and believe me nobody regrets having to say this as much as I do, is on the wrong side of this split.

I will leave it to each of you to decide where you stand in this conflict but I will say this before I finish: Israel does not need your support. It needs your neutrality.

It does not need your support because it already has the support of Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull, the Murdoch press and all of the most powerful men in Australia today.

If you choose not to take sides in this historic struggle then you will be doing exactly what the Israelis want you to do.

This was a presentation given to the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church on Sunday May 10, 2009

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