Palestine matters, not Gillard-Rudd soapies
By Professor Stuart Rees:
In the Khan Younis area of southern Gaza, the Qdeh family’s modest rabbit farm is one of several Australian trade union humanitarian aid (Apheda) projects which is bolstering food security for poor families.
On a Spring evening in April 2011, Najah Qdeh and her 21-year-old daughter Nidal were in their backyard preparing their family dinner over an open fire. Before the meal had been cooked, both women were killed by a missile fired from an Israeli drone. An eight-year-old daughter watched her mother and sister bleed to death. She became mute. Another daughter was seriously injured and still has shrapnel in her head.
The Israeli government held no investigation and would not consider holding anyone accountable. Who cares about poor Palestinians?
In January 2012, the America Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich said that Palestinians were “an invented people”. A few days later Mustapha Tamini, Bahjat Zaalan and his son Ramdon from Gaza were killed by the Israeli Defence forces, an organisation, comments Israeli author Miko Peled, which is “supported, funded and armed by the US”. The Israeli court system, says Peled, will ensure that the deaths are never brought to justice. Who cares about an invented people?
On February 27th, the Gillard-Rudd contest ended with references to the blood spilt in the conflict over the Labor leadership. Australian media were obsessed with this soap-opera while real deaths and serious injuries were occurring in many parts of the world, not least in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The Gillard-Rudd soapie may have been full of sound and fury signifying almost nothing, but Palestine does matter. The trouble is that the public may feel fatigued over the issue.
After recently spending two weeks on the West Bank, in Gaza and in Israel, how do I summarise the killings, discrimination, demolition of homes and imprisonment of a whole people? How can stories be told without them being stifled by charges of anti-Semitism, by arguments that other international crises merit more attention, or by claims that I’m not being fair to countries such as the USA and Australia which give humanitarian aid to Palestine, but remain complicit in the destruction of Palestinian lives, lands and identity?
I could try understatement, euphemisms, avoid emotion, attempt ‘balance’ by listing atrocities against Israelis as well as against Palestinians, repeat clichés about peace talks and governments’ commitment to a two state solution.
An Australian diplomat in Jerusalem advised that references to cruelty and the organised slaughter in the so called Gaza war were “probably too emotional, better to use other words”.
If I take that advice, I’d be repeating the habits of the past 64 years which have kept people in a state of ignorance about the Israel-Palestine conflict, have enabled governments to continue their support for Israel at the expense of justice for the Palestinians and have colluded in saying that when it comes to Israel’s ‘security’, international law and UN resolutions matter not one iota.
In addition to accounts of deaths – of members of the Qdeh and Zaalan families for example – something extra is needed to stir the consciousness of public and politicians, including Australia’s new Foreign Minister Bob Carr. The matter is urgent. Justice-oriented Israelis, Palestinian leaders and UN officials are more pessimistic than ever about a just end to this conflict.
What to do, what to say?
At the Allenby Bridge on the Israeli-Jordan border, young men and women in uniform look like year 10 students completing a work experience assignment. They are the soldiers and customs officials who decide how long you must wait – five hours in our case – who can cross into Israel, who should be refused. They keep prospective travellers’ passports, occasionally shout people’s names and to any inquiry about delays, the answer is “wait”.
However, that is a cakewalk experience compared to the science fiction horror movie scene of walls, wire, guns, cameras, microphones, x-ray machines, heavily armed black clad secret service personnel plus the almost three kilometre Erez walk of shame between walls of wire and concrete which eventually gains you entry to Gaza and to the brief check from Hamas officials at the end of that crossing.
We should expect such checks because ‘the enemy’ are on the other side. Those dangerous people are a defenceless population which includes 800,000 children. By contrast with hostile and armed Jewish settlers who are protected by the Israeli army, who have stolen the centre of the Palestinian city of Hebron, who pour rubbish and excrement onto Hebronites who dare to visit their market in the old town, diverse Gaza citizens were courteous, generous and welcoming. They may be desperately poor, they may merely want ‘the right to exist’, but they should be treated as less than human because they are the ‘enemy’.
The dignified Mayor of Bethlehem, Victor Batarseh, describes his famous town as cut off by the wall, cut off from any contact with Israelis with whom he wants to live. Spasmodic purchases made by Christian tourists do not compensate for stolen water, the decline of businesses and the destruction of other resources. Batarseh explains,
At the beginning of the year, 7,000 olive trees belonging to 180 families in Bethlehem were destroyed. Control and destruction is everywhere. Even to pray where we want to – in the Al Aqsa Mosque or in the Church of the Nativity – you have to seek permission.
To avoid the charge that these are stories told by one observer, the following account of water allocation uses UN figures. Per capita Israelis receive 300 cubic metres of water per year. Palestinians receive 35 -85 cubic metres while the WHO recommends a minimum of 100 cubic metres. Israeli settlers on the West Bank are allocated 1,500 metres and may live with green lawns and swimming pools while many Palestinians receive no water at all. In Bethlehem, the Mayor describes another consequence of the occupation,
We can take 17 per cent of the water supply from our wells, 83 per cent goes to the settlements who already have direct mains supply. We are not allowed to dig for water unless they (Israeli authorities) give us permission.
If these stories can’t be remembered by a public used to hearing a version of history which claims one side ‘good’ the other ‘bad’, the figure 500 could help to re-interpret the past and the present.
In the 1948 war, over 500 Palestinian villages and towns were erased from the face of the earth. Residents who survived the slaughter fled their homes on the assumption that they would return. Tens of thousands remain imprisoned in Lebanese refugee camps such as Burj al Barajneh, Sabra and Shatila. Many of these refugees were farmers from Galilee. For decades they have lived in slums without gardens, trees, grass, space and without hope.
The figure 500 also depicts the means of controlling Palestinians’ freedom of movement. Over 500 internal checkpoints, roadblocks and other physical obstacles restrict Palestinians within and beyond the West Bank. Although settlements are illegal under international law – they violate Article 49 of the Geneva Convention –the dividing wall and the hundreds of other controls exist to protect settlers and to facilitate their travel to and from Israel. Who cares about the Palestinians?
Anyone who cares for an equitable and sustainable future for Palestinians and Israelis should care deeply and should insist that the cruelty in this conflict must end. How?
Public awareness needs to be increased a million fold. Reporting the history, telling these stories, and taking action is imperative, even if it stirs emotions. Palestinian father Khader Adnan has been in Israeli administrative detention since December 17th. To protest against all arbitrary and illegal imprisonment he engaged in a hunger strike which lasted for 66 days and ended only with his near death. But Adnan, in common with more than 300 other Palestinians imprisoned under similar circumstances, is still detained even though he has not been charged with any offence and has not been implicated in any violence against civilians.
Another Palestinian, Hosni Abo Taka, a resident of Burj al Barajneh, has never received any publicity, let alone the attention given to Khader Adnan. In that wretched refugee camp, where Hosni has survived for 64 years, he pleads “We simply want to prove to the world that we are human beings.”
Palestine matters. Australian soapies do not.
Stuart Rees is Professor Emeritus of the University of Sydney and Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.