The suffering of Palestine

From time to time I am asked what brought me into politics almost fifty years ago. I always give a very simple answer: anti-Semitism. My closest friend at grammar school in Southport, and the trombonist in our local jazz band, was Neil Freeman. I sort of knew that he was Jewish but it did not impinge at all until one day, when we were discussing various clubs and associations in the town, he listed those in which Jews were not welcome. I was appalled and later that day said as much to my parents. Typically, my mother immediately asked, "OK, what are you going to do about it?" So, at the age of sixteen, I joined the local Liberal party.

For me that somewhat ridiculed phrase is literally true: some of my best friends, and, particularly my favourite dining companions, are Jewish. I would not have been elected to Leeds City Council for Armley in 1968 but for the popularity of local Jewish doctor and dentist, and fellow candidate, Maury Benard. My son spent a summer holiday on an Israeli kibbutz and, somewhere in Israel, there is a tree planted as a thank you by someone for whom I did a small favour. I marched many times in Leeds in protest at the treatment of Soviet Jewry, and would do so again whenever it was needed.

I mention all this by way of prelude to my criticisms of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. I write as a friend who has slowly but surely become distressed and horrified at what he has seen. The spur to writing about it came from seeing BBC World's "Hardtalk" programme last week on which the interviewer, Tim Sebastian, for a full half hour, harangued the Palestinian representative to the UN on the failings of the Palestinian Authority and of its leadership, without any apparent awareness or understanding of the abject situation on the ground. By the end of the programme I had tears in my eyes at his sheer unfairness and naivety. The Palestinian people deserve much better than such treatment.

I first went to Palestine with a Liberal International delegation in 1988 at the time of the first intifada. We went to Gaza and to many towns and villages in the West Bank, and we spoke to a wide cross section of people. Their conditions were often very difficult, with curfews and road blocks, but they spoke generously of their willingness to share the land on an equal basis. It was, however, not acceptable for Israeli settlers to force exclusive use of land and to monopolise water supplies, as they were and are doing. I listened intently as the Palestinians carefully used three different words to differentiate their counterparts: Israeli, Jew and Zionist. Only the last were then regarded as enemies. Today one hears only the one word, "Jew". I still recall vividly a dignified elderly man in a Gazan refugee camp who reached up to a shelf to take down a plastic folder in which were the deeds of his house in Haifa in north Israel. And at that time it was still just about possible for Jew and Muslim to visit together the historic tombs of Abraham and Isaac, as we also did.

We had heard of Hamas and we asked about them. They did not exist at all in the West Bank and there were no more than a handful of adherents in Gaza. Hamas is a militant organisation that exists as a direct consequence of Israeli actions which recruit day by day more and more extremists.

I went back to Palestine for an extended period ending with the Palestinian elections in January 1996. I was first of all in charge of the observation team in the Jericho area and latterly acted as special advisor in Jerusalem. This was in the aftermath of the assassination of Itzhak Rabin by a Jewish fundamentalist and they were days of great hope following the Oslo accords. Palestinian leaders spoke of allowing settlers to remain - if they were prepared to accept Palestinian citizenship. There was an acceptance, however reluctantly, of the reality of the state of Israel. Wherever one went, even in West Jerusalem, or at roadblocks, Israelis smiled and wished us well. But then, just after the elections, the Israeli secret service killed a Hamas extremist, nicknamed "the engineer", via his mobile telephone. Hamas retaliated by killing Israelis in Tel Aviv, and the Israeli electorate's reaction was to elect the right wing Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister. The situation has spiralled down into increasing disaster ever since. Whether Mossad deliberately killed "the engineer" to influence the elections, I know not, but it was certainly effective. I am in no doubt that the present situation is the continuing result of that one Israeli action.

Consider Palestine today. Its people have had their livelihoods destroyed. Their land has been taken from them. They have been driven from their homes. Their properties have been demolished. Any retaliation from them has been met by savage reprisals. Suspected terrorists - and also innocent bystanders - are simply killed, with the Israeli army acting as judge, jury and executioner. Their families suffer collective punishment and are made homeless. They have to show passes to military guards at countless checkpoints. Millions have been forced out into a worldwide diaspora, and those who remain are now enclosed in a walled ghetto. Does all this sound familiar? Nothing can ever equal the scale and the depths of the Holocaust, but to me it is beyond understanding that the Israelis can take any action which could give even the tiniest hint of a similarity with their suffering in the Germany of the 1930s.

There is currently widespread concern at the apparent increase in anti-Semitism. Frankly, I think that it has always been around but for decades has been inhibited by the prevailing sense of respect for the Jewish contribution to business and to culture. There was also a feeling that Israel was a deserved haven and a progressive example to the region. Alas that image has been eroded in recent years and the anti-Semites have sensed it and, sadly, have gained in confidence. If Israelis and the Jews of the Diaspora are able to perceive the situation clearly this trend can be reversed.

However horrific the specific actions, most damaging of all is the erosion of standards and the diminution of ideals. The principles on which Israel was established and which were personified by its early leaders gave a sense of high moral purpose. The long struggle against its neighbours has made violence banal, and has caused killing to lose much of its horror. Even more than the individual moments of violence, it is the daily humiliation of the Palestinian people by the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints, forcing even elderly women and children to wait for hours before proceeding on their way in their own land, that provokes an inevitable bitterness and hostile response. Israel's idealism has turned into the eternal grind of occupation, control and vigilance.

Take one vivid example: the Gaza strip is the most densely populated area in the world, or at least part of it is. It is divided into two approximately equal parts. In one half live 1.1 million Palestinians, with virtually no sanitation, unreliable supplies of drinking water and grossly overcrowded housing. In the other half live 7,000 Israeli settlers, protected by 10,000 Israeli soldiers, in pleasant houses with modern facilities. How is this other than hugely provocative? And this is in part of the occupied territories that has no Jewish religious heritage, even if that were a justification elsewhere. No Israeli proposal, not even Ehud Barak's Camp David concessions, has ever envisaged Israel giving up control of the sea, the air and the border with Egypt.

No-one in his right mind can justify or excuse Palestinian suicide bombers but they can be explained. What is left for the young Palestinians faced with the horrors of every day life and attacked with huge military force? There is a very easy way to end suicide bombing: issue the Palestinians with helicopter gunships and rocket launchers. Of course I am not advocating this line, but just making the pertinent point. And after all, historically, the Israelis have not been averse to terrorism. It was Manachem Begin whose Stern Gang blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and amongst those killed were seventeen Jews. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and the Middle East situation continues to be a recruiting ground for Arab terrorism that fuels the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.

Of course Israel will continue to exist. Of course Israel and its citizens have the possibility of a full and satisfying life. But it will never be at ease and never comfortable whilst its treats its neighbours so badly. Who can resolve the situation? Not the Israelis - they are too close to it and too myopic. Who can speak for the Palestinians? Not the Americans - they are too concerned about electoral votes and perhaps uncomfortably aware that the United States only exists today because its pioneers committed genocide to take the land, in the process killing some two million native Americans. Not the Christian Right in the USA, whose espousal of the Israeli cause somehow ignores the existence of a substantial Christian minority in Palestine. I have come to the conclusion that only the Jews of the Diaspora can influence the future effectively. Their historic solidarity with Israeli government policies has been exemplary, but today it does Israel no favours. Distance can provide clarity and perception. Their role, as sincere friends of freedom, could not be assailed and Israel needs them as never before.

6 August 2004