The Christian Aid Conference on Peace and Justice in the Holy Land
The Christian Conference on Peace and Justice in the Holy Land took place in Gateshead, England on November 3, 2012; I attended in part to make a record of the proceedings for the local Jewish community, whose members were unable to attend because the conference was held on a Saturday.
In the spirit of a search for peace and justice in the Holy Land, it does not seem possible to reconcile either of those noble aims with the spirit or the reality of the conference.
The conference was, from beginning to end, a total travesty of those ideals; it was in all respects one-sided, often dangerously so. One after another, the speakers all presented the pro-Palestinian narrative and arguments derived from Palestinian political theory. Not once was an Israeli or Jewish narrative even mentioned, where such a narrative would differ in substantial terms from the Palestinian one, yet Israel was on several occasions ridiculed and condemned.
How could anyone expect peace or justice to emerge from the pursuit of a discourse that leaves one side morally and intellectually triumphant because it is "entirely right" and the other side ignored and called to account because it is "always wrong"? I do not see where this is consonant with Christian values, with the ideal of charity or caritas, with a caring mission to both sides in a conflict, not just one. I do not want to make much of what I felt to be an undercurrent of anti-Semitism, but I will say that it was there.
It is of course possible, legitimate and often healthy to criticize Israel without implying that Israelis or even all Jews share in its sins. But given that Israel is the only Jewish state in the world, statements like the following, from Norah Carmi, feel intemperate: "Israel is the only state in the world that can defy international law." It is a ridiculous and arrogant thing to say, given the existence of countries such as Iran, Syria, Pakistan and many others. That exceptionalism conveys to me a strong note of anti-Semitism. She refers at one point to "Jewish oppressors" and speaks of Israelis (meaning Jewish Israelis) as "tough and arrogant conquerors." She claimed that Christian churches are bullied by the Jewish lobby. An earlier speaker, Stephen Leah, strongly urged that Jewish criticism of the Methodist Conference rulings on the conflict were something like hysterical and not worth considering. Two speakers, in referring to earlier Jewish sufferings, spoke of pogroms in the 19th century, but any mention of the Holocaust was left carefully out of their narrative.
There is an anti-Semitic undertone in all this. Anti-Semitism is the most insidious of evils, given its ability to mutate from place to place and community to community. It has been growing again in many parts of Europe, and it seemed sad that this context was not even mentioned. Only one speaker, Fr. Colin Carr, dared to mention the subject, and he has my gratitude for addressing, even if only briefly, the Jewish issue. But not even he chose to mention the extraordinary level of overt and often violent anti-Semitism in Arab – including Christian Arab – society in Gaza and the West Bank, something that is of primary relevance to the Palestinian view of Israeli Jews. This anti-Semitism -- which speaks of al-Yahud ('the Jews') as much as al-Sahyuniyya (Zionism) -- is present in television shows, radio broadcasts, mosque sermons, newspapers, children's textbooks, and political speeches. In other words, it is ubiquitous. How could a conference devoted to peace and justice in the Holy Land choose to say nothing about the constant provocation to violence found on the Palestinian side?
Throughout the conference, several tables were made available to a variety of groups. These groups were Christian Aid, CAFOD, Sabeel UK, Kairos Palestine, Methodist Working Party – Campaign Actions, Pax Christi, Friends of the Holy Land, the Villages Group, and Ecumenical Accompaniment. Every one of these organizations is in some measure fiercely pro-Palestinian. How could there be any hope for balance or an open debate when not a single pro-Israel group or organization had been invited or given a table on which to display books and pamphlets? The conference was from the outset closed to alternative viewpoints even by qualified organizations or individuals. Is that a Christian idea of justice? Are there any plans to hold a second conference at which participants from the first might be exposed to a pro-Israel and Jewish experience? If not, then it seems that bias of the worst kind dominates Christian Aid's approach to this problem.
The first thing I saw was a large slide on which appeared three well-known maps showing the stages through which Israel had, allegedly, stolen Palestinian land. It was followed by William Bell, who works for the Christian Aid Middle East Programme. He began by denying he was taking sides, then proceed to give a talk that was riddled with bias from start to finish. This was not a matter of one person's opinion: He simply did not provide us with anything but the Palestinian narrative. He said he was only interested in the facts concerning refugees, settlements, and Jerusalem. But not one fact did he give about the origin of the refugee problem: in only one instance (Lydda) did Israelis (fighting a war) expel any Arabs. The overwhelming majority of Arab refugees fled at the insistence of either the Arab Liberation Army or the Arab Higher Committee, whose chairman was a former Nazi and war criminal who had approved of the "Final Solution" and had planned a Holocaust in the Holy Land. In several places, notably Haifa, the Jews begged their Arab neighbors to stay. Yet Mr. Bell chose not to enlighten his audience about this, or about the source since then of the refugee problem, which lies in the refusal of the Arab states to award citizenship to their brethren. Instead, everything was, as usual, blamed on Israel.
Further, interest in refugees did not extend to the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who, in the 1940s and 1950s, fled Arab lands and found refuge in Israel. Interest in refugees also did not extend to the Israeli citizens who arrived as refugees from the Holocaust, Soviet persecution or even persecution inspired over centuries by elements of the Christian church.
The same omission was true of any mention of the settlements. These, according to each participant who mentioned them, are illegal under international law. That this is a highly contentious issue about which lawyers are divided was never mentioned. Some interpreters do see them as illegal, but others, just as highly qualified, believe they are wholly legal under UN and other regulations. In any fair debate, it is essential that both sides are presented equally and fairly. The principal document in this debate, UN Resolution 242 (1967), was mentioned by several speakers, but always in an incomplete and misleading way. It is this resolution, in fact, that was crafted in order to grant Israel the right to remain on the West Bank until such time as its enemies agreed to a peace settlement. It called for the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from "territories occupied in the recent conflict," but it is on record that the wording was deliberately crafted in order to avoid the word "all" before "territories." Nevertheless, when Israel – at great cost to itself – ceded the Sinai peninsula to Egypt in 1979, it handed over 91% of the territories acquired in the 1967 war. More territory was added in 2005, when Israel pulled out of Gaza, again at considerable cost to itself. Of course, Israel was rewarded for its actions by a barrage of rockets fired almost every day since then at innocent Israeli civilians, including children walking to and from school.
In addition, no mention was made that, from the appearance of Arab and Palestinian maps, and even a 2005 United Nations map, all of Israel is evidently considered to be "Palestine." These maps consistently show a Middle East without any Israel at all, and with only the names of Arab cities noted – possibly a helpful signal of the Palestinians' real intention.
Do Christian hearts not grieve for Jewish children forced to cower in bomb shelters, day in and day out? But none of these facts was mentioned by any of the speakers. Not one speaker at any point, in fact, had the honesty to say one word about the several wars started by Arab armies invading Israel, nor the thousands of Israelis killed and injured in terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings.
It was horrifying to realize that in a large room of pious Christians not one individual saw fit to mention the enormous suffering heaped on the citizens of Israel by the Palestinians, Hamas, Hezbollah, Syrians, Egyptians and Jordanians. How can you hope to achieve justice if the sufferings of one side only are deemed fit for lamentation? Throughout the conference, it was the turn of one speaker after another (matched by each of the video presentations we had to watch) to lay all the blame for sufferings without limitation on Israel while exonerating the Palestinians of all blame. The Israelis oppressed and the Palestinians suffered, and that was the last – and only – word.
William Bell, for example, strongly denied that he was one-sided, but I would ask anyone there – including him – if his presentation did not exclude any of the matters referred to above. He claimed that Christian Aid deals in advocacy in order to get to the root of things in politics and more. But he did not explain why advocacy for the Palestinian side, especially in politics, should not be interpreted at its face value to mean taking sides. It was as though speakers had a fanciful self-image of a lack of bias while actually they expressed themselves in some of the most forcibly pro-Palestinian language encountered anywhere.
In a film made by the anti-Israel journalist Nicholas Kristoff, detailed reference is made to Israeli settler violence, but not a word is said about its Palestinian equivalent, which is often much worse; nor did we hear of Israeli police actions taken against settlers. Nothing was said about the 2011 attack on an established and peaceful settlement called Itamar, when two young Palestinian men belonging to the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP] entered the home of Rabbi Udi Fogel and proceeded to butcher him, his wife, two sons, and a baby daughter of 4 months. Their 12-year-old daughter, Tamar, came home from a youth meeting to find her family in bed, their throats slit, blood soaking everything in sight. It is hard not to think about young Tamar: All she loved was taken from her in that one attack. Should her name not be on Christian lips and in Christian prayers as well? Why do attacks like that (the slaying of the Fogel family is not an isolated example) count for so little compassion and understanding in Christian hearts that their deaths dare not even be mentioned at a conference of this kind? Why did this conference show love and consideration only for Palestinians?
One woman, an Ecumenical Accompanier, gave a short presentation on her experiences with checkpoints, and regaled us with the difficulties faced by Palestinians on their account. It is indeed true that checkpoints hamper the daily lives of Palestinians and that their presence is regretted by everyone involved. However, not a single word was said about why the checkpoints were deployed in the first place. Nor did the speaker mention the simple and important fact that over one third of the checkpoints have been removed in the last few years, precisely as a matter of Israeli policy to make life easier for the Palestinians.
The rationale behind these structures could not be easier to understand. In January 2005, Wafa al-Biss, a 21-year-old Palestinian woman from the Jabalya refugee camp was badly burned in a cooking accident. She was hurried to Soroka Hospital, an Israeli institution near Beersheva, where she was treated and cared for. On leaving, she was given a special pass to return to the hospital for out-patient care. In July that year, she was stopped at the Erez checkpoint en route to Soroka. She was wearing a suicide vest of ten pounds, which she planned to detonate in the hospital, killing doctors and nurses from the team who had treated her until then and -- as she herself said -- as many children as possible.
A Palestinian doctor from Gaza has written eloquently of his horror on learning what she planned to do. He said: "As for Biss herself, she should have been a messenger for peace among her people, and should have been bringing flowers and appreciation to the Soroka doctors for healing her burns. Instead, she targeted the very people who treated her with such compassion. Israeli hospitals extend humanitarian treatment to Palestinians from the Gaza Strip and West Bank. These efforts continued when all other cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis came to a halt during the most recent intifada." He also wrote: "At a time when we badly need to build bridges of trust and tolerance, Soroka is the only door left open when other hospitals are closed to Gaza residents."
Should this conference not have been about the building of bridges rather than their destruction? Was this session not an opportunity at least to acknowledge that Israeli compassion exists and that Palestinian cruelty also exists, about the people who provided Wafa with her belt, and about her family, as well as those in Palestinian society who have condemned what she tried to do? And in case anyone should feel sorry for Wafa al-Biss, or think her yet another poor Palestinian oppressed by "Nazi Israel," please bear in mind that, when she was released from jail this year (as one of the many Palestinian terrorists freed to allow Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, to be freed from his illegal imprisonment by Hamas), one of the first things she did was to address a group of schoolchildren, saying, "you will walk the same path we took and God willing, we will see some of you as martyrs."
Is a checkpoint which stopped her blowing up doctors and patients in a hospital morally unacceptable to Christians in the UK? This Ecumenical Accompanier saw the checkpoints from one side only, as inconveniences and sometimes major obstacles to Palestinians, but with no consideration for those who are faced with a major terrorist threat from hospital patients, women with fake pregnancies, or – most horrifically – from little children primed with bombs. No, the woman from EAPPI only wanted to tear down the checkpoints (and let the murderers through?). Similarly, another speaker, Norah Carmi, called for the dismantling of the wall and security fence. Was that advisable from a representative of a Christian charity?
Since the erection of the barrier (of which only about 2% is a wall), terrorist attacks in Israel have dropped to almost zero. Hundreds of lives have been saved. Would the speaker who called for the barrier's destruction have felt her heart swell with pride if instead the toll of deaths from terrorism grew year upon year – as happened in the years before the barrier was erected? Surely not. I therefore ask whether it was a caring and Christian thing for her to demand. Would it not be the Christian action to defend – or at least seek to understand – any passive measure that puts an end to acts of violence? Is Norah Carmi's call – in effect, for Israel to allow suicide bombers unimpeded access to create death and havoc in Israeli cities – capable of being included within the boundaries of Christ's compassion? Rather than speaking at length to the conference, should she not have done better to examine her own conscience?
Carmi is, of course, associated with the ecumenical association Sabeel, for whom she had worked in Jerusalem, just as she currently works for Kairos Palestine, which is closely associated with Sabeel and its supercessionist theology. At the conference was a large table and poster for Friends of Sabeel, and at one point Stephen Leah referred favorably to a book by Sabeel founder Naim Ateek. Significantly, Ateek's earliest writings focus on the trope that the Jews have no right to a sovereign state of their own. This alone is outrageously anti-Semitic and well outside the bounds of what I would call a Christian witness. At one point Carmi said, "Peace which is in the Old Testament, the Book of the Jews, is not seen in our land." Now, in a conference dedicated to the subject of peace, this is a strong statement. It leaves too many important questions unanswered. Peace questions, which should have been at the very core of this conference, went unaddressed. Chief among these was, "Who has been responsible for an absence of peace?" It was a general consensus that the blame for this fell every time on Israel. But the historical facts are quite the opposite. If honesty is a Christian virtue – which it surely is – then those assembled at the conference did their utmost to ignore it. I have added to this article an appendix that shows a chronological presentation of the historical facts, which I would ask you to consider, if only to show that there is a second side to the argument. It is certainly my opinion that peace will not come to the Holy Land unless and until the Palestinians show themselves willing to make peace with Israel and to live in peace with Israelis as their neighbors.
In 1967, a conference held in Khartoum by the Arab League made the following statement: "No negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel [as a Jewish state], no peace with Israel." These three "Nos" have been accepted widely: you will find them in the Hamas Charter, in the PLO Constitution, and in a famous "Risala Maftuha," or Open Letter, of Hezbollah. Citing an elementary part of Shari'a Law, the Hamas Charter says, "In face of the Jews' usurpation of Palestine, it is compulsory that the banner of Jihad be raised." In Article Thirteen, it states, "Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement." And in the same article, it notes, "There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors." I draw attention to statements such as these to clarify where the resistance to peace comes from. It does not come from Israel. Yet neither Mrs. Carmi nor any other speaker saw fit to draw attention to these egregious attacks on peacemaking from the Palestinian side.
This was a conference about peace, yet the main obstacle to peace was discreetly set aside. Many of those gathered in Gateshead say they work closely with Palestinians, and Norah Carmi is a Palestinian herself, yet there was no indication that anyone enters into dialogue with Muslim Palestinians to engage them with this dilemma. Instead, speaker after speaker called on Israel to reach a resolution. This was absurd. Israel has made numerous demarches for peace and has been rejected for over sixty years. If talk is good and balance is essential, I have to ask what right the conference had to blame Israel as an obstacle to peace and to pass over the many sins of the Palestinians, not in silence, but with lavish praise? To show this in some detail, please read the appendix, where I have listed Israeli peace initiatives and their fate at the hands of Palestinian leaders.
Elsewhere, Carmi declared herself to be "very connected to the Palestinian cause." Given that no Jewish or Israeli views were expressed throughout the day, Carmi let slip the veil of impartiality, which she had drawn about herself, when she said, "I am impartial." Clearly, she is as impartial as any party member toeing the line. Given her prominence as a speaker, her blatant espousal of one side tainted the atmosphere. I would have no problem with her being pro-Palestinian were it not that the Israeli cause was ruled out from the start.
Carmi stated that poverty on the West Bank was due to the existence of Israeli settlements. She was being wholly disingenuous. A World Bank report on the situation, which runs to 83 pages, does not mention settlements once. External commentators have identified two responsible factors: Internal corruption, which is very high, and Israeli closures. There is without question a large measure of poverty in the West Bank, but the economy is far from stagnant. Since 2007, there has been a steady growth in all areas, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has predicted that this will rise to 12%. In 2008, there was an economic boom that placed the West Bank above both Israel and the West in general. Life expectancy in the territory is now higher than in neighboring Turkey and Jordan, coming well above the majority of countries in the world.
If Christians want to take action on poverty, they would be better employed in the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique, where, at 39.2, life expectancy is the lowest in the world, against 73.4 in the Palestinian territories. If there is to be a preferential option for the poor, it would praiseworthy for Christians to work together to alleviate Palestinian poverty, but very wrong indeed to focus so much campaigning zeal and funding into the West Bank rather than into much more deeply impoverished countries in Africa and elsewhere. And if the matter is to be understood in terms of Liberation Theology, surely the first focus must be on sin as a provocation to poverty. If that is so, then why did no one at this conference once mention Palestinian violence or Palestinian stubbornness in refusing to recognize that Jews have historic, legal and moral rights to have a sovereign state in a part of the region? Palestinian violence and Palestinian stubbornness are, in this conflict, two of the besetting sins whose removal would take the region to a state of peace within a very short time indeed and would propel the Gazan and West Bank economies to new heights.
Carmi's grossest comment came about halfway through her address, when she argued that "Israel is the only state in the world that can defy international law." It seems she had forgotten countries such as Syria, Iran, Burma, North Korea, China, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Somalia, Morocco, Pakistan, Afghanistan and many others, including the United States. This is particularly ironic: she condemns Israel, where religious freedom is genuine and ubiquitous, yet she signally ignores countries such as Egypt or Pakistan which restrict religious freedom, especially for Christians, who flourish in Israel.
She also remained conspicuously silent about the several illegal wars launched against Israel by Arab states, and the terrorism, stretching from the 1920s to the present, carried out by the Palestinians (aided by countries such as Syria and Iran) against Jews and Israelis in pursuance of a clear policy of forcing Jews out of Israel, thereby leaving the territory open to an Arab take-over. It is hard to understand why a fair-minded person would exceptionalize Israel in this way, following a long established pattern that defines Israel and Israel alone as a violator of human rights, an initiator of violence, and a selfish actor that refuses to withdraw from someone else's territory. The truth is very different. At the very least, should Israel's status be debated, we must start with the Jewish state as one out of a large number of countries involved in disputes. We should also emphasize that Israel is alone among all the nations in the world in having its very existence challenged by dictatorial neighboring states and organizations -- after Israel has been invaded, attacked regularly by gunmen, suicide bombers, and rockets, and made the subject of horrendous lies and curses which no other country has faced.
I found it worrying that Mrs. Carmi said that Christians are not persecuted (by Muslims) in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This was cause for grave disquiet. The statement is simply not true and raises questions about her proper allegiance regarding the rights of Christians to freedom of worship and equality. Numerous Christian organizations, such as the Barnabus Trust, the Global Jesus Christ Network, Open Doors, Persecution.com, and International Christian Concern, which all work to alleviate suffering from the persecution of Christians worldwide, draw attention to the plight of Christians in the Middle East in general and the Palestinian territories in particular, where Bethlehem has shifted from a Christian majority town to one with a Muslim-majority in only a few generations. By contrast, since 1948, the Christian population of Israel is the only one in the entire Middle East to have grown. To convey a little of the facts concerning this, here are some short quotations:
And here are some figures that should give pause for thought, regarding Christians in Bethlehem, Jesus' birthplace:
That an ostensibly pious Christian woman chose to deny the persecution of her brethren, probably from motives of staying friendly with pro-Palestinians in and around Jerusalem, came as a shock. It also shocked me that she berated Israel despite its genuine efforts to protect its Christian communities from both Muslim and Jewish extremists. Moreover, it was deeply dismaying that, even though she must know this very well, she said not a word about the Islamic hatred for Jews – not just in the Palestinian territories but in every single Arab country, and non-Arab countries such as Iran, Turkey, Europe, and elsewhere.
At one point, for example, Mrs. Carmi spoke of Israelis as "tough and arrogant conquerors." The Israelis have never marched into another land as conquerors, but only in self defense. They have pulled out of Sinai and Gaza and southern Lebanon, not as a result of military defeat, but in order to establish and encourage peace – hardly the actions of "arrogant conquerors." The Israelis have (see appendix) repeatedly appealed to the Palestinians to make a comprehensive and permanent peace and allow them to withdraw from the vast majority of the West Bank, subject only to mutually agreed land swaps. Which arrogant conquerors would do that, and do it so often?
I also take exception to Carmi's use of the word "tough," once again without context. The Jewish rabbi and novelist Chaim Potok once wrote in Wanderings that, after the Holocaust, there could be no more gentle Jews. For good reason. In the Holocaust, Jews were herded onto trains and penned in camps, where so many of them died. It is that sort of toughness – combining strength with compassion – that I have always associated with the Israelis whom I have met and observed. It is the reason why Israelis born in the land are often called Sabras, prickly pears: tough on the outside, sweet inside. There may be many exceptions to that, and there are certainly Israelis who are arrogant, stubborn and uninterested in making concessions for peace. But smearing all Israelis in this way is incorrect and, I feel, un-Christian. It reminds me too much of the Israel=Nazi State falsehood that does so much disservice to any intelligent debate.
Not one word, furthermore, was said about Palestinian violence. In the ten years 2001-2010, there were about 190 major terrorist attacks on innocent Israelis – attacks in which victims died. There were vastly more attacks that caused injury, not to mention, with different dates, the barrages of rockets sent from Gaza into Sderot and other towns. Yet this was passed over in silence, as were the wars fought against Israel and the striking elevation of "resistance" above all other values in Gaza and the West Bank; and the ubiquitous training of children in the arts of jihad.
One speaker referred to the work done by the Israeli human rights organization B'tselem, portraying it as pro-Palestinian (which it largely is). But nothing was said about B'tselem's view of Palestinian violence, such as this: "Palestinian organizations raise several arguments to justify attacks on Israeli civilians. The main argument is that 'all means are legitimate in fighting for independence against a foreign occupation.' This argument is completely baseless, and contradicts the fundamental principle of international humanitarian law. According to this principle, civilians are to be protected from the consequences of warfare, and any attack must discriminate between civilians and military targets. This principle is part of international customary law; as such, it applies to every state, organization, and person, even those who are not party to any relevant convention." Would this not have been relevant, indeed crucial to any sense of proportion and balance?
Another thing on which Mrs. Carmi spent some time, was the question of imminent evictions in the Jerusalem suburb of Silwan. This is a huge topic, and again a proper context would have been helpful. She spoke – as elsewhere – as if there was only one side to this very divisive issue. There is not. She spoke of 150 Arab residents who were to be evicted from their homes, and as far as that goes, she was entitled to do so. But she chose not to mention that, over the past fifty years, some 700 Arabs illegally moved into that location. Currently, 100 illegal structures are to be demolished, in the way illegal buildings are destroyed here in Britain and elsewhere. The Israeli authorities will redesign the area, rehouse all the Arab residents in multi-story buildings, and build hotels and other amenities which will provide jobs for residents. Rather than choose to pursue this narrative of regeneration, Mrs. Carmi took the hard Palestinian line, which invariably portrays everything the Israelis do as unjust and selfish. I have to ask if a Christian should be denying her audience the opportunity to come to a full and informed decision on the matter.
Mrs. Carmi mentioned one thing that particularly muddied the waters, in stating that Palestinians have the right of return to Israel. This is not true, but in Palestinian and pro-Palestinian circles it is much bandied about. It would, of course, have undermined much of her argument if she had given the reasons as to why it is untrue. Briefly: the Palestinian narrative tells of a Nakba, or catastrophe, in 1948, when hordes of Israeli troops expelled the Arabs who had lived for millennia in a place called Palestine. Therefore, they argue, those who were dispossessed of their inheritance are entitled (along with their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so forth) to return to their towns and homes and take possession of them once more. Historically, so far as the situation in 1948 is concerned, this is blatantly false.
Six Arab armies that invaded Israel on the day after it proclaimed independence. The Jews had accepted the UN partition plan of 1947 and implemented UN Resolution 181(II); the Arabs had rejected it. This rejection was what started hostilities. The Jews were fighting against forces that had committed themselves to genocide, as Arab documents clearly show. The Israelis had been happy to have the Arabs as citizens from the beginning; there were no Israeli plans to expel anyone. The Arabs, however, were betrayed by their own people, by the Arab Higher Committee (chaired by an Arab who had spent the WWII in Berlin, working for Hitler) and the Arab Liberation Army, both of whom had their own motives in urging the Arabs of Israel to leave: to return to their homes once the Arab forces had succeeded in clearing out and killing the Jews. The Arabs, through rejecting their right to stay, forfeited their right to return.
But what if they did return, as Norah Carmi hopes? According to UNWRA, there are around 5 million Arab refugees, mainly from the 1948 war. The vast majority of these, at present, are descendants of the 1948 refugee population. There are now roughly six million Jews and some one and a half million Arab Israelis (those Arabs who did not flee when the Arab armies invaded in 1948) residing in Israel. The influx of five million Arabs would overwhelm the Jewish population and lead to the disestablishment of the world's only sovereign state for the Jewish people and the only democracy in the Middle East. Such an inundation would create an unparalleled injustice and, in every likelihood, a humanitarian disaster – a legitimate fear and concern of the Israelis that, in a conference on peace and justice in the Holy Land, should have been addressed.
Zionism, a movement devoted to the creation of a Jewish state, emerged partly out of the persecution inflicted on Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe. The establishment of Israel brought to an end two thousand years of wandering by Jews driven from their original homeland. It brought a degree of restitution for those two thousand years; it restored hope in Jewish hearts, and created a safe place where Jews could defend themselves from further attempts to deny them the simple rights afforded other human beings. The return of all Palestinian refugees would destroy Israel, would invite violence by the many jihadist groups who openly call for the destruction of Israel and death to Jews, and would return Jews to their earlier status as wanderers in a hostile world.
On 29 November 1947, when the UN voted for a Jewish state, Jews around the world sobbed their hearts out in the realization that another Holocaust would not come because they could finally defend themselves. At the very least, for the next round of Nazis, there would be some very bloody noses. Amos Oz, Israel's great novelist who was then a child, recalls what his father said to him the next morning:
Yet today, once again, the enemies of the Jews are doing it again: inventing myths about Jews, deriding them, bullying them, describing Israel without a shred of evidence as a Nazi state and an apartheid state. And here are Christians supporting the bullies and adding to the abuse.
That the Arabs have not ceased to attack Israelis because they are Jews must be regarded – and by Christians as much as anyone – to have been a betrayal of that singular hope and all it might have been. Today, the Palestinians call Israel a "Nazi state" and deny that Jews have ever had even a suggestion of connection to the Holy Land or built two temples in Jerusalem. For Christians, this is a denial of both the Old Testament and the New, where the two temples are a clear part of the narrative – yet few Christian voices are raised in defense of their own scriptures and the promises held in them for the Jewish people.
Another disturbing statement made by Mrs. Carmi was that "most Christian churches are intimidated by the Jewish lobby." This claim is outrageous in the extreme, in all its glaring dishonesty. I have been associated with the pro-Israel lobby for a great many years, and I have yet to hear or read anything by Jewish groups that displays even a hint of ill feeling towards the Christian churches. The animosity here is Mrs. Carmi's, and it troubles me because it plays on imagery and fears that serve only to engender anti-Semitism. It seems closely allied to the Palestinian and pro-Palestinian defamation, derived in many cases from the Nazis, that the Jews control the world, including the media, the banks and – perhaps we are expected to believe – indirectly the Churches. Such calumnies are widespread in the Palestinian territories, in Egypt, in Jordan and elsewhere. They are enormously harmful, not just to the Jewish people, against whom they are directed, but also deeply corrupting for organizations which turn a blind eye to them when repeated at events they are sponsoring. It is urgent to distance organizations such as Christian Aid from this profoundly un-Christian statement, uttered on church premises, by a Christian speaker, at an event for which Christian Aid is responsible.
More than once Mrs. Carmi has expressed herself as critical of the occupation [of the West Bank]. That is reasonable: most Israelis are as keen as her to see an end to the occupation, which has cost them so much in lives and money. But a more balanced comment would have gone on to show why, given the long years of Palestinian attacks on Israel, no Israeli government can pull out until it has cast-iron guarantees that there will be no further recourse to arms. Why? Because Israel is nine miles wide at its narrowest point; the entire country would come within range of missile and rocket attacks. Israel's bitter experience of Gaza – from over 12,000 rocket attacks in six years to Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 to Operation Pillar of defense in 2012 – offers strong proof that Israeli caution is justified. Like everything in the conference, this reprimand remained unbalanced.
Mrs. Carmi wanted Israel to pull back to its 1967 borders. This is unforgivable. She seems to be forgetting that the borders in place before the Six-Day War were notoriously hard to defend, and, if renewed, would only tempt the Arab states to launch another invasion.
Here is a recent statement by Abbas Zaki, a member of the Fatah Central Committee. It comes from an interview that aired on al-Jazeera on 23 September 2011:
It is hard to understand how a caring Christian, fully cognizant of Jesus's message, and surely fully aware of the genocidal intentions of some of her fellow Palestinians, including those in the political leadership, could take this position and remain silent on these points despite the Christian call for love, compassion, and forgiveness. It seems very clear that her attitudes to the Jews are informed mostly both by Islamic doctrine regarding them and discredited Christian dogmas of replacement theology.
Christians and Jews have much in common: a belief in God; reverence for Moses and the prophets, and the writings of the Tanakh; a commitment to the religious life, to piety, and to a profound code of morality. But in recent years, although the Third Reich is long gone and racial anti-Semitism been relegated to the cold corners of most discourse, general hatred for the Jews has grown, not just in the Middle East, where it is rampant and murderous, but in Europe and North America. The far left has shifted from support of Israel and the Jews to contempt, lying and betrayal; and many Christians, under that influence, have espoused a similar philosophy. As a life-long liberal, not a hardline right winger, I believe that something has gone badly wrong when a conference of Christians recognizes only one narrative, places blame on only one side, praises the side most prone to violence and least disposed to peace, presents falsehoods as facts, calls indirectly for the destruction of the only state the Jews have had for two thousand years, and even denies that there is serious persecution of their own brethren in the Palestinian territories.
To remedy this matter, in sorrow, not in anger, a number of points for immediate action might include:
That is probably more than one needs at this stage, but it does give one a range of choices.
The purpose of this article has not been to claim that Israel is always right or that the Palestinians are always wrong. The situation is far too complex to admit of black and white answers. But the conference in Gateshead was far too one-sided for the complexities to be presented or addressed. It is my hope that the response to this letter might set in motion a shift towards balance and even-handedness. I look forward to receiving it.
From a letter to an anti-Israel activist, to be published in 2013:
You say the Israelis 'have ignored peace totally'. Really? Do you have evidence for that? And when I think that over, I see that what you also mean is that the Palestinians – who are, after all, the 'other party' – must be very keen on peace and been rebuffed by those nasty Israelis time after time. Then let me start with these words of Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president, in his address to the first parliamentary session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, auspicious words well suited to such an auspicious occasion. Read them well and ponder them. They were not idle words.
'We extend our hand in peace to our neighbours, and in friendship to all the peace-loving nations.'
Just that. He meant what he said. He had previously signed the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement, which had intended to bring peace to the region once Israel was brought into being. He had openly condemned right-wing Jewish terrorist organizations. But within hours of the declaration of Israeli independence, five armies invaded the new state. Their aim was the destruction of Israel and the massacre of all the Jews living there. Am I exaggerating? If you read further, you'll see that I am not.
David Ben-Gurion told the leadership of his own (Mapai) party in 1947, that the non-Jews in the Jewish state 'will be equal citizens; equal in everything without any exception; that is, the state will be their state as well.' Exactly what more could a minority ask? Their own countries did not and do not offer them the same rights and security. If, like a majority of Palestinians, Iranians and others, you want a one-state solution where the Jews will no longer be in the majority, then you condemn everyone else – including all Israeli Arabs – to a repetition of what they have in their failed, undemocratic states, states that have collapsed or are collapsing since the so-called 'Arab Spring' and which are re-forming as theocratic states which will offer their citizens even fewer rights. Is that what you want? Look around the Middle East and ask which country is a beacon of light for democracy, freedom, tolerance and human rights. Syria? Libya? Egypt? Iran? Shall I go on?
In 1937, the Peel Commission (a British body) reported on Palestine and recommended division of the land between Jews and Arabs, giving vastly more land to the Arabs. The Jews gratefully accepted a tiny state, the Arabs rejected the generous offer that had been made to them and continued with violence. Can you put your hand on your heart and call this 'Israel ignoring peace'?
In 1947, UN Resolution 181 presented a different partition plan. The Jews accepted it, the Arabs did not and chose to go on with their violence. To this day, it is the only UN resolution anywhere in the world that has been rejected and tossed aside in favour of war. Much of that violence was directed by the chairman of the Arab Higher Committee, Hajj Muhammad Amin al-Husayni, a 'religious' figure with not a shred of conscience. Al-Husayni was a wanted war criminal, a friend of Hitler and Himmler, an anti-Semite who had spent most of the Second World War in Berlin, broadcasting for the Nazis and creating his own Bosnian SS Division. It was his plan to build a concentration camp in Nablus and to send the region's Jews there for extermination.
Al-Husayni took his intentions for extermination very seriously, ordering the deaths of Jews in direct terms: 'I declare a holy war, my Moslem brothers! Murder the Jews! Murder them all!' Or, again: 'Kill the Jews wherever you find them, this is pleasing to Allah.' (Just to clarify, this is not Israel ignoring peace, but the greatest Arab leader of his day calling on his followers to murder people already traumatized by the Third Reich, of which he thought so highly.)
Al-Husyani wasn't the only one to threaten to exterminate the Jews. On May 1 1948, two weeks before the Arab invasion, the Secretary-General of the Arab League, 'Abd al-Rahman 'Azzam Pasha, declared: 'If the Zionists dare establish a state, the massacres we would unleash would dwarf anything which Genghis Khan and Hitler perpetrated.' And to make sure his meaning was clear, he said on the following day: 'This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.' The war that followed was described by the Arabs as a jihad, just as we see in some of the documents that still dictate the aims of the Palestinians. You may think you don't hate Jews, but the truth is you keep very dubious company in those you support. Friends of neo-Nazis, supporters and planners of genocide, racists and bigots. Perhaps you're not too concerned about that, but if you are I suggest you keep reading.
After the end of the 1948-49 war, the Israelis were willing to accept partition, in this case allowing Egypt to occupy the Gaza Strip and Transjordan (later Jordan) the West Bank. The Arabs launched 90,000 terror attacks, mainly from Gaza. This terrorism continued all the way to 1967, when Israel was victorious in the Six-Day War, a conflict forced on the Jewish state when Egypt, Jordan and Syria massed military forces and equipment on its borders in yet another peace-making gesture by the Arabs. In return for a possible peace, Israel offered to give back land it had legally occupied in a defensive war. Meanwhile, the Arab League met in Khartoum and delivered the Khartoum Declaration, its response to the Israeli offer: 'No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it'. And you accuse Israel of walking away from peace and whitewash the Palestinians as peace-lovers. That is not just naïve, it is headstrong refusal to look at the facts. If you want to work for peace, as you say, then you must work with the peacemakers, not throw in your lot with those who say 'no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel'. You did say you abhor countries that ignore peace, didn't you?
It didn't end with the Six-Day War, of course. In October 1973, on a Jewish high holiday, Egypt and Syria (a country run by those nice people who shoot their own citizens in the street) launched a surprise attack on Israel. Another war, another jihad, another attempt to destroy the only Jewish state. Let me get this right: it was Israel you said ignored peace, wasn't it?
In 1979, those warmongering Israelis signed a peace treaty with Egypt. To obtain it, they gave up a vast tract of land, the Sinai peninsula (that's 61,100 square kilometres altogether). This really puzzles me. You write that 'Israel has ignored peace totally for 63+ years', yet here we have Israel giving up valuable land in return for – guess what? – peace. And what happened to Egypt, as punishment for making peace? It was suspended from the Arab League for many years.
The Camp David Accords which led to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty also set down an arrangement for a five-year period of negotiations to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. This was well-intentioned: 'the parties are determined to reach a just, comprehensive, and durable settlement of the Middle East conflict through the conclusion of peace treaties based on Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 in all their parts. Their purpose is to achieve peace and good neighbourly relations.' The Arabs rejected this overture. So, am I correct? Israel, which offered negotiations in good faith is the country that spurns peace, and its enemies are virtually hippies when it comes to hugging trees and wearing little CND badges?
Another peace treaty was signed between Israel and Jordan in 1994. It was preceded by six years of mindless Palestinian violence against Israel, known as the First Intifada. More lives were lost, and for very little. It certainly didn't bring the Palestinians any closer to negotiations, to an agreement, to peace. Israel makes peace, the Palestinians scream and shout, throw stones, and risk their children's lives, then complain. They suffer, but that is not necessarily Israel's doing, is it?
In 1998, Israel and the Palestine Authority signed the potentially significant Wye River Memorandum, in which both sides agreed to take various actions to promote peace. Israel transferred large amounts of land. The Palestinians did not act on any of their agreements, and the demarche fell through. Two years later (see below), the Second Intifada broke out, spurred on by the PA. Who is offering peace and who is turning their back on it?
The disparity between Israeli intentions for peace and Palestinian recalcitrance is most clearly seen in the fiasco of the 2000 Camp David Summit, when US president Bill Clinton, Israeli president Ehud Barak, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat met to knock out an agreement that the Jews and Arabs could take home to their people as a basis for lasting peace between them. Barak went further than any previous Israeli president had gone, and offered Arafat 97% of the West Bank, and 100% of Gaza and East Jerusalem. If you have ever been involved in thrashing out a business deal, you will know that nobody expects to get 100% and 97% of his demands. It just doesn't happen. Arafat should have been delirious with joy, he should have been the first on his feet, dancing in circles, calling his Mum to tell her what had happened, he should have known that the majority of his people would leap at a chance to set up their own state at last and to enjoy peace, prosperity and security for the first time in many years. What, in fact, did Arafat – who had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for taking these talks so far – what did he do? He walked away. He went into a huff, and effectively spat in the faces of Clinton and Barak, in the faces of the Jewish people, and, worst of all, in the faces of the Palestinian people. Please tell me why you don't think Mr Arafat was turning his back on peace, and why you think the Israelis did everything in their power to scupper the talks – apart from making all those concessions.
A year later, Arafat said he had decided to accept the deal. It was too late. Within two months of his walking away from the negotiations, he had launched the Second Intifada, known as the al-Aqsa Intifada to match false claims that it had been sparked off by the Israeli opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, when he went onto the Temple Mount. In fact, violence had begun about ten days before Sharon went near the Mount. It was a deliberate attempt to destroy the peace process, it cost 5,500 Palestinian lives and those of 1,100 Israelis, it brought suicide bombing to new heights, and it created nothing but enmity. From the Palestinian side, it was another waste of time: Jews who were terrified by the daily acts of terror did not, for the most part, leave Israel. Those who stayed did so with a renewed confidence that this was the land they had prayed to return to for almost two thousand years, and their children and their children's children would resist any pressure to diminish it, or expel them from it, or kill them. Can you blame them? Violence was thrust upon them, as it had been before. They were not ignoring peace. They were praying for it every day.
In that same year, 2000, when the Second Intifada started, Clinton and Barak offered Syria 98% of the Golan Heights, long a stretch of land in contention between the two countries. President Assad walked away. Does this give you a sense of déjà vu? Have you noticed that it's always the Israeli side that offers the concessions, always the Arab side that walks away?
In 2001, a poll showed that 58% of Palestinian Arabs supported armed attacks against Israeli civilians inside Israel, and 92% supported attacks against Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza. Explain to me how this builds trust between people and contributes to peace. Tell me how this brings both sides closer to a cessation of violence?
In 2003, the Road Map to peace was set out. Israel started to pull its troops out of population centres, increased the humanitarian aid it was already giving to the Palestinians, and started to dismantle its outposts. The PA refused to stop its terror. Mahmoud Abbas, a man who hates peace as much as Yasir Arafat ever did, said: 'Cracking down on Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Palestinian organizations is not an option'. Why was it not an option? Doing so would have brought the Palestinians a long way towards normality and prosperity. About this time, Hamas leader 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Rantisi, a notorious Holocaust denier, said: 'We will kill Jews everywhere. There will be no security for any Jews, those who came from America, Russia or anywhere.' Do you get the picture? And do you wonder that the Israelis have had to build a security fence between themselves and murderous suicide bombers? I will return to that later.
Likewise in 2003, on October 4th, a Palestinian woman, Hanadi Janadat, detonated a suicide belt inside the Maxim restaurant in Haifa (long known as a city where Jews and Arabs co-exist). Twenty-one people were killed. Two families were wiped out, along with four children, one a 2-month-old baby. 75% of Palestinians in the West Bank supported this act of butchery, and 82% in Gaza. And you accuse Israel of not wanting peace. Can't you see that it is attacks like these or the cruel slaughter of the Fogel family in Itamar last March that take precious Israeli lives and destroy Palestinian hopes? You say you believe in peace. Why can't you speak out to condemn the use of terrorism against innocent people? Why don't you criticize the Palestinians just as you do the Israelis? If you are truly a man of peace, how come you let the violence of the Palestinians go by without a murmur?
In 2005, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Totally. All troops. All civilians. All claims. This was done at a huge financial and moral cost, and it was done with good will. Jews wept and clung to one another as Israeli troops took them from their homes. Israelis left a complex of state of the art greenhouses in which the people of Gaza could continue to develop their successful flower and plant industry, which was planned to kick-start the strip's economy. No sooner had the Israelis gone than mobs of Palestinians fell on the greenhouses, smashing and tearing them to pieces. Is that sane behaviour? We hate these greenhouses because they were Jewish? We prefer to destroy our economy and live in poverty rather than touch something Jews have used?
What followed was worse. A terrorist group, Hamas, took control of Gaza. And now the party of venomous thugs who wrote the Hamas Charter turned Gaza into a launching pad for missiles directed at southern Israel. Over 10,000 rockets, to be precise. Aimed at civilians. Aimed at little children in school and kindergarten. Timed to strike when little boys and girls were walking to or from school. Are you surprised that Israelis despair of finding someone sane with whom to negotiate? To find someone for whom their children are precious, people who refuse to use children as human shields?
Following the Annapolis Summit in November 2007, in 2008 Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians another great deal involving 93% of the West Bank, a link between Gaza and the West Bank, and a land swap that would compensate the Palestinians for the loss of some territory. Mahmoud Abbas, stubborn as ever, rejected the proposal out of hand. Do you see a pattern here, have you noticed the manoeuvres resembling those of a child who will not stop screaming till he gets everything he wants? It is not the way to peace. As Binyamin Netanyahu said to Barack Obama recently, 'I think the Palestinians want to achieve a state in the international community, but they're not prepared yet to give peace to Israel in return.'
In 2009 the same Binyamin Netanyahu gave a speech at Bar Ilan University, offering a Palestinian state. It was warmly received by world leaders as a constructive step toward peace. In response, the Palestinians refused to respond to his offer, but promised violence in return. Ahmed Bahar, acting chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said that the speech proved that 'resistance' [i.e. terrorism] was the only way for Palestinians to receive the rights they deserved.' (Al-Intiqad, 15 Jun 2009). Following the speech, the sixth Fatah Conference resolved to 'totally reject recognition of Israel as a Jewish state', to 'adopt all legitimate forms of struggle' against Israel, and 'to be creative in finding new forms of struggle and resistance.' (Fatah Political Program, al-Ayyam, 11 Aug 2009.) This is making gestures for peace?
This resistance to reaching an agreement with Israel doesn't stop at the level of formal politics. At the first sanctimonious Palestinian BDS (Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions) conference in 2007 it was agreed that 'Normalisation means to participate in any project or initiative or activity, local or international, specifically designed for gathering (either directly or indirectly) Palestinians (and/or Arabs) and Israelis, whether individuals or institutions, that does not explicitly aim to expose and resist the occupation and all forms of discrimination and oppression against the Palestinian people.' This means that BDS activists from abroad like yourself refuse to engage in any reciprocal activity with Israelis, be they scientists, medics, artists, academics, economists, politicians, teachers, schoolchildren, women calling for change, financial experts – all people who might offer help and a future to the citizens of a future Palestine. Palestinians already benefit from treatment in Israeli hospitals. No doubt the BDS campaigners would prohibit that and just leave Palestian children to die at home, with help only round the corner.
Israel cannot win against Palestinian immovability. When Ehud Olmert made an unprecedented peace offer in 2008, Mahmoud Abbas declared he would not accept it, saying 'l will wait for Israel to freeze settlements' (Washington Post, May 2009). But when the Israeli government offered to freeze all settlements for ten months in 2009, the Fatah Central Committee claimed that PM Netanyahu was trying to avoid peace, stated that the Israeli decision showed Netanyahu was 'continuing to avoid the peace process and ignore all opportunities to achieve peace.' (Jerusalem Post, 26 Nov 2009). No matter what offers the Israelis make, the Palestinians will always find an excuse to back away.
Two years later, in 2010, Fatah again rejected an opportunity to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. One Israeli official said: 'I would ask the Palestinians the following question: If the Jewish state is fundamentally illegitimate in your eyes, what sort of peace are you offering us?' 'It is clear,' he added, 'that their refusal to recognize the Jewish state's legitimacy is the true obstacle to peace and reconciliation.' (Jerusalem Post, November 2010). He was right, wasn't he? How can you possibly deny it? After all, how has it ever hurt any state to recognize Israel as a Jewish country, established by Jews to provide a refuge to Jews persecuted and killed in all corners of the earth? I shall come back to this point later, for I believe a very large part of the problem hinges on it, that Jewishness is, in itself, the chief reason why Muslim states in general and the Palestinian Authority in particular reject Israel's right to exist.
In July 2011, Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian Authority's Head of Foreign Relations made the following uncompromising statement in the course of an interview for Lebanese ABN Television, a Christian network broadcasting in the Middle East.
In what way does this advance the cause of peace? How will it reduce friction between Israel and its neighbours? How, if at all, will this take us beyond the rejectionist policies of 1947?
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