The following are glimpses of my recent trip to the Palestinian Territories, written in the context of an open letter to the Executive Council of Australian Jews. I shall write again when the Prime Minister's policy about Australia's diplomatic presence in Israel and its policy towards a peaceful and just resolution for Palestine and Israel alike is revealed.
I am honoured that you think my contribution to public debate on the situation confronting Israel/Palestine is worthy of your monitoring. I note that you have considerable references to me in your annual report on anti-Semitism in Australia. It is to this I would like now to respond.
I have just returned from 10 days in the Palestinian Territories and would like to give you a glimpse into my experiences.
I visited the military court to witness the parading of young children, shackled, before a military judge for action of civil disobedience, primarily stone throwing. Let me illustrate from the case of a young 15-year-old from Hebron. I met his parents in the waiting area. They were a decent normal couple wanting to live ordinary lives who beside facing the daily humiliation of checkpoints and other restrictions have had their lives turned upside down by military intrusion into their home at 3.00.am in the morning when their lad was dragged from them. I asked the boy’s father what message he would like me to take to the world. He said, please tell the world the settlements are choking us. We have no freedom to live normal lives.
The boy, who has already been in custody for a month, was brought in with three others. It was a charade. The whole matter lasted barely five minutes to find his case was adjourned again. He was handed a document in Hebrew to sign, a document he could not read or understand. I felt helpless and humiliated for them, that by default my government supports this daily ritual. (We are constantly reminded that Australia and Israel share the same values – we most certainly do not). I promised the family that I will light a candle for them every day in my home in a feeble attempt to keep the light of hope alive.
I went to meet the Tamimi family. On a few rare occasions in my life I have felt I have been in the presence of true humanity. I felt it when I walked into a room for the first time to meet Xanana Gusmao. I felt it deeply when Desmond Tutu stayed in my home for a week, and I felt it when introduced to the great Madaba (Nelson Mandela). This family exists in the rarefied atmosphere of those who have resisted intimidation and oppression and have retained not simply their own dignity, but also love and commitment for the freedom of all humanity – including their oppressors. They live in area C the largest portion of the Palestinian Territories which is totally under the control of Israeli occupation with no rights or freedoms, including no right to build on their own property. I was reminded that Bassem had been invited to Australia only to find that when he reached the Amman intentional airport his Australian visa had been cancelled, presumably on advice from you guys to the Australian government. Bassem asked me who was the freest, himself who stands up against oppression or an Australian like me who is afraid to stand up against a Lobby that manages to cower Australian media and politicians alike. The answer is painfully obvious.
I journeyed to Hebron again, the largest Arab city on the West Bank. I understand the city consists of 700,000+ Arabs with a few hundred settlers guarded by a couple of thousand Israeli troops. I stopped outside a home that in the previous 24 hours had been confiscated by Israeli authorities, the Arab family that had lived there for generations were gone and a party was being held by the new settler occupants. Again, I walked past the shuttered and ghost like main street which has been banned to Palestinians for the last several years. But I want most to tell you that I walked down the current market thoroughfare for the second time. It is a bustling and culturally wonderful street, but which has tarpaulin and netting above it to try and protect it from the rubbish that is thrown from the settler dwellings above. I had my photograph taken with a wonderful old man in his clothing shop. He showed me a beautiful dress that had been soiled by urine which had been poured down from the settler building above, all done in clear sight of the military outposts that could act to stop these outrages - but choose not to.
I spent a day in the company of a journalist travelling around the world heritage declared area just outside Jerusalem and Bethlehem which is hemmed in by Settlements and its unique vista of terraces and continuous life style over centuries under threat. Clearly the intention is to cut off Bethlehem entirely from Jerusalem and to make life as difficult as possible for the Palestinians, presumably hoping they will go somewhere else. Most will not.
Some will. I visited the Melkite Church in Bethlehem, one of, if not the only Church still using the Aramean language in its worship. I spoke with the Church elder who in 2019 intends to migrate to the UK where his wife and children already reside. He says it breaks his heart to do that, but he said life has been made so intolerable because of the occupation that he feels he has no alternative. It is important for the Christian community worldwide to know that Christianity under occupation has been decimated. It is estimated now that the Christian population in Israel and Palestine is only about 1.7% from a population pre-1948 of over 20%.
From traders in Hebron to taxi drivers in Bethlehem they were all crying out for business. The Israeli Occupation has done such a good job in destroying any economic opportunity for them. The narrative that it is too dangerous for westerners to be in the Palestinian territories is an absolute lie. I have never felt safer. I am an inveterate walker. I walked at all times of day or night in Hebron, Bethlehem and East Jerusalem. Not for one moment did I feel my security was at risk. Palestinians are by nature kind, generous and hospitable.
I had appointments in the Knesset. The one abiding memory of these appointments was feeling the humiliation felt by Arab members of the Israeli parliament that a law has been passed that declares them to be second class citizens. They may in the past have felt this to be true, but now it is enshrined in law. What other country in the so-called free world has enshrined in law 20% of its population can never be full citizens.
These are but a few glimpses, I could give you many more.
I am very grateful to a young Israeli soldier, on duty, who was prepared to engage me in conversation. Following my question as to what future he hoped for he gave a surprising but wonderful response. He said he hoped his children and grandchildren would not be called up for duty as he had been. That they would not have to act against an occupied people as he has had to do and that the time will come when Arabs and Jews will share the same rights and opportunities and live together harmoniously and peacefully.
You see dear ECAJ the occupation is as demeaning to Israelis as it is to the Palestinians. I do not have any sense of antipathy to Jewish people, in fact the opposite, but I have angry contempt for a cruel and evil system that denies common humanity to Palestinians and reduces Israelis to a paranoia of fear and victimhood.
Please keep monitoring me, I would be sad to think my contribution is not worthy of scrutiny. But better still come with me to the Palestinian Territories and see what currently your eyes refuse to see, and your ears refuse to hear.