On 12 May I accepted an invitation to be one of the speakers at a forum on “Social Justice: Israel/Palestine” held at the Wheeler Centre Melbourne. On reflection it is one invitation I should not have accepted.
Since the night I have been seeking to confirm its sponsor. I have been told it was Dialogue4Peace. So far I have unsuccessfully tried to find any information about the group, its members, or its purpose. Why didn’t I do due diligence before the evening? Good question, with a fine sounding name I assumed ‘dialogue’ and ‘peace’.
Why angst after the event? Because it was an event the like of which I cannot recall experiencing in now more than 50 years of public life. Neither ‘dialogue’ nor ‘peace’ was on the agenda that night. At least it gave me a momentary glimpse into the world Palestinians suffer 24/7.
There was no dialogue, just raw confrontation. Material left on the seats for the audience to pick up was spiteful, and presented a generic picture of Palestinians as terrorists, devoid of morality and the cause of the ongoing conflict. I and the Palestinian speaker Yousef Alreemawi, provided information about APAN and copies of the Kairos statement, a theological and social justice statement signed by leaders of the Middle East Council of Churches.
The opening speech at the forum was an unrelenting attack on me, presumably because I speak in defence of Palestinian rights as President of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network. The second speaker in support of Israel’s position was a Coptic Christian. I totally understand the depth of anguish she feels as a result of the atrocities meted out to Coptic Church membership in Egypt from extreme elements claiming to be Islamic. As a fellow Christian I identify with the anguish, but what has that to do with Palestinians? It is also important to remember that following these atrocities grassroots Egyptian Muslims came to the aid, defence and support of their Coptic fellow citizens.
The assertion at the heart of the presentation exonerating Israel and blaming the Palestinians was that this is essentially a religious conflict and more specifically a religious conflict being waged by extreme elements of Islam. It of course suits Israel for this assertion to be made because it allows Israel to justify (to itself and its friends) its military incursions and its oppression of Palestinians on the basis that it is joining the free world in a global fight against Islamic terrorism. It would have been good if the forum could have debated this out. But it was not to be. Fortunately this terrible misrepresentation of truth has not been swallowed by most in the international community although of course it is peddled as truth in America and Australia. Regular polls indicate that the majority of Australians have not swallowed it either, although it appears to suit many of our political elite to run this line.
Does injustice provide a seedbed for extremism – yes it does. Is a convenient flag of identity for extremism a religious flag – yes it is. Do the extremists live out the values of the religious flag they carry – no they don’t. Should a civilian population be corporately punished for the acts of violence of a few – no of course they should not. But shamefully this is what is happening to the Palestinian people through a denial of their basic human rights.
Should the injustices which provide the seedbed for extremism be addressed – yes of course they should, but rather than being addressed they are being exacerbated. To their absolute credit the Palestinian civilian population has disavowed violent resistance and are focussed on non-violent resistance. The current hunger strike is one form of this resistance, BDS is another.
The facts of the matter are that this is not a religious conflict. It is a conflict that has intensified as the power and domination of Israel has grown. This domination increasingly denies Palestinians the right to exist. (Ironic that Israel insists exclusively on the opposite). The international community is clear about Israel’s borders, (the 1967 borders) 78% of historic Palestine. But Netanyahu and his government clearly covet the remaining 22% which the Palestinians since the Oslo Accord have remarkably been prepared to accept as a Two-State solution. However every day more and more of this 22% disappears as more illegal settlements are constructed and Israeli roads and infrastructure alienate more and more land. For centuries Arabs and Jews lived side by side. 20th and 21st century migration has changed all of that. Palestinians are now corralled into smaller and smaller enclaves without proper access to basic resources while newly-arrived Israeli immigrants from anywhere in the world are afforded a first world standard of living on land which has been confiscated from Palestinians.
It is said that the majority of Israelis are not religious (although their leadership and supporters rely on religious history to undergird claims on land). The majority of Palestinians are Muslim and a minority Christian, but the identity that forms and nourishes them is that they are Palestinian.
The presentations on Thursday night in support of Israel discouraged moderation, they encouraged extreme and distorted views of reality out of fear, and I am sorry to say, out of hate. The question which concluded the forum was “what advice do you have for Trump and others who claim to be looking for a solution to this conflict”. My answer was that I would ask Netanyahu whether he wants common ground. If common ground is not wanted it will never exist.
It is my experience that Palestinians long for peace, for the opportunity to live their lives as others do. The majority of Palestinians would, in my view, be prepared to live with any solution as long as it was a genuine democracy with equal rights for everyone. Surely this is not too much to ask?
Netanyahu on the other hand rules out, either a One-State or a Two-State solution, presumably meaning he would like all Palestinians to leave or be corralled into disconnected Bantustans.
In the forum those defending Israel were aggrieved at the use of the term apartheid to describe the current situation. It was said that anyone who had lived in South Africa during the Apartheid era would not use this language of Israel. It was pointed out that before his death this was exactly how Mandela described the Palestinian plight and it is how Desmond Tutu continues to describe it.
This is not a religious conflict, it is a conflict of human rights, a conflict of social justice, the moral argument is with the Palestinians, it is little wonder that those who support Israel fall back on invective in the absence of any moral argument.