Reflections on Israel/Palestine by a former anti-apartheid activist

Bethlehem is a name which has been much in Christian minds in recent weeks. Some may have pictured it in traditional fashion, with eastern-style buildings, a wooden stable and a hay-filled manger. Others might have watched one of the increasing number of DVDs which show Bethlehem today, partly surrounded by the thirty-foot wall built by the Israelis, and have sung one of the modern versions of ‘O little town…’ with verses such as those on the worship site.

Christmas also saw the second anniversary of ‘Operation Cast Lead’, in which for many it seemed that the holiday was used as a convenient cover for launching the attack on Gaza which led to 1300 Palestinian deaths, most of them civilians and a substantial number children. Many of the buildings – homes, shops, factories – destroyed on that occasion remain so, due to the blockade on building materials and many other items entering Gaza.

Meanwhile attempts to bring together in peace talks the Palestinians and the right-wing Israeli government brought to power by last year’s election have foundered on Israeli unwillingness to cease building settlements on Palestinian land. This was despite enormous “bribes” in terms of $3bn worth of fighter planes and other” inducements” offered by the US Administration. Recent leaked documents have suggested how far the Palestinians have bent over backwards to find a solution.

For many who were active in campaigning against apartheid in the 1960s and 1970s there are many similarities with the present situation of Israel/Palestine. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has made the same observation. Let me mention seven in particular: the ideology of racism, the occupation of land, military power, economic strangulation, mockery of international law, divide and rule, and public relations.

Racism is an ideology which believes there really are different races within humanity – a belief requiring considerable biological gymnastics – and that some are superior to others. Anti-Arab racism has always been around in western society. with a stereotype of Arabs being seen as devious, untrustworthy, incompetent, corrupt –  and this has been built into a belief system, partly deliberately and partly unconsciously. Such ingrained attitudes will be very familiar to black South Africans.

Land is another key issue. In South Africa the whites had taken the best farming land and claimed it as their own. They also claimed it was ‘promised’ to them, by their God. This is a particularly difficult dispute for Palestinians as Israelis simply point to the Old Testament as justification for their occupation. As on other topics the Bible has a lot to answer for; its assumption that ‘the Promised Land’ was only occupied by unimportant ‘savages’ who simply needed to be swept away by Aaron has led to a mentality both among Israelis and the Christian West which has bedevilled the acceptance of the simple truth that all Semitic peoples have an equal claim to the ‘Holy Land’.

During the years after 1945 the South African state built itself into a military power which could threaten the whole of southern Africa; likewise the Israelis, in relation to the Middle East, with considerable US assistance. Israel is of course entitled to security, but whether extremely advanced military equipment including nuclear weapons need to be part of that is very doubtful. It is interesting that past Israeli-South African co-operation over nuclear know-how has recently come to light. Both states have exhibited paranoia in their relationship to the outside world.

The South Africa of the mid-twentieth century made it extremely difficult for even the most entrepreneurial Black African to progress economically, although a few did succeed. Mostly though black South Africans came in by bus or train from townships to undertake the labouring jobs which whites were unwilling or insufficient in numbers to carry out. Not surprising then that Palestinians find themselves in the same position, struggling to make their way through checkpoints to earn meagre wages in Israeli factories or construction sites, in some cases building the settlements that are on their own Palestinian land.

The ideal solution would undoubtedly be a secular state with equal citizenship between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, with Jerusalem a shared capital. However the United Nations has repeatedly made it clear that a peaceful and legal resolution to the current situation  means withdrawal to the 1967 borders. Israel continues to ignore that, building large ‘settlements’ (some are more like small towns), usually on hilltops and strategically designed to overlook Palestinian land, and roads between them that divide Palestinian communities. They all mock international law, as the apartheid state did when told by the UN to leave Namibia and to end its divisive ‘Homelands’ policy.

The policy of ‘divide and rule’, to separate out the various South African peoples – Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana – and give them each their own territory was successful for a time. It set the different groups against each other, competing for the crumbs from the table of apartheid. It is difficult to judge the part that Israel has played in the divisions between Fatah and Hamas, and certainly the Palestinians must take their responsibility for this, but it is hard to imagine the possibility of setting a Hamas-led Gaza against a Fatah-led West Bank was not in the mind of Ariel Sharon when he pulled Israel out of Gaza. The EU and the US have not helped by refusing to deal with Hamas as the party that won one of the most democratic elections in the Middle East.

Finally both apartheid South Africa and Israel have excelled in public relations, continually putting across their position, appealing to the solidarity of other Europeans/Jews/Christians and subtly undermining the just claims of Africans and Palestinians with mixtures of innuendos, half-truths and lies. Israel has of course able protagonists in the shape of many in the Jewish communities both in Europe and the US, although they do not represent all of Judaism, as groups such as ‘Jews for Justice for Palestine’ show. Some of the Jewish leadership, rather to its shame, seem to play the ‘anti-Semitic’ card against its opponents. The truth is the properly pro-Semitic position to seek justice for all the Semitic peoples of the region.

Like Black and White South Africans did in 1987, Christian Palestinians one year ago launched their own Kairos document ‘A Moment of Truth’, written by an ecumenical group of Christian Palestinians and endorsed by the Heads of thirteen Churches in Jerusalem, including three Patriarchs, five Archbishops and four Bishops. It is obtainable in the UK from Friends of Sabeel, c/o the Church Mission Society in Oxford.

Those who wish to know more of the Palestinian position as it is given little visibility in the media can contact the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, the equivalent of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which runs the ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ campaign, or the Amos Trust which is campaigning for a ‘Just Peace for Palestine – and Israel’. The Methodist Church published a fairly major report at the Annual Conference in July 2010, which has led to a more robust and honest dialogue between Methodism and Judaism here in the UK.

The material for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 2011 has been prepared by a group of Christians from Jerusalem. A Christian leader in Israel/Palestine recently spoke of the importance of the small Christian community there, giving the lie to any claim that this is a purely Jewish/Muslim dispute. The Week of Prayer service ends with prayer for the unity of Christians and for the peace of Jerusalem. This can only come with justice for the Palestinian people, which is the only long-term security for Israel as well.

For that peace-with-justice we must both pray and act.

Revd David Haslam, Methodist Minister and Anti-Apartheid Movement Executive Committee member for twelve years, reflects from his experience of campaigning against apartheid in the 1960s and 1970s and finds that there are many similarities with the present situation of Israel/Palestine.