I was looking at the news wires last night and I saw the headline, “Obama condemns violence in Tunisia” and perhaps I’m overly cynical, I assumed it was the violence of the protesters, but actually when I read the news story, it said that “President Obama applauds the courage and dignity of Tunisians that have been protesting, soaring unemployment and corruption” and I think that’s very much to be welcomed and we are all watching with trepidation because many people have been killed but also I think there is hope with the events is Tunisia and I wish that President Obama would use the same language about protests in Silwan or in Bil’in.Where people are resisting, not internal oppression and totalitarianism but a military occupation and arbitrary rule by foreign powers for more than 60 years.
I think that the inability for many people in the West to make that link is a continuing problem. This looks like that this may be, for good or ill, a major year for the Middle East. There are events, not only in Tunisia, but also what is happening in Algeria and Jordan, elections that are due in Egypt and of course what is happening closer to Israel with the government in Lebanon. When events happen in the Arab countries, sometimes they mean that the West move closer to Israel. As with what happened with the Iraq war, Israel can then demand even more and expect even less pressure from the West and I hope that is not the case here. I hope that what is presented by the world’s attention being focused more than usual on the Middle East is that there will be further scrutiny of Israel’s actions in the region because they have changed dramatically, perhaps not fundamentally but in terms of both the rhetoric and the language used typically by people like Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli Foreign Minister in terms of individual atrocities and acts as we have seen with the murders in Hebron, such as with the 67 year old man shot dead in his bed last week and the woman Miss Abu Rahma who was gassed to death at the protests in Bil’in. These atrocities which are committed by a friendly power to many Western countries and a country that is held up as a democracy. They do get some headlines here, but what does not get so many headlines is the escalation in colonisation and in the moves to intensify the occupation and to increase the amount of land and the way that the land is taken by the Israeli state and most typically what we are told is going to be a major expansion of settlements coming up. We now understand why the refusal to agree a further moratorium happened.
But also what is happening in Jerusalem, I was in Jerusalem, at the West Bank and Israel earlier this year and I saw what is happening not only to Judaized Jerusalem and the West Bank but is happening to the Palestinians of 1948 to the Palestinian Israelis and in the Negev, Jaffa and in Nazareth. The same tactics are being used against its own citizens as the Israeli government have used since 1967 against the citizens of the occupied territories. These are if not changes of fact then they are certainly escalations of the apartheid policies that we have seen previously. What we have also seen is a new approach in terms of Israel and its supporters overseas and explicitly that happened, for those of you that have seen the report from the Reut institute or have simply followed events and the way that organisations like PRC is being targeted but also Palestine solidarity in this country. Organisations which I would expect Israel and it’s supporters, particularly in the UK political parties, to sit down and negotiate with and to try to reach accommodation for them because if we can’t as political organisations and NGOs show a lead in terms of negotiations then how do we expect the governments themselves to do so?
But I sense exactly the opposite trend at the moment which is a much more aggressive policy and the justification for that appears to be that somehow organisations which support the Palestinians are trying to delegitimize Israel. That they are trying to say should not exist or opposing a two state solution and there is no evidence for that at all.
But I think it is actually a reaction to the fact that there is a much greater awareness in the outside world because of the acts the Israeli state has taken over the past two or three years. Since the invasion of Lebanon, the invasion of Gaza, since the flotilla, there is a much greater public awareness and it is extraordinary that rather than see that the criticism of Israel, including by some of it’s former friends is a response to military aggression and the atrocities being committed in the occupied territories but that it actually some organised conspiracy against the state of Israel. This either is a knowing cynical act or it shows an extraordinary lack of self-awareness by the Israeli government and an insecurity which for what is effectively a regional superpower now with armed forces which are greater than most European countries, this is an extraordinary matter. It is only through international pressure that that will change.
What can we say in response to those changes of policy? Partly it is the fact that we are winning, in the sense of raising awareness and raising appreciation amongst the wider population. That is why I welcome not just the conference today but for the fact that it is the beginning of a process of educating and drawing people’s awareness to what is actually happening on the ground. It is quite difficult to get that message across through the British media and I applaud those that work very hard to do that.
The final statement I have to say is on the specific issue of return, some people say that return is not a central issue and even some Palestinians say that it should not be high on the negotiating agenda. I disagree with that, I think that it is absolutely fundamental to justice being achieved in Palestine. Agreeably, there are many, many obstacles to peace but I do not believe there will be a true peace at a time when there is an unlimited ability for Jews from any country around the world to go to Israel but the people who were exiled in 1967 or in 1948 or at times going beyond that. We see now that even members of parliament are being forced out of their homes and out of places they live. That injustice has to be corrected and I don’t believe there will be true peace without that injustice being corrected. But in order for that to happen, we have to resolve the issue of land, the issue of security, the issue of independence, which is again why I welcome the initiatives by the South American governments to recognise Palestine within it’s pre-1967 borders. I think it is significant that South American countries are doing that, many of them celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of their own independence, many of them are aware very much of what colonial oppression is and being part of liberation movements. It is gratifying that a move is coming from there but I that it does not stop there. We do need initiatives taken outside Europe and the Quartet because sadly, America and Europe have failed Palestinian people many times.
So I hope that this is not a year in the Middle East which will attract attention for the wrong reasons but a year that will attract attention for the right reasons which is where a spotlight will be shone on not only what is wrong with the conduct of the current Israeli government but it is also shone on the rights of the Palestinian people and that we will be in a better place in twelve months time than we are now.