About three years ago, one of my best friends volunteered to teach English in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. At the time I knew next to nothing about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Like most people in the West, I generally vaguely supported Israel with the caveat that they probably overreact to Palestinian Terrorism. Anyway, my friend came back with a lot of stories about what she had seen and heard. They were, frankly, shocking. Unbelievable. Tales of torture, killing, humiliation, and degradation, seemingly completely out of proportion with any idea of justice – if justice can ever validate such actions.
Being adversarial by inclination, I argued with her, trying to find reasonable explanations for some of the horrible things she was telling me about. I also started doing my own research; if what she and the pro-Palestinian lobby were saying was true, it seemed clear that the Western world had got something pretty deeply wrong. Eighteen months or so ago, she went back to the West Bank and once again returned with yet more stories. Our arguments become more intense, on a couple of occasions disintegrating into tearful fights (entirely my fault) and, about a year ago, one ended with her telling me I should just go and see it for myself.
So I have.
Lest it seem like I have gone to extremes to win an argument, I should point out that I am here for other reasons too. In the summer of last year I was made redundant from my job and I had already decided I would like to move into either politics or the charitable sector, for which I would need to gain some experience. One of many applications I made was to a twinning organisation, the Camden – Abu Dis Friendship Association, with whom I had taken some informal Arabic lessons earlier in the year. In fact I applied to volunteer with them in London – but when they called me back and offered a three-month placement in Abu Dis, how could I refuse?
I have now been here for nearly two months and in that time I have learnt a lot, far more than two and a half years of research and argument had taught me. I have also been tear-gassed twice, hidden from soldiers shooting rubber bullets in the street, made friends with former prisoners and torture victims and conversed with people from across the political spectrum. I now have dozens of stories that I want to tell you – to tell the world – because what is happening here is not right.
So I want to tell you my stories and the stories of the people I have met here, but I cannot put them in the context that I would like to. I can tell you about horrible things that Israel has, definitely, done. Instances of abuse that I have seen with my own eyes, instances that corroborate the thousands of reports of the most extensively documented humanitarian situation on Earth. What I cannot do is tell you the other side. I do not have time to start every story by telling you why this is happening, giving you a potted history of Zionism, Arab Nationalism, the aftermath of World War 2 and the holocaust. This means I will be open to accusations of bias, even of anti-semitism, for not putting Israel’s case.
So what should I do? Should I shrug my shoulders and say c’est le vie when a friend tells me they were imprisoned in a camp in the desert and tortured by soldiers? Should I keep quiet about the kids I teach who are actually used to tear gas being set off by their school? Should I keep to myself the stories of parents arrested in front of their children and held without charge for years? I don’t think I should. The context is not relevant. Whatever has happened, whatever has led up to this incredibly fucked up geopolitical ethno-religious situation does not matter. The fact is that people, innocent people, people who I now consider to be my friends are being hurt in ways that cannot, in my view, be justified. It does not matter why they are being hurt because it would still be wrong whatever the excuses are.
There is an odd tendency here to see the Occupation almost as a natural phenomenon. I imagine you would find a similar atmosphere in a town next to an active volcano. It’s just something you live with and most of the time, you don’t try to understand it unless you’re a specialist. But this is not a natural phenomenon, a force of nature that cannot be stopped by human endeavour. The unjustifiable violence, the abuse, the humiliations and the degradation that I now know to be fact, having seen them with my own eyes could stop tomorrow if those perpetrating it so chose. There would be consequences, but those would be the consequences of upholding moral standards, the price of doing the right thing.
Some things are not justifiable and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. We can try to understand why they happen of course, and we can sympathise with those who often find themselves in an impossible position, but every time we try to find an excuse for not talking about something, for saying it will do some harm, we are justifying what must be unjustifiable.
What would I suggest? Israel stops abusing the Palestinians. What does this mean? It means stopping the beatings. Stopping the detention without trial. Stopping the killings. Stopping the torture. Stopping the humiliation. And it means stopping these things unconditionally, stopping them because they are simply and purely wrong.