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Friday, June 24, 2005

One-eyed in Gaza

Christian Aid News No. 22 (Autumn 2003)

In this issue we focus on a three-page feature on the visit of two British MPs to the Gaza Strip.

As in issue 24, a large photograph identifies the Israelis as the sole authors of violence. Barbed wire, a tank, a bulldozer demolishing a house. For sure, the Gaza Strip is a grim place, and unsurprisingly the pair didn’t like what they saw.

The article is written by the MPs’ guide, Christian Aid’s “advocacy officer for the Palestinians and Israel” William Bell. The impression is given that they arrived without any preconceptions and “ended up supporting Christian Aid’s position” on the basis of what they saw. They are said to have “asked why Israel was doing all this”. If they really asked a question of such staggering naivety it would rather cast doubt on their competence as legislators. But in fact this presentation represents considerable disingenuousness on Mr Bell’s part. A search of Hansard reveals that between them the two women had several times raised the subject of the occupation in Commons debates before their visit, taking a position indistinguishable from Christian Aid’s. If Christian Aid knew of any MPs who were genuinely open-minded on this issue, it evidently didn’t feel quite confident enough of its case to invite them.

Coincidentally or otherwise, Christian Aid selected a Jewish MP as one of the pair, and the article does not miss the opportunity to refer to her ethnicity. Why is this considered significant? There are two possible subtexts here: on the one hand “look, Israel is so bad that even Jews oppose it”, and on the other hand “Jews have a particular moral obligation to criticize Israel, and this one is OK because she does so”. Either way I find it pretty objectionable. In the first case, the fact is that you can readily find Jews who hold just about every opinion imaginable about Israel. The very openness and pluralism of Jewish culture is here being turned against the Jewish state. It would have been easy to pick a Jewish MP who would have asked far more searching questions about Christian Aid’s approach than Oona King apparently did. But no, only the voices of “good” Jews are to be heard – which takes us to the second side of the message.

Would Christian Aid take a British Hindu to visit Dalit communities in India, and invite her to denounce the caste system? Would they fly a Muslim to Darfur and give him the opportunity to prove himself a “good” Muslim by condemning Sudan’s Islamic government? To make the suggestion is to underline what an offensively patronizing exercise this is in principle – it effectively says “as a member of a particular minority group, you are presumed guilty of holding unacceptable views on this issue, but we will graciously give you the opportunity to prove your innocence”. Reserving this treatment exclusively for Jews adds discrimination to the offence. We’ve recently seen exactly the same approach adopted by the academic boycott campaigners: they condescend to exempt individual Israelis from the boycott if they can demonstrate correct political attitudes. And again, no other country or ethnic group in the world is singled out in this way.

With hindsight we perhaps have a better idea as to what Oona King might have hoped to gain by playing along with this. In June 2003 it must already have been clear that her loyalty to Tony Blair over Iraq was deeply unpopular with her Muslim constituents. Taking a tough line against Israel was a way for her to try to restore some credibility with them – though, as we now know, it wasn’t enough. Incidentally, maybe Christian Aid would care to take her successor, the gorgeous Mr Galloway, on a tour of Darfur, and canvass his opinions on the role of the Khartoum regime? It would be an intriguing exercise, though doubtless he would have no difficulty in finding a way to blame everything on the Americans.

So much for the visuals and the dramatis personae. What of the article itself? In brief, the message is: Palestinians in Gaza suffer “grinding poverty and … fear”; the situation has deteriorated drastically, and this is because on the Israeli side “the logic of physical security – building walls and fences – seems to have triumphed over a long-term vision of peace based on a political solution.” We get no hint that this might be in any way connected with the logic of terrorism (a word Christian Aid scrupulously avoids using) having triumphed over a vision of peace on the other side. It does, after all, take two to make a political solution. Is it surprising that Israelis aren’t all that keen on the idea that they should signal their readiness to seek one by throwing their borders open to suicide bombers?

But Palestinian violence is always to be brushed as far under the carpet as possible. As the article recounts, the visit coincided with Israel’s first, unsuccessful, attempt at assassinating the Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantissi. Now this certainly didn’t win Israel any friends. It was widely viewed as a disastrous own goal, and was condemned by, among others, George Bush and most of the Israeli press. Nevertheless, it was not without a context. The article describes Rantissi as “a leader of the Palestinian Hamas movement”. Well, a movement it certainly is. What it moves towards is the total destruction of the state of Israel, and the route along which it moves is the mass killing of civilians. Rantissi had been personally responsible for planning dozens of murders. Worth a mention, don’t you think? William Bell didn’t think so.

The final sentence reads: “And if more people see and understand the full picture, the greater the chance of political action to create a real solution and peace in the region.” Amen to that, and I live in hope that Christian Aid will start giving its supporters a fuller picture. And let’s be clear that it is above all the two peoples locked in conflict who need the full picture which they will only see through the growth of mutual understanding.

Some six months after her visit to Gaza, Jenny Tonge said at a meeting of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign that she could understand suicide bombers and if she were Palestinian she might consider becoming one herself. This led to her being sacked from the Liberal Democrat front bench. An overreaction to fair comment, perhaps unfortunately expressed but pardonable in someone who describes herself as "an emotional person" and invokes the fact that she is a grandmother in her defence (which incidentally seems to imply a seriously politically incorrect view of grandmothers - I know plenty who are fully capable of rational thought)? Well, no, I think Charles Kennedy was absolutely right to take a serious view of it. This is not an area where loose talk should be acceptable. The trouble is that the more empathy is exercised on behalf of one side only, the more the other side is implicitly dehumanized.

Imagine that you belong to a people that has suffered centuries of persecution, culminating in history’s worst genocide. Imagine that your people then gains its own small state for the first time in two thousand years, only to find that from day one its very existence faces unremitting hostility from its neighbours. That, after repeated attempts to wipe out your state by conventional military means have failed, the hostility starts to take the form of deliberate murders of its civilian population. Jenny Tonge, Christian Aid, dear reader, do you have some understanding of where the Israelis are coming from? If not, why not? Are you perhaps too angry to empathize? If so, does your reason tell you that is a good place to be? Is it a Christian place to be?

Returning to Christian Aid News, what about other conflicts? Half a page on Democratic Republic of the Congo, half a page on Iraq. A whole page on Sudan, but this is a little different from the hard-hitting politics of the Gaza feature. It’s an illustrated account of how a woman in Khartoum makes perfume to sell. I don’t imagine anyone in the Sudanese government lost much sleep over it.

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