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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

On the poisoning of wells: the Accompaniment Programme comes to church (part 2)

(part 1 is here)

4. The poisoning of the wells

One of our Accompaniers told us that Jewish settlers poison the Palestinians' wells. Now this was a charge that caught me off balance. I could only suspend judgment until I got home and was able to do a bit of research. Because I certainly don't dispute that some of the most extreme elements in Israeli society are to be found among the settlers, and that racial hatred, religious bigotry and a propensity for violence are not far to seek. But when I did my googling what I found made this look to me like the epitome of what is wrong with the 'advocacy' of EAPPI and their like.

First, a word on the media. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be one of the most intensively reported in history. There are more foreign correspondents based in Israel than in the whole of Africa. Many of these reporters are only too ready to believe and write up anything that is to Israel's discredit. Sometimes they report crimes that never happened: the Jenin 'massacre' in 2002, or the use of depleted uranium shells in the war in Lebanon last year (found to be an unfounded claim by the UN Environment Programme, but the London Independent, which had made the allegation in a cover story, never published a correction). Sometimes crimes are attributed to the settlers before they have been investigated. When a thirteen-year-old Palestinian boy was found stabbed to death near Nablus in July 2005, the story that he had been killed by settler youths winged its way around the world. The following day the Palestinian police made an arrest, and it emerged that the boy had been the victim of a family feud. Some media outlets which had carried the original accusation published a correction, most did not (my source is again this German document - see p.5).

So the point of this detour is that, if there is hard evidence of anything as supremely discreditable to the settlers as the poisoning of wells, it's not likely to have any trouble finding its way into the international news media.

What then, did my googling yield?

A BBC report from April 2005 says:-

'In July 2004, Israeli police said they suspected Jewish settlers were responsible for poisoning a Palestinian well in the same area [i.e. near Hebron].'

In October 2004 Aljazeera, not exactly the most unbiased source, reported:-

'In addition to terrorising olive farmers, Jewish settlers are increasingly resorting to a worrying tactic: poisoning Palestinian water sources.'

That 'increasingly' looks like a good Aljazeeraism, since what the report goes on to describe is a series of attacks on one village well:-

'On Monday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Jewish settlers had poisoned a major well near Nablus, which supplies drinking water to a local Palestinian village.

'Sources said Palestinian villagers at the small hamlet of Madama have of late started to have liver problems as a result of drinking contaminated water.

'The well was targeted by settlers on several occasions, who sneaked in at night to throw used nappies and dead animals into the water.

'Every time local residents, with the help of the British charity Oxfam, took preventive action, the settlers succeeded in removing the concrete covering and poisoning the well water.'

I haven't been able to find the Ha'aretz report - the paper doesn't seem to keep an on-line archive. Here, however, is an article which quotes a July 2004 Ha'aretz article as saying:-

'Last week settlers poisoned a well at Atawana, in the southern Mount Hebron region, and the police are investigating.'

So this is clearly the same case as referred to by the BBC.

A USA Today article from 2001 refers to a case of well poisoning. It also has a correction stating that:-

'In early 2004, a team of journalists found strong evidence that [the author] former reporter Jack Kelley fabricated substantial portions of at least eight major stories and lifted nearly two dozen quotes or other material from competing publications'.

To summarize: in 2004 two village wells were allegedly poisoned, one of them repeatedly. Settlers were considered the prime suspects but this had not been proved. There was a third case in 2001 - according to a clearly untrustworthy source.

The methods alleged to have been used are not sophisticated - dead animals and dirty nappies - and there is no evidence of anyone having died from poisoning. I make these points not because I want to trivialize a serious crime, but because to refer to well-poisoning without qualification is to conjure up a picture of something potentially much worse than what actually occurred.

And since 2004 no cases have been reported.

Numerous references to the Madama and Atawana (or At-Tuwani) cases can be found in pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli partisan websites. These range from Christian Peacemaker Teams (another group which believes it contributes to 'peace' by demonizing one side and whitewashing the other), through to sickeningly anti-Semitic Holocaust denial sites. On none of these sites, however, did I find any specific cases referred to other than these two.

I checked sites ranging from Amnesty International to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Not a shred of evidence for a systematic campaign of well-poisoning.

Our speaker could have told us, 'On two or three occasions a very small number of settlers have apparently poisoned Palestinian wells', and that would have been acceptable. 'The settlers are poisoning Palestinian wells' - which is what the audience at the presentation were led to understand - is not. It's essentially no different from 'the Palestinians are terrorists' - the language of prejudice.

And this particular prejudice matters not only because it's untrue, but because there is a special reason why those Holocaust deniers prick up their ears when they hear poisoned wells mentioned.

'For three hellish years (1348-50) Jewish comunities all over Europe were torn to pieces by a populace crazed by the plague [the Black Death] which, before it ended, carried off one third of the population. Bewildered by the plague's ravages people looked for a cause. Before long the inevitable scapegoat was found. Who else but the archconspirator and poisoner, the Jew? This time, too, the weird formula for the well poisonings - elicited by torture - was discosed: a concoction of lizards, spiders, frogs, human hearts, and, to be sure, sacred hosts. The story that Jews in Spain had circulated the death-dealing drug to poison the wells of all Christendom spread like wildfire. It was first believed in Southern France, where the entire population of a town was burned. From there the trail led into Northern Spain, then to Switzerland, into Bavaria, up the Rhine, into eastern Germany, and to Belgium, Poland and Austria.'


'It is impossible to determine the extent of Jewish casualties during these years. In all, over 200 Jewish communities, large and small, were destroyed. [...] One may imagine the scope of the tragedy by the 10,000 casualties reported in Poland, where they were comparatively light. Well over 10,000 were killed in Erfurt, Mainz and Breslau alone.'

(Fr. Edward H. Flannery, The Agony of the Jews, (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1985) pp. 109-110)

That was a long time ago. This is not. In a 2003 article in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, the head of a London-based Palestinian group attributes an outbreak of typhoid in Acre during the 1948 war to the poisoning of the water supply by the 'Zionists'. The article has the trappings of a serious investigation, but in reality the thought process at work has not changed in the slightest over six and a half centuries: an outbreak of disease, a need for a scapegoat, a hatred of Jews that makes them the perfect candidates for that role. Nor is Mr Abu-Sitta content to leave it at this. At the end of the article he enumerates no less than 20 diseases inflicted on the Palestinians between 1950 and 1990 by the archconspirators and poisoners.

In the same vein, the Israelis have been accused of deliberately spreading AIDS among the Palestinians. A year ago a speech by an advisor to President Ahmadinejad of Iran referred to the mediaeval well-poisoning accusations as a prelude to hinting at Jewish responsibility for AIDS, SARS and bird flu (as well as denying the Holocaust):-

'"Historically, there are many accusations against the Jews. For example, it was said that they were the source for such deadly diseases as the plague and typhus. This is because the Jews are very filthy people. For a time people also said that they poisoned water wells belonging to Christians and thus killed them," Ramin said.'

Let me be clear. We didn't hear any of this from our Accompanier. But what we did hear was suggestive of someone who has drunk all too deeply from the poisoned well of anti-Zionist rhetoric. After the poisoned wells, it was not surprising to hear that a sinister Lobby is behind American support for Israel (heaven forbid that democratic politicians should want to support the one functioning democracy in the Middle East as a matter of principle!) and that an 'anti-Semitism club' is used to silence all criticism of Israel (German 'Antisemitismuskeule': the fact that this is now a stock expression - nearly 10,000 hits on Google - tells its own worrying story). Actually, the only club being swung in church was the one used to silence a woman from our neighbouring German Lutheran church, who tried to protest against the one-sidedness of the presentation. A Palestinian man who had come along with the speakers interrupted her before she could finish her first sentence.

To change my metaphor: I've mapped out a No Man's Land bounded on the one side by a world in which real dead chickens are fished out of a real village well, and extremism and hatred provoke real people on both sides of a bitter conflict into committing real evil deeds, but bounded on the other side by the ravings of pure racist paranoia. In this wilderness our Accompanier and many others like him seem to have no fence to stop them from drifting towards the wrong side, and they show all too little awareness of the need to build one.

Who told him about the poisoned wells? What did he do with the information? Did it ring any warning bells for him? Did he ask any awkward questions - where, when, how, who? Or did it fit too neatly with his existing prejudices to be challenged, as I fear will have been the case with some of those who heard it from him in church on Pentecost Sunday?

PS I'm grateful to Israeli blogger Snoopy the Goon for pointing out to me that the origins of the well-poisoning very likely lie in a misinterpretation of the Jewish religious ritual Tashlich, which is inspired by Micah 7:19 - 'You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea'.

(part 3 in preparation)

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