Thursday, 15 September 2011

How to solve one of the world's most intractable political problems in one short blog post

Obviously, it's impossible. But this week sees the possible request from the Palestinian people for recognition as a full state at the United Nations. 

Normally I steer clear of this one, not because there's too much heat and not enough light in these debates, but because nothing anyone says is ever likely to bring about a solution. However, I do strongly feel that the Palestinian people have been treated appallingly by Israel, Europe, Britain and the US. 

A quick recap: the Jews were a collection of tribes and eventually two states roughly where Israel is now. In the course of their long and eventful history, they discovered monotheism, which united most of the tribes. They were repeatedly invaded, exiled and returned. Then the Romans turned up and suppressed the Jews with a degree of success. A final rebellion particularly annoyed the Romans to the point at which they demolished the Temple and crushed the Jews. However, there were plenty of Jews in other parts of the Empire, not all of whom recognised the spiritual and political authority of those in Palestine. 

When the Jews were expelled from Jerusalem by the Romans, their non-Jewish cousins stuck around - many became Muslim a few hundred years later. This, of course, put them in line for repeated smitings by the Christians, who couldn't abide Jerusalem being a Muslim city (with some Jews and Christians, who seemed to have lived largely unmolested). All this despite the fact that the Christians are so fractious that a Muslim family has held the key to the Holy Sepulchre (built above the supposed site of Jesus' tomb) for 1,300 years because the various Christian sects trust them more than they trust each other.

But let's sprint forwards to the 19th-century. The Jews have been persecuted pretty relentlessly wherever they live: murdered and expelled from Britain (where they were made to  wear the Ten Commandments on their clothes in 1217) repeatedly, subject to murderous rampages all over Eastern Europe. A movement called Zionism appeared: the idea was that as God had promised them Israel, they should return there. Obviously this was music to the ears of Europe's anti-Semites, who saw it as a neat solution for getting rid of people they'd never accepted as a separate religious group, but understood as racially distinct (which the Jews also believed) and inferior. There was a Jewish movement which promoted integration, but it was soon drowned out, though some of the British, who occupied Palestine in the 20th-century, did wonder what would happen when the existing population was asked to accept an influx of immigrants claiming Divine Ownership of the land they'd lived in for thousands of years. But I guess that's what happens when God pokes his nose into demography. 

Anyway, the holocaust ended the debate. Europe certainly owed the Jews and the Zionists became the loudest voice representing them, so the seeds were sown for more generations of misery and conflict. The Palestinians (who 'don't exist', according to the American Christian right) split between secular political opposition and inflamed, bigoted hatred leading to antisemitism and a failure to distinguish between antisemitism and antizionism (much as Israel's political leaders and media cheerleaders scream antisemitism when anyone questions their military or political decisions) and the wars which attempted to strangle Israel at birth. 

So that's where we've left it. The Israelis have illegally occupied more and more of the Palestinians' land, grabbed the essential water supplies and have no intention of leaving. Sponsored, armed and funded by the US, there's no incentive on their behalf to agree a mutually respectable settlement. Most countries, concerned with not appearing antisemitic while keeping oil-rich Saudi Arabia sweet, have decided that turning the Palestinian territories into the world's largest concentration camp, is a small price to pay.

Which brings us to this week: the Palestinian bid to be recognised as a state. Are our political leaders going to discuss the case on its merits? 
Washington is keen to avoid carrying out a threat to veto a Palestinian request for full membership of the UN, a move likely to further damage America's already battered reputation in the Middle East, particularly following its strong backing for moves towards self-determination in the region this year. 
Israeli ministers have threatened retaliatory measures should the Palestinian bid succeed. They include tearing up the Oslo accords, under which the Palestinian Authority was given control of parts of the West Bank and Gaza, annexing the West Bank settlements and withholding tax revenues that Israel collects on behalf of the PA. The US Congress is also threatening to cut off financial aid to the Palestinians.
Strong-arm tactics as usual. Never mind the legitimate aspirations of a people imprisoned, prey to the propaganda of extremists… starve them into submission once more and put off normalising relations between Israel and its neighbours, Jews and Muslims for another generation. I guess what saddens me most, as someone with a little Jewish blood, is that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians echoes Christian nations' treatment of Jews: isolation, vilification, violence, suspicion, hatred and extermination. They say abused children are more likely to abuse others in turn - can it be the same for nations?

Encourage your MP to ask the UK government to vote for Palestinian recognition. Let's afford them the respect due to them as a people, and try once more for a settlement based on mutual respect and equal rights rather than the demands of realpolitik and political donations. It's time to stop treating the Palestinians as supplicants at a rich man's table, expecting them to be grateful for the crumbs we toss them. Treating them like this simply breeds hatred and resentment, and drives them into the arms of the fundamentalists who - like their Jewish equivalents - can never be persuaded of the need for agreement and peace, and who will always frame the argument as a zero-sum fight to the death. Rejecting the religious and racist discourses can only help: time to bring back the politics and ignore the sacred texts.

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