Moments of peril and truth for the Palestinians

By Harry Hagopian
17 Apr 2010

To the Israeli Ambassador:

Dear Mr Ambassador,

Thank you for the three bottles of wine that you sent me as season's greetings. I wish to you, your family and everybody in the Embassy a happy new year. Good health and progress to you all.

Unhappily I noticed that the wine you have sent me has been produced in the Golan Heights. I have been taught since I was very young not to steal and not to accept products of theft. So I cannot possibly accept this gift and I must return it to you.

As you know, your country illegally occupies the Golan Heights which belong to Syria, according to International Law and numerous decisions of the International Community.

I take the opportunity to express my hope that Israel will find security in its internationally recognised borders and the terrorist activities against Israeli territory by Hamas or anybody else will be contained and made impossible, but I also hope that your government will cease practising the policy of collective punishment which was applied on a mass scale by Hitler and his armies.

Actions such as those of these days of the Israel military in Gaza remind the Greek people of similar Holocausts such as in Kalavrita or Doxato or Distomo and certainly in the ghetto of Warsaw.

With these thoughts allow me to express my best wishes for you, the Israeli people and all the people of our region of the world.

Theodoros Pangalos, Member of Parliament (Greece)

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According to a story widely re-circulated on different social networks a couple of weeks ago, Israeli Ambassador Ali Giachia had ostensibly sent as a gift three bottles of wine to Theodoros Pangalos, a long-serving Member of the Greek Parliament. Mr Pangalos returned the gift along with a courteous but mordant letter.

Does it really matter whether this story is true or not? Of course it does in a strictly juridical sense, but either way the text eloquently exposes readers to the existential reality of those men and women living under occupation - whether in the Golan Heights in Syria, in most of Palestine or even in the two tiny parcels of land in Lebanon.

When Mr Theodoros Pangalos reputedly reminded the Israeli ambassador about the illegality of products coming from settlements in occupied territories, as well as about Israeli contraventions of International law or the decisions of the International community - whether the UN, the EU, the OAU and even the equally derelict Quartet - he was also talking about day-to-day challenges facing the majority of those living under Israeli occupation today.

So let me start with a couple of stories I have been following on the wire services over the past few weeks. The first one is the case of the Mamilla cemetery in Jerusalem which Israel undertook in 1948 to protect in accordance with both domestic and international mandates. Yet, despite its status as Waqf [protected] land, large parts of the cemetery were initially turned into a park.

In 2005, however, with the support of the Israeli government, the Simon Weisenthal Center (SWC) - founded in November 1977 - proceeded with the construction of a Museum of Tolerance atop the Mamilla cemetery (along the lines of the museum in Los Angeles) despite protests by Arab and Jewish residents of Jerusalem. In the process, it disinterred the remains of dozens of corpses. Although Arab civil rights groups, in conjunction alongside individuals whose ancestors are interred in Mamilla, challenged those plans before the Israeli Supreme Court and raised claims under domestic Israeli law that protect sites like Mamilla, the highest judicial court allowed the continuation of this construction.

Having exhausted all domestic remedies for litigation, the concerned parties appealed to international bodies such as the UNESCO and the UNHCHR Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Religion and Belief and on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, in which they claimed violations of the right to protection of cultural property, the right to manifest religious beliefs and the right to freedom from discrimination.

The Mamilla case has gone largely unnoticed, yet it is important not only in its own right but insofar as it highlights Israeli attempts at changing incrementally the landscape of the city by re-writing its history. If this is being done in West Jerusalem, which is now an undisputed part of Israel proper, one can perhaps begin to imagine the extent of Israeli policies affecting Arab East Jerusalem - an occupied city under International law.

Look at the archaeological excavations in the city, including those near the Haram al Sharif. Or examine the dispossession of Palestinians from their Arab neighbourhoods (such as in Silwan, Ras al-Amoud or Shu’afat). Or even consider the [admittedly general and ambiguous] military order # 1650 signed by Major General Gadi Shamni that enables the army to deport tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank who hail from Gaza and Jerusalem or who have lost their residency status and even to prosecute them on infiltration charges that carry custodial sentences. In fact, one can read about those practices in more detail in Ethnic Cleansing By Any Other Name: Changes in Israeli Military Orders Effective Today Target Palestinians (Palestine Center Brief No. 195, of 13 April 2010). These are examples of fearless impunity, spelling Israeli arrogance coupled with international political flaccidity.

Last month, the Spanish presidency had planned an EU-Israel Association Council meeting to examine the proposed upgrade of EU-Israel relations. It was cancelled upon an Israeli request in the face of opposition by other member states. A follow-up instance is the proposed accession by Israel to the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development(OECD) that will be discussed in May 2010. But should the OECD member states not take into account Israeli policies in the occupied Palestinian territories - on issues from settlements to the Gaza blockade - before endorsing their final decision over Israeli membership?

We are witnessing today daily transgressions against Palestinians and a rejection of their international rights within their own homeland. Ordinary Palestinians are struggling against their official powerlessness, tameness and dismemberment. But Palestinians are also struggling against Israeli policies that poach and encroach regularly upon their rights, against Arab weaknesses and double standards that are endemic - as evidenced at the recent Arab League 22nd summit on 27 March 2010 in Sirt, Libya - as well as against EU dormancy and US political entropy, let alone diplomatic laxity.

Is this a David versus Goliath situation? If so, I rue that the biblical story has been turned on its head with Goliath winning and David losing out.

If we procrastinate any longer, if we judder and shudder, there will no longer be space for any viable two-state solution, and the uphill battle would then swing toward a one-state solution.

Minus firm political decisions, let alone the advocacy and support of non-governmental organisations, we are heading for a meltdown that will inevitably polarise the pan-Arab and pan-Muslim streets further and boomerang once more against Western interests. Where will Israel be when the penny drops, and will they ever realise that time is ticking against them even if they feel impregnable at this juncture of their history?

Mr Pangalos’ letter - be it factual or fictitious - articulates many peoples’ gut instincts today. Yet, power, money, nepotism and coercion are forestalling any solution that reconciles Israeli security with Palestinian and Arab justice. Is it any wonder that Turkey brought up the “little matter” of the Israeli nuclear arsenal in Washington this week when the West is singly obsessed with Iran - as it was equally obsessed with Iraqi weapons of mass destruction?

Is it not also a source of wonderment that Turkey, an empire that visited much grimness upon its Arab dominions for four centuries, is now leading the quest for justice whilst many Arab leaders cower behind their surrogate interests? Is there no possibility for an Arab political renaissance that would shake itself out of its torpor? Or are we all doomed to constant injections of apathy and oblivion?

My years-long experience working with this conflict convinces me we are facing a critical moment that could well determine the future of the region for the next decade. From Palestine to Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and further afield, ominous winds are hovering over those lands. What the international community does next will determine the course of events for the future and the way resistance to the occupation shifts shape.

So should I dare hope that we will no longer witness world leaders hiding behind financial recessions and political spins to justify their inertia, and that Israeli leaders will also wake up to their liabilities and stop violating Dubai-like spaces with false passports every time they wish to contain latter-day Mabhouhs?

General Moshe Dayan often declared he would rather have Sharm el-Sheikh without peace with Egypt than peace with Egypt but without Sharm el-Sheikh. PM Benyamin Netanyahu and his hard-line ministers, with their pronouncements about the eternal and undivided capital of Israel let alone their actions on the ground, are today conveying an updated version of Dayan's creed. Netanyahu would rather have all of Jerusalem without peace than peace without all of Jerusalem.

In Palace of Desire from his Cairo Trilogy, Naguib Mahfouz wrote that “the problem is not that the truth is harsh, but that liberation from ignorance is as painful as being born”. Moments of harsh peril are also moments of harsh truth that could lead to rebirths. And since the ultimate losers of this political stasis are ordinary Palestinians and Israelis, they should be leading the struggle for peace.

I am angry at missed opportunities, yet my anger is incomparable to that of Palestinians under occupation: but, alas, will the mandarins in power hither and thither ever understand this intuitive truth?

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© Harry Hagopian is a former executive secretary for the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). He is now an ecumenical, legal and political consultant for the Armenian Church. As well as advising the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales on Middle East and inter-faith questions, Dr Hagopian is involved with ACEP, the Paris-based Christians in Political Action (http://www.chretiensenpolitique.eu/) and has also written extensively on the Armenian Genocide of 1915-23. His own website is Epektasis (http://www.epektasis.net/) and his regular contributions to Ekklesia - including five recent Easter podcasts on Christians in the Middle East - are aggregated here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian

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