A look behind the Wall


Posted by in July's Magazine

Tim Bell gives us a moving and deeply personal account of a trip he took earlier this year

In March I was with a group from the Church of Scotland on a study tour of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories – chilling and thrilling. Everyone there is behind the Wall. Walls don’t work and they don’t last.

For me, this trip was personal. On a work-camp in Gaza in 1965 a Palestinian boy my own age told me he had never been home: conceived on his father’s farm, his family was pushed off the land in 1948 and he was born only a few miles away, a refugee.

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A mural at the Gaza strip

Many left with the keys to the house, expecting to return quickly. Keys have become deeply symbolic. There is the story of the reporter talking to a Palestinian refugee who showed him the key of the house he had left. The reporter went there, knocked on the door and said he had come from the previous occupant. “Oh” said the new Jewish occupant anxiously, “is he coming back?” “You know he can’t come back.” He was invited in and the conversation turned to the Jew’s origins. He showed the reporter the key to the house he had left in Poland. The reporter went there and said to the new occupant that he had come from the one who had left. “Oh” said the new Christian occupant anxiously, “is he coming back?”

After the horrors of the Holocaust, Jewish people urgently needed and were entitled to a safe place to call their own. UN recognition of the State of Israel was given in 1948 on a wave of collective guilt and grief. But maybe, in retrospect, unconditional recognition was premature; maybe it should have been conditional on the tsunami of incoming refugees, deeply traumatised, coming to a reasonable accommodation with the native population, who were in no part responsible for their plight.

The Palestinians have been comprehensively dispossessed and displaced, refugees in their own country, 17% of the population of Israel effectively made into non-citizens and five million – the population of Scotland – coercively controlled in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. UN and respected international agencies monitor, report on and condemn the ongoing illegalities and disregard for human rights. 

Since the 1967 Six Day War the West Bank has been occupied under the 4th Geneva Convention, which is permissible after hostilities. The Convention has no time limit, but the decade or so that Germany was occupied after WW2 is generally taken as a benchmark. Now into its sixth decade, this occupation seriously stretches and surely abuses the intention of the Convention. The first demand of the Palestinians is an end to the occupation.

It’s a perfect tragedy; Jews helped Abraham Lincoln because they knew better than anyone, when one minority is identified for persecution, no minority is safe

The Convention does not permit the importing of non-native people. A MacGregor in New Zealand whose ancestors left Scotland centuries ago is not a native Scot and is not entitled to privileged access to land and resources here. The same applies to the Jewish diaspora. But they are given a ‘right of return”, many going to illegal settlements in the occupied territory. The idea of being a ‘chosen’ people is religious; it is not a trump card to claim exceptionalism in the world of politics. You don’t make a safe place by claiming exclusive occupation of the land and making enemies of your neighbours.

 The trauma of the Jewish people is collective and historical and real. The trauma of the Palestinians is personal and present and real. There are two deeply traumatised populations who find it difficult to see the human in the other.

There is no doubt that the right-wing government of Israel plays up the Jewish trauma, deliberately casting the Palestinians as enemies who threaten their very existence. There is indeed a security problem. But this is not a state of declared war. The whole situation is the outcome of Israeli policy options over several decades.

It’s a perfect tragedy. Jews helped Abraham Lincoln frame the civil rights legislation, intended primarily for black Americans, because they knew, better than anyone, how when one minority is identified for persecution, no minority is safe. 

There are some real heroes. We met Rabbis for Peace. We met Jewish women who witness and monitor the checkpoints on behalf of Palestinians. We met two fathers, one Jew, one Muslim Palestinian, who have both lost daughters in the violence. Their friendship and determination for reconciliation is humbling and inspiring. We met Palestinians, Muslim and Christian, who refuse to be enemies with Jews but who refuse also to be quiet or go away. They thanked us for coming to see them. “Now go and tell the world,” they said. That’s why I’m writing this. 

The Palestinians, and many Jews, thank you for reading it.

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