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Pray for the peace of Jerusalem


That’s me in the photograph, with two Palestinian boys my own age in Gaza in 1965. The big lad in the middle told me he had never been home.

Where do you live? I asked.


Then this is your home.


Where were you born?


Then this is your home.


He explained: he was conceived on his father’s farm, over there, pointing across the border with Israel, never far away in Gaza. Forcibly pushed off the land, he was born a refugee.

For two millennia, Jews were minority communities in other peoples’ countries. In addition to their religious genius – both Christianity and Islam derive from Judaism – they have contributed more than their fair share to human advancement, in all the arts and sciences.

Over many centuries they were all too easily isolated and persecuted, on and off, culminating in the Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s in Europe.

Their need for a safe place to call their own was irresistible. In their many thousands, Jews flocked to their ancient ancestral homeland, Israel. Using force and violence they pushed hundreds of thousands of the local population off their land.

Many Palestinians fled to the neighbouring countries, which refused to give them citizenship partly because to do so would be to accept the legitimacy of the displacement from their homes.

The refugees were in a trap. A basic understanding of the present troubles is that none of this has been resolved for 75 years.

In 1948 the newly formed United Nations recognised Israel as a sovereign state within borders formed by military front lines.

A legitimate opinion, in retrospect, says that unconditional recognition in 1948 was premature. It would have been better to make it conditional upon the surge of newcomers coming to a reasonable accommodation with the local population.

Both Palestinians and Israelis claim the land. The Palestinians were the owners prior to 1948. The Israelis see it as their Promised Land.

Statehood flips it all. A modern state can have a regular army and has the right to defend itself. Stateless, the Palestinians have no such might or right.

On a recent group visit to the area, we met a Jewish lady. Referring to some relatively minor trouble on the border with Gaza, she said ‘Not one more Jew should die because s/he is a Jew’. The existential terror of her people, dripping down through the generations, was not to be denied or gainsaid.

We met a young Palestinian who said he longed to see the sea. When that is put into a slogan: ‘From the river to the sea’ it is often taken as a denial of the State of Israel to exist. But he was only claiming his right to freedom of movement in his own land.

And we met heroes for peace and reconciliation, Jews and Arab Moslems and Christians.

We visited the farm called The Tent of Nations – the Christian Arab family ownership of the land is beyond dispute. The motto on the stones at the entrance is ‘We refuse to be enemies’.

We now have two traumatised peoples, who find it difficult to see the humanity in the other. They don’t need more tanks or bombs. No amount of violence will kill an idea, a belief, a grievance.

No Arab or Muslim is empowered by the Hamas atrocity of 7 October. No Jew, in Israel or around the world, will be safer next week or in 50 years from now as a result of this Israeli military action. Nobody makes a safe place by making enemies of the neighbours.

All parties need wise, compassionate leadership and example.

Scenes from Gaza are shocking. Parents writing their names on children so they may be identified after death. Homes and neighbourhoods reduced to rubble. Sewage disposal, water and electricity supplies unreliable at best. There are chilling echoes of the persecutions of the Holocaust, in which Jews were victims.

Every violent death, every demolished building, every night-time of bombing with children in their beds, every evacuation ordered with no safe place to go, sets back the day when the recognition will come that the ‘other side’ will not go away and peace must be sought.

We can easily imagine orphaned Palestinian children who survive this experience, in the future talking in exactly the same way about their own people as the Jewish lady we met.

Or, perhaps just as likely, they will be tomorrow’s ‘freedom fighters’ with a grievance and a cause, under some name other than Hamas.

Israel asserts the ‘right to return’ – any Jew from anywhere in the world can live there and become an Israeli citizen. This right to return is clearly not afforded to the displaced people of Palestine, including my friends and their descendants.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently described the Palestinians’ experience over 75 years as ‘suffocating oppression’. Amnesty International calls it apartheid.

It was unsustainable and unacceptable in South Africa. If the international community permits it to continue, I can see no peace ahead. ■

Tim Bell

Your writer, Tim Bell, is on the right above


A modern state can have a regular army and the right to defend itself. Stateless, the Palestinians have no such might or right


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