Saturday, 3 March 2012

Moral Boundaries and Whiteness Descending

Our friendly local Israeli watchtower.
I get the feeling they have no heating in there, poor sods.
A grizzly, gale-blown, sopping wet day, I was marooned at home. No point going out and getting soaked through – everyone else was at home too. Then the phone rang. It was Ishmael. One of his daughters had told him to ring me to find out if I needed anything from the shops – snow was threatened for the next day or two (unseasonal weather – it should be spring). That was nice. I needed only one item but if I was going to be snowed in I’d better get some more supplies. Better raid the bank machine too.

I got out of my jalabiya (robe) dressed up and met Ishmael downstairs. The main road at Deheisheh was closed, flooded out. The American and Israeli financial embargo last autumn, punishing Palestine for its application for recognition as a nation by the UN, and its accession to UNESCO, had meant that many services had to be cut. So pre-winter drainage, sewage and other maintenance issues had been cut and this was the result. May God fail to fix the holes in your socks, Mr Obama, and as for dear old Mr Netanyahu, may history completely forget you. Well, what the hell, we weaved around a side-route up through Beit Jala.

Ishmael told me that the main road connecting the southern and northern West Bank was flooded. “When I was young we used to go through Jerusalem along the road the British built”, he said, “But now…”. Yes indeed. It was 25km. Now you have to weave over the mountains along the tortuous route around the city, 80km long. It might get longer if the Israelis build a planned separation wall around Ma’ale Adumim. But the road is being improved in places, with money from USAID.

But wait, something is wrong. Jeff Halper, director of ICAHD and a fine, dedicated Israeli campaigner for Palestinian rights, wrote about this in a recent, hard-hitting article about the current state of play inIsrael and Palestine. As Halper said, this aid and road-improvement helps embed the occupation by easing its hardships to Palestinians, making them less likely to complain and revolt and lulling the international community into continued inaction.

The view from my apartment.
Foreground: Palestinian smallholdings.
Background: Israeli settlement on the right,
settlement outpost on the left.
This raises a sharp dilemma, especially for Palestinians. Halper and some activists and politicians say Palestinians should not go along with this. This is part of the logic behind the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement and also the ‘anti-normalisation’ campaign. BDS means to have no truck with development aid for and industries and businesses connected with the Israeli settlements of the West Bank. Anti-normalisation means that Palestinians should not join or go along with joint Israeli-Palestinian projects that have the effect of consolidating or embedding the occupation.

Theoretically I can support this, though in real life the issues aren’t quite so simple, so black-and-white. By merely being here I am supporting the Israeli economy. I bring UK Pounds and withdraw them as shekels from the bank machine, thus supporting the Israeli currency and balance of payments. Since most items in the shops and the gas in everyone’s tanks are imported from abroad through Israel or from Israel itself, they swell Israel profits and strengthen Israel’s and Palestine’s co-dependency. By operating my computer and talking to you I’m consuming Israeli electricity – they restrict Palestinian power-generation to maintain control and grow their market.

This trip costs me about £1,000 per month so, by the end of the visit, Israel has benefited from by £5,000 (more like £25,000 if the economic multiplier effect is reckoned in). In other words, the only way I can stop this benefit to Israel is to stop coming – which I shall not do. Palestinians need and benefit from my company and input. However, I’m careful not to buy products produced in settlements, and I examine Israeli products carefully.

It gets more complex. As a vegetarian I buy Alpro soya milk, Quaker Oats and other items from Europe with Israeli labels on. I buy tofu made in Galilee. In other words, even as an ethical consumer and vegetarian I’m helping keep a crime going. So, folks, thanks to the ways of globalisation, if you buy Coke, Persil, Heinz, Lipton tea, Nestle and many other products, even Ecover, you in your faraway locations are indirectly supporting the Israeli occupation.

Ancient farm terracing, highlighted by snow.
Above, the Israeli separation wall.
If we all boycott these things (it would be difficult) and if Palestinians refuse to make use of humanitarian and development aid from USAID, the EU and your own government, even though they help embed the occupation, it would make life very difficult for Palestinians in real-life terms. If we refused to use the USAID-improved Bethlehem-to-Ramallah road we wouldn’t get to Ramallah. I wouldn’t even be able to get out of the country to Jordan – I’d have to go through Israel proper and the dreaded Ben Gurion airport, with its antisocial three-hour security-checks.

UNRWA helps embed the occupation by supporting refugees in the camps – providing schools, health facilities and civic services. Theoretically, Israel should be paying for this but, if UNRWA withdrew, it’s unlikely Israel would do so properly – it would do the minimum to stop them dying but little more (as is the case with Gaza, which is supported by Qatar, Iran, Egypt, Saudi and the West to keep it just about out of misery). This is also the case in Israeli-ruled Arab East Jerusalem, which lacks many civic services.

It’s easier for political thinkers and activists, most of them well fed and relatively free, to advocate stringent measures such as boycotting and banning than it is to be a Palestinian living with the facts of the matter. It affects my own Palestinian friends – characters in this blog. The Israeli government, singularly dogged in its response to such pressures, probably wouldn’t change of its own accord, especially since it is directly subsidised and supported by USA and Germany in particular and the rest of Europe more generally, and even by India and China.

Less telephoto, more panorama.
It's all a question of boundaries.
Yes, it is wrong that settlements are physically being built by Palestinians (very good builders), who are overlorded by Israelis. But if Palestinians withdraw from this, as the PA is trying to oblige them to do, they lose a job and an income, and there are few alternatives except grovelling to NGOs, living on the breadline or leaving the country. Israelis want Palestinians to leave the country, so Israel wins either way. Except it loses Palestinian consumers, from whom it profits.

So this means there are some difficult moral choices here. On the one side, if Palestinians refused all foreign aid and boycotted most things Israeli, it would cause a humanitarian crisis, forcing Israel to face its responsibilities and pay the price of the occupation. It would oblige the international community to come to its senses and force Israel to wake up and pull back, to give the Palestinians a chance. But this could take many years, unresponsive and determined as Israel is.

On the other side, if such a thing happened, Palestinians would suffer immensely – and life is hard enough. Hope Flowers School would close – a loss not just to Palestinians but to the wider world because it’s a world-leading educational and community project with a lot to teach the world).

So what do we do? Several things.

The snow came to visit -
these are my neighbours' houses
First, whatever we do, it must be done intelligently, without the usual sweeping acts of judgement, boycott and sanction which can hurt ordinary people so hard. This is happening right now in places like Iran, all because of international hypocrisies about nuclear bombs. The way to solve the Iran question is simply to put everyone’s nukes on the table, and to negotiate them all away, with no exceptions.

Second, it must be done with moral sensitivity and carefully-targeted actions, on a knowledgeable case-by-case basis. But even this has complications: if I stop using the new cross-Jerusalem tramway, as some people advocate, it makes getting around much more difficult, which can hamper my input into projects benefiting Palestinians.

And everyone came out to play!
Yes, Palestinians do have fun.
Third, the real issue is political, connected our own failure to put pressure on our governments to force Israel’s hand and stop the supply of arms and subsidies to Israel. If we pressured our governments more strongly, boycotts, divestments and sanctions would be unnecessary since Israel would quickly lose its disproportionate power and realise the occupation is unsustainable. Yes, the settlements, separation wall, military apparatus and other things (such as the water-pumping station mentioned two blogs down) would be impossible without foreign money and complicity.

Fourth, it all comes down to oil and the Suez Canal, the main sea-route from Asia to Europe. Aside from all the hoohah about Zionism both Jewish and Christian, which is really a minor minority issue blown up large, the reason the West wants Israel here is to keep control over the Middle East. The oil and the Suez Canal aren’t in Israel, but Israel’s bellicose presence and power restrains the Arabs. So this question boils down to our addiction to Western-style consumer capitalism and the crimes it sanctions. This is our own hypocrisy and ultimately our own self-undoing – Western supremacy is now dwindling and the chickens are coming home to roost. We are willing to permit crimes against humanity and injustice as long as the oil and the goods keep coming. This must change.

From Rev Stephen Sizer's blog
Fifth, we must support Palestine in its quest for justice – not only for the sake of Palestinians but also for the sake of world justice. This was exposed by the recent firing from the Lib Dem party in UK of Baroness Jenny Tonge, who had the courage of her convictions to say the following: “Israel is not going to be there forever in its present form. One day, the United States of America will get sick of giving £70bn a year to Israel to support what I call America's aircraft carrier in the Middle East – that is Israel. One day, the American people are going to say to the Israel lobby in the USA: enough is enough. Israel will lose support and then they will reap what they have sown”.

Her opinion is not extreme and it’s perfectly realistic – depending of course on what your views are. But our democratic openness is being undermined by things like the clampdown on her. Baroness Tonge’s fate is a minor issue except to her, but this kind of thing represents a lily-livered lack of principle which permits crimes to happen. Perhaps we in the West don’t actually live in democracies. Perhaps we need to be honest about that.

Hope Flowers schoolyard collects water,
which then is filtered and stored in a big
underground tank, ready for the long dry season
In the end, these moral dilemmas are brought to teach us something. We learn by treading the boundaries between Yes and No, rights and wrongs. We must be brave and stand up for truth and reality. If we don’t, the underdogs of the world suffer – and remember, you too can be an underdog, and you too would feel abandoned and let down if your fellow humans defecated all over you like the world empties its bowels on Palestinians.

It snowed. The kids came out, yelling with joy, and parents came out too, smiling and laughing. It was lovely, though cold. I tried to say to parents that they should be careful when warming up their kids’ hands afterwards, because doing it too fast can lead to much pain. But my Arabic is insufficient. Palestinians don’t have such things as gloves – they rarely need them. The snow was slushy and wet, not really good for snowball-throwing.

I got socked by a hard and wet one. Palestinian youths are very good at throwing stones a long way, and accurately – it’s an institution around here, the only antidote to Israeli teargas and bullets, the only weapon available to frustrated young people. So when the snow comes and throwing translates into fun, it can be dodgy standing in the way of a high-speed, long-pitch snowball thrown by a Palestinian teenager. Would that they were as good at politics and verbal communication as they are at this – they would be able to counter the full-frontal mentally-violent attacks of the Zionist lobby internationally, that cause otherwise sane and sensible people and politicians to defend Israel in thoroughly unreasonable ways.

Actually, it’s not even Israel they defend – it’s a Zionist minority’s conception of Israel, which in the end is not good for the Israeli people themselves. The Zionist Israel is pitted against the world, promoting a form of Jewishness which is separative, elitist, insulting, deadly to others and ultimately self-destructive. The true Israel is an open, diverse society, friendly with its neighbours and the world and quietly confident in itself, a truly positive creative contributor to the global matrix of humanity.

Meanwhile, the cold has been going on too long here. It’s time for springtime to start. But the snowy interlude, now mostly melted, was pretty. It made us sure that we’re glad to say goodbye to winter, just as the people here would also love to say goodbye to the long winter of military occupation.

In an earlier blog I showed a rainbow over the village of Artas.
Well, here it is again in different conditions!