More than two weeks after British Prime Minister David Cameron likened Gaza to a “prison camp” during a speech in Turkey, he is still facing a backlash from the Jewish community. Clearly, his words struck a raw nerve. Last week the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, bemoaned the fact that Cameron’s simple, two-word description had caused “dismay” to many in the Jewish community. Lord Sacks called on the Prime Minister to show more “balance in future” and that’s ironic, because balance is precisely what supporters of Palestine have been wanting for years. Given David Cameron’s blatantly one-sided support for Israel in the past, some semblance of balance is all that has been asked of him from those who support justice for the Palestinian people. What the pro-Israel lobby really wants is blind loyalty, not balance.
When a friend of Israel – which Cameron so clearly is – points out a weakness of the Jewish state, its supporters should display a little more maturity and not be “dismayed”. Friends are exactly that because you can rely on them to point out your faults and to advise you on how to improve your condition. If Israel cannot accept criticism from one of its closest allies that surely does not bode well for the state; it should remember that arrogance and pride comes before a fall. Israel must also know that blind support from its allies may not always be in its own best interests.
Cameron’s words were clearly not a “gaffe”, as many people have suggested; they were chosen very carefully to convey the seriousness of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza (as man-made as it is) without causing too much offence to his Israeli friends. He was treading a fine line but used the analogy of a “prison camp” advisedly, not “concentration camp”, knowing full well the implications of the latter.
However, even without using such inflammatory language, those who are old enough will still understand the import of what Cameron was trying to say; the word “camp” was sufficient to carry the message. Those who have lived through oppression anywhere should understand the humanitarian message he tried to convey while still remaining loyal to his friends.
Every generation has its own tales of oppression that have become encapsulated in history as symbols of human struggle, victimhood and oppression. From the Warsaw ghetto of the 1940s through the horror unleashed upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki down to the killing fields of Cambodia and genocide in Rwanda, many generations have witnessed the human being’s capacity for cruelty. The blockade of Gaza has likewise become a symbol of oppression for the current generation; it will go down in history as one of the most inhuman examples of collective punishment, of that there is no doubt. Unlike many past atrocities, the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians in Gaza is taking place in full view of the world, albeit with its tacit consent, so the evidence is there for all to see and record.
It was the least that David Cameron could do to draw attention to that fact; he had no choice in the face of such a horrific situation as that unfolding in the Gaza Strip at the hands of Israel. How else could he describe the basic imprisonment of 1.5 million people in a narrow strip of land? How else could he explain the effects of the Israeli blockade which have reduced more than half of the population to exist below the poverty line of $2 per person per day? How else could he inform his friends in Tel Aviv that they are destroying the Gazan economy and, with it, any real hope of finding a just and peaceful solution? Gaza is surrounded by walls, fences and watchtowers. If the people venture too far out in their own territorial waters they are shot at by Israeli gunboats. Instead of asking for “balance” so as not to cause “dismay”, the Chief Rabbi should be asking if “prison camp” actually conveys the appalling reality inflicted upon the Palestinians by Israel. Aren’t prisoners given food and water, shelter and medical attention, and basic human rights, all of which the Israelis deny to the people of Gaza? Does Lord Sacks not believe in equality and justice for all, or are his concerns for one people only?
It is reasonable to ask what the reaction of the Jewish community would be if the situation was reversed; if it was 1.5 million Jews trapped in the Gaza Strip surrounded by armed Arab snipers in watchtowers and on boats; if it were hundreds of thousands of Jewish children who were suffering from malnutrition, stunted growth, anaemia and general ill-health, and living under the constant threat of attack and invasion by the third most powerful armed forces in the world. The international community would certainly sit up and take notice and our Prime Minister would not be castigated for simply alluding to the fact that their condition was like that of a prison camp. On the contrary, he would be condemned for just talking and not actually doing something to liberate the captive population.
It is indeed time for balance, but not of the kind envisaged by the Chief Rabbi; the “Israel, right or wrong” attitude of the West has to end. Friends point out the error of one’s ways to help you from straying. Grateful friends accept the advice with good grace and mend their ways. Allowing the state of Israel to continue to behave like a spoilt brat will harm not only the Palestinians and the Israelis themselves, but also its Western sponsors and supporters. It’s time to rein the bully in before it really is too late.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.