“What we have seen within the past week can only be described as racist, state-controlled terrorism and military anarchy. There is no less than an apartheid system existing to differentiate between Israeli Jews, Arabs of the originally occupied territories, now called Israel, and Arabs of the territories occupied during the 1967 war. Movement and trade between the areas are restricted, and many people from outside Jerusalem are prevented or deterred from praying in Al-Aqsa Mosque.”1
These words, so pertinent to what is happening today in the occupied Palestinian territories, including Jerusalem, were written more than 26 years ago. I was the spokesman for a delegation of British Muslims who visited Palestine in March 1988, during the first intifada. As we pointed out in a press conference at the end of the visit, “it is even more painful to see that the free Western world turns a blind eye and even gives open support, pumping billions of dollars into the Jewish apartheid regime on the pretext that it is a democracy.”
Little has changed in the quarter century since that visit and peace is a long way off; “there will be no peace without justice”, we said in 1988, and that remains the case, for this is still no justice for the people of Palestine. We hear of new Israeli settlements being given the go-ahead by an increasingly right-wing government with which, incredibly, the Palestinian Authority collaborates in order to protect illegal settlers. There was no PA in 1988, of course, but there was a newly-formed popular Islamic movement called Hamas. It operated openly under the guns of the occupation; indeed, the Israelis encouraged it to thrive as a counter to the “terrorists” of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Six years later and the Oslo Accord brought the PLO in from the cold and turned Hamas into the bad guys. Things have gone from bad to worse ever since.
When we visited the West Bank in 1988 there were an estimated 64,000 illegal Jewish settlers living across the “Green Line”, excluding occupied East Jerusalem. Today there are more than half a million settlers and the occupied West Bank is lacerated by settlements, settler-only roads and the apartheid wall; huge areas designated as “nature reserves” and “military zones” by the Israelis reduce even further the amount of land left for the indigenous Palestinian population. Throw in the hundreds of military checkpoints to be negotiated daily by Palestinians going about their lawful business and you have very serious oppression indeed. We were right to label it an “apartheid system”.
Since December 1987, when the first intifada began, more than 10,500 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces and settlers, in the occupied territories and in Israel itself.2 Around a quarter of those killed have been women and children. On average, Israel has killed a Palestinian child every three days for the past thirteen years. Thousands of Palestinians have been made homeless as a result of their homes being destroyed by Israel, either during its military attacks on the Gaza Strip or as collective punishment. Many homes have also been destroyed “because they were built without permits”; residents of Jerusalem have had their right to live in their home city “revoked” by the occupation authorities and the apartheid wall continues to eat up Palestinian land as it snakes its way around the West Bank. Palestinians are not statistics; these are real people whose lives are being destroyed by “the only democracy in the Middle East”.
Restrictions on Muslims praying in Al-Aqsa Mosque are in the headlines again, but this is nothing new; nor are Zionist designs on the mosque, as we witnessed in 1988. Nor is the massive political, financial and military support for Israel from the West despite its government’s contempt for international laws and conventions, war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. During “Operation Protective Edge”, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron voiced his “staunch” support for Israel and its “right to self-defence”; such a right doesn’t exist for occupying powers against the people living under occupation. Furthermore, as we will keep on reminding the world until governments take notice, Palestinian resistance to Israel’s occupation “by any means” is not only entirely legitimate but also not the “terrorism” that the pro-Israel lobby would have us believe.
The media has had a hugely important role in disseminating Israeli propaganda over the years. Looking back to that visit to Palestine in the late eighties it is clear that the media still covers the asymmetric conflict in Palestine-Israel from an Israeli perspective, as it did then. The BBC, in particular, has come under heavy fire for its alleged lack of balance. Nevertheless, Israel and its backers are losing the battle for public opinion, as new media takes over and most people have access to news and information free of the bias which infects much of the mainstream.
In 1988 there was minimal press coverage of the delegation’s visit; it was, we wrote in Blood on the Holy Land, both “derisive and biased”, with delegation members dismissed as “religious bigots” and “Khomeini followers”. The pattern will be familiar to anyone involved in seeking justice for the Palestinians; unable to discuss the issues logically and rationally, pro-Israel lobbyists resort to the tried and tested tactic of “shoot the messenger” in order to discredit activists. I am still taken to task for writing “so-called Holocaust” in the booklet, and referring to “the Jews” when, in hindsight, “Zionists” should have been used. The terminology is not wholly accurate and I have no qualms about apologising for such slack writing, but let us remind ourselves that Israel defines itself as a “Jewish state” and claims to act on behalf of all Jews.
Finally, I am just as “ashamed that the governments of Muslim states have turned their backs on the Muslims of Palestine” as I was when I first wrote those words almost thirty years ago. The politics of the region are such that Israel and, for example, Saudi Arabia are on the same page in their hatred of Iran; and Saudi, the UAE and Egypt are working to undermine the Palestine resistance in the Gaza Strip. The young people we met all those years ago had such great belief in the legitimacy of their cause that they can still hold their heads up high and defy the oppressors; their spirit was inspirational then and remains so today. It should be a lesson to us all, not least those politicians who think that supporting war criminals is going to boost their democratic credentials and popularity. Birds of a feather flock together, says an old proverb; how true that seems today.
1 Ibrahim Hewitt, “Blood on the Holy Land”, Mustaqim Islamic Art & Literature, 1988, p20
2 See B’Tselem website for detailed statistics about Palestinian and Israeli casualties.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.