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Sitting on the fence over Israeli Apartheid is no laughing matter

Israeli soldiers stand at the apartheid wall in Israel [Issam Rimawi/Apaimages]
Israeli soldiers stand at the apartheid wall in Israel [Issam Rimawi/Apaimages]

There is an old English idiom dating back to the 15th century which says that you can't run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. To give it a 21st century spin, it's a bit like telling a comedian that he can't perform for laughs with the Israelis and then run with the Palestinians.

That comedian, of course, is Eddie Izzard, who showed what some would say is a callous disregard for the plight of the Palestinians by performing at a comedy night in Tel Aviv on Thursday evening while boasting in tweets that he would be running in a marathon for Palestine the next day. Critics urged Izzard, who has ambitions to stand as a Labour MP, to cancel his Tel Aviv gig. Parallels were drawn with those who performed in South Africa or the odious "Bantustans" created during the Apartheid era.

Mention of the South African comparison should have hit the mark, because the multi-marathon-running comedian was there exactly a year ago draped in a Palestinian flag, posing beneath a statue of the legendary Nelson Mandela, an arch critic of the Zionist state and one of Palestine's most influential supporters. "We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians," said the great man.

Read: Israel is an 'apartheid regime'

The "Right To Movement" group, which has organised the Palestine Marathon through Bethlehem for the past four years, released a statement on this matter: "British comedian Eddie Izzard cannot run for freedom this Friday if he entertains in Tel Aviv on Thursday." More bluntly, the organisers insisted, "We refuse to be used as a fig leaf to cover up Izzard's whitewashing of Israel's occupation and apartheid."

Around 6,000 runners did take part in the marathon on Friday and the route rather poignantly snaked its way past the Apartheid Wall in the occupied West Bank. The whole point of the marathon has always been to highlight the restrictions placed on the Palestinians' freedom of movement by Israel's brutal military occupation.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel has also accused Izzard of attempting an unconvincing "balancing act". The Ramallah-based group released its own statement and again used the South Africa analogy. "Eddie Izzard is not welcome in the Palestine marathon after he has crossed our boycott picket line," it said, "Today, performing in Tel Aviv is equivalent to performing in Sun City [in one of the Bantustans created during White minority rule in South Africa] during the time of Apartheid."

Read: Rights groups demand adoption of UN ESCWA report branding Israel apartheid state

Eddie Izzard opted not to cancel his first-ever gig in Israel, and told the US-based Electronic Intifada that, like Britain's Labour Party, he believes in the co-existence of an Israeli state and a Palestinian state. "I decided, rather than doing nothing, to be proactive and play a gig in Tel Aviv and also run the Palestine Marathon the day after."

When he made his decision, did he know that 36 Palestinian athletes from the Gaza Strip were banned by Israel from leaving the besieged enclave to take part in the marathon? Their enforced absence, condemned by the Palestinian Athletics Federation, is unlikely to make the same headlines as Izzard's no-show.

Mick Napier, a co-founder of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, dismissed the comedian's reasoning. "The Palestinians put up a picket line and Eddie Izzard scabbed on it," he pointed out. "Complicity with Israeli Apartheid and what many people call incremental genocide in Gaza cannot be expunged by trying to hang out with Palestinians. We applaud the decision by the organisers of the marathon to exclude Izzard."

I'm not sure if the well-read comedian has heard of the hare and the hounds, but since he is in the Holy Land and near the traditional birthplace of Jesus, he might want to ponder on a passage in the Bible's Gospel According to St Matthew: "No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despite the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." In opting to turn a blind eye to the Israeli occupation and go to Tel Aviv as if it is part of a normal state, Eddie Izzard has chosen to ignore the Palestinian call for a boycott of the Zionist state; boycotts, he might recall, brought about the downfall of Apartheid South Africa. He can't be too surprised, therefore, that he now finds himself shunned by the people he claims to support.

Sitting on the fence in this issue is no laughing matter, no matter how "proactive" the comedian thinks he was. The reality is that he can't have it both ways until Israel's military occupation of Palestine comes to an end.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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