Settlers and refugees

The milk that I buy in the small supermarket round the corner turns out to be a “Product of Palestine”, as I had hoped. It comes from the Al-Jebrini Dairy Co. of Hebron. So I guess they must have dairy cattle down in the south of the West Bank. I’ll look out for them when I go to Hebron on Saturday.

One of the “attractions” for anyone who wants to see the occupation of the Palestinian territories at first hand is the “settler tour”, which takes place in Hebron each Saturday during the Jewish Sabbath or “Shabbat”. I have yet to witness this ritual, but I’m told that both Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers take part in it.

The venue is the Palestinian market in the centre of Hebron. The soldiers enter first, around 3 p.m., making way for the settlers, who then wreak havoc by turning over the market stalls, scattering produce everywhere. They cause considerable damage, but I don’t suppose anyone compensates the stall holders.

I’m keen to see as much as I can, whilst I’m here in Palestine/Israel, and to talk to lots of different people. Yesterday I went to meet with two women, both of them mothers, in an Israeli West Bank settlement not far from Jerusalem. This morning I visited a small refugee camp just south of Ramallah.

These are two different worlds. But both of them are inhabited by mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. And, so far as I could gather, most people in both the settlement and the refugee camp just want their children and grandchildren to be able to live in peace.

Both the women in the settlement made it clear to me that, if it would bring about peace, they would be prepared to move out of the settlement and find somewhere to live with their families within the 1967 borders of Israel, in spite of having made the settlement their home around 20 years ago.

The three of us agreed that it would need a miracle for the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to agree to a two-state solution to the conflict. Both mothers would accept a one-state solution, so long as the state were Jewish.

I tried to ascertain what it is that would make a state Jewish. High standards of education, health care and social welfare provision were clearly important to both women. But all that could be equally well provided in an Arab state, in my opinion. A Jewish state would be democratic with every citizen having the right to vote. In my opinion, an Arab state could be equally democratic. (I accept, though, that in practice Arab states tend not to be democratic according to our Western understanding of democracy.)

What it seemed to boil down to in the end is this: A Jewish state would have the (military) means with which to defend itself and Jews would be in control of defence and security.

It seems that the average Jewish Israeli citizen wants to be sure that the Israel Defence Forces can keep any enemies at bay and that Israel’s borders can be made secure against the infiltration of terrorists.

One of my favourite songs is a Taizé chant: “Nie par puissance, nie par force, mais par l’esprit du Seigneur.” (Not by power, nor by might, but by the spirit of the Lord.) I’m afraid I can’t quote chapter and verse. But many of the Old Testament prophets said much the same thing: Don’t put your faith in horses and chariots. Put your faith in the Lord your God.

Peace and security cannot be assured by force of arms. Peace will reign when we put our faith in the God of love, who leads us to do justice.

Peace will not be possible in Israel/Palestine until the refugees who were driven out of their villages in 1948 and 1967 are compensated in some way, so that they can escape the overcrowding and poverty of the refugee camps. There is no realistic prospect of them returning to the villages that they came from. Many of these villages have been destroyed. But their “right of return” needs to be recognised and they need to be compensated for the failure to fulfil that right.

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A problem to every solution

During the “Troubles” Denis Barritt wrote a book entitled “Northern Ireland: a problem to every solution”. This seems to apply equally well to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A two-state solution is problematic, because a substantial number of Israeli “settlers” would have to leave their homes, Israel fears a loss of security if it does not control the border between Palestine and Jordan, and the rights of Palestinians within Israel may not be guaranteed. There is also a problem in that, although there are rather more Palestinians than Jews living in Palestine/Israel, the Palestinian state would be in possession of much less than half of the land.

A one-state solution would be seriously problematic from a Jewish point of view, because Palestinians would be in a majority. This would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state. This may be desirable from the point of view of many Palestinians (and some secular Jews). But it is anathema to most Jews and certainly to the government of Israel.

How about a three-state solution, i.e. two states within a state? No doubt there would be all sorts of problems associated with that as well.

It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that a continuation of the status quo would not be a solution at all. The on-going occupation of the Palestinian territories is taking a heavy toll on the Palestinians, especially in Gaza. Israelis are suffering as well.

According to what I’ve read, there is a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians in favour of a two-state solution. But if by some miracle both Israel and Palestine agree to a two-state peace settlement, both governments will face considerable opposition within their own camps.

Zionist Jews are convinced that they are called by God to establish Jewish sovereignty over the whole of the Land of Israel. It is no good talking to them about the human rights of Palestinians, because such rights are irrelevant so far as they are concerned. The security of Jews and the Jewish state, eventually covering the whole of the Land of Israel, is paramount.

There are probably relatively few Jews who take quite such an extreme position. I believe most would wish for the rights of Palestinians to be respected as far as possible. Unfortunately a significant number of ministers in the coalition government seem to be bent on extending Israeli control over the West Bank. And they seem to care little that they are sabotaging a two-state solution.

On the Palestinian side I hear a growing number of people saying that there should be a single secular democratic state covering Palestine. Their arguments are persuasive. They say that any Jewish state is by definition racist. Racism and apartheid should not be tolerated in Palestine/Israel any more than it was in South Africa.

Whilst many, perhaps most, Palestinians would be happy in a single secular democratic state covering the whole of Palestine/Israel, Jews would not be. They would be very fearful. They would at the very least lose the privileges that they currently enjoy both as a result of racial discrimination within Israel and as a result of the occupation of the West Bank.

I think most Jews would only be content in a state in which they are in a majority. They need to feel that they have control over their own destiny. Would such a state be sufficiently “Jewish”, if all the citizens, regardless of race or religion, had equal rights? This seems to me to be a key question. If it is answered in the affirmative, I see no reason why such a state should not be acceptable to both Jews and Palestinians.

One problem which has to be addressed in any peace settlement is the right to return of Palestinian refugees. According to BADIL, the Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, “Out of 11.2 million Palestinians worldwide, 7.4 million (66%) are displaced.”

Tens of thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes in 1948 and 1967. They and their descendants are still living as refugees. Not all of them would want to return to their ancestral homeland. But any peace settlement has to address their right to return. They should, at the very least, be given some form of compensation which will enable them to escape the poverty and overcrowding of the refugee camps.