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There has been a story in the press recently about how Prince William, son of Prince Charles and the late Diana, Princess of Wales, spent a night on the streets when temperature was minus four (Celcius) in order to draw the world’s attention to the suffering of the homeless in the UK. The Prince’s companions spoke about how he slept, like the homeless, on cardboard, and how they were shocked by the suffering of the homeless in the cold. When movement slowed down in the city, drug dealers start moving around among the homeless who live in constant fear of being attacked. William’s friends were frightened when a rubbish collection vehicle almost ran over the Prince who was wrapped in a blanket.
What struck me about this story, besides the warm human feelings of Prince William towards the homeless, is that one should actually live a certain case of human suffering in order to know exactly what it means and how it feels. All the words in the world cannot convey the suffering people live, unless one goes through the experience itself, particularly when it has to do with hunger, homelessness, humiliation, torture, war or racist subjugation by a hateful occupation.
That is how I explain the inability of the “civilized” Western world to understand the suffering of the Palestinian people as a result of occupation, oppression, killing home demolition and deprivation of freedom. Israel holds a strict blockade over three million Palestinians, prevents the world from seeing them or giving them food and medicine, surrounds them with concrete and steel walls. When it releases a few prisoners, it make it conditional on exiling them from their land and families, while forcing millions of them for the past six decades to live in far away refugee camps.
Can one stop and think for a moment of what it means to become a “refugee” in a country not your own, or “displaced and homeless” in your own; what it means to be blockaded like the people of Gaza, to live surrounded by concrete and steel walls?
When I read a headline in The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 12, 2009) which reads The Forgotten Palestinian Refugees,” I felt that there are people in the West – which has inflicted all this suffering on the Palestinians a hundred years ago – who have started to remember their suffering. I read the article only to find it a fabricated story about a young Palestinian in the West Bank called Yussuf Khoury. The author, one Daniel Schwammenthal, claims that this young man has experienced oppression at the hands of “Muslims” in Gaza because he is Christian. Imagine that this Schwammenthal felt no compunction for the suffering, oppression, massacres and wars the Palestinians have been subjected to for a hundred years by the Jews. Instead, he took advantage of Christmas to provoke the Christians in his country against “Muslims” in Gaza and provide the Israeli war criminals with a pretext for their crimes against the Muslims and Christians of Gaza.
Jesus Christ was a Palestinian who suffered oppression, suppression and pain; and the homes of his followers are still being demolished in Jerusalem. The number of Christians in Jerusalem and Palestine in general has never dropped except after the creation of Israel. They lived in Palestine for thousands of years until the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the American occupation of Iraq. Only then they started to be forced out of the East, the homeland of religions and prophets. The Wall Street Journal knows that most of the homes destroyed daily in al-Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem are owned by Christian families and that the number of Christians in Jerusalem was over fifty thousands, several years ago, while now they are no more than ten thousands as a result of the Israeli policies of displacement and Judaization towards which people like Schwammenthal are blind.
These days, the world’s celebration of the birth of the prophet of peace, coincides with the first anniversary of the barbaric Israeli war on Gaza, when Israel shelled the same civilian Palestinians – who are not only Muslims, but also Christians about whom Schwammenthal writes – with phosphoric bombs and killed and injured thousands of children. This Christmas, Israel killed six young Palestinians in their homes in Nablus, in front of their children and wives: Raed al-Sarkaji, Ghassan Abu Sharkh and Adnan Subh, and three of them near the Beit Hanoun checkpoint in Gaza.
What does the world say of these Israeli cold blooded crimes committed on Christmas day against innocent unarmed young people? After observing the inhuman conditions the Palestinians live under, former Dutch Prime Minister, Andreas van Agt, decided to speak out about their suffering. In an experience similar to that of Prince William, van Agt says:"The scales fell from my eyes on a visit to the Holy Land in the 1990s, when I found myself in occupied Palestinian territory. I was stunned by what I heard and saw. For a long time I had been blinded and speechless about the fate of the Jewish people in World War II. For a long time I thought that Israel could not put a foot wrong and transgress international law. That was my failure. The truth is quite different: for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians the founding of the state of Israel has turned into a disaster." Hence he started Rights Forum which highlights Israeli violations of international law.
On the first anniversary of the brutal war on Gaza, Israel is still meting out collective punishment against one and a half million Palestinians in Gaza, still kills and arrests at will; nevertheless, all that concerns people like Schwammenthal is covering up the acts of Israeli war criminals and justifying their crimes through a fabricated story of an asylum seeker.
Chris Patten wrote an article titled “We are failing Gaza” in The Daily Telegraph (Dec. 23, 2209) calling on the world to take a position and lift the blockade off Gaza. Nick Clegg wrote an article titled “Lift the Gaza blockade” in The Guardian (Dec. 23, 2209) saying “The suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza is shocking”. A group consisting of 16 western NGOs said “the international community has betrayed Gaza and has not made a move to lift the blockade a year after operation Cast Lead”. These organizations called on European foreign ministers and the new EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, to visit Gaza to see for themselves the impact of the blockade on the population one year after over 1,400 people were killed during the air, land and sea attack launched by the rulers of Israel, Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak in the period December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009 on Gaza Strip.
Other protests have been voiced by Richard Falk, the UN special coordinator in the occupied Palestinian territories, who repeatedly stressed that honorable people, the governments of the world and the United Nations should award sufficient attention to the inhuman conditions under which Palestinians in Gaza live. He added that the suffering of more than one and a half million Palestinians, half of whom children, is caused by the Israeli blockade on Gaza.
How long can this disgrace go on? It is the holocaust of the 21st century; and all those who stay silent are accomplices in this crime. The international silence is a conspiracy against humanity; and Western leaders should follow in the footsteps of Prince William and try to spend a night in the open in Gaza like the homeless of operation Cast Lead in the hope that it would awaken their sleeping silent consciences which ignore a horrible and disgraceful reality that flies in the face of human values, religious values and international conventions.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN is Political and Media Advisor at the Syrian Presidency, and former Minister of Expatriates. She is also a writer and professor at Damascus University since 1985. She has been the spokesperson for Syria and was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. She can be reached through email@example.com