Letter from London: Peace is Liberty in Tranquillity (Imagine That)

Photograph Source: PalFest from Palestine – CC BY 2.0

There have been so many eyes trained on Gaza of late that we must all have maps of the narrow strip imprinted on our eyeballs. There has been the usual slurry of propaganda to wade through, some gems of insight, plenty alarm, but people to be honest seem happiest with what they don’t know.

As a Westerner with a clunky non-practicing multi-denominational Christian background, I was thinking about the many things I didn’t know when I first visited the Middle East over 30 years ago. It had been like stepping into the final throes of a very long theology lesson.

Despite the fact I have since spent more time visiting Islamic countries than Christian ones, there were still enough familiar place names to send me straight back to wintry, open-windowed divinity classes sessions at school in Scotland, given by well-meaning but beleaguered chaplains.

This first trip to the region was in 1990. More than a decade before 9/11. I knew only that 20% of the world’s Muslim population lived in the Middle East, and that about 85 percent of Middle Eastern people were Muslim. But what surprised me was the entwinement of the region’s cultures with my own, such as it was. As a result, it seemed almost par for the course that the Arab League were meeting in nearby Egypt to vote — albeit narrowly — to send Egyptian, Syrian and Moroccan troops to join Operation Desert Shield.

Even when I stripped away the problematical British colonial narratives inherent there — by which I didn’t just mean the 1917 Balfour declaration in support of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine — there was still in the mix that slightly geeky Christian interrelatedness.

Since childhood I had been aware, at least in the corner of my eye, of local church groups setting off on annual pilgrimages, often at Easter, to Israel. Theirs was a special relationship with the Holy Land. Greater at times than the other one with the United States.

Even in Jordan in 1990, I would spot the references to biblical kingdoms such as Gilead and Moab. There had also been the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River; and the Israelites having crossed Jordan to get to the so-called Promised Land.

In fact, it must be weird living in this part of the world, I remember thinking, having so much of the rest of the world — in one religious form or another — piling in to make various claims on you. No wonder if the population were to decide one day to become more possessive about the place. As a matter of fact, wasn’t this what drew me towards the profound simplicity and privacy of the Bedouin instead?

With them, at least, I was reminded straight away it was not just Judaism and Christianity enjoying strong ties to Jerusalem. According to the Koran, I was belatedly learning, Jerusalem was the last place on earth that the Prophet Muhammad visited before ascending to the heavens. I was also reminded of Islam seeing itself as an extension of the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism and Christianity, rather than as a separate entity. Even militant Islam, as I understood it, did not go on to challenge this association. Indeed, it is sometimes Christians we see drawing lines in the sand.

It was also in Jordan that I received my first ever lesson in antisemitism. A short but important one. It was not surprising therefore I began thinking about this last week, especially in the face of the daily warmongerings delivered like moral lacerations in the media.

The lesson took place in the desert. Oddly, what I learned was soon right up there for me with the six inches of oxygen hovering above the floor of every burning building, which was to say the gap of safe air I liked to warn people to crawl through in the event of waking up in a fire. (This was before today’s plastics and fabrics — emitting all their nasty chemicals — began cluttering up our floors.)

All the tourists were long gone. (‘I believe in God, not religion,’ said one of the last German tourists I saw leave.) The sudden exodus now was in fear of a massive regional war. I was in South-East Jordan, not so far from the Saudi border, also close to the gorgeous quartz sands and steep red stone and granite in and around an eerily empty Wadi Rum.

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard once described the desert to his readers as a natural extension of the inner silence of the body. I still buy that. The Western military presence in the Gulf numbered by then 200,000 US troops, 15,000 UK troops and 11,000 French troops, but the Bedouins — with their inner silences — were too busy considering the open skies as heavenly to worry about strategic flight paths.

Anyway, a CBS crew had somehow seen value in what I was trying to do and picked up my story. This was at a time when borders and people’s abilities to cross them unseen had become newsworthy. My work was the product of research made earlier with an unshrinking London friend now sadly back in Blighty following a nasty car crash.

The Greek CBS cameraman was standing right next to me with his Cypriot sound man. The two had filmed a lot of conflict over the years. A story of desert Bedouins riding above a world preparing for war was something they appeared to like personally. Before a male helmet of hair arrived from the airport in a clean new Mercedes to do his ‘60 Minutes’ piece to camera and fly off again, I enjoyed our few hours together.

More importantly, those hours included listening to a young Palestinian assistant in the middle of attaching camera leads to an impossibly large camera while simultaneously adjusting the robust but spindly legs of a tripod. As soon as I heard where he was from, I asked about his childhood, genuinely apologising for what little I knew of the Palestinian experience.

He turned to me with the expression of someone who needed to know if I really wanted to hear what he was about to say. I heard a long and harrowing tale of sleepless childhood nights, and the huge daily pressures placed on different members of his family.

His account of what he said had been inflicted by the Israelis on those family friends expelled from their own homes by settlers was excruciating.

I shook my head — ignorantly — and asked lazily if this type of thing was enough to make anyone antisemitic. ‘Don’t say that!’ he quipped. ‘We Palestinians are Semites! I am a Semite too!’

We forget that.

Today, we squint at the myriad of news feeds from other news crews delivered at speed by them to countless TV channels and social media. People feel sick to the stomach at the thought — let alone sight — of what is taking place, often in their name. Anyone remember Ukraine? Sudan? What about the quick succession of earthquakes in western Afghanistan? We are glued to this one scream.

When I saw one reporter I met as he boarded a Chinook in Helmand once, the word ‘PRESS’ on his flak jacket read like a boast, not something lifesaving. No manner of protection saved the late Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh shot and killed by the IDF in the West Bank.

Furthermore, the number of journalists killed in Gaza during this latest retaliatory violence has been impossibly high. Not just in Gaza, either. Many of us now know the Reuters journalists hit by Israeli forces in Southern Lebanon including the killing of videographer Issam Abdallah.

And spare a thought for Israeli Ynet photographer Roee Idan, whose wife was killed during the Hamas invasion, and who is reported as missing while working.

A number of years ago, I met human rights reporter Janine di Giovanni through a mutual friend in Luxembourg. Janine posted last week what she considered crucial for all journalists and punters new to the story to bear in mind.

Her first point was of course that not all Palestinians support Hamas. (‘Many people are surprised to hear this,’ she said.)

Her second was that the occupation was brutal, long, and laced with impunity.

Her third was that last summer saw unprecedented violence by Jewish settlers against Palestinians. ‘Very little was addressed or accounted for,’ she posted.

Her fourth was that collective punishment against a people because of the actions of Hamas is a potential war crime. Something Tory MP Crispin Blunt as co-director of The International Centre of Justice for Palestinians (ICJP) has said could make the UK complicit in war crimes.

Her fifth and final point was that ‘defending Palestinian human rights is not Anti-Semitism’; this obviously comes as separate to my own anecdote above.

At a time when an Israeli who survived the Holocaust has just found herself rounded up again, and as an orphaned Palestinian girl sat confused and all alone on a makeshift hospital bed, spokespeople continue to talk tough.

How we love our divisions, I can’t help but think. They save us from complexity. None of us watching from the luxuries of our Western cities are calling out for the laying down of arms on all sides, I notice. Only the likes of Save The Children, Oxfam, or the Palestinian Red Crescent Society seem to advertise sense. The UN considers it impossible for movements of people within Gaza without devastating consequences.

Jewish schools in London meanwhile are closed over safety concerns, or have been made to feel under siege like mini versions of Gaza itself, though I accept this may be a contentious comparison. There is also much support for Hamas on the streets of London, with one particularly massive demonstration last weekend in solidarity with the people of Gaza.

Then there was my New Yorker friend having to do a rapid about-turn when caught up with his three-year-old son in a smaller, no less committed pro-Palestinian demonstration near the Israeli embassy in Kensington. He said it wasn’t that he felt particularly Jewish, though he is Jewish, it was more that he felt these people were supposed to be the enemy.

On the one hand, people last week applauded Yuval Noah Harari for saying on the BBC that Israel was paying the price for a populist strongman leader. (BBC headquarters has since been sprayed in red paint for what the perpetrators described as biased pro-Israeli reporting, despite the BBC also refusing to call Hamas ‘terrorists’.) On the other hand, all hell was still being wrought on Gaza by Israel’s brand new national unity government.

On the one hand, Iranian football fans chanted surprising sympathies to the many Israeli victims following the savage Hamas attack — one Iranian dissident waving an Israeli flag was later chased down by a mob of Palestinian protestors in central London — while on the other a settler shot an unarmed Palestinian man at point blank range in the village of A-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills.

Of the Middle East, someone once said that a pessimist is simply an optimist with experience. The two-state solution has been turned into the separation of Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank instead. It is as if the situation is designed to scupper peace. How great it would be if people could pull a rabbit out of the hat, turn this whole thing around, surprise us, but people are not optimistic, they are deeply and darkly pessimistic.

The real difficulty with descents into darkness is having to claw your way back up again.

Peter Bach lives in London.