An article of faith for the Arabs


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Category: International Date: 22 Oct 00

By the time the one hundredth person was killed (most of them Palestinians) I had to make personal contact. “What on earth’s going on?” I e-mailed my Jewish and Palestinian friends. Lawrence, who is Jewish, sent me in his typical academic way, yards and yards of text, explaining in detail that this is not just a battle between Israelis and Palestinians because “by dint of its longstanding and religious connections, involves millions of Jews, Muslims and Christians worldwide who consider the land holy.”


He went over, as he has done over 12 years of friendship, well-covered ground. He reminded me of the spiritual Jewish claims to the disputed territories in Israel: Jews hold the title deed to the Holy Land, inscribed some 3,000 years ago in the Bible itself Jewish liturgy is made up of phrases like “Next year in Jerusalem” and “By the rivers of Babylon... I wept when I remembered Zion.” The second claim was more substantial - the need to counter anti-Semitism, for sanctuary, “something Jews have suffered ever since the Romans forced them out of Palestine and into exile.”


The Holocaust, my Jewish friend felt, clinched the argument. Six million were systematically murdered: “For without a homeland of their own, who would defend Jews?” Israel’s conquest of the West Bank in 1967 was in this context viewed as divine intervention. Religious Zionists he added, dubbed it the “birth pangs of redemption,” quoted Talmudic tracts, which called it a desecration of God’s name “to give up an inch of the land.”  From my Palestinian friend, Rana, I received a simple but graphic attachment. It was a series of chilling photographs shot seconds apart that aptly summed up the situation in Israel today.


Frame one: A man and a boy (no older than seven or eight) crouch behind what looks like a concrete dustbin with their backs against a concrete wall. The boy, clearly terrified, with his mouth open, is looking into beyond the eye of the camera to what must have been a pointed gun, for mercy. The man peeks out from the bin to his left as if assessing their chances of survival or mercy with one arm protectively over the boy’s chest.


Frame two: The man is terrified. He has removed his protective arm from the boy and placed his hand over his head. The boy burrows deep into the man’s chest covering his eyes with tiny hands.


Frame three:  The camera lens widens to reveal a semi-circle of bullet holes, barely a foot away from the man and boy. The man’s arm has returned to shield the boy’s eyes and body.


Frame four: A closer shot in which the man’s mouth is open now, with disbelief and terror, hand now firmly over the boy. The boy, weeping now - silent tears - is lying in a foetal position, one cheek pressed against the man’s shoulder.


Frame five: A wide shot of smoke hides all view of the boy but reveals the man, head slumped down.


Frame six: The smoke clears to reveal the dead man and boy. The man’s eyes are dead, eerily open. The boy, hands still over his eyes, is slumped over the man’s lap.


Frame seven: A wider shot of frame six, of a wall riddled with bullets, and a caption written in red as if in blood:  “Long Live Palestine.”


This was followed by another e-mail from my liberal Jewish friend, Etan, whose grandparents died in a concentration camp, and whose father is a Holocaust survivor. He gives the Palestinian side. “The Palestinians claim to the same land is based on their continuous presence as a majority population in the area since the Arab conquest of the early 7th century AD, right up to the creation of the Israel in 1948. To them, Zionists are interlopers on Arab soil. The Palestinian issue remains an article of faith to most Arab leaders, who regard Israel as an alien and artificial entity - no more indigenous to the Middle East than Crusader kingdoms were eight centuries ago.”


The e-mail conversation took me back 12 years, when the four of us, two Jewish, one Palestinian and myself, went to Israel during the Intifada. We went to Tel Aviv with its shiny artificial streets, and bus loads of handsome and beautiful young solders, climbed up to the Masada one hot day, floated in the salty Dead Sea, visited Ramallah. But despite its history, its ancient twisted alleyways, its hawkers, its detailed assault to the senses (not unlike India) I was overcome by the intensity, the fervour, the fever, the timelessness of Jerusalem.


It wasn’t just that in one square mile, Christians revered the birth place of Christ, Jews wailed at the Wailing Wall, Muslims, dressed as they have been for thousands of years prayed at the Dome of the Rock. It was the sight of green uniforms pointing guns from everywhere. Standing on top of mosques, and churches, in clusters on the streets, on the back of cars. The barrel of guns and flying stones sent by Palestinian boys under cover of walls and winding stairs dominated. This city of faith was a city of hate.


Something niggles at me. That image of the man and boy hiding, being shot at. It is familiar. I saw it in a film, Life is Beautiful, about how a father saves his small son’s life and innocence in a concentration camp, to the extent of making his final moments, when he is marched off to be shot by a Nazi solider, look like a game, so his son would not feel the horror of it. These are mirror images of two dispossessed people, one blinded by the memory of pain, becoming the occupier, the other the occupied, in their own homeland.


By the time the story of a shot Palestinian boy, and the lynching of two Israeli soldiers came over the news, I stopped counting. This is among the saddest stories in history, and one where the word compromise has come to mean surrender.


The Israeli determination to hold on to a conquered land, so their horrific history will never repeat itself, and the Palestinian struggle to regain a homeland, teaches me something about human nature: Under the rubble of ongoing deaths by deadlock, its about a refusal to surrender, against all odds. For both sides there is something heroic in never surrendering the soul of your people to the ‘other’.


But, as an outside observer, I am also aware that such a viewpoint has been behind the Rawandas, Kosovos, Bosnias, East Timors of the last decade.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur