Focus on Israel and the Palestinian autonomous territories

Andrew Rigby

When Osama Bin Laden threatens that there will be no security for the USA until "we live it and see it in Palestine" he is striking a chord that resonates throughout the Arab (and Muslim) world.

When he refers to Israeli tanks "wreaking havoc in Palestine - in Jenin, Ramallah, Rafah and Beit Jala" he is invoking the symbol of Arab shame and American hypocrisy, for there can be little doubt that the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and the murderous behaviour by which it is maintained is not only tolerated by the USA but is made possible by American aid and support. In the words of the Jordanian foreign minister, "To succeed in combating terrorism we have to address the root cause ... We all know the main source of grievance is the despair that prevails with the failure to satisfy the national rights of Palestinians." Unless the Palestinians are acknowledged as people with human rights, the world will face more fear and terror.

Dual realities

As I write my mind goes back to a Palestinian friend, a gentle family man. In 1991, at the time of the war against Iraq, he and his friends would go up on the roof of their house and cheer as the Scud missiles flew over from Iraq targeted on Tel Aviv. Why? Because now the Israelis would feel some of the pain and fear that was part and parcel of everyday life for Palestinians. When I last saw him two years ago he was worried because his teenage son, Saeb, had become involved with youth activities at the local mosque and he feared he might be recruited into one of the Islamic political movements opposed to the Oslo peace process.

Living less than 50 kilometres away from Saeb's home is 18-year-old Yair Halper who, on 17 October, was imprisoned for refusing to enlist in the Israeli army. In his statement Yair affirmed "As a pacifist I object to any army universally, no matter where it is, who operates it or what purposes it serves. Furthermore I object to service in the Israeli Defence Forces in particular for political reasons. [...] I see the Israeli army as a mechanism that hosts everything I oppose in its ranks. Every soldier contributes in his/her way to the perpetuation of not only the complete disregard of Palestinian human rights, but also to the continuing fortification and confirmation of Military Israel. [...] I will not join a system that does not value human rights and that continues to rape, control and occupy the Palestinian territories."

It could be that in a year or so, if things do not change, Saeb might walk into a pizza house somewhere in Israel, with explosives strapped to his body, stand next to Yair and detonate the bomb. Another martyr, another victim, another act of terror. I pray it will not happen. But if it does I shall understand what drove Saeb to commit such an act: this is what some people feel compelled to do when they are forced to live their lives in humiliation, shame and anger, unacknowledged as a human being with rights, and unaware of any alternative beyond surrender and violent resistance.

Breaking the cycle of violence

Something has to be done to break the cycle of violence and retribution in Israel/Palestine. If the downward spiral is not reversed then it will envelop us all. We see how the people of the USA are living with new fears since September 11. The threat of violence permeates and contaminates all dimensions of life.

Look at the Israelis. While they inflict pain and suffering on their neighbours, they themselves live in trepidation, uncertain about the future. They dream of security, but they are too timid to seek it on anything but their own terms. They lack the courage to let go of their domination of the Palestinians, too afraid to face up to the fact that they can never enjoy security so long as they deny their neighbours what they claim for themselves.

One struggle

This is why we must herald the courage of young people like Yair Halper who dare to go against the mainstream, people who by their prophetic actions point to an alternative future in the Middle East - one based on the acknowledgement of equal human rights for all in the region. Their struggle is, in a very real sense, our struggle. Because peace in the Middle East is a prerequisite for peace throughout the world.

If the wound that is Palestine is not healed it will fester and poison the lives of us all sooner or later. (As Michael Ignatieff recently remarked, "To ask what victory in the war against terror means is to ask what peace between Palestinians and Israelis requires."

Andrew Rigby is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Forgiveness and Reconciliation at Coventry University, Britain.