From a limestone hill rising above Qalandia refugee camp you can see Jerusalem. I watched a lone figure standing there in the rain, his son holding the tail of his long tattered coat. He extended his hand and did not let go. “I am Ahmed Hamzeh, street entertainer,” he said in measured English. “Over there, I played many musical instruments; I sang in Arabic, English and Hebrew, and because I was rather poor, my very small son would chew gum while the monkey did its tricks. When we lost our country, we lost respect. One day a rich Kuwaiti stopped his car in front of us. He shouted at my son, “Show me how a Palestinian picks up his food rations!” So I made the monkey appear to scavenge on the ground, in the gutter. And my son scavenged with him. The Kuwaiti threw coins and my son crawled on his knees to pick them up. This was not right; I was an artist, not a beggar . . . I am not even a peasant now.”
“How do you feel about all that?” I asked him.
“Do you expect me to feel hatred? What is that to a Palestinian? I never hated the Jews and their Israel . . . yes, I suppose I hate them now, or maybe I pity them for their stupidity. They can’t win. Because we Palestinians are the Jews now and, like the Jews, we will never allow them or the Arabs or you to forget. The youth will guarantee us that, and the youth after them . . .”
That was 40 years ago. On my last trip back to the West Bank, I recognized little of Qalandia, now announced by a vast Israeli checkpoint, a zigzag of sandbags, oil drums and breeze blocks, with conga lines of people, waiting, swatting flies with precious papers. Inside the camp, the tents had been replaced by sturdy hovels, although the queues at single taps were as long, I was assured, and the dust still ran to caramel in the rain. At the United Nations office I asked about Ahmed Hamzeh, the street entertainer. Records were consulted, heads shaken. Someone thought he had been “taken away . . . very ill”. No one knew about his son, whose trachoma was surely blindness now. Outside, another generation kicked a punctured football in the dust.
And yet, what Nelson Mandela has called “the greatest moral issue of the age” refuses to be buried in the dust. For every BBC voice that strains to equate occupier with occupied, thief with victim, for every swarm of emails from the fanatics of Zion to those who invert the lies and describe the Israeli state’s commitment to the destruction of Palestine, the truth is more powerful now than ever. Documentation of the violent expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 is voluminous. Reexamination of the historical record has put paid to the fable of heroic David in the Six Day War, when Ahmed Hamzeh and his family were driven from their home. The alleged threat of Arab leaders to “throw the Jews into the sea”, used to justify the 1967 Israeli onslaught and since repeated relentlessly, is highly questionable.
In 2005, the spectacle of wailing Old Testament zealots leaving Gaza was a fraud. The building of their “settlements” has accelerated on the West Bank, along with the illegal Berlin-style wall dividing farmers from their crops, children from their schools, families from each other. We now know that Israel’s destruction of much of Lebanon last year was pre-planned. As the former CIA analyst Kathleen Christenson has written, the recent “civil war” in Gaza was actually a coup against the elected Hamas-led government, engineered by Elliott Abrams, the Zionist who runs US policy on Israel and a convicted felon from the Iran-Contra era.
The ethnic cleansing of Palestine is as much America’s crusade as Israel’s. On 16 August, the Bush administration announced an unprecedented $30bn military “aid package” for Israel, the world’s fourth biggest military power, an air power greater than Britain, a nuclear power greater than France. No other country on earth enjoys such immunity, allowing it to act without sanction, as Israel. No other country has such a record of lawlessness: not one of the world’s tyrannies comes close. International treaties, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, ratified by Iran, are ignored by Israel. There is nothing like it in UN history.
But something is changing. Perhaps last summer’s panoramic horror beamed from Lebanon on to the world’s TV screens provided the catalyst. Or perhaps cynicism of Bush and Blair and the incessant use of the inanity, “terror”, together with the day-by-day dissemination of a fabricated insecurity in all our lives, have finally brought the attention of the international community outside the rogue states, Britain and the US, back to one of its principal sources, Israel.
I got a sense of this recently in the United States. A full-page advertisement in the New York Times had the distinct odor of panic. There have been many “friends of Israel” advertisements in the Times, demanding the usual favors, rationalizing the usual outrages. This one was different. “Boycott a cure for cancer?” was its main headline, followed by “Stop drip irrigation in Africa? Prevent scientific co-operation between nations?” Who would want to do such things? “Some British academics want to boycott Israelis,” was the self-serving answer. It referred to the University and College Union’s (UCU) inaugural conference motion in May, calling for discussion within its branches for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. As John Chalcraft of the London School of Economics pointed out, “the Israeli academy has long provided intellectual, linguistic, logistical, technical, scientific and human support for an occupation in direct violation of international law [against which] no Israeli academic institution has ever taken a public stand”.
The swell of a boycott is growing inexorably, as if an important marker has been passed, reminiscent of the boycotts that led to sanctions against apartheid South Africa. Both Mandela and Desmond Tutu have drawn this parallel; so have South African cabinet minister Ronnie Kasrils and other illustrious Jewish members of the liberation struggle. In Britain, an often Jewish-led academic campaign against Israel’s “methodical destruction of [the Palestinian] education system” can be translated by those of us who have reported from the occupied territories into the arbitrary closure of Palestinian universities, the harassment and humiliation of students at checkpoints and the shooting and killing of Palestinian children on their way to school.
These initiatives have been backed by a British group, Independent Jewish Voices, whose 528 signatories include Stephen Fry, Harold Pinter, Mike Leigh and Eric Hobsbawm. The country’s biggest union, Unison, has called for an “economic, cultural, academic and sporting boycott” and the right of return for Palestinian families expelled in 1948. Remarkably, the Commons’ international development committee has made a similar stand. In April, the membership of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) voted for a boycott only to see it hastily overturned by the national executive council. In the Republic of Ireland, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has called for divestment from Israeli companies: a campaign aimed at the European Union, which accounts for two-thirds of Israel’s exports under an EU-Israel Association Agreement. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, has said that human rights conditions in the agreement should be invoked and Israel’s trading preferences suspended.
This is unusual, for these were once distant voices. And that such grave discussion of a boycott has “gone global” was unforeseen in official Israel, long comforted by its seemingly untouchable myths and great power sponsorship, and confident that the mere threat of anti-Semitism would ensure silence. When the British lecturers’ decision was announced, the US Congress passed an absurd resolution describing the UCU as “anti-Semitic”. (Eighty congressmen have gone on junkets to Israel this summer.)
This intimidation has worked in the past. The smearing of American academics has denied them promotion, even tenure. The late Edward Said kept an emergency button in his New York apartment connected to the local police station; his offices at Columbia University were once burned down. Following my 2002 film, Palestine is Still the Issue, I received death threats and slanderous abuse, most of it coming from the US where the film was never shown. When the BBC’s Independent Panel recently examined the corporation’s coverage of the Middle East, it was inundated with e-mails, “many from abroad, mostly from North America”, said its report. Some individuals “sent multiple missives, some were duplicates and there was clear evidence of pressure group mobilisation.” The panel’s conclusion was that BBC reporting of the Palestinian struggle was not “full and fair” and “in important respects, presents an incomplete and in that sense misleading picture.” This was neutralized in BBC press releases.
The courageous Israeli historian, Ilan Pappé, believes a single democratic state, to which the Palestinian refugees are given the right of return, is the only feasible and just solution, and that a sanctions and boycott campaign is critical in achieving this. Would the Israeli population be moved by a worldwide boycott? Although they would rarely admit it, South Africa’s whites were moved enough to support an historic change. A boycott of Israeli institutions, goods and services, says Pappé, “will not change the [Israeli] position in a day, but it will send a clear message that [the premises of Zionism] are racist and unacceptable in the 21st century . . . They would have to choose.”
And so would the rest of us.