The UK is now in the grip of festive fever as the nation prepares for the customary annual binge called Christmas. Despite the recession families are being urged to spend, spend, spend on an excess of food and alcohol and extravagant presents. For them there is also the luxury of unrestricted travel to see relatives or take a foreign holiday.
A far cry from the kind of Christmas that’s possible in the illegally occupied and blockaded territories of the Holy Land…
Two years ago, in the run-up to Christmas 2007, I had just returned from Gaza and the West Bank. With tears of rage in my eyes I addressed these remarks to Britain’s prime minister, Gordon Brown:
The dire conditions we witnessed in Gaza are designed to enable Israel and the West to grind Hamas into submission and bring a weakened and demoralised population under the puppet regime now governing the West Bank. Will the plan succeed? It’s hard to say. There is astonishing pride and resilience among the Gazans. But if you kick, murder and starve people long enough, commit crimes against humanity often enough and turn your back callously enough, hey presto! victory can be yours… But please tell us, Mr Gordon Brown, why is Britain complicit in such a base and cowardly scheme?
Gaza was formerly under British mandate, which is sufficient reason for us to feel special responsibility for its wellbeing. But it isn’t even on the agenda at the Annapolis peace conference. In which case I say to the British government: “Go see for yourselves the misery, the human tragedy and the devastation you have heaped on these nice people. Feel the pain and weep.
“Then amaze us. Do something courageous for once. Lift the cruel siege. End the 90 years of betrayal that has so shamed Britain. Land supplies on Gaza’s empty beach. Those are Palestinian territorial waters: if Israeli gunboats interfere shoo them away. And suspend all trade association agreements until Israel complies with UN resolutions and International Court of Justice rulings, ends its unlawful occupation and withdraws behind its pre-1967 borders.”
And to church leaders in western Christendom: “Are you just going to sit there while the Holy Land is stolen from under your noses?”
Was I angry! At the same time I had received a letter from Kim Howells, then the minister of state at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office responsible for the Middle East…
In it, Howells recited the hardships heaped on the Gazan people. “We share concerns about the situation in Gaza and reports that the Israeli government may reduce services to Gaza…” How quaintly put.
“We remain firmly committed to Israel’s security but we are concerned that any measures taken by Israel in response to actions by violent extremists should not cause suffering to innocent Palestinians. Israel has expressed its commitment to avoiding a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and we have called on Israel to ensure that any response is in accordance with international law.
“We have made clear our commitment to helping all Palestinians, including those in Gaza… We also share concern about freedom of movement… We have repeatedly raised our concerns about movement and access with the Government of Israel… Continuing rocket fire into Israel by extremist groups within Gaza is a reminder of the dangers Israel faces. However, the deteriorating humanitarian situation is a real cause of concern. The UN Secretary General spoke forcefully to this issue and we support his efforts to ensure that the interests of the civilian population are not forgotten.”
Commitment, commitment, concern, concern…If any of it were genuine, Christmas in Gaza, 2009, should be a very jolly occasion. But the situation for the Palestinians today is even worse. We wait in vain to see “something courageous” from the western powers. Cowardice is the norm.
This week the knife of betrayal was given an extra twist by David Miliband, our foreign secretary. He calls Israeli settlements illegal but appears happy to sidestep international law and join America in appeasing the Israeli regime’s relentless determination to seize the whole of Jerusalem. “Britain will do all it can to support US efforts to re-launch negotiations,” he promised. “Negotiations are the only way for the Israelis and Palestinians to achieve a comprehensive, just and secure peace.” Not international law, then? No, that’s filed away in the Too Difficult drawer.
Last Christmas, did Gordon Brown spare a Yuletide thought for the starving, shivering Palestinians in Gaza? He wished the Jewish community a happy Chanuka from Number10.gov.uk and recalled how he celebrated with them Israel’s 60th birthday…
But he had no festive greeting for the Gazans. And no word of cheer, either, for the Christian communities in Gaza and the West Bank endlessly persecuted by his Israeli friends. I was told that many of the 1.5 million people packed into the ravaged Strip were having to scavenge through rubbish tips for food to survive. What sort of Christmas was in store for their little ones while the criminals who inflicted on them such unspeakable hardship and torment, and who denied them their human rights, had their snouts in the Yuletide trough and enjoyed a warm bed?
One presumes that Brown, a staunch ally of Israel, knew about the hell that his friends were about to inflict on Gaza during the Christmas celebrations. Christians living in the Strip were certainly aware of the invasion threat and abandoned plans to celebrate the midnight Christmas mass in protest. But they couldn’t have imagined the enormity of the devastation and slaughter that would be unleashed on them and their children.
Brown is the son of a Church of Scotland minister, which makes his indifference all the more surprising. But does western Christendom actually care, even when slapped in the face? Last year, if you remember, Christian hotels in the Holy Land as well as Catholic and Anglican churches in the UK faced Christmas without Bethlehem wine because Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint at Hebron stopped shipments. For 125 years this wine has been produced by a Christian religious order at the Cremisan winery in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem. The business supports their pastoral work among the poor and provides a livelihood for many local Palestinian families. Christians in the Holy Land and abroad buy the wine not just for its quality but because the income helps the economy of Bethlehem, which has been devastated by Israel’s wrecking tactics over the years.
There are 26 bishops in the British parliament’s House of Lords, enough to make a very big noise if they wanted to. These Lords Spiritual (to give them their proper title) are the top five holy men of the Church of England plus the 21 longest time-servers. According to the CofE they “play a full and active role in the life and work of the Upper House” besides reading prayers at the start of each meeting. Their presence, we’re told, is an extension of their general vocation to preach God’s word and provide an independent voice and spiritual insight. They are supposed to be a voice for all people of faith, not just Christians.
In a quick search through theyworkforyou.com I could find no record, in the wake of Israel’s killing spree in Gaza, of these ’super-clerics’ raising questions about the appalling conditions in the Holy Land, the plight of the Palestinians, Israel’s criminal onslaught and persecution of the Christian and Muslim communities, and the unending humanitarian crisis… nor any criticism of the British government’s failure to alleviate the suffering of innocent Gazans, many thousands of whom will be sleeping in tents among the rubble of their homes, without drinking water, this festive season.
When these lordly men of God piously officiate at Christmas-time in their glorious churches and historic abbeys I shall permit myself the uncharitable hope that they choke on their Cremisan altar wine, if they have managed to get any.