03 January 2009

Is mother proud of Little Boy today?

I woke up this morning with every intention of heading into town to join a protest in solidarity with Gaza that I saw advertised on a poster yesterday. Normally I notice posters only after the events advertised have transpired so that my life becomes a succession of missed opportunities for gigging, protesting, or discovering my inner salsa dancer. At the start of the year (two whole days ago) I made a conscious decision to become more informed about what was going on in my own city, and get involved, rather than spending most of my time reading about skulduggery in far off countries and doing nothing tangible about it.

Gaza has been on my mind a lot since the bombing started last week. As the first news reports started to trickle in, the Very Understanding Girlfriend and I were sitting down for lunch with a few friends, two of whom I last saw in Turkey on their way overland to Syria. Although I had known one of them for many years, I had assumed his partner was Scottish, but as I found out over dinner in Istanbul she was in fact Palestinian, and had moved from country to country as a young girl and only settled in Scotland very recently. Although we didn't talk much about the attacks on Gaza last week, we did all arrange to go in to see 'Waltz with Bashir' in the new Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield before New Year's Eve.

The film was easily the best film that I saw all year, breathtakingly drawn with a soundtrack at times haunting, all serving to strengthen the message of horror and disbelief that filmed interviews alone may not have conveyed. Most of what I know of the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refuge camps comes from external sources writing 2nd-hand accounts many years after the fact, so to hear the direct accounts of those associated with the massacre was something new, and disturbing, and was the first time that I have heard something akin to regret and guilt from Israelis associated with the horrific events.

This is not to say that this was the first time such feelings have been expressed, far from it, for there has been and continues to be a strong anti-war movement within Israel, and government policies towards the Palestinian Territories are the subject of frequent open debate within Israel itself. This is highlighted throughout John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's recent book "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy", wherein they contrast the vigorous critiques of government policy that appear in Israeli newspapers with the unilateral support it receives in US papers, and the fact that any criticism of Israeli government policy in the US often results in the critic being labelled anti-Semitic.

Within the US the subject of Israel is one that is entirely black or white, with no shades of ambiguity. Everything Israel does is right, and anyone who criticises their actions is obviously racist. This can be seen clearly in the response of both the US government and media to the current Gaza crisis. I watched both the CBS and NBC main news broadcasts last night, with NBC highlighting rockets damaging Israeli homes without mentioning the scale of Palestinian deaths, and CBS doing likewise and placing the story after news of Obama moving to DC two weeks early so his kids could start school on Monday - the deaths of 400 people in the last seven days is less newsworthy than two young girls starting in an elite private school. Bush, as would be expected, gave blanket approval to the actions of the Israeli government, viewing everything in the absolutist eyes of the war on terror, equating 4 Israeli deaths to those of 400 Palestinians and placing the blame entirely on Hamas. Of course every death is completely unacceptable, but the simple and obvious fact is that the Israeli response is completely out of proportion and nothing can justify it.

So why didn't I go into the march today?

I spent some time this morning reading the reports of last night's march to the Israeli embassy, where pro-Hamas and Fatah chants reigned out into the night and Israeli flags were burned, and quite frankly I felt uncomfortable with the thought of being associated with that. The US is not unique in seeing everything in black and white, and all too often disapproval over the actions of the Israeli government gets mixed up with the denial of the right of the State of Israel to exist at all. Many of last night's marchers were calling for the destruction of Israel, and that is something that I refuse to be associated with, even tangentially by marching in the same demonstration as even a small group of such protesters.

I am a strong supporter of Israel. I spent most of my time in University studying its ancient history, and journeyed from the Dead Sea and Ein Gedi to the Golan in the north and the borders with Syria and Lebanon, and the experience is something that affected me greatly. Travelling before the second intifada I moved freely through Jericho and other parts of the Palestinian Territories and I saw two nations at peace with each other, genuinely trying to find a solution that offered the fewest compromises for both sides, allowing each to retain its dignity. Spending the night on the roof of a hostel within the old city of Jerusalem near the Tower of David, hearing the bells of Christian churches compete for attention with the cries of the Muezzin a few hundred yards away from the faithful praying at the Western Wall is a memory that will stay with me forever, with its sense of peoples divided by faiths, but united by Faith. Definitely an odd memory to cherish for a cynical and rabid agnostic such as myself, but there you go.

But supporting a country is not the same thing as supporting a government (or succession of governments), and the callous actions of a government that starts a war and takes 400 lives to bolster its credentials before an election is something that should not be countenanced no matter what the historical circumstances.

I did not, however, have the strength of conviction to demonstrate against such actions today for fear of being associated with extremists.

600 people turned up today. One even tried to set himself on fire. I stayed home and read a book.

Not a great way to start a year of Doing.

Links
Waltz with Bashir
Mearsheimer & Walt's "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy"
IndyMedia report on Friday night's protest

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