Don’t tell the Greens, but I’ve gone to Israel. After possibly the best midnight flight to Jerusalem since Mohammed’s horse identified as volucrine, I’ve spent the last week in the Holy Land on a political tour the likes of which would keep Bob Carr (if he’s still alive and not the subject of a real-time version of ‘Weekend at Bernie’s 3’) awake with fright for days on end.
The tour, organised by International Political Seminars and generously supported by the Jewish Board of Deputies in NSW, is one of those evil junkets used by the Jewish community and Israeli propagandists to buy the support of political hacks and journalists in Australia. Or so you’ve been told.
The truth is, the situation in Israel is incredibly complex and complicated and can only be understood by going in-country. Our tour group spoke to Jewish settlers in Hebron and their Palestinian neighbours, Israeli soldiers and Arab Christians in Bethlehem, terror victims in Sderot and shopkeepers with pictures of terrorists on their walls, feminist Druze journalists and gay Likud members of the Knesset and French Communists working with the Palestinian municipal authorities and more. And all of it organised by the tour operators.
Of course, there’ll be no credit for this from the anti-Israel cranks and obsessives. You wouldn’t catch the ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ crowd inviting a pro-Israel speaker to their functions, I daresay. That the Jewish Board of Deputies would pay for groups to visit the West Bank, speak to Arab figures and aim for as broad a range of views as possible to be heard simply doesn’t fit their narrative.
That narrative is wrong.
We drove the length and breadth of Israel accompanied by our Palestinian Arab bus driver Samer and our Jewish tour guide Maayan. A gifted storyteller, Mayan made the rocks under our feet come alive; blending ancient history and current conflict together whether walking us through the Old City of Jerusalem or tiptoeing across Hebron. The tour organisers could not have done better and I urge anyone given the chance to travel with International Political Seminars to take it with both hands.
I entered Israel as a strong supporter of that tiny nation. I left it a far more nuanced and informed one.
We know the parameters of these debates by now – 1967 borders. Recognition of Israel’s right to exist. A renunciation of terror. The Wall. Settlements.
And all of that tells you exactly nothing, nothing, about the reality on the ground.
Even when it comes to settlements the situation is complex; not all settlements are created equal, after all. Yes, the settler community in Hebron (all 750 of them in a city of 200,000 people) are the cause of much conflict there. No, the Israeli Army should not need to send 19-year-old conscripted soldiers to that town to protect them, nor should the local Arab population be required to pass through multiple checkpoints as part of that protection. But what of the settlement just outside Ben Gurion Airport that ensures civilian airliners are not shot down by shoulder-borne rocket launchers? Is that to be demolished too?
As for the accusations of apartheid, they don’t deserve the attention required to dismiss them. Even in the most contested areas of the West Bank, even with the Wall, it’s offensive to South African sufferers of real apartheid to compare the situation. It must be said in fairness that there is a good deal of inconvenience to the Arab population and at times very probably needless violence that does occur, usually caused by settlements and their protection. Apartheid, however, it is not.
Despite the best efforts of our several Palestinian guides and spokespeople, it’s hard to embrace the Arab narrative. A shopping street in Hebron was closed to provide the settlers security, it is true. But that was twenty years ago – surely a new street and new shops could be built elsewhere by now? The refugee camp in Bethlehem is nobody’s idea of a nice place to live, it is true. But it was established over a half-century ago – surely the refugees could resettle elsewhere by now?
Whatever historical narrative one prefers about Israel, the overwhelming impression a visitor gets from the Palestinians themselves is that they would rather look backwards and keep their people destitute as leverage in international arguments, or to garner sympathy, than to actually progress their own cause.
Most Israelis want peace. Most Arabs want Israel to cease to exist. This is not a balanced conversation and if we in the West sometimes mistake it for one, the Israelis do not.
There is an uneasy quiet in Israel at the moment; from Sderot in the south to Matullah in the north, all Israelis expect more terrorist attacks sooner rather than later. While the war in Syria is currently distracting the likes of Hezbollah from their usual hobby of killing Jewish children with missiles from Lebanon, the fear is that when Syria lapses into quiet those fighters currently there will return better trained and armed – possibly even with chemical weapons from the Assad stash. For a nation that’s lost too many children already to guns and bombs targeted at civilians, this is a very real fear.
In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the country remains a roiling mass of vitality, unashamedly having a damn good time. Jerusalem is where people go to go mad. The small town of Sderot has produced five or six chart-topping bands in the last ten years despite being the target of a vicious rocket campaign. Everyone should visit the Tel Aviv nightlife at least once before they die, although the resultant hangover may well be the cause of death.
Go to Israel. Visit the West Bank. See Gaza. Take a tour, speak to the people, eat with them, drink their wine, hear their stories. Beware of slogans and simple proposals. There are no easy answers.
What is clear is that the ordinary people of Israel – Jewish, Arab, Christian, Muslim, Druze, Circassian, Armenian, Bedouin, secular, straight, gay, left, right and every other stripe and colour that makes up the character of this remarkable, multicultural and diverse place – want peace with their neighbours. And Australia should stand with Israel as a friend; we should tell hard truths, as friends do, but stand with them as an ever-present help in times of trouble. They will need us soon enough.
Luke Walladge is a former senior Labor staffer