Thine eyes wide shut?

Posted on 19 July 2012

The Australian student group’s next meeting after Sam Bahour was with Abdullah Abdullah; PLO ambassador to Lebanon, Palestinian parliament representative for Jerusalem, and Fateh party member.

Abdullah is well into his seventies and his capacity for remembering dates, names and other important events in the history of Palestine over the past hundred years plus is quite astonishing.

He spoke for a while, a very different kind of talk to Sam Bahour’s—he is, after all, a representative of the political structure within Palestine—but it was interesting, he spoke intelligently and covered some important topics which the visiting group needs to be aware of if they are to have any meaningful understanding of what has happened and is happening to Palestinians and to Palestine.

Following his talk, he invited the group to ask questions or make comments. This is where I began to understand a little more about the visitors and the general position many of them seem to have on the issue of Palestine and Israel. The group is from Monash University, and their professor is Mark Baker, whom I did not warm to at all. His manner felt aggressive, his tone of voice was condescending.

I assume that this was the first time most, if not all, of the group had ever been here. It was probably also their first experience of hearing from Palestinians who have to live under the conditions created by Israel. I also suspect that most, if not all of the group, are fairly mainstream Zionists.

The questions ranged from the predictable: why won’t Palestinians accept Israel as the Jewish state? (Because this was only raised in 2009 and had never before been an issue, so why now?) To the ultimate in condescension: are Palestinians really ready to have their own state? (Kosovo didn’t have to wait for Serbia to bestow statehood upon it, why should Palestine require permission from Israel to exist?)

The other questions were on similar themes, the tone of which felt rather accusatory. It felt like Abdullah was permanently in a position of having to defend himself and his rights as a Palestinian. His reponses were thoughtful, articulate and honest, but I wonder how many of the group wanted to hear what he was saying.

It was time to move on to the next meeting with Ayed Morrar, from Budrus. While he spoke, at the Orthodox Club, we went off to pick up lunch and arrived just as he finished speaking.

J was interviewing Ayed later so they just chatted generally over kofte and hummous. As the group readied to leave, I came in to find Mark Baker speaking at Ayed, and I mean speaking at. He has, at best, an unfortunate manner when talking to people (perhaps this only applies to Palestinians?) At one point he said that he is here to prevent a catastrophe, as if there hasn’t been one for the past hundred-plus years!!  Palestinians’ rights come second to the rights of Jews to people like this, who like to think they’re liberal and progressive. But their intentions are exposed when they do not accept for Palestinians the demands they make of others for themselves.

A Palestinian friend, an organiser of this and similar visits, asked me what I thought of groups like this coming here. Of course they should come, regardless of their position, I said. People need to be exposed to the reality of life here. How they then think about their experiences and process what they’ve seen and heard is down to them.

Israel’s double-standards and racist behaviour may not be clear to all, clearly some people will remain unmoved and will no doubt continue to accept the propaganda they’ve been fed for years. But if even a few have the veil of denial lifted briefly from their eyes, then they should start to at least question what they have seen and heard.

That is why these kinds of visits are important. If people don’t believe what I or others here say, then I invite them to come here to experience it for themselves. I remember taking a group around over ten years ago. We were at a checkpoint and one of the women started crying. I asked her what was wrong. She replied: “I had no idea it was like this.” No words spoken in a hall in London could convey the horror of what she saw in front of her, that could not be denied.

They may not have left having changed their perceptions or beliefs fundamentally, but I hope that some of them are having to confront what they’ve seen and heard here in Palestine, and that they are at least discomfited by some of what they’ve now seen for themselves.

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