This photo of two kids from a few days ago in Gaza spoke to me far more than all the photos of bloodshed, funerals, rocket launchers, jet fighters and angry demonstrations around the globe. Two innocent children still attached to their dreams and toys, oblivious of the hundreds of raids that have obliterated so many buildings and left almost two hundred dead in Gaza alone. They are still clinging to their innocence when the world around them is burning and divided between two camps, each accusing the other of being the instigator in another round of violence that has gripped this region and the Holy Land for almost a century.
As a child I still remember the 1967 War, otherwise called the Six Day War. I was just over six years old, but I remember how we children were woken up in the middle of the night when the first raids began. I remember how, half-asleep, we were passed from one hand to another into the makeshift shelters and how we were told to blacken the windows. I remember how we children were sent to the countryside as the war intensified and the few nights we spent in a cave in the courtyard of my grandfather’s house. When the war ended, and we returned to our city of Irbid in northern Jordan, I met for the first time my mother’s uncles. They had fled the West Bank city of Nablus along with hundreds of thousands who were made refugees during the 1967 War. They were the lucky ones. As East Jordanians they had homes and families to come back to, unlike the Palestinians who had to live in tents on the outskirts of the major cities and towns.
Only two weeks ago and before this new round of violence erupted in the Sheikh Jarrah area of East Jerusalem, I was driving round Amman with my neighbour Abu Abdullah. At the traffic lights a young man was selling strawberries and Abu Abdullah bought some for his children. He asked me if I wanted any, which I declined. He then remarked proudly “You should see the ones in my aunt’s garden in Gaza. They are huge and they do not use hormones like here in Jordan”. Last week his relatives in Gaza buried 26 members of his family after a bomb hit their building, next door to his aunt’s garden. Almost three generations were wiped out by one bomb. His aunt survived as she, along with her family, have been sleeping on the beach since the raids on Gaza began.
What words of condolence could you or I give Abu Abdullah? His family were evicted from Jaffa in 1948. Most went to Gaza, some to Jordan and Egypt. Subsequent generations are scattered around the world in a Palestinian diaspora that appears to be renewed every time Israel decides to build another settlement and squeeze more Palestinians from lands they inherited from their parents, who in turn inherited it from their parents and so on, back and back in time. The residents of Sheik Jarrah in Jerusalem who have been evicted from the houses they have lived in since 1967 were themselves refugees from the earlier conflict of 1948.
Back in 1996, just off High Street Kensington in London, I sat to have coffee with a fellow trainer who I consider as my teacher. He turned to me to express his anger and shame at what had happened in Qana in Lebanon just the day before when Israeli bombs killed 106 Lebanese civilians sheltering in the Fijian Headquarters (part of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon*). When I asked him why he was apologizing, he informed me that this was because such atrocities did not represent him as a British Jew. It was the first time that I knew of his “origins“, even though I had known him for almost 10 years by then and his roots were of no interest to me then or now. It so happened that the three heads of the university departments where I studied (Surrey, Brunel and Reading) were also Jewish and with the latter two I enjoyed an excellent relationship. I say this not to prove I am not anti-Semitic but as a matter of fact, where living and working in Britain for almost a quarter a century you are inevitably bound to be part of its rich multicultural scene.
Indeed, as someone who spent his formative years, from the age 18 till early 40s, in Britain, I am bound to have absorbed many British habits, attitudes and stances. Moreover, while living in Britain, I spent many years preaching and teaching multiculturalism, working with multinational and global companies and executives. This left its imprint on my soul and way of life. Returning home was a shock but there was also a role reversal involved. Humbly, I would say that I have many followers on social media who are interested in my views on Britain and the West which I publish in a regular post called “The London Papers”. The idea behind this regular post is simply to enlighten people in the Arab world about the West, to challenge stereotypes and to bridge cultural gaps.
What am I to say to my readers about the West’s continuing bias towards Israel, be it that public opinion is shifting? Are we as Western-educated Arabs supposed to play the apologists’ role for the British government’s Balfour Declaration which first gave Jews a home in historic Palestine in 1917? How can we explain the US’s unstinting and abundant support for Israel and never-ending efforts to block any condemnation of Israel, no matter what happens and how many Palestinians and Arabs die? The fact is that I have been engaged with the West for almost 45 years, believing in and adopting many of its principles and values. But for people like me enough is enough.
Back in February 2003 I attended the protest march in London against the imminent war in Iraq. Huge numbers of people – well over a million – marched that day; from right and left and across all classes but what good did it do? The fact is that the Blair government went into this war with America on flimsy evidence against Saddam, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and making millions of people refugees, almost on the same scale as the Palestinian diaspora. All of this goes against the education I received in Britain. Why is it that the British, who are well known to support the underdog, are not doing so when it comes to Arabs? To borrow from the Bible, it is high time the world, and the West specifically, knows that this is not a battle between David and Goliath. Though if it is, we are not Goliath.
If you google Gaza you will find very little of the information that real Gazans know about their own history. You will learn that it is a very small and narrow strip of land, often described as the biggest open prison in the world or, more neutrally, as one of the most densely populated regions of the world. You might learn a bit about Islamic Hamas or the Israeli withdrawal in 2007 or the underground tunnels that bring in both weapons and life-sustaining supplies to Gaza.
But that is not the Gaza that is made of humans of flesh and blood. Nobody will tell you that Gazans are amongst the most educated in the world, nor tell you that Gaza has beautiful beaches and literally hundreds of historic sites of archaeological interest. Nobody will tell you that before 1948 Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in peace together for hundreds of years in Gaza. Nobody will tell you that famous Egyptian singers will choose Gaza as one of the first cities on their Arab tour. Nobody will tell you that Gazans before 1948 used to send donations to Saudi Arabia to build schools and hospitals. This is the Gaza that every Gazan dreams of when they sleep on the beach to escape falling bombs.
The world can easily give these two kids a better future than the misery which their parents and grandparents have had to endure. Look at them again and please tell me that it can. Please.
*”Interim”! UNIFIL was set up on 19 March 1978.