THAT night I give a talk at the Park Hotel in Singapore hosted by the Arab Network Society. They’re organised, and the room is full of people, including diplomats from the Middle East. Before my presentation, I quote from Surat ul-Hujjarat in the Qur’an where God created us into tribes and nations to know each other, not to hate each other.
Jerusalem, I explained, had never historically been a political capital. It was a sacred city, a holy city of three faiths: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It was the second place on earth to have a masjid, a place of worship.
And had not the bible itself not proclaimed Jerusalem as a city “for all peoples and for all times?” And if one was a believer, would it not be the final place of Resurrection?
I then mentioned Imam al-Ghazali’s Six Universal Principles, which I said should define the Palestinian-Israeli landscape: the right to life, the right of belief, the right of property, the right of intellect, the right of progeny and the right of dignity.
I concluded by saying that the Middle East conflict could not be constructively served by raw emotion. Its fate was a shared one; its final destiny was ultimately a common one between all its peoples. It had to be understood intellectually, educationally.
I said all of this as a preface to my PowerPoint presentation, a pictorial mosaic that, I think, faces some of the hardest truths of the Palestinian question. My rationale was that we had to keep focused on the central issues without being sucked into a vortex of aimless emotionality.
As fate would have it, I would be accused of exactly the opposite. But before I get ahead of myself, let me explain what the main elements of my presentation were.
I started off by showing a map of Palestinian land dispossession since 1947 and images of the Apartheid Wall. I explained why its distance was 600 km instead of 300 km (as much land appropriated for Erez Israel with as little Palestinians on it as possible). I added that about 1 million olive trees, the very lifeblood of Palestinian existence, had been uprooted in the process.
In other images I observed that even Palestinian-Israelis had over 40 laws prescribed against them, clicking on photos of an “unrecognised” village within Israel that had no running water, no electricity and no roads. The village was a shanty town because its inhabitants were not allowed to build any permanent structures.
I displayed the image of a young settler walking through the streets of Jerusalem with an M16 strapped to his back. I clicked on another slide depicting three young men walking in Hebron with 2.2 rifles. Those rifles were good for shooting rabbits, I said, but the problem was that their intent here was to shoot Palestinians.
Next up was a group of old men playing backgammon in the Muslim Arab quarter of Jerusalem. With the laser I pointed to a single Hebrew street sign above their heads, saying here was an example of colonisation by language – something we’d known well in South Africa, the 1976 uprisings inflamed by the forced use of Afrikaans in Black schools.
I spoke about the tunnels under Al-Aqsa, the destruction of the Maghribi quarter in 1967 and the forced removal of a community that had been living there since the 12th century. The Maghribi quarter faces on to the Western Wall. I mentioned that it was actually part of the Islamic waqf, and had been deemed so by the UN in 1967.
I added that whilst the wall belonged to the waqf, Suleiman the Magnificent had allowed Jews to worship there in the 16th century, his architect Mimar Sinan designing a special oratory for this purpose. I said that this was an agreement signed by the Sultan we still had to honour. Nobody was saying, God forbid, that Jewish worship should ever be prevented at the wall, but we had to be honest about history.
Space does not allow me to flesh out every detail, but I’m sure the gist of what I said is clear by now. This is because after my presentation the chairman decided to call a break before question time. That was when I was approached by representatives of the Israeli embassy in Singapore.
They were unhappy at my narrative and wanted to speak to me about it. “We really liked what you said at the beginning, but to be honest with you, I’m disappointed at the rest,” said a young man, short-haired and muscled like a soldier.
“Your take on the 1948 war is not accurate,” said a woman, thirty-ish and the more senior official.
“There was absolutely no balance. You say one thing, and then with your pictures you stir up emotions. So much was wrong I don’t know where to start,” she said.
I told her I firmly believed what I’d said. But I also had to present a narrative informed by my experiences as a South African. However, I was told that I’d only presented one side of things and that, for example with regards to the picture of the men playing backgammon, I hadn’t told the audience that three official languages were recognised in Israel – Hebrew, English and Arabic.
I didn’t have the time to argue what I saw as the Freudian significance of the street sign in the Arab quarter being in only Hebrew.
“And what about the provocation of Israelis? Where’s the balance?” continued the diplomat.
Question time came and the diplomat said there wasn’t time to elaborate on the “most disappointing aspects” of my presentation. She said that in the political process “opportunities had been missed” on both sides and nobody had been 100% right.
I was asked directly about a statement I’d made where I commented that the conflict had to be mediated without “different agendas interrupting it”.
“I’m just talking about a level playing field,” I answered.
After further commentary, the question was how we could be “more constructive”. I replied that I could not be drawn into prescribing political solutions for the Middle East. I said the problem was that current Israeli and Palestinian leadership was weak.
But I did say that there had to be understanding of the dialectic that governed Palestinian and Israeli worldviews. For the Israeli nexus it was the Holocaust. To deny it would serve no purpose. But at the same time other peoples had suffered genocides in places such as Bosnia, Rwanda and Armenia too. For Palestinians, the Nakba was also not an imaginary event.
To my surprise, the audience then applauded me.
My last question, from the Israeli diplomat, was about an “international environment” dealing with the conflict. That, I replied, could indeed be part of the (mediatory) process. A broader range of countries (other than the Quartet) at the table could perhaps better understand the way forward. We could no longer afford to have the more powerful blocs determining agendas (for the region).
Looking at my notes the following morning, I realised that I hadn’t mentioned the “Arab Spring” or the BDS movement. Arab democracy, I thought, would mean less pliant, less Israel-friendly Arab leaders. The hot-lines between Cairo and Tel Aviv would fall silent and the BDS campaign would see brands such as Caterpillar coming under pressure.