Negotiations only way ahead in Israel-Arab conflict

Negotiations only way ahead in Israel-Arab conflict

Allon Lee

Canberra Times, Nov 18 2011

One of the many admirable characteristics of the Australian archetype is a propensity for plain speaking.

So it is to Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s credit that Australia sent the Palestinian Authority a clear message by voting against admitting the non-existent state of Palestine to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In essence Australia was reaffirming its repeated stance that the only way to end the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is through negotiations.

As it is, the Palestinians will now apply to 16 other UN affiliated bodies for admission on the specious basis of being a state, which they are not yet according to the criteria set out under international law.

There is a certain Orwellian-laced irony in the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) delegate to Australia, Izzat Abdulhadi, recently arguing that UNESCO membership will help protect significant cultural and religious sites in the West Bank and contribute to peace by assisting in the passage of a Palestinian state.

According to the slogan on the UNESCO website, its mission is “to build peace in the minds of men and women” but rewarding the Palestinians for nearly three years of refusing to return to the negotiating table would certainly seem to contradict this.

And if UNESCO’s other goal is the preservation of culture, it might do well to begin to explain to the PA what that involves. For the recent historical record shows that Palestinian officials are apathetic at best when it comes to protecting Jewish cultural sites – and woefully and wilfully contemptuous at worse.

Regrettably it has long been unofficial Palestinian policy to deny any link between the Jewish people and the Holy Land.

When PA President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the UN General Assembly in September 2011 he referred to “the Holy Land, the land of Palestine, the land of divine messages, ascension of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the birthplace of Jesus Christ”.

In November 2010 the PA’s archaeology department released a study dismissing any link between the Western Wall and the Jewish temple, a link no credible archaeologist would deny.

In 2002, dozens of armed Palestinian fighters took over the Church of the Nativity during a military confrontation with Israeli Defence Forces, and there is evidence this was pre-planned with support from Palestinian officialdom. After a long standoff, the fighters left the church but not before leaving behind0 40 explosive devices, including some that were booby-trapped, were found by Israeli soldiers.

In October 2000, just as the Second Intifada broke out, Palestinian police stood by as a mob ransacked Joseph’s Tomb located near the West Bank town of Nablus.

The Palestinians promised they would repair the damage done, which they did, but in the process also painted the top of the shrine’s dome in green – the colour of Islam.

In 1999, the Waqf – the Muslim religious authority that administers the Dome of the Rock/Temple Mount in Jerusalem used bulldozers to remove 300 truckloads worth of top soil filled with priceless archaeological detritus dating back two millennia from the Temple Mount to open an emergency exit to an underground mosque. The material was simply dumped.

During the Camp David peace talks in 2000, former PLO chairman Yasser Arafat insisted to Bill Clinton’s astonishment that there was never a Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
By way of contrast, in 1967 Israel passed the Protection of Holy Places Law, which as its name suggests and as the past four decades has shown, has protected cultural and religious sites.

Israel has long recognised the importance of the land to Christians and Muslims and not only those two religions. The Baha’i faith has its world headquarters in the northern Israeli seaside city of Haifa. The Baha’i temple with its magnificent gardens attracts millions of the faithful and tourists annually. In Iran, where the faith originated in the 19th century, Baha’i practitioners are routinely persecuted.

Israel’s decision in 1967 to leave control over the Dome of the Rock plaza to the Waqf should be contrasted with the appalling destruction of the Jewish Quarter when the Old City fell to the Jordanians in the 1948 war. Synagogues were turned into public toilets, and gravestones were used for paving.

UNESCO has never once condemned the desecration of Jewish holy sites under Arab, or Muslim control.

The organisation is not merely tasked with the noble goal of preserving the best of human creativity it is also there to foster an environment where people have access to quality education. It is here that UNESCO should focus its efforts by demanding the PA resists the culture of glorification of suicide bombings and incitement to anti-Jewish hatred in Palestinian media and education system.

The glorification of death through martyrdom is one of the most insidious and self-destructive aspects of the Palestinian culture inhibiting achieving true peace.

One of the most disturbing features of a number of the Palestinian prisoners released in the hostage exchange deal in October was the relish with which they and Palestinian media reflected on the deaths their acts of terrorism caused.

Particularly galling was Ahlam Tamimi, now 31, who drove the suicide bomber responsible for the murder of 15 Israelis, most of them children, and wounding of 130 in the Sbarro Pizzeria in Jerusalem in August 2001. After the massacre, she resumed her day job as a journalist and later that day covered the massacre for a Palestinian TV station without acknowledging her involvement.

In October 2001, the Al-Najah University in Nablus opened an exhibition that included a bloody and graphic re-enactment of the Sbarro pizzeria suicide bombing in Jerusalem featuring blood smeared walls, hanging body parts and pizza slices.

After her release last month Tamimi said: “You know how many casualties there were. This was made possible by Allah. Do you want me to denounce what I did? That’s out of the question. I would do it again today, and in the same manner.”

It is one thing to argue that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter but the gruesome glorification of the infliction of human suffering should not be open for debate.

Palestinians can and should achieve statehood but not through bureaucratic sleights of hand – but by accepting the idea of a negotiated settlement that recognises the principle outlined in the UN Partition Plan 64 years ago – one state for the Arabs living alongside a state for the Jews.

Allon Lee is a policy analyst with the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council.

See the edited version in the Canberra Times: