Israel’s “right to defend itself” critiqued by Palestinian liberation theologian, Naeem Ateek

Israel, with support from the US, propagates that its actions in Gaza are carried out only because “Israel has the right to defend itself”. Rev. Dr. Naeem Ateek states in the piece below why he does not agree. Naim

naim 3Naeem Ateek is well known as a Palestinian Christian theologian. He co-shaped the Palestinian liberation theology and was the first to articulate it in his book, Justice, and only Justice, a Palestinian Theology of Liberation.

Sabeel, Jerusalem – For the sake of the burning children of Gaza
July 30, 2014

One of the most common refrains repeated by President Obama and other western leaders since the beginning of Israel’s massive military offensive against Gaza is, “Israel has the right to defend itself.” This refrain is not new and has been declared so often, it has become a cliché. Some leaders parrot it without even thinking. Israel has used such clichés as a justification for its actions as well as an excuse to further its carnage. As of July 29, the death toll in Gaza is over 1100 people, mostly civilians, and includes 243 children (http://www.ochaopt.org). In addition, around 53 Israeli soldiers and 3 Israeli civilians have died.

Under these circumstances, is Israel able to justifiably claim this right to defend itself?
First, we should consider that there is no clear “self” for Israel to defend. Israel steadfastly refuses to define its borders. Israel’s expansionist policies under the pretext of security have extended its “borders” deep into the Palestinian territories and the Syrian Golan Heights, in contravention of international law. Furthermore, as a state that is occupying another state that includes Gaza for the last 47 years, Israel stands in violation of international law and humanitarian law. In light of the fact that Israel has no defined borders and is occupying another state, it is not even possible to define the “self” that Israel has a right to defend.

Second, it is important to note that Israel does not have a moral or legal right to claim that it is “defending” itself so long as it is occupying another state. Let us take the Iraq-Kuwait war as an example. Suppose after Iraq occupied Kuwait, some of the Kuwaitis started firing rockets at Iraqi cities as their way of forcing Iraq to end its illegal occupation. In such a circumstance, would we consider Iraq as having a right to “defend” itself? Or would we rather see Iraq as the instigator and aggressor?

Morally speaking, so long as international law and the United Nations consider Israel as occupying Palestine, Israel is not defending itself, it is defending its occupation and its Zionist project. When the occupation ends, Israel possesses the legal and moral right to defend itself, and with that we can all stand. But so long as it is defending its occupation through collective punishment and disproportionate military might, which is illegal under international law, its claims appear deviously deceitful and hollow. Furthermore, Israel can get away with impunity.

Finally, are Obama’s words about Israel’s security and her right to “defend itself” credible in the presence of the burning children of Gaza? Is the war Israel is conducting credible in light of these children, held captive and unable to leave Gaza, killed for the crime of being born on the wrong side of an arbitrary border, killed while hiding in their homes, playing soccer on the beach, and taking refuge in UN safe spots? Nothing can legally or morally legitimize the indiscriminate killing of a captive civilian population. No statements, no claims, no actions, no matter how profound, can hold up in the presence of the burning and torn up little bodies of innocent children. They are utterly meaningless, reprehensible and blasphemous.

Therefore, it is important to emphasize the following points:

  1. The international community needs to empower the UN to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine. We have been caught in a destructive cycle. Every few years the situation reaches its boiling point, warfare begins, and thousands of Palestinians are killed and injured, mainly civilians – women, children, elderly, and disabled. The international community has been lethargic, impotent, and unwilling to implement its own resolutions on Palestine. The international community has the responsibility to resolve this seemingly intractable conflict. The UN needs to be empowered to do its work.
  2. International law unequivocally gives occupied people the right to shake off the yoke of the occupier through various means including the armed struggle. While this is true and needs to be remembered in considering this situation, Sabeel has always stood for the moral right of liberation through nonviolent means.
  3. The Palestinian rockets from Gaza have an important message that Israel refuses to understand and the western powers, especially the United States, are unwilling to comprehend. The message of the rockets addresses the core issues and the root causes of the problem – STOP THE ISRAELI OCCUPATION AND FREE PALESTINE. If this does not happen, the war will occur again and again and again, and the casualties will be mainly women and children. This conflict will continue to flare up, despite anyone’s best efforts to contain it, unless the systemic injustice of occupation is dismantled. A recent statement from Israeli academics cuts straight to the point: “Israel must agree to an immediate cease-fire and start negotiating in good faith for the end of the occupation and settlements, through a just peace agreement”( http://haimbresheeth.com/gaza/an-open-letter-to-israel-academics-july-13th-2014/statement-by-israeli-academics-july-2014/).
  4. Our plea is to all people of conscience in Israel. You need to become engaged. The present political course is driving Israelis and Palestinians further apart and is leading us to an impending disaster worse than we are witnessing today. We all must stop nurturing extremism. Israelis and Palestinians have to live together in this land. God has put us here, we need to share it. The alternative is untenable.
  5. A stable peace can only be realized when justice, in accordance with international law,is achieved for both Israel and Palestine.Source: http://necefsabeel.ca/?p=713
refugees near tulkarem, summer 1948
Gallery

Al-Nakba: Three Times Over

What struck me most that morning in Jerusalem was her serenity. Listening to the 77 year old Christian woman somehow felt like spring water in a desert – this despite her traumatic experience of three interwoven Nakbas.

She talked about the human catastrophe of being displaced by Israel, the identity catastrophe of no longer knowing where you fit in or may live; and a theological catastrophe since your own religion (Christianity) is used to justify your oppression.

Al-Nakba is Arabic for “The Catastrophe” referring to the widespread death, destruction, dispossession and displacement of Palestinians during the creation of the State of Israel. Today Nakba day is annually commemorated on 15 May.

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I was listening to her at Sabeel, an Ecumenical Centre for Liberation Theology in Occupied Palestine.

The woman was only eleven years old on Sunday 30 November 1947 when the Irgun, a clandestine Zionist armed group, first shelled the Arab sections of Haifa, her city.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHaifa today – an Israeli city.

  1. A human Nakba

Haifa was not the only place under attack. In March 1948 David Ben Gurion announced a program for destroying and depopulating Arab areas and eliminating any resistance. By then already 30 Arab villages had been depopulated.

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By April 1948 Haifa’s indigenous Arab residents fled to the harbour with what little they could carry. Many drowned as their overloaded boats capsized.  Since the woman’s family are Christians they fled to Nazareth.

refugees near tulkarem, summer 1948

Clandestine Zionist forces dispossessed 531 Arab towns or villages and 11 Arab urban areas with almost complete looting of Palestinian property and wealth, including the banks, property, businesses, fields and orchards. 

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A comment by the then head of the International Red Cross delegation in Palestine on the massacre of Deir Yassin is particularly chilling.  On 10 April 1948 he drove into the village outside Jerusalem and came across a detachment of Zionist Irgun members.  They came from Deir Yassin which was wiped out the previous night:

All of them were young, some even adolescents, men and women armed to the teeth: revolvers, machine-guns, hand-grenades, and also cutlasses in their hands, most of them still blood-stained.  A beautiful girl with criminal eyes showed me hers still dripping with blood; she displayed it like a trophy.  (Dimbleby1979:79).

Israel’s Irgun museum refers to the Deir Yassin massacre as an “operation” that was “a key point in the War of Independence”.

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The display in the entrance proudly displays the following words in its entrance:

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Other Zionist troops – Haganah and Palmach – carried out dozens of operations. They blew up as many houses and killed old people, women and children where there was resistance.

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As the Arabs moved out, the Zionists moved in…several hundred thousand Palestinians were on the move, criss-crossing Palestine or fleeing towards neighbouring countries, dodging the Zionist army, sleeping in olive groves and in mountain huts, or swamping villages not yet under attack.  (Dimbleby:89).

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Israel declared itself a state on 14 May 1948. Nazareth and many other places was under military control. The world stood by. No-one came to their rescue:

 We are a burden on Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, we are a burden…

She repeated her words, and briefly turned her head away. I cringed.

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2.     An identity Nakba

Israel became a state, but Palestinians were not welcome there:

We woke up in Israel.  Who are we? We were not allowed to say that we are Palestinian.

Suddenly 750 000 Palestinians were refugees. Many of them still have the keys to their houses, but Israel does not allow them to return to their properties (homes, agricultural land, etc.) as allowed for in Resolutions 194 (1948) and 237 (1967) of the United Nations. Displaced Palestinians do not have access to civilian courts that could provide effective remedies and reparations.

Today more than 50 laws enshrine the status of Palestinians in Israel as second-class citizens based on their ethnic and religious identity. Palestinians within occupied Palestine face daily violations of human rights, economic rights and political rights.

post-traumatic stress in gaza

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We recognise Israel as an Israeli state, but it is a state only for its Jewish citizens.

3. A theological Nakba

She grew up as a Christian and attended missionary schools.

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After they fled they realised that in the land of the Bible and just as in the days of Joshua, they experienced ethnic cleansing:

We couldn’t pray anymore.  When we most needed hope, to pray and to read our scriptures, we could not.  People stopped going to church.

The Biblical Israel used to be our spiritual ancestor, now it was our oppressor. We did not know what to think.  The churches gave us a lot to address our physical needs.  To them we were a bunch of refugees who needed aid, wherease we were actually a people with spiritual needs and an identity crisis.

She concluded on an inspirational note:

But the Bible has good news and we as Palestinians are trying to find it. This is why we started with a liberation theology. Jesus lived as a Palestinian under the Roman oppression. As Palestinian Christians we believe in standing up for our rights – but non-violently. We want to rise up over the ways of the world without abandoning the poor and the oppressed or losing sight of the humanity of the oppressor.

It is this compassion with Israel as the oppressor that inspires me so much. For despite everything they go through in an ongoing Nakba of occupation, destruction and dehumanisation as, for example, Gaza in 2014 and in ongoing, daily human rights violations in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, the majority of Muslim and Christian Palestinians still acknowledge the humanity of  Jewish Israelis.

Our task is to take the lead from these Palestinians in a mutual quest to overcome hatred and division between people. It is as applicable to other contexts as it is to the Palestinians and Israel.

Earlier in May 2015 a group of mainly South African Jews publicly acknowledged how Palestinians have been displaced and dispossessed. Their message was that there are Jewish people who support their struggle. Heidi Grunebaum, one of the organizers of the ceremony in Lubya told The Electronic Intifada:

Given what South Africa’s history has been, there’s something abominable and unthinkable in Israel proclaiming a South Africa Forest not only on stolen land, but on land where there used to be a village. It’s almost another level of erasure.

Lubya used is one of the 530 Arab Palestinian villages that Israel destroyed during the Nakba. Today it is planted over with a forest with money South African Jews donated.  Many donors to the South Africa Forest in present-day Israel probably do not realize that they are helping to cover up the results of ethnic cleansing. The Jewish National Fund website promoting the Lower Galilee project as environmentally sound and offering a certificate to anyone who finances the plantation of at least two trees does not mention these critical details.

 

For more on the Nakba, see http://www.palestineremembered.com/

For more on Lubya, including a film on it, see https://marthiemombergblog.com/2013/06/07/new-film-peels-layers-of-truth/

Reference: Dimbleby. 1979. The Palestinians. London: Quartet Books.

Photos on Nakba from ICRC and UNRWA archive.