Harvard Square Observer: One Cannot Escape Israel / Palestine

Ernest Cassara

When we arrived at our favorite hotel, in Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury, London - which now feels like a second home - one of the first things I did was to pick up a copy of the Camden New Journal, a newspaper that deals with the affairs in the Borough of Camden, of which Tavistock Square is a part.  I expected that it would be filled with news of the upcoming local elections across Britain, and it was. A few days later, elections were held and the Labour Party took a drubbing.  Voters in the Borough of Camden, which had been controlled by Labour for thirty years, chose instead a majority of candidates from the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats.  The Conservatives now control the Council.

Camden was just one of several whose Councils were lost to the Conservatives. I concluded that Prime Minister Tony Blair's low standing with the public was responsible for Labour's defeat.  He has never been forgiven for standing with President George W. Bush, who is despised by most of the British public, and dragging the country into the Iraq war at Bush's side.

The media chose to represent Labour's defeat as due to three scandals. Deputy Prime Minister  John Prescott was having an affair with his Diary Secretary (in American terms, the person who keeps his schedule).  Once the news got out, she sold her story to one of the trashy tabloids (and, in Britain, they are trashy!) for a very sizable sum.  (Another feature that makes British politics endlessly fascinating!)

Then, it was revealed that Home Secretary Charles Clarke was not aware that illegal immigrants (as we Americans would call them), who had been jailed for various offenses, had been released and not deported, as was planned.  First P.M. Blair said that Clarke should stay on, for he knew best how to correct the situation.  A few days later, Blair sacked Clarke, in a big shake up of the cabinet.  Prescott, by the way, was allowed to keep his office and perks, but his responsibilities were transferred elsewhere.  (Nice arrangement that!  For Prescott, that is!)

The third cabinet member who got into trouble was Patricia Hewitt, Health Secretary. The National Health Service is always being criticized for something, but, the immediate trouble occurred at a gathering of nurses, who were very upset with her policies.  The nurses were too polite to boo, they slow clapping instead.  Hewitt, however, kept her job in the cabinet.

Blair, no doubt, believed that shuffling the cabinet would take the attention away from his failings.  No quite so, for civil libertarians are quite upset by some of his policies. (We may return to the debate over his actions in a future issue of the HSC.)

What I did not expect, when I picked up my first copy of the Camden New Journal was a full page article on the actions of Anthony and Jocelyn Hurndall, the parents of Tom Hurndall, who live in the area.  Three years ago, Tom Hurndall, a member of the International Solidarity Movement, was  shot in the head by an Israeli soldier as he was escorting children across the road in the middle of turbulence in Gaza. An English inquest jury unanimously decided that Tom Hurndall had been "intentionally killed."  The Hurndalls are not satisfied with the Israeli jailing of the soldier who fired the fatal shot for manslaughter.  The soldier claimed in court that Israeli officers had given permission to shoot civilians.  The Hurndalls want the British government to extradite five Israeli army officers, who were responsible for the order carried out by the soldier.

The inquest jury spokeswoman said, "The jury would like to express their dismay at the lack of co-operation from the Israeli authority in this case."

The Camden New Journal, also, carried a story about Gerald Kaufman, a leading Labour Member of Parliament, who "called on the government to impose sanctions on Israel if war crime prosecutions against the killers of Tom Hurndall and British film-maker James Miller, both shot in Gaza, are blocked." 

The following week's issue of the Camden New Journal carried letters to the editor by the usual suspects, in effect saying that Tom Hurndall got what he deserved.  One of the letters, however, was from a woman who had gone to an Arab town on the outskirts of Jerusalem, as part of a friendship exchange program.  Her letter includes the following passages, which describe pretty much what I observed when I visited Israel and Palestine in the autumn of 2002.  I was sorry to read that things have not improved.  Her letter read, in part:

I should like to relate one experience in particular.  I stood beside an army checkpoint and watched
five fully armed Israeli soldiers detaining a group of Palestinian women for no apparent reason.
The soldiers refused to return their ID cards so the women could not go home.

They had waited for two hours, committed no offence and were exhausted after work.  I asked the
soldiers on their behalf, to return their ID cards, they refused and ordered me out of their way.
Then a young Palestinian boy with an obvious limp carrying an X-ray and a hospital appointment
card politely asked the same soldiers if he could pass through - there is no hospital in Abu Dis
since the erection of The Wall - he was pushed back.

I asked again, another soldier was sent for who grudgingly pushed him through.  I saw other
Palestinians, desperate to get to work in Jerusalem creeping through an  adjacent churchyard,
hoping to avoid the omnipresent jeeps of armed soldiers.

The Israeli army must accept responsibility when accused of violating human rights instead of
relying on their standard response of 'security'.  None of these people represented a security
threat, rather they were victims of an Israeli policy of collective punishment.

So, I am barely unpacked in Cambridge, and I discover the House of Representatives holding forth in a particularly hateful manner. HR 4681 would penalize the Palestinians, withholding crucial funds.  In the debate, televised on C-SPAN, it was striking that so many of those promoting the legislation are Jews.  Some Jews are sensitive that they might be charged with dual loyalty.  Well, it was well displayed on the House floor by Tom Lantos of California, Eliot Engel of New York, and several others.  I regretted that my favorite Barney Frank was among them, although he had some reservations about the legislation.

Hateful in his discussion of the Palestinians was Gary Ackerman of New York.  But, he was outdone by Shelley Berkley of Nevada, who was perfectly vicious. Whenever I observe such displays, I wonder what my dear friend, the late Rabbi Beryl D. Cohon (of Blessed Memory) would think of such a distortion of Jewish ethics.

Mind you, Americans for Peace Now and other Jewish organizations oppose the legislation, so I can only assume that AIPAC, which distributes money very freely to our elected representatives, was promoting it.  It is to be hoped that the bill, which was approved by the House, will not make it through the Senate.

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