Bethlehem Unwrapped Panel

Panelists (from left) John Lyndon, director of One Voice Europe, Jeff Halper, founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) David Loyn, BBC foreign correspondent (Chair), Alan Johnson, Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre and Leila Sansour, Bethlehem resident, film-maker and founder of OpenBethlehem (photo: courtesy of BICOM)

St. James’s Church in London hosted the controversial Bethlehem Unwrapped Festival from 23 December 2013 to 5 January 2014. The centrepiece was an eight metre high replica of Israel’s security barrier built in the Church courtyard. On 4 January 2014 a panel event, ‘Both sides of the Barrier’, took place. The following is an edited version of the speech I gave that evening.

I want to talk about three security barriers tonight. First, the pretend barrier outside the Church here in London. Second, the real barrier in Israel and the West Bank. Third, what I will call the intellectual separation barrier, on one side of which is a ludicrously simplistic, and frankly counter-productive, ‘activism’ on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and on the other side of which is, well, the actual Israeli-Palestinian conflict in all of its historical depth and political complexity.

The constructive pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace approach we need must be open to the full force of the sheer bloody complexity of the conflict, and be willing to wrestle with that complexity, not evade it; be fully aware of the determining contexts of the conflict, among which is security; and refuse to demonise either side, working with both parties, seeking co-existence, compromise, mutual recognition and peace.

The pretend barrier outside this church – however well intentioned – does the opposite. It is reductive, ignoring the political complexities of the conflict; it is decontextualised, marginalizing at best, discounting at worst, the security case for the barrier; and because it is reductive and decontextualising, it is also, ultimately, demonising, framing the barrier as a pure violation of human rights by cruel Israelis, a motiveless imprisonment of underlings by overlords, quite possibly by racists of an apartheid type.

Let me dramatise the gulf between the real barrier and the pretend barrier. Two things happened just before Christmas. On December 22. A bomb exploded on a bus from Tel Aviv to Bat Yam. The perpetrators come from Bethlehem and they crossed into Israel with their 2 kilogram bomb, and its nails and bolts, through a breach in the security fence. On December 23rd, here in the parallel universe of activist London, at the public launch of the pretend barrier, one of my fellow panelists, Jeff Halper, said ‘This is not a wall built for security … It doesn’t protect Israelis in any way.’

He was cheered for saying that. Jeff Halper is a purveyor of the intellectual separation barrier.

The fact is, the barrier was built to stop suicide bombers who were killing Israelis. Let’s remember just one. Simona Rodin does not feature in your pretend wall. Not one of the victims does. Well, by God she is going to tonight. She was 17 when she died, on June 1, 2001. She went to the Dolphinarium discotheque in Tel Aviv. So did Said Khutari, who travelled from the West Bank town of Kalkilia; walked right over, with the intent of causing mass destruction. Strapped to his chest was a deadly mix of powerful explosives and hundreds of steel ball bearings. In the Disco, at 11:26 p.m. he blew himself up, murdering Simona and 20 other youngsters, and injuring 132.

At the Camp David negotiations in 2000, Ehud Barak the Israeli PM offered a Palestinian state in over 90 per cent of the West Bank. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said no, walked away without making a counter offer, and launched the Second Intifada – a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks on Israel. By 2002, a fatal suicide bombing was carried out in Israel nearly every two weeks on average. In just three years, over 900 Israeli civilians were killed and 6000 injured by terrorism coming from West Bank. And more than a dozen fatal terrorist attacks came from the Bethlehem area, by the way.

And you know what? The barrier works. It’s not the only factor, but it was important in achieving a fall of more than 90 per cent in the number of attacks and 70 per cent in the number of Israelis murdered. That’s not a ‘the government position’. Those are real lives, saved. And those lives must be allowed to enter into your moral calculus.

Some of you may be thinking, well, the Israelis would say the barrier works wouldn’t they? OK, so what do the Palestinian terrorists say? They should know. Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Abdallah Shalah said ‘[The Israelis] built a separation fence in the West Bank. We do not deny that it limits the ability of the resistance [i.e., the terrorist organizations] to arrive deep within [Israeli territory] to carry out suicide bombing attacks …’ (23 March, 2008).’

Why not project that admission onto your pretend barrier?

Demonising Israel and Israelis by being reductive and decontextualising about the conflict – that is how the intellectual separation barrier works. That’s how it cuts off so many well-meaning European folk from playing a constructive role in promoting peace. It fosters a style of ‘activism’ that turns global civil society into a force that hampers the quest for peace.

You have been inviting people to write graffiti on the pretend wall. I’d take my cue from the great US radical, folk singer, and Dylan precursor, Woody Guthrie. He had a big sticker on his guitar: ‘this machine kills fascists.’ I’d amend that and stick it on your wall – ‘this barrier stops fascists’.