I woke up last Tuesday morning to the shrill tones not of my alarm clock but of my old mobile. A satellite TV station was calling to check whether I would appear on their news hour to discuss the recent terrorist attack in Jerusalem.
I had no real clue what the producer was talking about until she explained to me that two Palestinians had barged into a synagogue carrying axes, knives and a pistol and had killed five Jewish worshippers. A bracing wake-up call indeed.
Over the past five months, Palestine has reinserted itself dramatically into the political imagination of a world that was far too occupied with the brutal and oft-bloody events in parts of the MENA region. But the violence and vengefulness that have sucked Palestinians and Israelis into its vortex over those past months – whether tit-for-tat, price-tag or sheer murder – have also awakened the world community to the fact that they can only ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at their peril.
But let me start off first by denouncing and condemning in absolute terms those latest barbarities that have now robbed five people of their sacred lives. I denounce and condemn them – ethically, morally, and legally – with the same vehemence and anguish as I do every single murder and all the orgy of violence that have beset both Palestinians and Israelis in this latest chapter of the lex talionis that gouges eyes for eyes and extracts teeth for teeth. From teenagers hitchhiking to other teenagers going to the mosque for prayer, from places of worship to bus drivers and ordinary men subjected to such atrocious fears in Gaza or Sderot, I denounce, condemn and express sympathy with all bereaved families.
The chilling question ‘why’
But then I cannot simply stop here, feel that I have expressed human outrage and leave the issue incomplete in my own political mind: I ask myself the question as to what could possibly lead any human being to commit such atrocities? And here is where I refuse to venture into spurious theories of relativism but I do ask myself the chilling question “why”? If I do not ask this powerful three-letter question, then in the language of criminal lawyers I am denouncing and condemning an actus reus or a sordid deed but not exploring the mens rea or the state of mind motivating such life-robbing acts.
|Israeli and Palestinian officials discuss synagogue attack|
Imagine that you are living in your own house and trying to cope with your daily life and that of your family. Someone barges in by blasting the door of your house open, takes over four of the six rooms in your house for his use or that of his relatives or friends.
Not only that, but he starts erecting partitions, changes the code on your alarm system and then settles in your garden to enjoy a nice evening while you – the owner of the house – is literally imprisoned in the remaining two rooms.
You get angry, you protest, you negotiate, you threaten, you pray and blaspheme at one and the same time, and yet the invader does not give a hoot about your rights or budge an inch. He has the firepower and he has decided that he will take over your house because it is on land that he deems precious or useful to him.
Disempowered and intimidated, you appeal to the neighbours: They are deaf. You seek out the mayor of your borough: He is blinkered to what is occurring in your house and probably supports the invaders who are kith or kin. You seek out your religious leader: He is absent talking to his Almighty as if prayer without action is enough for any believer. Finally, you see the look of pain in your kids’ eyes and so you flip and decide to kick him out of your house even if it means killing him and yourself in the process. The sad result is that the police immediately surround your house, take you to the police station and throw you in jail. After all, how dare you resist the invasion and occupation of your own house? This is one sad outcome of structural and institutional violence although not a justification for it. But surely, it is abhorrent towards any human being?
Welcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to its festering realities let alone its prurient injustices.
No matter the biblical imperatives and their exegeses, one people have been dispossessed of their properties and their country was occupied by another people. Their lands have been confiscated and their orchards or olive groves destroyed.
No matter the biblical imperatives and their exegeses, one people have been dispossessed of their properties and their country was occupied by another people.
Walls and fences have been built to keep them cooped inside their allowable space. Their rights have been violated, their residences in their very birthplaces compromised and their natural resources plundered with sheer impunity. Their leaders have been demonised or reviled, their attempts at peacemaking thwarted, their memories trashed in political bins.
Many of their Arab neighbours – purportedly their brothers – who claimed to love them have forsaken them while the wider world has stood idly by and come up with lamentable statements of compassion that are tantamount only to lame excuses.
Again, I denounce and condemn every act of violence against any human being as a non-negotiable aberration of our shared humanity. But this does not also mean that I do not understand that every human being – every man, woman and child no matter their ethnicity, colour, religion or background – is entitled to hope, dignity and justice.
If my Israeli friends seek my compassion about those needless murders that are a stain on the collective conscience of a whole world, they have it unreservedly. If they expect empathy and also profound sadness for the losses suffered by Israeli and Palestinian families, I grieve with them all.
But if they expect me to act dumb and feign that a downtrodden people should remain crippled, with no rights, homeland or future of their own and that they are not permitted to aspire for their freedom and self-determination, then I am being treated with the same disdain shown to those under occupation.
If you ask me to keep mum when one people is humiliated constantly, I rue that I cannot do that either no matter the geopolitics of the region.
I regret that this is where we might well part ways: After all, it is in the very freedom of others that I find the essence and meaning for my own freedom – be that in Jerusalem, London, Yerevan or elsewhere in our muddled global village.
Dr Harry Hagopian is a London-based international lawyer, political adviser and ecumenical consultant on the MENA region. He is also a second-track negotiator and works closely with European institutions.