By Naomi Foyle
As the third co-founder of British Writers In Support of Palestine, I also feel compelled to respond to Howard Jacobson’s attack on the integrity and intelligence of Alice Walker, who chose to attempt to sail to Gaza with the sabotaged Freedom Flotilla II. While I disagree profoundly and heatedly with Jacobson’s arguments, I recognize that they are held not only by the defenders of Israel, but also by many undecided observers of the conflict in the Middle East. I will therefore attempt to reply calmly in the spirit of dialogue and engagement I myself aspire to at this stage in the ‘ethical history’ of humanity (let us remember, Howard, that ‘mankind’ is nowhere without womankind).
Alice Walker sets her courageous decision to sail to Gaza firmly in the context of the civil rights movement, and its non-violent protests against intolerable oppression. She also makes it abundantly clear that the loving bravery of Jewish human rights activists, including her own husband, has inspired her to put her own body in the potential line of fire. Yet Howard Jacobson makes no mention whatsoever of segregation in America or Israel when he besmirches her intentions. And reading his article one might easily conclude that he is accusing Alice Walker of being a naive anti-Semite: guilty of ‘a highly charged emotionalism disguising an action that, by its very partiality, chooses the Palestinian child over the Israeli.’ Ignoring her historical arguments, and personal experience of resisting racial prejudice, Jacobson instead narrows his focus to a gross over-simplification and distortion of the ‘facts on the ground’. The blockade of Gaza, he claims, is necessary because Hamas fires rockets at Israeli children, and refuses to recognize the state of Israel. Walker, he implies by citing Don Quixote, is tilting at windmills: foolishly demonizing the innocent folk of Israel, and its military.
Let me not dwell on Jacobson’s patronizing attitude to a literary giant, a writer who in both word and deed has made an incalculable contribution to the global struggle for human rights. Instead, I will examine his arguments, such as they are. For the conflict in the Middle East is not nearly as simple as Jacobson would have his readers believe. To begin with the rockets. An understanding of context is essential if one is to get to grips with the moral questions at stake here. Hamas fires their Qassams from and into a political context in which Israel is a brutal occupying power that routinely steals Palestinian land, trees and water, and humiliates, imprisons and tortures Palestinians on the slightest pretext. In Gaza, the seriously ill are denied access to Israeli hospitals, and die of treatable conditions; pregnant women die at checkpoints; and IDF military attacks have poisoned the water supplies to the extent that babies are now being born with a potentially lethal blood disorder – ‘blue babies’. Under international law, occupied people have the legal right to defend themselves against such abuses: abuse in this case so systemic it is indistinguishable from ethnic cleansing, or slow genocide. This is what Hamas and its supporters believe it is doing – legitimately resisting an occupying force: Sderot, after all, was built on the ruins of a destroyed Palestinian village, Najd.
But while the Palestinians have as much right to a military as any nation, self-defence does not include deliberately targeting civilians. Here, again, context is crucial: Israel is guilty of killing and punishing civilians on a scale that dwarfs the impact of the rockets. Children, old people, families, unarmed refugees, members of peaceful protests: IDF soldiers, themselves mostly teenage conscripts, have killed them all. It is difficult to get exact numbers, but based on statistics provided by human rights group B’Tselem and the Israeli Ministry Foreign Affairs, I have calculated  that in the last four years the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli civilian deaths stands at 33:1, while that of child deaths is a heart-stopping 100:1. By condemning the rocket attacks without breathing a word of Israeli atrocities, Howard Jacobson glaringly exposes his own partiality: his blind loyalty to an oppressive regime, a state that calls itself democratic, but is better described as a militant ethnocracy. At the same time, if Israel is wrong to target civilians, then so too is the militant wing of Hamas. I do condemn the rocket attacks on civilian centres. I can well imagine that it must be terrifying to be subjected to random missiles, and to fear that they might kill or maim you or a loved one.
This wall of fear in the Israeli psyche, however, tragically prevents the country’s citizens from seeing the far greater suffering of those on the other side of that barrier. As Omar Barghouti, key architect of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, recently pointed out, while the Israelis claim they are afraid of being annihilated, it is the Palestinians who, day by day, year after year, are being ‘disappeared’. One only has to look at the maps of the Holy Land since 1948 to perceive the self-evident truth of this statement. It is obvious to me that the root cause of the pain experienced by both sides is Israel’s aggressive expansionism and apartheid policies. Hamas, after all, regularly offers Israel ten year cease-fires, which Israel just as regularly rejects. And the Palestine Papers demonstrated conclusively that Israel has never been a partner for peace.
I also believe that in order to dismantle all the walls – concrete and psychological – that divide the Holy Land, it is necessary to defend the human rights of everyone in the region. I joined the BDS movement to order to help build a non-violent alternative to missile attacks on Israel. But – and this is a crucial ‘but’ – much as I wish Israeli children to be able to sleep safely at night, unlike Howard Jacobson, I do not think that the firing of rockets at Sderot justifies the medieval siege of an entire civilian population.
Even at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, did the UK government blockade and carpet-bomb Belfast? Such a course of action would have been unthinkable. But the illegal siege of Gaza has continued for five years now, with no end in sight. In this time, Israel has prevented the import of basic necessities including concrete, paper, food and medicine. Howard Jacobson complains that Alice Walker’s ship is carrying: “Letters expressing solidarity and love.’ Not,’ he scoffs, ‘presumably, for Israeli children. Perhaps it is thought that Israeli children are the recipients of enough love already.’ Well, Howard, they are certainly at least the recipients of enough food, which is more than Gazan children can say. Chillingly, Israel has calculated the caloric needs of the population, and has indeed, as it boasted in 2006, ‘put the Palestinians on a diet’ by deliberately letting in less to eat than the people need.
The siege has also involved fatal IDF sniper attacks on Palestinian farmers, and a three week military assault in which schools, hospitals, mosques and homes were bombed, and over 1400 Palestinians, over 400 of them children, were killed. Operation Cast Lead also subjected Gaza to the use of white phosphorus, illegal due to the extreme suffering to which it subjects the human body. Who, I ask, is the worse ‘terrorist’ in this conflict? And why cannot Howard Jacobson see that it is the hugely disproportionate violence meted out by Israel that turns people like Alice Walker into passionate supporters of the rights of the Palestinians?
But Howard Jacobson does not want to talk about the horrific mass killing of Palestinian civilians we all saw on television. He wants to talk about Hamas. So let me now challenge a central Israeli advocacy shibboleth: that Hamas refuses to recognize the state of Israel. Hamas, in fact, was a co-signatory to the 2006 ‘Palestinian Prisoners Document’, which – while later set aside due to internal disagreements – expresses a willingness to accept the 1967 borders of the State of Israel, subject to negotiations. Such negotiations should have started when Hamas was democratically elected. In discussions with political opponents, surely one must set compromise as an end-goal, not demand it as a pre-condition. Let me state the truth, as clear as clean water for Howard Jacobson to drink: it is Israel that refuses to recognize the State of Palestine, and until it does so, there will be no peace for any of its children.
It is only through justice that real and lasting peace can come. And when international governments look away, rebuke Israel but do not punish it for mass killing, torture and theft, then international civilians must step forward. Yes, the Freedom Flotillas are political acts – all human acts are political, and emotional, and spiritual! And yes, they are provocations. They are intended to provoke, not Israeli commandos, but world leaders – to do what they should have done long ago: free Gaza.
Finally, let me try to explain to Howard Jacobson the significance of the name ‘The Audacity of Hope’. Palestinians, I have learned, do not use the word ‘hope’ lightly. Their hopes as a people are continually dashed against a wall of Israeli intransigence and international indifference. The central pillar in the Palestinian psyche is sumud, meaning, roughly, ‘steadfastness’. All that ordinary Palestinians can do is not give up. Not give up their land, not give up their struggle, and not surrender their humanity. For them, to hope is truly an audacious act. In this spirit, I call on Howard Jacobson to surmount the walls of fear in his own heart and mind, and finally acknowledge that the state of Israel was founded on a fundamental injustice that only the state of Israel can apologise for and undo. I call on him to retract his sneering tilt at Alice Walker, and channel his own considerable intellectual powers into persuading Israelis that the time is long overdue to honour the basic human rights and legitimate national aspirations of the Palestinian people. And if he cannot yet do all that, I respectfully ask him to converse with me on these issues, in whatever form he chooses: live public debate; an exchange of private or public letters; or a private meeting.
 Wikipedia provides a chart of civilian deaths in the conflict drawn from Israeli human rights group B’tselem and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This chart includes intra-Palestinian casualties, making it harder to draw exact conclusions. But discounting the internal casualties, from 1987-2010 the average number of Israeli fatalities per year was 65 (including an average of 6 children per year); the number of Palestinian deaths per year was 276 (including 70 children per year). This is a ratio of 4:1 total Palestinians killed to Israelis, and nearly 12:1 children.
Since the end of the second intifada in 2006, and the completion of most of the Apartheid Wall, the numbers of Israeli deaths per year have dropped dramatically – averaging 16 fatalities per year from 2007-2010, including the total loss of 5 children in four years. In that same period, Palestinian fatalities have risen. Allowing the figure for 2009 to stand – it represents the casualties of Operation Cast Lead – subtracting 20% from the totals of the other three years (to account for internal casualties); and assuming that the Palestinians did not kill any of their own children; the average yearly number of fatalities was 529 (including 125 children per year [total 503]). This represents ratios of 33:1 (Palestinians to Israelis killed) and 100:1 (Palestinian to Israeli children killed) in the last four years. I note that, as the real number of Palestinian casualties has risen, while the Wall is making Israelis more secure, it is making Palestinians vastly less safe.