Sunday, December 16, 2007

Dr Bernard Sabella's 2006 address in Sydney

Dr Bernard Sabella is an interesting and energetic person. He is a Roman Catholic, a member of Fatah, an elected representative of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and professor of Sociology at Bethlehem University. It was my pleasure to sit next to him at the Jerusalem Heads of Churches dinner that we hosted on Thursday 7 December 2007.

In July 2006, Bernard visited Sydney as a guest of the MIAT Foundation and other organisations, and gave an impressive address in several cities. Below is an edited transcript of his address to the Beecroft Forum in Sydney on 6 July 2006. You'll find further information at the following locations:

Here's his Beecroft Forum address:

I would like to take this opportunity to thank my hosts, in particular the Major Issues and Theology Centre, the Canberra Baptist Church and the Zadok Institute for really wonderful preparation work. The bringing together of people to hear me and to interact is I hope not because of my skills but because of my people.

My Palestinian people are a people yearning for peace. Here in Australia a survey was done examining the population's opinion of the Palestinian/Israeli issue. Back home we did a couple of surveys right after the election of Hamas into government. Seventy-five per cent of the Palestinian people who voted for Hamas felt that the new Palestinian government should open negotiations with Israel. So our yearning as a people is for peace. For a just peace. And we have been disappointed again and again.

Some people say, " The problem is your problem and not an Israeli problem. You have done terrible things to the Israelis. How do you answer to that?" And I say simply that both people have done terrible things to each other. And I say today that if a suicide bomber sets out on a mission to kill civilians it is as unjust and unacceptable as an Israeli pilot in his jet pushing that button and killing innocent people.

A couple of weeks ago a Palestinian doctor from Saudi Arabia, who had nothing to do with terrorists, was visiting his sister who he had not seen for the last ten years. He went to Gaza to see her and talk to her and to renew their being together as a family. An Israeli jet passing by intending to bomb a certain car just missed the car and hit the house, instantly killing the doctor and his sister. This is criminal. The Israeli army came back the next day and issued a statement of apology. That is not acceptable. We have a problem. Yes we have a political disagreement. Israel may score a point here and a point there, but since I948 Israel and the international community have not applied a set of standards that is applicable to all. In other words, again and again there was a double standard. And this double standard does not allow us to move forward.

Now people say, "Yes, but please allow us to tell you that Israel's security is very precious." I agree. My security is precious as well. All of us agree that security is precious. But how would you guarantee your security? Do you guarantee your security with continuous occupation? Look at the Wall, the separation barrier that Israel is building and costing Israeli and American taxpayers $US6-8 billion. Is this barrier going to bring security and peace? Or is it going to perpetuate the problem? Or is it that Israeli policies today are to get control of the Palestinian population? If you want to control people you cannot make peace with them. Try it at home! Try it with your own children! If you want to control them, they are at war with you.

So the future is to have a joint vision. I am not shy to say that. And believe me, I say that in the Palestinian Legislative Council. And some people ask me again and again, "How do you deal with these Hamas people"? I say they are wonderful people. One of them had been harassed by Israeli security. I went to him and said,"What is the problem"? He told me the officer in charge of Israeli security said to him, “I have nothing against you, but the politicians up there order me to harass you".

I am not saying that I agree with the politics of the Islamist movement. I have my disagreements. Not religious but political. And I say we should move things forward. I am not here to speak on behalf of Hamas, but I can assure you there are people in Hamas who are ready to speak. The thing is, how to encourage them and not put obstacle after obstacle in their way. I would like very much for the secularist forces in Palestine, for Fatah, the popular front, the peoples party and other secularists to come forward and win the election next time. But it has to be done the democratic way. We have to fight for our victory next time.

We cannot simply say, "We have to beat Hamas because Hamas is an Islamist movement." Hamas is a part of the political spectrum of Palestine. It is like the Right in Israel. The Right in Israel is entitled to take part in politics. So Hamas is also entitled to take part in politics. The U.S. was insisting that the Palestinians hold the election because the U.S. wanted to show the world that democracy is flourishing in the Middle East. So democracy is flourishing but the "wrong" people are being elected! So what do you do? You come around and you penalise the whole Palestinian people.

You say, “I am not going to send you salaries and I am not going to pay wages for the government employees.” We are dependent on three things financially. We are dependent on the money that Israel collects from our customs and duties. That comes to around $US750 million a year. We are also dependent for about one third of our budget on money coming from donor countries both Arab, Islamic and European, and Australia, New Zealand, U.S.A., Japan and so on. And the rest, 10-20 per cent from taxes. So when Israel stops paying our government, and when the donor countries stop paying, then our government employees, 165,000 of them, will not receive their salaries.

So what happens then? What happens is that if I go to Bethlehem and see some of my ex-students who are now government employees they stop me in the street and say, " Bernard, we don't have any money. We don't have any pocket money for our daughters in the morning. They ask us for five shekels Israeli currency, one dollar US equivalent, and we tell them, sorry, we don't have the money." Governments in the West know that if they withhold money from the Palestinian Government then the people in Palestine will rise against the Government. But it is not the Government that is the problem. It is the donor countries.

Now somebody asked onetime, "Why should we pay you guys? We have given you the chance to elect democratically. You chose your own government so you deserve what is coming to you.” Now, I have to say that the Palestinian people are lucky. With all our problems we are still lucky. And you ask me why? Because I think our enemy is Israel. If our enemy were Zimbabwe or Botswana or whatever country in the world, the European countries and others would not care. But because there is this overwhelming interest in Israel’s security and stability, there is this outflow of donations because governments want to stabilise the situation.

People say Israel is justified in building the Wall because there were suicide bombings. Israel was threatened. I say this is not the way to go, because you are punishing a whole population. Yes, we have a problem with suicide bombers and this problem, without justification, is a part of the political impasse. Every other week there are Israeli groups planning things against Palestinians, who hate Palestinians and, if they can, will bomb Palestinians. I am not talking about the Israeli army. I am talking about separate groups. And what does Israel do to them? Do they build a wall to protect Arab villages? No. By building the Wall at least a quarter of one million Palestinians (according to World Vision) are denied access to medical facilities, to schooling, to their land and to their villages and properties. Besides the problem of having no access, people are not allowed to go from place to place.

I have to tell you about a village in the north. A small village of about 8-10,000 people. In Australia you have what are called "gated communities". This village is an example of an Israeli-imposed "gated community ". Beautiful! Why? Why is it beautiful? Because there is a sign written in bad Arabic which gives the opening hours of the gate! A gate that locks in the whole community! So at 7.30 in the morning the kids run out to school, Because the school is across from the gated community. Then at 12.00 noon they open it again for an hour and a half, and then at 5.30 to 6.30 they open it again. A very well protected Palestinian community, living at peace with Israeli guards and peacemakers. Unbelievable. This is not possible you tell me. There is a need for Israel to have security, but there is a need also to respect the basic human rights of people.

I would argue that if you want to make peace with people you have to touch the hearts of people. If you don't touch their hearts you can give us all the money you have and it won't make a difference. But if you give a little and you touch our hearts then we will start loving you, and we start changing, we start understanding. The Israelis have never tried to touch our hearts. Never. They only apply the language of force, more force and yet more force, and then the Palestinians will understand. This will never happen. We cannot understand with force. We have a just cause.

Now let me talk a little about the Gaza situation at present. Today, you really have Gaza blocked off. In the Gaza strip you have 1.5 million people. They are living on a stretch of land of only 365 square kilometres. In the Gaza population you have 50 per cent of youngsters of ten years and younger. And you have another 2-300,000 people aged 15 to 25 years. So you have in Gaza a young population of over 1.1 million. Does the blockade give them hope? No. So therefore we need to search for hope for these young people. Not for us. We are older. But for the young people, they have no hope. So if Israel wants to keep hitting us - welcome, but you won't get anywhere. I know that some Western diplomats have been saying this to the Israeli politicians and military personnel, but they won't listen.

You have to convince Israel to change. You say, "But the Palestinians need to change ". The Palestinians are under constant threat and control by Israel, not the other way around. I can't go out of Palestine without Israeli approval. One time we were meeting with the President and he said, "You think you we are living in a free country, a free society. I, the President of the National Authority of the Palestinian Territories, need to get permission from Israel to go from place to place!". So we have a serious problem.

Now, one thing I would like to share with you about the recent Gaza situation. I have a colleague who has been for a long time a worker in the Middle East Council of Churches. When the episode of the kidnapped soldier took place, I called him and asked him what is the situation and how are things. He said the streets were deserted, but there were personal things that worried him. His granddaughter, ten years old, was visiting with them from Romania. And he said the Israeli jets come with their sonic boom. It frightens her completely, so that she is having nightmares and cannot sleep. So I asked him what that meant for the children in Gaza. He said there were thousands of children in Gaza going through the same experience and some would eventually need some medical attention. And then he said something very wise and very important. He said,"What are the Israelis trying to prove for our children? What are they trying to prove for us? We know they have all the power. There must be another way to get our problems resolved." And I agree with him. We must have another way.

Now I am painting a very gloomy picture. I can see some of you saying that you did not come here tonight to hear this again and again. But I think it is very important to realise that the Palestinians are passing through difficult times. Not only the Israelis, because in your media it is the poor Israelis. It is as though the equation has been reversed. It is as if we Palestinians are a big threat to Israel and are hurting Israel. When in a very complete sense it is in the opposite direction. And I am not here to tell you we are victims, because I do not like to be a victim. And even in our relationship with our partners here in Australia we always insisted on equality. We are a very dignified people and we have learned how to be dignified. I think we don't deserve what we are getting. It is not a question of coming here or going there in order, for example, to promote financial concerns or other concerns. No, I think you will find many Palestinians who are eager to promote a sense of the future that is definite, even with Israel. We teach that to our children.

And don't be fooled by the media that tells you we bring up our children to hate Israelis and to hate Jews. We don't. But we have been on the receiving end for so long that it has affected us oven psychologically, and we feel that there has never been justice done to us. The other day I went walking with my brother Tony, who lives in Sydney, to buy some sweets at a shop in Lakemba. And the guy in the shop, who was Lebanese I think, said that ever since he was a boy he was always wishing to go to Jerusalem to pray. And he said he came back to this country in 1983 and knew he would not make it to Jerusalem. He said he could see what was happening in the world and that there are double standards, and he specifically said that the West is not being fair. It is not being fair in treating the Palestinian issue, and justice is not being done.

Some people say that this is not so - the West does care. I know there are churches that care and I know there are governments that care, and government personnel that care, but if you really care then you have to press and press and press not to have double standards. Because what is really hurting our relationships between the West and the Muslim and Arab worlds is the perception of double standards. They apply one standard for Israel and another standard for everybody else.

I have to tell you, I was in the airport in Singapore, and I went to the counter there and asked if I could get to New Zealand on my Jordanian passport. And the young woman clicked the computer, and she said, "No, if you were Australian you could get…ah, but we do have another exception." I said, "Which exception". And she said, "If you hold an Israeli passport!" And this lady, who has nothing to do with politics said, " We always have exceptions for Israel, I don't know why!" But oven if we say it as a joke this is poisoning relations between the West and the Muslim world and the Arab world. And we have been pleading, please work it out. Move both the Palestinians and the Israelis forward. Make peace. Give justice to the Palestinians. Ensure that Israel stops its aggressive tactics.

Now, a couple of other things. On the lighter side. I drive once in a while with a taxi from Jerusalem to Ramallah, which is a short distance. Taxi drivers are the best teachers, because when you ask them about politics they give you a ready answer. So one time I asked this guy, "What do you think about this situation. We are not being paid. Our situation is bad. The Israelis are building the Wall. There are gates you have to go through, check points and so on." "Ah," he said, "don't worry, don't worry. We are a highly adaptive people. We adapt very quickly!"

And to prove the point let me tell you about the World Cup. We are in the middle of occupation, aggression, Gaza and so on. And then you go around Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jerusalem and you see flags of all nations flying. At first I thought maybe we are flying the flags because we want the money to come to our side again. But no, no, no. It is because different young Palestinians are taking sides with different groups. This one is Italy, across the street is another country! Isn't it amazing? I see young people doing this - are we living in Palestine or are we living somewhere else? But this is also a tactic to keep the young going. I tell you, this is the inspiration you can get in Palestine, and not from politicians. It's the young people. They adapt, they work, they play, they live as if there wore a bubble around them, as if there is no problem whatsoever. They find ways. I think it is our task to help the young people in Palestine to adapt. Not to the system of injustice, but to adapt to overcome the system of injustice.

It is very important to also educate young people. I have to relate to you what my youngest daughter, who is a student in the U.S., has told me. She said that she and a young Palestinian girl from Ramallah who is also studying at the same college, got to know a Jewish American girl. They were talking about the Arab/Israeli conflict, what is happening, what is this, what is that and so on. The other day I was talking with my daughter and she said, "Dad, you know something important happened." I said, "What is the important thing that happened?" She said, " You know my friend (and she named her), she told me her cousin went to Israel for a trip sponsored by a Jewish agency and they visited Israel for four or five days. And she came back painting a beautiful picture of what is happening in Israel. And this Jewish friend of my daughter told her, "Listen, I asked my cousin all the time when she was talking about Israel, "What about this" and "What about that." And she told my daughter that if she had not spoken to her about the Arab/Israeli conflict she would have agreed with everything her cousin told her. And so my daughter said, "Dad it is very important that we open each other’s eyes." It is very important that we do not remain locked into our own images in our thinking about the other side.

Now one last thing, even though it is personal again. I have my son Zac who is working today with a Jewish guy through the UN in Jerusalem on a project to deal with municipal problems encountered by both Israeli and Palestinian municipalities. And there are some municipalities in the West Bank who are headed by Hamas members who are contemplating joining the programmes. Because when you are talking about joint problems you cannot say this is a Jewish problem and that is a Palestinian/Arab problem. And you cannot say this is a Muslim problem and that is a Christian problem. We are all the same. So when I hear my son and his Jewish-Israeli colleague talking about the joint problems, even though they disagree politically, I say there is hope. I say there is hope. Now is there truly hope? I would say yes. I would say we should encourage young men in Israel and in Palestine and elsewhere to learn that hope lies within them, and not outside of them. And we have to help them get to that.

My responsibility is to the Palestinian Legislature. I am happy to report that there is almost a consensus commitment by the Palestinian Legislature to serve our people. We don't want our people to continue under occupation. We want to give hope to our young people. Now I go back again and I say, "Touch hearts. If we do not touch hearts we will go nowhere."

Now what can we do practically? I know there are a couple of things we can do. First of all you need to advocate here. To advocate public and non-public constituents, to really keep the pressure on for the advancement of the peace process. We cannot allow Israel to think that only a military solution is a viable solution. We cannot allow Israel to make unilateral decisions that will have disastrous effects. Look at Gaza. There Israel made a unilateral decision and we are all paying the price. It should have been a bilateral decision. And now Israel is preparing to make a unilateral decision on the West Bank, and we will all pay the price. I think we need to encourage an exchange of visits between Palestinians, Arabs, Jews, Muslims and Christians to this part of the world. And likewise to invite Australians of all age groups to come and visit with us.

We need, and this is important, to pick up issues of moral and ethical significance and promote them with a standard applicable to all. We cannot allow Israel to be an exception. Some of you may like Israel. Fine! But it cannot be made to be separate from the whole world. The same way we are asking Hamas, and I and my colleagues are asking Hamas, to be a part of the political process, to recognise the international community, to be a part of the international political process. In the same way we should ask Israel. We cannot ask something of the Palestinians and not ask it of Israel.

And finally, we need to be honest with ourselves and we need to do whatever we can to promote a just and durable peace. I feel, as does the Palestinian Legislature, that the future depends to an extent on us and to an extent on the Israelis. But I think the world community should keep the pressure on until we get to a durable, just and lasting peace that will serve all the people in the Middle East.

Thank you.

Picture: Dr Bernard Sabella at the Jerusalem Heads of Churches dinner, Notre Dame, Jerusalem, 7 December 2007.