New Zealand should take up the cause of the Palestinians

By now most of us are aware that this month marks the 60th anniversary of Israel’s formation.

It’s a celebration of independence, statehood and national identity after a 50-year campaign for a Jewish state.

But for Palestinians it’s known as Al Nakba _ the catastrophe. For them it’s the anniversary of their transition from indigenous people to refugees. They grieve for their lost homeland and lost sovereignty.

More than 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed or abandoned as Israel was born after a campaign of terror waged across Palestine by Jewish paramilitary groups such as the Stern Gang and Irgun.

These terrorists weren’t fringe extremists.

They included many prominent individuals, including two who rose to become prime ministers of Israel: Menachim Begin, who headed the Irgun, and Yitzhak Shamir, who was active in the Stern gang.

Millions of Palestinians were driven from their houses and villages to refugee camps around the Mediterranean and around the world.

They have been refused the right to return to their homes or land.

Even today these Palestinian refugee families have keys their parents or grandparents took with them as they locked their homes and fled for their lives.

In Gaza this week young Palestinians created a 10m mock-up of a key as their potent symbol of loss and dispossession.

The local people living in Palestine before 1948, both Jews and Arabs, were never asked what they thought of a segregated land.

Many Jewish groups vehemently opposed the split, as did the local Arab population.

However Britain, which was the colonial power responsible for Palestine, gave in to the terror campaign which culminated in the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem that killed 91, including 28 British bureaucrats.

The US and UK drove the partition of Palestine through the newly formed United Nations and the scene was set for a 60-year cycle of violence and death.

Arabs who remained behind in the new state have Israeli citizenship which entitles them to a restricted, second-class existence.

They don’t enjoy the same rights to land, marriage or family reunification.

Arab dispossession within Israel continues today, as many are forced to move from neighbourhoods set aside exclusively for Jewish families.

A Jewish person, or someone converting to Judaism, living anywhere in the world, whose family has no connection to the Middle East, is welcomed in Israel and easily gains Israeli citizenship.

An Arab family whose ancestors lived there for thousands of years is denied the same right. Their keys have no currency under Israel’s racially derived laws.

Palestinians have lost 78% of the original Palestine and four million refugees now live on separated, dislocated segments of land on the West Bank of the Jordan River and in the Gaza strip.

Their remaining portions of land are still being carved up for Jewish homes and settlements with the backing of the overwhelming might of the Israeli army.

Israel has become a prosperous, powerful, nuclear-armed country with the unquestioned backing of the US and other countries who see their own global interests tied to a friendly, dependent state in the Middle East.

This has enabled Israel to defy numerous UN resolutions, World Court rulings and international condemnation of its many illegal actions.

Among these are the building of settlements on occupied land, detaining thousands of Palestinians without charge or trial, and of an 8m-high wall which has further annexed sections of Palestinian land. Israel is the new Berlin.

Small wonder neighbouring Arab countries have been in conflict with Israel these past 60 years. Likewise Palestinians continue to struggle for the rights stripped from them.

So what for the next 60 years?

It’s clear to rational observers that the proposal to establish an independent Palestinian state on their broken pieces of land is not possible. No such state could ever be viable.

The Palestinian struggle will continue, but now there is an emphasis on a fight for democratic rights in a secular, unitary state which respects all peoples, races and religions.

It worked for thousands of years before and can do so again.

In 1948 another government came to power with similar ideas of separation, segregation and second- class citizenship.

This was the apartheid government of South Africa, where whites enjoyed full rights but blacks’ rights were restricted to impoverished areas of land called Bantustans, in a similar way to the restrictions of the rights of Palestinians to non-viable enclaves within the West Bank and Gaza strip.

The apartheid regime and its policies were overcome eventually, as must be the policies pursued by Israel.

An international campaign is needed.

New Zealand was once in the forefront of struggles against discrimination. It’s time we were again.