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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lynes

The Tragedy of the Holy Land

I have the mixed privilege and burden of British citizenship, a Jewish upbringing, and eight years as a human rights observer in Gaza and the West Bank with the Christian Peacemaker Team (now the Community Peacemaker Team) and the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme of the World Council of Churches. So I am distraught at the news from the Holy Land.


I feel with the Israelis, many themselves children or grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, hemmed in by hostile Arab nations.  I feel with Israeli parents watching their teenage children snatched from home and conscripted into an army of occupation, and finding it harder, with each exchange of rockets, to see this as a true expression of their Jewish faith.

 

I feel with Palestinian farmers, robbed of their ancestral lands, watching the pillaging of their olive trees.  I feel with the Palestinian children and their teachers I used to watch, bullied at Israeli checkpoints on their way to and from school. I feel with homeless refugees under merciless bombardment in Gaza.

 

The Nakba

 

We Brits share responsibility for this prolonged tragedy. When Britain granted freedom to colonies in Africa and South Asia, we left behind, in each case, an elected parliament, a civil administration, and a working framework of law and order.  But when Britain ended its Mandate in Palestine in 1948, we played ‘God Save the Queen’ and sailed away knowing that Arab armies were poised to invade, and that the new State of Israel would fight back. The outcome – the Nakba – was predictable.  Jordan occupied the West Bank.  Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip. There was no Palestinian State. Thousands of Palestinians became, and remain, refugees.

 

Hamas

 

Palestinians’ recent factional divisions are at last healed. The ongoing slaughter in Gaza has reunited Palestinians in Gaza, in the West Bank and in their diaspora, in support of Hamas. They respect Hamas as a bastion of Islam, and as the provider of schools, hospitals, universities and social facilities. They contrast Hamas’ resistance to Israel with the perceived ineffectiveness of their West-aligned Fatah rivals.

 

What of those Hamas terrorists?  Every oppressed party in the Middle East has a military wing. Jewish parties under the British Mandate were no exception: remember Irgun and the Stern Gang?  The armed counterpart of Hamas is the Al-Qassam Brigades. They were responsible for the attack on 7th October 2024. This does not absolve Hamas itself from all responsibility, but does not justify damning them all as terrorists.

 

The Al-Qassam Brigades were proscribed by the UK in 2001 under the 2000 Terrorism Act.  Hamas as a political party was not proscribed until twenty years later. The latter proscription has been pointless and unhelpful. It has obstructed direct negotiations with Hamas, hindering Britain’s possible role as a peacemaker.

 

Zionism

 

It is easy to misunderstand the relation between Judaism and the State of Israel. The Holocaust was a theological challenge to religious Jews. Jewish festivals – Passover, Hanukah, Purim – typically celebrate God’s protection for His Chosen People. In the Holocaust six million Jews were slaughtered just for being Jews. Where was God in Auschwitz?

 

The creation of the State of Israel seemed to be God’s answer – the Promised Land Restored! Many Jews (but not all) sincerely experienced criticism of Israeli politics as an attack on their faith, a rejection of God, and clearly antisemitic.


The history of Palestine is a catalogue of appalling mistakes made by Israelis, by Palestinians and – not least – by the UK. That said, in a situation of oppression we cannot pretend to be neutral. But when we rightly speak out for Palestinian rights, we need to recognise that we are up against two traumatised communities.

 

How else to explain why Netanyahu’s government believes that bombing Palestinians without mercy will discourage them from supporting Hamas? How else to explain why Al-Qassam launched its attack on unarmed Israeli civilians on 7th October 2024, knowing that Israel would respond against Palestinians with overwhelming force in return?

 

It is easy to blame this side or that. The language of blame – ‘apartheid’, ‘genocide’, terrorist’, ‘boycott’ – can only exacerbate the tragedy. The Holy Land cries out for prayer, for empathy, for mutual compassion, for reconciliation.

 

There is no space here to spell out what that means in political terms. I attempted this several years ago in a submission to the UK Foreign Affairs Committee. If you care to read it, it is still on the Government website – https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/79412/pdf/


This article was originally published in the Easter 2024 issue of the London Catholic Worker newsletter.

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