A week is scarcely sufficient to turn one into an expert on the affairs of another country, especially one as complex as the State of Israel but it does give one a fairly good idea of some of the major challenges facing that country.
I have just returned from a short visit to Israel where I and a handful of other South African journalists attended the International Press Institute’s world congress and 45th national assembly. Although it went well, the congress itself was mired in some controversy from the beginning, following a failure by congress organisers and journalists based in Palestine to agree on mutually acceptable venues.
The congress, the theme of which was “The Future of the Middle East”, was originally intended to take place jointly in Israel and Palestine. The Israelis chose Jerusalem as their venue, and were quite happy for other sessions of the congress to be held at any city or town in the formerly occupied territories of Palestine, now under Palestinian Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority (PA), as long as that city was not East Jerusalem.
And so when Palestinian journalists and the PA insisted on the Palestinian leg of the congress taking place in East Jerusalem which has historically fallen under Israeli-occupied Palestine, the Israelis saw red. They claim the whole of Jerusalem, including the eastern part of the city, to have historically been the capital of a Jewish state, from the biblical times when King David declared it as such.
Jerusalem, therefore, is a city under dispute, claimed by both the Palestinians and the Israelis as their capital, and for now it remains an item on the agenda of future negotiations - something to which the official opposition, the right-wing Likud Party, is implacably opposed. Hence the Israelis’ opposition to East Jerusalem as the Palestinian venue for the conference, for by agreeing to have the conference held there they would be conceding the Palestinians’ claim to that part of the city.
The net result of the stalemate on East Jerusalem was that Palestinian journalists and the PA withdrew from the IPI congress, and so a conference on the future of the Middle East took place without an important player. Sadly, therefore, it was a terribly one-sided conference, with Israeli government officials taking full advantage of the situation.
But it is not the congress I want to write about today. It is, instead, the breathtaking arrogance, the unbridled rudeness and the unequalled unfriendliness of the Israelis. A more unfriendly people I have yet to meet and I have been to many countries, including equally conflict-ridden Northern Ireland where I spent a pleasant week in Belfast in 1992, even though an IRA bomb exploded not far from my hotel!
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Israel has been involved in numerous wars since it came into existence as the State of Israel in 1948. At the hotel l stayed in, for instance, the staff members would bark at one whenever one asked them anything, including asking for one’s room keys or messages. They are also rude to one’s callers.
At the airport in Tel Aviv, one gets to see arrogance at its best, arrogance as never seen before. One is asked countless stupid questions in succession.
“When did you arrive in Israel? Where did you stay? What did you come here for? Who were the speakers at your conference? Do you have any views on Israel? Will you tell me (there is no ‘please’, for that word is alien to the average Israeli’s English vocabulary) what those views are? (I refused to say.)
Will you write about Israel when you get home? Will you tell me what you will write?” (Again, I refused to say.)
On and on it went, and when the young lady was finished with me her colleague, apparently her senior, took over. And he asked the same irritating questions. About 45 minutes later I was free to check in, by which time I understood better why the Israeli airline El Al requires that its passengers should arrive at the airport a full three hours before departure.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres is Arafat’s negotiating partner and yet he undermines Arafat among his followers in Palestine by imposing collective punishment on all Palestinians because of the terroristic activities of Hamas. By blockading the Palestinian territories and in the process condemning many people to starvation many Palestinians work in Israel - Peres’s government is unwittingly turning public opinion in Palestine against Arafat, whom . he needs as a negotiating partner. And this despite the fact that the PA has not minced its words in its condemnation of Hamas’s terrorism and has cracked down heavily on the organisation.
We, the South African journalists who visited Israel last week, made time to visit bethlehem and the West Bank, both under the PA (thanks to Cape Times editor Moegsien Williams). I was absolutely appalled at the abject poverty, the frightening squalor and the unspeakable deprivation at a UN-built settlement at the West Bank, not too dissimilar to a South African squatter camp. And yet the Israelis have been collecting taxes from Palestinians since 1967!
We also met a senior delegation from the PA, which means we have heard both sides of the story. Israel may play around with Arafat now, especially because of the crucial forthcoming May election in that country, but in the long term it is in that country’s interest to conclude a peace treaty with Palestine if it is to live in peace with its Arab neighbours.
I hope never to have reason to visit Israel again.
Source: The Star, Pretoria.
Muslimedia - April 1996-August 1996