October Issue 2005
Visiting the Forbidden Land
Shortly after the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Jordan in May 2003, I visited Israel. I made no secret of it. Over the years, I have had an active exchange of opinion with Col. David Yarkony of Israel, and it was at his invitation that I decided to make the trip. I am very glad that I did.
An Israeli of Hungarian origin, Col. David Yarkony is an extraordinary human being and a great friend of Pakistan, a country he has never visited. His 14-year-old world was shattered at breakfast in mid-April 1944 when the SS took him and his parents to a train station on the way to Auschwitz. He saw his mother for the last time on arrival at Auschwitz. His father was given a lethal injection four months later. On liberation in 1945, it took him almost three years to work his way from Germany to Italy and onto a dilapidated cargo ship enroute to Palestine.
I met a wide variety of people during my stay. With Professor Efram Inbar and his colleagues at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), Bir Alan University, I had what can be best described as ‘lively’ discussions. Prof Inbar explained the Israeli point of view regarding their occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem. I conveyed to them our reservations about their occupation of Palestinian land, comparing it to the Indian occupation of Kashmir.
At the Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), I had the occasion to learn first hand, from the world-renowned counter-terrorism expert, Col. Jonathan Fighel, normally a man of few words, how the war in Afghanistan had contributed to international terrorism and the means the Israelis employed in their “war against terrorism.”
At no time did I find any animosity or ill-feeling towards Pakistan, or Muslims for that matter. A mistrust of the Palestinians was certainly there. A number of distinguished diplomats gave me a briefing on the Israeli foreign policy towards the Palestinians, and the Muslim world
I met Brig. Gen. (Retd), Ephraim Sneh MD, Member of Knesset, and Chairman sub-committee on Defence Planning and Policy. He was very vocal about having an ongoing relationship with Pakistan that would be wide-ranging and covering all mutually beneficial sectors.
Col. David Yarkony drove me from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, showing me historical (and military) sites on the way, both of ancient and recent history. Ilam Fluess, first secretary, ministry of foreign affairs, accompanied us throughout, taking me to the Holocaust Museum, managing a very special trip to the “Wailing Wall” and (at some risk to himself), into the adjoining tunnel where the excavations to discover the base of the ‘Second Temple’ were taking place.
Except for a couple of retired persons, the Israelis generally acknowledged they would have to co-exist with Palestinians. Though not many relished the thought, because of Hamas in particular.
Moving around Israel is like being in any European country with its stores, fast food outlets and chic boutiques, except that on the roadside and at bus stops you will occasionally find uniformed soldiers, young men and women carrying rifles. They are not on duty, they carry their personal weapons, when they go on leave. Reservists keep their personal weapons at home so that they can be at their pre-designated location bearing arms.
As we drove along the beachfront in Tel Aviv, David Yarkony pointed out a couple of suicide-bombing locations where many lives were lost, but this did not seem to deter the locals from enjoying themselves. Security was pretty tight but fear and apprehension were not so visible within Israel itself. This was in sharp contrast to the West Bank where you could see military vehicles in abundance and a palpable air of fear and suspicion between the Israelis and Palestinian pedestrians.
In Jerusalem I travelled through the Christian, Jewish and Muslim quarters, without any restrictions. Yasser Arafat was alive then. Despite the Arafat/Rabin peace deal, the Israelis had barely concealed contempt for and mistrust of him! Whenever I tried to say something in his defence, they would look at me in disbelief; this was so universal, I simply gave up. It was clear they were looking for a successor to Arafat.
The Israelis were not comfortable with my proposed visit to old Jerusalem. They said they could not guarantee my safety, but left it to me to make any own arrangements. When the Israeli and Palestinian guards at the gates of the Holy sites were informed that I was a Pakistani, the Palestinian security personnel were unofficially deputed to take me on a conducted tour. I was privileged to say my Zohar prayers in Al-Aqsa itself and Asr prayers at the Dome of the Rock mosque.
The Balfour Declaration of 1917 led to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, so our grievances are better directed at the British and the UN respectively. For years before 1917, Palestine and Uganda were being considered as possible homelands for the uprooted Jews of the world who faced discrimination and ostracisation over the centuries.
Once the state of Israel came into being, we should have come to terms with the fait accompli. In each war since (and including) 1948, i.e. 1956, 1967 and 1973, the Arabs have lost ground to the Israelis, most importantly the Jordanian part of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.
One cannot condone the Israeli brutality on the Palestinians in governing the Occupied Territories. But one must now search for a pragmatic means to end the occupation so as to mitigate the sufferings of the uprooted Palestinian millions. Most of the Israelis I met conceded that the Intifada was extremely successful in arousing world public opinion against the Israeli occupation. In contrast, suicide bombings, coming after 9/11, attracted an adverse world reaction and gave Israel an excuse to establish a boundary to keep a portion of the occupied territories it covets.
They had the casus belli to justify the building of a concrete wall to keep the suicide bombers out. There is a permanence about it which cannot be morally justified. However, how does one take away the right of both self-defence and self-preservation? This Catch-22 situation exists for both sides
If Israel wants to be accepted as part of the world it exists in, it cannot shut out the world. Israel must learn to co-exist with the Palestinians. If Palestinians want a state and return of their lands, they cannot get it through the barrel of a gun.
The Israelis in the foreign ministry pointed out that what the Arabs have lost on the battlefield, the Palestinians have won back (at least some of it), on the negotiating table. Beginning with Anwar Sadat’s historic rapprochement, and later the Oslo Accords, subsequent direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians have led to a better understanding of each other’s positions. More recently, the Israeli evacuation of Gaza was a significant milestone on the road to permanent Arab-Israeli peace.
Three Arab countries have diplomatic relations with Israel, namely Egypt, Algeria and Qatar. As the only non-Arab Muslim country with not only diplomatic relations, Turkey has an ongoing and active military programme with Israel. At least 12 Arab/Muslim countries have contacts at various levels.
The raging debate in Pakistan over Israel ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. Why Jews are bad-mouthed in the country is a mystery. My parents, at least, never fed us this calumny. On coming into contact with Jews I found them to be as good (and as bad), human beings as anyone else. Why have we been demonising an entire race on the basis of religion?
I certainly condemn the Israeli brutality against the Palestinians and have full sympathy for the plight of Palestinians. I also condemn ‘suicide bombings’ and the loss of innocent Israeli lives. Every action has a reaction and this deadly cycle must stop. I strongly feel that dialogue with Israel will bring them in from the cold and help in convincing them that a permanent peace based on co-existence with the Palestinians is possible.
Recognition of Israel must not be weighed in terms of pluses and minuses of which one can enumerate many, but on the need to bring all human beings into the world’s melting pot, irrespective of race, religion or creed. We must convince Israelis about our sincerity of purpose by reaching out to them. For that, we must recognise Israel’s right to exist as a nation. If the cost of a permanent peace is to ensure an honourable place under the sun for Israel, that is a very small price to pay.