This week Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub travelled to Bradford in northern England after George Galloway MP declared it an “Israel-free zone.” After meeting with local councillors and officials, he addressed local community and faith leaders:
I am delighted to be here in this wonderful city today. And I am especially glad to be here at the invitation of people who want to give voice to the real Bradford. In recent weeks there have been voices claiming to speak on behalf of Bradford. But today I’ve had the chance to meet local people and local leaders, including city councillors and faith leaders, and I feel I’ve had the chance to hear the real voice of Bradford.
And that’s a voice of tolerance, of understanding, of building bridges not breaking them.
It’s a voice which says, in the very best spirit of Yorkshire, that there’s only ever been one good boycott – and that’s Geoff Boycott.
This real Bradford has a great deal to teach the world about a multicultural city where Christians, Muslims, and Jews live, work, and cooperate together. Here, the historic synagogue thrives thanks to the support of the Muslim community. It’s a much-needed model of how people who may not agree about everything can still listen to each other, hear each other, and treat each other with genuine respect.
We need that spirit more than ever today. Because there are three critical battles being played out, with serious consequences for all of us. And only by listening can we hope to understand them.
The battle against Hamas
The first is the conflict we have seen over the past 5 weeks between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. It’s a tragic conflict with terrible suffering for Israelis and for the people of Gaza where so many have been killed and so many hurt.
It’s tragic also because it was so unnecessary. Nine years ago Israel pulled out of every inch of Gaza. The only thing Israelis want in Gaza is to see a thriving, responsible Palestinian society.
That’s why for weeks we didn’t respond even as hundreds of rockets and missiles were fired on towns and villages in southern Israel.
It’s why Israel accepted every one of the eight ceasefire proposals made to date, while Hamas has rejected or violated every single one.
It’s heart-breaking to realise that if only Hamas had accepted the Egyptian humanitarian ceasefire proposal, which was supported by the Arab League and the United Nations, but when it was made over a month ago, when Israel didn’t just accept but unilaterally implemented it while still under fire; if Hamas had only accepted that proposal not this week but then, how many lives, Palestinian and Israeli, would have been saved.
But the rockets continued unabated, reaching further and further into Israel, so that today 75% of Israelis, over 5 million people, are within range and have to live their lives in reach of bomb shelters. And alongside the missile attacks we uncovered a massive network of underground attack tunnels built by Hamas over the past seven years, stretching up to a mile into Israel for the sole purpose of murdering and kidnapping Israelis. So we had no choice but to respond.
In Israel we disagree about many things, sometimes it seems about most things, but on this there was no disagreement. Because across the entire spectrum of our politics, we knew what this is about.
It’s not about settlements: we pulled out every single settler – more than 8000 people – from the Gaza Strip.
It’s not about blockades: there are restrictions on certain things going into Gaza – not on food, or medicine or humanitarian supplies, but on materials that can be used for terrorism. But don’t let’s forget there was no blockade when we pulled out of Gaza. These restrictions aren’t the cause of Hamas attacks, they’re its result.
And it’s not about whether there will be a Palestinian state. Let’s be clear – it’s about whether there can be a Jewish one; whether there is room for a State of Israel at all in the Middle East. Hamas is convinced that there isn’t. It couldn’t be stated more clearly in its Charter: ‘Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.’
This latest burst of violence is another round in a war waged against the existence of Israel since its birth. For years that war was fought, in 1948, 1967, 1973, by states using armies. But then the states realised they could hide behind terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
And just as Iran hides behind Hamas, Hamas hides behind the civilians it claims to be fighting for.
When the Greek Orthodox Archbishop in Gaza describes how his church has been used as a launching site for rockets, or the head of the UN in Gaza admits that UN schools have repeatedly been used to store weapons, it’s hard to grasp how anyone could do this. But in the sick calculus of Hamas, this is a win-win scenario: either they will be left alone to perpetrate attacks or they will reap a macabre PR advantage from civilian casualties.
This is a horrendous strategy, and there is no simple response. We have to try to defend Israeli civilians, while doing everything we can to protect Palestinian civilians. In practice this means taking precautionary measures which may well be unprecedented in military conflict: issuing warnings before attacks, on the radio, through leaflets and individual phone calls, aborting attacks at the last minute, sending in ground troops to avoid the need for heavy aerial bombardment – even at the increased risk to our own troops, which have seen over 60 Israeli soldiers killed.
But in any conflict in which one side uses its weapons to protect its civilians, and the other uses its civilians to protect its weapons, there will always be an asymmetry of casualties, and the suffering on the Palestinian side is truly tragic.
Which is why it is so important to look beyond the pictures and see who it is that regards every civilian casualty a failure and who celebrates it as a success. To see, now as the conflict is hopefully drawing to a close, the vast moral gulf between Hamas, which is being instructed by the mullahs in Iran and its funders in Qatar to investigate why it didn’t succeed in murdering more Israelis, and Israel, which is conducting painstaking investigations into its operations to see if there are ways that more Palestinian lives could have been saved.
This is the first battle, and it’s a critical battle not just for Israel, but for every country confronting terrorism. Terrorist groups around the world are watching what happens in Gaza and it’s vital that they don’t conclude that they have found the Achilles’ heel of democracies: that if only they set up shop inside a school or a hospital they can act with impunity.
The battle within Palestinian society
But what we have been witnessing this past month is not just a conflict between Israel and Gaza. It’s also a battle within Gaza, over the future of Palestinian society.
When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, we hoped that it would flourish, with agriculture blooming in the greenhouses we left behind and tourists flocking to its beaches. This is the future that we want for the people of Gaza. This is the future that Hamas has stolen from them.
Every time Hamas takes cement and building materials that could have built houses, day-care centres and factories in order to build tunnels to infiltrate Israel, it steals that future.
Every time Hamas orders people to martyr themselves for its sake, to run onto the roofs of terrorist headquarters to shield them from attack, it robs them of their future.
When it stops Palestinians from reaching the field hospital Israel set up at Gaza’s northern border crossing, when it blocks the entry of 3000 units of blood and other medical supplies, it is not just waging war against Israel; it is waging war against the future of the Palestinian people.
That is why it’s so shocking that a member of the British parliament – the representative for Bradford East – could say: “The big question is – if I lived in Gaza would I fire a rocket? Probably yes.”
It’s a horrible insult to Israelis, more than 1000 of whom have been killed in Palestinian terrorist attacks. But more than that it’s an insult to the very people that David Ward claims to care about.
Isn’t it an insult to the Palestinians of Saajiyeh who demonstrated against the terrorists who had taken their neighborhood hostage and who were summarily executed by Hamas? Probably yes.
Isn’t it an insult to the Palestinian children forced into slave labour to dig Hamas’ terror tunnels, 160 of whom, according to the Journal of Palestine studies, died in the process? Probably yes.
Isn’t it an insult to every Palestinian parent who tries to raise their kids to believe in the sanctity of every life, to reject violence, to reject the Hamas leaders who say “we desire death as you desire life”? Probably – no, definitely – yes.
It was a truly shocking remark, and the Chief Whip of David Ward’s party, who investigated it and concluded that it “didn’t bring the party into disrepute”, really needs to think long and hard about whether, if that’s the case, that’s a reputation worth having.
David Ward made another statement. He said: “Ich bin ein Palestinian. The West must make up its mind – which side is it on?”
But no, it’s you, David, who has to decide which side you are on. Are you with the civilians suffering in the Shifa hospital, or the cowardly terrorists hiding in the basements beneath them? Are you with the people praying in the mosques and churches, or the people hiding weapons in them and shooting from them?
It’s you, David, you who say ‘Ich bin ein Palestinian’, who have to make up your mind, what kind of Palestinian du bist.
The wider battle – the past vs. the future
Both the battles I’ve been describing, between Israel and Hamas, and between Hamas and Palestinian society, are at root a struggle between the past and the future.
You only have to compare Israel’s Declaration of Independence with the Hamas Charter. Israel’s declaration is forward looking, aspirational. It sets out the ideal of building a society based on freedom and equality and opportunity. Hamas’ Charter has no positive vision. It glorifies terror and calls for the annihilation of Israel and the West. Perhaps neither Israel nor Hamas fully live up to their founding documents – but the truth is that we are both trying our best.
That struggle between forces seeking to pull us back into a primitive past, and those trying to build a better future is part of a much wider battle being waged throughout our region, in Syria, in Iraq, and beyond.
That struggle is playing out here in the UK as well. In the tweets and on the streets. It’s surprisingly easy to tell who is on which side. You just have to ask people to stop shouting what they are against, and say what they are for.
When I see demonstrations against Israel, there’s always a strange assortment of people. I see red flags, green flags, black flags – Communist flags, Hamas flags, ISIS flags. And as long as they are shouting about what they are against, Israel or the West, that coalition sort of hangs together. But when you ask: But what are you for? Are you for women’s rights? Are you for gay rights? Are you for freedom of expression? Then, all of a sudden, that coalition simply falls apart.
If you can articulate no positive vision, you have no moral compass. Everyone who shares your hatred is your ally in an axis of hostility.
Against this axis, the challenge is to build a counter-axis. Of all those who can articulate a positive vision for their own society, who place their children’s welfare before their ideological hatreds, who believe in deepening cooperation and understanding; all of them are our partners. Together we comprise an alliance of the future.
Are we for the axis of hostility or the alliance of the future? That is the fundamental question that we face, not just in Gaza or Mosul or Damascus, but in the UK and here in Bradford. What will we export to the Middle East: tolerance and understanding, or hatred and bigotry? Are we on the side of the past or the future?
When George Galloway insists that Bradford is ‘an Israel-free zone’, there is no doubt at all which side he is on.
Of all the countries in the Middle East, the one that Galloway singles out for exclusion is not Syria, where 170,000 Syrians have been butchered by Assad’s regime, nor Iraq where the brutal execution of hundreds of Christians continues as we speak. No, it is the one country in the Middle East where every minority can vote and sit on the Supreme Court; where women can be ministers and Prime Ministers; where homosexuals can live without fear; where there is not just freedom of speech but freedom after speech; in short the one country where Galloway could speak as objectionably as he does and still live to see another day.
It’s not an Israel-free zone you are advocating, George. It’s a tolerance-free zone, a progress free-zone, a future-free zone.
When peace comes….
The way to bring change and hope to the Middle East is not to export hate and bigotry but vision and cooperation. It’s not boycotts that will change the region, it’s people, speaking to each other, working with each other, inspiring each other. It’s the incredible joint scientific and medical research done between British universities and Israeli universities, creating jobs in both countries – and jobs for Palestinians too, and doubling our bilateral trade in the past four years. It’s the awesome power of combining British determination and Israeli innovation. I think about Claire Lomas, the remarkable British athlete, paralysed, confined to a wheelchair who, using an Israeli invention, an electronic walking suit, managed to complete the London marathon.
Those are some of the things that we’ve done, but it’s nothing compared to what we can yet do. I think of the talented Palestinians that I’ve met in the course of 20 years in our negotiations together. I think of the Israeli youngsters – including two of my own boys – doing their army service, knowing that they are Israel’s line of defence. The potential is amazing. And it’s people, not political grandstanding, that will bring about the change.
One day, please God one day soon, peace will come to our troubled region. On that day we will all of us have to ask ourselves a question. The question then will not be, “What did you do in the war?” but rather, “What did you do for the peace?”
Did you add to the sum of hatred or the sum of understanding? Did you capitalise on the conflict for political gain or did you contribute something of value to give hope to the region? Did you build boycotts or bridges? Did you pull people into a dark and primitive past, or help them envision a better future?
When that day comes I pray that we will be able look ourselves in the face, to look our children in the face, and to say with conviction: Yes, I helped make it happen.