Every time you go on Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem and surrounding areas, you are struck by the sense of conflict and impending carnage imminent in the air. Under a thin veneer of normalcy, it is always possible to sense the tensions, and the hatreds. Every inch of ground is redolent with history, and you can almost smell the blood spilled long ago, or that is just about to be spilled. A walk from the Wailing Wall, through the packed market in East Jerusalem, is also a stroll in the footsteps of Jesus Christ as he carried his cross on his way to execution. The Stations of the Cross are preserved in the crags and crevices of the walkways where inscriptions are carved in stone.
In your earlier ventures into the terrain, pilgrims were led into the market by Israeli guides, usually Sabras with brown, freckled, weather-beaten faces who had grown up in Jerusalem and were as rugged as the terrain. On your last trip, the business of hosting Christian pilgrims had been taken over by Palestinian ‘Christian brothers’, who were a different kettle of fish. The Jewish guides disparaged Arab traders as thieves and liars. When an Arab trader managed to lure a curious pilgrim into his store, he disdainfully spoke of the Jews as rogues who jerked up the merchants’ prices so they could take their cut.
Dotting the snaking pathway at intervals, in pairs, were young IDF soldiers, male and female, carrying uzi machine guns and short batons.
The Sabra guides, though not Christians, were a treasure trove of information as you traversed to the Holy Sites over several days. The Palestinian guide on your last trip, with whom you were supposed to have affinity based on a shared religion, spoke endlessly about politics and how the total population of Israel was really fifty percent Jew and fifty percent Palestinian. He was not interested in you or your spiritual journey, and his empathy and knowledge base appeared perfunctory. Much of his guiding time as you travelled together was spent unburdening himself of his endless grievances, and he apparently expected your sympathy. When, as you headed to Ben Gurion airport at the end of the pilgrimage, it came time for the usual generous whip-round for the guide, you could not find it in your heart to donate anything to him.
Such reflections have come to mind in the past few days as carnage has reigned in Israel and Gaza. Young Palestinian men, in the early dawn of a Saturday morning, attacked a supposedly impregnable Israel, making ingress by land and sea and air. They broke down impregnable border crossings, knocked down unshakeable walls, and overwhelmed bases manned by soldiers reputed to be among the best fighters in the world. Thousands of missiles were lobbed into the mainland of Israel, more missiles than had been sent across in all their previous conflicts combined, and travelling farther inland, wreaking havoc, despite the exertions of the ‘iron dome’ defence system. Over a thousand Israelis were killed, and thousands were injured.
The Israeli reaction was predictable, and almost inevitable. It is still ongoing.
The whole matter is throwing up troubling issues to mankind, and may yet catalyse the Armageddon foretold in Jewish religious lore, which a particular Sabra guide once recounted to you as you stood on a hilltop at Megiddo, looking down at the valley below. The armies of all the enemies of Israel from all over the world would gather below, she pointed at the distance. Israel would fight them and defeat them all. There was not a trace of doubt on her face.
The governments of Europe and America have declared they are ‘solidly’ behind Israel. Their people, on the ground, are not so sure. There is a lot of sympathy for the almost unbearable suffering of Palestinians. As you write this, a hospital has just been bombed in Gaza, leading to hundreds more dead. Palestinian dead are in thousands, still counting.
For seventy-five years since the foundation of Israel, humankind has wrung its hands, trying to decide how to judge between the Jews and their neighbours. Should judgement be based on God’s law, or Man’s law? The truth is that strong people, all through history, have always driven weaker people off their lands, and possessed them. When the Jews took over the ‘Promised Land’ that was ‘flowing with milk and honey’, they had to kill and drive off an assortment of other peoples, such as the Canaanites and the Jebusites. In those early days, the laws of war were not what they are today. The first Jewish King – Saul, when he attacked his neighbours, the Amalekites, was divinely ordered to kill every man, woman, and child, and every animal they possessed. Because he used ‘human reason’ and spared King Agag and the fattest among his sheep and cattle, he was ultimately stripped of his throne.
Such behaviour is called ‘Genocide’ these days, and nobody would attempt it.
It is not looking good for Israel, in the perception battle.
The realities on the ground are grim, too. The best chances for a two-state solution may well have gone with the Begin and Arafat. It would take a superhuman effort to resuscitate. Some aggrieved Israelis want to push the two million people of Gaza into Arabia. Nobody would have them, of course. Militant Palestinian refugees have wreaked havoc in host nations such as Jordan and Lebanon.
Some disgruntled Saudis say Palestinians are not true Arabs like them who are ‘cousins’ with Jews, but a melange of different races who have never been a nation.
The destruction of the myth of Israeli military invincibility may be the most significant impact of the drama of the past few days. Sadly, that may tempt its enemies to rally again to try to do what Gamal Abdel Nasser did in 1967. Perhaps that is why America is sending warships and soldiers.