Irish Times

2 December 2002

A citizen of Israel who says his duty is to condemn its actions against Palestine

ISRAEL: Uri Davis tells Patsy McGarry how he lives as a Palestinian Jew in Israel, an anti-militarist member of the PLO.

You could say Dr Uri Davis is something of a rara avis. He is a Palestinian Jew, an Israeli citizen and a member of the PLO. He lives in the Arab city of Sakhnin in northern Israel where, as a Jew, he may live, as Jews may live anywhere in Israel. This right is denied to his Arab neighbours in Sakhnin.

Just 20 minutes away is the city of Karmiel where they cannot live.

Dr Davis is an observer member of the Palestine National Council and a member of the Palestinian Fatah political party. He was in Ireland last week at the invitation of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

An anthropologist, he is an honorary research fellow at the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Durham University and at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at Exeter University.

Although an academic, he does not come across as theoretical. Although political he does not seem to possess any of the characteristics associated with our by-now tarnished understanding of that word. His sense of encounter with a deeply felt, moral outrage at suffering witnessed is overwhelming.

His conscience was forged by the Holocaust. All his mother's family were lost to it after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. Her "greatness" was in rising above that horror and insisting he should never generalise. It was not the fault, she would say, of "those Germans". Rather it was the Nazis involved who were guilty.

He sees the "abuse" of the Holocaust by Israel as "a direct assault on her and her family". This "no- gas-chambers-on-the-West-Bank" implication and Israel's projection of itself as a Jewish state he regards as "totally objectionable and immoral". It was intended to "place a veil over their cruelty towards the Palestinian people".

He defines an ethical and conceptual distinction between Zionism and Judaism. "Zionism is a political programme. Judaism is a confessional statement which ought to be left to the private sphere."

He strongly urges that people critically assess the consequences of the excesses of the Zionist political programme for the indigenous people of Palestine since 1948.

He believes it has been "wholly negative" and drew attention to "the atrocities perpetrated", "the ethnic cleansing", "the destruction of medical and cultural infrastructure and of centres of learning, all of which are war crimes as described by the International Court".

There is not just "the damage done the occupied people but also the damage done to Jewish society in Israel. Israel is a Zionist state. It projects itself as such but using the language of a Jewish state" to "obfuscate criticism" and play on the conscience of the world. His work is about removing this veil. As a Jewish citizen of Israel it was more difficult to smear him as anti-semitic.

He was born in Palestine five years before Israel existed, to a British father and Czechoslovakian mother. "Her values underpinned my moral development and are universally relevant for all concerned including myself," he remarks. "I am not guilty nor is there collective guilt for the crimes perpetrated by the government of Israel in the name of the citizens of Israel and the Jews of the world."

Especially as a Jew, a citizen of Israel and as a Palestinian, he feels a duty to step forward and say "not in my name, not in the name of my family. You won't use the Holocaust to discredit my family and destroy Palestinians."

He is passionately opposed to suicide bombings, the Kenya bombing and the attempted shooting down of an Israeli aircraft last week. These were wholly unacceptable, immoral, illegal actions.

"I do not accept revenge as a basis for political action and have no problem adding my name to the voices condemning any actions targeting civilians."

He is sure many Irish people understand instinctively how those subjected to the destruction perpetrated by an Israeli occupation would drive people to do such despicable things as a way of giving the occupiers a taste of their own medicine. He does have a problem though with the phrase "Palestinian suicide bombers". "The lion's share of terror is inflicted by the Israeli state, not suicide bombers," he says. "The state is the first party guilty of terrorist violence."

This being so he calls for economic sanctions and disinvestment on Israel and for the instruments of international law to be used "to limit the capacity of the government of Israel to inflict such illegal acts". This is not a conflict of equals, so for instance Israeli soldiers in the West Bank should be condemned doubly, for perpetrating acts of state terrorism and for being there in the first place. The suicide bomber should be condemned on one count, that of terrorism. After all, he was in his indigenous country, even when in Israel.

Dr Davis draws "enormous encouragement" from the success of the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa" and "the achievement of the indigenous peoples of South Africa led by the ANC".

He takes succour from the success of the small but active white population who played such an important role in bringing an end to apartheid. He sees Palestinian Jews such as himself in a similar position. He is confident that what was done in South Africa can also be done in Palestine.

He believes US support for Israel is "extremely destructive". This is "a situation of great urgency". He believes the Israeli government is planning a massive attack on Gaza, the West Bank and Palestinians in Israel to coincide with a US attack on Iraq, which would act as a veil. For this reason he believes the groundswell of anti- war feeling internationally is not just important for the people of Iraq but also for Palestinians.

He was once a pacifist but, having seen what has been done to the Palestinians he has arrived at a different position.

"I am an anti-militarist and recognise the right to use force in certain instances, in armed resistance, which is legal in international law. It allows armed resistance, the targeting of the opposite party in uniform." He has been "radicalised" by experience. "I am no longer an ideological pacifist," he says.