Justice Committees: Opening the dialogue on Truth Commissions

By Ryan Lewis 

On the 24th of March, Aberaid, a charity who aims to home Syrian refugees fleeing the bloodshed and heartache of their home country, hosted their successful ‘Mid-Wales meets the Middle East’ event in the university town of Aberystwyth. The event brought the unlikely pairing of Welsh and Syrian culture in a blending that seemed harmonious in its goal for peace and friendship. The music and laughter could almost make you forget the tragedies and suffering that linger beyond the event.

The warm smiles of volunteers, refugees and supporters all covered the frustrations and disappointment at not only the government but the international community. the feeling that the government were not doing enough was common. Considering that Britain took in 200,000 refugees at the start of the first world war, Britain today has only taken over 10,000 Syrian refugees. While debates are ongoing as to whether the UK can cope with more refugees or if the UK is simply neglecting its responsibilities as a first world nation. There are other issues at play: one being overlooked-justice.

It can be hard to think of justice so early. After all, justice is served after the crime has been committed, and the crimes in Syria are still continuing seven years after conflict broke out. With no sign of peace, it might even feel wrong to begin considering justice when more immediate concerns need to be dealt with like shelter and food for the people forced to flee their homes. But it’s our duty as people, and as a country as privileged as Wales to think of the past, present and future. Not just for our own country but for other countries too. justice, and post-conflict intervention should be considered now for a more well-developed plan for the survivability of Syria. In the past the international community has been underprepared and become overwhelmed in handling post-conflict states, particularly in its delivery of justice. It cannot be argued that courts are a fundamental mechanism for justice; justice goes far beyond a court room. The International Criminal Tribunals of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia (ICTR and ICTY) are both examples of the international community’s active response to bring justice for post-conflict states and no doubt a similar court will be set up for Syria, but more needs to be done.

One approach overlooked by the international communities is Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. Truth Commissions are established to create dialog between all sides, while still allowing accountability for crimes to be recognised. Offenders can come forward to tell their stories, not just their crimes which allow for the victims to gain better understanding of the experiences they were put through. Some say truth commissions trade justice for truth, that only courts can deliver true justice, but this is not the case. Punishment can create order, but I question if it brings justice wholeheartedly. While the international community might be satisfied, what about the victims? Studies have shown that truth commissions have provided better satisfaction for justice and healing than courts for victims (Waldof, 2006). Truth commissions allow for dialog. They allow for those most affected the opportunity to talk about their suffering and experiences and to form a singular ‘memory’ of events. These break down the ‘them vs. us’ mentality that lingers after post-conflict. This allows tensions between the opposing sides to continue. In turn a higher risk of conflict to break out again occurs. Truth commissions focus on the victims, not the offenders and this approach has provided the comfort of truth needed to heal. truth allows victims to understand why crimes against them and their loved ones were committed, it allows them to understand the other side. This was the case for Jean-Baptiste Ntakirutimana. He visited his mother’s killer, to understand why anyone would kill his mother. Turikunkiko explained that he did her because no one else dares. She was too nice to kill even in a genocide. Except Turikunkiko wanted to loot her. He went into detail in how he killed her while the grieving son listened on. The prisoner thought Ntakirutamana wanted to kill him as justice for his mother. To his surprise Ntakirutimana extended forgiveness. Both men were given the opportunity to heal because of truth. Courts focus on the crimes, which is exactly what they should do, but a true narrative could never be given in the way truth commissions allow.

While at the event in Aberystwyth and seeing the refugees smile I wondered what they want, and it seemed what they wanted was not international courts. They want truth. They want to go back home and find their families or bury their loved ones. Most importantly they want an end to the war. it is something we should be planning. Syria needs to be rebuilt. Cities upon cities destroyed by one of the most brutal civil wars in history. Whole families killed and many more ripped apart, fleeing in any direction they can. The Syrian people, who have seen more suffering than we can even imagine only want to go home and rebuild. Most do not seek retribution but restoration. It’s probably hard for an observer to imagine not wanting revenge if the shoe was on the other foot but is what many refugees want.

Europe forgets this. Europe will respond with an International Criminal Tribunal of Syria and it will do good. But Europe needs to see retribution and restorative justice as equals and one cannot succeed as well without the other. Large-scale crimes need a large-scale approach with multiple responses by the courts, truth commissions and by traditional justice approaches from Syrian culture. In Rwanda, the truth commission, called the Gacaca Courts, were only implemented because the backlog for the ICTR became overwhelming. It was a secondary response despite its evident success for conviction rates compared to the ICTR, who after years of trials only 93 people were indicted.

It is time that the international community’s responses are planned and well-thought out, catering to the needs of not just the international community’s desire for retributive justice and order, but for the victims needs for healing and rebuilding. To victims, justice can be found in truth, but more importantly they want to go home. Wales has generally shown a positive response to refugees and the bonds created between Syrian refugees and the locals of Wales will resonate when the Syrian people find stability in their homeland. The Syrian victims will need a voice when conflict ends as to what they need in terms of justice, rebuilding and recovery. Wales can be that voice. Wales can be the voice to fight for truth commissions along with courts. Wales has a responsibility to speak for the interests of the Syrian population within its borders and beyond. With no money or position, Syrian refugees have no voice. They talk through those who help them such as charities. It is the responsibility of states who are able to help to do just that. The chaotic period after conflict will not help refugees who want to return to Syria to rebuild if Wales and other countries to stand behind Syrian refugees in their goal for stability. Refugees do not want to wait two years for international courts to take its first case like The International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda. A planned response is needed now, and it needs to be inclusive to the victims.

Seeing Syrian refugees express their culture and wanting to share this with the locals of Aberystwyth made me see just how vibrant and joyful life can be and why we should be doing more for refugees in Wales and across the world. But more importantly, the event made me realise just how ordinary refugees are in the sense that they want exactly what everyone else wants: To go home at the end of the day to their loved ones. This process is only going to be delayed unless the international community plans for post-conflict Syria now.

References:
Economics Help: https://www.economicshelp.org/blog/7/trade/the-rise-of-globalisation/
International Center for Transitional Justice: https://www.ictj.org/gallery-items/truth-commissions
International Encyclopaedia of the First World War: https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/refugees_belgium
Refugee Council: https://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/20facts
United Nations Mechanisms for Criminal Tribunals: http://unictr.unmict.org/en/tribunal
Waldorf, L, (2006), Mass Justice for Mass Atrocity: Rethinking Local Justice as Transitional Justice, Temple Law Review, 79 (1), pp. 1-88

 

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A forgotten Crises: Pro-gun arguments and the evidence against them

By Emily Withers

Following the recent shooting in Parkland, Florida, the world is yet again talking about gun control. 17 people lost their lives to a single shooter on Wednesday 14th February 2018, at Douglas High School, which is not as shocking of a sentence as it should be. Debates in the following weeks have, understandably, been emotionally driven, and can sometimes be lost beneath tears and shouting. This blog post will highlight some of the key arguments against gun control and how they are often disproved by simply looking at the evidence.

Claim 1: Mental illness is the main reason for mass shootings, not gun ownership

This argument is a popular one for conservative lobbyists and NRA members alike. In particular, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch likes to deflect serious questions about controls and new laws by suggesting that mental illness is the only reason why people commit mass shootings. In fact, using this argument merely dismisses the need for further debate. A study in 2015 found that in the decade ending in 2010, less than 5% of all mass shooting events in America were committed by someone with a diagnosed mental illness, despite 1 in 5 Americans living with one. While it is important that mental health services are improved in America, this is not what is being suggested, with conservative commentators instead using lexis which indirectly labels all mentally ill people as ‘crazy’. If indeed this was a mental health problem, which evidence suggests it is not, then should the President be calling the Parkland shooter a “Sicko”? We should instead be debating for more detailed background checks and mental health assessments for prospective gun owners. This argument, then, is not a genuine one. The facts speak for themselves; most mass shootings are not committed by mentally ill individuals, and when they are, the debate is never about how to control their access to weapons.

Claim 2: If guns were banned, only criminals would own them, and more deaths would occur

This claim runs on the assumption that civilian ownership can be helpful in the event of a mass shooting. In the thirty years leading up to 2009, not a single mass shooting was stopped or prevented by intervention from an armed civilian. In one instance, a civilian pursued, shot and killed a shooter, but this was only after the shooting had ceased. Now that we know this assumption is based on no factual evidence, why can’t the US ban guns? Conservative arguments often suggest that if gun ownership became illegal, only law-abiding citizens would hand their guns into the government during a gun amnesty. This would leave only criminals with guns, leading to an increase in mass-shooting events and no way to defend yourself in an attack. To approach this argument, we must look at case studies where other countries have imposed similar systems.

bbcstats

In the UK in 1996, 16 primary school children and their teacher were killed when a single man used his legally owned handguns to shoot at five and six-year-old children in Dunblane, Scotland. Immediately, there was a debate on new legislation and, ultimately, a ban on guns implemented in 1997. Since then, there has not been a single school shooting, and only one mass shooting event, in 2010. Every year since 1997, there have been fewer than 10 gun deaths in Scotland, where the Dunblane shooting took place, indicating that fears about an increase in use after a ban are unfounded in this case.

Australia’s situation is more similar to the US in terms of attitudes towards gun ownership. For many, having a gun was an essential part of life in the bush, but this did not stop changes in legislation after the Port Arthur massacre in April 1996. 35 people were killed and 23 injured by a lone individual. At the time, there were no restrictions on guns other than handguns, but just two weeks after the shooting, debates were already taking place. The same year, Australia passed a law restricting the ownership of all guns and enforcing the use of firearms licenses. There was also a national buyback policy for anyone who had guns which did not comply with new legislation, which gave civilians motivation to comply. Since the new legislation in 1996, there has not been a single mass shooting event in Australia.

Claim 3: New gun controls would impose on the Second Amendment rights of the American people

Looking at this statement, we must look at the Amendment itself. The phrase in question is “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” and was implemented in 1791. At this time, the guns used were not semi-automatic weapons with the ability to kill a large group of people at once. Would it really be an infringement of constitutional rights if guns were limited to safer, less destructive, single-fire weapons? This would still be interpreted as ‘bearing arms’, and so would arguably still be fulfilling the Second Amendment rights that lobbyists are so attached to. In addition, we must consider whether the Second Amendment is something that modern Americans should be proud of. It was added to the US constitution over 70 years before slavery was made illegal, at a time where women were treated as their husbands’ property and had no right to vote or express a political opinion. As we can all agree that the American beliefs on race and gender were wrong at this time, why can we not agree the same about the right to carry a gun? Indeed, it may be true that the Second Amendment is being misunderstood altogether. There were several regulations on gun control in the decades following the Bill of Rights. Gun owners had to go to ‘mandatory musters’ where guns would be inspected, and there were regular door-to-door surveys wherein guns were logged. The idea of the Second Amendment was to promote the safety of the American people, not simply allow everyone to own whichever gun they like. The Amendment itself asks for a ‘well-regulated Militia’, which at the time included civilian gun ownership. Supporters of the NRA should now understand that in order for the US government to serve the constitutional rights of its citizens, there must be strong, clear legislation on the types of guns which are allowed to be owned, and by who. Unfortunately for gun fanatics, complying with the Second Amendment does not allow for ordinary citizens to own and use assault rifles; there is no reason that this is appropriate or safe.

Claim 4: Arming more people will prevent mass shootings

With a surge in support after President Trump suggested arming teachers would prevent school shootings, this claim is resurfacing with more determination than ever before. As it was first debated and rejected in the 1920s, we can look to some of the suggestions about gun control from this decade to tackle this issue. There was much pressure on the government at the time, from gun enthusiasts and some media sources, to increase the number of people who could carry concealed weapons, and to take a back seat when it came to strict regulations. This idea was swiftly rejected by lawmakers and the majority of the public, and ‘may issue’ carry laws were implemented instead. These laws made it harder to carry a concealed weapon, as the state may issue you a permit to carry a concealed weapon, even after fulfilling basic requirements. These laws, first seen in the 19th-Century, were so widely accepted that even gun advocates found them reasonable. Up to the 1980s, the NRA themselves did not support the right of every American citizen to carry a concealed weapon, promoting the idea that only those individuals for whom it was necessary to carry a concealed weapon should be granted state approval to do so. So where did the general consensus take such a dramatic U-turn? Lobbyists gained power and money from the mid-1980s in the USA, and so have been able to influence the media and the government. By pumping 30.3 million dollars into Trump, the NRA gained political influence.  So, Trump’s suggestion to arm teachers should not be surprising. But would it work?

vox stats

A bill set into motion in Florida on 3rd March 2018 suggests arming highly trained individuals within schools, who would then act as a protector in the case of an attack. Supporters may argue the famous ‘good guy with a gun’ logic can be applied here, and that teachers would use their guns solely for the protection of their students. But what happens when a teacher snaps? We must consider the implications of arming teachers, an overworked group who are often loaded with stress and paperwork. Just two weeks after the Parkland shooting, Jesse Davidson, a teacher from Dalton Hugh School barricaded himself in a classroom and unloaded a shot. Fortunately, Davidson was alone in the room and there were no injuries, but we must ponder just how much worse this situation could have been. Student safety will not be increased by guaranteeing a weapon in the classroom. It certainly will not prevent school shootings. Indeed, in the case of the Parkland shooting, an armed security officer was present at the school but did not enter and address the shooter. This was an individual who had over 30 years’ experience as a sheriff’s deputy, but in the moment could not bring himself to enter a live shooting scenario. This situation helps to place emphasis on the role of human emotions and natural responses in life-threatening scenarios. So why would arming teachers, whose jobs are not remotely related to armed security, help prevent school shootings?

Conclusions

While it is clear that a calm and civilized debate must occur in the US over gun control, it is also clear that some arguments already put forward are not supported by evidence. It is imperative that any measures implemented consider evidence-based arguments and previous research and case studies. After assessing some of the loudest claims about gun control, it is clear that more guns are not the answer. Whether it be teacher or civilians with concealed handguns, more bullets and more adrenaline-fueled firing will not have positive effects on US citizens, particularly the only people guaranteed to be unarmed: innocent children.

Women to Women for Peace – Exchange between Cuba, the US and Wales‘, 1998-2001

Kathyrn Evans

Women to Women for Peace’ – The Mission

The mission statement of Women to Women for Peace (W2W4P) was “World Peace will come through the will of ordinary people like yourselves”. This encapsulates in a nutshell why the organisation – founded in 1984 – enjoyed thirty years of success.

“No young mother in this country or any other wants her son to go and kill the sons of other young mothers and I believe that if inter-visitations were arranged between parties of young mothers from Britain … and from other countries who chose to join in, bridges of understanding could be built … as a REAL contribution to world peace”

 

Lucy Behenna, founder of Mothers for Peace (later became W2W4P).

This was a powerfully motivated group of people who came together to build bridges between people from countries which have contrasting and conflicting political, philosophical, cultural and religious interests. The aim was to promote the message that war was not the answer to resolving conflict by supporting intercultural understanding on a transnational level. W2W4P had numerous highlights throughout their duration as a non-profit organisation that accentuate their success as an international solidarity movement. I will illuminate some highlights over the course of two articles about the South West and Wales group of W2W4P who achieved undoubtable success for peacekeeping from Wales to Cuba, America, Israel and Palestine, starting with their achievements in Cuba and America.

Why you need to know about Women to Women for Peace

It is my hope that when you read the articles I have written on the inspirational work of Women to Women for Peace, you will feel the same as I felt; that there are lessons to take away and how vital it is to have international solidarity movements. The work of W2W4P has left me feeling proud of Wales for being part of an amazing peacemaking organisation that strove for pacifism internationally as well as locally; they brought solidarity to our front doors. I feel positive that there is always something an individual or collective group can do to reach out and show support to other countries in distress. I am also questioning whether we are lacking this sense of solidarity and peacemaking now, which I evaluate further in a second article. I have had an uncomfortable realisation that many issues addressed over the course of these articles can be directly related to today’s struggles (inequality, discrimination, oppression, exploitation to name a few). Perhaps we are led to think about more conflicts going on around the world but we may be doing less to help now, than we were in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It is my pleasure to take you through some major turning points and highlights of W2W4P. I want to draw upon their links to Wales, explain what they stood for and to take some lessons from this organisation in the hope that you too are inspired to keep fighting to make a difference.

Women to Women for Peace visit Cuba, 1998

 

In 1998, four delegates of W2W4P (including a Welsh representative) were given the opportunity to travel to Cuba for the ‘International Independence, Sovereignty and Peace’ conference. There were roughly 3,000 women from 75 countries present and they were all women from dramatically diverse circumstances. This represents an amazing collaboration of peace organisations across the globe who were all striving for the same goal; peace. This was a chance to build bridges with other organisations worldwide and such links were made with peace workers from Brazil, Cyprus, US, Italy, Cuba, Ireland and many more. There were many positive far-reaching consequences from the experience; strong networks were built on cooperation and it showed that international solidarity can counteract powerful negative influences.

A highlight of the Cuba visit was a speech from Fidel Castro. In his speech he passionately explained his world view – that the world’s preoccupation with profit was at the cost of humanity … for the sake of the global economy. This statement rang alarm bells for me as it seems there are parallels with our situation in 2018, hence my view that we need a resurgence of a group such as W2W4P.

Women from Cuba and America visit Wales, 2001
The most successful outcome of the W2W4P visit to Cuba in ‘98 was the building of friendships with women from Cuba and America; this led to a reunion in Wales in 2001. W2W4P were eager to raise further, real awareness of the Cuban situation because they had witnessed first-hand the extent of the suffering that Cuba was enduring because of the blockade imposed by America; far more than had ever been published by the media. The ladies from the peacemaking organisations across the three countries all sought this opportunity to develop closer and stronger relations with each other, to deepen the understanding of the situations in each country and to bring awareness to Wales about the injustice of the American Blockade. It was the perfect opportunity for the ladies of Cuba and America, two conflicting countries, to tell their official and unofficial story of the US blockade as a method of spreading the message and fighting for peace. It was quite special to have women from Cuba and America over to Wales to enjoy and appreciate our city of Cardiff, vibrantly multicultural and home to fascinating buildings such as the Temple of Peace.

Veronica Alvarez, of the Cuban peacemaking organisation that visited was warmed by the kindness and concern of W2W4P because it showed a humbling sign of solidarity, that other countries and people care for peace in societies other than their own. One of the American visitors Robin Melavalin had some encouraging words about W2W4P; that they were impressive and showed an excellent model for peacemaking. Robin was able to meet people from Cuba in a neutral country and have time to get to know them. It really helped build bridges, relations and gain a key understanding of an array of perspectives on international issues confronting them.

Lessons we should take away from Women to Women for Peace movements
The W2W4P delegates who attended the conference in Cuba witnessed a multiracial society with no visible signs of prejudice or discrimination. This ought to be a lesson that many countries and communities today could take away with them. Cuban citizens also held a political and economic view about the blockade which was very reasoned and factual; the people showed no signs of aggression or bitterness towards their political oppressor America; another lesson that some nations could learn.

The ladies from W2W4P who spent time in Cuba noticed that partly because of the blockade Cuban streets were visibly deteriorating and crumbling due to lack of resources and materials, yet the atmosphere was still vibrant with a huge amount of culture that was itching to be shared. It was moving to experience a country who was suffering terribly but who still stood strong, where people were passionate and proud to be who they were. Isn’t this the kind of lens through which we need to look at Palestine, Iraq, Yemen or Afghanistan, for example? Each have their own cultural and political background yet are under immense pressure to conform to a particular version of democracy. The work of W2W4P brings me to the daunting conclusion that we still don’t seem to be capable or accepting a multi-faceted world.

One thing that is apparent here is that media has a powerful influence over international conflicts and issues, by promoting often superficial views. W2W4P’s visit to Cuba, and the return visit to Wales made it possible to witness and understand the true impact of the American blockade – aspects that weren’t seen in the media. What Cuba and America’s differences came down to and what we still witness today is that they have different political systems, a different ideology and different priorities which is part and parcel of a multipolar world. The government and organisations in Cuba were able to create solidarity with organisations across the globe, and it is in my belief that every country still needs to fight for this. Today, we are still witnessing vicious cycles of exploitation and suffering and although peace may be unattainable to many, the situation could still be improved. The first step is perhaps to create awareness, as is shown in the story of W2W4P.

For more information and stories from the Women to Women for Peace successes, please read my other article about the time when women from Israel and Palestine came to visit Wales!

Sources:
Mothers for Peace report on International Encounter of Solidarity among Women: Havana, Cuba – April 1998.
Jane Harries, ‘Pesar de todo…’, The Friend, 31 July 1998.
Emma James, ‘Mothers rise above the arguments of nations’, The Western Mail. 22 August 2001.
Sheila Ward, ‘A Most Remarkable Old Lady: Mother For Peace: Lucy Behenna’, Quaker Home Service, London, 1989

The Centenary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration: Britain, Palestine and Israel

By Jane Harries, Cymdeithas y Cymod peace activist, human rights observer and Wales for Peace Learning Coordinator.

Balfour Declaration WCIA Debate Leaflet Oct 2017

The Marble Hall of the Temple of Peace and Health in Cardiff was packed to overflowing on the evening of 18th October 2017, the air thick with expectation. The Cardiff Branch of the United Nations Association (UNA) had brought together two eminent speakers to talk about the historical context and present consequences of the Balfour Declaration – a document whose centenary is marked today, 2nd November.  It was clear we were in for an interesting evening.

So what was the Balfour Declaration, and why should we remember it today?  Does it have any significance for us in Wales?

The Balfour Declaration is in fact in the form of a letter written by Arthur James Balfour, Foreign Secretary in David Lloyd George’s wartime coalition government, to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the Jewish community in Britain.  The key words are as follows:

‘His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’

Balfour_portrait_and_declaration

The first speaker, Avi Shlaim – Jewish historian, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford and married to the grand-daughter of Lloyd George – started off the evening with a historical analysis.  He defined the Declaration as a typical colonialist act. The British had no moral or legal right to give a ‘national home’ to Jewish people in Palestine, having consulted neither with the Arab leaders, nor the Jews nor the British population. Nor was Palestine theirs to give.

Behind the scenes there were political motives. David Lloyd George wanted Palestine for the British in order to gain influence over the French and because of access to the Suez Canal.  He also wanted to dismember the Ottoman Empire and was willing to engage in double dealing to do so. Overtures were made both to Arab leaders and also to the Zionists, whom Lloyd George regarded as powerful and influential.

Jews had lived scattered across the globe before the First World war but at the end of the 19th century a nationalist Jewish campaign grew up in the form of Zionism, whose aim was to establish a national home for the Jews. Zionism particularly appealed to Lloyd George, steeped as he was in the Biblical passages and hymns of his chapel upbringing. This deep emotional connection may have been one reason why he became influenced by Dr Chaim Weizmann, Zionist Leader in the UK and later first President of Israel. And so Lloyd George’s government bowed to Zionist pressure and issued the Declaration, ignoring other Anglo-Jewish voices at the time, including Edwin Montagu, the only Jew in the cabinet.

Balfour_Declaration_War_Cabinet_minutes_appendix_17_October_1917

The second part of the Declaration is often forgotten – that is that the civil and religious rights of ‘existing non-Jewish communities’ in Palestine (over 90% of the population at the time) should be respected.  The British Mandate in Palestine, issued by the League of Nations in 1923, included a responsibility to implement the Balfour Declaration.  The Mandate was, however, essentially pro-Zionist and led inevitably to the series of events we are familiar with today: the Arab revolt of 1936 – 39, the rise of Zionist terrorist activity against the British and Palestinians, British withdrawal from the region, and the foundation of the State of Israel mirrored by the Palestinian Nakba (= catastrophe, mass migration) in 1948.  The Israeli- Palestinian conflict is one of the most entrenched in the world and continues to blight lives today.  This is particularly true for the Palestinians, who have seen their homeland shrink and their human rights whittled away under a now 50-year military occupation.  Even the area which the British government recognises as a future state for the Palestinian people is now occupied by 700,000 Israeli settlers.

The second speaker, Professor Kamel Hawwash of Birmingham University, Palestinian commentator on the Middle East, explained the consequences of Balfour today.  He outlined the effects of the Israeli Occupation for those living on the West Bank, including loss of land, freedom of movement and livelihood, difficult access to education and health care, and subjugation to continuous harassment and violence.  In the Gaza Strip the population essentially lives in an open prison, deprived of many resources we take for granted, including clean water and proper sewage systems.  He then turned his talk to address an unusual question.  The state of Israel is more or less exactly the same size as Wales.  What would be the situation today if the Balfour Declaration had promised a homeland for the Jewish people in Wales, not in Palestine?  Using parallel maps, he brought this supposition to life, with swathes of Welsh land having been taken up into the State of Israel and Cardiff a divided city.  This helped us to see the Declaration from a different perspective.

As the evening wore on, there was strong feeling from one young member of the audience that the speakers were one-sided; she pleaded to hear the other side.  A student of Atlantic College, it appeared that she had spent a lot of time listening to the arguments of Palestinian and Israeli students living in her house. So what can we say about the Balfour Declaration that is more balanced and even positive?

The Balfour Declaration was of its time – as Avi Shlaim said essentially a colonialist document – so perhaps it should be judged as such.  It feels obvious from the wording of the document that the author was trying to balance what was felt to be a justified case for the Jewish people to have a homeland with the rights of the indigenous population. The problem is that this double-dealing didn’t work out in practice, with both sides seeing the British as compromising their cause.  And are we really justified in thinking that such a declaration or deal couldn’t be made today – for oil, or influence, or post-Brexit trade deals?

Balfour Palestine Mandate

It is true that Jews have been persecuted over centuries, including in pogroms in the late 19th and early 20th century. In a humanitarian global society, we surely would applaud the attempt to offer a safe haven for the persecuted, and the Balfour Declaration can be seen as such. What wasn’t foreseen, however, was that those persecuted may turn persecutors in their turn and deprive the indigenous population of their rights. What would the authors of the Declaration today say to the descendants of the 750,000 Palestinians forced to flee their homes in 1948 – and some again in 1967 –  many still living in refugee camps across the Middle East?

Balfour - West_Bank_&_Gaza_Map_2007_(Settlements)

Theresa May has talked about her ‘pride’ in the Balfour Declaration and in the creation of the State of Israel, a key ally for Britain in the Middle East.  Whilst rejoicing that persecuted Jews, including Holocaust survivors, found a homeland in Palestine, what do we feel about the plight of the dispossessed? Theresa May’s current government supports a 2-state solution in principle. What does the perpetuation of a military occupation do to the soul and psyche of the Occupier? Surely a conflict that is allowed to go on for so long cannot bring good for either side.

The Balfour Declaration is not a document that people know much about in the UK.  In Palestine it is part of everyone’s awareness – generally recognised as the starting point from which everything began to unravel, leading to a continuous process of dispossession which continues today.  To illustrate this point let me take you back to an August evening in East Jerusalem in 2012. At the time I was serving as a human rights observer on the West Bank and that evening we were called to an incident in Silwan. When we arrived we realised that the cause of the problem was seemingly small: an Israeli settler had parked his car in the middle of the road, preventing people from moving up or down. It was however Ramadan, and just before the breaking of the fast, and tempers get frayed. As we started talking to local residents and the Israeli armed police who had inevitably arrived, the expected question came: “Where are you from?” “Britain”, we said. “Ah, Balfour!” the local resident retorted – and went off into a tirade. The good thing was that once this had blown over he started joking with us, and the tension was released. The settler moved the car, and the incident passed off without any repercussions. This was not a lone incident, however. I have lost count how many times I have had to apologise for Balfour on the West Bank.

Bearing everything in mind how do we, the present generation, view the Balfour Declaration?  On the positive side, we can see it as an attempt to be balanced and to provide safety and security for persecuted Jews. It certainly was instrumental in the events leading to the creation of the modern State of Israel.  It can also be seen as an essentially political deal – an attempt to favour those who were believed to have influence whilst paying lip-service to the Arab leaders. It is hard to avoid the reality however, that the Declaration set off a string of events in the region which still have repercussions today, resulting in one of the world’s most intransigent conflicts and spelling death, dispossession and poverty for thousands.

Balfour-Israel-Palestine_peace.svg

The Israeli Palestinian Peace Process

Some sources:

The Balfour Declaration – Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balfour_Declaration

The Balfour Declaration – New Statesman, a more critical view: https://www.newstatesman.com/books/2010/08/arab-palestine-jewish-rights

The Balfour Project  – Lloyd George –  critical view of Lloyd George’s part in the Declaration: http://www.balfourproject.org/lloyd-george/

Avi Schlaim: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avi_Shlaim

What is Wales had been offered as a Jewish Homeland – Middle East eye> http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/what-if-wales-had-been-offered-jews-homeland-palestine-zionist-israel-526573400

Article on Theresa May’s stance – Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/balfour-declaration-israel-palestine-theresa-may-government-centenary-arabs-jewish-settlements-a7607491.html

Chaim Weizmann: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaim_Weizmann

Palestine – Israel: Effects of Occupation – an educational pack (from the US): http://www.palestineinformation.org/dig_deep

Jane Harries’ blog from Palestine: https://janeharries.wordpress.com 

Welsh among the ANZACs: WW1 in Palestine on the Centenary of Beersheeba, 31st Oct 1917

Hidden Histories of Welsh Fallen in Israel

By Eli Lichtenstein, North Wales

    

The Battle of Beersheba, British Palestine – now Israel

The story starts exactly 100 years ago (31st October 2017). In the Battle of Beersheba, the British army was taking what used to be my hometown, Beer Sheba from the Turkish army. The city was conquered mainly by Anzac cavalry. However, it would be impossible to take the town (whose main importance was, and still is, as a junction point) without heavy infantry involvement to the west of the parochial town. From there the joint British Anzac forces, split in a fanlike movement to Gaza in the west, and Hebron and Jerusalem in the north east and all  the way to the north. And what was until then part of the Damascus province became Palestine (and later part of Israel).

But as time passed something odd happened. We, the locals, remembered only the Anzac cavalry battle and somehow completely forgot all the rest i.e.  the Infantry and even two pilots (English, and Australian) who took part in the battle in the area, and were buried there. It is hard to say why. Is it somehow the romantic notion of a bygone era versus brutal and unglamorous modern warfare that makes us remember the cavalry and forget the rest? If so one might assume that it was, in hindsight, the last battle of its kind.  Furthermore it took place in the ‘Holy-Land’ at the town of Abraham against the ‘infidel’ and the ‘Bosch’.  One might assume that it struck a chord with the general public and could be used for propaganda purposes. On the other hand, could it be more a reflection of the Israeli attitudes following the War of Independence and the resentment created during the British rule of the area?

Either way, the results were the same. We all believed that the WWI cemetery near the old Ottoman Turkish station was solely occupied only by Anzac soldiers. I think I would still believe it to be so to this day,  if I hadn’t moved to North Wales and met several locals who told me that their great-great uncles are buried in Beer Sheba Israel.

When I finally visited the cemetery, I found that, contrary to popular belief, most of the graves are not of Anzacs – of 1179 graves at least one third are graves of Welsh soldiers. Furthermore approximately 80% of those who killed on the day of 31st October 1917, did not belong to the Light Horse Brigade, ie.  80% of the casualties were British. Which, again begs the question of how and why we choose to remember historical events.

It would be interesting therefore to find letters and photographs of those Welsh soldiers who died and are buried in the Beer Sheba Cemetery so that after a century in which they were forgotten by history we could bring their memories, thoughts and experiences back to life. By doing so I hope we could learn something about how the lives of their families and communities were affected, and a bit more about the consequences of war.

Pvt Percy Chandler – one of many Welsh Fusiliers who died and have memorials in Beersheba, British Southern Palestine (now Israel). Also recorded in the Welsh WW1 Book of Remembrance:   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When it comes to the Welsh Fusiliers in Beersheba Cemetery, many came from the local North Wales area – like Private Ifor Jones, who lived in York Villa Llandudno:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And some Welsh soldiers came from South Wales like Private D.E. Matthews from Merthyr Tydfil, of the Civil Service Riflemen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then finally it was the first time that I noticed that some of the tombstones are not only engraved in English, but in Welsh: Cwsg Milwr, Cwsg (“Rest Soldier, Rest) – T Roberts:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then and Now

Above the WW1 cemetery shortly after the capture of Beer Sheva. See the train station master’s house (mid building) and the train in background and possibly a convoy of camels between the two buildings.

Below, the cemetery at 2017

   

A Simple Journey

The final installment of Jane Harries’ blog series concerning her recent visit to  Israel and Palestine. 

Beitar Illit the largest city in Gush Etzion

Beitar Illit: the largest city in Gush Etzion

Friday 14th July.  On the face of it we had a very easy journey to make.  Firstly we would visit R., an Israeli (originally from the US) living in the Gush Etzion settlement and an Alternatives to Violence Project(AVP) facilitator to discuss how she might like to develop AVP workshops in the future.  We would then cross over the Israeli-controlled Route 60 to visit the Palestinian grassroots leader Ali Abu Awad in his compound before returning to Bethlehem.  All these places are within a few kilometres of one another.  The difficulties we had getting from one place to another highlights the complexities of negotiating human encounters in a land characterised by segregation and military occupation.

 

Our journey began when we picked up a taxi from Manger Square in Bethlehem in the occupied Palestinian territories.   When we told our driver that we wanted to go to the Gush Etzion settlement, he was already nervous, and explained to us that he could only take us to the Junction, but wasn’t allowed into the settlement itself.  We explained that we knew this, and that we would be met by a friend from the settlement.  As we set off our driver told us that there had been army incursions into Deheishe refugee camp in Bethlehem that night, and that a resident had been killed.  This was causing a lot of delays at checkpoints.  Armed with this knowledge, he did what Palestinians are used to doing all the time: he found a way round that avoided the checkpoints.  So much for security, we mused…..

We were dropped off near to the Gush Etzion Junction on Route 60, not far from a settler-only bus stop.  Here there was a group of armed soldiers, who were initially wary of our group: five Westerners – strangers – all with ruck-sacks.  (The Gush Etzion Junction has seen a number of violent incidents over the years, including as recently as November 2015).  We soon got into conversation, however, even if this was at quite a superficial level, and one of them showed interest in what we were doing on the West Bank and Israel, supporting people to deal with conflict better.

We were picked up by R. and taken to her house.  Gush Etzion has an interesting if controversial history.   It is in truth a cluster of settlements comprising at least 70,000 people.  The core of the settlement block is the site of what were four agricultural villages, established between 1940 and 1947 on land purchased in the 1920s and 30s.  These villages were destroyed during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and then left outside of Israel at the 1949 Armistice.  After the 1967 Six-day War and the occupation of the West Bank, the villages were rebuilt and reclaimed by Israeli settlers.  The extent of the present settlement, however, far exceeds the original site, taking in swathes of privately-owned Palestinian land.  Israeli settlements on the West Bank are regarded as illegal under International Humanitarian Law (Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention) and by most of the international community.

I was surprised by how small R’s house is, and found myself wondering how it must feel to live in this gated community, constantly guarded by soldiers and with the knowledge that the legality of one’s existence in this place is disputed by international law.  How could one feel comfortable in one’s skin?  We didn’t go into this, although the elephant in the room remained (for me) during the whole of our conversation.  We sat at the table in their small kitchen drinking coffee whilst preparations were taking place for Shabbat – a lot of chopping and putting things into large cooking pots and the preparation of dough, which R’s small son delighted in and tried to share with us in small balls.  R. shared with us that she had been involved in the organisation Kids4Peace which aims to promote integration and understanding between Palestinian and Israeli children through summer camps, but that she had left because she didn’t feel that the interests and concerns of Israeli Jews and Palestinians were treated equally.  She also expressed interest in developing AVP work in hospitals.

I have no doubt that R. is sincere and really wants to use her knowledge and experience of AVP in some way that will be beneficial to society.  At the same time, this visit raised many dilemmas for me. How can we resolve conflict without looking honestly at its root causes?  R. and her small family – like many others in Gush Etzion I presume – have now put down roots in this place and feel that they belong, but at what cost to others?  If injustice and inequality aren’t addressed, what hope is there for a real and lasting peace?  How can this happen if the two communities never come together, ready to really hear one another’s experiences, deepest feelings and aspirations?  How can it happen without a political solution?  As we re-crossed the busy Route 60 and headed towards Ali Abu Awad’s compound on the other side, all these questions were rankling in my head.

I assure him that it’s perfectly safe, but how can I convince him?  The whole of his upbringing and training as a soldier tells him differently.

Ali isn’t at home.  After a phone call we find that he has gone to a family wedding, so we now face the journey back to Bethlehem in the midday heat. Back out on Route 60 we come across another settler bus stop on the other side of the road.  We know there is no point waiting there to get back to Bethlehem – so close and yet on the other side of the political divide.  A soldier approaches us and asks where we want to get to.  We explain that we want to return to our hotel in Bethlehem.  ‘I wouldn’t go there’, he says ironically, his gun poised ready for potential use: ‘it’s not safe’.  I assure him that it’s perfectly safe, but how can I convince him?  The whole of his upbringing and training as a soldier tells him differently.

Route 60, with Gush Etzion in the background

Route 60, with Gush Etzion in the background

We trudge on a little up the slope and start hitch-hiking, looking out for the cars with green Palestinian number plates.  We have only been there a short time when a rather rickety car pulls up.  When we explain where we want to go, we are immediately invited in.  We pile in and – squashed up together – feel relieved to be in a welcoming space.  During the journey the driver tells us of some of his experiences – familiar stories of hardship and injustice.  He drops us not just anywhere, but right on Manger Square, yards from our hotel.  True, it may not be safe on the West Bank: one might just suffer from too much generosity.

Jane’s own blog can be accessed here.

The News that Everyone Ignores

In the penultimate installment of her series, Jane Harries offers first hand account to counter the media’s association of East Jerusalem with violent mass movement.   

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s Old City

Tensions around the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) in Jerusalem had already reached a critical point whilst we were in the area.  On 14th July two Israeli police officers were killed at the holy site by three Israeli Arab gunmen, who later died in a shootout.  But it was the reaction of the Israeli authorities to this event which really sparked off mass protests, in particular the installation of metal detectors around the entrance to the site.  Palestinian worshippers refused to go through the detectors, and instead chose to pray en masse in the streets around the compound.

Although this was reported on the news here in the UK, there was little if no attempt to explain the significance of these events or the sensibilities surrounding them.  In fact the snippets of news I heard on my return were astounding in their shallowness and by the fact that they were misleading – be this unwitting or otherwise.  There was talk about ‘violent protests by Palestinians’ and ‘security’.  UK citizens, well acquainted with the language and dialogue used around terrorist attacks, could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that Palestinians are largely violent, whilst the Israelis have legitimate security concerns.  Whilst not wishing to deny either that individual acts of violence happen on both sides and need to be condemned or that there are some security concerns in the area, I would like to offer a more in-depth analysis, backed up by reports of what really happened.

The old city of Jerusalem is of importance to all three Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam because of the religious sites which stand within its walls, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,the Western Wall and the Al-Aqsa mosque.   The Dome of the Rock or the Temple Mount on which the Al-Aqsa mosque stands is particularly sensitive: tradition has it that it is from this place that Mohammed ascended into heaven.  At the same time Jews believe that this is the place where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac.  The site is also sacred for Jews as this is the presumed location of both the first and the second Temples, the Western Wall being all that remains of the latter.  Some Jews believe that more remains of the two Temples are to be found under the Dome of the Rock and archaeological excavations are ongoing, provoking fears among Muslims that the very foundations of the Al-Aqsa mosque could be threatened.  This site is therefore in a way a microcosm of the larger Israeli- Palestinian conflict, in that it is in essence about ownership and the importance of the same piece of land to different religions and populations.  Sensitivities around the Temple Mount also need to be understood as part of the wider political context.  East Jerusalem, previously under the jurisdiction of Jordan, was occupied by Israel in 1967.  Palestinians regard it as occupied territory (as do the UN) and the potential capital of a future Palestinian state, whereas for Zionists Jerusalem is the potential capital of a future Jewish-only state.

In practical terms an uneasy status quo is held in place between the Israeli authorities, who control security around the site and the Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem Waqf who control what happens at the site itself.  (In Islamic law, a person may decide to donate a property and its revenues to the public for charitable or religious purposes. This property then becomes a waqf, or holding, in perpetuity). In a region where religion is of the utmost importance and where rival claims to land are so bound up with identity, it is of vital importance that the delicate balance between the Israeli authorities and the Waqf remains undisturbed.  Evidence of what can ensue if this happens can be seen from recent history: the Second Intifada was sparked off by a visit by Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in September 2000.

The main element that the media missed, however, was the overwhelming non-violent nature of the mass protests in East Jerusalem.  Despite calls from the Palestinian leadership for a ‘day of rage’ worshippers gathered each day for mass prayers at the security cordons around the Old City, and maintained calm and dignity.  There was very little violence.  Another element that was barely commented on was the fact that Palestinian Christians joined in the mass protests, showing solidarity across religious divides.  This is a reality that belies a narrative that would have us believe that the conflict in the region is in essence a religious one, between Jews and Muslims.  Although religion plays an important role in the region, the crux of the conflict is in fact about the dominance of one society over another, about sovereignty, identity and human rights.

East Jerusalem has once again fallen out of the world news, and no doubt an uneasy status quo has been re-established since the removal of the metal detectors leading to the al-Aqsa mosque.  However, the central imbalance and injustice between Palestinian and Israeli society remains, meaning that peace is at best precarious.

Worshippers gathered at the Lions Gate, at the entrance to the Old City- overseen by security forces.

The devout gather at the Lions Gate- whilst overseen by security forces.