Handover Handshakes and The Apartheid Smear

Taking a Belfast black taxi tour is rather like reading a ‘how-to’ guide on conflict resolution from start to finish in an hour. My driver explains (in some form of the English language) each vibrant mural that we pass – from 20 foot tall football players and musicians to gun-clad soldiers. We travel past numerous red, white and blue painted curbs, lampposts and flags until the ‘Peace Wall’ looms like the bow of the Titanic, only with slightly less grandeur. The Wall, decorated with barbed wire, paintings and famous signatures, breaks at a stern set of gates at which another identical black taxi is waiting.

Stepping out into no man’s land we approach our new driver in a style deserving a stirring Hans Zimmer soundtrack. My Catholic guide respectfully shakes hands with his Protestant counterpart and I carry on my tour on the other side of the Wall, through an almost familiar green, white and orange landscape.

This ‘handover handshake’ between my two Christian taxi drivers in Northern Ireland means nothing – and yet, also, everything. It shows that reconciliation is possible.  That is the point at which I want to start.

Is the Israel-Palestinian conflict best understood in comparison with the Northern Irish Troubles – an unresolved national conflict in which mutual recognition and compromise (a handover handshake of sorts) is the basis for peace? Or is the better comparison with apartheid-era South Africa? Is Israel an ‘apartheid state’ that should be boycotted, divested from and sanctioned (BDS)?  Some in the churches of the UK think so.  

A booklet produced by BICOM (British Israel Communications and Research Centre) titled ‘The Apartheid Smear’ addresses this charge, as well as making the case that Israel is not an apartheid state, Zionism is not racism, being a Jewish state does not make Israel an apartheid state, and that the ‘Apartheid Smear’ actually damages the peace process.

Like any other country, Israel can and should be criticised. It is imperfect, but imperfection is not apartheid.

Under the apartheid accusation some UK churches criticise Israel of discrimination against Christians. However, it was in 1816 that an English traveller to the Holy Land observed that Christians were prevented from donning brightly coloured clothing and travelling on horseback without the expressed permission of the Muslim Pasha. This law, or firman, was introduced by the Ottoman Empire distinguishing all religions apart from Islam. Thankfully, I do not believe it is still necessary for hi-vis clad, horseback riding Christians to gain permission for their daily commute; however, in 2014 it will be necessary for Palestinian Christians to gain an entry permit to enter Jerusalem to worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre this Easter.

As it happens (although not theologically insignificant) Easter coincides with the Jewish celebration of Passover. Security is at a maximum as many thousands of Jews and Christians flock to Jerusalem, although I may point out that Jews do not need entry permits. Roughly 200,000 Palestinian Christians live in the Holy Land, 22,000 of whom live in Bethlehem. With a permit application approval rate of approximately 35 per cent, the Israeli government issued 21,000 permits in 2013, less than the entire Christian population of Bethlehem alone, nevertheless, an improvement on 2012. Moreover, I should not ignore here that many Western visitors were also unable to gain permits into Jerusalem at this time.

While criticisms must be made, let us also acknowledge that Israel is a safe haven for Christians. It is the only country in the Middle East with a growing Christian population who enjoy full freedom of religious activity. Since 1995, the Israeli Arab Christian population has grown by 14.1% whereas Christians in other countries in the region have seen an increase in persecution. Christians are fully protected under Israeli law. Christian unemployment stands at 4.9% (lower than the rest of the population), and Christians enjoy untrammelled political participation in Israel’s democratic institutions and boisterous civil society. Hardly an image of apartheid and discrimination - unlike almost all other states in the Middle East.

On the World Watch List of 50 countries where the persecution of Christians is most severe (compiled by Open Doors), Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Maldives, Pakistan and Iran take spots three to nine respectively. Notably Israel’s neighbour country, Syria, has jumped 33 places in two years from position 36 in 2012 to bronze medal position in 2014.

Under Sharia law, the law of the Palestinian Territories and other Islamic states, Christian converts may be executed. Moreover, there is no law protecting religious freedom and Christians are considered ‘dhimmi’ – second class citizens who experience discrimination across the board.

In Israel not only are Christians equal citizens, the government is actively encouraging Christian integration into society. For example, a recent government scheme has resulted in an increase of Christians joining the Israel Defence Forces. Since June 2013, 84 Christians have enlisted – an increase on the 50 Christian recruits in previous years.

To compare Israel to apartheid-era South Africa, when black people could not share bathrooms with white people, let alone train together as equal army recruits, or, for that matter, rise to become Supreme Court judges, MPs, heads of universities, schools and hospitals is a false equivalence.

To expect boycotts of Israel to bring peace is foolish. The Oslo Peace Accords in 1994 when Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat and Yitzak Rabin stood on the White House Lawn and shook hands were of historic importance – their ‘handover handshake’ heralded the final stage of the conflict.

Yes, the talking is still going on 20 years later, this time led by US Secretary of State John Kerry, but the differences between the two sides have been clarified and narrowed. This is the last mile. It’s only through talking, mutual recognition and compromise that peace will finally come.

Bethany Coates