The war of walls between Israel and the Palestinians

Many Israelis today feel they are being punished for who they are, rather than what they thought or did – damned if they want peace, damned if they don’t.

AN IRAQI child carries water during the era of sanctions in the 1990s. The author remembers the difficult period. (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN IRAQI child carries water during the era of sanctions in the 1990s. The author remembers the difficult period.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
My earliest memory of the West’s bias in the Israeli-Arab conflict dates back to 1976. That summer, my parents took me and my siblings for a four-week holiday in London. I vividly remember my childish dismay when I ran into the living room in our rented apartment in Gloucester Road and turned on the TV, eager to watch some cartoons. Instead, I saw a monkey in military uniform, dark sunglasses and keffiyeh. Even at the unripe age of seven, it wasn’t difficult for me to understand the Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, spoof. “How dare they insult our poor Palestinian brothers like that?” I thought.
The atrocities of the Holocaust were still relatively fresh in the minds of many Europeans back then, and the mass media had no qualms siding with the Israelis, indiscriminately pegging the Palestinians as villains; vicious terrorists, who cold-bloodedly hijacked airplanes and took athletes hostage. Hardly anything was said about their suffering and hopes during that time.
I can’t help recalling that incident each time I hear or read about the growing support among western intellectuals for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, aimed at pressing Israel to end its oppression of Palestinians. The memory of the Holocaust has noticeably receded, as has unconditional Western sympathy for Israel.
Endless material can be found today on traditional, as well as social, media on the siege on the Gaza Strip, building new Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, and the violent behavior of Israeli soldiers toward Palestinian civilians. Once a stigma, or at best an object of mockery, many students worldwide wear keffiyehs to their schools and universities as a gesture of solidarity with the Palestinians.
Had any of that taken place at a different time, I would have very much welcomed it. But I have serious concerns about the Western change of heart during the past decade or so, because I’ve learned my lesson the hard way.
Struck by ballistic missiles and laser-guided bombs throughout consecutive wars with neighboring countries and international allied forces, to be subjected later on to terrorist attacks, car explosions, suicide bombers, ethnic and religious cleansing that forced millions of us to flee our homes to live in the diaspora; my generation of Iraqis has been through a lot. And yet, when asked about our darkest memories, many of us would probably nominate our years under the global sanctions, imposed on us by the UN Security Council after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
The embargo caused our currency’s value to drop drastically. Many lost their life-savings when cash became worthless, and Iraqi scholars, judges, doctors, policemen and other officials started accepting bribes. A considerable number of women had to prostitute their bodies in order to feed their families. Crime rates soared, and so did mortality among elderly patients, due to drug shortages and poor health services.
Children suffered from chronic malnutrition and disease outbreaks. While the majority of Iraqis plunged deeper into poverty, sickness and religious fanaticism, Saddam and his tribe became more powerful and aggressive than ever.
When the regime was finally overthrown by invading US forces in 2003, it took down with it people’s dreams – and practically chances – of a near prosperous future for their homeland. 
My firsthand experience in Iraq made me very cautious, even suspicious, trusting global sanctions and boycott campaigns, so I spent a lot of time investigating the content of the BDS website (, and the more I read, the more confused I became, especially when I went through the part that stressed, “The right of our refugees to return to their homes and lands of origin, from which they were ethnically cleansed by Zionist militias, and later the Israeli army, during the 1948 Nakba.”
HONESTLY, I CANNOT fathom how the realization of such right could bring peace to the Middle East. Not only would that lead to the demise of Israel; it would guarantee to instantly ignite a civil war among rival Palestinian factions that would ripple through an already flammable region, and far beyond.
Another controversial aspect of the movement’s manifesto is the economic pressure it urges us to put on Israeli politicians to comply with international law and meet Palestinian demands. Israel’s economy today is considerably based on impossible-to-boycott hi-tech and pharmaceutical industries. The sanctions, nevertheless, will take their toll on grocers, restaurants, hotels, farmers, builders and indeed craftsmen and artists, many of whom are Palestinians who are already struggling to make ends meet.
Speaking of art, the website frequently mentions taking inspiration from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and names Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, among other world dignitaries, as a keen supporter.
“Just as we said during apartheid that it was inappropriate for international artists to perform in South Africa in a society founded on discriminatory laws and racial exclusivity, so it would be wrong for Cape Town Opera to perform in Israel.”
I highly admire Tutu’s dedication to fighting injustice, but the quote baffled me by its assumption that obsolete tactics from the Cold War era are still valid in this day and age. Music has long been proven a therapeutic medium that could help humans heal. It’s being used in different settings, including prisons.
The arts, along with science and sports are expected to bring different people and cultures together, instead of dividing them further. Bishop Tutu justifies his involvement in the cultural boycott, saying, “I hope it will have enough of an impact on Israeli civilian society to change the situation.”
I’m afraid that’s another objective the movement has failed to achieve.
It’s no secret that BDS owes much of its fame to its systematic and carefully planned campaigns to have scheduled music events in Israel cancelled. Many artists – including our kiwi Lorde – succumbed to the pressure. They couldn’t stand being publicly shamed for adding to the suffering of Palestinian children under siege in Gaza. Some celebs, however, went further than that by joining the movement’s list of high-profile supporters, failing – or maybe not bothering – to see the double standards at play.
Yes, it would be utterly lacking in common sense to compare the two types of punishment, but it’s hard not to notice that they’re both based on the same moral principle, or lack thereof: If it’s not acceptable to make the people of Gaza pay for Hamas’s shortcomings, why is it okay to punish the entirety of Israel for its government’s?
Ironically, most of the canceled shows were supposed to take place in Tel Aviv, a city known for its titles of the “vegan capital of the world” and the “gay capital of the Middle East.” In 2008, The New York Times hailed it as the “capital of Mediterranean cool,” and while like New York, Tel Aviv is considered a hub for left-wing Israeli liberalism, many of its residents have no interest in politics whatsoever.
The called off concerts’ attendees would have been mainly second- or third-generation Israelis who are sick and tired of conflict, and who would love to see peace with the Palestinians. They too were born in the land, and probably have never engaged in violent acts, but little does that seem to matter to BDS supporters.
Many Israelis today feel they are being punished for who they are, rather than what they thought or did – damned if they want peace, damned if they don’t – hence the frustration, and the steady shifting of political sentiments rightwards.
The BDS movement strongly – and rightly – opposes the 400-mile-long concrete barrier that Israel had built to separate its citizens from the Palestinians in the West Bank, and calls it the “Apartheid Wall.” For what it’s worth, I have a bachelor’s degree in architecture, but it really doesn’t take an architect to tell that erecting more walls will never bring down an existing one, or for that matter, make progress.
The writer is an Iraqi-born, New Zealand-based architect and author of A Muslim on the Bridge. He is a regular contributor to Arcade (Stanford University) and a member of the New Zealand Society of Authors.