News of Kevin Rudd’s historic apology to the Stolen Generation has reached the Middle East. In Al-Ahram, a Cairo based Arabic daily newspaper author Shahira Samy praises the Labour government for its apology to indigenous Australians. This piece, written with the backdrop of the Arab-Israeli conflict made me wonder what might be achieved if Israel was to take a momentous first step and admit liability for the refugee problem just as Kevin Rudd has in regards of the Stolen Generation. Reading the article authored by Samy, “When Australia said Sorry” made me realise that peace in the Middle East hinges on symbolic gestures as much as it does on land allocation. Recognition of the right of Israel to exist, which has been extended by the Palestinians and some Middle East Governments, is just such a gesture. In return, the Israeli’s have not offered any similar gesture failing to even recognise the dispossession of the Palestinians or suffering it has caused in the sixty years of its existence. This is not surprising as Israel was founded on a myth that “Palestine was a land without a people, for a people without a land”. The millions of Palestinian refugees and years of bloodshed have proven the fallacy of this peice of Zionist propaganda. (Let it be said also that the same Rudd government that has been widely commended for extending an apology to indigenous Australians failed to recognise the plight of the Palestinians when on Wednesday 12 March, 2008 it congratulated Israel for reaching its sixty year anniversary. The unfortunate irony of this has been pointed out by Jumana in an earlier posting and by Alan Ramsay in, “Don’t Mention the War” 8 March, 2008.)
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is but one example of how much progress is possible when people are willing to make symbolic gestures that express their contrition and seek forgiveness. All Australians fortunate enough to feel the positive force of the Rudd Government’s apology (on behalf of the Australian people), and the acceptance of the apology by indigneous Australians, understand very clearly that symbolic gestures have the power to heal. Conversely without such symbolism very little progress is possible. In both examples mentioned here, much is still left to resolve. South Africa’s people have many bridges to still cross before the legacies of Apartheid are erased. Australia, in a similar way, must make a huge effort to tackle the structural poverty and the concomitant social problems experienced throughout many of Australia’s indigenous communities. But, in both cases the essential first step of admitting the policies of the past were racist, oppressive and unjust was made and the struggle to acheive a more tolerant and harmonious future is being undertaken. The Israelis and Palestinians would both acheive much just by just saying sorry.
It seems to me then that the first crucial step in promoting peace in the region depends on genuine statements of the recognition of the humanity of the other side. I believe that the initial gesture must come from the Israeli’s who must accept that the act of dispossessing the Palestinians has created the problem of “two people for one land”. What is possible from that point on is conjecture, but just as in the case of South Africa and in Australia the recognition that past wrongs were committed and that land was taken from its original owners has led to accommodation and cooperation and efforts aimed at constructing a more tolerant and mutually beneficial future. Such statements do not necessarily lead to the repossession of lands taken from the original owners. In both South Africa and Australia the redistribution of wealth or property has not eventuated. A statement of contrition, and acceptance of blame, has no bearing on land but is a moral issue of the highest order and a crucial initial step towards building a lasting peace in the region.
The Middle East has accommodated difference for hundreds of years and there is nothing that pre-determines that this should not occur again. I await a historic gesture from the Israeli’s that recognises the tragic past and accepting blame for the wrongs committed as the crucial moment that divides a past marked by conflict between Israeli’s and Arabs with a future of dialogue leading to peace. Without this gesture, I fear that the future will remain unchanged and both Israeli’s and Palestinians will continue to live in fear and hatred of each of other.