Tuesday, May 21

Burst pipes or bad history? Wellington City Council’s new role as the arbiter of international conflicts

On 15 May newbie Wellington City Councillor Nikau Wi Neera tweeted a photo of himself grinning like a schoolboy who has just been gifted a PlayStation and clutching a piece of paper. The accompanying proclamation explained that it was a notice of motion signed by 8 councillors to debate Wellington recognising the state of Palestine, becoming sister cities with Ramallah, and “in celebration” lighting up the Michael Fowler Centre in the colours of Palestine in one year (it being what the Palestinian people refer to as “Nakba Day”). This was, he said, in solidarity with the Palestinian community, “whose people have struggled under occupation on their own land for decades”.

Twitter is not representative of the wider population, of course, but the overall tone of the replies to him were less than wholeheartedly supportive. A small sample includes “just fix the bloody pipes and get the buses to run on time”, “just what we want from our local councillors – controversial international politics. Don’t worry about the obscene rates increases”, “…you’ve got bigger issues. This isn’t Uni”, “the funny/sad thing is most of your Green Party whanau would be dead in the State of Palestine” and a few, including mine, asking about the borders of the state.

It’s fairly standard business for councils to establish sister cities. I have visited Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian territories twice, which is pretty rare for a Jewish person, and prohibited for Israelis, due to it being too dangerous for them. (In 2000 two Israelis took a wrong turn there and were lynched, the gruesome photos of which are hard to forget). It seems like a modern bustling city, with towers and pristine well-stocked supermarkets that would leave ours to shame. I am not sure what the criteria are for a sister city, but I would assume they do not include having shared values or synergies, given Ramallah is a city where LGBT are routinely persecuted, general elections have not been held since 2006, and selling land to Jews is punishable by death. Never mind.

As to the other parts of the motion perhaps they don’t seem like a big deal – after all it’s just one debate and if it passes the results will be largely symbolic – but symbols, of course, communicate an underlying meaning. It’s therefore worth asking exactly what that is and what the Council is playing at by even debating this resolution (which seems set to pass, given that over half the Councillors have signed on to it).

The first question is what jurisdiction the Council has to recognise a state or take stances on contentious geopolitical matters, or why it feels the need to. We have a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade that does that. Is there a precedent? Will the Council now be taking stances on Tibet, Taiwan, Western Sahara, Kashmir, Cyprus, Balochistan, to name just a few other territorial disputes? And if not, why not?

And will it now be lighting up the Michael Fowler Centre to “celebrate” the days when different peoples mark their sorrows and tragedies? Will it be lit up on 24 April for Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day – though perhaps first the Council could remove the Ataturk Memorial above Tarakena Bay? What about a day marking Bloody Sunday, 30 January? Or commemorating the worst refugee crisis of the modern era, from Syria. Or, to recognise current issues, how about we show solidarity with the people of Iran bravely resisting the Islamic regime or the Uyghur people incarcerated in concentration camps by China? In fact, what about we focus our attention on our home turf – 5 November for the invasion of Parihaka, or acknowledging our woeful record on domestic violence by remembering its victims?

But it goes much further than this selectivity. Because 15 May, “Nakba Day”, is the anniversary of the day in 1948 when five Arab states – Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, together with contingents from Saudi Arabi and Yemen, attacked Israel, with the intention of eliminating it. The day before that the state of Israel had declared independence, on termination of the British Mandate for Palestine. Mandates were a League of Nations system entrusting the temporary governance of different territories of the former Ottoman Empire at the end of World War 1 to the Allies. Along with other mandates the British were entrusted with the mandate for the area known as Palestine, of which it then carved off over 75% to create what is now known as Jordan, leaving the rump between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea as the Mandate for Palestine. The legal instrument of the Mandate recognised the “historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country”, and called for the creation of a Jewish national homeland.

After a bloody civil war broke out between the Jews and Arabs living in British Mandate Palestine, Britain handed over the problem to the United Nations to solve, which ultimately resulted in General Assembly resolution 181, otherwise known as the partition plan of 1947. This was the UN’s attempt to solve the question of ownership of that rump of the Ottoman Empire between the river and the sea by creating two states – one for the Jews and one for the Arabs. Though it fell far short of the national aspirations off the Jewish leaders, they accepted it, believing that some form of state was better than none, especially given that this was just two years after the Holocaust finished and there were still hundreds of thousands of displaced Jews that no state wanted. The Arab leaders rejected the proposal, ultimately launching their failed war of annihilation.

In his 1948 book “The Meaning of the Disaster”, the Syrian intellectual Constantine Zureiq, who coined the term “Nakba” writes. “The defeat of the Arabs in Palestine is not a small downfall – naksa … It is a catastrophe – nakba – in every sense of the word.” He also wrote

“Seven countries go to war to abolish the partition and to defeat Zionism, and quickly leave the battle after losing much of the land of Palestine – and even the part that was given to the Arabs in the Partition Plan.”

Shany Mor wrote recently in Unherd about how the term has been recast:

“The transmutation of the Arabs’ failed effort to wipe out the Jewish state into their own cosmic tragedy, together with the adoption of this counter-narrative by intellectuals and self-styled humanitarians in the West”.

The “Nakba” is the failure of the Arab forces to eliminate the nascent Jewish state, and the consequences that flowed from it.

Any reference to the “Nakba” that omits the vital context of the Arab leaders’ rejection of the partition plan that would have given them another state, opting instead for a war of annihilation that they lost, is disturbingly dishonest. Yes, part of that context is the displacement of some 750,000 Arabs – some expelled by the Israeli forces, and some fleeing at the urging of the Arab forces who said they could return home in a matter of days when the land was liberated. So too is the demolition of both Arab and Jewish settlements, and the Jews who were ethnically cleansed from the lands that Jordan and Egypt kept for themselves (which were allocated under the partition plan for the Arab state), and the 1% of Israel’s population who were killed, including nameless Holocaust survivors. None of these things happened in a vacuum, and it’s gross historical revisionism to suggest otherwise.

To state the obvious, wars are terrible. Having just spent a day in Bosnia & Herzegovina, where I visited a Museum of War and Genocide, I am acutely aware of this. They tend to cause displaced persons and refugees. I have refugee friends – those from the Holocaust, and more recently from Afghanistan and Iran. Of course; they have all by definition suffered loss – of loved ones, of their homes; they feel a sense of dislocation and devastation for their lives that were. The Palestinian refugees are no different and deserve our sympathy. We cannot deny that they have suffered, and that some of this has been caused by Israel, as well as their own leaders, and Arab and other states (Britain in particular).

But what is different is that their leaders have had several opportunities for statehood over the decades and declined them, at times violently, believing that their disastrous mistakes and the fact of Israel’s existence can be reversed. In the meantime, Palestinians – even those who were born and live in Gaza and the West Bank (presumably what the Council would recognise as the state of Palestine) – are still classed as refugees by their special dedicated UN agency (ie. refugees from Palestine living in Palestine!). Also called refugees are generations of Palestinians living elsewhere, some of whom have citizenship of other states including New Zealand (though notably not some Arab states like Lebanon, who refuse to grant Palestinians citizenship and discriminate against them in numerous ways). Meanwhile, the Arabs who remained in Israel after the war were granted citizenship by the state (they account for over 20% of its population), as were the 800,000 or so Jews who fled other parts of the Middle East in the 40s and 50s, and more recently from the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, Yemen and Ukraine.

This may all seem extraordinarily complex and none of it may matter to you. I don’t blame you. Why should it? It probably has no direct impact on you and there are plenty of things at home to worry deeply about. But what should worry you is why it worries a local council. What does it say about a council that it could be ideologically captured by a highly simplistic and selective narrative of a 75 year-old event on the other side of the world? What does it say to a state that we have diplomatic relations with, whose establishment we paved the way for when we helped defeat the Ottomans in the Palestine Campaign in 1917, and we voted for at the UN in 1947, that the failure to eliminate it and render its people stateless again was a catastrophe?

That, to me, is the real symbolism of this motion.