Ambassador of Israel in debate with UCM students
MAASTRICHT. “He was very self-confident”, concludes a student leaving the lecture hall at University College Maastricht. “I think he has to be”, another replies. Last Monday morning, the Israeli ambassador Haim Divon visited Maastricht University for a debate with UCM students. His main point: the focus on the Israel–Palestine issue is disproportional.
“Look at what’s happening in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria. Three years ago Syria was a proud nation; now, 200,000 people are dead because of the war and another two million are refugees. And think about the extreme poverty around the world, women’s rights in several countries, slavery. Let’s put things in proportion”, argues the Israeli ambassador Haim Divon. “In the international arena, Israel bashing is a sport. Why is the focus always on the Israel–Palestine issue? Because then people don’t have to talk about Sri Lanka, Africa and so on.”
Divon, who fielded many critical questions during the debate, returned to this point repeatedly. Will the peace process with the Palestinians ever succeed? asked the students. “The situation is that Hamas doesn’t recognise Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. He can’t even enter Gaza. So it doesn’t work. Any agreement we make with Abbas won’t be accepted by Hamas. And this so-called Islamic Resistance Movement doesn’t recognise the state of Israel. As long as Hamas is not part of the game, Palestine is not ready to come back to the negotiating table.”
“You said you want peace”, a student begins. “But how do you explain the continued building of the settlements?” Divon: “We saw in the past that these settlements never stood in the way of peace. It’s not an obstacle. In any event, we’ve put a freeze on the building. The peace process won’t be easy, but all problems are solvable.”
What about the people in Gaza, a student wants to know. “They suffer from all sorts of shortages. Electricity blackouts, no medicines. How does Israel respond to the inhumane situation of the many innocent people in Gaza?” It’s a “terrible” situation, according to the ambassador. “We left Gaza in 2006 hoping that they would grasp the opportunity to build a state. What did we get? Thousands of rockets. We offered building materials, but that was used to build kilometres of tunnels in the hope of blowing up our city centres. Gaza is connected to Egypt. Why did Egypt close the border between the Sinai and Gaza? Things in the Arab world could be solved if less attention was paid to what’s happening in Israel and more to what’s happening in the rest of the region.”
Israel, he stresses, is located in a troubled region. The country is therefore not pleased about the recent nuclear agreement between the West and Iran. “This is a country that denies the Holocaust. We listened very carefully to what Ayatollah Khamenei said in a speech some days before the agreement: Israel is doomed to disappear. This is totally unacceptable language. It’s not that we are paranoid, but you don’t ease the sanctions first. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
But the people of Gaza, the student continues, “are not free to move, so they can’t seek a better environment. Is Israel helping them?” The ambassador points out that his country helps Palestinian children with heart diseases, for example, just as “we treat hundreds of Syrian victims in our hospitals”.
Finally, a student asks why Bedouins’ houses are being demolished and tribes forcibly relocated. “Isn’t this a case of ethnic cleansing?” Divon: “It has nothing to do with that. We see them as equal Israeli citizens and want to solve the problem. The issue is that they move around from one place to another. Well, you can’t just move wherever you want, so we installed a committee to come up with a solution. They proposed several centres where these people can live. This is the best solution. But a small minority took advantage of the situation and held a very violent demonstration. Suddenly the Bedouins became Palestinians. Every problem we have becomes a Palestinian problem.”