By Raja Zarith Idris
SINCE November 2006, I have kept in touch with Nilly, a Palestinian woman who used to be a volunteer with the Palestine Red Crescent Society. We met at an international conference.
Nilly now lives in England because her husband works there. She said she also decided to live there for the sake of her children. If they had remained in Palestine, there was always the risk of them dying from gunfire or if their home was bombed, she said. She yearns to return to Palestine once there is peace.
Her parents, meanwhile, still live in Hebron, a 30-minute drive from East Jerusalem. One of her sisters lives in East Jerusalem but no one in the family can visit her without a special permit from the Israeli authorities.
When Israel began its current incursion into Gaza, I e-mailed Nilly to ask if any of her family lived there. She replied that her sister Aisha, 33, lives in Gaza with her husband Moosa and their four children: Nabila, 17; Daud, 13; Harun, 12; and Murad, three.
Murad is so traumatised by the sounds and sights of war that he is now unable to speak. Moosa used to run his own business but has lost everything, including his house, since the siege on Gaza began 19 months ago.
Aisha has not been able to meet her family for more than a year now. Nilly tries to stay in touch with her but it is difficult, with no phone lines and no mobile phone networks now.
'When we manage to contact them, you can hear the sounds of explosions. My sister is a social worker but when I call her, she cries. She can't handle what is happening. She and her kids are traumatised; they feel there is no hope,' Nilly said.
When I asked her if it was all right if I revealed their real names, she said: 'I do know that disclosing real names might be dangerous, but in our case, as Palestinians, what else could happen? We don't have much more to lose.'
One thing Nilly said was telling: 'Many people think this is a war between Jews and Muslims. That is totally wrong. It's about Palestinians trying to defend their own land.'
In order to understand the conflict, we must have some knowledge of Israel's history.
As Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has pointed out, before the state of Israel was created in 1948, 'Jews lived all over the Muslim world, from Morocco in the west to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan in the east, from Turkey and the Balkans to Yemen in the south-west corner of the Arabian peninsula...Having lived in these areas for many centuries, they looked, spoke, and ate - even sang - like the rest of the people around them, except that their liturgical rites were those of Judaism rather than Christianity or Islam'.
Imam Feisal is an American citizen who is also a Muslim, just as there are many Americans who are Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs, apart from the larger population of Christians and Jews.
I would like to suggest that we, responsible Malaysians, be very careful in how we inform younger Malaysians about the present war in Gaza. We have already made much of racial and religious issues in our own country. Most of us have argued that we must think of ourselves as Malaysians rather than identify ourselves as different groups of people according to our religions. Thus, we may confuse younger Malaysians when we talk about 'the Muslim world' and 'the Jewish people'.
Wouldn't it be better for us to make sure that they understand that the war in Gaza is about the conflict between two countries - Israel and Palestine? Although Israel's population is mainly Jewish, it has also Christians and Muslims. Similarly, not all Palestinians are Muslims.
This is what we must make clear to younger Malaysians: that we identify ourselves by the countries we live in and by our citizenship, whatever our religions may be.
We must understand that the war in Gaza is a continuation of the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories that began after the Six-Day War of 1967. As Professor Avi Shlaim of Oxford University wrote recently in The Guardian: 'The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the June 1967 war had very little to do with security and everything to do with territorial expansionism.'
Prof Shlaim - who says he 'served loyally in the Israeli army in the mid-1960s' and 'has never questioned the legitimacy of the state of Israel within its pre-1967 borders' - went on:
'Israel's propaganda machine persistently purveyed the notion that the Palestinians are terrorists, that they reject co-existence with the Jewish state, that their nationalism is little more than anti-semitism, that Hamas is just a bunch of religious fanatics and that Islam is incompatible with democracy. But the simple truth is that the Palestinian people are a normal people with normal aspirations. They are no better but they are no worse than any other national group. What they aspire to, above all, is a piece of land to call their own on which to live in freedom and dignity.'
The United Nations has, after two weeks of intense attacks by the Israelis, passed a resolution for a ceasefire in Gaza. But 40 years of stop-and-start ceasefires have given little hope to the Palestinians. They have lived for far too long by the flickering light of candles that are snuffed out by slight winds. For now, the resolution for a ceasefire remains just that - yet another flicker of yet another candle, bringing a little light into the darkness of their lives.
The writer is chairman of the Community Services Committee of the Malaysian Red Crescent Society.
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK