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Germany and Palestine

Jefferson ChaseMay 15, 2008

As Israel celebrated its 60th anniversary, DW-WORLD spoke to two experts about the problems German-Jewish history creates for present-day Germany's policy toward the Palestinians.

Palestinians in Germany
Between 70,000 and 100,000 Palestinians live in GermanyImage: DW

The anniversary of the declaration of an independent Jewish state on Wednesday, May 14 was occasion for celebration for most Jews -- and a chance for Germany to demonstrate its continue support for Israel.

But for pro-Palestinian Germans, as well as those who deal intensively with the Middle East conflict, May 14 underscores the uniquely perilous tightrope walk Germany must perform in its position toward those who have suffered under Israeli occupation.

"There is no such thing as a German-Palestinian relationship without the German-Israeli relationship," said Rene Wildangel, a historian and Green Party expert on the Middle East. "Whether one thinks that's good or bad, that's the case right now. If you look at German Chancellor Angela Merkel's recent trip to Israel, she made it quite clear how close the German-Israeli relationship is."

Merkel visited Israel in March, when she became the first head of government to speak -- in German -- to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. But some people in Germany, including Palestinians residents, were upset that the chancellor did not raise the Middle East conflict in her speech.

"There was a storm of outrage that went through the Palestinian communities," said Erhard Arendt, who runs the Palaestina Portal, Germany's largest Internet forum for discussing Palestinian affairs. "Hundreds of letters were written to newspapers, saying 'We didn't crop up in [the speech] at all. We were totally forgotten."

Public opinion versus policy

Merkel talking to Knesset
Merkel's speech to the Knesset on March 18 drew praise and criticismImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The German government support for Israel is, of course, programmed by Germans' sense of shame and guilt for the Holocaust, as well as their desire to atone concretely for the horrors of the past.

But the German people are often far more sympathetic to Palestinian plight and far more willing to criticize Israel than their government.

"According to one survey, 63 percent of the populace doesn't think Israel's policies are right," Arendt said.

Germans' empathy for the Palestinians often originates in attempts to come to terms with their own past.

"Without doubt, the fact that I was intensely interested in the Holocaust led me to get involved in Palestinian affairs," said Arendt, who was born in 1941. "That certainly strengthened the idea in me that nothing even remotely similar should be allowed to happen again -- anywhere and at any time."

Germans' attitudes differ from opinion poll to opinion poll, depending on which questions are asked. But certain hot-button issues perennially elicit German opposition to Israeli government policies.

"There's the occupation and the very difficult situation in Gaza, as we've seen in the past few months," Wildangel said. "It's a humanitarian problem connected to the Israeli blockade in which the EU is also involved. I think that topics like this, or the building Israeli settlements in the West Bank, makes Germans feel that they have to voice criticism."

Historical triangle

Palestinian women sit in a car, carrying sacks of flour
Israel's blockade of the Gaza strip is just the latest crisis in the regionImage: AP

In Germany, the Palestinian cause continues to be associated with the extreme political Left.

Because it viewed Nazism as a product of Western capitalism, communist East Germany took no responsibility for the Holocaust. It was openly hostile to Israel and at least nominally supportive of Palestinians' desire for a state of their own.

And in the 1970s, the anti-imperialist terrorist group RAF in West Germany and Palestinian militants also identified closely with one another.

Most spectacularly, members of a group called "The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine" hijacked a Lufthansa plane in 1977, demanding among other things the release of RAF terrorists from prison. German Special Forces successfully stormed the plane at Mogadishu airport, killing the hijackers.

Such incidents shocked mainstream Germans and their government.

"I don't think that this course of action was very useful to the Palestinians," Wildangel said. "I see it as an extreme, and ultimately marginal, chapter in the history of German-Palestinian relations."

Faint prospects for change

Merkel and Abbas
The EU may be the best hope for easing German-Palestinian relationsImage: AP

There is little chance that Germany will decrease the support, financial or military, it offers to Israel -- although German Palestinian advocates continue to argue that the country has a responsibility to do precisely that.

"We should be criticizing, making demands and taking action," Arendt said. "Providing weapons to a crisis region violates every international agreement there is, yet weapons are delivered to Israel, including armored scout cars, that are used to kill Palestinians."

But the situation could change somewhat if foreign policy is de-nationalized.

"I think the Palestinians have to recognize what the relationship between Germany and Israel is and acknowledge that the past happened," Wildangel said. "But they can expect the European Union -- and that's the level where the financial and political decisions are made now -- to be critical of Israeli state polices wherever they are problematic for the Palestinians and the peace process.

"Palestinians can expect that German and European politicians to push seriously for a peaceful settlement," Wildangel added. "That includes a certain amount of objectivity and a sense of responsibility for both sides."