Sandwiched between giant car and furniture stores on a motorway stop-off, a blue-and-white Star of David flag droops nonchalantly on a stifling summer’s day. The factory-like building beside it could easily missed by a traveller who blinks too soon, yet the work undertaken here in the Israel Centre is far from commonplace. Its staff and management are dedicated not to the manufacturing of goods or to devising sales strategies but to drumming up support for a contentious political project: expanding Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The centre – located on the outskirts of Nijkerk, a sleepy Dutch town - is home to Christenen voor Israel (Christians for Israel), an organisation that views the creation of the state of Israel as the fulfilment of a Biblical prophecy. “It is very important that we in Holland work with the churches and let them know that Israel is one of the important players in the Bible and that they (Israelis) are God’s chosen people,” André Groenewegen, a spokesman for the group, said.
Further on up the corridor from his office, a shop does a brisk trade. The merchandise it sells is promoted as “made in Israel” yet closer inspection reveals that some of it is sold by firms headquartered in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The shop’s cosmetics section brims with Ahava products; though boasting minerals from the Dead Sea, these are manufactured in the settlement of Mitzpe Shalem. The shop’s website, meanwhile, offers spices from Amnon and Tamar Karmi, whose head office is located in the settlement of Alfei Menashe, near the Palestinian town of Qalqilyah.
Unlike almost every member country of the United Nations, Christians for Israel refuses to regard the West Bank as occupied Palestinian territory. According to Groenewegen, “the Bible tells us” that it is part of Israel. (International law is at odds with that view; the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention makes it illegal for an occupying power to transfer part of its own civilian population into the land it is occupying).
Although a brochure on display at the centre’s entrance states that one of the group’s activities is to support Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria (the Biblical name for the West Bank), Groenewegen claims he is unaware of specific projects that it is aiding in the settlements. He concedes, though, that “our daughter organisation”, Christian Friends of Israeli Communities (CFOIC) is involved in such work.
CFOIC was founded in 1995 after some Christian Zionists had expressed the view that Israel had granted too many concessions to the Palestinian Authority as part of the so-called Oslo accords. Literature published by CFOIC argues that the West Bank was granted to the Jewish people 4,000 years ago. The book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament implores Jews to settle this land and to make it “prosper more than before”, according to CFOIC.
“We don’t consider Judea and Samaria to be occupied,” said Henk Poot, a clergyman active in CFOIC and Christians for Israel. “There was never a Palestinian state or people. Apart from this we believe that the land of Israel has been promised by God Almighty to the Jewish people and in that way we feel very much connected to the religious Zionist movement.”
Poot did not respond to requests for information about how much financial assistance the CFOIC sends to Israeli settlements. Yet the organisation’s website solicits donations for the installation of “security cameras” for the gates of Zufim, a settlement beside Qalqilyah, as well as for the maintenance of students in Ariel, a university for settlers.
Even though they are supporting settlement activities that the Dutch government officially considers to be illegal, Christians for Israel and the CFOIC enjoy a cordial relationship with some of the most powerful politicians in the Netherlands. Maxime Verhagen, parliamentary leader of the Christian Democrats party and the outgoing minister for foreign affairs, expressed his support for the work of pro-Israel lobby groups in an interview published in a Christians for Israel newsletter earlier this month. Verhagen has defended Israeli atrocities against Palestinians even more hawkishly than most of his peers in the European Union’s 27 governments. In January 2009, Verhagen visited the southern Israeli town of Sderot as a gesture of solidarity with its residents; three Israeli civilians were killed by rockets fired from Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. Verhagen refused to travel further into Gaza itself, where 1,400 Palestinians were killed over a three-week bombardment by Israeli forces.
Christians for Israel are part of a wider pro-Israel lobby with significant political clout in the Netherlands. The most influential organisation in the lobby network is the Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI) in The Hague. During the recent general election in the Netherlands, one of CIDI’s staff members Wim Kortenoeven won a parliamentary seat for the Party for Freedom, led by the far-right politician Geert Wilders. This party is in talks with the Christian Democrats about the possible formation of a coalition government. Another pro-Israel lobbyist Gidi Markuszower had been named as a candidate on Wilders’ electoral list but Markuszower’s candidacy was withdrawn at a late stage in the election, reportedly because he had previously been arrested for carrying a gun in public.
Max Wieselmann, a representative of European Jews for a Just Peace, an organisation campaigning for the rights of Palestinians to be respected, said that Christians for Israel is in close contact with Israeli diplomats. “You can always see the Israeli ambassador at their meetings or when they have parties and receptions,” Wieselmann added. “This is a little bit funny. We always say – and it is the same for Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. – that they are not interested in Jews as people but only as a vehicle for their own views.”
•First published by Inter Press Service (www.ipsnews.net), 27 July 2010