The Sydney Peace Prize was this year awarded to artist George Gittoes – a welcome departure, you might think, from the tradition of bestowing it on those who are anti-Israel. The 2015 Sydney Peace Prize Jury’s citation reads:
“George Gittoes AM: For exposing injustice for over 45 years as a humanist artist, activist and filmmaker, for his courage to witness and confront violence in the war zones of the world, for enlisting the arts to subdue aggression and for enlivening the creative spirit to promote tolerance, respect and peace with justice.”
For the past seventeen years the Sydney Peace Foundation … has awarded the prize to someone who has made a significant contribution to peace with justice, respect for human rights and the language and practice of non-violence. Past winners include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky.
Gittoes studied Fine Arts at the University of Sydney. In 1970 he helped establish The Yellow House artists collective in Kings Cross with others including Martin Sharp and Brett Whitely.
Gittoes… has chronicled conflicts and social upheavals in places including Nicaragua, Somalia, Cambodia, Western Sahara, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Bougainville, East Timor, South Africa, Palestine, Iraq and Pakistan.
“At a time when the world is speeding into a new cycle of war,” says Gittoes, “it is inspiring that the Sydney Peace Foundation values art as a way to help overcome the brutality…”
… says David Hirsch, Chair of the Foundation “…The Jury felt his unique approach to peacebuilding and social justice should be recognised and applauded.”
Gittoes is currently based in Jalalabad, Afghanistan – arguably the most dangerous city in the world. Against all odds, and at great personal risk from the Taliban, he has established a new Yellow House artists collective. Its mission is to bring peace and positive social change, not with weapons of war but with a broad range of creative media and strategies.
“I feel privileged to have been able to spend much of my life creating beauty in the face of the destruction of war. I have been waging a personal war against war with art.”
Previous Peace Prize recipients include anti-Israel activists Hanan Ashwari and Bishop Desmond Tutu, as well as
- 2014 Julian Burnside AO QC.
- 2011 Professor Noam Chomsky.
- 2009 John Pilger.
… Gittoes visited Australian peacekeepers in Western Sahara, Egypt, Israel and Lebanon. …Shortly after arriving in Israel he visited the site of the massacre of February 25, 1994 in the Palestinian town of Hebron. What he saw made him doubt the official version that the massacre was the work of a lone gunman, reinforcing his belief in the need for the artist as independent witness and as an advocate for the innocent victims of conflict.
The work of Australian artist and filmmaker… George Gittoes, reflects the effects of injustice and conflicts. This year’s Peace Prize theme was “The Art of Peace”
Gittoes’ peace activism evolved through his work as a painter, film-maker and photojournalist.
Since 1998, the Sydney Peace Foundation has awarded the prize to men and women who made significant contributions to peace with justice, respect for human rights and the language and practice of non-violence. Past winners include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky, Hanan Ashrawi, Xanana Gusmão, and John Pilger.
Gittoes is especially incensed by the Hebron massacre. No, not the one in 1929, which destroyed an ancient Jewish community! He is referring to 1994, when Baruch Goldstein opened fire on people in a mosque – admittedly a horrendous crime and one which Israel and the entire Jewish community roundly condemned. Dr Peter Londey, an Australian War Memorial historian, curated a travelling exhibition about the role of peacekeepers, entitled Keeping the peace. The exhibition showcases Gittoes painting, “A plea for peacekeepers” which features a Hebron family who lost loved ones in this massacre:
Peacekeeping is never easy, of course, and some problems have proved intractable: Peacekeepers in these conflicts will always occupy a difficult position in the middle, as illustrated in George Gittoes’ quintessential painting of Australian peacekeeping, A plea for peacekeepers. The observer sits among a family that has lost several members in a massacre at Hebron. They seek UN support, but whatever his sympathies the observer must remain a neutral, unsuborned, uncorrupted but not out of touch. It is a role at which Australians have proved adept for over half a century.
Baruch Goldstein’s murderous rampage was not a Zionist plot, rather the act of a mentally unstable person. However Al Jazeera rushed to use it for propaganda purposes. In 2014 they wrote:
In an event which cemented the city’s occupation, Baruch Goldstein gunned down Muslim worshippers 20 years ago today.
Hebron, occupied Palestinian territories – On February 25 1994, a US-born Israeli military physician walked into the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron armed with a Galil assault rifle. It was early morning during the holy month of Ramadan, and hundreds of Palestinians were crammed inside, bowed in prayer.
Baruch Goldstein, who had emigrated to Israel in 1983, lived in the Kiryat Arba settlement… As worshippers kneeled, Goldstein opened fire. He reloaded at least once, continuing his barrage for as long as possible before finally being overpowered and eventually beaten to death. By the time he was stopped, 29 worshippers were killed, and more than a hundred had been injured.
The Israeli government immediately released a statement condemning the act and stating that Goldstein acted alone and was psychologically disturbed.
Twenty years later, Palestinians are carrying out memorial events and Hebron‘s settlers are preparing celebratory pilgrimages to Goldstein’s shrine inside Kiryat Arba.
The massacre was widely reported in the international media – but many Palestinians here continue believe that the full story has never been told.
The 29 people killed inside the mosque were not the only “martyrs” that day. Locals estimate the final number of deaths at between 50 and 70 – and an estimated 250 were injured over the course of the day. After the initial attack inside the mosque, more Palestinians were killed by the Israeli army during protests outside the mosque, outside Hebron‘s Ahli hospital, and even in the local cemetery as the dead were being buried.
Some survivors of the massacre also report that they were shot by a second gunman inside the mosque, and claim that this was a planned attack of which the Israeli military was aware in advance. None here believe the official story of Goldstein acting entirely alone in a fit of madness.
The Israelis ordered 520 businesses to close overnight, and they remain shuttered to this day. Shuhaha Street, the main road through town, was later sealed off.
“The only way to be on this road is to be an Israeli or a foreigner,” said Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher. “For Palestinians, this is a no-go area.”
Conspiracy theories started almost immediately. The UK’s Independent reported:
Hebron Massacre: Hell comes to a holy place: Did Baruch Goldstein act alone? Eyewitnesses spoke of seeing another man, also dressed as a soldier, handing him ammunition
… the figure of Baruch Goldstein had long been familiar to the Palestinian storekeepers on the Jerusalem road out of Hebron. Once and sometimes twice a day, Goldstein’s big Peugeot station-wagon would swing out of the gates of Kiryat Arba, the Jewish enclave where he lived, and head out along this main thoroughfare ‘as if on parade – just to show us he was there’, as Issam Ramseh put it.
… The tip of an Uzi sub-machine-gun would always be sticking out of Goldstein’s open car window as he cruised the streets, and a large Star of David flag flew from the roof.
Goldstein’s name now goes down in the annals of Hebron‘s bloody history. Until Friday ‘the Hebron massacre’ was a reference to the killing by Arabs of 69 Jews in 1929. Goldstein avenged this on Friday morning with his own ‘Hebron massacre’, killing at least 48 Palestinians as they prayed in the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
Hebron sprawls over the Judean hills… According to the Jews the site is theirs – Genesis states that Abraham bought this piece of land for 400 shekels. He and his wife Sarah are buried here, along with Jacob and his wife Leah, and Isaac and his wife Rebecca.
The Muslims, however, also revere the patriarchs, and since Saladin defeated the Crusaders 800 years ago, the building has been a mosque. Until Israel seized the occupied territories from Jordan in 1967, Jews had no access to the site. Then they began to move into Hebron and muscle into the mosque. Now Muslim worship is severely restricted, and a Jewish synagogue has been attached to the building.
Hebron is not, however, a place of peaceful co-existence. At the outskirts of the town … is the Kiryat Arba settlement. From there the 7,000-odd Jewish residents go about their religious mission to reclaim the place from its 150,000 Arab residents.
They are heavily armed, for most of them serve in the army reserve and hold arms and ammunition supplied by the Israeli forces. In their own minds they sanctify most acts of violence and justify every ‘fist in the face of the Gentile’. For young Jews, Hebron is a school for vengeance and hatred.
All this goes virtually unchecked by the authorities. Hebron is special, Israeli leaders plead each time Jewish violence erupts; it is bound to attract extremists. On one side are the settlers, but on the other Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, is strong in the area. The Palestinian militants provoke the settlers, say Israeli leaders.
For months, tension had been steadily mounting in the Hebron area… the mayor of Kiryat Arba was arrested by Israeli soldiers during a protest after the killing of two settlers… The killing of a pregnant Jewish woman nearby 10 days ago had also set Kiryat Arba on edge.
But last Thursday evening in Kiryat Arba they were in joyful spirits. It was the eve of Purim, the Feast of Esther, when Jews celebrate the deliverance of Babylonian Jews from the hands of their Persian enemies.
Baruch Goldstein could not share in the celebrations to the full. According to several settler friends, he was in a sensitive state, having recently witnessed the murder of his friend Mordechai Lapid, gunned down with his son by Palestinians at the entrance to Kiryat Arba.
Goldstein was seen attending synagogue for the Purim reading from the Book of Esther. …He would have heard, and recognised, the passage from Esther: ‘The Jews gathered themselves together in the cities throughout all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus. . . Thus the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and slaughter, and destruction, and did what they would unto those that hated them.’
Before, or even as the mosque was starting to fill, Goldstein was in position in the courtyard at the rear of the Herodian walls, by the twin tombs of Leah and Jacob… As the worshippers knelt down in their first act of prayer, Goldstein moved through the Jewish entrance into the small synagogue, where lie the tombs of Abraham and Sarah.
… Eyewitnesses say that the first thing they heard was a bomb. Then, almost immediately, Goldstein opened up with his automatic rifle.
One of the main questions to be answered now is this: did Goldstein act alone? Eyewitnesses afterwards spoke consistently of seeing another man, also dressed as a soldier, handing him ammunition. Goldstein was not known as a loner.
Arab residents showed little will for mass protest… The majority appear ready to leave the fighting now to the armed militants, to whom they will lend ready support.
‘We still want to feel this is Palestine,’ said Jamal. ‘Everybody believes in peace. But what now? We are gunned down in our own mosque. We are here under curfew. We cannot get food for our children. We cannot work. What are we to believe?’
Smiling and crying, his wife Hanna told of Jews celebrating at the scene of the slaughter. ‘We know they are down there at the mosque, dancing and singing and saying kill the Arabs. And the soldiers look on and do nothing.’
Fairfax showcased George Gittoes in their Weekend magazine:
At dusk, a blue-tinged light envelops the mountain ridges outside Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan… “This is Taliban Central,” George Gittoes says… The Australian artist and filmmaker brands himself an “edge walker” and compares his own courage to that of soldiers.
As an artist, Gittoes feeds off the horrors of humanity from which most people prefer to avert their eyes – or which they simply cannot comprehend. “The world hasn’t been allowed to forget what happened to the Jews in Germany, so why should they be allowed to forget what happened to the Africans in Rwanda?” he asks.
David Hirsch, chair of the Sydney Peace Foundation said:
“He represents a very good side of Australians. Australians have become used to seeing themselves as insular and selfish. He is quite the opposite. Australians should see some of their better selves in a character like his. He is using art as a way of tapping into the universal creativity of people. We see his work in Afghanistan as an example of using the arts to enable people, to lift people up, to liberate them.”
Sadly, Gittoes’ resentment about us not forgetting the Holocaust mirrors much anti-Semitic propaganda! But for those who prefer facts over propaganda, a brief history.
Hebron was the first Jewish city in history, where the Jewish patriarchs lived and were buried. The Tomb of the Patriarchs was the first Jewish property purchased in the land of Israel. The building over the burial cave was constructed by the Jewish people during the Second Temple era, about 2,000 years ago. King David established his kingdom in Hebron almost 3,000 years ago until he transferred it to Jerusalem. Archaeological excavations uncovered the walls of the ancient city and artifacts from the First and Second Temple periods, and an ancient Jewish cemetery was discovered.
The old Jewish Quarter stands on land purchased by Jewish exiles from Spain in the sixteenth century, and its focal point was a Synagogue named for the Patriarch Abraham. The community flourished until the 1929 riots, when residents of the Jewish Quarter were tortured and murdered by their Arab “neighbours”, their homes looted and pillaged. After the Jordanian conquest 1948, the Arabs destroyed the Jewish Quarter and built a wholesale market, trash dump, animal pen and public toilet at the site. The liberation of Hebron in 1967 sparked efforts to restore the Jewish Quarter, leading to the rebuilding of the ancient synagogue, and in 1993, the buildings of the Arab wholesale market were restored to Jewish hands, and Jewish families returned.
It is tragic that the restored Jewish Quarter is constantly under attack from both Arabs and anti-Israel groups posing as human rights activists. It seems that Gittoes, despite his claimed commitment to non-violence and peacebuilding, doesn’t see Hamas and similar groups as a barrier to peace.