Opinion: Politics Aside, Why Adam Ondra's Israel Trip Matters

Opinion: Politics Aside, Why Adam Ondra's Israel Trip Matters
 Adam Ondra on 'Climb Free' Photo: Adam Ondra Instagram

Adam Ondra on 'Climb Free' Photo: Adam Ondra Instagram

Adam Ondra recently made a visit to Israel to experience and promote its climbing, supported by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism. He climbed at numerous crags and interacted with the Israeli climbing community, but chose not to engage with the political complexities of the region. On a trip where at least one climbing area he visited is situated in the occupied West Bank, the question must be asked: Is it possible to leave politics aside when undertaking a trip like this?

Since the United States’ decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has reignited global interest in the Palestine-Israel conflict and occupation, we argue that no action can take place outside of a political context.

Ein Prat, for example, a crag which Adam climbed at and publicized, is in a section of the West Bank which has been militarily occupied by Israel since the 1967, in an area known as Area C. Access to the cliff involves initially crossing an armed checkpoint to enter the West Bank, then crossing another to access Anatot/Alamon (an Israeli settlement considered illegal under international law) and another to access the National Park and crags within. Is it possible to partake in a promotional tour of Israel’s climbing areas, some of which are deemed to be on illegally occupied territory, funded by the Israel Ministry of Tourism, and request that this be seen as an act of no political significance?  

The occupation of Palestine has a long history which stretches back far beyond the foundation of the state of Israel and is directly related to Western imperialism. Palestine was granted to the British Empire after the signing of the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916. The declaration of the State of Israel on May 14 1948 came after approximately half a century of Zionist activity in Palestine. This half century of in-migration took place in a historical context in which nationalism was an ascendant ideology, and antisemitism was rife. This culminated in the holocaust; a genocide in which 6 million European Jews were murdered, and one the darkest moments in human history. The founding of the Israeli state created a homeland for Jewish people, and one that its founders stated would guarantee equal political and civil rights to all citizens. However, the reality of the founding of the state is considerably more complex and violent.

Independence Day for Israelis is what is known as the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe) for Palestinians. It refers to the fact that 700,000 Palestinians were forced to flee their homes during the Arab-Israeli war which followed the declaration of the state of Israel. It was seen as an act of ethnic cleansing that is still very present in the collective consciousness of Palestinians today. The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 resulted in 15,000 casualties, and led to a further complex division of Palestine; with Israel taking control of more of historic Palestine and Jordan annexing the West Bank. During this period Gaza was annexed by Egypt.

In 1964, Palestinian exiles, with support of the Arab League of Nations, founded the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, with the stated goal of creating a Palestinian nation through armed struggle. The group initially gained little footing, and failed to make an impact in the 1967 6-Day War, during which Israel took full control of the West Bank and Gaza.

While the Nakba and the 6 Day War may have shaped the territory for Israel, it was the first Intifada which shaped the terrain for Palestinians from 1987 onwards. Intifada is an Arabic noun which means shudder and it is synonymous with resistance and uprising in Arabic culture. The first Palestinian Intifada began in December 1987 and drew to a close in 1993, with the signing of the controversial Oslo Accords. The Intifada was characterized by resistance and civil disobedience and participation among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza was widespread. While stone throwing and Molotov cocktail use against combative Israeli Defence Forces was commonplace, the Intifada relied mostly on non-violent resistance. Attacks carried out by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other smaller armed factions were the exception to this. The Intifada led to the deaths of 277 Israelis and approximately 2000 Palestinians by the time the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993.

The Intifada was a departure from previous Palestinian resistance to occupation, as its demand was that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza be brought to an end. This was seen as less ambitious as the call for an end to the occupation of all of occupied Palestine, and allowed for negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis to conclude with a vision of two states for two peoples.

This vision was not and has not been realized, and during the 1990s and 2000s settlement expansion continued in the West Bank, where between 1967 and 2016 over 200 settlements were established. The term settlement refers to portions of Palestinian land which are populated by Israeli civilians (of Jewish ethnicity). The first settlements in the West Bank were initially military outposts, which then became civilianized over time. More recent establishment of settlements has used similar tactics, with settlers often enjoying the support of the Israeli Defence Forces, or employing militarized private security forces to support their efforts to settle. The Israeli Ministry of the Interior recognizes 127 of these settlements, but supports a further 100 “illegal outposts” militarily. Over 600,000 Israeli citizens live in settlements within the occupied West Bank. While they are the most material example of land dispossession, their influence extends far outside their fences, as their presence leads to more IDF roadblocks in their vicinity, and the exclusion of Palestinians from nearby land due to stated “security concerns”.

 The separation wall: Photo Richard Duggan

The separation wall: Photo Richard Duggan

The separation wall is perhaps the second most significant and certainly the most visible manifestation of the occupation of the West Bank. It was constructed during the second Intifada (2000-2005), which was much more violent than the first—with a higher death toll on both sides. The separation wall was presented by Israel as a security measure, but its presence cut off Palestinian East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, and in several other cases divided families whose homes happened to be on either side of the wall. It remains a marked symbol of occupation and conflict in the region today.

The period from 2005 to the present day has seen an Israeli state increasingly sympathetic to far right ideals that support settlers and furthering the occupation. On the Palestinian side, the Palestinian Authority continues to have limited control over the West Bank, but the Authority has been plagued by corruption scandals and has lost the support of much of Palestinian society. The West Bank is still under occupation. This creates an incredibly divided and geographically complex landscape in a region which was supposed to be a Palestinian state. Roadblocks, travel restrictions, water shortages and violence from settlers and the Israeli Defence Forces are facts of life for the majority of ordinary Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

The defining mode of resistance against the occupation over the past decade has been the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement. This was called for by a large number of Palestinian Unions, popular resistance committees, political parties, women’s movements and refugee networks. BDS calls for: Boycotts, in the form of withdrawal of support for companies that are complicit in the violation of Palestinian human rights, and withdrawal of companies and individuals from Israeli cultural, academic and sporting institutions. Divestment, in the form of banks, churches, educational institutions and others withdrawing investment from Israeli institutions complicit in the violation of Palestinian human rights.

Sanctions, in the form of pressuring governments to end the arms trade with Israel, to compromise free trade deals with Israel and to take other measures to hold the nation to account for its treatment of Palestinians.

The movement enjoys widespread support and continues to grow globally. While many on both the Palestinian and Israeli side of the conflict have criticised BDS for a variety of reasons, it remains one of the most popular and effective forms of non-violent resistance against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Its success has made it a controversial topic, with criticisms of the movement ranging from claims that it is anti-semitic, to claims that as a movement it will isolate progressive elements within Israeli society, which will only intensify the conflict.

Whether or not BDS is viewed as a viable means of resistance against the injustices Palestinians face every day, Adam Ondra’s recent Israeli Ministry of Sport-sponsored visit to Israel and occupied Palestine has thrown the occupation, the conflict and the BDS movement into the spotlight for many climbers who follow him on social media.

Palestinians in the occupied West Bank face much greater difficulties than simply being inconvenienced in accessing climbing areas—as described by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs:

“Over 60 per cent of the West Bank is considered Area C, where Israel retains near exclusive control, including over law enforcement, planning and construction. Most of Area C has been allocated for the benefit of Israeli settlements or the Israeli military, at the expense of Palestinian communities. This impedes the development of adequate housing, infrastructure and livelihoods in Palestinian communities, and has significant consequences for the entire West Bank population. Structures built without permits are regularly served with demolition orders, creating chronic uncertainty and threat, and encouraging people to leave. Where the orders are implemented, they have resulted in displacement and disruption of livelihoods, the entrenchment of poverty and increased aid dependency. The humanitarian community has faced a range of difficulties in providing aid in Area C, including the demolition and confiscation of assistance by the Israeli authorities.”

Are we to only empathize with the difficulties Israelis face in approaching and developing cliffs, while erasing the wider context of these areas? What Adam has taken part in, knowingly or not, is a form of highly selective PR, with the underlying intention being to not simply showcase the climbing on offer in Israel, or to “show Israel’s prettier face” but to consciously undermine the perception of the complex reality of the region. Choosing to omit this truth is an act of erasure.

Adam posted on December 4th: “Israeli trip was a blast! Besides sightseeing and tasting one of the best food I have ever had, we climbed a lot in Israeli's hardest crag Nezer Cave. This cave is normally closed for climbing between November and March, for no obvious reason. We were lucky enough to get special permit for our trip thanks to @oferblutrich. This picture is Israeli’s first 9a called Climb Free that I made the first ascent of. Israeli climbing is very small and it is facing very little comprehension from the rangers of natural reserves and local authorities. Hopefully, this trip will contribute to cooperation and opening more crags from the untapped potential this country has to offer. So it will be possible to “climb free” in Israel.”

To name his historic first ascent Climb Free and solely reference a desire for improved access to crags in Israel due to uncooperative local authorities is beyond tone-deaf. To first mention the word “Palestine” after a series of social media posts, only upon receiving criticism, is also surely revealing:

December 5th: “I've had a few comments in my instagram post about naming the Israeli's first 9a Climb Free, as it could be even considered inappropriate and provocative in a country like Israel and its clashes and tension with Palestine. I don't make any standpoint by this name in the question of Israel/Palestine.

I mean, I actually wanted to put the politics aside and emphasize that climbing should be free for everyone and it does not really depend on country, religion, sex or race. Situation in the Middle East is extremely complicated and hard to understand from the european point of view. Freedom is something which will always be limited there. Climbing is a good way out I think.”

It seems that upon receiving some disapproving comments, the intended message of this achievement expanded to incorporate a broader, perhaps more nebulous notion of climbing as an emancipatory activity for all without regard to country, religion, sex or race.

This pronouncement rings hollow having helped paint a highly selective, one-sided portrayal of the region. It is no accident that his decision to avoid referencing the region’s political complexity has the effect of normalizing and tacitly reinforcing Israel’s desired self-image.

It is not enough to say “Adam simply wanted to experience the climbing on offer in Israel”; his is a position of unique privilege, his incredible achievements have elevated his stature to that of something of an ambassador for our sport. It is because his voice holds heft that a trip like this is organized. His presence can shine a spotlight on areas otherwise unknown to many—and so should we not ask that he wield that voice responsibly?

The BDS movement represents a demand that we do not contribute to a whitewashing of Israel's continued illegal occupation, expanding settlements and its denial of Palestinian rights. Visitors with cultural influence are repeatedly asked to respect this and to bear witness to the suffering of the oppressed. It requests that we use what influence is available to us to add cumulative pressure to Israel to conform to international law.

Is it a form of "silencing" to criticize sporting ambassadors who choose to ignore the demands of the BDS movement? Prominent, respected sporting ambassadors such as Adam are of course within their rights to partake in PR visits like this. However, the myth that this kind of Israeli government-backed trip can be undertaken as an apolitical or somehow neutral act must be dispelled. The effect of these visits is that drip-by-drip they accrue and add legitimacy to a portrayal of Israel as a holiday destination like any other, while simultaneously removing the voices of the oppressed from the dialogue.

Why should Ondra have to partake? It’s OK not to respect the boycott and promote cultural exchange, but this trip appears to have been an Israeli government-funded PR stunt which denies the humanity and dignity of Palestinians and Israelis who have suffered. If it is to be a cultural exchange or an attempt to promote climbing as a sport seeking to undo discrimination, as a vehicle for self expression and freedom for all, then a tour of the region would need to have a totally different structure and message and that is what we should demand in future. How meaningful could it have been for Adam to spend time with the Palestinian climbing community and amplify their voices; to share with us their lived experience?

Why boycott Israel and not another state? Boycotts, divestment and sanctions have been requested as a means of non-violent resistance and solidarity by a large swath of the Palestinian community with a broad support base; and so to ignore these calls is not neutral. Call it a choice, a statement in and of itself, a decision to abandon responsibility for those who hold influence. Many who choose to engage in boycott tactics have previously been involved in movements and organisations that called for boycotts or sanctions against other states who were responsible for crimes against other oppressed groups of people. Here in Ireland, the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign was started in 2001 by individuals who had spent much of the previous decade calling for sanctions against Indonesia due to the ethnic cleansing and genocide that took place in East Timor.

In South Africa’s apartheid era, sporting boycotts mounted huge pressure on South Africa to stop racially segregating sports teams and end apartheid. The UN maintained a Register of Sports Contacts with South Africa in order to add a moral imperative against participation in South African sporting events. Colin Kaepernick’s protests have brought worldwide attention to against police brutality and racial injustice in America. We cannot ignore the potential influence sporting personalities can have in raising awareness in their communities and beyond.

This abdication of responsibility warrants criticism and represents an opportunity for introspection for the climbing community about our collective influence and in whose service it is leveraged.

Adam Ondra: “Freedom is something which will always be limited there. Climbing is a good way out I think.”

Whose freedom will always be limited? Climbing is good way out for whom? We must ask in whose name this kind of trip is, whose voices it elevates, and in contemplating its impact, acknowledge that seeking to leave politics to one side might be one of the most political statements we can choose to make.

John Howard and Richard Duggan are humans, climbers, migrant solidarity activists and enthusiastic leftists living in Dublin