There was a period of time, albeit a short one, when the Palestinians had set themselves the goal of creating a secular democratic state, for both Palestinians and Jews, in all of Palestine. This strategic goal was to be accomplished through (and this may sound jarring to post-Ronald Reagan ears) a “protracted people’s war” — the Vietnamese, after all, were in the process of winning just such a war. It was a consensual strategy upheld (at least nominally) by every Palestinian organization, from Arafat’s Fatah to Al-Hakim’s PFLP. Israel had yet to give a helping nudge to the creation of its eventual nemesis, Hamas.
Why, with the missiles flying, human- and car-bombs exploding, and the Egyptian-Jordanian/Saeb Erikat initiative floating, unearth such an historical curiosity from the obscurity to which it has been consigned for over a quarter of a century? Simply because memory is important. Perpetual amnesiacs, who seem to begin each day with a clean mental slate, are as constitutionally incapable of formulating a strategy as they are of passing a first grade exam. The fact that Arab and Palestinian “elites” seem to suffer from this strange malaise is, however, a product of social rather than physiological determinants. It’s an affliction of the heart, not the mind.
“Sixty-two Israelis dead and wounded in Palestinian suicide attack,” shouts the banner headline of the opposition Al-Wafd newspaper. In the “independent” Al-Osbou’, the editor dedicates his front-page editorial (this, a telling peculiarity of the Egyptian press) to a cloying elegy of the heroic suicide bomber. The suicide bombing in Kfar Sava, a Tel Aviv suburb, in fact killed one Israeli, a 54-year old doctor. All but two of the 61 wounded were released the same day after treatment. A 14-year old boy was reported to be in critical but stable condition, and a lightly wounded pregnant woman was being held in hospital for observation. This is not armed struggle, let alone a “protracted people’s war”. It is sordid, pathetic, aimless. It is tragically wasteful, and the waste is counted in human lives.
And there is no heroism in it, though a suicide bombing by a Palestinian, young or old, may make perfect sense, may be perfectly understood as a response to the half century of unbearable oppression and humiliation to which the Palestinians have been subjected for over 50 years. Such is the warped reality that has come to govern people’s lives.
I am a peasant whose life has been spent tending the family’s olive grove. It’s a hard life, and it may not provide a prosperous existence, but it is feeding many mouths, it’s providing my loved ones with a home and, no less important, a sense of self-respect. And then an Israeli settlement springs up almost overnight on a hilltop overlooking my land. The well, which for generations has provided water for my olive trees, is confiscated by the Israeli army; the water is to be used for the swimming pools and lawn sprinklers of the few dozen gun-toting, trigger-happy settlers who have recently “returned” from somewhere in America. My olive trees die of thirst while, I’m told, the Israeli prime minister gives interviews in which he elaborates on the wonders of the olive tree. Then one day the bulldozers come. The grim faced soldiers are unmoved by our appeals and beseeching. The settlement needs a by-road and my life and that of my family is shattered forever.
What happens to me in the afterlife is the least of my worries. I want retribution in this one.
I am the father of a six-year old girl and one night she begins to complain of stomach pains. The pain gets worse. It’s an obvious case of appendicitis. She must be taken to hospital immediately, but there is a blockade on. We rush from one Israeli army check-point to another. The cries of my child make not the least impression on the soldiers. Neither do my tears, my beseeching, my begging for my daughter’s life. She dies in horrible agony. Whether it’s heaven, hell or nothing at all that waits for me in “the after life”, someone, anyone must pay in this one.
Just two stories among thousands. They go on and on and on. And no one seems to care. I need only imagine myself a Palestinian living under Israeli occupation and becoming a suicide bomber becomes the most natural thing in the world.
It is not, however, heroic. It is not heroic to risk your life when you seek death, but only when you love life.
And against all odds, the Palestinians continue to fight for life. Hamas may boast one hundred suicide bombers; there are millions of Palestinians. And their very will to struggle for liberation, and to live in order to bring it about is the truly heroic aspect of the Palestinian people’s condition.
I may fully understand, even sympathize with the suicide bomber; I have nothing but scorn and contempt for the “leaders” who build their political influence on the desperation and hopelessness of their supporters. As for the Cairo editors who seem to wallow in the blood of Palestinian martyrs, they are merely ridiculous.
Transforming liberation fighters into walking bombs is wasteful and sordid. Killing and injuring civilians is immoral. The massive imbalance in the ability to exact violence makes a mockery of the so-called “armed operations”. A struggle for liberation, not mere futile, desperate and aimless retribution, is a conscious act of will — a plan, a function of experience and learning, of the ability to critically assess the history of the struggle as it happens. These are the tasks of people who would be political leaders, intellectuals and writers. Amnesiac windbags are no help at all.
Mr. Hani Shukrallah is Managing Editor of Al-Ahram Weekly.