Waving their batons from the safe height of horses’ backs, hitting whatever arms, shoulders and backs they could reach, Israeli mounted police officers were breaking into a crowd of frustrated Palestinians demonstrating against the Jewish state’s takeover of Orient House in Jerusalem. Cameras swiveled left and right to catch the chaos, showing the humiliating pushing and shoving of unarmed civilians who were falling backward on barricades and being trampled on the ground. Familiar scenes in Israel, of course.
The full extent of people’s despair was most apparent when an elderly Palestinian gentleman turned to the cameras, speaking directly to them. As I watched him lecture us, shouting at the top of his shaking voice, “where are you, Arabs? How can you allow this?” I actually bowed my head in shame. His simple question was so pertinent, and yet it remains unanswered.
As the flag of Israel floated over our dignity, I thought in spite of myself that it was a blessing that the late Faisal Husseini was spared this sight and could not see his beloved Orient House soiled in this manner. We, however, witnessed that Israel prohibited a memorial for him taking place there last month, although it did not stop the crowds from pouring out their grief and taking over the streets of Jerusalem upon the sad news of his demise.
Month after month, Israelis move up the ante. What will they do next? When Faisal Husseini would join his people in the streets of Jerusalem, peacefully demonstrating for Palestinian rights, enduring his share of hitting and pushing, the world watched in silence. Without him, sadly, the world continues to watch in silence as the oppression goes on.
As the protesters persevere, so does the brutality of the Israeli security forces, and so does our silence, even though the physical and psychological cruelty imposed by Israel is increasing. Jerusalem’s police chief himself was only too happy to assist his officers in the repression of the protests, punching a Palestinian woman in the stomach in full view of television cameras. The humiliation becomes insufferable, and yet we still watch in silence.
Never mind that interim peace agreements vow for the legitimacy of Orient House’s status as a Palestinian logistical base, at the very least, or as the headquarters of the Palestinian Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs at most. We are all accustomed to Israel’s flouting of equally or far more serious international laws and resolutions.
The question is: What is being done about this offense? Who is going to ensure that Israel is contained? And indeed, where are the Arabs?
The Western media, as usual, is covering events in Palestine with obsessive care, which only slightly makes amends for its shaky exactitude. And as usual, it selects an eccentric assortment of terms when reporting the Middle East. Reactions to the invasion of Orient House have fared the same treatment. Judging by the titles of news briefs, articles and commentaries sprouting over the internet and emanating from the most respectful to the least reputable media, reactions to Israel’s appropriation of Orient House have been harsh. Apparently, the United States and Europe have “slammed” Israel for this action. Slammed? Not according to my dictionary.
The US State Department and envoy David Satterfield, considered Israel’s move to be “a serious political escalation.” As far as slamming goes, one could argue this was a tad tame. Other so-called Western condemnations displayed a selection of synonyms for the word “provocative;” for instance, one could read “complicates the situation,” or “is a violation of earlier peace accords,” depending on the Western government in question. Not quite the slamming that could make Israel reconsider its position.
George Bush spoke from his Texas ranch to ABC News on Friday, saying that “Arafat can do a better job. I am deeply concerned that some of the more radical groups are beginning to affect his ability and obviously are provocative as heck towards the Israelis.” The heck they are.
Diane Feinstein, active pro-Israeli senator from California, was somewhat more eloquent in her “slamming,” completely ignoring Orient House, and claiming that “America’s staunchest ally in the Middle East is under daily attack from Palestinians.” In a letter to her Senate colleagues, co-signed by Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, Democrat Feinstein argues that the Palestinians are the ones who have caused suffering on both sides, and that Congress should invoke sanctions against the PLO and cut aid to the West Bank and Gaza. I cannot help but wonder: what aid? Will the senator request that Palestinians receive less stones?
If one puts aside the obvious glee shown by Israeli government officialsï¿½ numerous statements by Western commentators and by miscellaneous anti-Palestinian parties, reactions to the Orient House seizure have been very lame. Responses are indeed coming, but not quite the reactions one would have hoped for.
Arab reactions to the events of the past few days have been equally bland. Anyone reading official Arab reactions to the Orient House appropriation would think these were actually the careful, weighed reactions of European leaders. Not only is their mildness puzzling, but one feels the sentences have been cut in the middle.
It seems that Arab states have long forgotten that as members of the Arab League, they have a duty to support any fellow member who comes under attack. All too willing to adhere to the West’s diktat when the victim in question was Kuwait, they have been strangely docile and soft-spoken when it comes to territorial issues in Palestine.
Normally verbosity-prone Arab leaders have been subdued, leaving the job of lining up the usual rhetorical repetitions about the situation to their national newspapers. Even more outspoken personalities seemed oddly conservative all of a sudden. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Maher borrowed the term “provocative” to condemn the seizure of Orient House. As for King Abdullah of Jordan, he deemed the action a “flagrant aggression on Palestinian rights and the Arab identity of Jerusalem,” but he was speaking to Arafat by phone.
One cannot help but wonder what the late Gamal Abdel Nasser would have said or done upon hearing of this disgraceful turn of events. The passion of the Arab masses for Jerusalem must be re-awakened, but can only Nasser bring it back to life?
Surely one would expect, or even demand, that Arab leaders come up with stronger reactions than mere insipid words like “loathsome,” “deep concern” or “provocative,” especially when the issue at hand is that of the seizure of the only official Palestinian building in Jerusalem. Surely one would expect the Arab streets to roar with anger when Palestine’s only flag in Jerusalem has been taken down. No Palestinian or Arab symbol of any kind remains in the Holy City. Jerusalem is now completely covered with the Star of David.
If ever a political action has required a proportionate reaction, then the appropriation by Israel of Orient House was it. If ever a political action has justified the closure of Israeli offices in Arab countries, the expulsion of Israeli diplomats, and the breaking of any sort of ties, this was it. Defending the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem is our duty. If ever real action was required by Arabs, it is now.
Some sounds can be more deafening than the noise of missiles fired from F-16s, and the noise of bombs set off in crowded public places. For the moment, it is the sound of the Arabs’ silence that is most deafening.
* Rime Allaf wrote this commentary in Damascus for The Daily Star