The horrific strike against the US with a massive human life toll compels the mind to wonder how and why. As for how such operation was so successful is beyond my inquiry here. I will only try to dwell on the ‘why’ part.
My answers are based on my own observation as a psychiatrist living and practicing in Gaza, a place I call home, which came to be known for decades as a focal point in the Palestinian scene, and the violent confrontation with Israel. Strangely as it may sound Gaza is the safest place for me, may be because it is my home. Bob Simon of ‘sixty minutes’ asked me once why Gaza is safe, I replied by asking if New York was safer. Only last week Bob reminded me with the brutal irony.
But Gaza, for readers of the Middle East politics became notorious in the recent years for producing many suicide bombers.
Few years ago I once said in an interview, that not only I felt that the struggle of many Palestinians was how not to become a bomb and that the amazing thing was not the occurrence of the suicide bombing, rather the rarity of them.
The BBC interviewer appeared to understand. I was shocked because it is our understanding that the world out there will never understand. And who on earth in their right mind would understand terror and the killing of innocent people? Why do Arabs kill themselves and Israelis in such a horrific way at the bus stop or in a crowded market in Tel Aviv and elsewhere?
To answer the question we must consider the social and cultural environment of Arabs and Palestinians. I believe that one of the essential elements to understand is the tribal mentality which urges individuals to avenge defeat to the bitter end even across generations. Arabs will continue to fight forever if needed as long as their dignity was injured. People are expected and are obliged to join the struggle according to the Arab tribal code. They will only stop if the aggressor will publicly acknowledge his guilt and assumes responsibility for his aggression. Arabs will then enter the honourable Solha or peace. But only then.
This code of behaviour preceded Islam and continues to be an essential expression of the identity of being an Arab.
The act of ‘normal’ suicide among Arabs is extremely rare and shameful as it is perceived to be a form of defiance against God. But to be a martyr is highly glorified and places one on the highest level of respect, almost that of prophets. This is where the influence of the Islam is most felt through the powerful message of the Koran. Islam thus provides the vehicle for the committed to act in the deep belief that sacrificing one’s self is the ultimate test of faith. More significantly Islamic teaching is clear on martyrdom; that a martyr does not die, and surely continues to live in the care of God. Moslems take that promise to heart, and literally hold to it.
Politically, suicide bombing is an act of absolute despair and a very serious stage in the perception of the Arab Israeli seemingly perpetual conflict. Citizens of any given country will join the army to defend their country. This is not so in the case of Palestinians who never possessed an army. They would have to join clandestine groups. Arabs also feel the despair because their regimes are not able or willing to win a fight with the formidable Israel which is unconditionally supported by the US.
The road of Arabs and Palestinians to despair and to suicide killing is long.
It started with the uprooting of the Palestinians in 1948 triggered by Irgun Jewish terror under the leadership of Yitzak Shamir and Menachem Begin. Since that year of the catastrophe we have tried every thing. We have tried Nasser and Arab Nationalism, only to be invaded in 1956 in our second homes in the refugee camps. It was only because of the Russian threat to bomb London and Paris, and the resolve of American president Eisenhower that ended the Israeli occupation.
We have tried the United Nations and its Security Council, which by the way have made excellent resolutions on our behalf even though America has vetoed so many. For example Resolution 194 which called on Israel to allow us to return to our homeland was a victory for justice, but as other resolutions, it was to no avail. So we kept wandering around, between airports and refugee camps, waiting for a hero or an earthquake. All we wanted was to go home. But our story was getting worse and we grew bitter as we heard that a Jew from Poland would be declared a citizen of our country – now named Israel. We were told that officially we were stateless with undefined nationality. So we went to universities. We believed then that Jews were so clever because they were educated. We were told that Jews controlled the world with their education. They are doctors, lawyers and scientists, never beggars. In twenty years many of us became university graduates and we were in every university. We had some pride. Some of our educated people formed the resistance movement. They believed that the Arab countries would never fight Israel, and that we had to force them to fight. Fatah with Yasser Arafat was born. They forced the Arabs to fight by inviting Israel to attack Egypt in 1967. In the course of six days the Arabs were defeated again but worse. This time we lost Gaza and the West Bank, Egypt lost Sinai, and Syria lost the Golan. In a sudden stroke our fate was sealed and we had to live under Israeli military occupation for thirty four years.
Do you know what it means to live under Israeli military occupation? Do you really care to know? Let me tell you a few things.
You are given an identity number and a permit to reside. If you leave the country for more that three years in succession, you lose that right to residence. Remember that this is your birth place and is home.
When you leave the country on a trip, you are given a laissez passez, a travelling document, valid for one year and it tells you in its recording of your particulars that you are of undefined nationality. I always found it embarrassing to fill landing cards.
Israeli occupation means that you are called twice a year by the intelligence for routine interrogation and persuasion to work as an informer on your brothers and sisters. No one is spared. My father was asked to ‘volunteer’ when he was 70. I was fired from work in the children ward in 1971 because I refused to ‘cooperate’. If you are to be a member of a political organisation you will be sentenced for ten years. For a military action you will be sentenced to life. In both cases you will be tortured. Israel is the only country were torture was legal, until it was considered illegal two years ago.
To survive under the Israeli occupation you are given the chance to work in the jobs that Israelis do not like, sweeping the streets, building houses, collecting fruit or harvesting. You will have to leave your home in the refugee camp in Gaza at 3 am, go through the road blocks and check posts, spend your day under the sun and surveillance returning home in the evening to collapse in bed for a few hours before the following day.
We simply became the slaves of our enemy. We are building their homes on our villages, and we clean their streets. Do you know what it does to you when you have to be the slave of your enemy in order to survive? No you will ever know how painful it is unless your country is occupied by another force. Only then will you learn how to watch in silence pretending not to see the torture of your friends and the humiliation of your father. Do you know what it means for a child to see his father spat at and beaten before his eyes by an Israeli soldier? Nobody knows what happened to our children. We don’t know ourselves except we observe that they lose respect for their fathers and identify with the new symbol of power, an Israeli soldier with his gun. So they, our children, the children of the stone as they became known, tried the Intifada – the Uprising. Seven long years our children were throwing stones and being killed daily. Nearly all our young men were arrested, the majority were tortured. All had to confess. The result was every one suspected that all people were spies. So, we were exhausted, tormented and brutalised. Some believe that we became the mirror image of the victimised Jews.
What else could we do to return to our home? We had almost forgotten that and all what we wanted was to be left alone. What else could we try? Oh yes, peace. When the news came that Arafat had signed a peace treaty in Washington we were jubilant. At last we thought we were to get rid of that miserable life of military occupation, at last. So we had hope. At last we would be free.
We could not believe our eyes when there were no more curfews and we could actually spend our evening on the beach or wander in streets which were now ours after eight o’clock at night for the first time in thirty years. We were ecstatic. We even had elections and we had a parliament, so we were told.
Suddenly Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by a Jewish extremist. Our hopes were given a blow. Also the hopes of the Israelis who started to open their eyes and hearts, those who accepted us as equal human beings.
Enter Binyamin Netanyahu. The new Israeli prime minister refused to meet Arafat and was clearly forced to shake hands in obvious disgust. He refused to free our prisoners, to have a safe passage for us to move between the West bank and Gaza. He even surrounded our towns and villages with his tanks and arrested our policemen. Then he went after our holy places and opened a tunnel under our holiest Mosque.
Tens of our children and also Israeli soldiers were killed because of that tunnel, but he went on insulting us and driving out our sanity. Arafat called for patience and we were patient, then Netanyahu started to build settlements in Jerusalem and drive the remaining Palestinians out. Settlers in Hebron spat on our prophet and called him a pig.
All in the name of peace we were humiliated, arrested and tortured by Palestinian forces to protect the peace. Our Authority was trying to please Netanyahu. Our officials were driving in big cars and buying big villas. They have VIP cards and cross the check posts like human beings while we are left to rot.
Enter Ehud Barak, another general, but claimed that he would follow the footsteps of Rabin. He did not, and we were blamed. He offered to return 86% of the West bank which is 22% of Palestine. He offered to allow fifteen thousands refugees to return, out of the two millions, and refused to acknowledge responsibility or guilt. His generous ‘offer’ included to keep our holy places under Israel sovereignty.
Then enter Sharon. Oh yes, the same Sharon who was found by an Israeli commission, responsible for the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila during his invasion of Lebanon. Sharon election campaign started with a big bang. He forced himself into our holy mosque in Jerusalem. He wanted to tell us who the masters in this land are. He knew that we would be humiliated and angry. He knew we would throw stones. He knew his troops would kill some of us. He knew that Arafat would have no other choice but to fight. He knew that our bullets would radicalise Israel in fear. Palestinians, exhausted and emotionally traumatised, just obliged and turned their popular uprising into a deadly confrontation. Sharon, who was forced by popular demonstrations in Tel Aviv to resign because of the massacre of Sabra, won with a landslide to become the Prime minister. He promised peace and security. He even announced that he would be ready for painful concessions to the Palestinians; and he painfully described that. It was not to enter Palestinian towns!
All what Sharon wants is not to set on the table, because if he does then his Zionist project of building a Jewish state on all Palestine would be in danger. His strategy is simple; provoke us to be violent, and show to the world how Palestinians are evil as they refuse to give Israel the peace she deserves.
As our tragedy was unfolding over the last 53 years, American political leadership was determined to support Israel no matter what. President Eisenhower was the only exception. America supported Israel in wars of 1948, 1967, 1973, the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and throughout the 34 years of its brutal occupation of the West bank, Gaza and the Golan heights.
We are simply baffled. When Israel occupies our land, America asks us to negotiate! But when Iraq occupied Kuwait, America invaded Iraq. America urges every country in the world to sign a treaty of none proliferation of nuclear arms, except Israel. Israel never signed and possesses a nuclear arsenal. America gives billions of dollars to Israel and many F16, while starving Iraqi children.
As in the question of the protection of the environment from pollution, America defies the whole world every time there is a vote condemning Israel for some atrocities. American logic is that it is not good enough to blame Israel when the Palestinians are the party that really should be blamed.
I think I know why America stands firm behind Israel. It has nothing to do with the interest of ordinary man and women, because the average American does not bother to know. It has nothing to do with business because America pays billions of tax payer’s dollars to Israel. It has nothing to do with the oil because Arab regimes are merely humble servants to America. It has nothing to do with fighting communism because the Soviet Union has vanished. I also don’t believe of the theory of Islam being the new enemy because it is not.
It has only to do with the elections. American politicians sole desire is to be voted into the Congress, the Senate, or the Presidency. That aim is significantly influenced by the Jewish vote, the Zionist lobby and its money. Harry Truman summed it in 1948 presidential election. When he was asked about the logic of not supporting the just right of the Arabs in Palestine, he replied by asking sarcastically ‘How many Arab voters are in my constituency’.
And so Israel continues to confiscate more Palestinian land, while America pays for building Jewish settlements, and Arabs are humiliated to be the cheap builders. Do you still wonder if an Arabs has become a terrorist?
The madness is like a plague. It is not confined to Arabs desire for revenge, or to the Zionist dream of a pure Jewish home. It has now engulfed America with its supra natural array of bombs, and a Texan ride to glory.
(Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj is Human rights activist & Chairman of the board of Gaza Community Mental Health Program.)