At last, we have a profound and wide-ranging debate on the role of armed struggle in Palestinian resistance. Or do we?
A number of Palestinian intellectuals and activists, including Edward Said, Mustafa Barghouti and Saleh Abdel-Jawad, have been insistently, if none too obtrusively, placing this issue on the agenda of debate on the strategy and tactics of Palestinian resistance, generally, and the on-going Intifada in particular. It is not an easy debate to either urge or engage in. It is a debate under siege, literally and metaphorically.
The contrast between the scale, brutality and systematic nature of Israeli violence against Palestinians and Palestinian violence against Israelis is obvious. Yet it is consistently denied. Equally denied is the fact that the Palestinians are a people under military occupation by a foreign power, that they are disenfranchised, denied the most basic formal rights accorded to every other people in the world. (It is almost always forgotten that other oppressed ethnic or national groups seeking self-determination, whether in Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia or Turkey, possess — at least nominally — the same citizenship rights as the predominant national or ethnic group.) The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza do not vote in Israeli elections, yet it is the Israeli electorate that decides their fate, in the most brutal and contemptuous of ways. This simple, glaringly obvious fact spells nothing but colonial enslavement, but is continually kept out of sight.
It seems so simple: the Palestinians’ oppression is comparable to no other in the contemporary world; it compares only with South African Apartheid, the collapse of which was welcomed by the whole world over a decade ago. But it is not seen. Those who run the world’s politics, and even more significant, control its awareness, deem it so.
The heartlessness of it all boggles the mind. And it can be explained only by racism. Our suffering simply does not matter.
Debate over the means of Palestinian resistance must be engaged, nonetheless. Indeed, it is very attractive to say to hell with them all. They don’t care about our suffering, the murder and mutilation of our children leaves them cold, the denial of our most basic rights to move freely, to till our land, to keep our few possessions and to eke out a decent existence in peace makes no impression on them. Why then should we care for their cries of outrage and condemnation when we, in turn, do a bit of killing of our own? Why are their children so much more precious than ours? Why is their pain and suffering felt and ours scorned?
The point, however, is that we struggle to win, not to score or not score debating points. And even if the objective is to “force the world to see our suffering,” as has been the rationale behind the emotive, knee-jerk reaction since the days of Wadie Haddad’s plane hijacks in the late sixties, early seventies, it should have become obvious that it does not.
Armed struggle is a complex and loaded question. We are not living in a pacifist world. Morally, and in terms of international law, recourse to arms is sanctioned. The right of a people suffering from colonial oppression to take up arms in its struggle for independence is established by virtue of experience, morality and law. The concept of terrorism, on the other hand, is farcical, from a moral and legal point of view. Arbitrarily grounded in the foreign policy interests of the US, to pay any attention to it would be absurd. If terrorism is defined as armed attacks by non-state actors, then why were the Contras and the Mujahedeen freedom fighters, and the Lebanese and Palestinians, terrorists? If it is defined as armed attacks against non-combatants, then the US, Israel and most of the members of the European Union should top the list of terrorism-exporting states. Law, as any secondary school student knows, is supposed to be general and abstract. Morality is supposed to be moral.
Then there is the charged, symbolic significance of armed struggle in the history of Palestinian resistance. Last week, I referred to the strategy of “protracted people’s war” adopted by the Palestinian resistance in the wake of the June ’67 defeat. It may have achieved little towards its expressed goal of liberating Palestine and creating a democratic secular state for Palestinians and Jews, but there is no doubting that the armed Palestinian organisation in Jordan and later Lebanon played a decisive role in defining the Palestinians as a nation, not merely “Arab refugees.” The Klashnikov became a symbol of Palestinian struggle and nationhood.
We might look also at the conduct of armed struggle in the current Intifada. An erstwhile Palestinian freedom fighter-turned-policeman is supposed to stand idle while his unarmed people are being systematically butchered by the Israeli occupation army and rampaging settlers? He’s got a gun, he will fire it. It happened in the so-called mini-Intifada in ’96, and that was how it began this time around.
Ultimately, however, it is a question of strategy not justification. Do arms bring us closer to Palestinian emancipation, or on the contrary, make the road even more difficult?
I had hoped to see a debate on the role of armed struggle in the current Intifada and in the Palestinian liberation strategy. What we got was a debate on whether Islam sanctions suicide bombings or not. We remain in the realm of the absurd.
Mr. Hani Shukrallah is Managing Editor of Al-Ahram Weekly.