The screw turns, again

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History has no mercy. There are no laws in it against suffering and cruelty, no internal balance that restores a people much sinned against to their rightful place in the world. Cyclical views of history have always seemed to me flawed for that reason, as if the turning of the screw means that present evil can later be transformed into good. Nonsense. Turning the screw of suffering means more suffering, and not a path to salvation. The most frustrating thing about history, however, is that so much in it escapes language, escapes attention and memory altogether. Historians have therefore resorted to metaphors and poetic figures to fill in the spaces, and this is why the first great historian, Herodotus, was also known as the Father of Lies: so much in what he wrote embellished and, to a great extent also, concealed the truth that it is the powers of his imagination that make him so great a writer, not the vast number of facts he deployed.

Living in the United States at this moment is a terrible experience. While the main media and the government echo each other about the Middle East, there are alternative views available through the Internet, the telephone, satellite channels, and the local Arabic and Jewish press. Nevertheless, so far as what is readily available to the average American is drowned in a storm of media pictures and stories almost completely cleansed of anything in foreign affairs but the patriotic line issued by the government, the picture is a startling one. America is fighting the evils of terrorism. America is good, and anyone who objects is evil and anti-American. Resistance against America, its policies, its arms and ideas is little short of terrorist. What I find just as startling is that influential and, in their own way, sophisticated American foreign policy analysts keep saying that they cannot understand why the whole world (and the Arabs and Muslims in particular) will not accept the American message, and why the rest of the world, including Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, persists in its criticism of American policies in Afghanistan, for renouncing six international treaties unilaterally, for its total, unconditional support of Israel, for its astonishingly obdurate policy on prisoners of war. The difference between realities as perceived by Americans on the one hand and by the rest of the world on the other, is so vast and irreconcilable as to defy description.

Words alone are inadequate to explain how an American secretary of state, who presumably has all the facts at his command, can without a trace of irony accuse Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for not doing enough against terror and for buying 50 tons of arms to defend his people, while Israel is supplied with everything that is most lethally sophisticated in the American arsenal at no expense to Israel. (At the same time, it needs to be said that PLO handling of the Karine A incident has been incompetent and bungling beyond even its own poor standards.) Meanwhile, Israel has Arafat locked up in his Ramallah headquarters, his people totally imprisoned, leaders assassinated, innocents starved, the sick dying, life completely paralysed — and yet the Palestinians are accused of terrorism. The idea, much less the reality, of a 35-year military occupation has simply slid away from the media and the US government alike. Do not be surprised tomorrow if Arafat and his people are accused of besieging Israel while blockading its citizens and towns. No, those are not Israeli planes bombing Tulkarm and Jenin, those are Palestinian terrorists wearing wings, and those are Israeli towns being bombed.

As for Israel in the US media, its spokesmen have become so practiced at lying, creating falsehoods the way a sausage-maker makes sausages, that nothing is beyond them. Yesterday, I heard an Israel Defence (even the name sticks in one’s throat) Ministry official answering an American reporter’s questions about house destruction in Rafah: those were empty houses, he said, without hesitation; they were terrorist nests used for killing Israeli citizens; we have to defend Israeli citizens against Palestinian terror. The journalist didn’t even refer to the occupation, or to the fact that the “citizens” were settlers. As for the several hundred poor homeless Palestinians whose pictures appeared fleetingly in the US media after the (American-made) bulldozers had done their demolition, they were gone from memory and awareness completely.

As for the Arab non-response, that has exceeded in disgrace and shamefulness the already abysmally low standards set by our governments for the past 50 years. Such a callous silence, such a stance of servility and incompetence in facing the US and Israel is as astonishing and unacceptable in their own way as what Sharon and Bush are about. Are the Arab leaders so fearful of offending the US that they are willing to accept not only Palestinian humiliation but their own as well? And for what? Simply to be allowed to go on with corruption, mediocrity, and oppression. What a cheap bargain they have made between the furtherance of their narrow interests and American forbearance! No wonder there is scarcely an Arab alive today for whom the word “regime” connotes more than amused contempt, unadulterated bitterness, and (except for the circle of advisers and sycophants) angry alienation. At least with the recent press conferences by high Saudi officials criticising US policy towards Israel there is a welcome break in the silence, although the disarray and dysfunction concerning the upcoming Arab summit continues to add to our already well-stocked cupboard of poorly-managed incidents that demonstrate needless disunity and posturing.

I do think that the adjective “wicked” is the correct one here for what is being done to the truth of the Palestinian experience of suffering imposed by Sharon on the West Bank and Gaza collectively. That it cannot adequately be described or narrated, that the Arabs say and do nothing in support of the struggle, that the US is so terrifyingly hostile, that the Europeans are (except for their recent declaration, which has no measures of implementation in it) so useless: all this has driven many of us to despair, I know, and to a kind of hopeless frustration that is one of the results aimed for by Israeli officials and their US counterparts. To reduce people to the heedlessness of not caring anymore, and to make life so miserable as to make it seem necessary to give up life itself, comprise a state of desperation that Sharon clearly wants. This is what he was elected to do and what, if his policies fail, will cause him to lose his office, whereupon Netanyahu will be brought in to try to finish the same dreadful and inhuman (but ultimately suicidal) task.

In the face of such a situation, passivity and helpless anger — even a kind of bitter fatalism — are, I truly believe, inappropriate intellectual and political responses. Examples to the contrary still abound. Palestinians have neither been intimidated nor persuaded to give up, and that is a sign of great will and purpose. From that point of view, all Israel’s collective measures and constant humiliation have proved ineffective; as one of their generals put it, stopping the resistance by besieging Palestinians is like trying to drink the sea with a spoon. It just doesn’t work. But having taken note of that, I also firmly believe that we have to go beyond stubborn resistance toward a creative one, beyond the tired old methods for defying the Israelis but not sufficiently advancing Palestinian interests in the process. Take decision-making as a simple case in point. It’s all very well for Arafat to sit out his own imprisonment in Ramallah and to repeat endlessly that he wants to negotiate, but it just is not a political programme, nor is its personal style sufficient to mobilise his people as well as his allies. Certainly it is good to take note of the European declaration in support of the PA, but surely it is more important to say something about the Israeli reservists who refused service on the West Bank and Gaza. Without identifying and trying to work in concert with Israeli resistance to Israeli oppression, we are still standing at square one.

The point of course is that every turning of the screw of cruel collective punishment dialectically creates a new space for new kinds of resistance, of which suicide bombing is simply not a part, any more than Arafat’s personal style of defiance (all too reminiscent of what he said 20 and 30 years ago in Amman and Beirut and Tunis) is new. It isn’t new and it isn’t up to what is now being done by opponents of Israel’s military occupation in both Palestine and Israel. Why not make a specific point of singling out Israeli groups who have opposed house demolitions, or apartheid, or assassinations, or any of the lawless displays of Israeli macho bullying? There is no way that the occupation is going to be defeated unless Palestinian and Israeli efforts work together to end the occupation, in specific and concrete ways. And that, therefore, means that Palestinian groups (with or without the PA’s guidance) have to take initiatives that they have been shy of taking (because of understandable fears of normalisation), initiatives that actively solicit and involve Israeli resistance as well as European, Arab and American resistance. In other words, with the disappearance of Oslo, Palestinian civil society has been released from that fraudulent peace process’s strictures, and this new empowerment means going beyond such traditional interlocutors as the now completely discredited Labour Party and its hangers-on, in the direction of more courageous, innovative anti-occupation drives. If the PA wants to keep calling on Israel to return to the negotiating table, that’s fine, of course, if any Israelis can be found to sit there with the PA. But that doesn’t mean that Palestinian NGOs have to repeat the same chorus, or that they have to keep worrying about normalisation, which was all about normalisation with the Israeli state, not progressive currents and groups in its civil society that actively support real Palestinian self-determination and the end of occupation, of settlements, of collective punishment.

Yes, the screw turns, but it not only brings more Israeli repression, it also dialectically reveals new opportunities for Palestinian ingenuity and creativity. There are already considerable signs of progress (noted in my last column) in Palestinian civil society: an intensified focus on them is required, especially as fissures in Israeli society disclose a frightened, closed-off and horrifyingly insecure populace badly in need of awakening. It always falls to the victim, not the oppressor, to show new paths for resistance, and the signs are that Palestinian civil society is beginning to take the initiative. This is an excellent omen in a time of despondency and instinctual retrogression.

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