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An ominous air is overtaking the Middle East, now that Ariel Sharon has come to and gone from the United States. A striking resemblance to the period before Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon has undoubtedly occurred to anyone with a memory long enough to recall what happened then. The same war criminal, Sharon (who should […]

Israeli Occupation As Violence

by Edward Said

An ominous air is overtaking the Middle East, now that Ariel Sharon has come to and gone from the United States. A striking resemblance to the period before Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon has undoubtedly occurred to anyone with a memory long enough to recall what happened then. The same war criminal, Sharon (who should soon be sharing Milosevic’s fate in the Hague) came to see the then Secretary of State Alexander Haig and then went back with what he informed everyone was an American green light. Thereafter, his armies invaded Lebanon. And sure enough, he did the same thing this time with the inexperienced Colin Powell and the intellectually disadvantaged George Bush. Both those men have, in the space of less than a month, totally adopted the Israeli lie that the main problem is “the violence,” by which it is automatically assumed that violence is what Palestinians practice while restraint is Israel’s contribution. So all Sharon now has to do is to invade areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority and then claim that this is being done with restraint and US approval in order to safeguard Israeli security. Perhaps Colin Powell’s visit to Palestine and his suggestion that international monitors might supervise the truce will complicate matters slightly, but Sharon’s mindset doesn’t allow for more than invasion and destruction so far as Palestinians are concerned.

By now it has become clear that, because Western audiences are so poorly informed, Israeli public officials can say anything, including out-and-out lies. Last week a major television debate in the US between PA Minister Nabil Shaath and Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg confirmed this sad fact and demonstrated yet again that, for whatever reason, the Authority and its spokesmen seem unable to understand what is happening. Burg sat there and brazenly manufactured one falsehood after another — that as a democrat and a peace lover he was concerned there was no real Palestinian peace camp; that Israel is trying ever so hard to remain calm while Palestinian terrorists (encouraged by the Authority) threatened his daughter, no less, with brutal killing; that Israel has always wanted peace; that Arafat controls everything; that Shaath and he (Burg) are exactly the same except that he, Burg, is able to influence Sharon in restraint but Shaath cannot influence Arafat; and on and on. All of it making the point, in the style of classical propaganda (to repeat a lie often enough is to believe it), that Israel is victimised by Palestinians, that it wants peace, and that it is waiting for Palestinians to catch up with its magnanimity and restraint.

To this farrago of confections Shaath seemed to have no answer, except to say plaintively that Palestinians also want peace; that they want the Mitchell plan (as if that rubbishy piece of AIPAC-constructed nonsense had already become scripture: have Palestinian leaders like Abed Rabbo, Shaath, Erekat and the others forgotten that as senators, Mitchell and Warren Rudman, who were almost half the committee that produced the stupid report, were among the highest paid members of the Israeli lobby? Obviously yes); that they are trying to be restrained; that they long for the return of Oslo; and on and on. Rarely have I seen such a concentration of Israeli mendacity received with such cringing servility by Palestinians, and all this while millions of Palestinians are suffering the worst possible collective punishment.

When people like Shaath get a precious opportunity to deal with a criminal like Burg, they should not once let him forget that Israel is indulging in horrendous war crimes, people by the million are unable to travel, eat, get health care, 500 people have been killed, 2,000 houses have been demolished, 50,000 trees have been uprooted, thousands of acres of land have been confiscated, settlements continue — that all this has occurred during a “peace process.” Even a normally excellent and reliable spokesman like Ghassan Khatib has been infected with the virus of talking about violence and the Mitchell report and totally failing to mention the occupation, the occupation, the occupation, the occupation. Can’t these redoubtable spokesmen of ours concentrate on the daily reality of our people and their suffering, and can’t they once speak as human beings instead of as third-rate imitations of Kissinger and Rabin, who seem to have become their role models? What is wrong with us that we can’t ever speak concretely about the central fact of our existence, which is that on every level, for over 53 years, we have been oppressed by Israel and continue to be oppressed with blockades, sieges, aerial bombardment, missile and helicopter attacks, and that our refugees have not received one penny of compensation or even the hope of repatriation from the state that dispossessed them and has punished them ever since?

What puzzles me is that even after eight years of deception and betrayal, the official Palestinian mind finds itself incapable of saying what a disaster Oslo was and instead wants it brought back. That’s like asking the executioner if he wouldn’t mind sharpening his axe a little before having another go. Of course, one needs to stay in whatever political game is going on, and of course, one must be able to respond directly to questions about agreements, truces and so forth. But above all, what I find so dismaying is that our spokespersons show signs of being so totally remote from the daily horrors of life for average Palestinians that they never even mention it.

To them I want to say that no matter the occasion, no matter the question, no matter the newspaper or TV or radio journalist, every question must first be answered with a few basic points about the military occupation that has been in place for 34 years since 1967. This is the source of violence, this is the source of the main problems, and it is the reason Israel can never have real peace. Our entire political position must be based on ending the occupation and this must take precedence over any and every other consideration. When Erekat or Shaath or Ashrawi or Khatib is asked something, for example, about the Mitchell report or the Powell visit, the answer should always begin, “so long as there is a military occupation of Palestine by Israel, there can never be peace. Occupation with tanks, soldiers, checkpoints and settlements is violence, and it is much greater than anything Palestinians have done by way of resistance.” Something like that.

These estimable people have to remember that 99 per cent of the people reading newspapers or watching TV news all over the world (including Arabs) have simply forgotten — if they ever knew — that Israel is an illegal occupying power and has been for 34 years. So we must remind the world of that over and over. Repeat and repeat and repeat. This is not a difficult task, although it is, I believe, absolutely crucial. To remind everyone repeatedly about the Israeli occupation is a necessary repetition, much more so than stupidly inconsequential and sentimental Israeli and American-style remarks about peace and violence. Can we learn, or are we condemned to repeat our mistakes forever? CP