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A Way Out of the Middle East Impasse

by Edward Said

With the bombs and missiles falling on Afghanistan in the high-altitude US destruction that is Operation Enduring Freedom, the Palestine question may seem tangential to the altogether more urgent events in Central Asia. It would be a mistake to think so — and not just because Osama Bin Laden and his followers (no one knows how many there are, in theory or in practice) have tried to capture Palestine as a rhetorical part of their unconscionable campaign of terror; for so too has Israel, for its own purposes. With the killing of Cabinet Minister Rahavam Zeevi on 17 October as retaliation by the PFLP for the assassination of its leader by Israel last August, General Sharon’s sustained campaign against the Palestine Authority as Israel’s Bin Laden has risen to a new, semi- hysterical pitch. Israel has been assassinating Palestinian leaders and militants (over 60 of them to date) for the past several months, and can’t have been surprised that its illegal methods would sooner or later prompt Palestinian retaliation in kind. But why one set of killings should be acceptable and others not is a question Israel and its supporters are unable to answer. So the violence goes on, with Israel’s occupation the more deadly, and the vastly more destructive, causing huge civilian suffering: in the period between 18 and 21 October, six Palestinian towns re-occupied by Israeli forces; five more Palestinian activists assassinated plus 21 civilians killed and 160 injured; curfews imposed everywhere — and all this Israel has the gall to compare with the US war against Afghanistan and terrorism.

Thus, the frustration and subsequent impasse in pressing the claims of a people dispossessed for 53 years and militarily occupied for 34 have definitively gone beyond the main arena of struggle and are willy-nilly tied in all sorts of ways to the global war against terrorism. Israel and its supporters worry that the US will sell them out, all the while protesting contradictorily that Israel isn’t the issue in the new war. Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims generally have felt either uneasiness or a creeping guilt by association that attaches to them in the public realm, despite efforts by political leaders to keep dissociating Bin Laden from Islam and the Arabs: but they, too, keep referring to Palestine as the great symbolic nexus of their disaffection.

In official Washington, however, George Bush and Colin Powell have more than once revealed unambiguously that Palestinian self-determination is an important, perhaps even a central issue. The turbulence of war and its unknown dimensions and complications (its consequences in places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt are likely to be dramatic, if as yet unknown) have stirred up the whole Middle East in striking ways, so that the need for some genuinely positive change in the status of the seven million stateless Palestinians is sure to grow in importance, even though a number of quite dispiriting things about its present impasse are evident enough now. The main problem is whether or not the US and the parties are going to resort only to the stopgap measures that brought us the disastrous Oslo agreement.

The immediate experience of the Al-Aqsa Intifada has universalised Arab and Muslim powerlessness and exasperation to a degree never before magnified as it is now. The Western media hasn’t at all conveyed the crushing pain and humiliation imposed on Palestinians by Israel’s collective punishment, its house demolitions, its invasions of Palestinian areas, its air bombings and killings, as have the nightly broadcasts by Al- Jazeera satellite television, or admirable daily reporting in Ha’aretz by the Israeli journalist Amira Hass and commentators like her. At the same time, I think, there is widespread understanding among Arabs that the Palestinians (and, by extension, the other Arabs) have been traduced and hopelessly misled by their leaders. An abyss visibly separates nattily suited negotiators who make declarations in luxurious surroundings and the dusty hell of the streets of Nablus, Jenin, Hebron, and elsewhere. Schooling is inadequate; unemployment and poverty rates have climbed to alarming heights; anxiety and insecurity fill the atmosphere, with governments unable or unwilling to stop either the rise of Islamic extremism or an astonishingly flagrant corruption at the very top. Above all, the brave secularists who protest at human rights abuses, fight clerical tyranny, and try to speak and act on behalf of a new modern democratic Arab order are pretty much left alone in their fight, unassisted by the official culture, their books and careers sometimes thrown as a sop to mounting Islamic fury. A huge dank cloud of mediocrity and incompetence hangs over everyone, and this in turn has given rise to magical thinking and/or a cult of death that is more prevalent than ever.

I know it is often argued that suicide bombings are either the result of frustration and desperation, or that they emerge from the criminal pathology of deranged religious fanatics. But these are inadequate explanations. The New York and Washington suicide terrorists were middle-class, far from illiterate men, perfectly capable of modern planning, audacious as well as terrifyingly deliberate destruction. The young men sent out by Hamas and Islamic Jihad do what they are told with a conviction that suggests clarity of purpose, if not of much else. The real culprit is a system of primary education that is woefully piecemeal, cobbled together out of the Qur’an, rote exercises based on outdated 50-year-old textbooks, hopelessly large classes, woefully ill-equipped teachers, and a nearly total inability to think critically. Along with the oversized Arab armies — all of them burdened with unusable military hardware and no record of any positive achievement — this antiquated educational apparatus has produced the bizarre failures in logic, moral reasoning, and appreciation of human life that lead either to leaps of religious enthusiasm of the worst kind or to a servile worship of power.

Similar failures in vision and logic operate on the Israeli side. How it has come to seem morally possible, and even justifiable, for Israel to maintain and defend its 34-year occupation fairly boggles the mind, but even Israeli “peace” intellectuals remain fixated on the supposed absence of a Palestinian peace camp, forgetting that a people under occupation doesn’t have the same luxury as the occupier to decide whether or not an interlocutor exists. In the process, military occupation is taken as an acceptable given and is scarcely mentioned; Palestinian terrorism becomes the cause, not the effect, of violence, even though one side possesses a modern military arsenal (unconditionally supplied by the US), while the other is stateless, virtually defenceless, savagely persecuted at will, herded inside 160 little cantons, schools closed, life made impossible. Worst of all, the daily killing and wounding of Palestinians is accompanied by the growth of Israeli settlements and the 400,000 settlers who dot the Palestinian landscape without respite.

A recent report issued by Peace Now in Israel states the following:

1. At the end of June 2001 there were 6,593 housing units in different stages of active construction in settlements.

2. During the Barak administration, 6,045 housing units were begun in settlements. In fact, settlement building in the year 2000 reached the highest since 1992, with 4,499 starts.

3. When the Oslo agreements were signed there were 32,750 housing units in the settlements. Since the signing of the Oslo agreements 20,371 housing units have been constructed, representing an increase of 62 per cent in settlements units.

The essence of the Israeli position is its total irreconcilability with what the “Jewish state” wants — peace and security, even though everything it does assures neither one nor the other.

The US has underwritten Israel’s intransigence and brutality: there are no two ways about it — $92 billion and unending political support, for all the world to see. Ironically, this was far truer during, rather than either before or after, the Oslo process. The plain truth of the matter is that anti- Americanism in the Arab and Muslim world is tied directly to the US’s behaviour, lecturing the world on democracy and justice while openly supporting their exact opposites. There also is an undoubted ignorance about the United States in the Arab and Islamic worlds, and there has been far too great a tendency to use rhetorical tirades and sweeping general condemnation instead of rational analysis and critical understanding of America. The same is true of Arab attitudes to Israel.

Both the Arab governments and the intellectuals have failed in important ways on this matter. Governments have failed to devote any time or resources to an aggressive cultural policy that puts across an adequate representation of culture, tradition and contemporary society, with the result that these things are unknown in the West, leaving unchallenged pictures of Arabs and Muslims as violent, over-sexed fanatics. The intellectual failure is no less great. It is simply inadequate to keep repeating cliches about struggle and resistance that imply a military programme of action when none is either possible or really desirable. Our defence against unjust policies is a moral one, and we must first occupy the moral high ground and then promote understanding of that position in Israel and the US, something we have never done. We have refused interaction and debate, disparagingly calling them only normalisation and collaboration. Refusing to compromise in putting forth our just position (which is what I am calling for) cannot possibly be construed as a concession, especially when it is made directly and forcefully to the occupier or the author of unjust policies of occupation and reprisal. Why do we fear confronting our oppressors directly, humanely, persuasively, and why do we keep believing in precisely the vague ideological promises of redemptive violence that are little different from the poison spewed by Bin Laden and the Islamists? The answer to our needs is in principled resistance, well-organised civil disobedience against military occupation and illegal settlement, and an educational programme that promotes coexistence, citizenship and the worth of human life.

But we are now in an intolerable impasse, requiring more than ever a genuine return to the all- but-abandoned bases of peace that were proclaimed at Madrid in 1991: UN Resolutions 242 and 332, land for peace. There can be no peace without pressure on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, including Jerusalem, and — as the Mitchell report affirmed — to dismantle its settlements. This can obviously be done in a phased way, with some sort of immediate emergency protection for undefended Palestinians, but the great failing of Oslo must be remedied now, at the start: a clearly articulated end to occupation, the establishment of a viable, genuinely independent Palestinian state, and the existence of peace through mutual recognition. These goals have to be stated as the objective of negotiations, a beacon shining at the end of the tunnel. Palestinian negotiators have to be firm about this, and not use the re-opening of talks — if any should now begin, in this atmosphere of harsh Israeli war on the Palestinian people — as an excuse simply to return to Oslo. In the end, though, only the US can restore negotiations, with European, Islamic, Arab, and African support; but this must be done through the United Nations, which must be the essential sponsor of the effort.

And since the Palestinian-Israeli struggle has been so humanly impoverishing I would suggest that important symbolic gestures of recognition and responsibility, undertaken perhaps under the auspices of a Mandela or a panel of impeccably credentialed peace-makers, should try to establish justice and compassion as crucial elements in the proceedings. Unfortunately, it is perhaps true that neither Arafat nor Sharon are suited to so high an enterprise. The Palestinian political scene must absolutely be overhauled to represent seamlessly what every Palestinian longs for — peace with dignity and justice and, most important, decent, equal coexistence with Israeli Jews. We need to move beyond the undignified shenanigans, the disgraceful backing and filling of a leader who hasn’t in a long time come anywhere near the sacrifices of his long- suffering people. The same is true of Israelis, who are led abysmally by the likes of General Sharon. What we need is a vision that can lift the much abused spirit beyond the sordid present, something that will not fail when presented unwaveringly as what people need to aspire to. CP

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