Identity Under Siege

by PAUL De ROOIJ

The Palestinian struggle — that a people should endure such unremitting cruelty from Israel and still not give up, is a collective miracle.

Edward Said, “Disunity and factionalism”, Al Ahram 21 August 2002.

The Israeli war waged against the Palestinians has taken many forms and not all of them well known to us. Bombings, assassinations, house demolitions, and arbitrary imprisonment are some of the concrete manifestations in this war–these are clear for all to see and understand. However, other tactics employed in this war aren’t so evident. Foremost among them is an assault on the Palestinian identity itself.

European colonialists learned that to keep a strangle hold on their possessions a policy of divide and rule was necessary. However, the unintended consequence of this was to engender a strong nationalism, a force that eventually doomed the colonialist enterprise. The Israelis have learned this lesson, and trying to implement measures that shield them from the errors of the past. The policies now applied in the Occupied Territories (OPT) apply the divide and rule principle, but they attempt to quell the nationalism that accompanied this in the past. The foremost element to achieve this is to actively demolish or restrict the Palestinian identity in the OPT.

The process of connecting all the settlements in the OPT to Israel proper by building the networks of the so-called bypass roads also entailed intentionally stopping traffic and contact between neighboring towns in the OPT; contact between the West Bank and Gaza has been mostly impeded since 30/Sept/2000. It is now very difficult for a resident of any Palestinian city to visit the nearby village. Either a circuitous path must be taken, or it is simply impossible to cross the so-called military checkpoints, in reality choke points. Furthermore, quite a few villages have been isolated thanks to the fences and walls currently being built unilaterally by Israel. Finally, some Palestinian villages have been isolated due to the settlement expansion activities. Consequently it is difficult for Palestinians anywhere to relate to other Palestinians elsewhere in the OPT. The Israeli instigated policy aims to fragment the Palestinian identity, and make people think of themselves exclusively as residents of Ramallah or Bethlehem.

For the past 145 days (since June 25, 02), Nablus has been under military curfew. People are only allowed out for a few hours every week, otherwise they are subjected to a lock down regime that even prevents them from sitting on a balcony or peer out of the window. Here the frame of reference of the citizens of Nablus has been further restricted to only account for the individual. People are atomized, and start to view their problems with reference only to themselves, and it is difficult for them to appreciate that it is their entire community facing this collective punishment. Again, the Palestinian identity is threatened, and the ensuing frame of reference stultified so that it can be manipulated more easily by the Israeli military. Nablus’ militancy singled it out for this atomization and an assault on people’s identity. From the Israel occupying forces (IOF) perspective, perhaps it is an experiment to determine how others can similarly be “broken”.

During the past few months community leaders not related to the Palestinian Authority have been rounded up and subjected to arbitrary detentions (e.g., see Arbitrary Detentions [1]). The aim of this policy is to remove leaders who provide the necessary cohesion to a society. Once the educated organizers have been imprisoned, the sense of isolation is reinforced, increasing the vulnerability of the population. Furthermore, the actions of the Israeli occupation have targeted the middle class where most of the leadership of a society emanates. The people who can direct others or offer an interpretation of events are hounded, imprisoned or isolated.

For Palestinians the temptation to escape the communal misery must be very difficult for many to resist. It may come in the form of the advertisements by the Israeli ultra right-wing Moledet Party offering assistance for Palestinians to emigrate; the temptation to drop everything and leave must be very great (e.g. see: One way ticket [2]). The enticements by Israeli soldiers to obtain collaborators are an added element in the psychological warfare. People will be tempted to obtain favors, food, permission to work, in exchange for betraying fellow Palestinians. Accepting to collaborate accelerates the demolition of their Palestinian identity; it is difficult to see how these people will act in the interests of their society afterwards. The suspicion that someone in their midst is giving information to the IOF also poisons the air in the mind of other Palestinians. Either way, the Palestinian identity has come under threat by attempts to corrupt the vulnerable or criminal elements in the society.

Traveling in the West Bank and Gaza one immediately becomes aware of the importance of symbols. The IOF is very keen to plant an Israeli flag wherever it is, and it is keen to rip down Palestinian symbols. Even the colors of the Palestinian flag elicit a violent response from soldiers. During the first intifada in July 1989, Jamal Radwan, an agricultural laborer from Gaza and a father of five, had the tattoo of the Palestinian flag on his arm cut off by an Israeli soldier. The scar runs more than half way from his shoulder to his elbow. Perhaps today the IOF isn’t so much concerned with the physical manifestation of symbols, but is more concerned with the mental national identity.

During the Israeli invasion of Beirut, Israeli soldiers plundered and destroyed the Palestinian archives and important cultural treasures. During the invasion of Ramallah earlier this year, the same thing happened, important historical archives were plundered, key databases destroyed, and the video archives of the Palestinian TV stations were damaged. The Sakakini Centre and Kasaba Theatre in Ramallah, two very important contemporary cultural institutions, were demolished earlier this year. These attacks aim to erase the Palestinian history and culture, an important aspect of any national identity. While Israelis belabor their past and use it for political ends, they are at the same time attempting to erase the history of the nation they occupy.

If one thinks of one’s national identity, then some buildings and their history come to mind. For the English Big Ben is extremely important; Americans similarly relate to the Statue of Liberty. For Palestinians the key symbols are the Haram Al Sharif temple (known to Israelis as Temple Mount) and the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Casbah — the Old Town (dating from 71BC) — and the al-Khadra Mosque (1,000+ years old) in Nablus, all are of great importance. The latter has already been demolished in several phases this year–this is destruction of world heritage monuments. The Casbah has been blasted by very large bombs and repeatedly hit by tank fire (see Nablus info [3]). The Church of the Nativity with a spiritual value to hundreds of millions of people was damaged earlier this year by Israeli actions. A clear threat hangs over the Haram Al Sharif temple with ever increasing calls by the erstwhile fanatic fringe of the settlers, but increasingly coming from centrist politicians to demolish the temple. The extremist settlers aim to blow it up or undermine the structure by digging tunnels under it; some “centrist” politicians have called to cut the building in pieces, and send the crates to Saudi Arabia. Supposedly, this temple is in the way of a planned Jewish sacred temple, and just like Palestinians have been pushed aside in most of their homeland, their monuments may soon be cast aside too. The destruction of the national identity has an architectural component.

For decades, Israelis have been attempting to erase the vestiges of the 400+ Palestinian villages and towns destroyed during the 1948 war. The towns have been bulldozed and the ruins have been built over. Where one finds a pine forest in Israel proper one will find the ruins of a Palestinian village that the Israelis are trying to hide. In recent months, many of these ruined villages have been “developed” so that Palestinians won’t be able to claim them in an eventual peace agreement, but part of the process is to rid the country of Palestinian history and vestiges. Erasing the ruined villages is not only an attempt to rid any Palestinian claim to the land, but also another attempt to demolish their identity. The most potent symbol for Palestinians is the “key”–the claim to the homes that the Israelis stole. The key is also the principal symbol excised out of all cartoons and art by the Israeli censor. Further demolition of the ruins has important implications for all.

Archeology has been a battleground with a long history. Israelis have always claimed monopoly in archeology, and they have prohibited Palestinians from studying this field in Israeli universities. Israeli archeologists will usually concentrate on the old layers in the archeological excavations, to the exclusion of the more recent ones dealing with Palestinian history — these are usually destroyed. A few years ago, Dr. Albert Glock, an American archeologist head of the Palestinian Institute of Archeology at Bir Zeit University, was excavating the recent layers near Ramallah when he was mysteriously assassinated. Palestinians suspect that the Israelis assassinated him because digging up the recent history counters the Israeli attempts to bury the Palestinian history.

The looming threat of war against Iraq casts a dark shadow over the Palestinians. As Prof. Illan Pappe has stated, it is now a centrist political position in Israel to propose plans for “transfer” — that obscene euphemism for the mass expulsion of Palestinians. One can read about this in the Israeli press, listen to the Molodet Party’s proposals, or one can listen to some of the principal cabinet members in the current government; they all clamor with varying degrees of viciousness about plans to expel the Palestinian population. The only restraining factors are the international reaction to such a crime and the feasibility of expelling the population to Lebanon, Jordan, or Iraq. Graham Usher, a British journalist, recently said that what is being envisaged by the US in the area is not simply “regime change, but region change.” [Note 4] If such seismic changes are implemented entailing the redrawing of borders in Iraq and Jordan, then Israel may see an opportunity to implement its sinister plans. One must see the current attempts to demolish the Palestinian identity in this context. An atomized and brutalized population without any effective leadership can perhaps be terrorized to flee across the border in the event of a war.

It is unimaginable why any population should be subjected to the threat of ethnic cleansing in the 21st century. After WWII, the world had achieved a consensus that the “might makes right” principle was unacceptable and incompatible with peace. Annexation by war, it was agreed, could not be tolerated. As such, the incessant pressure to expel the Palestinian population, to erase their history, and to demolish their identity, are incompatible with principles that have formed the basis of international law and consensus for the past 50+ years. It is the responsibility of the so-called international community to put a stop to the war and to the Israeli campaign against Palestinians. One would hope that the UN would play a leading role, but the organization is currently compromised and manipulated by the US. One can hardly expect Kofi Annan, a venal politician, to act decisively; the Rwandan genocide occurred during his watch, and the callousness he exhibited then doesn’t portend for an active role now. Unfortunately, up to now, the stance of most European governments has been disgraceful. Similarly, the role of major human rights organizations with responsibility for the area has been less than honorable (see Amnesty [5]). The establishment of a war crimes tribunal holding Sharon, Mofaz, Netanyahu, Ben-Eliezer, and Peres, to account is of paramount importance, yet no action is seen for its institution. One fears the worst: that mass crimes and ethnic cleansing will occur in the area and no peep will be heard from the so-called international community. PAUL de ROOIJ is an economist living in London. He can be reached at proox@hotmail.com

Note 1: www.counterpunch.org/bahour1023.html

Note 2: news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/2377273.stm

Note 3: www.nablus.org/invasion/press2.html. Don’t miss: www.theartnewspaper.com/news/article.asp?idart=10291 Nothing like seeing the photos.

Note 4: Talk given in the House of Parliament, London, Nov. 14, 2002.

Note 5: www.counterpunch.org/rooij1031.html

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