Different Planets

I spent the whole day flipping between the Israeli channels and Aljazeera.

It was an eerie experience: in a fraction of a second I could switch between two worlds, but all the channels reported on exactly the same occasion. In one section of the breaking news, the events happened at a distance of a few dozen meters from each other, but they could just as well have happened on two different planets.

Never before have I experienced the tragic conflict in such a stunning immediacy as last Wednesday, the day of the prisoner swap between the State of Israel and the Hezbollah organization.

THE MAN who stood at the center of the event personifies the abyss that separates the two worlds, the Israeli and the Arab: Samir al-Kuntar.

All Israeli media call him "Murderer Kuntar", as if that were his first name. For the Arab media, he is "Hero Samir al-Kuntar".

29 years ago, before Hezbollah had become a significant factor, he landed with his comrades on the beach of Nahariya and carried out an attack that has imprinted itself on the Israeli national memory with its cruelty. In the course of it, a four year-old girl was murdered, and a mother accidentally suffocated her small child while trying to keep it from giving away their hiding place. Kuntar was then 16 years old – not a Palestinian, nor a Shiite, but a Lebanese Druze and a communist. The action was set in motion by a small Palestinian fraction.

Years ago I had an argument with my friend Issam al-Sartawi about a similar incident. Sartawi was a Palestinian hero, a pioneer of peace with Israel, who was later assassinated because of his contacts with Israelis. In 1978 a group of Palestinian fighters ("terrorists" in Israeli parlance) landed on the shore south of Haifa in order to capture Israelis for a prisoner swap. On the beach they came across a photographer who was innocently strolling around and killed her. After that they intercepted a bus full of passengers, and in the end all of them were killed.

I knew the photographer. She was a gentle young woman, a good soul, who liked taking pictures of flowers in nature. I remonstrated with Sartawi about this despicable act. He told me: "You don’t understand. These are youngsters, almost kids, untrained and inexperienced, who are operating behind the lines of a dreaded enemy. They are scared to death. They cannot act with cool logic."

That was one of the few instances where we did not agree – though both of us were, each within his own people, on the fringe of the fringe.

This Wednesday, the difference between the two worlds was apparent in its most extreme form. In the morning, the "Murderer Kuntar" woke up in an Israeli prison, in the evening the "Hero al-Kuntar" stood in front of a hundred thousand cheering Lebanese from all communities and parties. It took him but a few minutes to cross from Israeli territory to the tiny UN enclave at Ras-al-Naqura and from there to Lebanese territory, from the realm of Israeli TV to the realm of Lebanese TV – and the distance was greater than that transversed by Neil Armstrong on the way to the moon.

By talking endlessly about the "Bloodstained Murderer" who will never be freed, whatever happens, Israel has turned him from just another prisoner into a pan-Arab hero.

Nowadays it is already a banality to say that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. This week, a slight movement of the finger on the TV remote control was enough to experience this first-hand.

* * *  

EMOTIONS RAN high on both sides.

The Israeli public was immersed in a sea of sorrow and mourning for the two soldiers, whose death was confirmed only minutes before the return of their bodies. For hours on end, all the Israeli channels devoted their broadcasts to the feelings of the two families, who the media had spent the last two years transforming into national symbols (as well as rating-boosting instruments).

No need to mention that not a single voice in Israel said even one word about the 190 families, the bodies of whose sons were returned to Lebanon on the same day.

In this whirlpool of self-pity and mourning ceremonies, the Israeli public had no energy and interest left for trying to understand what was happening on the other side. On the contrary: the reception accorded to the Murderer and the victory speech of the Mastermind of Murder only added fuel to the flames of fury, hatred and humiliation.

But it would have been really worthwhile for Israelis to follow the happenings there, because they will have a lot of impact on our situation.

IT WAS, of course, Hassan Nasrallah’s big day. In the eyes of tens of millions of Arabs, he has won a huge victory. A small organization in a small country has brought Israel, the regional power, to its knees, while the leaders of all the Arab countries are bending the knee before Israel.

Nasrallah promised to bring Kuntar back. For that purpose he captured the two soldiers. After two years and one war, the newly freed prisoner stood on the tribune in Beirut, dressed in a Hezbollah uniform, and Nasrallah himself, endangering his personal safety, came out and embraced him in front of the TV cameras, as a cheering crowd went wild with enthusiasm.

Faced with this demonstration of personal courage and self-confidence, its dramatic flair so characteristic of the man, the Israeli army reacted with the inane statement: "We would not advise Nasrallah to leave his bunker!"

Aljazeera brought all this live, hour after hour, to millions of homes from Morocco to Iraq and the Muslim world beyond. It was impossible for Arab viewers not to be swept along on the waves of emotion. For a young person in Riyadh, Cairo, Amman or Baghdad, there was only one possible reaction: Here is the man! Here is the man who is restoring Arab honor after decades of defeats and humiliation! Here is the man, compared to whom all the leaders of the Arab world are dwarfs! And when Nasrallah announced that "As from this moment, the era of Arab defeats has come to an end!" he captured the spirit of the day.

I suspect that there were also quite a number of Israelis who made unflattering comparisons between this man and our own cabinet ministers, the champions of empty, boastful verbiage. Compared to them, Nasrallah looks responsible, credible, logical and determined, without spin and hollow words.

On the eve of the huge rally, he addressed the public and forbade firing into the air, as is common in Arab celebrations. "Anyone who shoots, shoots at my breast, my head, my robe!" he declared. Not a single shot was fired.

* * *  

FOR LEBANON it was a historic day. Something like this has never happened before: all the country’s political elite, without exception, turned out at Beirut airport to welcome Kuntar, and at the same time to salute Nasrallah. Some of them were gnashing their teeth, of course, but the understood very well the way the wind is blowing.

They were all there: the President of Lebanon, the Prime Minister, all the members of the new cabinet, the leaders of all the parties, all the communities and all the religions, all living past presidents and prime ministers. The Sunni Saad Hariri, who has accused Hezbollah of involvement in the assassination of his father; the Druze Walid Jumblat, who has demanded the liquidation of Hezbollah more than once; and the Maronite Christian Samir Geagea, who bears the responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila massacre; together with many others who but yesterday were showering Hezbollah with every possible obscenity.

In his speech, the new President praised all those who took part in freeing Kuntar, thus conferring national legitimacy not only on the Hezbollah action that precipitated the war, but also on the military function of Hezbollah in defending Lebanon. Since the President was until recently the commander of the army, this means that the Lebanese army, too, embraces Hezbollah.

On Wednesday, Nasrallah became the most important and powerful person in Lebanon. Three months after the crisis that almost caused a civil war, when Prime Minister Fuad Siniora demanded that Hezbollah turn over its private communication network, Lebanon has become a unified country. Demands like the disarming of Hezbollah have become a pipe dream. Lebanon is also united in the demand for the liberation of the Shebaa farms and for the delivery by Israel of the maps of minefields and the deadly cluster bombs left by our army after the second Lebanon war.

Those who remember Lebanon as a doormat in the region, and the Shiites as a doormat in Lebanon, can appreciate the immensity of the change.

* * *  

IN ISRAEL, some people blame the prisoner swap for the dizzying ascent of Nasrallah and the whole national-religious camp in the Arab world. But Israel’s responsibility for these trends started long before Ehud Olmert’s attempts to distract attention from his diverse corruption affairs.

All those are to blame who supported the stupid and destructive Second Lebanon War, which was enthusiastically hailed on the first day by all the media, the "Zionist" parties and the leading men of letters. The bodies of the two captured soldiers could have been retrieved by negotiations before the war much in the same way this has been done now. This is what I wrote at the time.

But one can trace the blame even further back, to Ariel Sharon’s First Lebanon War. Then, too, all the media, the parties and the leading intellectuals deliriously welcomed the war on the first day. Before that disastrous war, the Shiite community was our good and quiet neighbor. Sharon is responsible for the ascent of Hezbollah; and the Israeli army, which assassinated Nasrallah’s predecessor, gave Nasrallah the opportunity to become what he now is.

Neither should one forget Shimon Peres, who created the disastrous "Security Zone" in South Lebanon, instead of getting out in good time. And David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, who, in 1955, proposed installing "a Christian major" as dictator of Lebanon, who would then sign a peace treaty with Israel.

The deadly mixture of arrogance and ignorance that is typical of all Israeli dealings with the Arab world is also responsible for what happened on Wednesday. It would be wonderful if this taught our leaders some modesty and consideration for the feelings of others, as well as the ability to read the map of reality, instead of living in a bubble of national autism. But I am afraid that the opposite will happen: a strengthening of the feelings of anger, insult, sanctimoniousness and hatred.

All the Israeli governments bear responsibility for the national-religious wave in the Arab world, which is much more dangerous for Israel than the secular nationalism of leaders like Yasser Arafat and Bashar al-Assad. 

THIS WEEK, another important thing happened: in one great leap, the Syrian president jumped from American-imposed isolation into global stardom at a grandiose international show in Paris. The pathetic attempts by Olmert, Tzipi Livni and a band of Israeli reporters to shake the hand of Assad, or at least a minister, a low official or a bodyguard, were pure slapstick.

And still more happened this week: the No. 3 in the US Department of State officially met with Iranian delegates. And it became clear that the negotiations with Hamas over the next prisoner swap are still in deep freeze.

The new situation harbors many dangers, but also a host of opportunities. The new status of Nasrallah as a central player in the Lebanese political game imposes on him responsibility and caution. A strengthened Assad may be a better partner for peace, if we are ready to take the opportunity. The American negotiations with Iran may avert a destructive war, which would be a disaster for us, too. The legitimization of Hamas by the negotiations, when they are resumed, may lead to Palestinian unity, like the unity achieved now in Lebanon. Any peace agreement we signed with them would really have legs to stand on.

In two months Israel may have a new government. If it wants to, it could start a new initiative for peace with Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.