|Palestinians will not go away
Conflicts between peoples contain more elements than can be eliminated
By Edward Said
April 9, 2002
Anyone with any connection at all to Palestine is today in a state of stunned
outrage and shock. While almost a repeat of what happened in 1982, Israel's current
all-out colonial assault on the Palestinian people (with George Bush's astoundingly
ignorant and grotesque support) is indeed worse than Sharon's two previous mass forays
in 1971 and 1982 against the Palestinian people.
The political and moral climate today is a good deal cruder and reductive, the media's
destructive role (which has played the part almost entirely of singling out Palestinian
suicide attacks and isolating them from their context in Israel's 35-year illegal
occupation of the Palestinian territories) greater in favouring the Israeli view
of things, the US's power more unchallenged, the war against terrorism has more completely
taken over the global agenda and, so far as the Arab environment is concerned, there
is greater incoherence and fragmentation than ever before.
Sharon's homicidal instincts have been enhanced (if
that's the right word) by all of the above, and magnified to boot. This in effect
means that he can do more damage with more impunity than before, although he is also
more deeply undermined than before in all his efforts as well as in his entire career
by the failure that comes with single-minded negation and hate, which in the end
nourish neither political nor even military success.
Conflicts between peoples such as this contain more elements than can be eliminated
by tanks and air power, and a war against unarmed civilians -- no matter how many
times Sharon lumberingly and mindlessly trumpets his stupid mantras about terror
-- can never bring a really lasting political result of the sort his dreams tells
him he can have. Palestinians will not go away.
Besides, Sharon will almost certainly end up disgraced and rejected by his people.
He has no plan, except to destroy everything about Palestine and the Palestinians.
Even in his enraged fixation on Arafat and terror, he is failing to do much more
than raise the man's prestige while essentially drawing attention to the blind monomania
of his own position. In the end he is Israel's problem to deal with.
For us, our main consideration now is morally to do everything in our power to make
certain that despite the enormous suffering and destruction imposed on us by a criminal
war, we must go on. When a renowned and respected retired politician like Zbigniew
Brzezinski says explicitly on national television that Israel has been behaving like
the white supremacist regime of apartheid South Africa, one can be certain that he
is not alone in this view, and that an increasing number of Americans and others
are slowly growing not only disenchanted but also disgusted with Israel as a hugely
expensive and draining ward of the United States, costing far too much, increasing
American isolation, and seriously damaging the country's reputation with its allies
and its citizens.
The question is what, in this most difficult of moments, can we rationally learn
about the present crisis that we need to include in our plans for the future? What
I have to say now is highly selective, but it is the modest fruit of many years working
on behalf of the Palestinian cause as someone who is from both Arab and Western worlds.
I neither know nor can say everything, but here are some of the handful of thoughts
I can contribute at this very difficult hour. Each of the four points that follow
here is related to the other.
1) For better or for worse, Palestine is not just an Arab and Islamic cause, it is
important to many different, contradictory and yet intersecting worlds. To work for
Palestine is necessarily to be aware of these many dimensions and constantly to educate
oneself in them. For that we need a highly educated, vigilant and sophisticated leadership
and democratic support for it.
Above all we must, as Mandela never tired of saying about his struggle, be aware
that Palestine is one of the great moral causes of our time. Therefore, we need to
treat it as such. It's not a matter of trade, or bartering negotiations, or making
a career. It is a just cause which should allow Palestinians to capture the high
moral ground and keep it.
2) There are different kinds of power, military of course being the most obvious.
What has enabled Israel to do what it has been doing to the Palestinians for the
past 54 years is the result of a carefully and scientifically planned campaign to
validate Israeli actions and, simultaneously, devalue and efface Palestinian actions.
This is not just a matter of maintaining a powerful military but of organising opinion,
especially in the United States and Western Europe, and is a power derived from slow,
methodical work where Israel's position is seen as one to be easily identified with,
whereas the Palestinians are thought of as Israel's enemies, hence repugnant, dangerous,
Since the end of the Cold War, Europe has faded into near-insignificance so far as
the organisation of opinion, images and thought are concerned. America (outside of
Palestine itself) is the main arena of battle. We have simply never learned the importance
of systematically organising our political work in this country on a mass level,
so that for instance the average American will not immediately think of "terrorism"
when the word "Palestinian" is pronounced.
That kind of work quite literally protects whatever gains we might have made through
on-the-ground resistance to Israel's occupation. What has enabled Israel to deal
with us with impunity, therefore, has been that we are unprotected by any body of
opinion that would deter Sharon from practicing his war crimes and saying that what
he has done is to fight terrorism.
Given the immense diffusionary, insistent, and repetitive
power of the images broadcast by CNN, for example, in which the phrase "suicide
bomb" is numbingly repeated a hundred times an hour for the American consumer
and tax-payer, it is the grossest negligence not to have had a team of people like
Hanan Ashrawi, Leila Shahid, Ghassan Khatib, Afif Safie -- to mention just a few
-- sitting in Washington ready to go on CNN or any of the other channels just to
tell the Palestinian story, provide context and understanding, give us a moral and
narrative presence with positive, rather than merely negative, value. We need a future
leadership that understands this as one of the basic lessons of modern politics in
an age of electronic communication. Not to have understood this is part of the tragedy
3) There is simply no use operating politically and responsibly in a world dominated
by one superpower without a profound familiarity and knowledge of that superpower
-- America, its history, its institutions, its currents and counter-currents, its
politics and culture; and, above all, a perfect working knowledge of its language.
To hear our spokesmen, as well as the other Arabs, saying the most ridiculous things
about America, throwing themselves on its mercy, cursing it in one breath, asking
for its help in another, all in miserably inadequate fractured English, shows a state
of such primitive incompetence as to make one cry.
America is not monolithic. We have friends and we have possible friends. We can cultivate,
mobilise, and use our communities and their affiliated communities here as an integral
part of our politics of liberation, just as the South Africans did, or as the Algerians
did in France during their struggle for liberation. Planning, discipline, coordination.
We have not at all understood the politics of non- violence.
Moreover, neither have we understood the power of trying to address Israelis directly,
the way the ANC addressed the white South Africans, as part of a politics of inclusion
and mutual respect. Coexistence is our answer to Israeli exclusivism and belligerence.
This is not conceding: it is creating solidarity, and therefore isolating the exclusivists,
the racists, the fundamentalists.
4) The most important lesson of all for us to understand about ourselves is manifest
in the terrible tragedies of what Israel is now doing in the occupied territories.
The fact is that we are a people and a society, and despite Israel's ferocious attack
against the PA, our society still functions. We are a people because we have a functioning
society which goes on -- and has gone on for the past 54 years -- despite every sort
of abuse, every cruel turn of history, every misfortune we have suffered, every tragedy
we have gone through as a people.
Our greatest victory over Israel is that people like
Sharon and his kind do not have the capacity to see that, and this is why they are
doomed despite their great power and their awful, inhuman cruelty. We have surmounted
the tragedies and memories of our past, whereas such Israelis as Sharon have not.
He will go to his grave only as an Arab-killer, and a failed politician who brought
more unrest and insecurity to his people.
It must surely be the legacy of a leader that he should leave something behind upon
which future generations will build. Sharon, Mofaz, and all the others associated
with them in this bullying, sadistic campaign of death and carnage will have left
nothing except gravestones. Negation breeds negation.
As Palestinians, I think we can say that we left a vision and a society that has
survived every attempt to kill it. And that is something. It is for the generation
of my children and yours, to go on from there, critically, rationally, with hope
Edward Said writes a weekly column for the Cairo-based al-Ahram.