Edward W. Said

George Snedeker snedeker at SPAMconcentric.net
Sun Feb 11 09:28:57 MST 2001


Where will Sharon take Israel?
By Edward W. Said

The story is told of the celebrated writer, Guy de Maupassant, who shortly
after the Eiffel Tower was built in mid-nineteenth century Paris, would go
around the city complaining endlessly about how much he disliked the great
structure. And yet, he would nevertheless unfailingly go to the Tower's
restaurant for lunch every single day. When his attention was drawn to the
paradox in his behaviour, Maupassant coolly answered, "I go there because
being inside it is the only place in Paris where you don't actually have to
look at or even see the Tower."

My general impression is that for most Israelis, their country is invisible.
Being in it means a certain blindness or inability to see what it is and
what has been happening to it, and just as remarkably, an unwillingness to
understand what it has meant for others in the world and specially in the
Middle East. By the time these lines will appear in print, the Israeli
elections will have taken place and, perhaps, as has been supposed for
several weeks now, Ariel Sharon will have become prime minister.
Just as happened in the months before and immediately after Ehud Barak's
elections, a great deal of US media attention has been focused on Sharon in
attempts to make him seem like a plausible, or at least not so bizarre and
outrageous a candidate. I do not think that anyone outside Israel is really
convinced, but it is stunningly odd that a majority of Israelis would
consider turning to the unregenerate old killer of Palestinians after four
months under Ehud Barak of uselessly spilling Palestinian blood and
collectively punishing several million Arab residents of the West Bank,
Gaza, and Israel proper, without anything having been achieved.

According to the polls, Israelis have opted for a man who will bring them
more rather than less violence, which, it must be added at once, makes
Israel's own future relations with the Palestinians, the Arab states and the
Muslim world even less likely to be peaceful and less free of difficulty.
The question is how people could contemplate so obviously counter-productive
a choice unless they simply had no idea what the world thought of them to
begin with, no idea that such destruction and such cruelty will earn further
alienation and dislike, and hence, insecurity.

Flirting with Sharon now is therefore a turning further inwards, a resolute
dismissal of the outside world in favour of the old and thoroughly
discredited policy of bashing Arabs that has made Israel a more and more
isolated and discredited country than it has ever been. Of course, life goes
on within it just as it does everywhere else, and in all sorts of ways, it
should be obvious that most Israelis are normal people who want to live
normal lives, bring up their families, prosper in their work, and carry on
without fear of catastrophe or war. Yet, as a people, their collective
history has been very much an unwelcome part of modern Arab history and, for
Palestinians in particular, an almost unmitigated disaster.

And, so it has gone for over fifty years, life in one community has meant
frustration and suffering in the other, measure for measure, tit for tat,
inexorably and remorselessly. No Palestinian needs reminding that every
Israeli triumph has been a symmetrical Palestinian loss.

Even after 1967, when Israelis and Palestinians were thrown together
demographically more than ever before, the distance and difference between
the two worlds deepened and widened in spite of the total proximity between
them. Military occupation never made for understanding, and so the post-Oslo
years provided for little mutuality, except where the relatively small and
privileged group of security people and the negotiators were concerned.

Rather than trying to connect the Israeli policy of military occupation with
the intifada as cause and effect, many Israelis now seem to want Sharon to
"deal with the Arabs," as if "the Arabs" were so many flies or a swarm of
annoying bees.What seems never to have occurred even to Israeli peaceniks
was that the incredibly slow and tortured pace of Israeli steps in ceding
territory here and there, plus the thousands of conditions and the many,
many hours that went into negotiating all the unimaginably complicated
conditions that Israel attached to every little step it took such as moving
some troops from one side of the West Bank to the other, plus the constant
building of new settlements, plus the new subdivisions and roads that cut up
Gaza and the West Bank more and more, plus the frequent closures, the
continued use of torture, the settler violence in places like Hebron, plus
the fact that under Barak no territory at all was given up, as if all this
which made matters worse, not better, was something that the pro-peace camp
in Israel had not absorbed or understood.

Even though it must be said that Palestinians have behaved as all colonized
people in history have behaved towards the colonizer: they rebelled in
protest. What is so difficult or obscure about that, and why do so evidently
well endowed a people as the Israelis resist understanding the most
elementary aspects of human behaviour?

But, consider that if one allows for a moment that all those things being
done to Palestinians as part of a peace process were supposed to be making
things better, - yes, better - then one must have the strangest possible
sense of oneself, the weirdest imaginable psychology. What does this
inverted sense of cause and effect reveal about the person? What does it
suggest to believe that punishment and sadism will actually improve
relationships between people?

This is pure punitive sadism: it serves no security or long-range purpose
except to make life a hell for all Palestinians who spend most of their time
on the roads in the normal course of their lives, enduring endless delays,
detours, searches, humiliations, interrogations and, much of the time,
failing to reach their destinations just because of Israeli caprice. How can
that possibly help anyone, and how can anyone, except someone so hopelessly
out of touch with reality believe otherwise?

I can quite easily imagine that Israelis who were in favour of such
procedures were, when it came to all other aspects of life, quite like other
people. It was only when and where Arabs were concerned that things were
believed to be different. Not once, to my knowledge, did an Israeli leader
stop and say, for example, 'we have wronged these people, we have driven
them out of their homes, we have destroyed their society and dispossessed
them, let us at least remember that and try to make things easier for them
now'. Never during the long and tortuous negotiating sessions of the peace
process was it so much as whispered to the press that an Israeli official
had said something magnanimous or had intimated that he felt some twinge of
conscience for what had been done in the name of Israel to an entire people.

All we heard was that every inch of land that was discussed was released to
Palestinians with thousands of conditions attached, that an already divided
Palestine was subdivided three, four, and more times in order to keep it
just out of Palestinian reach, and so that Palestinians would have more
hurdles to jump over and more years to wait before they could reach anything
like a viable state of autonomy. And still hundreds of political prisoners
were kept in their cells, and still Israel's Palestinian citizens were kept
in their impoverished villages, their sub-standard schools and
municipalities, unable to buy or lease land for religious and ethnic reasons
just so that Israel could maintain a Jewish majority in lordly style, so
that Israeli Jews could bully and oppress another people without having to
think about them or even see too much of them.

You don't have to have the gifts either of Aristotle or de Gaulle to realize
that Israel's policy of official blindness was never going to bring victory,
any more than Sharon's policy in Lebanon was a success, or Barak's "peace"
policy was going to bring peace or end the Aqsa intifada. Like de Maupassant
in the Eiffel Tower restaurant, an Israel led by a hawkish general is going
deeper and deeper into a place from which it can neither escape nor win the
battle. Far from really withdrawing into itself, it is making certain on the
contrary that it will remain connected to the Arab world in the worst way
via its army, settlers, conquerors, and ranting ideologues, while its
citizens, its artists, its ordinary people are paralyzed by visions of
escape and a clean slate that have no more chance of realization now than
they ever did.

Fanciful ideas of Israeli power today as embodied in the people who like
Sharon are at best a postponement, and a bloody one at that, of the
inevitable realization that apartheid can only work if two peoples accept
the notion of separation with inferiority that the strong imposes on the
weak. But since that is not the case (and has never happened in history), it
will always be unlikely that people will cheerfully accept their
enslavement. Why are Israelis en masse fooling themselves into thinking that
it will work in so small an area and so historically saturated a geography
as Palestine's?

It is difficult to believe that so long as they believe in the miracle of an
Israel miraculously separated from its circumstances and environment - a
bizarre notion which Sharon's election campaign has encouraged - Israeli
Jews resemble members of a cult rather than citizens of a modern secular
state. And, in some ways, it is true that Israel's early history as a
pioneering new state is that of a utopian cult, sustained by people much of
whose energy was in shutting out their surroundings while they lived the
fantasy of a heroic and pure enterprise.

-Copyright Edward W. Said, 2001







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