OCCUPATION IS THE ATROCITY
by Professor Edward Said
In the United States, where Israel has its main political base and from which it has received over $92 billion in aid since 1967, the terrible human cost of Thursdays Jerusalem restaurant bombing and Mondays Haifa disaster settles quickly into a familiar explanatory framework. Arafat hasnt done enough to control his terrorists; suicidal Islamic extremists are to be found everywhere, bringing harm on us and our strongest allies, driven by sheer human hatred; Israel must defend its security. A thoughtful individual might add: these people have been fighting tiresomely for thousands of years anyway; the violence must be stopped; there has been too much suffering on both sides, although the way Palestinians send their children into battle is another sign of how much Israel has to put up with.
And so, exasperated but still restrained, Israel invades unfortified and undefended Jenin with bulldozers and tanks, destroys the Palestine Authoritys police buildings plus several others, and then sends out its propagandists to say that it has sent a message to Arafat to curb his terrorists. In the meantime, he and his coterie are begging for American protection, doubtless forgetting that Israel is the one with US protection and that all he will get, for the 6,000th time, is an injunction to stop the violence.
The fact is that in America, Israel has pretty much won the propaganda war, and America is where its about to put several more million dollars into a public relations campaign (using stars like Zubin Mehta, Yitzhak Pearlman, and Amos Oz) to further improve its image.
But consider what Israels unrelenting war against the undefended, basically unarmed, stateless and poorly led Palestinian people has already achieved. The disparity in power is so vast that it makes you cry. Equipped with the latest in American-built (and freely given) air power, helicopter gun ships, uncountable tanks and missiles, and a superb navy as well as a state of the art intelligence service, Israel is a nuclear power abusing a people without any armor or artillery, no air force (its one pathetic airfield in Gaza is controlled by Israel) or navy or army, none of the institutions of a modern state.
The appallingly unbroken history of Israels 34-year-old military occupation (the second longest in modern history) of illegally conquered Palestinian land has been obliterated from public memory nearly everywhere, as has been the destruction of Palestinian society in 1948 and the expulsion of 68 per cent of its native people, of whom 4.5 million remain refugees today.
Behind the reams of newspeak, the stark outlines of Israels decades-long daily pressure on a people whose main sin is that they happened to be there, in Israels way, is staggeringly perceptible in its inhuman sadism. The fantastically cruel confinement of 1.3 million people jammed like so many human sardines into the Gaza strip, plus the nearly two million Palestinian residents of the West Bank, has no parallel in the annals of apartheid or colonialism. F-16 jets were never used to bomb South African homelands. They are used against Palestinians towns and villages. All entrances and exits to the territories are controlled by Israel (Gaza is completely surrounded by a barbed wire fence), which also controls the entire water supply. Divided into about 63 non-contiguous cantons, completely encircled and besieged by Israeli troops, punctuated by 140 settlements (many of them built under Ehud Baraks premiership) with their own road network banned to non-Jews, as Arabs are referred to, along with such unflattering epithets as thieves, snakes, cockroaches and grasshoppers, Palestinians under occupation have now been reduced to 60 per cent unemployment and a poverty rate of 50 per cent (half the people of Gaza and the West Bank live on less than $2 a day); they cannot travel from one place to the next; they must endure long lines at Israeli checkpoints that detain and humiliate the elderly, the sick, the student, and the cleric for hours on end; 150,000 of their olive and citrus trees have been punitively uprooted; 2,000 of their houses demolished; acres of their land either destroyed or expropriated for military settlement purposes.
Since the Al-Aqsa Intifada began late last September, 609 Palestinians have been killed (four times more than Israeli fatalities) and 15,000 wounded (a dozen times more than on the other side). Regular Israeli army assassinations have picked off alleged terrorists at will, most of the time killing innocents like so many flies. Last week, 14 Palestinians were murdered openly by Israeli forces using helicopter gun ships and missiles; they were thus prevented from killing Israelis, although at least two children and five innocents were also murdered, to say nothing of many wounded civilians and several destroyed buildings part of the somehow acceptable collateral damage. Nameless and faceless, Israels daily Palestinian victims barely rate a mention on Americas news programs, even though for reasons that I simply cannot understand Arafat is still hoping that the Americans will rescue him and his crumbling regime.
Nor is this all. Israels plan is not just to hold land and fill it with dreadful, murderous armed settlers who, defended by the army, wreak havoc on Palestinian orchards, schoolchildren and homes; it is, as the American researcher Sara Roy has named it, to de-develop Palestinian society, to make life impossible so that the Palestinians will leave, or give up somehow, or do something crazy like blow themselves up.
Since 1967, leaders have been jailed and deported by the Israeli occupation regime, small businesses and farms made unviable by confiscation and sheer destruction, students prevented from studying, universities closed (in the mid-80s Palestinian universities on the West Bank were closed for four years). No Palestinian farmer or business can export to any Arab country directly; their products must pass through Israel. Taxes are paid to Israel.
Even after the Oslo peace process began in 1993, the occupation was simply re-packaged, only 18 per cent of the land given to the corrupt Vichy-like Authority of Arafat, whose mandate seems to have been only to police and tax his people for Israels sake. After eight fruitless immiserating years of the Oslo negotiations masterminded by an American team of former Israeli lobby staffers like Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross, Israel was still in control, the occupation packaged more efficiently, the phrase peace process given a consecrated halo that allowed more abuses, more settlements, more imprisonments, more Palestinian suffering to go on than before. Including a Judaised East Jerusalem, with Orient House occupied and its contents looted or carted off (there are invaluable records, land deeds, maps, that in a repetition of what it did when it stole PLO archives from Beirut in 1982, Israel has simply stolen), Israel has implanted no less than 400,000 settlers on Palestinian land. To call them vigilantes and hoodlums is not an exaggeration.
It is worth recalling that a couple of weeks after Ariel Sharons gratuitously arrogant visit to Jerusalems Haram Al-Sharif on 28 September, with 1,000 soldiers and guards supplied by Prime Minister Barak, Israel was condemned for this action by a unanimous Security Council resolution. Then, as even the merest child could have predicted, the anti-colonial rebellion broke out, with eight killed Palestinians its first victims. Sharon was swept to power essentially to subdue the Palestinians, teach them a lesson, get rid of them. His record as an Arab-killer goes back 30 years, before the Sabra and Shatila massacres that his forces supervised in 1982, and for which he has now been indicted in a Belgian court. Still, Arafat wants to negotiate with him and come perhaps to a cozy arrangement with him so as to safeguard the very Authority that Sharon is systematically dismantling, destroying, razing to the ground.
But he isnt a fool either. With every Palestinian act of resistance, his forces ratchet up the pressure a notch higher, tightening the siege more, taking more land, making a habit of more and deeper incursions into Palestinian towns like Jenin and Ramallah, cutting off more supplies, openly assassinating Palestinian leaders, making life more intolerable, redefining the terms of his governments actions, that it once made generous concessions while defending itself, that it prevents terrorism, that it secures areas, that it re-establishes control, and so on. Meanwhile he and his minions attack and dehumanize Arafat, even saying that he is the arch-terrorist (although he literally cant move without Israeli permission), and that we have no war with the Palestinian people. What a boon for that people! With such restraint, why should a massive invasion, carefully bruited about to terrorize the Palestinians even more sadistically, be necessary? Israel knows that it can retake their buildings at will (witness the wholesale theft of Jerusalems Orient House, plus nine other buildings, offices, libraries, archives there and in Abu Dis), just as it has all but eliminated the Palestinians as a people.
This is the real story of Israels pretended victimization, constructed with such premeditated care and evil intent for months now. Language has been sundered from reality. Pity not the inept Arab governments who can and will do nothing to stop Israel: pity the people who bear the wounds in their flesh and the emaciated bodies of their children, some of whom believe that martyrdom is the only way out for them.
And Israel, stuck in a futureless campaign, flailing about mercilessly? As James Cousins, the Irish poet and critic, said in 1925, the colonizer is in the grip of false and selfish pre-occupations that stand in the way of its attention to the natural evolution of its own national genius and pull[ed] from the path of open rectitude into the twisted byways of dishonest thought, speech, and action, in the artificial defense of a false position. All colonizers have gone that way, learning or stopping at nothing, until at last, as Israel turned tail from its 22 year occupation of Lebanon, they exit the territory, leaving behind an exhausted and crippled people. If this was supposed to fulfil Jewish aspirations, why did it require so many new victims from another people who had nothing to do with Jewish exile and persecution in the first place?
With Arafat and Company in command, there is no hope. What is the man doing, grotesquely fetching up in the Vatican and Lagos and other miscellaneous places, pleading without dignity or even intelligence for imaginary observers, Arab aid, international support, instead of staying with his people, trying to aid them with medical supplies, morale-boosting measures and real leadership? What we need is a unified leadership of people who are on the ground, who are actually doing the resisting, who are really with and of their people, not the fat, cigar-chomping bureaucrats who want their business deals preserved and their VIP passes renewed, and who have lost all trace of decency or credibility. A united leadership that takes positions and plans mass actions designed not to return to Oslo (can you believe the folly of that idea?) but to press on with resistance and liberation, instead of confusing people with talk of negotiations and the stupid Mitchell Plan.
Arafat is finished: why dont we admit that he can neither lead, nor plan, nor do anything that makes any difference except to him and his Oslo cronies who have benefited materially from their peoples misery? All the polls show that his presence blocks whatever forward movement might be possible. We need a united leadership to make decisions, not simply to grovel before the Pope and the moronic George W Bush, even as the Israelis are killing his heroic people with impunity. A leader must lead the resistance, reflect the realities on the ground, respond to his peoples needs, plan, think, and expose himself to the same dangers and difficulties that everyone experiences. The struggle for liberation from Israeli occupation is where every Palestinian worth anything now stands: Oslo cannot be restored or re-packaged as Arafat and Company might desire. Its over for them and the sooner they pack and get out, the better for everyone.
Al Ahram, Al-Hayat column, August 2001