The Tragedy Deepens

by Edward Said

Resist newsletter, January 2001


No one really knows whether the Al-Aqsa Intifada temporarily subsided because Yasser Arafat expressed his public disapproval of it on 17 November or whether the short-lived lull was generated out of fatigue or a search for new positions. Despite the enormous cost in lives and property to Palestinians, however, the essential problems remain, and the Israelis continue their blind and finally stupid assault on Palestinians with the strangulation, economic blockade, and bombings of cities and towns continuing without respite.

Every Arab leader who welcomed Barak's election a year and a half ago should now be asked to repeat his declarations so that their hollowness can be demonstrated again and again. I find official Arab attitudes virtually incomprehensible, having spent most of my life trying to decipher them according to the laws of reason and elementary common sense. Did they seriously believe that Barak was the saviour of the peace process, and if so weren't they aware that to save the peace process was nothing less than to prolong the Palestinian agony'? Did they think that he was any different from the great "war hero" who has devoted his entire career to killing Arabs, and if he wasn't why did it take them so long to find out? Does subservience to the United States require so much subservience, so many acrobatics, such a complicated twisting and turning and so profound a prostration? How long and for what do they cling to a repressive, basically rejectionist status quo with neither the will nor the capacity to wage war nor to live in peace, simply to please a distant and arrogant superpower that has showed them and their people so much contempt, inhumanity and utter, unspeakable cruelty?

Can they not do anything more substantial than what they are doing when Israel is using helicopter gunships to kill Palestinian civilians and destroy their homes, while the United States supplies Israel with the largest ever order of attack helicopters during the past 10 years and Israel has added $500 million to its budget for settlements? Not one word of official protest against US policy that has brought such catastrophe to our people. It is this timorousness that allows US policy-makers, of whom the unregretted Dennis Ross-the mediocre individual who has done more single-handedly to advance Israel's interest than anyone-is but one, to say that the Arabs trust the US and its policies and remain close friends and allies of the US. Surely the time has come to speak frankly of a hypocrisy and brutality without parallel, instead of standing silently by cap in hand as more and more Palestinians are killed with arms paid for by US taxpayers.

Leadership Void

But the core of the tragedy is what is happening to the victims themselves, the Palestinian people. Here one must speak and think rationally, not letting emotion and the passions of the moment sway the mind too much. My general impression is that Palestinians everywhere feel the absence of real leadership, a voice or an authority that can speak both of the present and the future with some sense of vision, some articulation of a coherent, inclusive goal beyond the usual platitudes. No one has any doubt that Palestinians are struggling against military occupation and have been doing so for 33 years. But there are four million refugees struggling against exile, in addition to the one million Palestinian citizens of Israel who have been living under a regime of racial and religious discrimination that has too long been hidden under labels like "lsraeli democracy." One of the many problems with Oslo has been that Palestinian negotiators focused exclusively on the occupation, to the neglect of the other two dimensions.

But it should finally be clear that in all three instances it is Zionism that we fight against, and until we have a leadership that can formulate an integrated strategy on all three fronts, we do not have leadership. The tragedy is that as the Intifada goes on, lives are tragically lost every day, in a political setting or framework that deepens the differences between Palestinians instead of bringing them closer together. We need a new vision, a new voice, a new truth.

Isn't it now clear that old slogans like "a Palestinian state" or "Jerusalem our capital" have brought us to this impasse? Shouldn't we expect a real leader to speak to all Palestinians, honestly, fearlessly, without duplicity or winks at the US and Israel, and to chart a course forward that links together opposition to occupation, to exile, and to racial discrimination? Why continue to delude people with the empty hope that "struggle," a word which seems to mean that others should do the dying, will get the Arab world generally and the Palestinians particularly what all have so long wanted? It is nothing short of alarming that after more than half a century of blustering, of expending blood and treasure, of militarization, of abrogating democracy and the most elementary requirements of citizenship in the Arab world, we find ourselves facing the same enemy, the same defeats, the same tactical shifts and hypocritical about-faces with the same tired arsenal of threats, promises, slogans and clichés all of which have been proved more or less worthless and have produced the same failures from 1967 to Amman to October 1973 to Beirut to Oslo?

Finding Common Ground

No one can deny that Palestine is an exception to nearly all the colonial issues of the past 200 years. It is exceptional, but not removed from history. Human history is full of similar instances. What has surprised me, as someone living at a distance from the Middle East but close to it in all sorts of ways is how insulated from the rest of the world we keep ourselves, whereas, I believe, a great deal can be learned from the history of other oppressed peoples in the Americas, Africa, Asia and even Europe. Why do we resist comparing ourselves, say, with the South African blacks, or with the American Indians, or with the Vietnamese? By comparing I don't mean mechanically or slavishly, but rather creatively and imaginatively.

The late Eqbal Ahmad, who was certainly one of the two or three most brilliant analysts of contemporary history and politics that I ever knew, always drew attention to the fact that successful liberation movements were successful precisely because they employed creative ideas, original ideas, imaginative ideas where in other less successful movements (like ours, alas) there was a pronounced tendency to formulas and an uninspired repetition of past slogans and past patterns of behavior.

Take as a primary instance the idea of armed struggle. For decades we have relied in our minds on ideas about guns and killing, ideas that, from the 1930s until today, have brought us plentiful martyrs but have had little real effect not so much on Zionism but on our own ideas about what to do next. In our case, the fighting is done by a small brave number of people pitted against hopeless odds, i.e. stones against helicopter gunships, Merkava tanks, missiles. Yet a quick look at other movements- say the Indian nationalist movement, the South African liberation movement, the American civil rights movement-tell us first of all that only a mass movement employing tactics and strategy that maximize the popular element ever made any difference on the occupier and/or oppressor. Second, only a mass movement that has been politicized and imbued with a vision of participating directly in a future of its own making, only such a movement has historical chance of liberating itself from oppression or military occupation. The future, like the past, is built by human beings. They, and not some distant mediator or saviour, provide the agency for change.

It is clear to me, for example, that the immediate task in Palestine is to establish the goal of ridding ourselves of the occupation, using imaginative means of struggle. That would necessarily involve large numbers of Palestinians intervening directly in the settlement process, blocking roads, preventing building materials from entering, in other words, isolating the settlements instead of allowing them, containing a far smaller number of people, to isolate and surround Palestinians, which is what occurs today.

It is still true, for instance, that the labourers who built the Israeli settlements on a daily basis are in fact Palestinians: this should give some fairly simple idea of how deeply misled, misguided, under-mobilized and unpoliticized the Palestinian people are today. After 33 years of building Israeli settlements, Palestinian workers should immediately be provided by the Authority with alternative employment. Can't a few dollars be spared from the millions spent on useless security and unproductive bureaucracy? This is of course a failing of the leadership, but in the end it is also those individuals who know better- professionals, intellectuals, teachers, doctors and so on-who have the power of expression and the means to do so who have still not put enough pressure on the leadership to make it responsive to the situation.

And there at once is the greatest tragedy of all: a people is giving passionately of itself, losing the flower of its youth and all its energies in a valiant confrontation with an implacably cruel enemy who has no compunction about choking Palestinians to death, and still Mr Arafat is silent. He has not truly and honestly addressed his people since the crisis began, not even a I0-minute broadcast to give it strength, to explain his policies, to tell the people where we are, how we got here, and where we are going. Is his heart made of stone, is his conscience completely anaesthetised?

I find this astoundingly incomprehensible, and this after 30 years of leading us from one catastrophe and ill-considered adventure to another, without respite and without even a whispered "thank you for bearing with me and my appalling, bumbling mistakes and miscalculations for so long!" l for one am fed up with his attitude of contempt for his people, and for his stony autocratic imperturbability, his inability either to listen or to take other people seriously, his unending ambiguities, secrecy and blindingly irrational lurches from one patron to another, all the while leaving his long-suffering people to fend for themselves.

The Al-Aqsa Intifada is an Intifada against Oslo and against the people who constructed it, not only Dennis Ross and Barak, but a small, irresponsible coterie of Palestinian officials. These people should now have the decency to stand before their people, admit their mistakes, and ask (if they can get it) for popular support if there is a plan. If there isn't one (as I suspect) they should then have the elementary courtesy at least to say so. Only by doing this can there be anything more than tragedy at the end of the road. Palestinian officials signed the agreement to partition Hebron, they signed many other agreements without getting prior assurances that the settlements would end (and at least not be increased) and that all signs of military occupation would be effaced. They must now explain publicly what they thought they were doing and why they did it. Then they must let us express our views on their actions and their future. And for once they must listen and try to put the general interest before their own, despite the millions of dollars they have either squandered or squirreled away in Paris apartments and valuable real estate and lucrative business deals with Israel. Enough is enough.


This article is reprinted from Al-Ahram Weekly, Cairo, Dec 7-13. Edward Said is a Palestinian activist and professor.

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