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Thinking ahead: After survival, what happens ?

Edward Said
April 07, 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, against "us." 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
of today.

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 and
forbearance.


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