From the www.monabaker.com archive (legacy material)
Azmi Bishara | Al-Ahram Weekly | 10-16 August 2006
Journalist: How will the deaths of Israeli soldiers today affect your plans?
Israeli Army Spokesman: You saw that massacre of 12 Israelis .. it will …
Journalist: Massacre you said? But those were soldiers and this is war.
Spokesman: No, it was a massacre because the people who fired the missiles weren’t targeting soldiers. They were targeting Israeli civilians but killed the soldiers by accident.
Journalist: But you also committed massacres in Qana and elsewhere.
Spokesman: No, there was no massacre in Qana. Hizbullah fighters were the targets of the bombardment but civilians were hit by accident.
This nightmarish gibberish, which would make any journalist quit his job, a spectator smash his TV screen and a dialogue participant abandon his faith in dialogue, is not from Alice in Wonderland. It is an excerpt taken verbatim from an interview on an Arab satellite station with a young spokesman for the Israeli Defence Forces.
Now, when Israeli soldiers die it’s a massacre, whereas the wiping out of entire families in the course of the aerial bombardment of their homes and villages doesn’t rate the term. That’s not a massacre but an “accident” or, in the euphemistic jargon of the science of the war against terrorism, collateral damage.
Much has been written about this term, which explains so little but hides so much — which, after all, is the function of much political jargon: to keep people from understanding what is really going on. “Collateral damage” is used to refer to the civilian casualties in the war against terrorism, or the war against those who target civilians. Generally the victims of collateral damage far outnumber the victims of actual terrorist attacks.
Peoples of the world are divided into those whose governments possess fighter planes and those whose governments do not possess them. In like manner, the victims of bombs are divided into individual human beings and statistical estimates based on scattered body parts amidst the rubble, the former being the victims of terrorism the latter of collateral damage.
The victims of the war against terrorism are indistinct. They stir a fleeting image of pain, perhaps, as felt by themselves or their loved ones, but ultimately they are reduced to a regretful side effect, the responsibility for which is attributed to their political leaders, or their national or ethnic affiliation, their erroneous ideological beliefs or plain stubbornness. They will soon fade into obscurity. After rescue workers pull the mangled bodies from under the rubble several days after a bombing raid, renewed bombardment, the press of the latest news flashes and another harvest of victims will have pushed them from the headlines.
The interview cited above is one scene in this saga of the absurd. Another is the sight of fleeing southern Lebanese who have sought refuge in Palestinian refugee camps in their country. Then there is Israel, acting as though it is the victim, chomping at the bit to avenge itself against Hizbullah, the criminal attacker. There is the military circus that pretends it is a parliament, a tribe that calls itself democratic whooping in a war dance before TV cameras and marching to martial music in the studios of a purportedly democratic media.
The majority of victims in this war of terror belong to ethnic groups, or “cultures” as they are referred to now, that occupy the lowest rungs of the global cultural ladder. They belong to the collateral damage “culture”, as opposed to the victims of terrorism “culture”.
Recently the cultures that have been reduced to this inferior status have attempted to defend themselves by brandishing the term “state terrorism”. One would think this concept would be an effective weapon to counter the so-called war on terror and its concomitant collateral damage. Unfortunately the balances of power are so heavily tipped against it that it ended up being trampled on, ridiculed or, at best, turned into a metaphor for cultural clash. The leaders of terrorist states don’t have to live in hiding. They aren’t pursued by fighter planes. They can be heard live on TV instead of through prerecorded videos. Human rights activists and clergymen are not embarrassed to meet them. They can ensure the word “terrorism” remains the weapon of their culture, the culture of the strong.
The awkward fact for Israel is that Hizbullah, in its long war against Israel, never made a policy of targeting civilians, except in retaliation for Israel’s targeting of Lebanese civilians. This, moreover, is a recent development. Throughout the 17 years of its fight against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, Hizbullah killed only 20 Israeli civilians as opposed to the thousands of Lebanese killed by Israel. Even in the current war the ratio of Israeli military to civilian deaths has not fallen below 60 per cent, whereas the number of Hizbullah fighters who have died in battle is less than 10 per cent of the thousand Lebanese dead. This is not to mention the million Lebanese who have been driven from their homes and who will find no villages to which to return following Israel’s orgy of destruction.
This “collateral” destruction is deliberate and calculated. It is an extension of the state terrorism upon which Israel was built. Israel would not exist today had it not been for its systematic massacres of the Palestinian population in 1948. And if these massacres can be swept into some remote corner of history, written off as outbursts of Israel’s infancy and later repressed in the collective memory, this cannot apply to later massacres. By the early 1950s killing civilians had evolved into a conscious military creed, as epitomised by Unit 101, founded and commanded by Sharon with the aim of carrying out retaliatory actions against civilians in areas where fedayeen operations had taken place. This targeting civilians has been transmitted from generation to generation in the Israeli army.
Observers who have heard Israeli politicians and military officials away from the microphones of press conferences will have been subjected to daily rants about the need to flatten every Lebanese village that a missile comes from, to destroy electricity generators and other infrastructure and bomb the country back to the dark ages. These statements, and others, reflect a belief that the Arabs do not have to be treated according to the rules that apply to other peoples and nations.
Israeli spokespersons are steadfastly driving home the idea of two distinct and incompatible cultures, two civilisations, two worlds. If the world is divided into cultures and these cultures are divided into friend of foe, which is to say that the world is embroiled in an enormous culture clash, then the notion of “double standards” loses all moral opprobrium, becoming the natural order of things. In an article appearing in Yediot Aharanot of 7 August Rabin’s former PR advisor, the rabidly racist Eitan Haber, turned the clash of civilisations from a theoretical concept, a made-in-the-US paradigm for understanding the world, into a real and concrete war. Then, with customary pomposity he suggested that the current conflict between Israel and Hizbullah was that very war: “We are at war,” he writes. “It is not an ‘operation’ or a ‘broad manoeuvre.’ It is war… Failure could bring ghosts out of the closet — the entire fundamentalist Islamic world is baring its teeth at the Western world and moderate Arab countries.”
The French-US sponsored UN Security Council resolution seems geared to transform this imaginary culture conflict into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Regardless of its underlying political position, as a literary text it is Israel’s narrative and the narrator is Israel. Israel, it tells us, is threatened by Hizbullah rockets. If Israel is to halt its bombardment Hizbullah must stop firing missiles into Israel first. Everyone knows that Israel regards the mere existence of missiles that could threaten its cities, even if only for deterrent purposes, as an act of aggression that must be answered. It is Israel’s right to threaten Lebanon, not Lebanon’s right to threaten Israel. As for the total destruction of half of Lebanon and the partial destruction of the other half, well that’s a “matter of opinion”.
The document goes on to grant that the conflict began with the capture of the two Israeli soldiers and that Israel had the right to declare this a causus belli. The first step to ending the war is for Hizbullah to release the soldiers unconditionally. Thus, with feigned naïveté, the resolution sets an official stamp on Israel’s pretext for going to war and for killing thousands and displacing a million in order to free two Israeli soldiers. Clearly, one of the resolution’s collateral purposes is to consecrate the superiority of one culture over another. The draft resolution concludes with a call for the disarming of Hizbullah, Israel’s original demand. From beginning to end, in its premises and aims, the language and substance is Israeli. The representatives of the nations who drafted it proceeded entirely from the Israeli perspective. “Cultural” communality has determined that Israel must be compensated for its military failures and that the Lebanese resistance must be prevented from translating its gains on the ground into political gains.
We should pause for a moment and consider what, exactly, the Arab people believe Hizbullah has accomplished and why they might be angered to see Israel’s allies on the Security Council and elsewhere obstruct the translation of these accomplishments into political gains.
The Arab people admire Hizbullah for reasons completely different to the ones people in the West and Israel suspect. The Arab public is drawn to Hizbullah precisely because it stands apart from Arab regimes and, simultaneously, from organisations like Al-Qaeda. Hizbullah is not corrupt and impotent like Arab regimes, and it does not cowardly target civilians like terrorist organisations. Rather, it has waged a valiant fight directly against the Israeli army, rejecting the disregard of Arab regimes for their own citizens when Israel attacks or kidnaps them. Hizbullah insists on avenging its dead and demanding the release of Lebanese prisoners in Israel. Hizbullah regards the blood of Lebanese civilians as of no less worth than that of Israeli civilians, and in taking this stance it has revived a sense of Arab dignity not only with respect to Israel but with respect to their own governments.
The Arabs admire Hizbullah not as an Iranian tool but because it is made up of Arab Muslim fighters who are rebuilding people’s confidence in their identity. If these Arabs can take on Israel so can others, once they are free of the fetters of underdevelopment and armed with resolve. The Arabs admire Hizbullah for the same qualities that Americans or Europeans would admire a political party that led them in a struggle against a foreign enemy: valour, courage, persistence, organisational skill, modesty in words, strength in action, a strong grassroots base, a desire to help the needy and other manifestations of a social conscience. They admire Hizbullah because it avoids hollow sloganeering, it is not corrupt and its electoral victories are not the result of nepotism, favoritism or bribes.
Israeli and Western politicians, and those Arabs who share their fear of Hizbullah, believed that the key to resolving their concerns lay in sectarian differences. They placed their bets on the Shia-Sunni divide, only to be surprised at how they had misjudged things. Hizbullah’s religious affiliation is both a strength and a weakness, but it certainly has not stood in the way of the party’s popularity in the Arab world.
Yet the popularity of Hizbullah remains a mystery to Western politicians, a manifestation of the irrational oriental mindset, of a dark and unfathomable culture that subscribes to martyrdom. They will continue to insist upon this as they collude to obstruct Hizbullah’s right to capitalise on its gains through its own persistence and by working together with others in its own society. They will insist and insist until the culture clash prophecy fulfills itself, which is to say until Arabs who admire the Hizbullah model realise that the West is hostile to it because it represents a “different” culture and as a consequence grow increasingly hostile to the West.
Hizbullah has not made it easy for those Arab intellectuals who do not like to distinguish between the culprits and the victims, who appeal to Beirut while ignoring the refugees in that city’s parks and schools, who urge both sides to exercise restraint in spite of the evidence at Bint Jbeil, Al-Duwair, Mrouhin, Eita Al-Sha’b, Ansar, Tyre, Shiyah and the Bakaa. Hizbullah hasn’t made it easy for those who make their living from dialogue with the West, who are ready to squander whatever autonomous sources of strength they have left in exchange for US approval of their desire to coexist with Israel and their readiness to pay whatever price is exacted for recognising it.
Hizbullah isn’t looking for peace with Israel. Nor is it interested in receiving brownie points for being “enlightened” or “moderate”. It sees its own enlightenment, as Israel sees hers, in its rationalisation and organisational strength. Ideologically, morally and in its origins, Hizbullah is founded within the Palestinian historical narrative, related by Palestinian refugees to the farmers and poets of Lebanon ever since catastrophe brought the poor of the Lebanese south and Palestinian refugees together in the same saga. Hizbullah will not lend itself as fodder to the “dialogue and coexistence industry”. It is too deep for that. It is too busy writing a hands-on theology for the wretched of the Arab earth. This leaves very little opening for opportunist intellectuals to sell Hizbullah to the West. Hizbullah is not concerned with “the recognition of Israel” and, unlike the PLO and others, it refuses to engage in a discourse that involves using basic principles as bargaining chips. Hizbullah thrives on fighting as an equal, not on being compensated for its absence in the field by a false equality around the negotiating table. Hizbullah is not in the business of selling souvenir pictures of Nasrallah or in the business of courting the admiration of others. Hizbullah simply doesn’t act like racists think a Muslim or Arab should act. The Muslim or Arab, according to the common racist assumption, will either sell out his principles and identity, toe the moderate line, live in peace as an inferior and ingratiate himself to his superiors or he will recoil into a nihilistic hatred and rejection of the other and of the West, thereby confirming his backwardness and the racist assumptions.
Azmi Bishara is a leading Palestinian political activist and member of the Israeli Knesset. Bishara is former head of the Philosophy Department at Bir Zeit University and Senior Researcher in the Van Leer Institute, Jerusalem.