‘We’ know who ‘we’ are

Edward Said on Iraq, Palestine and ‘Us’

Lebanon was heavily bombed by Israeli warplanes on 4 June 1982. Two days later the Israeli Army breached the country’s southern border. Menachem Begin was then Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon Minister of Defence. The immediate reason for the invasion was the attempted assassination of the Israeli Ambassador to Britain, blamed by Begin and Sharon on the PLO, whose forces in South Lebanon had been observing a ceasefire for a year. By 13 June, Beirut was under siege, even though the Israeli Government had originally said it planned to go no further into Lebanon than the Awali River, 35 km north of the border. Later, it became all too clear that Sharon was trying to kill Yasir Arafat by bombing everything around him. There was a blockade of humanitarian aid; water and electricity were cut off, and a sustained aerial bombing campaign destroyed hundreds of buildings. By mid-August, when the siege ended, 18,000 Palestinians and Lebanese, most of them civilians, had been killed.

The civil war between right-wing Christian militias and left-wing Muslim and Arab nationalist groups had already lasted seven years. Although Israel sent its Army into Lebanon only once before 1982, it had early been sought as an ally by the Christian militias, who co-operated with Sharon’s forces during the siege. Sharon’s main ally was Bashir Gemayel, leader of the Phalange Party, who was elected President by the Lebanese Parliament on 23 August. The Palestinians had unwisely entered the civil war on the side of the National Movement, a loose coalition of parties that included Amal, a forerunner of Hizbollah (which was to play the major role in finally driving the Israelis out of Lebanon in May 2000). Faced with the prospect of Israeli vassalage after Sharon’s Army had in effect brought about his election, Gemayel seems to have demurred and was assassinated on 14 September. Israeli troops occupied Beirut, supposedly to keep order, and two days later, inside a security cordon provided by the Israeli Army, Gemayel’s vengeful extremists massacred two thousand Palestinian refugees at the camps of Sabra and Shatila.

Under UN and of course US supervision, French troops had entered Beirut on 21 August in the aftermath of the siege and were later joined by US and other European forces. The PLO fighters were evacuated from Lebanon; and by the beginning of September Arafat and a small band of advisers and soldiers had relocated to Tunis. The Taif Accord of 1989 prepared the way for a settlement of the civil war the following year. The old confessional system – under which different religious groups are allocated a specific number of Parliamentary seats – was more or less restored and remains in place today.

Earlier this year Sharon was quoted as regretting his failure to kill Arafat in Beirut. Not for want of trying – dozens of buildings were destroyed, hundreds of people killed. The events of 1982 hardened ordinary Arabs, I think, to the idea that Israel would use planes, missiles, tanks and helicopters to attack civilians indiscriminately, and that neither the US nor the Arab governments would do anything to stop it.

The invasion of Lebanon was the first full-scale contemporary attempt at regime change by one sovereign country against another in the Middle East. I bring it up as a messy backdrop to the current crisis. The main difference between 1982 and 2002 is that the Palestinians are now under siege inside Palestinian territories that have been occupied by Israel since 1967. The main similarity is the disproportionate nature of Israeli actions: the hundreds of tanks and bulldozers used to enter towns and villages like Jenin or refugee camps like Deheisheh, where troops once more set about killing, vandalising, obstructing ambulances and first-aid workers, cutting off water and electricity and so on. All with the support of the US, whose President called Sharon a ‘man of peace’ during the worst assaults of last March and April. Sharon’s purpose went far beyond ‘rooting out terror’: his soldiers destroyed every computer and carried off files and hard drives from the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Ministries of Education, Finance and Health, and vandalised offices and libraries.

I don’t want to rehearse my criticisms of Arafat’s tactics or the failures of his deplorable regime during the Oslo negotiations and thereafter. Besides, as I write, the man is only just hanging onto his life: his crumbling quarters in Ramallah are still besieged and Sharon is doing everything possible to injure him short of actually having him killed. What concerns me, rather, is the idea of regime change as an attractive notion for individuals, ideologies and institutions that are vastly more powerful than their adversaries. It is now, it seems, taken for granted that great military power licenses large-scale political and social change, whatever damage that may entail. And the fact that one’s own side will not suffer many casualties seems only to stimulate more fantasies about surgical strikes, clean war, high technology battlefields, changing the entire map, creating democracy and so on, all of this giving rise to dreams of omnipotence.

In the current American propaganda campaign for regime change in Iraq, the people of that country, the vast majority of whom have suffered from poverty, malnutrition and illness as a result of ten years of sanctions, have dropped out of sight. This is entirely in keeping with US Middle East policy, which is built on two mighty pillars: the security of Israel and plentiful supplies of inexpensive oil. The complex mosaic of traditions, religions, cultures, ethnicities and histories in the Arab world is lost to US and Israeli strategic planners. Iraq is either a ‘threat’ to its neighbours, which, in its currently weakened and besieged condition, is a nonsensical idea, or a ‘threat’ to the freedom and security of the United States, which is still more absurd. I am not even going to bother to add my condemnations of Saddam Hussein: I shall take it for granted that he deserves to be ousted and punished. Worst of all, he is a threat to his own people.

Since the period before the first Gulf War, the image of Iraq as a large, prosperous and diverse Arab country has been replaced in both media and policy discussions by that of a desert land peopled by brutal gangs headed by Saddam. That Iraq’s debasement has nearly ruined the Arab publishing industry because the country provided the largest number of readers in the Arab world; that it was the only Arab state with an educated and competent professional middle class of any size; that it has water and fertile land; that it has always been the cultural centre of the Arab world (the Abbasid Empire with its great literature, philosophy, architecture, science and medicine formed the basis of Arab culture); that its suffering has, like the Palestinian calvary, been a source of continuing sorrow for Arabs and Muslims alike – none of this is ever mentioned. What is mentioned are Iraq’s vast oil reserves – and if ‘we’ took them away from Saddam and got our own hands on them we wouldn’t be so dependent on Saudi oil. Iraq’s oil reserves, second only to Saudi Arabia’s, are worth roughly $1.1 trillion – much of it already promised by Saddam to Russia, France and a few other countries. A good deal of the bargaining between Putin and Bush is over the percentage of that oil US companies would be willing to promise Russia. This is eerily reminiscent of the four billion dollars offered to Russia (via Saudi Arabia) by Bush Senior. Both Bushes are oil businessmen, and care more about such things than about the fine details of Middle Eastern politics – or about the state of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure.

The initial step in the dehumanisation of the Other is to reduce him to a few insistently repeated simple phrases, images and concepts. Thus the word ‘terrorist’ was first employed systematically by Israel to describe any Palestinian act of resistance in the mid-1970s. That has been the rule ever since, effectively depoliticising the reasons for armed struggle. The process of dehumanisation was stepped up after 11 September. Men from the extreme right-wing Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) and Center for Security Policy (CSP) populate Pentagon and State Department committees, including the Defense Policy Board, run by Richard Perle (who was appointed by Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz), where Israeli security is equated with US security. According to Jason Vest in the Nation, JINSA spends the ‘bulk of its budget taking a bevy of retired US generals and admirals to Israel’: when they come back, they write op-eds and appear on TV peddling the Likud line.

For his part, Sharon has numbingly repeated that his campaign against Palestinian terrorism is identical with the American war on terrorism. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, he claims, are part of the same ‘terrorist international’ that includes Muslims all over Asia, Africa, Europe and North America. This ‘link’ is used by Sharon to explain why every major town on the West Bank and in Gaza is occupied by Israeli troops who routinely kill or detain Palestinians on the grounds that they are ‘suspected’ terrorists and militants, and demolish houses and shops with the excuse that they shelter bomb factories, terrorist cells and meeting places for militants. No proof is given, none asked for by the press.

Mystification is everywhere. Terror, fanaticism, violence, hatred of freedom, insecurity and, of course, weapons of mass destruction: these are the words we use to speak of the Arab world; they don’t come up in relation to Israel, Pakistan, India, the UK or the US. Iraq is potentially Israel’s most fearsome enemy because of its economic and human resources; the Palestinians stand in the way of Israeli hegemony and land-occupation. On US TV this summer, Uzi Landau, Israel’s Internal Security Minister (and a member of the Moledet Party, which advocates ‘transferring’ all Palestinians out of Israel and the Occupied Territories), claimed that all talk of ‘occupation’ was nonsense. We are a people coming home, he said. None of this was queried by Mort Zuckerman, host of the programme, who also owns US News and World Report and chairs the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organisations. But Landau’s views seem almost moderate when compared with those of some members of the Bush Administration. The Israeli journalist Alex Fishman described the ‘revolutionary ideas’ of Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld (who also refers to the ‘so-called occupied territories’) as terrifyingly hawkish. Sharon has said that ‘next to our American friends’ Effi Eitam – one of the Israeli Cabinet’s most remorseless hardliners – is a ‘total dove’.

More frightening still is the unchallenged proposition that if ‘we’ don’t pre-empt terrorism (or any other potential enemy), we will be destroyed.[*] This is now the core of US security strategy and is regularly drummed out in interviews and talk shows by Rice, Rumsfeld and Bush himself. The formal statement of this view appeared a short time ago in the National Security Strategy of the United States, an official paper prepared as a manifesto for the Administration’s new, post-Cold War foreign policy. Its presumption is that we live in an exceptionally dangerous world with a network of enemies who possess factories, offices and endless supporters, and whose existence is dedicated to destroying us. The belief that ‘we’ must get them first is what frames and gives legitimacy to the war on terrorism and on Iraq.

Fanatical individuals and groups do exist who are in favour of somehow harming either Israel or the US. On the other hand, Israel and the US are widely perceived in the Islamic and Arab worlds, first, as having created the jihadi extremists of whom bin Laden is the most famous, and second, as ignoring international law and UN Resolutions in the pursuit of their own hostile and destructive policies in those worlds. As David Hirst has pointed out in the Guardian, even Arabs who oppose their own despotic regimes will see any US attack on Iraq as an ‘act of aggression aimed not just at Iraq, but at the whole Arab world; and what will make it supremely intolerable is that it will be done on behalf of Israel, whose acquisition of a large arsenal of weapons of mass destruction seems to be as permissible as theirs is an abomination.’

It should also be made clear that the Palestinian position is not identical either to that of the Iraqis or to that of al-Qaida. Since the mid-1980s, the Palestinians have been at least officially willing to make peace with Israel. Media commentators in the West mix and merge the Palestinians and Iraq so that they become a collective menace. Most of the stories about the Palestinians that appear in influential publications in the US like the New Yorker and the New York Times magazine show them as bombmakers, collaborators, suicide bombers. Neither of these has published anything from the Arab viewpoint since 11 September.

Dennis Ross (in charge of the US team at the Oslo negotiations, but both before and after that associated with the Israeli lobby) keeps saying that the Palestinians turned down a generous Israeli offer at Camp David: in fact, Israel conceded only non-contiguous Palestinian areas which were all to have Israeli security posts and settlements surrounding them. In addition, there was to be no common border between Palestine and any Arab state. Why words like ‘generous’ and ‘offer’ should in any case apply to territory held by an occupying power in contravention of international law and UN Resolutions, no one bothers to ask. But the power of the media to repeat, re-repeat and underline simple assertions, combined with the untiring efforts of the Israeli lobby, means that it is now locked into place that the Palestinians chose ‘terror instead of peace’. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are seen not as a (misguided) part of the struggle to be rid of Israeli military occupation, but as part of the general Palestinian desire to terrorise, threaten and be a menace. Like Iraq.

In any event, with the US Administration’s newest and rather improbable claim that secular Iraq has been harbouring and training the insanely theocratic al-Qaida, the case against Saddam seems to have been closed. The Government consensus is that since UN inspectors cannot ascertain what WMD he possesses, what he has hidden and what he might still do with them, he should be attacked and removed. The whole point of going to the UN, from the US point of view, is to get a Resolution so punitive that it will not matter whether Saddam Hussein complies or not: he will be incriminated with having violated ‘international law’ and his existence will itself be sufficient to warrant regime change. In late September, a unanimous Security Council Resolution (the US abstaining) enjoined Israel to end its siege of Arafat’s Ramallah compound and to withdraw from Palestinian territory illegally occupied since March (Israel’s excuse has been ‘self-defence’). Israel has refused to comply, but in this case the UN is to be ignored – ‘we’ understand that Israel must defend its citizens.

Neologisms such as ‘anticipatory pre-emption’ and ‘preventive self-defence’ are bandied about by Rumsfeld and his colleagues in an attempt to persuade the public that the preparations for war against Iraq or any other state in need of ‘regime change’ (or the rarer euphemism ‘constructive destruction’) are buttressed by the notion of self-defence. The public is kept on tenterhooks by repeated red or orange alerts, people are encouraged to inform the law enforcement authorities of ‘suspicious’ behaviour, and thousands of Muslims, Arabs and South Asians have been detained, in some cases charged, merely on suspicion. All of this is carried out at the President’s behest and is claimed to be an expression of patriotism and love of America.

So powerful is the United States that it can’t be constrained by any international code of conduct. The discussion of whether ‘we’ should go to war against a country seven thousand miles away remains nicely abstract. The great majority of Americans have had no contact with Muslim countries or peoples and therefore have no feeling for the fabric of life that a sustained bombing campaign (as in Afghanistan) would tear to shreds. And since terrorism is explained merely as the result of hatred and envy, it encourages polemicists to engage in extravagant debates from which history and politics seem to have disappeared. At a fervently pro-Israel demonstration in May, Paul Wolfowitz mentioned Palestinian suffering in passing, but was loudly booed and has never referred to it again.

A coherent human rights or free-trade policy that stuck to the endlessly underlined principles that the US is constitutively believed to stand for would be undermined domestically by special interest groups (the ethnic lobbies, the steel and defence industries, the oil cartel, the farming industry, retired people, the gun lobby etc). Every one of the 435 Congressional districts represented in Washington contains a defence or defence-related industry, which explains why Bush Sr’s Secretary of State, James Baker, said before the first Gulf War that the real issue at stake was ‘jobs’. Only around 25 per cent of the members of Congress even have passports (around 15 per cent of Americans have travelled abroad); their views are influenced by lobbyists and by the need to attract campaign funding. Two incumbent House members, Earl Hilliard of Alabama and Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, both of them supportive of the Palestinian right to self-determination and critical of Israel, were recently defeated by relatively obscure candidates who were funded mainly by the Israeli lobby in New York. Where Middle East policy is concerned, the lobby has turned the legislative branch of the US Government into what Jim Abourezk, a former senator, once called ‘Israeli-occupied territory’. The Senate periodically issues unsolicited resolutions that underline and reiterate American support for Israel. There was one such resolution in May, just as Israeli forces were occupying and destroying the major West Bank towns. In the long run all this is damaging to Israel’s future: as Tony Judt has recently argued, Israel cannot remain on Palestinian land and is simply putting off the inevitable withdrawal.

The war against terrorism has permitted Israel and its supporters to commit war crimes against the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza, whose 3.4 million inhabitants have become, as the current jargon has it, ‘non-combatant collateral damage’. Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN’s Special Administrator for the Occupied Territories, has just issued a report charging Israel with causing a humanitarian catastrophe: unemployment has reached 65 per cent, 50 per cent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day, and the economy has been shattered. Schools and universities cannot function. Houses are demolished, people deported, curfews imposed, ambulances prevented from passing roadblocks. Nothing in this list is new, but, like the occupation itself and the dozens of UN Security Council Resolutions condemning it, these depredations are mentioned in the US media only occasionally, as endnotes to long articles about Israeli Government debates, or disastrous suicide bombings. The phrase ‘suspected of terrorism’ is both the justification and the epitaph for whomever Sharon chooses to have killed. The US doesn’t object, except to say, in the mildest terms, that Israel’s actions are ‘not helpful’, which does little to stop the next batch of killings.

Following 11 September, a chilling conjuncture has occurred in which the prejudices of the Christian Right, the Israeli lobby and the Bush Administration’s semi-religious belligerency are rationalised by neo-conservative hawks committed to the destruction of Israel’s enemies, or, as it is sometimes euphemistically put, to redrawing the map by bringing regime change and ‘democracy’ to the Arab countries that pose the most danger to Israel. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan have been threatened, despite the fact that – dreadful regimes though they are – they have been protected and supported by the US since World War Two, as Iraq was until recently.

It seems obvious to anyone who knows anything about the Arab world that its parlous state is likely to get a whole lot worse once the US begins its assault on Iraq. Supporters of the Administration occasionally say vague things about how exciting it will be when we bring democracy to Iraq and the other Arab states, without much consideration for what this will mean for the people who live there. I can’t imagine that there are many Arabs or Iraqis who would not like to see Saddam Hussein removed, but all the indications are that US/Israeli military action would make things much worse on the ground.

It may be that not even the Iraqi Army will lift a finger on Saddam’s behalf, but in a recent Congressional hearing three former generals from the US Central Command expressed serious and, I would say, crippling reservations about the whole adventure. No one in the US has any real idea of what might happen in Iraq, or Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, if a major military intervention takes place. Nor has any thought been given to what would happen after a US ‘victory’: the expatriate Iraqi opposition doesn’t have enough support to form a government and the US Army won’t be keen to step into the gap.

The unconscionable atrocity of 11 September most certainly needs to be confronted, but making a forceful response is the easy part: what happens next has to be considered more carefully. No one could argue today that Afghanistan, even after the rout of the Taliban, is a much better and more secure place for its citizens. Nation-building is clearly not the US Administration’s priority. Besides, how can Americans rebuild a nation with a culture and history as different from their own as Iraq? Both the Arab world and the US are far more complex and dynamic places than the platitudes of war and the resonant phrases about reconstruction would allow.

As someone who has lived my life within the two cultures, I am appalled that the ‘clash of civilisations’, that reductive and vulgar notion so much in vogue, has taken over thought and action. What we need to put in place is a universalist framework for dealing with Saddam Hussein as well as Sharon, the rulers of Burma, Syria, Turkey and a whole host of countries where depredations are endured without sufficient resistance. The only way to re-create or restore this framework is through education, open discussion and intellectual honesty that will have no truck with concealed special pleading or the jargons of war, religious extremism and pre-emptive ‘defence’.

[*] See ‘Jumping the Gun’, Michael Byers on pre-emptive self-defence (LRB, 25 July).