Permission to narrate

Edward Said writes about the story of the Palestinians

  • Israel in Lebanon: The Report of the International Commission by Sean MacBride
    Ithaca, 282 pp, £4.50, March 1984, ISBN 0 903729 96 2
  • Sabra et Chatila: Enquête sur un Massacre by Amnon Kapeliouk
    Seuil, 117 pp
  • Final Conflict: The War in the Lebanon by John Bulloch
    Century, 238 pp, £9.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 7126 0171 6
  • Lebanon: The Fractured Country by David Gilmour
    Robertson, 209 pp, £9.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 85520 679 9
  • The Tragedy of Lebanon: Christian Warlords, Israeli Adventures and American Bunglers by Jonathan Randal
    Chatto, 320 pp, £9.50, October 1983, ISBN 0 7011 2755 4
  • God cried by Tony Clifton and Catherine Leroy
    Quartet, 141 pp, £15.00, June 1983, ISBN 0 7043 2375 3
  • Beirut: Frontline Story by Salim Nassib, Caroline Tisdall and Chris Steele-Perkins
    Pluto, 160 pp, £3.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 86104 397 9
  • The Fateful Triangle: Israel, the United States and the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky
    Pluto, 481 pp, £6.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 86104 741 9

As a direct consequence of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon an international commission of six jurists headed by Sean MacBride undertook a mission to investigate reported Israeli violations of international law during the invasion. The commission’s conclusions were published in Israel in Lebanon by a British publisher: it is reasonably clear that no publisher could or ever will be found for the book in the US. Anyone inclined to doubt the Israeli claim that ‘purity of arms’ dictated the military campaign will find support for that doubt in the report, even to the extent of finding Israel also guilty of attempted ‘ethnocide’ and ‘genocide’ of the Palestinian people (two members of the commission demurred at that particular conclusion, but accepted all the others). The findings are horrifying – and almost as much because they are forgotten or routinely denied in press reports as because they occurred. The commission says that Israel was indeed guilty of acts of aggression contrary to international law; it made use of forbidden weapons and methods; it deliberately, indiscriminately and recklessly bombed civilian targets – ‘for example, schools, hospitals and other non-military targets’; it systematically bombed towns, cities, villages and refugee camps; it deported, dispersed and ill-treated civilian populations; it had no really valid reasons ‘under international law for its invasion of Lebanon, for the manner in which it conducted hostilities, or for its actions as an occupying force’; it was directly responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacres.

As a record of the invasion, the MacBride Commission report is therefore a document of importance. But it has had no appreciable effect on the one outside force – America – whose indulgent support for Israel has made possible continued turbulence in Lebanon. The political question of moment is why, rather than fundamentally altering the Western view of Israel, the events of the summer of 1982 have been accommodated in all but a few places in the public realm to the view that prevailed before those events: that since Israel is in effect a civilised, democratic country constitutively incapable of barbaric practices against Palestinians and other non-Jews, its invasion of Lebanon was ipso facto justified.

Naturally, I refer here to official or policy-effective views and not the inchoate, unfocused feelings of the citizenry, which, to judge from several polls, is unhappy about Israeli actions. US aid levels to Israel since the siege of Beirut have gone up to a point where Israel receives roughly half of the entire American foreign aid budget, most of it in outright gifts and in subsidies to Israeli industries directly competitive with American counterparts. Presidential candidates, with the exception of George McGovern and Jesse Jackson, outbid each other in paeans of praise for Israel. The Administration has refurbished the strategic ‘understanding’ it made with Israel during Alexander Haig’s time as Secretary of State, as if the invasion had never happened, the theory being that, given unlimited aid, Israel will be assured of its security and prove a little more flexible. This has not happened. And, of course, Israel now sits on even greater amounts of Arab land, with occupation policies that are more brutally and blatantly repressive than those of most other 20th-century occupation regimes.

Gideon Spiro, an Israeli, testified to the MacBride Commission:

We don’t pay the price of anything that we are doing, not in the occupied territories, because Israel is in this a unique miracle. There is no country in the world which has over 100 per cent inflation, which is occupying the West Bank, occupying another people, and building all those settlements with billions of dollars, and spending 30 per cent of the GNP on defence – and still we can live here. I mean, somebody is paying for everything, so if everybody can live well and go abroad and buy cars, why not be for the occupation? So they are all luxury wars and people are very proud of the way we are fighting, the quick victories, the self-image of the brave Israeli – very flattering!

Yes, Israelis have fought well, and for the most part the Arabs haven’t: but how is it that, as has been the case for much of this century, the premises on which Western support for Israel is based are still maintained, even though the reality, the facts, cannot possibly bear these premises out?

Look at the summer of 1982 more closely. A handful of poorly armed Palestinians and Lebanese held off a very large Israeli army, air force and navy from 5 June till the middle of August. This was a major political achievement for the Palestinians. Something else was at stake in the invasion, however, to judge by its results a year and a half later – results which include Arab inaction, Syrian complicity in the unsuccessful PLO mutiny, and a virulent American hostility to Palestinian nationalism. That something was, I think, the inadmissible existence of the Palestinian people whose history, actuality and aspirations, as possessed of a coherent narrative direction pointed towards self-determination, were the object of this violence. Israel’s war was designed to reduce Palestinian existence as much as possible. Most Israeli leaders and newspapers admitted the war’s political motive. In Rafael Eytan’s words, to destroy Palestinian nationalism and institutions in Lebanon would make it easier to destroy them on the West Bank and in Gaza: Palestinians were to be turned into ‘drugged roaches in a bottle’. Meanwhile the clichés advocating Israel’s right to do what it wants grind on: Palestinians are rejectionists and terrorists, Israel wants peace and security, the Arabs won’t accept Israel and want to destroy it, Israel is a democracy, Zionism is (or can be made consonant with) humanism, socialism, liberalism, Western civilisation, the Palestinian Arabs ran away in 1948 because the other Arabs told them to, the PLO destroyed Lebanon, Israel’s campaign was a model of decorum greeted warmly by ‘the Lebanese’ and was only about the protection of the Galilee villagers.

Despite the MacBride Commission’s view that ‘the facts speak for themselves’ in the case of Zionism’s war against the Palestinians, the facts have never done so, especially in America, where Israeli propaganda seems to lead a life of its own. Whereas, in 1975, Michael Adams and Christopher Mayhew were able to write about a coherent but unstated policy of unofficial British press censorship, according to which unpleasant truths about Zionism were systematically suppressed, the situation is not nearly as obvious so far as the British media today are concerned. It still obtains in America, however, for reasons to do with a seemingly absolute refusal on the part of policy-makers, the media and the liberal intelligentsia to make connections, draw conclusions, state the simple facts, most of which contradict the premises of declared US policy. Paradoxically, never has so much been written and shown of the Palestinians, who were scarcely mentioned fifteen years ago. They are there all right, but the narrative of their present actuality – which stems directly from the story of their existence in and displacement from Palestine, later Israel – that narrative is not.

A disciplinary communications apparatus exists in the West both for overlooking most of the basic things that might present Israel in a bad light, and for punishing those why try to tell the truth. How many people know the kind of thing suggested by the following incident – namely, the maintenance in Israel of a rigid distinction between privileged Jew and underprivileged Palestinian? The example is recent, and its very triviality indicates the by now unconscious adherence to racial classification which pervades official Israeli policy and discourse. I have this instance from Professor Israel Shahak, Chairman of the Israeli League of Human Rights, who transcribed it from the Israeli journal Kol Ha’ir. The journal reports, with some effect of irony:

The society of sheep raisers in Israel [an entirely Jewish body from which Arabs are totally excluded] has agreed with the Ministry of Agriculture that a special sheepfold will be built in order to check the various immunisations on sheep. Which sheep? Jewish sheep in Israel, writes Baruch Bar Shalev, secretary of the sheep raiser’s society in a circular letter to all sheep raisers. In the letter they are asked to pay, towards the cost of the sheepfold, twenty shekels for Jewish sheep. This demand was also received by Semadar Kramer of the secretariat of ‘Never Shalom’ near Latron.

  Semadar Kramer sent the society of sheep raisers only half of the sum requested for building the Jewish sheepfold because ‘Never Shalom’ is a Jewish-Arab village, and therefore its sheep are also Jewish-Arab. They also claim that they have no certain knowledge about mixed marriages among the sheep, and that lately some difficulties about the conversion to Judaism were encountered in their sheepfold.

This, one might think, is either insanity or some comic fantasy produced in the imagination of a Swift or Kafka. Jewish sheep? The conversion of Arab sheep to Judaism? Surely these things cannot be real. Such distinctions, however, are part of the system of possessive exclusivism which has been imposed upon reality by central forces in Israeli society. The system is rarely discussed at all in the West, certainly not with anything resembling the intensity with which Palestinian terrorism is discussed. When an attempt is made to speak critically of Israel, the result is frightening – if the attempt succeeds in getting any diffusion at all. One small index is the fact that the Anti-Defamation League in America and the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee have each published books identifying Israel’s ‘enemies’ and implying tactics for police or vigilante action. In addition, there is the deep media compliance I have referred to – so that effective, and especially narrative, renderings of the Palestine-Israel contest are either attacked with near-unanimous force or ignored. The fortunes of Le Carré’s novel The Little Drummer Girl and Costa-Gavras’s film Hanna K illustrate these alternatives.

Having made a strong impression regionally and internationally during the years 1970 to 1982, the Palestinian narrative, as we shall see in a moment, is now barely in evidence. This is not an aesthetic judgment. Like Zionism itself, post-1948 Palestinian nationalism has had to achieve formal and ideological prominence well before any actual land has been gained. Strange nationalisms these, conducted for years in exile and alienation, for years projective, stubborn, passionately believed in. The major difference is that Zionism was a hothouse flower grown from European nationalism, anti-semitism and colonialism, while Palestinian nationalism, derived from the great wave of Arab and Islamic anti-colonial sentiment, has since 1967, though tinged with retrogressive religious sentiment, been located within the mainstream of secular post-imperialist thought. Even more important, Zionism is essentially a dispossessing movement so far as non-Jews are concerned. Palestinianism since 1967 has generally been inclusive, trying (satisfactorily or not) to deal with the problem created by the presence of more than one national community in historical Palestine. And for the years between 1974 and 1982, there was a genuine international consensus underwriting the Palestinian communal narrative and restoring it as a historical story to its place of origin and future resolution in Palestine. I speak here of the idea that Israel should return the Occupied Territories and that a Palestinian state be created alongside Israel. That this went against the grain of Zionism, despite its many internal differences, was obvious: nevertheless, there were many people in the world both willing and able to contest Golda Meir’s 1969 fiat that the Palestinians did not exist historically, had no communal identity, and no national rights. But when the whole force of the Palestinian national movement proposed a political resolution in Palestine based on the narrative shape of alienation, return and partition, in order to make room for two peoples, one Jewish and the other Arab, neither Israel nor the West accepted it. Hence the bitter Arab and Palestinian infighting, which has been caused by Arafat’s – i.e. the mainstream PLO’s – failure to get any real response to the notion of partition from those Western nations most associated with the fate of Palestine. Bruno Kreisky puts the case forcefully in ‘L’échec d’Arafat, c’est notre faute’ (Les Nouvelles, December 1983). The symbolism of Palestinians fighting each other in the forlorn outskirts of Tripoli in North Lebanon is too stark to be misinterpreted. The course taking Palestinians, in Rosemary Sayigh’s phrase, from peasants and refugees to the revolutionaries of a nation in exile has for the time being come to an abrupt stop, curling about itself violently. What was once a radical alternative to Zionism’s master code of Jewish exclusivism seems reduced to mere points on the map miles away from Palestine. Lebanon, the Soviet build-up, Syria, Druze and Shia militancy, the new American-Israeli quasi-treaty – these dominate the landscape, absorb political energies.

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[1] Critical Inquiry, Autumn 1980.

[2] A persuasive study by Mark Heller, an Israeli political scientist at the Centre for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University, A Palestinian State: The Implications for Israel (Harvard University Press, 1983), represents an exception. Heller argues that a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza is in Israel’s best interests, and is more desirable than either annexation or returning the territories to Jordan.

[3] The background of collaboration between Zionist groups and individuals and various European fascists is studied in Lenni Brenner’s Zionism in the Age of the Dictators: A Reappraisal (Croom Helm, 1983).

[4] There is one exception to be noted: Lina Mikdadi, Surviving the Siege of Beirut (Onyx Press, 1983). This delivers a Lebanese-Palestinian’s account of life in Beirut during the siege.

[5] Kamal Salibi, The Modern History of Lebanon (New York, 1965), and Crossroads to Civil War: Lebanon 1958-1976 (Delmar, NY, 1976).

[6] Elie Salem, Modernisation without Revolution: Lebanon’s Experiences (Bloomington and London, 1972).