dhalleck on Fri, 9 Aug 2002 23:20:06 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> said's latest piece

Punishment by detail
By Edward Said

Al-Ahram Weekly
8-14 August 2002

Terrorism, and its obsessive pursuit, have become an entirely
circular, self-fulfiling murder and slow death of enemies who have
no choice or say in the matter, writes Edward Said

Edward Said

Aside from the obvious physical discomforts, being ill for a long period
of time fills the spirit with a terrible feeling of helplessness, but also
with periods of analytic lucidity, which, of course, must be treasured.
For the past three months now I have been in and out of the hospital, with
days marked by lengthy and painful treatments, blood transfusions, endless
tests, hours and hours of unproductive time spent staring at the ceiling,
draining fatigue and infection, inability to do normal work, and thinking,
thinking, thinking. But there are also the intermittent passages of
lucidity and reflection that sometimes give the mind a perspective on
daily life that allows it to see things (without being able to do much
about them) from a different perspective. Reading the news from Palestine
and seeing the frightful images of death and destruction on television, it
has been my experience to be utterly amazed and aghast at what I have
deduced from those details about Israeli government policy, more
particularly about what has been going on in the mind of Ariel Sharon. And
when, after the recent Gaza bombing by one of his F-16s in which nine
children were massacred, he was quoted as congratulating the pilot and
boasting of a great Israeli success, I was able to form a much clearer
idea than before of what a pathologically deranged mind is capable of, not
only in terms of what it plans and orders but, worse, how it manages to
persuade other minds to think in the same delusional and criminal way.
Getting inside the official Israeli mind is a worthwhile, if lurid,

In the West, however, there's been such repetitious and unedifying
attention paid to Palestinian suicide bombing that a gross distortion in
reality has completely obscured what is much worse: the official Israeli,
and perhaps the uniquely Sharonian evil that has been visited so
deliberately and so methodically on the Palestinian people. Suicide
bombing is reprehensible but it is a direct and, in my opinion, a
consciously programmed result of years of abuse, powerlessness and
despair. It has as little to do with the Arab or Muslim supposed
propensity for violence as the man in the moon. Sharon wants terrorism,
not peace, and he does everything in his power to create the conditions
for it. But for all its horror, Palestinian violence, the response of a
desperate and horribly oppressed people, has been stripped of its context
and the terrible suffering from which it arises: a failure to see that is
a failure in humanity, which doesn't make it any less terrible but at
least situates it in a real history and real geography.

Yet the location of Palestinian terror -- of course it is terror -- is
never allowed a moment's chance to appear, so remorseless has been the
focus on it as a phenomenon apart, a pure, gratuitous evil which Israel,
supposedly acting on behalf of pure good, has been virtuously battling in
its variously appalling acts of disproportionate violence against a
population of three million Palestinian civilians. I am not speaking only
about Israel's manipulation of opinion, but its exploitation of the
American equivalent of the campaign against terrorism without which Israel
could not have done what it has done. (In fact, I cannot think of any
other country on earth that, in full view of nightly TV audiences, has
performed such miracles of detailed sadism against an entire society and
gotten away with it.) That this evil has been made consciously part of
George W Bush's campaign against terrorism, irrationally magnifying
American fantasies and fixations with extraordinary ease, is no small part
of its blind destructiveness. Like the brigades of eager (and in my
opinion completely corrupt) American intellectuals who spin enormous
structures of falsehoods about the benign purpose and necessity of US
imperialism, Israeli society has pressed into service numerous academics,
policy intellectuals at think tanks, and ex-military men now in defence-
related and public relations business, all to rationalise and make
convincing inhuman punitive policies that are supposedly based on the need
for Israeli security.

Israeli security is now a fabled beast. Like a unicorn it is endlessly
hunted and never found, remaining, everlastingly, the goal of future
action. That over time Israel has become less secure and more unacceptable
to its neighbours scarcely merits a moment's notice. But then who
challenges the view that Israeli security ought to define the moral world
we live in? Certainly not the Arab and Palestinian leaderships who for 30
years have conceded everything to Israeli security. Shouldn't that ever be
questioned, given that Israel has wreaked more damage on the Palestinians
and other Arabs relative to its size than any country in the world, Israel
with its nuclear arsenal, its air force, navy, and army limitlessly
supplied by the US taxpayer? As a result the daily, minute occurrences of
what Palestinians have to live through are hidden and, more important,
covered over by a logic of self-defence and the pursuit of terrorism
(terrorist infrastructure, terrorist nests, terrorist bomb factories,
terrorist suspects -- the list is infinite) which perfectly suits Sharon
and the lamentable George Bush. Ideas about terrorism have thus taken on a
life of their own, legitimised and re- legitimised without proof, logic or
rational argument.

Consider for instance the devastation of Afghanistan, on the one hand, and
the "targeted" assassinations of almost 100 Palestinians (to say nothing
of many thousands of "suspects" rounded- up and still imprisoned by
Israeli soldiers) on the other: nobody asks whether all these people
killed were in fact terrorists, or proved to be terrorists, or were about
to become terrorists. They are all assumed to be dangers by acts of
simple, unchallenged affirmation. All you need is an arrogant spokesman or
two, like the loutish Ranaan Gissin, Avi Pazner, or Dore Gold, and in
Washington a non-stop apologist for ignorance and incoherence like Ari
Fleisher, and the targets in question are just as good as dead. Without
doubts, questions, or demurral. No need for proof or any such tiresome
delicacy. Terrorism and its obsessive pursuit have become an entirely
circular, self-fulfilling murder and slow death of enemies who have no
choice or say in the matter.

With the exception of reports by a few intrepid journalists and writers
such as Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, Amos Elon, Tanya Leibowitz, Jeff Halper,
Israel Shamir and a few others, public discourse in the Israeli media has
declined terribly in quality and honesty. Patriotism and blind support for
the government has replaced skeptical reflection and moral seriousness.
Gone are the days of Israel Shahak, Jakob Talmon, and Yehoshua Leibowitch.
I can think of few Israeli academics and intellectuals -- men like Zeev
Sternhell, Uri Avneri, and Ilan Pappe, for instance -- who are courageous
enough to depart from the imbecilic and debased debate about "security"
and "terrorism" that seems to have overtaken the Israeli peace
establishment, or even its rapidly dwindling Left opposition. Crimes are
being committed every day in the name of Israel and the Jewish people, and
yet the intellectuals chatter on about strategic withdrawal, or perhaps
whether to incorporate settlements or not, or whether to keep building
that monstrous fence (has a crazier idea ever been realised in the modern
world, that you can put several million people in a cage and say they
don't exist?) in a manner befitting a general or a politician, rather than
in ways more suited to intellectuals and artists with independent judgment
and some sort of moral standard. Where are the Israeli equivalents of
Nadine Gordimer, Andre Brink, Athol Fugard, those white writers who spoke
out unequivocally and with unambiguous clarity against the evils of South
African apartheid? They simply don't exist in Israel, where public
discourse by writers and academics has sunk to equivocation and the
repetition of official propaganda, and where most really first-class
writing and thought has disappeared from even the academic establishment.

But to return to Israeli practices and the mind-set that has gripped the
country with such obduracy during the past few years, think of Sharon's
plan. It entails nothing less than the obliteration of an entire people by
slow, systematic methods of suffocation, outright murder, and the stifling
of everyday life. There is a remarkable story by Kafka, In the Penal
Colony, about a crazed official who shows off a fantastically detailed
torture machine whose purpose is to write all over the body of the victim,
using a complex apparatus of needles to inscribe the captive's body with
minute letters that ultimately causes the prisoner to bleed to death. This
is what Sharon and his brigades of willing executioners are doing to the
Palestinians, with only the most limited and most symbolic of opposition.
Every Palestinian has become a prisoner. Gaza is surrounded by an
electrified wire fence on three sides; imprisoned like animals, Gazans are
unable to move, unable to work, unable to sell their vegetables or fruit,
unable to go to school. They are exposed from the air to Israeli planes
and helicopters and are gunned down like turkeys on the ground by tanks
and machine guns. Impoverished and starved, Gaza is a human nightmare,
each of whose little pieces of episodes -- like what takes place at Erez,
or near the settlements -- involves thousands of soldiers in the
humiliation, punishment, intolerable enfeeblement of each Palestinian,
without regard for age, gender, or illness. Medical supplies are held up
at the border, ambulances are fired upon or detained. Hundreds of houses
demolished, and hundreds of thousands of trees and agricultural land
destroyed in acts of systematic collective punishment against civilians,
most of whom are already refugees from Israel's destruction of their
society in 1948. Hope has been eliminated from the Palestinian vocabulary
so that only raw defiance remains, and still Sharon and his sadistic
minions prattle on about eliminating terrorism by an ever-encroaching
occupation that has continued now for 35 years. That the campaign itself
is, like all colonial brutality, futile, or that it has the effect of
making Palestinians more, rather than less, defiant simply does not enter
Sharon's closed mind.

The West Bank is occupied by 1,000 Israeli tanks whose sole purpose is to
fire upon and terrorise civilians. Curfews are imposed for periods of up
to two weeks, without respite. Schools and universities are either closed
or impossible to get to. No one can travel, not just between the nine main
cities, but within the cities. Every town today is a wasteland of
destroyed buildings, looted offices, purposely ruined water and electrical
systems. Commerce is finished. Malnutrition prevails in half the number of
children. Two thirds of the population lives below the poverty level of $2
a day. Tanks in Jenin (where the demolition of the refugee camp by Israeli
armour, a major war crime, was never investigated because cowardly
international bureaucrats such as Kofi Annan back down when Israel
threatens) fire upon and kill children, but that is only one drop in an
unending stream of Palestinian civilian deaths caused by Israeli soldiers
who furnish the illegal Israeli military occupation with loyal,
unquestioning service. Palestinians are all "terrorist suspects". The soul
of this occupation is that young Israeli conscripts are allowed full rein
to subject Palestinians at check-points to every known form of private
torture and abjection. There is the waiting in the sun for hours; then
there is the detention of medical supplies and produce until they rot;
there are the insulting words and beatings administered at will; the
sudden rampage of jeeps and soldiers against civilians waiting their turn
by the thousands at the innumerable check points that have made of
Palestinian life a choking hell; making dozens of youths kneel in the sun
for hours; forcing men to take off their clothes; insulting and
humiliating parents in front of their children; forbidding the sick to
pass through for no other reason than personal whim; stopping ambulances
and firing on them. And the steady number of Palestinian deaths (quadruple
that of Israelis) increases on a daily, mostly untabulated basis. More
"terrorist suspects" plus their wives and children, but "we" regret those
deaths very much. Thank you.

Israel is frequently referred to as a democracy. If so, then it is a
democracy without a conscience, a country whose soul has been captured by
a mania for punishing the weak, a democracy that faithfully mirrors the
psychopathic mentality of its ruler, General Sharon, whose sole idea -- if
that is the right word for it -- is to kill, reduce, maim, drive away
Palestinians until "they break". He provides nothing more concrete as a
goal for his campaigns, now or in the past, beyond that, and like the
garrulous official in Kafka's story he is most proud of his machine for
abusing defenceless Palestinian civilians, all the while monstrously
abetted in his grotesque lies by his court advisers and philosophers and
generals, as well as by his chorus of faithful American servants. There is
no Palestinian army of occupation, no Palestinian tanks, no soldiers, no
helicopter gun-ships, no artillery, no government to speak of. But there
are the "terrorists" and the "violence" that Israel has invented so that
its own neuroses can be inscribed on the bodies of Palestinians, without
effective protest from the overwhelming majority of Israel's laggard
philosophers, intellectuals, artists, peace activists. Palestinian
schools, libraries and universities have ceased normal functioning for
months now: and we still wait for the Western freedom-to-write-groups and
the vociferous defenders of academic freedom in America to raise their
voices in protest. I have yet to see one academic organisation either in
Israel or in the West make a declaration about this profound abrogation of
the Palestinian right to knowledge, to learning, to attend school.

In sum, Palestinians must die a slow death so that Israel can have its
security, which is just around the corner but cannot be realised because
of the special Israeli "insecurity". The whole world must sympathise,
while the cries of Palestinian orphans, sick old women, bereaved
communities, and tortured prisoners simply go unheard and unrecorded.
Doubtless, we will be told, these horrors serve a larger purpose than mere
sadistic cruelty. After all, "the two sides" are engaged in a "cycle of
violence" which has to be stopped, sometime, somewhere. Once in a while,
we ought to pause and declare indignantly that there is only side with an
army and a country: the other is a stateless dispossessed population of
people without rights or any present way of securing them. The language of
suffering and concrete daily life has either been hijacked, or it has been
so perverted as, in my opinion, to be useless except as pure fiction
deployed as a screen for the purpose of more killing and painstaking
torture -- slowly, fastidiously, inexorably. That is the truth of what
Palestinians suffer. But in any case, Israeli policy will ultimately fail.

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