JSalloum on Thu, 15 Aug 2002 18:30:14 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Edward Said: Punishment by detail

Punishment by detail

Edward Said

AL-AHRAM WEEKLY 8 - 14 August 2002


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, experience.
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

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