Real change can come, in Palestine as elsewhere,
only when people actively will it
by Edward Said
December 22, 2002
The daily hemorrhage of Palestinian lives and property accelerates without respite. Both the Arab and Western media report horrifically sensational suicide bombings, complete with pictures and names of the victims as well as gut-wrenching details. I do not hesitate now to say again that these efforts are morally repugnant and politically disastrous on all sorts of grounds. But what I find just as awful is the fact that Israel kills a far larger number of mostly unarmed Palestinian civilians -- a 90- year-old man here, a whole family there, a mentally disabled youth today, a nurse yesterday, and so on -- and refuses to stop or in any way place restrictions on its troops who have visited mayhem on the Palestinians unremittingly for far too many recent months. Most of the time, however, these dreadful slaughters are reported on the back pages of newspapers and never mentioned on TV. As for the continued practice of extra- legal assassinations, Israel is allowed to get away with phrases from journalists who use words like "alleged" or "officials say" to cover their own irresponsibility as reporters. The New York Times in particular is now so clotted with such phrases in reporting on the Middle East (Iraq included) that it might as well be re-named "Officials Said".
In other words, the fact that illegal Israeli practices continue to deliberately bleed the Palestinian civilian population is obscured, hidden from view, though it continues steadily all the time: 65 per cent unemployment, 50 per cent poverty (people living on less than $2 a day), schools, hospitals, universities, businesses under constant military pressure, these are only the outward manifestation of Israeli crimes against humanity. Over 40 per cent of the Palestinian population is malnourished and famine is now a genuine threat. Non-stop curfews, the endless expropriation of land and the building of settlements (now numbering almost 200), the destruction of crops, trees, houses have made life for ordinary Palestinians intolerable. Many are leaving, or as is the case with the inhabitants of Yanun village, must leave because settlers' terror against them, the burning of their houses, and threats against their lives make it impossible to stay. Ethnic cleansing is what this is all about, although Sharon's demonic plan is to do it in tiny daily increments that won't properly be reported and are never seen cumulatively as part of a general pattern. With the Bush administration backing his policies unconditionally, no wonder that Sharon can afford to say "we are placing no restriction on our operations. Israel is under no pressure. No one is criticising us or has the right to do so. We are talking here about Israel's right to protect its citizens." (Reuters, IHT 15 November, 2002). Why this kind of arrogance goes unanswered or isn't immediately associated with the kind of thing for which Slobodan Milosevic is now being tried in the Hague is a sign of how mendacious the international community has become. With US cover, Sharon kills Palestinians at will under the guise of fighting terrorism.
Were this not bad enough, there is in addition the sorry state of Palestinian and Arab politics, many of its leaders and elites never more corrupt, rarely more injurious to their people as now. Neither collectively nor individually have these people put up any systematic strategy, much less even a systematic protest against Washington's announced plans to re-draw the map of the Middle East after the invasion of Iraq. All these regimes can do now seems to be either to market themselves as indispensable to the US or to suppress any sign of dissent in their midst. Or both together. The unseemly bickering and disorderliness of the Iraqi opposition in London -- under the watchful eye of the US's Zalmay Khalizad, an AUB graduate, once a neighbour of mine in New York, now a neo- conservative protégé of Cheney and Wolfowitz -- gives an excellent idea of where we are as a people. Representatives who represent only themselves, the condescending imperial patronage of a power that is about to destroy a country in order to grab its resources, the tyrannical, discredited local regimes (of which Saddam's is the worst) ruling by terror, the absence of any semblance of democracy within, and without, such regimes -- these are not reassuring prospects for the future. What is especially noticeable about the general situation is the powerlessness and silence of the overwhelming majority of the people, who suffer their humiliation within an envelope of overall indifference and repression. Everything in the Arab world is done either from above by basically unelected rulers or behind a curtain by undesignated, albeit resourceful, middlemen. Resources are bartered or sold without accountability; political futures are designed for the convenience of the powerful and their local sub-contractors; human compassion and care for the citizens' well being have few institutions to nurture them.
The Palestinian situation embodies all this with startling drama. As the culmination of its 35-year-old military occupation the Israeli army has spent the last nine months destroying the rudimentary infrastructure of civilian life on the West Bank and in Gaza: people there, in effect, live in cages, with electrical and concrete fences or Israeli troops to guard and interdict their free movement. Yasser Arafat and his men, who are at least as responsible for the current paralysis and devastation because of what they signed away in Oslo, and for having given legitimacy to the Israeli occupation, seem to be hanging on anyway, even as extraordinary stories of their corruption and illegally acquired wealth dribble out all over the Israeli, Arab and international media. It is deeply troubling that many of these men have recently been involved in secret negotiations with the EU, with the CIA, with the Scandinavian countries on the basis of their former credibility as surrogates and servants of Arafat. In the meantime Mr Palestine himself continues to issue orders and ludicrous denunciations, all of them either futile or years out of date; his recent attack on Osama Bin Laden is one example, as is his retrospective acceptance of the Clinton plan of 2000. Still, he and his henchmen like the sinister Mohamed Rashid (aka Khalid Salam) continue to employ large sums of money to bribe, to corrupt, and to prolong their rule past all decency. No one seems to be paying attention as the infamous Quartet announces a peace conference and reform with one voice on one day, withdrawing the plan the next, while encouraging Israel in its repression on the third day.
What could be more preposterous than the call for Palestinian elections, which Mr Arafat of all people, imprisoned in an Israeli vice, announces, retracts, postpones, and re-announces. Everyone speaks of reform except the very people whose future depends on it, i.e. the citizens of Palestine, who have endured and sacrificed so much even as their impoverishment and misery increases. Isn't it ironic, not to say grotesque, that in the name of that long-suffering people schemes of rule are being hatched everywhere, except by that people itself? Surely the Swedes, the Spanish, the British, the Americans and even the Israelis know that the symbolic key to the future of the Middle East is Palestine, and that is why they do everything within their power to make sure that the Palestinian people are kept as far away from decisions about the future as possible. And this during a heated campaign for war against Iraq, during which numerous Americans, Europeans and Israelis have openly stated that this is the time to re-draw the map of the Middle East and bring in "democracy".
The time has come for the emperor who claims to be wearing new clothes, which he calls democracy, to be exposed for the charlatan he really is. Democracy cannot be imported or imposed: it is the prerogative of citizens who can make it and desire to live under it. Ever since the end of World War Two, the Arab countries have been living in various states of "emergency", which has been a license for their rulers to do what they want in the name of security. Even the Palestinians under Oslo had a regime imposed on them that existed first of all to serve Israel's security, and second, to serve (and help) itself.
For all sorts of reasons, among them that the cause of Palestine (like the liberation of apartheid South Africa) has always served as a model for Arabs and fair-minded idealistic people everywhere, it is today imperative that Palestinians take steps to restore the fashioning of their destiny to their own hands. The political stage in Palestine is now divided between two unattractive and unviable alternatives. On one side there is what is left of the Authority and Arafat, on the other the Islamic parties. Neither one nor the other can possibly secure a decent future for the citizens of Palestine. The Authority is so discredited, its failure to build institutions so basic, its corrupt and cynical history so compromised in every way as to render it incapable of being entrusted with the future. Only rogues will pretend otherwise, as some of its security chiefs and prominent negotiators are now pretending. As for the Islamic parties, they lead desperate individuals into a negative space of endless religious strife and anti-modern decline. If we speak of Zionism as having failed politically and socially, how can it be acceptable to turn passively to another religion and look there for worldly salvation? Impossible. Human beings make their own history, not gods or magic or miracles. Purifying the land of "aliens", whether it is spoken of by Muslims, Christians or Jews, is a defilement of human life as it is lived by billions of people who are mixed by race, history, ethnic identity, religion or nationality.
But a large majority of Palestinians and, I think, Israelis, know these things. And fortunately a political alternative already exists that is neither Hamas nor Arafat's Authority. I am speaking here of an impressive formation of Palestinians in the occupied territories who in June of this year announced a new Palestinian national initiative (moubadara wataniya). Among its leaders are Dr Mustafa Barghouti and Dr Haidar Abdel-Shafi, Rawia Al-Shawa, and many more independents who understand that in its weakened state Palestinian society is being targeted for "reform" by parties whose real interest is to liquidate Palestine as a political and moral force for years to come. Idle talk of elections by Arafat and his lieutenants is meant to reassure outsiders that democracy is on the way. Far from it -- these people simply want to continue their corrupt and bankrupt ways by any means possible, including outright fraud. The 1996 elections, it should be remembered, were conducted on the basis of the Oslo process, the main aim of which was to continue Israeli occupation under a different title. The Legislative Assembly (al majlis al-tashri'i) was in reality powerless before both Arafat's edict and the Israeli veto. What Sharon and the Quartet now propose is an extension of the same unacceptable regime. This is why the National Initiative has become the inevitable choice for Palestinians everywhere.
In the first place, unlike the Authority, it proposes liberation from, rather than cooperation with, the Israeli occupation. Second, it is representative of a broad base in civil society and therefore includes no military or security people and no hangers on of Arafat's court. Third, it argues for liberation and not a readjustment of the occupation to suit elites and VIPs.
Most important, the initiative -- which I am happy to endorse enthusiastically-- puts forward the idea of a national unified authority, elected to serve the people and its need for liberation, for democratic freedoms, and for public debate and accountability. These things have been put off for far too long. The old divisions between Fatah, the Popular Front, Hamas, and all the others, are meaningless today. We cannot afford such ridiculous posturing. As a people under occupation we need a leadership whose main goal is to rid us of Israeli depredations and occupations, and to provide us with an order that can fulfil our needs for honesty, national scope, transparency and direct speech. Arafat has a history of double talk. Barghouti, on the other hand -- I use him as an example here -- takes a principled line, whether he addresses Palestinians, Israelis, or the foreign media. He has the respect of his people because of his medical services in the villages, and his honesty and leadership have inspired everyone who has had contact with him. I also think it is very important that the Palestinian people should be led now by modern, well- educated people for whom the values of citizenship are central to their vision. Our rulers today have never been citizens, they have never stood in line to buy bread, they have never paid their own medical or school bills, they have never endured the uncertainty and cruelty of arbitrary arrest, tribal bullying, conspiratorial power grabs. Barghouti's and Abdel-Shafi's examples, as do those of all the main figures in the initiative, speak to our need for independence of mind and responsible, modern citizenship. The old days are over and should be buried as expeditiously as possible.
I conclude by saying that real change can only come about when people actively will that change, make it possible themselves. The Iraqi opposition is making a terrible mistake by throwing its fate into American hands, and in so doing paying insufficient attention to the needs of the actual people of Iraq who now suffer the terrible persecutions of autocracy and are about to be subject to an equally terrible bombing by the US. In Palestine it should be possible to have elections now, but not elections to re-install Arafat's ragged crew, but rather to choose delegates for a constitutional and truly representative assembly. It is a lamentable reality that during his 10 years of misrule Arafat actively prevented the creation of a constitution despite all his ridiculous gibberish about "Palestinian democracy". His legacy is neither a constitution nor even a basic law, but only a decrepit mafia. Despite that, and despite Sharon's frantic wish to bring an end to Palestinian national life, our popular and civil institutions still function under extreme hardship and duress. Somehow teachers teach, nurses nurse, doctors doctor, and so on. These everyday activities have never stopped if only because necessity dictates unstinting effort. Now those institutions and those people who have truly served their society must bring themselves forward and provide a moral and intellectual framework for liberation and democracy, by peaceful means and with genuine national intent. In this effort Palestinians under occupation and those in the shatat or diaspora have an equal obligation to make the effort. Perhaps this national initiative may provide a democratic example for other Arabs as well.
Edward Said is University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and is a leading Palestinian intellectual and activist. Among his books are The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (Pantheon, 2000), Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process (Vintage, 1996), and Out of Place: A Memoir (Knopf, 1999). This article first appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt)