A voice of reason

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Professor Edward Said was among the first to prophesize the birth of a second Palestinian uprising or Intifada. He deemed the Oslo peace process a betrayal and has ever since ceaselessly sought to remind Palestinians that the focus of their struggle must be on liberation and emancipation. Foregoing the opportunity to participate in the Oslo festivities, he instead accurately caricatured Yasser Arafat’s aborted Palestinian state as ‘the largest jail in the world’ – a sentiment borne out by the Palestinian Authority’s weakening position that uncomfortably lies somewhere between the uncoordinated efforts of the resistance movement and the efficient reprisals of the Israeli Army.

In this interview with Rahul Sagar, he looks at the grave circumstances of the Palestinian people who stand at a fork in the road with one path leading toward the surety of an inadequate peace and the other leading toward continued resistance. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the intensity of his responses, their tone dipping and rising as he speaks of suffering and oppression in Palestine. Displaying an admirable philosophy of universal humanism, he talks of how difficult it is to forgive and forget the injustices of the past while simultaneously demanding an universal application of international justice – Americans, Israelis and Arabs must all be humans despite their unequal circumstances.


RS: Do the current levels of violence in the PLO administered areas vindicate your pessimism about the American sponsored peace process?

ES: Yes I think so. I hate to use the word vindication, but it has confirmed my worst or even my most optimistic forecast of what would happen.


RS: Is the idea of an autonomous Palestine in ruins after the repeated incursions or is there a light at the end of the tunnel for the Palestinian people? Where do they go from here?

ES: You are asking a question that everyone is asking but no one seems to have an answer to. I think currently there are two separate verbal discourses: on the one hand you have a leadership and a whole group of associated institutions that have been irreversibly co-opted by the Oslo process, which are now seeking to restore that process. But I think the problem with the negotiations in the first place remains – they want the US to come and help them out. But the US has proven itself to be far too partisan, obviously self-interested and too close to Israel to see anything like the necessary evacuation of occupied territories that are required for the future. On the other hand, you have a second discourse which is the Intifada in which Arafat has, according to his well-known history, tried to keep his hand in by talking out of both sides of his mouth. But it is out of his control. This is the logic of resistance, mass resistance that Arafat and the proponents of negotiations have no control over. So I do not see any easy resolution to the problem right now except to see that the distance between those two options grows as more houses are demolished and more people suffer.


RS: Despite the US having shown itself to be so partial, is there any hope of getting support from other members of international society?

ES: No. I think the traditional quarters, let’s say the West, countries such as Germany and the UK, have made it absolutely clear that they have neither the intention nor the will to do anything that the US will not do. So if the US continues, as President George Bush did over the weekend, to nonsensically blame the Palestinians for the violence then I don’t think there is any hope in that quarter. However, I do think that there is hope from the international community at large including the Africans, people of stature such as Mandela and major countries such as India and Japan who might help. I don’t know quite what that would mean but it would have to involve protecting Palestinian civilians. Nevertheless, I think one of the startling things that I have discovered is that most people in the world, and certainly Americans, are unaware that the violence is the occupation. The real violence is the 35-year old presence of an Israeli occupation, which has now virtually taken over roughly 50% of the West Bank and 40% of Gaza. That is the violence and that is where our focus should be, not on the pitiful, although very brave, efforts of the Palestinian people to interfere with the settlers and the Israeli Army.


RS: Citing the late Eqbal Ahmed you have written that creativity and imagination reside in mass movements as in India and South Africa. You have also explicitly condemned the use of terror, arguing that ‘only a mass movement employing the tactics and strategy that maximise the popular element ever made any difference to the oppressor.’ Yet, can the Palestinians construct an alternative to the current Intifada in the face of overwhelming travel and economic restrictions?

ES: Yes, very much directed against roadblocks and the strangulation of Palestinian life. We know that there are daily efforts made to break the roadblock, to penetrate the siege and take the fight to the Israeli settlers. These are not – yet – at the level of mass mobilization and organization precisely because of the conditions you mentioned. Now the analogy with South Africa can only go so far because the circumstances are quite different.

But there are two developments that need to be mentioned. First, I think more Palestinians are becoming more aware that addressing the US is not enough and that we actually need to address Israelis in their own language and in ways that they cannot evade. They have to be told on a daily basis through pamphlets or speeches or the Internet that their state is oppressing the Palestinians. That is where creativity must have full sway. The second point is that more and more people in Palestine are becoming aware that we are now involved in a war by Israel on unarmed people. It is not correct to identify this as a war between states. It has also become quite clear that the major thrust of Israeli occupation today is not just the expropriation of land, it is also to destroy the infrastructure that makes the collective life of Palestinians possible, for example, through the destruction of police stations and the ‘collateral damage’ which that brings. So I think we are now in an Algerian style war where the French are the Israelis and they are using everything in their arsenal (which is supplied by the US and the UK), in effect turning every Palestinian into a target. They have thus made it impossible for Palestinians to farm or for 700,000 children to go to school during the upcoming school season. Now, as this situation becomes clearer, more Palestinians are drawn in per force.

Now the main question that I can’t answer, but is certainly being posed here, is whether there will develop as there did in the first Intifada, a collective leadership that can marshal and organise a collective response. There have been demands made on Arafat that there be a collective leadership by affecting the decision-making process. For example, the Authority is basically paralyzed and you have NGOs and the Islamic forces that are delivering food, schools and medical relief. How is that going to be reflected in decision-making? I think there is a lot of pressure on Arafat and that is why he is tirelessly scurrying around the world to stave off what he has to face: his own people.


RS: Will these tensions create a breaking point for Arafat’s leadership? Is there really any credible alternative to Arafat’s leadership?

ES: No. I don’t think there is a breaking point in the sense that there will be a mass movement against him. I think his nightmare is that he will become irrelevant or be sidelined. As it is it is very hard for him to get around – he can only get in and out of Ramallah and Gaza because the Israelis let him. But I think it is quite clear to him with the assassination of Abu Ali Mustafa that the Israelis are threatening him. So I think the nightmare is his and in the meantime I know for a fact that the Palestinians are not submitting and they are never going to be subdued. The Israeli tactics will never work: they merely strengthen the will. I think this is where the test of creativity is being faced, though with what success I do not know. It can’t obviously prevail militarily, but it certainly can prevail politically.


RS: I would like to briefly discuss the moral solution you have proposed for Palestine. In a significant move away from separation and partition – what you call the legacy of colonialism – you have proposed a bi-national solution to the Palestinian quandary. You have also repeatedly argued that the only durable basis for a Palestinian-Israeli peace lies in an affirmation of their common humanity. Yet, is Israeli society ready for such ‘post-Zionism’ – a recent poll suggests that 51% of Israelis feel that Ariel Sharon is not tough enough to deter the Palestinians!

ES: Obviously not at this moment. I think if anything when they elected Ariel Sharon and then feel that he is not tough enough then they are exactly the opposite. But you must remember that this is in the absence of any serious Palestinian information effort to influence them and show them that continuing occupation is only going to lead to more disasters. I think there is a genuine shell to be pierced and penetrated in the Israeli conscience. While this is a society that is much more open to discussion and debate on some issues than even the United States, it still has a long way to go. It seems to me that if anybody has to do that, then it has to be the Palestinians, particularly those Palestinians who are Israeli citizens and constitute 20% of the Israeli population. These efforts must be renewed and redoubled: the more Israelis find out that what their state has done, the more Sharon and his gang have to fear. That is a major opening for Palestinians and it seems to be the so-far untapped and unexploited area of struggle. I am talking here of pamphleteering, of demonstrations, letters and so on which in an electronic age are much more easily done.


RS: You have written that there cannot be a magical, overnight solution to the Palestinian problem ‘as we cannot deny the weight of the past.’ Allow me to ask you an admittedly tangential question: does there come a breaking point when the sorrows of the past become too heavy to allow for Palestinians and Israelis to envision a collective future within the realm of your bi-national solution?

ES: That is a very profound question. I keep asking myself whether we have passed the point where a bi-national solution is possible. I don’t know if this is an elusive answer rather than a direct one when I say that it is really necessary for the Palestinians to keep thinking in terms of their liberation rather than in terms of a peace process that might lead to some nebulous idea of a Palestinian state which has been the Oslo gamble. I also think that more and more of us are becoming aware that the real issue is whether or not we can tolerate a politics of gradualism and vague incrementalism or whether we shouldn’t be working on a more ambitious project, which is to liberate ourselves from the Israeli yoke altogether and in the process make it possible for co-existence.

In other words, I think what had been the case was that we somehow thought that the US and the international community would do something – and of course, they didn’t. And even the Israelis on Oslo turned out to only be looking for ways to repackage the occupation, and not to vacate the territories and undo the thirty-five years of occupation. Now I think what we need is a change of attitude on our part and to say that we are looking for freedom in the way that everybody else in the world understands. This obviously means that the territories have to be vacated and the settlements have to be dismantled.

What I think will have to happen is obviously something involving a lot more sacrifice on the Palestinian and Israeli sides because they are determined to hold on to the settlements. Sharon is quite clear about this: he will never dismantle any settlements. However, every settler movement in history has said the same thing; in the end they do dismantle because it becomes impossible to maintain them. The question is whether the Palestinians are willing to pay the price or not.

I don’t know what the answer to your question is. I would like to think that the burden of the past could be transformed into something positive rather than feelings of resentment and anger. But I don’t know if it is humanly possible.


RS: That is exactly why I asked, because it is so very difficult for the collective consciousness.

ES: Yes, I don’t know. I don’t know – and I’m not even sure that I can do it myself at this point. However, I think that most of us can do it at an individual level – we all know individual Israelis and Jews with whom we can (and do) work and live. There are those who are doing amazingly courageous things such as the Rabbis for Peace and the Movement Against Demolitions. There are individuals and small movements who have all demonstrated their humanity and goodwill and so I think it is important for us to think of them as role models and hope that their number is expanding. We also have to make an effort join them. What we haven’t done is to join ranks in the way in which South Africans made a major effort to increase the participation of whites. At some point in the struggle – I don’t know exactly when and certainly in this case timing is very important – it hasn’t happened yet, but it may happen. So that is a possibility for hope. All this requires effort and so what I am trying to do is to place my hopes on the moral struggle.

There is one more thing that I would like to say. I don’t think it is too late for an Israeli gesture at some point in the future (I don’t think that it will come from Sharon) from a leader who will say something substantial about acknowledging Israel’s responsibilities for what has happened to the Palestinians. I think that would be an extraordinary thing if it ever happened, though so far we have had exactly the opposite – there is this utter denial about how that the past never happened and so on, which many Israeli historians have shown to be propaganda.


RS: I would like to explore this issue further. You have previously said that ‘in a globalised world, in which politics and information are virtually equivalent, Palestinians cannot afford to shirk this task… surely a proper politics of information is possible.’ I would like to get your opinion on how Palestinians are responding to globalization – are they being able to take advantage of the emancipatory promises of technology or is the spread of Hollywood films, to take one prominent example, further compounding Orientalist attitudes?

ES: No, thus far we have been on the receiving end. The startling thing is that for fifty years there has been no concerted Arab effort to confront the fantastic juncture of media and military power that Israel has organized. Many of the Arab states have actually avoided that because they seek to curry favour of the US. They don’t want to disturb the processes of this country and so they try to ingratiate themselves with the government and stay away from an active information policy that civilizes and humanizes the Arab. I am not only talking about the Palestinians – we know from numerous studies that images of the Arabs are the lowest of the low on the totem pole of information. They are the last taboo. Just last week, for example, there were three successive columns in the Washington Post urging the Israelis to kill as many Palestinians as possible and pen up the rest under large fences. Nobody can be talked about in that way except the Arabs. This is because of an absence of effort to project the culture and civilization of the Arabs and above all the cause of Palestine that is at least entitled to a hearing. We are nowhere present.

I myself conducted a survey where I looked at a hundred new stories last November, ninety-four of which simply did not mention the fact of military occupation. Only six of them did, which meant that in a vast majority of stories the Palestinians are seen simply as violent aggressors. And we have not tried anything to counter this. I am thinking here principally of the powerful Arab states, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who have done nothing (except once in 1973) to use their considerable resources to try to affect the situation. This is mainly because these governments seek the protection of the US and know that they can’t survive in their current state without the support of the US. Now even this is coming to end with their reserves dwindling and the discovery of Caspian Sea oil, so I think that the effort now has to come from NGOs.

It is quite important to understand, for example, that we [Arab-Americans] did a major poll recently, which shows that 73% of Americans believe that the Palestinians are entitled to an independent state. At the same time, however, they feel themselves unable to identify with Palestinians with the way they were able to identify with South African blacks for example. They can’t do that partly because of Israeli propaganda, which has dehumanized Palestinians, especially Arafat, so that there is no narrative of Palestinian suffering. Well there is now a major Arab-American effort – this is actually some important news – to undertake a counter movement in the media to try to bring some balance to a very distorted picture.


RS: Allow me to interrupt and ask how this relates to something else you have written. That is, even if the Palestinians provide counterpoints to propaganda, will this actually be expressed? Or will it run up against a structural impediment, which is the absence of any objective commentary space in the western media.

ES: That is true and that is a problem. That is why I think there has to be a concerted effort involving the entire political process. What you need are four candidates for Congress who are vulnerable to pressure in districts where there is a large Arab-American community. That will make an enormous difference. That is historically the way that the pro-Israeli groups have worked – they start small and rapidly develop clout across the system. You have to look at this systematically and not just focus on the media – for example, the campuses, the churches, cyberspace and coordinating with other Arab communities across the West. So I am not thinking about a dramatic change overnight, but I think it is possible to foresee some changes.

Obviously, a major factor in this is the feeling that most Americans have that the Palestinians have gotten a raw deal. Then you associate that with the logic of US aid to Israel and the figures become more known. The Israelis are obviously running scared because they keep announcing new public relations drives – there was a hundred million-dollar effort last summer and now they are doing another one. I think Americans are getting tired of the nightly images that show violence – ok, even if they depict Palestinians as terrorists – and want to know why the Israelis cannot live in their own environment and why Americans are paying for all of this?

The Israelis know that they cannot go on like this without American support. How long that unconditional support will continue is the nightmare question for them. And it is something that we ought to be able to develop – just the asking of the questions is enough.


RS: I would like to turn to the broader relationship between the Middle East and the West. You have identified arrogance and amnesia as the two central features of American foreign policy. Now take, for example, the American establishment’s recent love affair with the ‘democratic peace thesis’? Why, in an amnesiac sense, is this preaching never directed toward the Middle East? What does America have to fear from democracy in the Middle East?

ES: (Laughs) You are asking these questions that need something like eight hours to get at. I don’t know how I can answer this, but it is quite clear that the US has made its peace with an Arab state-system that is basically undemocratic and oligarchical. On the other hand, there are considerable currents in the Arab world that are very pro-democracy and for radical change. While those currents remain, the fact remains that many undemocratic regimes – which the US has been supporting because it desires stability and cheap oil – continue to prevail in the Middle East. The result is that their now exists a more profound anti-Americanism in the Arab world and I don’t just mean street demonstrations. There is now a critical understanding of America, or knowledge of American attitudes on issues ranging from the Kyoto Protocol to the Landmines Treaty. All these things that have dramatized American arrogance under President Bush.

So the important question to ask is whether the current state of affairs in the Middle East is sustainable? I don’t think it is. From my own sense of the younger generation, there is a growing awareness of this tremendously contradictory position of the United States, of preaching one thing and doing another. Talking about democracy while being anti-democratic. All of this is precipitating a fairly important change, the outlines of which I cannot prophesize.


RS: Could we discuss two recent developments: first, there is the BBC Panorama documentary, which examined Ariel Sharon’s role in the massacres of Shabra and Shatila. The second is the renewed attempt to equate Zionism with racism at Durban conference. What do you make of these events?

ES: Ever since I wrote my first book in the fall of 1977, I have always been uncomfortable with equating Zionism with racism because it is too general and doesn’t specifically enough attend to the differentiation that makes Zionism what it is. In that respect I think that Zionism is quite a unique system which has analogies with racism but needs to be looked at on its own. It should not be tarred with a broad brush that unfortunately gives a way out to the supporters of Zionism such as America. So I regretted what happened in the context of Durban which is that the US did not attend, whereas I think it would have been better to have compromised on that and made them attend and listen to the whole range of practices associated with Zionism. If they don’t want to call it racism then they don’t have to, but it is a form of persecution based on religion and race. I mean, the distinction between a Jew and non-Jew is in Palestine and Palestinian Israel is quite manifestly clear and no Israeli would deny it. The efforts made, for example, to maintain a Jewish majority by allowing immigration while disallowing the refugees’ right to return stand on their merits. I am not particularly eager to have these issues herded under the rubric of racism – call it what you will, but I would rather have had the Americans there, listening to this and being affected by it.

I certainly think that the BBC programme was something of a breakthrough. It quite squarely addressed the question of Sharon’s responsibility for the massacre and obviously enhances the case being brought against him in the Belgian courts. Now my hope is that that will go forward but I have no certainty that it will. We hear (though I don’t know if it is true or not) that some people are planning on mounting a similar case against Arafat. There is talk of other people bringing a case against the Hafez-al-Assad regime. So there are enough crimes against humanity to go around. Now, what I would like to have happen is that the understanding of what constitutes crimes against humanity is widened to include the allies of the United States and the United States itself so that no one is immune from the investigations – why should it only be confined to just a few Serbs? Why not extend it to everyone including the Israelis and the Arabs and others? That is what I am very much for rather than just saying go after Sharon because he is the ‘arch-criminal’. I agree that you have to begin somewhere but I would hate for it to just stop there.


RS: Finally, may I ask on behalf of all your well wishers in India, about your health and morale? Also, to ask a stranger question about the place where you are being treated – the Long Island Jewish Hospital. Is there a quiet ironical statement in choosing to being treated there?

ES: (Laughs) Well, yes it is the case and there are all sorts of ironies there which I do not need to specify. Incidentally, I should mention that I am being treated by an Indian doctor, a very dear friend called Kanti Rai. My condition is basically the same – I am hanging on. I am not in perfect health and I am in partial remission. My disease is still there and I am declining slowly. There don’t seem to be any new therapies and so we are just waiting for developments to occur. I now get what are like Band-Aids, things to give me more energy and bolster my immunity.


RS: All of us in India pray for your good health and wish you the very best for the future.

ES: Thank you. India, as you know means a great deal to me in my writing. I hope to go to India again sometime soon.