Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 June 2007
Issue No. 850
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Galal Nassar

Resistance and self-flagellation

The response to the 1967 Naksa continues to be an exercise in masochism, writes Galal Nassar

The 1967 defeat was a devastating episode in Arab history, not only because the Zionists tripled the area of the land they seized in 1948, but because of its repercussions on the entire Arab scene, on our intellectual and political life and our hopes for renaissance.

The defeat underlined how the Arabs had misread the nature of the Zionist project, underestimating its potential for initiative and deceit and its ability to exploit fragmentation and weakness within the Arab nation, a process that continues till today (e.g., Fatah and Hamas in Palestine; Iraq; Lebanon).

Many people had mistakenly imagined that it would be possible to neutralise the conflict with the Zionist entity, or at least postpone it until we were in possession of the resources necessary to address it. Others believed that we should focus on construction and development rather than be distracted by a conflict with the enemy, though the separation between development and security would eventually prove arbitrary. Yet others thought that we, not the enemy, should decide the time and venue of any confrontation. Events would show that such a choice was illusory.

We were living under constant threat. The enemy's leaders, racist and arrogant as they were, knew they had the support of international powers and made no secret of their intentions. For them we were clueless, ineffectual hordes. We would react rather than take the bull by the horns. This was the impression etched in the collective memory of the architects of the Zionist project. "The Arabs are a nation that does not read," Moshe Dayan, the Israeli war minister, said during the 1967 War.

What makes it particularly painful is that the writing was already on the wall. Israel had started planning for the 1967 War in the immediate aftermath of the 1956 Tripartite Aggression, which resulted in political defeat for the British, French and Israelis. Israel's then-Prime Minister, Moshe Sharett, wrote in his memoirs that the Israeli leadership's military strategy aimed at preventing the emergence of any genuine Arab military force capable of confronting Zionist schemes, noting that for this to succeed Israel would have to fight at least one war every decade against the Arabs. In other words, the Israelis were preparing for the 1967 War a decade in advance, putting together the military apparatus and rallying the political support they needed, while the Arabs -- both leaders and nations -- were busy searching for a project, an identity, and a place under the sun.

Meanwhile, in the Arab world, tribal and sectarian conflicts were acquiring a political and social veneer that reflected the fragility of the nation and left it prey to various types of infiltration and invasion. As a result, we were lured into an unequal military confrontation, one for which we were unready and for which our enemies had long been preparing. The result was the loss of what remained of Palestine, plus Sinai and the Golan Heights. Having failed to choose the time and place, we lost the battle.

The banality of the defeat was one thing, the change in the equation and its repercussions on the entire Arab world, another. It wreaked havoc on Arab intellectual and political systems and aspirations for renaissance. These repercussions showed first in literature and art. What was considered a resurgence of insight, or a "return of conscience", as one major playwright termed it, was really an act of self-flagellation. The footnotes to Notebook of the Setback, a poem by the late Syrian poet Nazar Qabbani, summed it up. They constitute a notable example of the new mindset, one that lampooned a discourse now perceived as redundant and pronounced the death of the ways of thinking that had brought only defeat.

The poem was the first of many works that announced the end of one era and the beginning of another. Writers, journalists, artists and playwrights all produced epitaphs for the defeat and for the men they held responsible. Our writers didn't analyse, deconstruct or dissect. They didn't provoke Arab memory in a way that would consolidate resistance and reinforce renaissance. Their attitude was as masochistic as it was antagonistic to the Arab nation. They denigrated the nation's power of resurgence, its vitality and capacity for revival. They belittled its inventiveness and culture. And they forgot its achievements in construction and development, in fighting illiteracy, in providing medication, education, electricity and housing. They said nothing about the sacrifices of the past, about the nation's resistance against foreign invasion, and about its success in defeating conventional imperialism. Modern Arab history was gradually reduced to a single event, the defeat of 1967.

It would have been possible to accept criticism, however hurtful -- indeed, one would have welcomed, even demanded, such criticism -- had it contained an uplifting message. The defeat should have provided an impetus to change, should have been portrayed as a black spot on the glorious backdrop of the national struggle. It would have been better to revisit the Arab's history since the end of WWII from an impartial and objective perspective.

Instead, the skewed vision that brought about the defeat continued to control the Arab scene and determine its path. Intellectuals, who were supposed to be the conscience of the nation and the defenders of its pride and right to live, opted to become our tormentors. In their hands Arab history was reduced to worthless rubble. History has never seen, and may never again see, a more distressing state than that which has gripped our nation since 1967, conditions in which the intellectual has become the flagellator of everything -- of the nation, the past and himself.

The Arabs are not the first to face defeats and setbacks. Nations have been invaded before. They have lost their freedom and independence but they always came back fighting, drawing on their past, on their inner strength, on their cultural reservoirs. Think of the French resistance under Charles de Gaulle. Think of the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill, in which he encouraged the British to fight the Germans in the streets and on the beaches. History, glory, and civilisation were invoked in the fight against Nazism.

In the Arab world, resistance started immediately after the defeat. The Palestinians, along with members of the Jordanian army, fought the remarkable battle of Al-Karama, prompting Newsweek to run a picture of the late President Yasser Arafat on its cover, recognising him as the world's leading revolutionary leader. The Egyptian military was also fighting back, sinking the Eilat, the Israeli destroyer, only a few months after the war. Then the war of attrition started in earnest, rewriting the history of Egypt's military. Later, the crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973 punctured the myth of Israeli invincibility, showing that what had been taken by force could be recovered in the same way.

The steadfastness of the Palestinian people is yet more proof of the heroism that imbues Arab history. The Intifada was followed by resistance in Iraq, and by the success of the Lebanese resistance in repulsing the Israelis.

We are not a nation outside history. The laws of history apply to us. Sometimes we retreat and fall back, at others we steadily advance. In these latter periods one of the signs of our revival is the acquisition of freedom of expression. We let our arts thrive as creativity, construction and development flourish. When we retreat charlatanism wins, ignorance thrives and our thinking is dulled. In retreat, our insistence on attaining a "strategic peace" becomes an exercise in futility, capitulation and humiliation, the occasion for the squandering of yet more Arab rights.

Why have so many Arab satellite television networks marked the 40th anniversary of the 1967 defeat by hosting propagandists for a culture of defeat? Why did they turn 1967 into an occasion that so distorted Arab history that it might well have been announcing its end? Why turn 1967 into an exercise in self-flagellation? Why not allow even a small part of our glorious history to be fore-grounded instead of incessantly fuelling differences among resistance factions and siding with one faction against another? Is there a deliberate attempt to kill Arab memory? Is the media being used to promote concepts like the "creative chaos" of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, or "the Arabs don't read" thesis of Moshe Dayan? Is a new reality being born, the consequences of which we have failed to appreciate, one in which resistance movements such as Fatah and Hamas in Palestine, or the Shia and Sunni communities in Iraq, are left to fight it out until all hope dies in the ensuing rubble, rubble that will bury our aspirations for an end to occupation forever?

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