Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 February 2009
Issue No. 934
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

On a world so indifferent

The next carnage in Gaza may just be around the corner unless the Arabs understand why the world is always letting them down, writes Assem El-Kersh

Have we forgotten Gaza in such a short space of time? That is, except for some residual anger and grief, the occasional mention in the course of endless hours of chat shows on satellite channels, and the paltry dribbles of aid getting through the crossings. Everyone can breathe easy again -- apart from the people of Gaza, of course -- now that the subject is no longer front-page news. After all, the media only stirs into action when there is something sensational afoot and world attention is only riveted in moments of the inferno. So all the minor sparks surrounding the fragile ceasefire, tensions surrounding the Strip's reconstruction, photos of the martyrs on the remnants of walls, and the desolation of the aftermath, are simply not big enough to grab the headlines.

If you have forgotten as well, you probably have some cause, what with the routine pressures of life, your children's exams, skyrocketing prices, plans for mid-year holidays, and traffic jams in Cairo. You have an excuse, too, if you have merely had it with bad news and cannot stomach any more scenes of senseless brutality or images of grief and misery. But then don't blame the rest of the world whose conscience went numb even as Gaza burned and will now turn its attention away from the ruins there to whatever is regarded as more important.

In fact, those who respect and fear economic and military might, wouldn't necessarily see things the way we in the Arab world do. The whole political dictionary has changed, and with it that subset of terms we would reiterate on every occasion. "Lost rights", "fairness", "moral principles" and "Israeli brutality" have all lost their original sense and significance in both the East and the West. It sometimes feels as though we are speaking a dead language. Nowadays, when Israel gratuitously kills thousands of Palestinian civilians it is acting in "self-defence". The resistance is "terrorism", its crude missiles are "WMDs" (weapons of mass destruction), the infants who were killed in raids must have been the Islamist Hamas movement recruits, and the economic seige, the assassinations, the barriers and blockades, and the daily acts of repression are, to those who may not yet be aware, the most state-of-the-art means to persuade the Palestinians of the advantages of peace. Therefore, while hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in major Western cities to protest against what they saw as an outrage, those in government had a different attitude. Apparently little weighed on their conscience as they applauded to pro- Israeli spokesmen in Congress and in Davos, praising the "surgical precision" of Israeli Apache helicopters whose missiles bombarded Gaza for 22 days.

How much the world has changed while we weren't looking, even though the Palestinian cause is the same: a nation raped; and even though Israel is the same: a monster that no longer even cares to hide its barrenness. It is very hard to understand why all those scenes of suffering no longer move so many people, or haunt their dreams, or why they can not tell the difference between right and wrong when it is staring them in the face. But what is even harder to understand is why we, during Gaza and after every calamity before that, have spent very little time trying to understand, and even less trying to win over supporters. We prefer instead to rattle the strongest weapons the Arabs have: anger and disbelief at a world that is not particularly interested in -- or concerned by -- our anger and disbelief.

Why is this happening? Unfortunately, there is probably no easy way to dispel the confusion and fit the pieces of the puzzle together. To be frank, the answer has more to do with what we do to ourselves than what Israel does to us. But perhaps the best way to sum the situation up is that internal Palestinian disputes have served to derail and make superficial their cause, while Israeli lies took care of the rest and succeeded in distorting it. The dual effect has combined to transform the national cause of a people to a mere "humanitarian" problem that may stir compassion but not anxiety and that has shrivelled to such a degree that many find it easy to ignore altogether, perhaps because it has eluded a solution far longer than many are able to tolerate or remember.

It could be that one side of the problem resides in the fact that since 11 September a good part of the world feels uneasy about Islam. Specifically, it doesn't understand it and is clearly curt and impatient in its dealings with everything Islamic, Arabic and Middle Eastern. It has a particular distaste for those who parade beneath an Islamist banner, most notably, in our present context, Hamas, whose intentions, alliances and Islamicisation of the conflict many find disturbing or view with suspicion. Certainly, as a militant Islamist organisation that is fighting Israel and that keeps up a steady stream of anti-Israeli statements it fits the bill as the bad guy, at least in a world that does not want to waste time examining the facts and that has no patience with the mistakes Hamas makes -- and they are quite a few.

At times one will be confronted with some inverted logic mesh perfectly with Israeli propaganda: Were it not for the Qassam missiles, Gaza would not have been bombarded, the Israelis say. If the resistance had not bombed coffeehouses and buses, there would not be the "security wall"; the economic blockade is the answer to the tunnels and the smuggling of arms. Such are the skewed fictions that the West and the Western media swallow up like sleeping pills. They proceed from effect to cause, rather than from cause to effect. But our history did not begin with suicide bombers but rather with the theft of Palestine. When you adhere to the actual logic of causality you have to say were it not for the occupation there would be no oppression of an occupied people and hence no resistance.

The solution to the rest of the puzzle is found in the fact that, in Israel, they are more sly, more shrewd, have greater manoeuvrability, and are more adept at lying, playing dirty, and distorting the truth. One cannot help but to grudgingly concede the diabolic acumen of an enemy that conceived, planned and put into effect an operation that propelled Hamas, step-by-step, towards the trap of 27 December while making the movement look the guilty party. It is no longer a secret -- Haaretz bears witness -- that Israel took the decision to mount this offensive a full six months ago. Working beneath a cloak of secrecy, it proceeded to make its preparations, gather information, shuttle diplomatically between important capitals, feint and parry with the resistance politically and provoke it in the field, while setting into motion a media campaign they call " Hasbara ". Literally meaning "the explanation", while in fact constituting propaganda, its purpose is to persuade global public opinion that Israel faces a life or death threat and is acting in self-defence.

Under this public relations campaign, as it has sometimes been referred to, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs organised and set the talking points for its dozens of spokespersons addressing the world in various languages but all intoning the same Israeli line. In their wake followed squadrons of recruits and volunteers who flooded the newspapers, televisions, blogs and websites with their commentaries, especially in the event of any signs of objective coverage. In tandem, there appeared a series of full-page spreads in the world's major newspapers drumming home the same message: Israel was forced to respond. (Incidentally, the continuous flood of pictures of killed and wounded children in Gaza is what really defeated the Israeli military and propaganda machines). What all this means in translation is that Israel was going to hit Hamas regardless. Meanwhile, on the surface, it pretended that it tried to do everything to avert military confrontation -- that Hamas gave it no choice.

This very type of machinations in the orchestration of a strategical escalation has been put into effect before. And it succeeded every time: in the Tripartite Aggression on Egypt in 1956, in the invasion of Lebanon in 1981, and in the reoccupation of the West Bank in 2004. Most recently, Israel repeated the strategy again, by undermining the truce agreement, luring Hamas in the direction it wants, and then pouncing in the hope of winning by war what it failed to obtain by diktat.

Now, after all that has happened, the whole syndrome still seems far from over. There are no signs of an end to the deterioration in the Palestinian and Arab condition, to the series of follies and unwarranted risks on their part, to the slaps delivered by Israel, and to the apathy or bias on the part of the rest of the world. Nothing will change unless we change ourselves first and learn the true meaning of retribution. For this, we should look to Israel, by far the best teacher, in order to better understand the means and methods, and to better appreciate why they win and we lose, and why they progress while we lag behind. It would be particularly useful if we took a leaf out of the enemy's book on how to conduct a media war. After all, we have thousands of young men and women free to work the Internet and they are certainly not lacking in enthusiasm or anger. With a lot of collective resolve, coordination and a powerful memory we should be able to break the Israeli monopoly on the media abroad.

The nightmare will not pass by itself. We have to move ourselves into gear and this begins with learning from our mistakes, looking at ourselves honestly and making a courageous and objective assessment of our strengths and weaknesses. We should come to understand that no one will help us until we help ourselves, and that justice, alone, will not make our cause prevail. This realisation must be translated into action, but intelligent, influential and even cunning action. In other words, we must strive towards a different sort of performance, the type that will let us win the war in the end, even if we are fated to suffer a defeat or two on the way. We must also stop blaming others and admit, if only for once, that if there is a conspiracy against us we are co-conspirators. As for the rest of the world, it will only change the way it behaves when it grasps the fact that it too has much to lose by trampling on our feelings.

In short, we had better wake up before the rites and rituals leading to the next massacre begin.

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