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2 - 8 November 2000
Issue No. 506
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Neither submission nor death

By Hani Shukrallah

Hani Shukrallah It's already been a month since Ariel Sharon, with a little help from Barak, triggered the process that would end the 25-year-long peace process in less than a fortnight. More than Sharon's visit, it was the deliberate murder of 12-year old Mohamed Al-Dorra that triggered the uprising in the occupied territories and, unprecedentedly, across the "Green Line," inside Israel's pre-'67 borders. The televised image of the terrified little boy desperately clinging to a helpless father while unseen men in uniform ruthlessly executed orders to "inflict maximum damage," was also the one factor that, virtually overnight, transformed the political climate in the Arab world. In pre- and post-'48 parts of Palestine, as in the rest of the Arab world, there was instant identification: Mohamed Al-Dorra was everyone's son, grandson, brother, nephew... In Egypt, schoolchildren who had very little notion of where Israel or Palestine were took to drawing and burning Israeli flags. The boy's name was Mohamed, he looked very much like them; he could have been any one of them.

No one had to indoctrinate or incite anyone. Suddenly, mere survival and making do was not enough. The feelings of national humiliation that had been beaten into the Arabs consistently and disdainfully for over three decades broke through a floodgate of submissive realism, rampant opportunism and a dog-eat-dog mind-set, wherein egotistical self-interest, cloaked in the most vulgar forms of hypocrisy and demagogy, seemed to define the Arab national character during the last two decades of the 20th century. Thousands of grievances (not all of them directly connected to Israel, or even to its US patrons) collated and collected around the image of a 12-year-old boy whose ruthless, cold-blooded murder seemed to both epitomise and embody the heartlessness and profound contempt that lie at the core of each and every relation of oppression.

No one saw it coming. I certainly did not. Only a few weeks ago, the first line in this column read: "The Arab-Israeli peace process will end with neither a bang, nor even a whimper. Like a day-time soap, it will play itself out over and over, ad nauseam." (Al-Ahram Weekly, 7-13 September). Mea culpa. But then, what was one supposed to pin one's hopes -- or indeed, if you are so inclined, dread -- on? Surely not the PA, which, until Camp David II, had submitted assiduously to each and every US/Israeli demand, squandered, well in advance and free of charge, each and every bargaining card it had up its sleeve, willingly held itself accountable for safeguarding Israeli "security" (in a bizarre and humiliating arrangement openly directed by the CIA), and instituted an authoritarian and corruption-ridden regime in the self-rule territories, demoralising and dividing the Palestinian people as never before. Its one remaining source of bargaining strength lay not in its ability to lead the Palestinian people, but in its patently obvious inability to do so.

Nor could we look for inspiration toward a deeply divided and fragmented, globalised and globalising "Arab nation." Here, Washington could, for several years, veto a meeting of Arab heads of state; "liberalisation" meant new and rapacious oligarchies wedding ex-bureaucrat businessmen to business-making-bureaucrats; competition was fierce over Washington's good graces and the most outlying states sought a more "central" status on the Western aid-and-trade agenda by "rushing" to normalise relations with Israel. Meanwhile, Washington's regional "renegades" were a threat to nobody, save perhaps members of their own populations (and when was that a criterion of anything?); mere punching bags through which the imperial centre could demonstrate its militaristic muscle, underlining for the benefit of the region and, indeed, the rest of the world, the fact that there is far more to globalisation than IFIs, TNCs and the Internet.

Absent from this scene, however, was that ever-discreet will to resistance -- what Chaos Theory would call a "strange attractor." It's not that people do not resist oppression on a daily basis. They do: they manipulate, they subvert, they rise up in defiance here and there -- and a people suffering from extreme national and racial oppression and with a long heritage of struggle, such as the Palestinians, much more so than others. The mystery, however, lies in that moment when feelings of injustice converge and the simmering anger of a whole people, or oppressed section of society, boils over -- when people, normally separate by virtue of the always unique circumstances of their many different lives, appear to heed the same drum call, though there is no identifiable drummer.

Sharon's "visit" to Al-Aqsa was an obvious provocation. It triggered the Palestinian response the Israelis must have anticipated: a pretext for a new and bloody lesson in realism. The murder of Al-Dorra was merely one of the many lines making up the text of that lesson. And, deeply painful as it was, it need not have been the crack that burst the dam. It so happens that it was. The Palestinian reaction caught everyone by surprise; the response in the rest of the Arab world was no less than stunning.

And, I would suggest, the kind of outpouring of the will to resistance that we have witnessed during the past four weeks always comes as a surprise. It does so when the people are prepared (armed with a clear and coherent strategy, organised and mobilised around a well-defined political leadership), and when they are not -- but with one substantial difference. When they are fairly well prepared, an oppressed people's moment of all-out rebellion can also be their moment of triumph. At the very least, it is a time when the oppressor can be forced to offer substantial concessions.

But what if they are not? Arafat did not call up the Intifada, as the Americans and Israelis allege; nor can he call it off, as they demand. A month has passed already; more than 140 Palestinians have been killed (including nearly 30 children) and 5,000 have been injured, around 1,000 of whom will suffer permanent disabilities as a result. The Intifada shows no sign of abating. One would hope, though, that in their boundless heroism, the Palestinians are also, even now, creating new foundations for a new readiness. Oslo is dead, and so is the "New Middle East." Israel, fully backed by a heartless America (seemingly thoroughly intoxicated by over a decade of uncontested global supremacy), is bent on filling the vacuum with Palestinian and Arab blood. Submission is no longer an option, but neither is death. There is another way, and we must begin carving it out now.

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