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9 -15 November 2000
Issue No.507
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Books is a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly appearing every second Thursday of the month. We welcome contributions and letters on subjects raised in this supplement. Material may be edited for length and clarity; and should be addressed to Mona Anis, Books Editor, Al-Ahram Weekly, Galaa St., Cairo, Arab Republic of Egypt; Faz: +202 578 6089; E-mail:
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A desolation called peace

The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After, Edward Said, New York: Pantheon, 2000. pp345
Necessity sometimes dictates that truth appear in the form of irony, that a series of articles written during the unfolding of a phenomenon that policy and opinion-makers have named and still name the peace process be collectively titled The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After. The end (in the sense of both purpose and termination) of this strangely named on-going process is what we see today. "The Oslo peace process," wrote Edward Said in April 1997, "the settlements, the arrogant defiance of Netanyahu [and, we may now add, Barak]: these all derive in a straight line from events like Deir Yassin and the idea that made Deir Yassin into the massacre it was," this idea having "always... been to reduce the Palestinian actuality to nil, to efface Palestinians as a people with legitimate rights, to render them alien in their own land."

The "extraordinary disparity... between the rhetoric and actualities of that peace" process wherein "leaders visit each other, talk about change and important meetings, more meetings are held, more trips taken -- and nothing much changes," between peace-process-talk and a historical reality which is the sum of human lives, this disparity which is also the chasm from which bitter irony is born, has lead to "peace" becoming "a discredited word," not a protective, talismanic name (Al-Salam) that would "guarantee that further harm and devastation will not ensue to the Palestinian people." At the same moment that the phrase "peace process" is uttered behind closed doors or in studios, a human life is shot down. "The Roman historian Tacitus," Said quotes, "says of the Roman conquest of Britain that 'they [the Roman army] created a desolation and called it peace.'"

"Repetition," Said, in one of his rare moments of fatigue, writes "is a constant theme wherever I go. The same questions are asked. The same things are said (e.g. Arafat's promise to declare a state on May 4, 1999; a state was already declared in 1988)." In this connection, there is an Arabic expression "Al-tikrar yi'allim al-shuttar" (Repetition teaches the clever ones), or, in another version, "Al-tikrar yi'allim al-humar"(Repetition teaches the ass). The assumption in the latter is that a donkey is not necessarily, like the Muslim notion of the kafirun, stubbornly or willfully blind, but may want to learn, may indeed, like "all men," according to Aristotle, "by nature desire to know." Said's articles charitably and generously repeat, and repeat some more, with admirable unceasing energy, in the dim hope that perchance, balky, those who do not know do not know not because they have chosen to cover their eyes and ears, but because they are in the dark.

Though the earliest article in The End of the Peace Process is dated 25 May, 1995, and the most recent, 1 February, 1999, none of the articles are "dated." The articles (written for newspapers to which Said is a regular contributor) tell the story of the Palestinian people, tirelessly reiterating facts and figures, while at the same time universalising this story by making connections to the stories of other peoples like, for example, the South Africans and the Native Americans. In so doing, they expose Zionist-Israeli ideology, from which directly derives Israeli practice (not infrequently aided and abetted by corrupt and/or spineless Arab leaders who do not escape Said's vigilant critique) and Palestinian suffering.

Seven-and-a-half million human beings, young and old, men and women, each with his or her own face, hands, body, voice are being talked of here. Four million, the descendants of the 750,000 expelled by force and terror in 1948, are refugees; 2.5 million live in Gaza and the West Bank, the territories occupied in 1967; one million, called "Arab Israelis," constitute one-fifth of the Israeli population of five million.

Their rights? The one million are not citizens of Israel's "democracy" except in name; they are allowed to vote, but not to buy, sell or lease land, and they have few, if any citizenship rights. The four million refugees are not allowed to return, this in spite of the UN Resolution that Israel for 52 years has been flagrantly defying.

Peres and Netanyahu
Peres and Netanyahu
The differences between the attitudes of Likud and Labour toward the 'non-existent' Palestinians are merely cosmetic, Said points out
As for the 2.5 million in Gaza and the West Bank, Said's collection of articles draws a vivid picture of what life in the shadow of Oslo looks like and gives the reader a sense of where all that Intifada 2000 "rage" is coming from. Thanks to Oslo, "Palestinian territory, [has been] divided up" into cantons, bantustans, reservations, "criss-crossed by Israeli roads, settlements and military posts." One of the central ironies of Oslo is that "'peace' has made movement much, much harder for the Palestinians": all Palestinians, Arafat included, have to get permission for every entry to and exit from Gaza; thousands of students cannot go back to their schools or universities in the West Bank. Lack of freedom of mobility has lead, among other things, to the ironic situation of Palestinians working as labourers to construct the homes of the very settlers who are dispossessing them. Israel thus "controls the Palestinian economy in as humiliating a way as possible."

To add insult to injury, Palestinian land, in the shadow of Oslo, continues to be expropriated on a daily basis; houses continue to be demolished by Israeli bulldozers (629 between September 1993 and March 1998). The State of Palestine, the territory occupied in 1967, is dotted with an archipelago of 140 settlements, Ramallah, for example, is flanked by three of them. That should not be surprising given that Oslo was signed "before even the most limited versions of Resolutions 242 and 338 had been complied with." That 450 armed settlers (.03 per cent of the population of Hebron) get the choicest 20 per cent of the city centre plus the surrounding hills should not be surprising given that "[a] simple, racist premise underpin[s] the 'peace process,'" namely that, "Palestinian and Arab lives are not worth as much as Israeli Jewish lives."

Oslo -- in spite of the tendency of "our [Arab] leaders [to] negotiate as if from a tabula rasa" -- was not, Said tirelessly points out, "a fresh start: it was built on 26 years of Israeli military occupation and before that, 19 years of Palestinian dispossession, exile, oppression" and death. Oslo's separationist solution to the mess in Palestine is no solution at all; rather, it exacerbates the problem because it is built upon the racist, apartheid foundation of the State of Israel.

At the risk of over-repeating the argument (repetition can only teach so much), and hence of offending the intelligence of those who are sick-and-tired of repetition, at the heart of the Israeli hearth, its lullaby and bedtime story, is a cruel lie: Once upon a time Palestine was an empty desert, a Land without a People waiting for a People without a Land. If the myth from which you derive a sense of yourself is at scandalous odds with reality, you can only deal with this nuisance by trying to force reality to fit the shape of your story. ( This Zionist-Israeli myth is shared across the Likud/Labour line, the differences between their attitudes towards the "non-existent" Palestinians being, as Said points out, merely "cosmetic.") If the land without a people turns out to be a historical land in which Arabic-speaking Muslims, Christians and Jews have lived for centuries, you can, in addition to persisting in denial, try to get rid of the people in order to bring into being an exclusively Jewish (preferably white) settler-colonial state. "Transfer" -- a concept, as Said and many others before him have shown, is central to Zionist-Israeli thought -- can work both ways. Announce a Law of Return which magically transforms every Jew in the world into a de facto citizen of Israel (whether s/he likes it or not) to be ingathered from Gentile-land, and terrorize and oppress the Gentile natives into dying or leaving and deny them the right to return.

As long as it imperialistically refuses to declare its boundaries and continues to define itself in "exclusivist" terms as a "Jews-only" state, Israel structurally cannot but be hostile to its neighbours and to the non-Jewish inhabitants of the land on which it is founded. "Israeli society [may] maintain a rigorous denial of its own past toward the Palestinians in particular and the Arabs generally" -- by defying UN resolutions, by refusing to consider reparations, and, above all, by denying Palestinian refugees the right to return to the land which they inhabited for centuries -- yet, "Israel's constant demands for security conceal... a deep insecurity about Israel's 'original sin,' the fact that" -- as with the case of the Native Americans -- "there was always another people in Palestine, and that every village, kibbutz, settlement, city, and town had an Arab history also."

Though "there is a tragedy beneath every [Israeli] road, every act of military prowess, every settlement," what is beneath will, I believe, eventually come to light, the repressed will return, the truth will out, dis- or re-figured into irony if suppressed long enough. Palestinians have not only not disappeared, but they have -- in keeping with the prohibition against suicide, the ultimate sin, the ultimate despair -- gone forth and multiplied. Although "Israel's raison d'être has always been that there should be a separate country, a refuge exclusively for Jews," and while "Oslo itself was based on the principle of separation between Jews and others," nonetheless, "the entire history of the past fifty years[...] has been in fact to involve Jews more and more dramatically with those of non-Jews. The effort to separate has occurred simultaneously and paradoxically [reviewer's emphasis] with the effort to take more and more land; this policy of land acquisition has meant acquiring more and more Palestinians." A self-subverting project, Zionism with its infelicitous combination of greed and denial, if ever there was one.

Oslo built upon this ironic topos, which is the fault line between Zionist theory and the reality with which it must reckon. And it is precisely because it adopted Zionist categories of thought, planning as it did "in terms of separation, a clinical partition of peoples into separate, but unequal entities," that Oslo has born such bitter fruit. Since "short of ethnic cleansing or mass transfer, as in 1948, there is no way for Israel to get rid of the Palestinians or for Palestinians to wish Israelis away," "the Law of Return for Jews and the right of return for Palestinian refugees," Said argues, "have to be considered and trimmed together."

To serve the purpose of "the real reconciliation that must occur" if there is to be any real peace and that Oslo had "put off", blanket cultural boycott policies, Said rightly argues, should not be encouraged. There are -- he argues in The End of the Peace Process -- people out there, at the grassroots level, both in the West and in Israel itself who can be helped to see the truth and, having thus seen it, can then put pressure on policy makers to work for justice, peace and good will on earth. "The battle for opinion," he wrote in January 1998, "is the most important one to win." He had hoped that shifting "the battlefield from the street to the mind," that "an active information policy" conducted by "intellectuals and men and women of conscience speak[ing] rationally of what is before us as a people," would yield meaningful results. Al-tikrar, repetition, yi'allim al-....

Reviewed by Nur Elmessiri

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