Thursday, August 7, 2008

Death Pacts in the Middle East

Location: Middle East; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A young man straps himself with C4, walks into a café and brings death to himself and those around him. Suicide bombing.

What shocks us in suicide bombing? Is it merely the death of the innocent civilians and passers-by? I suspect not. There are, after all, many civilians killed in the region by regular armed forces. These deaths--from missiles, warplanes, or commandos--trigger regrets and condemnation, but not the dismay of a suicide bombing report. There is something inherently repulsive to suicide bombing. Beyond the outcome of the act, the act itself horrifies us. I think it shocks us viscerally because what is at the heart of it is that it embraces death.

Consider a counter-example. Most of us will watch a movie like Saving Private Ryan with some modicum of awe, even admiration for its characters, even though most of them give death and die in the process. We admire these heroic characters willing to lay down their life, because they continue to show respect for life: their own, their brothers, even in some measure (once the battle is won) for their enemies. But suicide bombing has no alternate ending, no hope of a victory with resolution or restoration. The best it can offer is more death. Anything it brings starts and ends in death.

The roots of this lethal behavior are heavily debated. For some it is a sign of the madness, fanaticism and perversity in the religious beliefs of a group of humans. Others analyze it as a sign of oppression and hopelessness, which must be horrendous to create such unthinkable despair and actions. Some will even assign it other-worldly, spiritual causes.

There’s a lot of serious work to be done (in my view not done sufficiently) to understand the political and sociological context in which suicide bombing emerged. But I am struck by other philosophies of death carried out daily, and which don’t get much coverage.

Let’s consider for a moment the Israeli settlement enterprise and its practical implications, for one. Since 1967 and increasingly after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist, the State of Israel has either actively encouraged Jewish settlements in Palestinian Territories, or simply let various groups implant and expand settlements. Jewish population growth is greater in what Israel calls Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) than in the more livable and hospitable lands of Israel itself. This comes with the well documented regime of closures, isolation of Arab communities within walled enclaves, and a drastic control and security grid on the ground, not so much to protect Israel, as to allow the safe expansion of the settlements. And anyone able to sketch a basic map of the region has to agree that a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza is now inconceivable without the painful dismantling of these settlement.

Israel can pledge to remove an earth mound here and a flying checkpoint there, even bring cameras to show the removal of three trailers from one among hundreds of settlements which for the day will be acknowledged as “illegal.” But serious reversal of the settlement enterprise has not yet been considered by Israel and would be a painful gambit by any government coalition. This makes the effective creation of a Palestinian State somewhat illusory.[i]

Considering that fourteen years after Oslo and seven years after the start of the Second Intifada, a One-State solution is currently not pursued and possibly impossible to achieve[ii], Israel seems to have painted itself into a corner, where options are becoming few and far between.

Consider the limited options left if settlements remain standing.

I call the first one the rosy vision of the current Israeli and US administrations. It is hard to describe without a note of irony:
A peaceful Palestinian State will be formed in a series of ghettos or Bantustans throughout the West Bank, totally economically dependent on Israel. Millions of young Palestinian people will peacefully and gladly submit to an eternal right of control by the Israeli military, while Western-style condominiums are built on the land across the wall, the land that belonged to their parents. These young people will move away from fundamentalist, revolutionary and violent religious ideologies and stand in line to apply for jobs with the UN, internationally sanctioned as a jobs’ program for an unviable Palestinian State. Somehow, this will sustain peace.
The second option is that of ‘the hawks’; and I am afraid that we are moving toward it at great stride:
The demographic pressures, the alienation, and the humiliation compounded day by day in the Palestinian Territories will lead to the expatriation of Palestine’s elites, intellectuals, liberally-minded professionals and bureaucrats, and whatever Christian community is left. Palestinian ghettos in Jenin, Nablus, and Hebron will explode along with Gaza, leading ultimately to a full-scale conflict. This could be a series of military interventions, or one big war, leading to the death or the deportation (“transfer”) of another million, or two million Palestinians. That and the settlement expansion, which has not stopped yet, will allow keeping ‘manageable pockets’ of Palestinian populations under the shadow of a Greater Israel finally “secured.”
The third option is the nightmare on which Israel builds its advocacy. Although it reflects nothing of the aspiration of the large majority of Palestinians, it is a deep fear in Israel and it carries a powerful rhetoric for self-preservation and self-justification. It is indeed the dream of Hassan Nasrallah and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:
After a long period of continued dispossession and oppression of Palestinians, after many many people have died, there will come a day when American protection will cease or become ineffectual, and when radicalized Arab states will even manage to work together. Then the day of a 21st or 22nd Century Massada will come, and Israel will be wiped out. Palestinians from Yatta and Tulkarem will finally go and visit their cousins from Rafah, driving by the wreckage of the past great Israeli State. A nuclear bomb will likely explode somewhere in the process.
So here we are: one fantasy and two apocalyptic scenarios. These visions of death should evoke in us the same sickening feeling, as when we hear about the young man with the C4 belt.
But on all sides, this world suffers from people who refuse to see, or who use god (small “g”) to justify setting the stage for these nightmares.

There is plenty of analysis and description of the radical Islamist philosophies, which float around in this new century. Certainly both the Arab and the Muslim worlds face critical questions and challenges today. The epidemics of suicide bombing is an indicator of grave collective disturbance within some groups, regardless of the political and social conditions which indeed foster them.
But now, what do we see on the Jewish side, on the global political arena, and—dare I say—on the Christian side?

* Trying to justify the settlement rationale, an Orthodox Jewish friend explained to me that Palestinians, although they have lived here for century, should just accept to be transferred to Jordan, Norway, or the US (I asked about the Moon or Mars), and see their land confiscated, because the “rightful owners” of the land (according to the Torah) had returned to take possession of the land. His position had the advantage of being clear and straightforward. But if you don’t want to have a bi-national state, if you want to be a Jewish State and therefore cannot afford a democratic single state, and you are not spending your energy working with the Palestinians to create a viable Two-State solution, then you are making a death pact, one way or the other. Some will of course look in the drama of the 20th Century, the memory of the Shoah, and use facts and myths about the History of Israel and Arab nations to try and justify the vision of a “greater Israel.” But it leads us into one of the lethal scenarios described above. It is simply a collective form of a death pact.

* How do external agents interact with this? Sadly, not so well. Retiring UN envoy to the Middle East Alvaro de Soto, described clearly in his leaked departure memo, how the community of nations, represented through the UN, has abdicated its moral position in favor of alignment to dominant international political positions. The US, perhaps for strategic reasons, perhaps by ignorance, perhaps for historical reasons or internal politics, is also equally blind in its support of Israel. Refusal to talk to entire groups of people shares in the same flaw. (See: If you are a super-power and you claim to support Israel, but you are unprincipled in your support, if you are effectively two-faced about your commitment to a Palestinian State, and you believe in your own rhetoric so much that you peddle a vision that is totally detached from reality, then you are committing others and yourself to a non-solution and another end-game death pact.

* And now, how does a huge part of the church behave? The loud and vociferous Christian Zionist constituency is so sure that the world is set on the extermination of Israel (which Jesus will stop at the last minute in the plains of Armageddon) that it effectively supports myths, rhetoric, policies and bullets aimed at the ethnic cleansing of a demonized Palestinian Other. This part of the church supports self-fulfilling prophecies, which have no hope for Arabs (except to accept Jesus and move out their home quietly). Jews are imbued with a supra-human identity, and destined to live in a role of either oppressor or oppressed, therefore kept from the common human experience. The end of this logic is once again a death pact, with the small caveat that it is OK to pursue death, because it is in obedience to God and His Word.

There are other scenarios possible. They have been written up. They are shared by a great many people, Arab, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Secular, Leftist, Conservative, Realist… Just read Hanan Ashrawi, Michael Lerner, Naim Ateek, Jimmy Carter and so many others. There are scenarios for peace. Not easy scenarios, but scenarios for life.

But the true question for each of us is: if we pursue the logic of my personal philosophy, without defaulting my conscience to a holy book and my moral responsibility to the so-called will of God, what scenario do I offer the world?

- A scenario for life (imperfect, messy, to be figured out day after day, and always to be improved)?

- Or a wonderfully perfect scenario in my little doctrine, which is really a death pact between me and 'them'?

[i] In her excellent book, The One State Solution, Virginia Tilley makes the point that the main argument for a One-State solution (is the impossibility of having two states. (
One Israeli Prime Minister said it years ago; the logic of the settlement is to make the withdrawal of Israel from any part of the land impossible without destroying the entire Zionist edifice.

[ii] See discussion between Uri Avnery and Illan Pappe:

1 comment:

Robb Davis said...

It is amazing to me how three religions that call themselves theistic--even monotheistic--and have strong prohibitions against idolatry have chosen to make an idol of violence. The death pacts are statements of faith in how the world really works: there is no appeal to God to bring justice, no humble seeking after God. There is only a belief that dealing death will prove the rightness of "my cause". And to those who believe the state of Israel is "God's people", shame on you for creating God in your image. You have reduced God to a bomb, a missile, a suicide belt. You mete out God's justice while damning the defenseless in the process. ANY act that traps women and children between the anvil of "our cause" and the hammer of "our firepower" is claiming for the actor the role of God and is blasphemy. Just stop it. Please