Prophets of doom

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It took over 50 years, but it has finally happened. These are not the colonisers of 1948, their contempt for the “native population” at once condoned by a largely colonial world and self-justified by the enormous suffering of an immediate past. These are Nazi conquerors, drunk on the totality of their power, absolute in their supremacist self-consciousness.

True, the orgy of violence in the Palestinian territories is more evocative of the SA than the SS. It all seems more reminiscent of the Warsaw Ghetto than the conquest of Paris, more evocative of Serbia’s hooligan army than that of the Third Reich: wanton destruction; graffiti on the walls of homes; theft and defilement of personal property; thousands of incidents of purely gratuitous inhumanity; firing on ambulances, health workers and places of worship; pornography aired from a “conquered” TV station…

And as yet, the horror has stopped just short of genocide. However appalled by the monstrous crimes committed before our eyes, we should not make easy with such words. The mind-set is genocidal all right, and Israel’s war against the Palestinians may yet develop into a Serb-style ethnic cleansing operation. The fact that it has not is, clearly, not due to any squeamishness on the part of the Israeli government or people. They are now discussing transfer, not only of West Bank Palestinians but also of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, all too frequently. The mad orgy of violence and cruelty currently taking place in Palestinians towns, villages and refugee camps (even Peres described Israeli actions in the Jenin refugee camp as a “massacre”) is sufficient testimony to an ideological and political mind-set that, literally, will stop at nothing.

But it is just too difficult to implement. The fundamental obstacle is the Palestinians’ will to resist. The Palestinians of 2002 are not those of 1948; dozens of Deir Yassins (or Jenins) will not have them running for the borders. They have no illusions about Arab armies mobilising to restore them to their homes. They know the Arab regimes and they know Israel. Their determination and fighting spirit have been honed by decades of continuous struggle, and they are there to stay. There can be no transfer. Sharon will have to stoke the ovens — not an easy task in today’s world, even for a butcher.

And especially not in a region that holds such geo-political importance for the whole world as the Middle East. But are the unprecedented outpourings of the Arab masses’ anger over the past two weeks the first rumblings of a gigantic regional explosion? The question is on everybody’s mind. It is, after all, familiar enough. Predictions of impending chaos, unbridled violence and mayhem have been the fairy godmothers overseeing the difficult, and ultimately aborted, birth of American/Israeli peace in the region. What world leader has not at one time or another urged the peace process protagonists on their way by pointing out the dire consequences of their failure to advance? Much irony could be found in the way the Arab leaders themselves have been the most vocal prophets of the looming catastrophe, their own impending collapse serving as their most potent bargaining card.

The unprecedented nature of the depth and scale of the anger is without question. Though liberal with their warnings of imminent eruption, the Arab regimes are reluctant to tolerate even the most well-behaved popular protests. Already the Palestine solidarity demonstrations in Arab cities are claiming protesters’ lives. Nor does one need extraordinary acumen to understand that the anger triggered by what is indisputably a totally new conjuncture in the conflict with Israel and its imperial backers is articulated in popular consciousness with a whole range of domestically-rooted grievances: authoritarianism, economic failure and corruption; the collapse of the populist/corporatist welfare structures of the “socialist” past, and their replacement by a free market capitalism that is, nevertheless, wholly dependent on its ties to the state bureaucracy, its viciousness equalled only by its avarice, its insatiable consumption of wealth in stark contrast to its abject failure to produce it.

It is difficult to know whether an explosion will occur not because explosive ingredients are lacking but because there are so few alternatives. The Islamists, naturally, have been everybody’s favourite betting horse. Yet while the Islamic Revolution in Iran is practically in its dotage, we have yet to see any real “domino effect.” Contrast the Islamist “resurgence” of the ’80s to the Arab nationalist upsurge of the ’50s and the point becomes clearer. What has the Islamist revolution given us in over two decades: the bloodbaths of Algeria, Al-Bashir’s Sudan, a sordid and futile wave of violence in Egypt; Osama Bin Laden and his Taliban allies?

I tend to believe that for the Arab masses, the Islamist attraction has been something of a passing infatuation — good for a flirtation, albeit a serious one on occasion, but just not the stuff that long-term commitments are made of. Certainly, it has been the fashion for some time now to talk of the everlasting confrontation between secularism and fundamentalism, Westernising elites versus an essential religious identity of the people. Those neat dichotomies provide excellent opportunities for obtaining research grants or engaging in an interesting scholarly discussion over a bottle of Omar Khayyam. They fail to address the one fundamental fact about today’s Islamists, however, which is that they are yesterday’s Arab nationalists — with all the warts and none of the beauty spots. Been there, done that.

Just as in ’48, Palestinian suffering and resistance herald a new stage of regional history: of this at least we may be certain. Peering into crystal balls is to avoid the point, however. Only our choices will make the future.

Mr. Hani Shukrallah is Managing Editor of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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