Waiting for Mitchell

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The investigative panel led by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell has completed its final round of meetings with the Israelis and Palestinians and is set to submit its report to President Bush by the end of April.

The panel was set up by President Clinton as part of a” ceasefire” agreement in Sharm Al-Shaykh back in October. I have given up trying to determine what the purpose of this investigation is. The Israelis accuse it of being a tribunal and say no one has the right to judge Israel. Mitchell then denies it is the panel’s role to judge anyone but merely to find out what happened. Fine distinctions are drawn ever finer.

So what is there to investigate? It cannot have escaped the notice of the committee members that for the past thirty three years the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been under military occupation. This must be the starting point of any inquiry into the events which began on September 29 when the occupation forces shot dead at least four unarmed Palestinian demonstrators, sparking the Intifada.

Mitchell said, according to The New York Times, that his committee’s goal is to identify areas of agreement and disagreement between the sides which would allow them to reconcile “the Israeli need for security with the Palestinian need for what they call freedom.” (March 26, 2001)

This short quote displays a mindset typical among many western observers of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: Mitchell does not question what the Israelis mean by “security.” He appears to accept their definition of what it is. But what the Palestinians want is more suspect: the Palestinians do not simply want “freedom,” something that ought to be clear to Mitchell, who hails after all from the self-proclaimed “Land of the Free.” Rather, Palestinians want “what they call freedom.” In other words, whether Mitchell does it unconsciously or not, he betrays an identification with Israeli demands and a distance from those of the Palestinians.

This parallels a typical habit in the U.S. media of describing Israel’s occupation in purely subjective terms–if it is mentioned at all. The Palestinians are not under an occupation recognized throughout the world, but under ‘what they perceive as Israeli occupation.’ Such formulas are devices to protect the speaker from having to identify and take responsibility for identifying the reality of a situation, and hence to avoid criticism that by merely stating facts they are being “anti-Israeli.”

But reality has a way of creeping out from under the linguistic rugs we try to hide it under, though sometimes it gets no farther than the bookshelf. The shelves of the United Nations and the chanceries of the world are lined with dusty reports about Israel’s abuses of the Palestinians. In the past few months alone there have been reports from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, from another group sent by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, from the U.S. State Department, from numerous international and even Israeli human rights organizations. All of them confirm what ought to be obvious: that Israel as the military occupier uses brute force to maintain its illegitimate control over the Palestinian people and their land.

The reports confirm what every human being knows: that relationships built on coercion, on unequal power, on suppression of the rights and needs of the weak by the strong can never be relations of “peace.” Sometimes there is enough coercive power in the hands of the strong, or willingness to comply or suffer quietly on the side of the weak for such relationships to exist, for a time, without outward signs of resistance. But this is not peace. Nor is there any benefit to restoring the “calm” of such a situation.

To tell the Palestinians to go back and live quietly under Israeli occupation until the Israelis decide of their own accord to stop the occupation and the settlements is much like telling a woman who has escaped from a violent husband to go back and live with him because her departure has upset the neighbors and caused a scandal in the neighborhood, and if she goes back and behaves obediently he might one day sober up and stop beating her. Too many women in such situations, especially in the United States, where violence against women is endemic, do actually receive such advice–and the blame for the violent and abusive behavior of the men who victimize them–and too many women pay for it with their lives.

So the Palestinians must not return to the status quo ante and must continue to resist. Resistance takes many forms. Speech is resistance; mass non cooperation with the occupier is resistance; marches are resistance. And survival is resistance: getting to school despite the roadblocks and siege is resistance; replanting the trees is resistance; rebuilding a wall or a house is resistance; getting to the church or the mosque is resistance when the occupier does not want you to get there. When your enemy is trying to starve you, feeding your children and sharing your food with your neighbor is resistance. There is a crucial debate among Palestinians about what forms resistance should take and an increasing sense that armed resistance as it has been carried out by a few Palestinians is militarily useless and excludes most of the population from participation. Hence there is a search for non-violent and more broad-based forms of resistance of the kind that were common in the earlier Intifada.

Resistance does not just take place inside the occupied territories. The Israeli government and its supporters are engaged in a global disinformation campaign, especially in the United States. Countering this propaganda, through the media, with the internet, by organizing local events and by all the means available to activists is also resistance and a crucial part of the struggle. Israel’s military strength allows it to physically dominate and abuse the Palestinians, but it is the international support, and the manipulation of public opinion in favor of Israel in western countries that allows Israel to get away with it and exempts the western governments which were pressured to act against apartheid South Africa, for example, from having to act against Israel. Israel understands this, and devotes enormous resources to trying to influence public opinion and whitewash its image. In other words, no matter what the Mitchell commission says, we have our work cut out.

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