The state of the Arab world today, and especially of Egypt, is such that reasoned debate is next to impossible. The process of reducing the Intifada (in people’s minds, if not yet fully on the ground) to “martyrdom operations” is almost complete. Thus, if you criticise such operations, you open yourself to accusations of playing into American hands, of acting to bring an end to the Intifada. The matter becomes even more sensitive given that Arab governments, under US pressure, are doing just that, with considerable PA complicity — and we have yet to draw attention to the vulgarity, viciousness and slanderous accusations that have characterised the debate of such “sensitive” issues in our country.
Here, I might point out that I’m fully aware of the dubious advantage that this column gives me. My little bit of partially liberated territory (we’re talking armed struggle, so we might as well use military metaphors), being in English, is safer than most. That, however, is a privilege I do not welcome. I would like to think of this column as sniper fire, but I’m the first to admit that my “safe haven” or “foco” (as Che Guevara/Régis Dupré might have put it back in the ’60s), may well be so safe that the bullets are not hitting any worthwhile target.
Let me first of all underline a certain dilemma that faces all of us in addressing the issue of suicide operations. It is, like many other issues in contemporary Arab life, a debate under siege. In this case, the blatant hypocrisy of the Western world — its political leaders and media — in viewing the Israeli/Palestinian confrontation tempts one to shout “a plague on all your houses, we will do our best to be the vicious, heartless beasts you make us out to be. Our children are no less precious than yours, our lives no less sacred, our dignity no less worthy of preservation.” I need not cite the multitudinous examples of the flagrant double standard. They’re only too familiar.
I could cite one of the less flagrant examples of this double standard, however, which struck me as especially poignant just for being so. It is the statement made by German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, at the time of the Tel Aviv disco bombing. Expressing his horror at the suicide bombing, he said that it conjured up the image of his own teenage children, who also queue up to go into discos. It struck me at the time that Mr Fischer (a nice, left-wing social democrat who would be horrified at the suggestion that his body harbours a single racist bone) would never think of drawing a similar parallel in the case of Palestinian children and teenagers, who are being killed and maimed daily, and in much greater numbers. Some of them would even frequent discos if they could find them.
Mr Fischer, who was in Israel at the time, is supposed to have “saved the day” by rushing to Arafat and pressuring him to declare a unilateral cease-fire immediately. It was this declaration — we’ve been told — that stayed Sharon’s hand from carrying on with the Israeli military’s plan to reoccupy parts of the self-rule territories and destroy the PA. But that is another story.
I have described armed attacks against Israeli civilians as “immoral.” I realise that this is a particularly weak aspect of my argument — not because there is no such thing as an Israeli civilian, but because the “masters of the universe,” in Washington and elsewhere, have made a total mockery of any humanitarian moral standard. Even organisations mandated to uphold the humanitarian moral standards that have been codified into international law (e.g. the International Red Cross) have conspicuously failed to do so in any consistent manner.
The purely arbitrary nature of horrified condemnations of certain military acts against civilians, and the approving justification of others, seems to deny the existence of a moral standard of any kind in this matter. This is especially true because we know that sanctioned killing and maiming of non-combatants claim so many more victims, and cause far greater human suffering, than the operations that give rise to horrified condemnation of the sort expressed by Mr Fischer.
I do believe, however, that humanitarian moral standards do exist, that they express something fundamental about our human nature, and that they are subject to historical development — essentially through struggle. Take racism, for example, if only for the sake of the forthcoming conference in Durban, South Africa. In moral terms, humanity has come a long way over the past 50 years toward recognising racism for the abhorrent monstrosity it always was. There is no doubt in my mind, moreover, that this “moral development” can only be understood as the outcome of the anti-colonial struggles of the peoples of the South and of ethnic minorities (particularly African Americans) in the imperial North. That such struggles do not merely lead to the defeat or weakening of particular structures of racial supremacy, but are conceptually appropriated and expressed in general terms as a rejection of any and all forms of racism, is what human moral development is all about.
The Palestinians’ is a liberation struggle. Theirs is a supremely moral cause. And it is from the morality of their cause that they derive their greatest strength. Is it not worthwhile, then, for them to take the moral high ground that is theirs by right, and suit their means of struggle to the substance of their cause?
Mr. Hani Shukrallah is Managing Editor of Al-Ahram Weekly.