The Story That Upsets People

(Mr. Arjan El Fassed wrote the following article in response to Mr. Jeff Stern’s letter to the Editor)

Jeff Stern was “extremely upset” to read “The Story Behind the Bus Stop” (15 February 2001). He claims that it was an attempt to justify the killing of Israeli soldiers by Khalil Abu Olbeh, the Palestinian bus driver who rammed his bus into a packed bus stop Wednesday, killing seven Israeli soldiers and a civilian.

Stern finds it necessary for me to condemn such an brutal act. My intention was to describe the context behind what happened at that bus stop, including the location and its history. This piece was not to justify what happened but to explain the mood, anger, bitterness to what is happening in Palestine during the last few months and the fact that people have reached the bottom line of despair, deepened by the Israeli election of war criminal Ariel Sharon as Israel’s Prime Minister, which caused Khalil Abu Olbeh to do what he did.

Generally, any occupying power has described resistance to its occupation as terrorism. To give meaning to the word “terrorism” one must distinguish legitimate resistance to oppression, as approved in the United Nations Charter, from terrorism for terror’s sake. In the context of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination this distinction has become so blurred, the identification of terrorism with the Palestinians so pervasive, that the Palestinian has become the quintessential terrorist, the archetype.

The Declaration on Principles of International Law (1970) emphasised that all states are under a duty to refrain from any forcible action which deprives people of their right to self-determination. The Declaration also notes that “in their actions against, and resistance to, such forcible action” such peoples could receive support in accordance with the purpose and principles of the UN Charter.

Various UN resolutions have reaffirmed the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for liberation from colonial domination and alien subjection, “by all available means including armed struggle” (see e.g. UNGA 3070, 3103, 3246, 3328, 3481, 31/91, 32/42 and 32/154). In article 1(4) of Protocol I (additional to the Geneva Conventions) considers self-determination struggles as international armed conflicts situations. The principle of self-determination itself provides that where forcible action has been taken to suppress the right, force may be used in order to counter this and achieve self-determination.

The question is almost never asked as to why any human being would wilfully inflict pain and terror on another. The Arab-Israeli conflict is notable in part because of the high incidence of terrorist acts. Terror has come from both sides. One side has the advantage of using its modern army and bombs and, the other, its suicide missions. It is a regrettable fact that both sides have reverted to terror. But Israel’s use of terror has been qualitatively and quantitatively much greater than that of the Palestinians. The number of people killed by terrorist actions by Israel both before its creation and after has far exceeded the number killed by Palestinian groups.

Terror, as a policy was first adopted in the modern Middle East by Zionists. The first airplane hijacking was committed by Israel. On 12 December 1954 a civilian Syrian airliner was hijacked by ISrael shortly after take-off. The first car-bomb was an invention of Zionists, as was the assassination of United Nations personnel. A Zionist truck-bomb blew up the King David hotel in Jerusalem killing 88 in 1946. Zionist terror in the 1930s and 1940s has been neglected in the discussion about terrorism in the Middle East.

The Palestinians did not invent terrorism. They found it already institutionalized, a policy employed against them. The important question is whether the violence employed by the oppressed tends toward the end of terror or toward its self-perpetuation.

The tools of repression being used against Palestinians are many. The Israeli response to this uprising can be summarized in a few words: more of the same, but much more. Few of the repressive measures undertaken by the Israeli occupation since September 2000 were without precedent. These include regular attacks by the Israeli military with heavy machine gun fire, linked automatic 40mm grenades, tank fire and helicopter missiles on residential areas. More of the same opening fire at mostly unarmed demonstrations, extrajudicial punishments like home demolitions, collective sanctions like prolonged closures, and other illegal actions which had been routinely meted out to the occupied population throughout the length of the occupation.

A constant feature before and during the latest escalation of Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people has been the sheer disproportional in the Israeli response. What has changed is the scale of repression. More than 359 Palestinians were shot and killed by Israeli soldiers since Sharon’s provocative visit to the Haram as-Sharif on September 28, more than 12,000 Palestinians were injured.

Popular uprisings are the inevitable result of the physical and psychological pressure induced by heavy military and settler presence in Palestinian population centers. The Palestinians’ desire to protest en masse under such circumstances is not a sign of their lawlessness and savagery, as Israeli mythology would have us believe, but rather a classic human reaction to oppression.

Reading through news reports, eye-witness accounts, and responses from people like Jeff Stern, I get the uncomfortable feeling that there is a willing sadism on the part of the occupier, a perversity filtered down through their commanding officers from Israel’s bosses, war criminals, from the smug self-satisfaction of the settlers. It isn’t enough to attack Palestinian men, women, children and the aged, one must also beat up the already injured, the ill, and the handicapped. It isn’t enough to close down cities, villages and refugee camps, one must also bar schools and hospitals, one must also desecrate mosques and churches. It isn’t enough to physically torture prisoners, one must also destroy them psychologically.

Never – not once- is this evil related to the premises upon which the ugly racist thought of Zionism is constructed. The standard of judgment is always one-sided. It is always the “purity of Israel’s soul,” never the illegality much les the immorality of occupation and repression. It is the smudge of Western civilization, never the occupier’s sinister claw on an anguished people made scapegoat for the sins of the West. If once Palestinians erred in desperation by aping their conquerors in resorting to violence, they nevertheless clung to the naive hope that justice will out.

The Israeli government insists that the security of Israeli citizens is of paramount importance and that until the Palestinian Authority can guarantee to enforce that security, there can be no further progress towards peace. However, such measures as described above seem actively to destroy the chances of security for the Israelis as well as the Palestinians. Violations of human rights do not improve security. Instead, they backfire, reinforcing feelings of resentment and hatred.

No matter what Palestinians do, Israel continues its jack-in-the-box antics, popping up here with a new formula, there with a new demand, over there with a new excuse. Meanwhile, the brutality escalates sub rosa, and naiveté has its limits.

The author is a Dutch-Palestinian political scientist, human rights activist and is affiliated to the the Palestine Right to Return Coalition (Al-Awda).