During the past several weeks, the Israeli government has vigorously pursued policies on two fronts, one on the ground, the other abroad. The first is vintage Sharon, or for that matter vintage Israeli military. The idea is to hit Palestinians in every way possible, making their lives unbearable and so confined and strangulated as to make them feel that they can no longer endure remaining there. The rationale for this, as the Palestinian scholar Nur Masalha has studied it in three important books, is that Zionism has always wanted more land and fewer Arabs: from Ben-Gurion to Rabin, Begin, Shamir, Netanyahu, Barak and now Sharon, there is an unbroken ideological continuity in which the Palestinian people is seen as an absence to be desired and fought for.
This is so obvious and, at the same time, so carefully obscured from the international (and even regional) public’s view as to require only some additional remarks here. The core idea is that if Jews have all the rights to “the land of Israel,” then any non-Jewish people there are entitled to no rights at all. It is as simple as that, and as ideologically unanimous. No Israeli leader or party has ever considered the Palestinian people as a nation or even as a national minority (after the ethnic cleansing of 1948). Culturally, historically, humanly, Zionism considers Palestinians as lesser or inferior. Even Shimon Peres, who occasionally seems to speak a humane language, cannot bring himself ever to consider the Palestinians as worthy of equality. Jews must remain a majority, own all the land, define the laws for Jews and non-Jews alike, guarantee immigration and repatriation for Jews alone. And though all sorts of inconsistencies and contradictions exist (e.g. why should there be democracy, as it is called, for one people and not for another in a “democratic” state?), Israel pursues its policies — ethnocentric, exclusivist, intolerant — regardless. No other state on earth except Israel could have maintained so odiously discriminatory a policy against a native people only on religious and ethnic grounds, a policy that forbids native people to own land, or to keep it or to exist free of military repression, but for its amazing international reputation as a liberal, admirable and advanced country.
This brings me to the second front of Israeli policy, which must be seen therefore through a double lens. Even as it besieges Palestinian towns using mediaeval techniques like ditches and total military blockades, it can do so with the aura of a besieged victim of dangerous, exterminationist violence. Israeli soldiers (called a “defence force”) bomb Palestinian homes with helicopter gunships, advanced missiles, and tank barrages, Israeli soldiers kill 400 civilians, cause 12,000 casualties, bring down economic life to a 50 per cent poverty level and 45 per cent unemployment, Israeli bulldozers destroy 44,000 Palestinian trees, demolish houses, create fortifications that make movement impossible, Israeli planners build more settlements and settlement roads — all this while maintaining the image of a poor, defenceless and terribly threatened people. How? By a concerted international, especially American, public relations campaign, as cynical as it is effective.
Last week alone Sharon, Peres, and Abraham Burg (Knesset speaker) were in the United States to consolidate the Israeli image as righteously fighting off terrorist violence. The three of them circulated through one influential public platform after another, gaining support and sympathy for Israel’s policies every minute. In addition, the media announced that the Israeli government had hired two public relations firms to continue promoting its policies through advertisements, concerted lobbying efforts, and Washington congressional liaisons. News of the Palestinian Intifada has gradually disappeared from the media. After all, how long can “violence,” which seems to be directed neither at long-standing injustice (such as military occupation and collective punishment) nor at a particular policy (such as Israel’s adamant refusal to regard Palestinian claims as having any merit whatever), keep hold of reporters whose every deviation from an accepted pro-Israeli editorial policy is punished? It’s not only that reporters have no great story to report (such as a ready narrative of Palestinian liberation), it is also that Israel has never been firmly indicted for years and years of massive human rights abuses against the entire Palestinian population.
Senator George Mitchell’s commission of enquiry as well as Mary Robinson’s similar set of human rights experts, comprising a distinguished group that includes Professor Richard Falk of Princeton, will doubtless come to similar conclusions. I have read the Robinson report and it is unequivocally damning of Israel’s cruelty and disproportionate military response to what is in effect an anti-colonial civilian uprising. But one can be certain that few people will see or be affected by these excellent reports. Israel’s public relations machine, in the US especially, will make certain of that.
Such propaganda campaigns in the US are far more effective there than they are in the UK, for instance. Robert Fisk, the excellent Middle East reporter for the Independent, has complained of attacks on him and his paper by the British Israeli lobby, but he continues to write fearlessly. And when the Canadian media tycoon Conrad Black tried to stop or censor criticism of Israel in the Daily Telegraph or the Spectator, both of which he owns, a chorus of his own writers and others, like Ian Gilmour, were able to respond to him in his own papers.
This could not happen in the US, where leading newspapers and journalists for the most part simply do not permit pro-Palestinian editorial comment at all. The New York Times has only had two or three columns like that, as against dozens of “neutral” or pro-Israel commentaries. A similar pattern obtains in every major US newspaper. Thus the average reader is inundated with dozens upon dozens of articles about “violence” as if that violence was somehow equal to, or worse than, Israel’s attacks with helicopters, tanks and missiles. If it is sadly true that one Israeli death appears to be worth many Palestinian deaths on the ground, then it is also true that for all their actual suffering and daily humiliation, Palestinians in the media seem scarcely more human than the cockroaches and terrorists to which they have been compared.
The simple fact of the matter is that the Palestinian Intifada is unprotected and ineffective so long as it does not appear to be a struggle for liberation in the West. The US is Israel’s strongest supporter at $5 billion a year, and the one thing that Israelis have long understood is the direct value of their propaganda, which in no uncertain terms allows them to do anything at all, and still retain an image of serene justice and confident right. As a people, we Palestinians have to do what the South African anti-apartheid movement did, i.e. gain legitimacy in Europe and especially in the US, and consequently de-legitimise the apartheid regime. The whole principle of Israeli colonialism must be similarly discredited in order for any progress in Palestinian self-determination to be made.
This task can no longer be postponed. During the 1982 siege of Beirut by Sharon’s armies, a substantial group of Palestinian businessmen and intellectuals met in London. The idea was to help alleviate Palestinian suffering, and also to set up an information campaign in the US: Palestinian resistance on the ground and the Palestinian image were seen as two equal fronts. But over time, the second effort was totally abandoned, for reasons I still cannot completely understand. You don’t have to be Aristotle to connect the propaganda framework turning Palestinians into ugly, fanatical terrorists with the ease with which Israel, performing horrendous crimes of war on a daily basis, managed to maintain itself as a plucky little state fighting off extermination, and maintaining unconditional US support paid in full by an uncomprehending American tax-payer.
This is an intolerable situation, and until the Palestinian struggle resolutely focuses on the battle to represent itself as a narrative surviving valiantly against Israeli colonialism, we have no chance at all of gaining our rights as a people. Every stone cast symbolically in support of equality and justice must therefore be interpreted as such, and not misrepresented as either violence or a blind rejection of peace. Palestinian information must change the framework, must take responsibility for it and must do so immediately. There has to be a unified collective goal.
In a globalised world, in which politics and information are virtually equivalent, Palestinians can no longer afford to shirk a task which, alas, the leadership is simply incapable of comprehending. It must be done if the loss of life and property is to be stopped, and if liberation, not unending servitude to Israel, is the real goal. The irony is that truth and justice are on the Palestinian side, but until Palestinians themselves make that readily apparent — to the world in general, to themselves, to Israelis and Americans in particular — neither truth nor justice can prevail. For a people that has already endured a century’s injustice, surely a proper politics of information is quite possible. What is needed is a re-directed and re-focused will to victory over military occupation and ethnically and religiously based dispossession.