by Eyad El-Sarraj
The Middle East is dominated by a culture of hatred and hostility. Both Israelis and Arabs have been locked in a vicious circle of violence and destruction which has rendered them victims of uninterrupted wars and hostility.
I grew up in Gaza in a culture that hated everything Jewish. It was always difficult to see the human being in any Israeli. The Jews, the Zionists, the Israelis were always the enemy. Similarly, the Israeli culture was pervaded by an obsession with the Arab enemy who was trying to push the Jews into the sea. Both communities have lived the horrors of war and murder, and the beastly representation of the enemy. With the emergence of new times and the implementation of the peace accords, the Palestinians and the Israelis are confronting a challenge to their perception of each other which was always dehumanizing and demonical.
The Middle East conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis is a deadly battle between two victims. The Israelis, survivors of a long history of persecution and discrimination, are trapped in their collective memories of brutal suffering which culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust. In their attempt to change their fate and to take their destiny into their hands, they were led by the Zionist pioneers to establish a Jewish homeland and a Jewish nation. Their choice was the Biblical land of Palestine, and the Palestinians were to become their victims.
For the Palestinians, the feeling of victimization runs deep. Their experience of trauma is overwhelming and their inner psyche is injured. Their collective awareness is dominated by the sense of defeat and helplessness. Rebellions, like the Intifada, are expressions of the will to liberate the self and to take control of life, usually bringing with it a sense of euphoria and belonging. All their attempts, however, were cruelly crushed or smothered, which has led to the deepening of their despair and impotence.
The Jews of the Middle East
In the course of their history, Palestinians have found themselves becoming the Jews of the Middle East. They have suffered persecution and discrimination in every comer of the Middle East and, most painfully, in their own country. Their uprooting in 1948 from their homes and villages in Palestine has left an inner focus of fear and insecurity. Victims of what they perceived as a grand scheme of colonial Zionism and Imperialism, they suddenly found themselves in refugee camps both inside their country and in the neighboring Arab countries. In later years they were to live under the total control of the enemy and to endure a harsh life under military occupation. From the early days of their uprooting, Palestinians pioneered and joined the Arab national movement as the vehicle for liberation and return. The failure of Arab nationalism and the death of Jamal Abdel Nasser left the Arab masses bewildered and without direction. It is this environment of frustration and powerlessness which has paved the way for the Palestinian national movement, and later the radical Islamic groups, the latter offering the people an alternative to death through redemption and the return to God.
There were brief moments in their recent history when Palestinians savored victory. In the first year of the Intifada there was a state of euphoria when Palestinians were zealous to join the popular uprising. Participation in the Intifada meant that everyone was able to exercise control over destiny and events. The heightened morale allowed the Palestinians to see themselves as equal to the Israelis as they confronted the military forces and experienced moral victory, albeit at a heavy price. However, the people gradually lost the initiative when the Intifada was changed into a dictated form of resistance. Such a state, which was accompanied by a harsh Israeli response of oppressive and humiliating tactics, led to the failure of the Intifada, and yet another defeat. The tension which had energized the original spirit of resistance was then turned inwardly into violent behavior of Palestinians against their fellow people.
The intervention of the PLO in the Intifada through remote control from Tunis has seriously damaged the Palestinian resistance. The PLO was already battered and suffering from disunity. Its leadership was struggling to survive against forced exile and against starvation, which was dangerously threatening its existence following its stand alongside Saddam Hussein during the Gulf war. The rise of the fundamentalist group, Hamas, had already taken place. This group, which poses as the divine alternative for the crushed and desperate Palestinians, has a powerful appeal. It continues to challenge the secular Palestinian groups and has stubbornly refused to participate in the current peace process in any form; indeed, its reservations and objections are shared by many Palestinians.
Palestinians at a Low Ebb
The Declaration of Principles and the Cairo Agreement were signed by two unequal parties. Israel has in effect dictated the terms of the Agreement to the Palestinians, whose leadership entered the negotiations from a position of inner weakness edging on total collapse, thus giving grounds for a big measure of submission. There is a growing consensus among the Palestinians that the peace accords have devastated their dream of liberation, reduced the size of Palestine even further and the PLO leadership to a ghetto life.
Underneath such a mood lies the feeling of defeat in sharp contrast to the euphoria of victory experienced during the initial stages of the Intifada. Indeed, it was such a feeling which has prepared the much needed platform for Arafat's initiative of peace. But now, the sensation of loss is bewildering and overwhelming, making the road to peace replete with potential hazards The Palestinian position has reached its lowest ebb due to the undemocratic character of the PLO and the Palestinian National Movement. It will only be through the democratic participation of the people that Palestinians can rebuild their community into a state, and can contribute to the stability of the area. As yet the signs are alarming, due to the domination of one political faction, and the repeated postponement of the elections.
Palestinian growth as a people and a nation was stunted due to the long history of foreign rule and particularly because of the twenty-seven years of occupation. Paradoxical relations with the alien rulers have developed into both dependency and defiance. The economic infrastructure is devastated, health and educational services are rudimentary, water resources are depleted and local security is almost non-existent. More serious are the effects on the human element. Palestinians under occupation have suppressed debate on all aspects of their cultural life and social development, as their energy was invested in combating the Occupation. The call for freeing the land from the Israelis was the utmost priority. In any case, attempts to organize intellectual, political or popular movements were crushed in their infancy by the Israelis.
The peace process has, in its turn, resulted in new divisions and sharp polarization on the national level. Tension is building high as people fear further escalation of violence against Israelis and among Palestinians. Targeting Israelis by Hamas would undoubtedly expand the already wide support for the Islamic movement which has anyway gained ground as tales of moral and financial corruption of the PLO are rumored.
The Palestinians, today, are a nation coming out of the rubble. At the communal level, they are still in the tribal stage of development where the clan is the main source of security and form of identity. Discipline continues to be the accepted concept within the family and the community, including political institutions. Thus, throughout their modem history, political organizations have been authoritarian and oppressive. In such a context, the intellectual and cultural life of the people tends to be poor, and women continue to be oppressed. Therefore, Palestinians have to address taboos and bring into the open ideological, cultural and political weaknesses which have infiltrated their national movement and seriously damaged their individual and collective awareness. They have to address their dependency on the outside world, their self-indulgent image of the victim, their own cycle of violence and oppression, their conflict between religious and secular identity, and the erosion of their national identity. Above all they have to confront the loss of the dream of liberating all of Palestine and the accompanying grief. They will have to exercise democratic debate and respect the right to oppose. Only then will a new style of political and community leadership evolve.
Reexamination of the Israeli Identity
Although I have no intention of going into a detailed examination of the Israeli state of mind, a few observations perhaps are worth considering. Israel has cultivated a culture that has become entrenched in fear edging on paranoia, and for good reason. The effects of that, however, are dangerous. Racism has taken root in the Israeli culture, and has meticulously suppressed guilt and favored the dehumanization of the enemy, encompassing all Arabs. The victorious Sabra has turned into an arrogant colonialist and oppressor. With the comfortable position of the eternal victim, Israelis were projecting and spreading much violence. And for generations Israel was identifying itself with Europe and suppressing all signs of identification with the Arab world from where half of its citizens were drawn. Israel and Israelis need to reexamine their identity and to venture beyond Zionism into a wider identity, away from the confines of the chosen people ideology. The challenges of the new times are already exposing the weaknesses of both cultures, as the latest episodes of violence which shook the area have testified. More courage is needed from the intellectual community and from the leadership, if promises and vows are to be translated into reality.