Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Last of My Heart-to-hearts with Israel

Of Facts and Truths (Part Four)

Lawain Raiheen, Baba? (As in Where To, Bro?)

“Electricity was disconnected 24 hours ago. Today they stopped both the electricity and water; tomorrow they will cut off the air…” (Umm Jabr/mother of Jabr, resident of Gaza/Al Hayyat Newspaper, August 21, 2007).

My thanks to Umm Jabr for this beeline to the Palestinian predicament. Sharru al Baliyyati Ma Yudhik (In that Most Distressing Part of a Catastrophe is the Comical) declares an Arab proverb, but Umm Jabr’s description goes one further. With one spur-of-the-moment quip, it distills for us the paradox that trusses like a chain the entirety of the Palestinian-Israeli dilemma: the futility of Israeli supremacy and the potency in Palestinian dispossession. Render it into fact and truth and you would come up with this mother of all combos: the fact of Israel and the truth of Palestine. Delicious, no? It leaps over the nitty-gritty and gets us where we want to go in a jiffy, for what better turn of phrase can there be for the confounding state in which Israelis and Palestinians find themselves close to a century into this accursed conflict. And the beauty of it is that it takes you to the essence of the problem today without having to quibble with any piece of its history. It allows you to stand whereever you want in this divide, wax rhapsodic about any myth you fancy, ignore all those facts that give you indigestion and flaunt others that make you sleep well at night, because, in the end, whichever way you choose to understand this hatred, you would still come face to face with the fact of Israel and the truth of Palestine.

So, as we waddle through this Palestinian-Israeli morass and contemplate the collective nervous breakdown in the region that may yet convert a decades-old stasis into a future of randomness and shockers—for all--it seems appropriate to ask: Lawain raiheen, baba?
I want to spend a few moments on the Palestinians and their Palestine. It is perhaps the saddest irony of their plight that at a time when frustrated ambition and unusually daring international criticism are sending Israel deep into a funk the Palestinian resistance itself has come down to a simple question of math: multiplication, to be precise. As if by foresight, the Palestinian people had long ago given up on their leadership’s ability to deliver liberation and so they began to deliver babies instead. Lots of them. So many in fact that today, even as Umm Jabr prepares to bottle up her air, whichever way the Israeli state calculates the numbers it keeps coming up with fifty-fifty—and, as time ticks, the odds against it are only getting worse. By just being and multiplying inside and all around Israel, the Palestinians have reduced its pursuit of a pure Jewish democracy into a pipedream. And if success or failure is measured through the narrow prism of that incessant Israeli quest alone, then the Palestinians have already won the fight. You might think this a hollow victory for a people in tatters, akin to a plucked-to-the-bone rooster crowing over his pile of garbage, but then you would be ignoring the paradox that explains the potency in Palestinian dispossession: because they are losers everywhere in this struggle except where it most counts for Israel, the hollow victory is not theirs, it is hers. True, as they appear to us, the Palestinians, noose around their neck, are teetering on the edge of a falling chair: very poor, very hungry, under siege, in the throes of a full-fledged suicidal paroxysm, as luckless in their hapless leadership as they are in their merciless enemy. But it is equally true that, in victory, Israel is no closer to salvation than the Palestinians are in defeat—if only because of those numbers.

This moral and demographic quandary in which Israel has put itself since 1967, because of its conviction that a biblical carte blanch and epical yearnings justify earthly conquest, is pretty much what it has to show for forty years of occupation in the name of redemption. Perhaps the most exasperating part of this journey for Israel has been its inability to write the post-1967 narrative in the spirit of the 1948 one. Neither its exalted conception of itself nor the world’s sympathetic conception of it proved immune enough to its blatantly predatory policies, and the unfortunate outcome is written all over the Israeli state’s current distress.

By any measure, the dismal health of the Palestinian resistance should be finding its reflection in a jubilant Israel, full of exuberance and confidence; and yet all we seem to be getting from across the border is a polity in serious need of therapy. It embraces peace in principle but concedes almost nothing for it in practice; it makes Abbas to order, proceeds to castrate him, then throws him in the bin as defective merchandise, only to take him out, dust him off and pat him on the back as partner; its people are torn, swinging between screams for messianic retribution and secular demands for the easy life; it scorns the Arabs for constantly playing the victim and falls reflexively into a me-against-an-anti-Semitic world mode every time somebody questions its actions; to the West it wants to play the underdog, with us it behaves as the big honcho and for its people it cannot help but be part democracy part Goliath, secular but viscerally religious, civilized and yet atavistic, liberal with a disturbing tolerance towards its fanaticism. A nation with a very open heart, you could say, or a very weird-looking hybrid.

And as Israel nervously paces this way and that, reeling from years of trying to square so many circles, this most forbidding of questions has been making its rounds among ever widening (and not a few loyal) crowds: If, as Israel claims, living by the sword is the only way it can survive amongst us barbarians, has it not then failed as the singular answer to the Jewish Problem? If Israel was born for a reason, it was to be a peaceful, safe, enlightened home for the eternally beleaguered Jewish people. But a military fortress is by its very nature a sanctuary only for the besieged, safety and security can have no credible claim on reality in a state of constant war and enlightenment cannot breathe in a Sparta. Hence, as the Jewish state swashbuckles its way through one debacle after another, the futility of its supremacy grows more obvious to the eye because at its heart resides the very reason for its weakness.

A mighty gathering for the Jewish Diaspora Israel may be, but to the Jewish Problem it has made of itself a most unconvincing answer.

Not your ordinary variety these Israeli doldrums, part of the usual ups and downs of our hectic Levantine existence. No, this is not the malaise that wafts through the living rooms of torpid Sunday afternoons. This one comes with frantic head scratching and sweat because the hours are refusing to stand still, the ailments are many, the wounds are festering, we are all out of band aids, the magic wand is out of commission and something tells us that tomorrow just does not want to look anything like yesterday. I guess in a very funny way Israel has finally gotten what it has always secretly wanted: it is one of us now; very near if not dear and certainly deep in this bleakness along with the rest of us.

All these heart-to-hearts with Israel and I am still tiptoeing at the gates of Palestine, aren’t I, as if the problem--purely a matter of Israeli waywardness and the world’s indifference--has nothing to say for itself. I do not want to attempt an anatomy of the tragedy of a people browbeaten by indigenous ineptitudes and externally cooked injustices, but I would like to visit for a while with their latest crisis, watershed that it is in Palestinian suffering.

Let me rewind to January 25, 2006, the eve of the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. By that day, the struggle against Israel, Fathawi or Hammasi in its methods, had managed inroads only into itself. Neither in its beseeching demeanor nor in its suicidal tendencies could it deliver for the Palestinians persuasive answers or happy results. After years of the peace of Oslo and the reign of Arafat the Territories were a shambles, despairing from their leaders’ abuses and drained by Israel’s. Shimon Peres might have been boasting when he once said, “At Oslo we were negotiating with ourselves,” but the statement spoke volumes about the costs of Arafat’s political insolvency before he had even set foot in Gaza and the West Bank. If the Intifadah of 1987 had revealed anything about Palestinian resistance is that it was infinitely more vibrant inside Palestine than it ever pretended to be outside. No wonder Arafat was just as rattled by the uprising as Israel--not a pretty sight, the father of a liberation movement playing catch-up with his own people.

Flip through the pages of Palestine’s trauma and you will come across many political misjudgments and moral failings but none compares to Oslo in the breathtaking incompetence with which a nation’s aspirations were laid to rest. The very sorry story of that agreement does not lie in the initial decision to negotiate, it lives in the maps that were never consulted, the lawyers that were turned away, the myriad intelligence agencies that were created, the Palestinians of the Diaspora who were put on the back burner, the Palestinians of the Territories who were told to step aside, the oppressiveness that whipped the strength out of the their civic vigor, the crooked deals that were struck between Arafat’s henchmen and Israeli businessmen, the monopolies that were signed over to front men, the corruption that diverted public funds into private pockets, the patronage system that preferred to buy loyalty rather than earn it.

Oslo is not first and foremost about how the Palestinian people were duped by a conniving Israel, a duplicitous US, a weak Europe and an uncaring Arab world, it is about how they were duped by their own leaders. For any resistance movement there are always choices to be made, most under severe duress in very unfavorable circumstances. How well it fares for its people is in how sincerely it marries between its interests and theirs, how carefully it weighs its limitations against its ambitions, how ready it is to revisit misguided strategies and bad decisions, how adept it is in anticipating the enemy, how quickly it can duck and how fast it can raise its head again.

Elementary, one would think. Apparently not.

Which brings me to Hamas.
Long ago, in the aftermath of 1967, Amis Oz told his country that

For a month, for a year, or for a whole generation we will have to sit as occupiers in places that touch our hearts with their history. And we must remember: as occupiers…Only in the twilight of myth can one speak of the liberation of a land struggling under a foreign yoke. Land is not enslaved…and there is no such thing as a liberation of lands. There are enslaved people…We have not liberated Hebron and Ramallah and El-Arish, nor have we redeemed their inhabitants. We have conquered them… (Cited in David Remnick’s “The Seventh Day,” The New Yorker, May 28, 2007).

It must have been a severe case of breathless anticipation that made Israel so resistant to this wise counsel, no doubt provoked by boundless euphoria, millennial musings, divine providence and, surely, just the lure of it all. That’s what happens even to the smartest of people when they surprise their wildest expectations. Even, as an Arab, I can imagine what it must have been like for so many Israelis the day after. What voice of doom could possible be heard in the buzz that trailed such an inspired performance?

I need you to indulge me for a minute here: I know that it is a real stretch to suggest that this rapturous feeling may well have been the one that overtook Hamas on the day of its supposedly shocking electoral triumph two years ago. Millennial musings were not involved but certainly divine providence was, not to mention the sheer lure of it all. Political Islam respectably bids for and wins power, Fatah’s 36-year-old dominance (if we use Arafat’s 1969 ascension as our point of departure) collapses at the polls and the Palestinian Authority--a much mocked obese, old fart--would have to accept its fate and welcome Hamas as its new mate. From the back alleys of Palestine into its corridors of power, from the other guys to the people’s choice: all those sleepless nights and all those years of toil had finally paid off for Hamas, and its joy was limitless. Who could blame it? What voice of doom could possible be heard in the buzz that trailed such an inspired performance? The Islamic Movement may not have been performing well against Israel but it was doing very well against the competition. Its discipline in contrast to Fatah’s self-indulgence, its very special relationship with the pulpit versus Fatah’s infidelity to everything but koussa mihshi (stuffed squash) and its no-frills social welfare networks that put to shame Arafat’s profligacy were more than enough to boost the ego and drown out the grim whispers.

But if you are a spoilsport like me, you would have smelled a stinker the day after the elections. For an ecstatic Hamas it’s as if the Resistance had completed the job, as if context had folded its cards, as if its victory had walked into a vacuum and it was up to the brothers to decorate and furnish the space and for the world to obligingly sit in it. Hamas, it would appear, did not quite understand that 42 percent of the popular vote—equal in fact to Fatah’s--does not a landslide make, and that the seventy-four seats it won in the one hundred and thirty-two-seat Council were not a reflection of the people’s unanimous endorsement but of how intelligently it played the rules of the electoral race. It somehow did not grasp that its command of office would actually demand a good deal more of it than it could ever ask of the international community on whose money and goodwill far too many Palestinians literally depended for half a decent living. It inexplicably forgot that the powers-that-be, true to form, were going to ask for everything under the sun, and the Hammasis, torn between the pull of dogmatism and the push of pragmatism, would be able to give only so much. But most mystifying of all is how a group whose rhetoric is obsessed with Israeli conspiracies could be so oblivious to the Israeli booby traps that would find the perfect hiding place in these same pitfalls of victory.
And hence once Hamas imprudently decided to form the government, it did not really take much Israeli effort to choreograph the sequence of events that turned the Movement into a parody of its old fearsome self, starting with a boycotted and isolated cabinet unable to deliver for its people and ending with the violent rift with Fatah and the coup d’etat in Gaza. Now Hamas stands all powerful in every corner of Gaza and yet pathetically vulnerable to every provocation from it—and with every taunt it loses more of its old cool and reveals more of its blemishes. Now it sits like a chump, where Fatah was before it, overwhelmed by the profusion of problems and the dearth of remedies. Now it waits, the easiest of marks for an Israel that will drill even bigger holes in it and for the raging currents anxious to build a house in each one of them.

Pray tell, What part of this nightmare in which Hamas and the Palestinians are living—delectable as it clearly is to Israel--did the Movement think it could outsmart once it took the decision to play such a role in it?

Whatever its calculations were, Hamas deemed the opportunity to lead too magnificent to miss, and lead it did: itself into a most unforgiving exposure and the Palestinians into an even more pitiless existence.

There is much fairness in the claim that, with an outright majority of seats in the Legislative Council, it was Hamas’s right to lead the government and the world’s duty to engage it. That the international community was demanding of it down-to-the-boxer-shorts elasticity from which Israel was predictably exempted was clear. That this was only the latest in a series of raw deals thrown like so much leftovers towards the Palestinians was no less glaringly obvious. But that was the stinker that Hamas should have seen coming, in a feud whose history is riddled with raw deals for its people. The excruciatingly one-sided rites of initiation into the “club of the civilized” have always been among the symbols of bias in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If Hamas was not interested in performing them, then it had no good reason to seek the chair, let alone so blithely sit in it. It is one thing for Hamas to have been incensed by the West’s double standards, it is entirely another for it have acted as if they had no bearing on its options.

If by its audaciousness Hamas meant to show the world and the Palestinians that it can, through op-ed pieces, finger wagging and circuitous compromises (a la Arafat), negotiate its way into a modicum of understanding with the big boys—two of whom are none other than the US and Israel--the last two years are ample proof of the dangerously amateurish notions it was entertaining. When Hamas won the elections, all things did not suddenly become more equal: The will of 42 percent of the Palestinians did not become more compelling than the West’s, Arab regimes did not develop more sympathy, Iranian and Syrian backing did not daunt Europe and the US and it certainly did not intimidate a delighted Israel. You want to play the blame game, go ahead! God knows the culprits are many. However, if you are going to exclude Hamas from the running, then you’re still stuck at the first stop: The fact is Hamas did win the elections fair and square, but the truth is it lost—and it lost not because of an unyielding West, a hostile US, a nasty Israel, useless Arab brothers and “rogues” for friends, but because when it took its decisions it conveniently forgot that these were the givens.

Gringa, Amercaniah, some of you are murmuring, giving in to imperial dictates and Zionist commands. Yes, well, I know it’s infuriating to let an unkind world so rudely infringe on principle. But you’re letting your anger get in the way of some hard thinking.

Of course Hamas’s room for maneuvering was extremely tight in the aftermath of the elections, but it was there for it to crouch into had it chosen to be more wise than right. Almost immediately after the results were announced it had become apparent to everyone watching that neither Fatah on the inside nor a much-needed openness on the outside was going to give Hamas the chance to probe the possibilities of political evolvement. The Movement then and there should have opted to play the opposition in the Legislative Council and to make its political muscle felt through that body. It might sound absurd to suggest to a majority party in a wobbly, chocking democracy to content itself with playing second fiddle to a foul loser, but 56 percent of the Council is not exactly flimsy, a formidable military force on the ground is not small change and parliamentary cover would have gone much farther than the seat of power in giving Hamas the time and space and opportunity to weave for itself an intelligent exit from a very iffy situation.

But then much in its behavior over the years offered a plethora of strong hints that Hamas was going to be as rigid, as unimaginative and as unsubtle in the game of big politics as it has always been in the business of armed resistance. Its failure, coming that it does hot on the heels of Fatah’s, signals the crisis in which Palestine’s collective leadership finds itself in the daunting battle against Israel.

Curiously, over the past two months, some otherwise intelligent Palestinians have been blessing Hamas’s coup d’etat. “We are with anybody who is against Israel,” they keep repeating as if in a trance. Indeed! How distressed Israel must be at such ingenuous thinking. Yep, the entire Israeli enterprise is in its bunkers fretting about how it’s going to wiggle out of this one.

I say if you want to thank God for something, let it be for those numbers because if it were not for them there would not be any divine victories to celebrate.

What now? Well, now the Palestinian people can be happy with two jokers instead one. Or, better, yet ponder this Hollywood duo: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Two sisters, hideous, loony, inextricably wedded to a horrible eclipse and each other, their girlhood a near-forgotten fraction of a long-dead past, but the pain, the fury, the waste of it all, the sins that return with every flashback, are plastered on their faces and hover, like sentries of providence, over their doomed lives.

No doubt the images offend. And they are meant to. That’s the bittersweet thing about the passage of time: it knocks the wits out of youth’s hubris and clears some space for the thoughtfulness and humility of old age.

Or am I indulging now in my own silly wishful thinking?