Sunday, January 04, 2009

The forbidden question

Whenever Israel launches strikes against Palestinians, it always justifies its actions by saying it is doing so “in retaliation” for Palestinian “terror.” By doing this, Israeli authorities answer two questions: who, and how. Who is the enemy? Palestinians. How is it an enemy? “Terror” — suicide bombings, cross-border rocket attacks. What it never answers, however, or what its detractors should never ask, is Why. Why are Palestinian groups launching “terror” attacks against Israel. It is a forbidden question, the one that, when asked, prompts supporters of Israel, or Israeli diplomatic missions worldwide (as did the mission in Taipei last week to an article by the Observer republished in the newspaper where I work about the inhumane conditions Palestinians are forced to live in as a result of an Israeli blockade), to launch accusations of anti-Semitism, bias, one-sidedness or — the best one — of siding with “terror.” Such rebuttals are often emotional and include attacks on the author of the article (“preposterous,” “ignorant,” “racist,” “condescending,” “stupid” and so on) rather than counterarguments based on facts.

Yet, it is the Why that matters most, the one that the Israeli government and its supporters would rather see unanswered — or not even asked. Let’s stop at “terror,” shall we? Let’s maintain the illusion that Palestinians, or Arabs, are all mindless suicidal killers who enjoy being bombed, seeing their families destroyed or blowing themselves up at a pizzeria in Tel Aviv. Somehow, Palestinians, Arabs, “terrorists,” are less than human, the argument goes, so let’s not look into motivations, the Why. (Richard Perle, a former US assistant secretary of defense, co-architect of the invasion of Iraq and staunch supporter of Israel, said in 2002 that “terrorism must be decontextualized”— in other words, we mustn’t ask why.)

Of course, the Why is that Palestinians are under occupation. They were forced from their homes, ethnically cleansed in 1948, when the powers that be felt guilty enough about the Holocaust to create a state for Jews where they would live in safety. While there is nothing wrong with the concept, this came at the price of Palestinians being forced to leave their homeland. They resisted — they still do — and we blame them for that, or remain silent as the Israeli army pounds them again and again, further poisoning the well. Worse, Israel’s greatest supporter, the US, blocks UN Security Council resolutions decrying Israeli action in Gaza, which it invaded today and will most certainly result in further atrocities.

Detractors of Israel’s detractors will then counter that Palestinians were made numerous offers, which they all rejected. Not only is this false (see, for example, the Arab League’s Beirut offer of 2002, which Israel turned down but which would have resulted in official recognition by Arab states), but all those “generous offers” would have resulted in an unviable Palestinian state (or rather a series of statelets) that no nation with a shred of dignity would have acquiesced to. Even when attempts were made to turn those offers into fact, the Israeli government would break its promises, break ceasefires through targeted killings (in other words, assassinations) and continue to build illegal settlements. Seeing that their counterpart was not ready to abide by even the lopsided commitments that gave less to Palestinians than what is legally theirs — a return of all territory seized by Israel in 1967 — Palestinians have justifiably reacted in anger, electing radical movements like Hamas or condoning attacks against Israel. This is the Why: the injustice, Israel’s continual breaking of international law and its being allowed to do so as a result of support by the West.

Palestinians are resisting. They have motivations like everyone else. Their actions do not draw from a mindless hatred for Jews, just as the actions of the plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were not in response to a biological aversion to democracy or liberty or same-sex marriage. Their actions are in response to policies — self-defeating policies that very much resemble colonialism — by the West, by Israel. The danger is, of course, that the longer this injustice is allowed to continue, the more credibility will the homicidal few who do feel senseless hatred for the Other have, and the more difficult it will be to condemn their actions.

Only by refusing to even consider the Why can Israel continue to launch invasions it cannot win — at least not strategically. This is self-defeating, fuels extremism, poisons the well and makes it harder for both sides to accommodate less radical individuals. For all the writers and bloggers out there, if you ever get an angry response about a piece on Israel, chances are you dared to ask Why.

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