Between The Devil and the Dead Sea

Posted on May 25, 2006

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The recent ascension and rebirth of Hamas as not only a political, but institutional force in the Occupied Territorries, has been greeted by many on the left as a positive landmark for many reasons. Western progressives, who would never submit to a dogmatist religeous group in control of their own legislature, approve this situation in Palestine because it is a triumph of democracy and a symbol that Palestinians are taking their fight for self-determination to the source–the cynical peace processes that have instituted corrupt regimes in the territories in lieu of the much easier to identify evil of the Israeli military. While it is a good sign that Palestinians have woken up to the lie of Oslo and realized that super-patriot personalities like Yasser Arafat have bargained away their futures for little in return, the ascension of Hamas can only bring misery. This reality is unveiling itself in the current period, as Hamas and Fatah take their fight to the streets, killing innocent bystanders and sowing chaos in the process.

It should have been obvious to most observers that things would go in this direction. After all, it is the same punditry that have been predicting a Palestinian civil war for nearly a decade which promoted the rise of the Hamas legislature. To think that Hamas, with its own numerous ideological fissures, would be able to make the political transition without resorting to its military wing to enforce its will in the wild west environment of Gaza would be the same kind of naivete that refuses to believe the same of Fatah. One by one, the layers of the argument that the Hamas election was a positive step fall aside, and have become instead, excuses for the Palestinian electoral error. Palestinians, hemmed in by Occupation, by a rigged wheel and by the institutionalized corruption of a government put in place by the very occupier, chose the least objectionable option. But there are other factors with which to use to judge such options. If a person dying of thirst is offered only putrifying, diseased water, should they drink it on the off-chance that they won’t get sick? Perhaps, if they cannot wait any longer, if they are at death’s door. What difference would it make.

Palestinians, however, are not at death’s door. Close, perhaps, maybe even as far as the porch, thanks to years of the world’s diaspora and leftist refusal to get involved in internal Palestinian politics. Who are we, pampered first worlders, they argue, to contradict decisions made under the tank tread of Israeli hegemony? It is indeed awkward to suggest to those in worse circumstances than your own what it seems like they should do, based on your perspective from the outside. And yet, because we have not done so, Palestinians, who may not be able to see all of their options exactly because of the conditions they face, have squandered option after option. When it was fashionable to support blind Palestinian faith in Yasser Arafat, the majority of progressives sung his praises, but for a few brave individuals who faced much derision in the bargain. Now we can see that there were other options available in the brief window inadvertantly offered by Oslo. There were groups and movements with platforms who sought to address not only the occupation, but the decay of Palestinian society because of it. But noone wanted to talk about such things. Thus from the ill-fated beginning of the Oslo process to its end in 2000, the official response from the world’s progressives was, ‘support the Palestinian people by supporting the Palestinian Authority’. These calls for support grew even more fervent after the beginning of the Intifada and amounted to the Left’s only prescription to end the violence; a return to the same negotiations, with the same corrupt and useless negotiators, that led to the violence in the first place. With progressives behind him, for two years Arafat did not even address his own people concerning the missiles and bullets of the Israeli army killing them. For anyone who lived in the territories during that period, the silence was deafening. Bypassing his constituency, Arafat armed all Palestinian actors in an attempt to ride the Intifada, though it should have been obvious he would never control it–that no one was in control–and that it could never break Israel in the short term. And then he died, without having the foresight of preparing a successor or arrangements for succession. The Western Left has retreated from blind allegiance to the PA–Abbas is no Arafat–and reverted to the easy condemnations of Israel, that leave Palestinian actions unexamined.

There was a time when Palestinians had options. They might have boycotted the entire Oslo political process, bringing to bear popular pressure to make it a less one-side affair. The new Intifada, could have been characterized by ingenioius strategies and bold political manouevers, but no one expected anything from Palestinians but visceral reactions. And because so much of Palestinian initiatives succeed or fail on the strength of their ability to captivate the western imagination, Palestinians, perhaps, felt they had no choice but to oblige the world public’s hunger for burning tires and kufiyah-swathed rebels. Progressives have gone on to canonize the many young men and women who lost their lives in the useless violence that followed. It is almost as if progressives prefer it when Palestinians throw their lives away slinging stones against tanks, armored only in knock-off jeans and flip-flops, polluting their own streets and air with burning tires, for this makes for much better graphics for books and posters about Palestinian resolve than less visually impactive methods. In the current period, Palestinians are also lauded when they support backwards extremists with only the most marginal strategic insight, because it delights young dissident’s sense of rebellion against the status quo. Voting for Fateh was never an option, of course, but neither, realisitically is voting for Hamas. Western progressives should have encouraged Palestinians in the territories to boycott the elections, to be vocal about demanding a real democratic process conceived in a Palestine free of the concrete and asphalt manifestations of Israeli apartheid, no matter what their so-called leaders advocated.

It makes no difference to western progressives. We’ll still go out for drinks on Friday night, and meet at our coffee klatch political organizing meetings and furrow our brows about all the problems in the world before we change the subject to how disappointing the new episode of Lost was. Now, car bombs and gun battles are becoming the norm on the Palestininan streets. You won’t hear a peep from the Left about it because it has nothing to do with Israel, though Israel is the only party benefitting, as they now claim that the Palestinian government is too fragmented and mired in violence to offer a negotiating partner–a cynical and self-serving claim that has become impossible to dispute. Palestinians do not have much room to manuever, encircled by the Apartheid Wall and the Israeli military’s closures on one side and cynically manipulated ‘democratic’ governments deformed by military occupation on the other. Without an infusion of creative and strategic energy from the world’s progressives, Palestinians will continue along their journey, travelling from the Devil they know to the Devil they don’t and back again, and, to appropriate Arafat’s euphemism for screwing one’s self, ‘drinking from the sea in Gaza’ in the meantime.

If this situation is to change, then new energy and new ideas must be aggressively brought to bear from interested progressive parties abroad–in the Palestinian diaspora, in ’48, in America and Europe. Its not too late, but it requires a decisive shift in the way of thinking about Palestine, from blind support and fetishization of whatever seems most populist in Palestine, to critical support of positive initiatives and outside-the-box thinking. We do not have to risk our lives, of course, but we must risk our leftist credentials by speaking out, even if we are told that we do not understand the discourse, that we are apologists or neo-colonialists, or whatever words the Left’s orthodoxy uses to marginalize us. Its become clear that Palestinian methods of resistance have not adapted to Israel’s ingenious manipulations and apartheid innovations. Israel has remanufactured its conflict so that it no longer includes Palestinians, who have always been an uncomfortable x-factor. Israel must now only confront time, as the state continues to cantonize Palestine behind peace process smoke screens. Israel’s track record shows that it can win this war, but Israel has not arrived at this point alone. Conservatives of the west have for decades offered strategic and material support and innovative ways of thinking about oppressing Palestinians. It is time for progressives to get behind Palestinians in the same way.