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Punishment by Detail

EDWARD SAID is an internationally renowned scholar of modern literature and cultural theory, and for more than three decades has been one of the leading voices for Palestinian self-determination. His recent books include Out of Place: A Memoir (Vintage, 1999), The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (Vintage, 2000), Reflections on Exile (Harvard University Press, 2000), and Power, Politics, and Culture (Pantheon, 2001).
This article first appeared in Cairo’s Al Ahram Weekly (August 8–14, 2002) and is used by permission.

Aside from the obvious physical discomforts, being ill for a long period of time fills the spirit with a terrible feeling of helplessness, but also with periods of analytic lucidity, which, of course, must be treasured. For the past three months, now I have been in and out of the hospital, with days marked by lengthy and painful treatments, blood transfusions, endless tests, hours and hours of unproductive time spent staring at the ceiling, draining fatigue and infection, inability to do normal work, and thinking, thinking, thinking. But there are also the intermittent passages of lucidity and reflection that sometimes give the mind a perspective on daily life that allows it to see things (without being able to do much about them) from a different perspective. Reading the news from Palestine and seeing the frightful images of death and destruction on television, it has been my experience to be utterly amazed and aghast at what I have deduced from those details about Israeli government policy, more particularly about what has been going on in the mind of Ariel Sharon. And when, after the recent Gaza bombing by one of his F-16s in which nine children were massacred, he was quoted as congratulating the pilot and boasting of a great Israeli success, I was able to form a much clearer idea than before of what a pathologically deranged mind is capable of, not only in terms of what it plans and orders but, worse, how it manages to persuade other minds to think in the same delusional and criminal way. Getting inside the official Israeli mind is a worthwhile, if lurid, experience.

In the West, however, there’s been such repetitious and unedifying attention paid to Palestinian suicide bombing that a gross distortion in reality has completely obscured what is much worse: the official Israeli, and perhaps the uniquely Sharonian evil that has been visited so deliberately and so methodically on the Palestinian people. Suicide bombing is reprehensible but it is a direct and, in my opinion, a consciously programmed result of years of abuse, powerlessness, and despair. It has as little to do with the Arab or Muslim supposed propensity for violence as the man in the moon. Sharon wants terrorism, not peace, and he does everything in his power to create the conditions for it. But for all its horror, Palestinian violence, the response of a desperate and horribly oppressed people, has been stripped of its context and the terrible suffering from which it arises: a failure to see that is a failure in humanity, which doesn’t make it any less terrible but at least situates it in a real history and real geography.

Yet the location of Palestinian terror—of course it is terror—is never allowed a moment’s chance to appear, so remorseless has been the focus on it as a phenomenon apart, a pure, gratuitous evil which Israel, supposedly acting on behalf of pure good, has been virtuously battling in its variously appalling acts of disproportionate violence against a population of three million Palestinian civilians. I am not speaking only about Israel’s manipulation of opinion, but its exploitation of the American equivalent of the campaign against terrorism without which Israel could not have done what it has done. (In fact, I cannot think of any other country on earth that, in full view of nightly TV audiences, has performed such miracles of detailed sadism against an entire society and gotten away with it.) That this evil has been made consciously part of George W Bush’s campaign against terrorism, irrationally magnifying American fantasies and fixations with extraordinary ease, is no small part of its blind destructiveness. Like the brigades of eager (and in my opinion completely corrupt) American intellectuals who spin enormous structures of falsehoods about the benign purpose and necessity of U.S. imperialism, Israeli society has pressed into service numerous academics, policy intellectuals at think tanks, and ex-military men now in defense-related and public relations business, all to rationalize and make convincing inhuman punitive policies that are supposedly based on the need for Israeli security.

Israeli security is now a fabled beast. Like a unicorn, it is endlessly hunted and never found—remaining, everlastingly, the goal of future action. That over time Israel has become less secure and more unacceptable to its neighbours scarcely merits a moment’s notice. But then who challenges the view that Israeli security ought to define the moral world we live in? Certainly not the Arab and Palestinian leaderships who for thirty years have conceded everything to Israeli security. Shouldn’t that ever be questioned, given that Israel has wreaked more damage on the Palestinians and other Arabs relative to its size than any country in the world, Israel with its nuclear arsenal, its air force, navy, and army limitlessly supplied by the U.S. taxpayer? As a result, the daily, minute occurrences of what Palestinians have to live through are hidden and, more important, covered over by a logic of self-defense and the pursuit of terrorism (terrorist infrastructure, terrorist nests, terrorist bomb factories, terrorist suspects—the list is infinite) which perfectly suits Sharon and the lamentable George W. Bush. Ideas about terrorism have thus taken on a life of their own, legitimized and relegitimized without proof, logic, or rational argument.

Consider, for instance, the devastation of Afghanistan, on the one hand, and the “targeted” assassinations of almost 100 Palestinians (to say nothing of many thousands of “suspects” rounded-up and still imprisoned by Israeli soldiers) on the other: nobody asks whether all these people killed were in fact terrorists, or proved to be terrorists, or were about to become terrorists. They are all assumed to be dangers by acts of simple, unchallenged affirmation. All you need is an arrogant spokesman or two, like the loutish Ranaan Gissin, Avi Pazner, or Dore Gold, and in Washington a non-stop apologist for ignorance and incoherence like Ari Fleisher, and the targets in question are just as good as dead. Without doubts, questions, or demurral. No need for proof or any such tiresome delicacy. Terrorism and its obsessive pursuit have become an entirely circular, self-fulfilling murder and slow death of enemies who have no choice or say in the matter.

With the exception of reports by a few intrepid journalists and writers such as Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, Amos Elon, Tanya Leibowitz, Jeff Halper, Israel Shamir, and a few others, public discourse in the Israeli media has declined terribly in quality and honesty. Patriotism and blind support for the government has replaced skeptical reflection and moral seriousness. Gone are the days of Israel Shahak, Jakob Talmon, and Yehoshua Leibowitch. I can think of few Israeli academics and intellectuals—people like Zeev Sternhell, Uri Avneri, and Ilan Pappe, for instance—who are courageous enough to depart from the imbecilic and debased debate about “security” and “terrorism” that seems to have overtaken the Israeli peace establishment, or even its rapidly dwindling left opposition. Crimes are being committed every day in the name of Israel and the Jewish people and yet the intellectuals chatter on about strategic withdrawal, or perhaps whether to incorporate settlements or not, or whether to keep building that monstrous fence (has a crazier idea ever been realized in the modern world, that you can put several million people in a cage and say they don’t exist?) in a manner befitting a general or a politician, rather than in ways more suited to intellectuals and artists with independent judgment and some sort of moral standard. Where are the Israeli equivalents of Nadine Gordimer, Andre Brink, Athol Fugard, those white writers who spoke out unequivocally and with unambiguous clarity against the evils of South African apartheid? They simply don’t exist in Israel, where public discourse by writers and academics has sunk to equivocation and the repetition of official propaganda, and where most really first-class writing and thought has disappeared from even the academic establishment.

But to return to Israeli practices and the mind-set that has gripped the country with such obduracy during the past few years, think of Sharon’s plan. It entails nothing less than the obliteration of an entire people by slow, systematic methods of suffocation, outright murder, and the stifling of everyday life. There is a remarkable story by Kafka, In the Penal Colony, about a crazed official who shows off a fantastically detailed torture machine whose purpose is to write all over the body of the victim, using a complex apparatus of needles to inscribe the captive’s body with minute letters that ultimately causes the prisoner to bleed to death. This is what Sharon and his brigades of willing executioners are doing to the Palestinians, with only the most limited and most symbolic of opposition. Every Palestinian has become a prisoner. Gaza is surrounded by an electrified wire fence on three sides; imprisoned like animals, Gazans are unable to move, unable to work, unable to sell their vegetables or fruit, unable to go to school. They are exposed from the air to Israeli planes and helicopters and are gunned down like turkeys on the ground by tanks and machine guns. Impoverished and starved, Gaza is a human nightmare, each of whose little pieces of episodes—like what takes place at Erez, or near the settlements—involves thousands of soldiers in the humiliation, punishment, and intolerable enfeeblement of each Palestinian, without regard for age, gender, or illness. Medical supplies are held up at the border, ambulances are fired upon or detained. Hundreds of houses demolished, and hundreds of thousands of trees and agricultural land destroyed in acts of systematic collective punishment against civilians, most of whom are already refugees from Israel’s destruction of their society in 1948. Hope has been eliminated from the Palestinian vocabulary so that only raw defiance remains, and still Sharon and his sadistic minions prattle on about eliminating terrorism by an ever-encroaching occupation that has continued now for thirty-five years. That the campaign itself is, like all colonial brutality, futile, or that it has the effect of making Palestinians more, rather than less, defiant simply does not enter Sharon’s closed mind.

The West Bank is occupied by 1,000 Israeli tanks whose sole purpose is to fire upon and terrorize civilians. Curfews are imposed for periods of up to two weeks, without respite. Schools and universities are either closed or impossible to get to. No one can travel, not just between the nine main cities, but within the cities. Every town today is a wasteland of destroyed buildings, looted offices, purposely ruined water and electrical systems. Commerce is finished. Malnutrition prevails in half the number of children. Two thirds of the population lives below the poverty level of two dollars a day. Tanks in Jenin (where the demolition of the refugee camp by Israeli armor, a major war crime, was never investigated because cowardly international bureaucrats such as Kofi Annan back down when Israel threatens) fire upon and kill children, but that is only one drop in an unending stream of Palestinian civilian deaths caused by Israeli soldiers who furnish the illegal Israeli military occupation with loyal, unquestioning service. Palestinians are all “terrorist suspects.” The soul of this occupation is that young Israeli conscripts are allowed full rein to subject Palestinians at check-points to every known form of private torture and abjection. There is the waiting in the sun for hours; then there is the detention of medical supplies and produce until they rot; there are the insulting words and beatings administered at will; the sudden rampage of jeeps and soldiers against civilians waiting their turn by the thousands at the innumerable check points that have made of Palestinian life a choking hell; making dozens of youths kneel in the sun for hours; forcing men to take off their clothes; insulting and humiliating parents in front of their children; forbidding the sick to pass through for no other reason than personal whim; stopping ambulances and firing on them. And the steady number of Palestinian deaths (quadruple that of Israelis) increases on a daily, mostly untabulated basis. More “terrorist suspects” plus their wives and children, but “we” regret those deaths very much. Thank you.

Israel is frequently referred to as a democracy. If so, then it is a democracy without a conscience, a country whose soul has been captured by a mania for punishing the weak, a democracy that faithfully mirrors the psychopathic mentality of its ruler, General Sharon, whose sole idea—if that is the right word for it—is to kill, reduce, maim, drive away Palestinians until “they break.” He provides nothing more concrete as a goal for his campaigns, now or in the past, beyond that, and—like the garrulous official in Kafka’s story—he is most proud of his machine for abusing defenseless Palestinian civilians, all the while monstrously abetted in his grotesque lies by his court advisers and philosophers and generals, as well as by his chorus of faithful American servants. There is no Palestinian army of occupation, no Palestinian tanks, no soldiers, no helicopter gunships, no artillery, no government to speak of. But there are the “terrorists” and the “violence” that Israel has invented so that its own neuroses can be inscribed on the bodies of Palestinians, without effective protest from the overwhelming majority of Israel’s laggard philosophers, intellectuals, artists, and peace activists. Palestinian schools, libraries, and universities have ceased normal functioning for months now and we still wait for the Western freedom-to-write-groups and the vociferous defenders of academic freedom in America to raise their voices in protest. I have yet to see one academic organization either in Israel or in the West make a declaration about this profound abrogation of the Palestinian right to knowledge, to learning, to attend school.

In sum, Palestinians must die a slow death so that Israel can have its security, which is just around the corner but cannot be realized because of the special Israeli “insecurity.” The whole world must sympathize, while the cries of Palestinian orphans, sick old women, bereaved communities, and tortured prisoners simply go unheard and unrecorded. Doubtless, we will be told, these horrors serve a larger purpose than mere sadistic cruelty. After all, “the two sides” are engaged in a “cycle of violence” which has to be stopped, sometime, somewhere. Once in a while, we ought to pause and declare indignantly that there is only side with an army and a country: the other is a stateless dispossessed population of people without rights or any present way of securing them. The language of suffering and concrete daily life has either been hijacked, or it has been so perverted as, in my opinion, to be useless except as pure fiction deployed as a screen for the purpose of more killing and painstaking torture—slowly, fastidiously, inexorably. That is the truth of what Palestinians suffer. But in any case, Israeli policy will ultimately fail.