Monday, 16 June 2008

Palestine, violence and the 'two sides' narrative

Isn't the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians just tit-for-tat violence? Aren't they just as bad as each other? Surely there's two sides to the story?

Such are the loaded and feeble impressions we're fed of the illegal occupation, daily atrocities and international compliance over Palestinian suffering.

Politicians and journalists alike utilise this narrative to spin the issue, typically characterised as a 'relentless conflict' of two irreconcilable, warring sides. It's a standard set of messages, bordering on cliché, dutifully popularised by the mainstream media and received by the public as 'balanced truth'.

In practice - as I had occasion to remind an insistent enquirer at our weekly Palestinian stall - it's a bogus distraction from the actual truth of a grossly one-sided persecution.

Yes, Palestinians resort to violence, in response to Israeli violence. But it's not a 'violence of equals' - as the overwhelming might of Israel's US-gifted arsenal plainly shows. Nor is it just Palestinian reaction to the latest Israeli 'incursion' - media-speak for state-military murder. Rather, it's a violence of continued resistance to generations of Israeli violence.

For the oppressor, that violence serves an explicit purpose. Israel not only breeds violence through its occupation, it actually needs that violence to manage and pursue the Zionist project of territorial, political and ideological expansion.

The more searching question is how, or whether, the Palestinian case is advanced through violence. And this takes us on to a more qualitative engagement of the violence issue.

Here's a useful reminder from Chomsky on the case for a non-violent response:

"My opinion all along has been that the Palestinian leadership is offering Israel and its US backers a great gift by resorting to violence and posturing about revolution -- quite apart from the fact that, tactical considerations aside, resort to violence carries a very heavy burden of justification. Today, for example, nothing is more welcome to Israeli and US hawks than Qassam rockets, which enable them to shriek joyously about how the ratio of deaths should be increased to infinity (all victims being defined as "terrorists"). I have also agreed all along with personal friends who had contacts with the Palestinian leadership (in particular, Edward Said and Eqbal Ahmad) that a non-violent struggle would have had considerable prospects for success. And I think it still does, in fact the only prospects for success."
Chomsky's thoughts, of course, transcend the standard condemnation of Palestinian violence and the 'two-sides' distortion. The question, rather, is how much more effective would the Palestinian case be if based solely on non-violence?

Chomsky's views on the matter prompted this recent exchange at the Media Lens board (June 8 2008).
Posted by Stephen Soldz in reply to "Re: Chomsky's view on violence in Palestine"

The question Chomsky is raising is, are the Palestinians willing to forgo the easy boost to self-esteem from launching a few rockets in exchange for a possible long-range victory. I certainly understand the impulse behind the violent strategy, but its total failure should be clear to all. It should be clear by now that the Palestinians cannot defeat the Israelis militarily. In fact, they can only be an irritant aiding the most repressive and regressive forces in Israeli society. The greatest threat to the occupation would be a mass movement demanding among the occupied voting rights in Israel. A reasonable two-state solution would then appear to be a "moderate" compromise.

Posted by Jimbob in reply to "Re: Chomsky's view on violence in Palestine"

One problem with this argument is that the Palestinians have tried non-violent protest before (the first intifada, and before the war in Lebanon in 1982) and been met with just as much brutality. If you look at the majority of anti-colonial struggles then violence and the threat of violence has proved fairly effective.

Posted by dereklane in reply to "Re: Chomsky's view on violence in Palestine"

I know I'm repeating myself, but for the last hundred years or so Aborigines in Australia have more or less practised a non-violent protest (fear of reprisal may have had more than a little to do with it - the slightest revolt gets met with armed military, threatening and beating men, women and children). It has got them nowhere.

A non-violent oppressed minority is easier to ignore, and to manipulate with token gestures and allegations and assault of character; easier to erode culturally, mentally, physically. You need the will of a Buddhist monk to maintain the strength to remain passive in the face of continuous barbarity, and most people in the world do not have that (me included). I don't condone the violence, but I think its fanciful to suggest their cause would be any further advanced without it.


Posted by John Hilley in reply to "Re: Chomsky's view on violence in Palestine"

I take your point entirely, Derek, about the historical plight of the Aborigines, though I suspect they would have met the full force of white violence with or without armed resistance.

The case for a non-violent response in Palestine is, to my mind, a tactical one. Israel, as we've repeatedly seen, will go to any lengths to provoke the Palestinians into violent action, thus maintaining the pretext for 'retaliatory' 'self-defence' - the repressive modus operandi of the occupation.

Chomsky (as with the late Said) is essentially correct in his analysis. Despite Western support for Israel, there's a growing awareness of the Palestinians' case internationally, significantly highlighted by people like Carter, Tutu, Dugard et al. Hamas need to capitalise on that. Indeed, one can see that strategy evolving in the Hamas offer of a hudna.

No one who seriously understands the Palestinians' desperate predicament can easily condemn their resort to violence. But we must consider how best to advance that cause, a process which involves highlighting and isolating the real practitioners of mass violence - the Israeli state. Peaceful exposure of Israel as an apartheid state akin to South Africa will bear greater fruit than any token military response.


Posted by dereklane in reply to "Re: Chomsky's view on violence in Palestine"

"there's a growing awareness of the Palestinians' case internationally, significantly highlighted by people like Carter, Tutu, Dugard et al."

That's the real point, isn't it? That now - when recognition of the Palestinian genocide/oppression is growing (rather than hidden or ignored) - the next step to take is the non-violent path (perhaps a long term ceasefire). Without the international knowledge of their plight, such a step might just prove to be a slow suicide, but with it, it might make their case even stronger. Hard, of course, to implement - Hamas, like any government, doesn't have the last word on what Palestine's citizens do.

I can see it working more from a 'from now on' perspective, just not so from the idea that had Palestinians not indulged in violence across the years, they would be further advanced to a positive end to their oppression today. To many people, the highlighting of Palestinian suicide bombers in the media hasn't resulted in the standard media reaction of 'how barbaric those Palestinians are', but the more obvious question of 'well, what could drive a man to do such a thing?' - a question that leads invariably to enlightenment on the issue. In that sense, however gruesome and reprehensible (where innocent people suffer), it has worked.


Posted by JJ in reply to "Re: Chomsky's view on violence in Palestine"

I don't wish to appear reductive but shouldn't non-violence be a goal entirely on its own merits and in a moral context rather than a tactical one? Apart from anything else, a non-violent policy founded on tactical motives would surely prove unstable and unlikely to last for any length of time. Any political advances from a non-violent approach are the result of its moral strength, so the morality at the heart of the issue should be catalyst, rather than trying to sneak a non-violent approach through the backdoor, as it were, based on tactical reasons.

Posted by Miriam in reply to "Re: Chomsky's view on violence in Palestine"

Recognition of the Palestinian cause has been almost entirely the result of the efforts of Palestinian people themselves to promote awareness of their plight. It's a pity that 'big name' recognition now seems to carry more weight when it comes to taking advantage of the heightened recognition they have achieved.

I agree that non-violence should be a matter of principle rather than tactics. But that said, it's surely inhumane not recognise the severe provocation caused to Palestinians by Israel's actions - along with the disgusting complicity of the US, the UK, the UN (despite all manner of ineffectual hand wringing). Isn't retaliatory violence in that context not a matter of regret but of inevitability - if not outright necessity?

Posted by John Hilley in reply to "Re: Chomsky's view on violence in Palestine"

I think you're fundamentally right here [JJ]. Non-violence is a moral imperative in itself. It's also the most human form of action. The suggestion of its tactical value really stems from a basic recognition that violence is already an understandable reality here.

My point, thus, is not to invoke or 'preach' the case for non-violence in a situation where it's almost inevitable, but to argue that the Palestinian cause would be better served through a non-violent response.

I also take Derek's point that the actions of suicide bombers may have caused many to ask 'what drives them' rather than resort to outright denunciation. However, there are two key sets of forces always encouraging the latter reaction: the mainstream media and the Israeli state itself. Both, as I've said, help provide and maintain the pretext for deeper repression and 'legitimation' of the occupation.

One of the things that continues to terrify Israel is the prospect of mass peaceful civil protest, as happened recently during the 'Gaza breakout'.

The 'big names' may be late in coming to the cause. But their voices do count, serving, alongside all the grassroots work of ISM and others to shame and isolate Israel. Desmond Tutu calling the blockade of Gaza "an abomination" is part of the critical process of building international awareness.

Reinforcing the 'two-sides' agenda

As suggested, images of Israeli violence against Palestinians have the power to shock and bring home the reality of that "abomination". The trouble is that it can't happen without sustained coverage of Israeli violence. And here, again, we see the crucial role of the media in fostering the 'two-sides' narrative.

This is evident even where reports of brazen Israeli violence are given more 'serious' space. The BBC recently applauded themselves for airing disturbing pictures of an old Palestinian lady and her husband being viciously beaten by baseball-stick-wielding Israeli settlers.

It was, indeed, a shocking piece of footage, captured by a young Palestinian with a hand-held video camera. The film, then passed on to the BBC, has correspondent Tim Franks relate the obvious brutality of the incident.

Yet, despite this, and the report's reference to Palestinian land rights, Franks's concluding words return us to the safe, 'objectivity' of the 'two-sides' context:

"Violence against Jews as well as Palestinians has long scarred this place. Video may now may be giving us a new and raw view. But for most people here, the only answer - a political deal - remains out of sight."
It may seem a 'fair' and 'balanced' conclusion: violence is occurring 'on both sides', everyone is "scarred" and a settlement between these adversaries seems a distant promise. But, while much of this is evident, such statements help reinforce the notion that 'one side is as bad as the other'.

Here was a film which could have been used to explain the true extent of settler brutality in Hebron and other places of Palestinian suffering. Instead, it felt like a token nod to the Palestinian 'side' of the 'argument'.

Why, moreover, have the BBC been failing to shoot such daily images themselves rather than relying on civilian witnesses to highlight this supposed "new and raw" reality?

Last week, the Israeli army used live rounds against peaceful demonstrators at Bil'in. The week before, three visiting European envoys were injured by tear gas and a tear gas round. Neither story, apparently, merited any coverage by the BBC.

In truth, there is no 'two-sides' to the occupation and murder of Palestinians by the Israeli state. Just as there was no 'two-sides' to the Holocaust and mass murder of Jews by the Nazis. We can have philosophical debates about man's inhumanity to man. But, fundamentally, the ethnic cleansing and systematic murder of peoples comes down to an examination of one-sided power. There's the oppressor and the oppressed. And those who portray it as a two-sided affair merely enhance and legitimate the one-sided dominance of the oppressor.

If the BBC acknowledged even a fraction of the massively disproportionate violence visited on the Palestinians every single day, the public might be some way forward in understanding that raw reality. Instead, the 'two-sides' narrative serves to obscure the truth, prolong the violence and further empower the Israeli regime. That's a form of complicit violence in itself.


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