I have spent most of the Bush administration’s tenure reporting
from Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Soma-
lia and other conflicts. I have been published by most major publications. I
have been interviewed by most major networks and I have even testified before
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Bush administration began its tenure
with Palestinians being massacred and it ends with Israel committing one of its
largest massacres yet in a 60-year history of occupying Palestinian land. Bush’s
final visit to the country he chose to occupy ended with an educated secular
Shiite Iraqi throwing his shoes at him, expressing the feelings of the entire
Arab world save its dictators who have imprudently attached themselves to a
hated American regime.
Once again the Israelis bomb the starving and imprisoned
population of Gaza. The world watches the plight of 1.5 million Gazans live on
TV and online; the western media largely justify the Israeli action. Even some
Arab outlets try to equate the Palestinian resistance with the might of the
Israeli military machine. And none of this is a surprise. The Israelis just
concluded a round-the-world public relations campaign to gather support for
their assault, even gaining the collaboration of Arab states like Egypt.
The international community is directly guilty for this latest
massacre. Will it remain immune from the wrath of a desperate people? So far
there have been large demonstrations in Lebanon, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and
Iraq. The people of the Arab world will not forget. The Palestinians will not
forget. "All that you have done to our people is registered in our notebooks,"
as the poet Mahmoud Darwish said.
I have often been asked by policy analysts, policymakers and
those stuck with implementing those policies for my advice on what I think
America should do to promote peace or win hearts and minds in the Muslim world.
It too often feels futile because such a revolution in American policy would be
required that only a true revolution in the American government could bring
about the needed changes.
An American journal once asked me to contribute an essay to a
discussion on whether terrorism or attacks against civilians could ever be
justified. My answer was that an American journal should not be asking whether
attacks on civilians can ever be justified. This is a question for the weak, for
the Native Americans in the past, for the Jews in Nazi Germany, for the
Palestinians today, to ask themselves.
Terrorism is a normative term and not a descriptive concept. An
empty word that means everything and nothing, it is used to describe what the
Other does, not what we do. The powerful – whether Israel, America, Russia or
China – will always describe their victims’ struggle as terrorism but the
destruction of Chechnya, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the slow slaughter
of the remaining Palestinians, the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan –
with the tens of thousands of civilians it has killed… these will never earn the
title of terrorism though civilians were the target and terrorising them was the
Counter-insurgency, now popular again in the Pentagon, is
another way of saying the suppression of national liberation struggles. Terror
and intimidation are as essential to it as is winning hearts and minds.
Normative rules are determined by power relations. Those with
power determine what is legal and illegal. They besiege the weak in legal
prohibitions to prevent the weak from resisting. For the weak to resist is
illegal by definition. Concepts like terrorism are invented and used normatively
as if a neutral court had produced them, instead of the oppressors. The danger
in this excessive use of legality actually undermines legality, diminishing the
credibility of international institutions such as the United Nations. It becomes
apparent that the powerful, those who make the rules, insist on legality merely
to preserve the power relations that serve them or to maintain their occupation
Attacking civilians is the last, most desperate and basic method
of resistance when confronting overwhelming odds and imminent eradication. The
Palestinians do not attack Israeli civilians with the expectation that they will
destroy Israel. The land of Palestine is being stolen day after day; the
Palestinian people are being eradicated day after day. As a result, they respond
in whatever way they can to apply pressure on Israel.
Colonial powers use civilians strategically, settling them to
claim land and dispossess the native population, be they Indians in North
America or Palestinians in what is now Israel and the Occupied Territories. When
the native population sees that there is an irreversible dynamic that is taking
away their land and identity with the support of an overwhelming power, then
they are forced to resort to whatever methods of resistance they can.
Not long ago 19-year-old Qassem al-Mughrabi, a Palestinian man
from Jerusalem, drove his car into a group of soldiers at an intersection. "The
terrorist", as the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, called him, was shot and
killed. In two separate incidents last July, Palestinians from Jerusalem also
used vehicles to attack Israelis. The attackers were not part of an organisation.
Although those Palestinian men were also killed, senior Israeli officials called
for their homes to be demolished. In a separate incident, Haaretz
reported that a Palestinian woman blinded an Israeli soldier in one eye when she
threw acid in his face. "The terrorist was arrested by security forces," the
paper said. An occupied citizen attacks an occupying soldier and she is the
In September (2008), Bush spoke at the United Nations. No cause
could justify the deliberate taking of human life, he said. Yet the US has
killed thousands of civilians in air strikes on populated areas. When you drop
bombs on populated areas knowing there will be some "collateral" civilian damage
but accepting it as worth it, then it is deliberate. When you impose sanctions,
as the US did on Saddam era Iraq, that kill hundreds of thousands and then say
their deaths were worth it, as Secretary of State Albright did, then you are
deliberately killing people for a political goal. When you seek to "shock and
awe", as President Bush did when he bombed Iraq, you are engaging in terrorism.
Just as the traditional American cowboy film presented white
Americans under siege, with Indians as the aggressors, which was the opposite of
reality, so too have Palestinians become the aggressors and not the victims.
Beginning in 1948, 7,50,000 Palestinians were deliberately cleansed and expelled
from their homes and hundreds of their villages were destroyed and their land
was settled by colonists who went on to deny their very existence and wage a
60-year war against the remaining natives and the national liberation movements
the Palestinians established around the world.
Every day more of Palestine is stolen, more Palestinians are
killed. To call oneself an Israeli Zionist is to engage in the dispossession of
an entire people. It is not that, qua Palestinians, they have the right to use
any means necessary; it is because they are weak. The weak have much less power
than the strong and can do much less damage. The Palestinians would not have
ever bombed cafés or used home-made missiles if they had tanks and airplanes. It
is only in the current context that their actions are justified, and there are
It is impossible to make a universal ethical claim or establish
a Kantian principle justifying any act to resist colonialism or domination by
overwhelming power. And there are other questions I have trouble answering. Can
an Iraqi be justified in attacking the United States? After all, his country was
attacked without provocation and destroyed, with millions of refugees created,
hundreds of thousands of dead. And this after 12 years of bombings and sanctions
which killed many and destroyed the lives of many others.
I could argue that all Americans are benefiting from their
country’s exploits without having to pay the price and that in today’s world the
imperial machine is not merely the military but a military-civilian network. And
I could also say that Americans elected the Bush administration twice and
elected representatives who did nothing to stop the war and the American people
themselves did nothing. From the perspective of an American or an Israeli or
other powerful aggressors, if you are strong, everything you do is justifiable
and nothing the weak do is legitimate. It’s merely a question of what side you
choose: the side of the strong or the side of the weak.
Israel and its allies in the West and in Arab regimes such as
Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have managed to corrupt the PLO leadership, to
suborn them with the promise of power at the expense of liberty for their
people, creating a first – a liberation movement that collaborated with the
occupier. Israeli elections are coming up and, as usual, these elections are
accompanied by war to bolster the candidates. You cannot be prime minister of
Israel without enough Arab blood on your hands. An Israeli general has
threatened to set Gaza back decades, just as they threatened to set Lebanon back
decades in 2006. As if strangling Gaza and denying its people fuel, power or
food had not set it back decades already.
The democratically elected Hamas government was targeted for
destruction from the day it won the elections in 2006. The world told the
Palestinians that they cannot have democracy, as if the goal was to radicalise
them further and as if that would not have a consequence. Israel claims it is
targeting Hamas’s military forces. This is not true. It is targeting Palestinian
police forces and killing them, including some such as the chief of police,
Tawfiq Jabber, who was actually a former Fatah official who stayed on in his
post after Hamas took control of Gaza. What will happen to a society with no
security forces? What do the Israelis expect to happen when forces more radical
than Hamas gain power?
A Zionist Israel is not a viable long-term project and Israeli
settlements, land expropriation and separation barriers have long since made a
two-state solution impossible. There can be only one state in historic
Palestine. In coming decades Israelis will be confronted with two options. Will
they peacefully transition towards an equal society, where Palestinians are
given the same rights, à la post-apartheid South Africa? Or will they continue
to view democracy as a threat? If so, one of the peoples will be forced to
leave. Colonialism has only worked when most of the natives have been
exterminated. But often, as in occupied Algeria, it is the settlers who flee.
Eventually, the Palestinians will not be willing to compromise and seek one
state for both people. Does the world want to further radicalise them?
Do not be deceived: the persistence of the Palestine problem is
the main motive for every anti-American militant in the Arab world and beyond.
But now the Bush administration has added Iraq and Afghanistan as additional
grievances. America has lost its influence on the Arab masses even if it can
still apply pressure on Arab regimes. But reformists and elites in the Arab
world want nothing to do with America.
A failed American administration departs, the promise of a
Palestinian state a lie, as more Palestinians are murdered. A new president
comes to power but the people of the Middle East have too much bitter experience
of US administrations to have any hope for change. President-elect Obama,
Vice-President-elect Biden and incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have
not demonstrated that their view of the Middle East is at all different from
previous administrations. As the world prepares to celebrate a new year, how
long before it is once again made to feel the pain of those whose oppression it
either ignores or supports?