Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Writing about the Conflict

After the publication of Raed and my article, a friend sent me an email:

'What about the chaos in the PA? The disintegration of Hamas? the Kasam rockets? Going into Israeli territory to abduct a soldier? Some minor, understated criticism of the Palestinians? Or are they really simply wonderful neighbours?...
I think that blaming only Israel for what is going on, like you do, is the easy option. The Israeli policy is no doubt horrible, but this does not absolve the other side from minimal responsibility to what is going on on their side. ... I don't think articles should always be balanced. But you can write an article against Israel and mention in the margins that the Palestinians should do something as well'.

These are legitimate questions. Are the Palestinians completely powerless? Are they not responsible to what is happening, in some way? Wasn't our analysis a little simplistic and one-sided?

I want use these questions to say something about the difficulty of writing about the conflict.

First, very briefly, my answer is: describing the Palestinians as mere passive victims of Israeli aggression would make no sense, for me. Clearly decisions taken by various Palestinian groups can affect the situation, whether they are reacting to Israeli policies or acting independantly. But the 'share of responsibility' should be determined within specific contexts. Looking at the Gaza situation (pull-out, siege, Hamas election, embargo, rockets, bombings, abduction etc) I would say that the actions - or lack of actions - on the part of the Palestinian Authority played an insignificant part; and that the decisive factor was, as we wrote in the article, a set of unilateral policies pursued by the Israeli government; that these policies over-determined the situation in a way that left very little room for other action.

But let's stop here and not go into details, because this is not my point.

Even if we agree with this analysis, there might be an emotional reason to frame things differently. Since many readers are emotionally involved, writing an article is not only a matter of reasoning; one has to consider the emotional effect of one's words, if one wants to be effective. That is: we could have, for example, condemned the rocket attacks on Israel in a clearer language. We didn't - but we also didn't condemn the bombing of civilians in Gaza, which claimed a much higher price in civilian lives. In my view both are symptoms, not causes, and 'calling to stop them' doesn't make much sense; what we need is a cease-fire, proper talks, etc etc. But we could have included such gestures - to signal that we are not 'one-sided'.

But this brings me exactly to my main point. What I read in my friend's reaction is the underlying belief in the two-sidedness of this conflict: Israelis on the one side, and Palestinians on the other, and both contribute in their own way to the disaster. So even if you criticize Israel - which my friend does frequently - you have to say something about Palestine. You need two for tango, don't you?

I long stopped thinking like this. You see: I took a tango class some while ago, and I realized you need far more than two for tango: you need an orchestra to play music (or a tape), you need other couples to not get in your way, but you need them to dance besides you, otherwise there's no point. And the way you dance, your steps and your rythem all depend on these factors, and on the 'rules' of tango. Without overstretching this metaphor, what I want to say is: there's far more than two sides in this story. The 'Israeli side'? Do you think me and the settlers are on the same side? Do you think me and the Israeli government are on the same side? Similarly, any analysis that talks about 'the Palestinians' as a tribe is meaningless. Who are you talking about? the Palestinian Authority? the Palestinian refugees? the Palestinian middle class? Palestinian women? Gazans?

What we tried to do in the article is not to say 'it's the Israelis fault!' but rather that the policies of the Israeli government are creating the situation, for which civilians on both sides suffer, and that the Israeli government holds the key to changing it. In other words: we tried to point to a specific element within the picture. But I suspect this would be lost on most of the Israeli audience, who have a very high level of identification with their State; more I suspect than any other people in the Middle East.

More and more I think that the most important task, when writing about the conflict, is to question these divisions of Israelis/Palestinians, us/them. For me, just the fact that an Iraqi-Palestinian and a Israeli can get together and write something like this is a proof that reality does not stop at the national divide. That lines of solidarity can be built across them.

* * *

Maybe more about this in the next few days. I strongly recommend reading Ismail Haniyeh's article at the Washington Post. It is very well written, and is genuinely interesting and thought-provoking. If I have some time I'll post some comments.


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