A READING LIFE
Roots of war, outrage, and self-destruction
In "A Digression Concerning Madness" from "A Tale of a Tub," Jonathan Swift famously wrote that "the sublime and refined point of felicity" is "the possession of being well deceived; the serene peaceful state of being a fool among knaves." That was 300 years ago, but now, in this country, that protective frame of mind has become a force itself, having achieved triumphal proportions as it applies to the Middle East and most especially to Israel and the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The credulity of Americans, whose tax money has underwritten much of the Israeli land grab, has been complemented by a national ignorance of history and geography. Most of us are unable to imagine the reality of the Jewish settlements that are burgeoning to this day on Palestinian land, to say nothing of the network of "Arab-free" bypass roads that links them to one another and Israel. Most of us simply have not taken it in that this, above all, is a constant, ever-growing outrage to the people who have lived on this land for generations and that without its cessation there will never be peace. We can, however, take in the horror of civilians blown to pieces by suicide bombers and are quite rightly shocked and disgusted by it. But when American-made and -financed tanks, armored bulldozers, and helicopters sweep into Palestinian towns and villages, knocking down and blowing up homes, laying waste to schools, hospitals, and places of worship, trashing records, destroying roads, flattening cars, and killing people, we accept it as a way of cleaning out nests of terrorists -- not of creating them, and not as being the surest way of destroying Israel itself.
It is elementary, and it -- Israel's destruction of itself -- is the underlying subject of Baruch Kimmerling's "Politicide: Ariel Sharon's War Against the Palestinians" (Verso, $22). The career of Ariel Sharon (whom our president calls "a man of peace") has been a dark, unbreakable thread throughout Israel's history as a state. Among its highlights are his tireless promotion of settlements in the occupied territories, pushing through Israel's disastrous adventure in Lebanon, standing sentinel over the 1982 massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, and leading the march to the Temple Mount on Sept. 29, 2000, the act that sparked the current intifadah.
By "politicide" Kimmerling means "a process that has, as its ultimate goal, the dissolution of the Palestinian people's existence as a legitimate social, political, and economic entity." In showing how this project has been taken up by Sharon in particular, Kimmerling necessarily traces the unwholesome relationship that developed between Israel and the territories it occupied after the 1967 war. These lands produced cheap labor, an outlet for Israeli products, and a destination for Israeli settlements, becoming a place of increasing fascination for those who believe that its takeover is divinely mandated. What developed was, essentially, colonialism, an asymmetric interdependency whose contradictions finally blew it apart with the first intifadah.
Sharon, who knows that the ideal solution, the "transfer" of Palestinians out of their homeland, is unacceptable to the majority of Israelis, looks to the establishment of isolate, demilitarized Palestinian enclaves. Surrounded by Israeli-controlled territory, they will serve as the Palestinian state. Compared to this, says Kimmerling, "the Bantustans provided by the Afrikaners for the black population look like symbols of freedom, sovereignty, and self-determination."
The author has dedicated this clear, powerful book to the Israelis who monitor abuses at military checkpoints and set up convoys bringing food and medicine to besieged Palestinians; to the conscientious objectors who refused to be party to the Lebanese war of 1982; and to those now refusing to perform military service in the occupied territories. "All of them," he writes, "express the genuine nature of Judaism and the true spirit and soul of Israel."
Israeli novelist David Grossman says that, despite the noise and rhetoric of the last 10 years, "every person, Israeli or Palestinian, knows with piercing certainty all that he does not want or does not dare to know . . . that his life is being dissipated, squandered in a pointless conflict, and that his identity and self-respect and the one life he has to live are being endlessly expropriated from him in a conflict that could have been resolved long ago." "Death As a Way of Life: Israel Ten Years After Oslo" (translated, from the Hebrew, by Haim Watzman and edited by Efrat Lev; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22) is a wretchedly moving collection of articles written from 1993 to 2002. To read through it, from the false hopes of Oslo to the building of the first mile of the wall that is now gnawing into Palestinian territory under the guise of security, is to feel the unbearable pain of reason defied. Every hope Grossman expressed over the last 10 years has been shown to be futile. He will not despair, he insists, but not doing so is an act of sheer will.
"When the Birds Stopped Singing: Life in Ramallah Under Siege" (Steerforth, paperback, $12.95) is a book Raja Shehadeh did not want to write. It is an account of the invasion of Ramallah of March and April 2002, and an effort to bear witness, to resist impotent rage, and to assert himself as one who will not be defined by his historical and political predicament. It is eloquent and awkward, an attempt at authenticity against symbol and rhetoric. The author cannot bear the use to which his life is being put by the world. Watching television as the Israeli Army smashes its way through Ramallah, he is both viewer and viewed. On Al Jazeera, he is the Palestinian, "to be both pitied and admired, to be helped and to help other Arabs by providing the inspiration and rhetoric to those who feel so impotent in their restricted world." While the Israeli authorities, for their part, have sent their army "to remind me that a Palestinian does not have the luxury of living quietly, creatively, in his own country. He will be chased, choked, and hounded."
Shehadeh's description of the destruction, murder, and humiliation served out by an Israeli Army brutalized by years of colonial dirty work is sickening, but even more so is his portrayal of the spiritual hell that this tiny spot on the globe has become for a decent and reasonable man. (Maps, history, and countless reports are available from B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, at www.btselem.org.)
Katherine A. Powers, a writer and critic, lives in Cambridge. Her column appears on alternate Sundays. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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