What Some Indians Learn about the Middle East in their Textbook

One of the main homegrown board exams in India is the CISCE (Council for the India School Certificate Exams). The eleventh and twelfth standard years require students to study both Indian and global history. While the syllabus doesn’t stipulate which textbook teachers should adopt, many high schools in India seem to use Norman Lowe’s Mastering Modern World History. What the syllabus does delineate is the particular periods or events in history that students should cover in these grades. Of course, how any given teacher chooses to approach the textbook or the syllabus will vary.

Over the course of two years, students learn about the following main events:

1. World War One (with some emphasis on colonialism and imperialism)

2. The Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal

3. The Development of Communism (USSR and China)

4. Japan’s Parliamentary Democracy

5. Fascism and Nazism

6. The Collapse of International Order

7. World War Two (which covers some theatres of war most students don’t learn about, like battles between the Allies and Axis in Egypt, but much of the war’s relationship to Indians and Indian soldiers, like Churchill’s man-made famine, is covered in Indian history not in the world history section)

8. Post World War Two and the Cold War

9. The Middle East

It is this last section that I will explore here as there are some serious problems with Lowe’s text (at least the third edition, published in 1997, which is the one I’ve read) as it attempts to cover West Asia. Although it should be said that the absence of lessons about Africa and Asia more generally–especially given India’s relationship to these places, for example forced migration and labour under the British that affected relations between East Africans and Indians–are troubling. One would hope that a post-independence syllabus would explore not focus so much on imperial and neocolonial powers and their history to the exclusion of the global south. To know further details, follow links embedded in the lines below.

As for the Middle East the ISC syllabus detains what students should know after studying this unit:

(i) Post War conflict in Palestine after World War I, till the formation of the state of Israel. A brief background of Arab nationalism and Zionism in the late 19th century. Impact of World War I: the conflicting promises made to the Arabs, the Jews (Balfour Declaration) and the Sykes-Picot Agreement. All these need to be understood clearly. A general outline of events from 1919 to the Arab Revolt of the late 1930s (the increased immigration of Jews under the mandate and the resultant conflict). The impact of World War II and the intensification of the conflict against Britain’s decision to withdraw – the UNO’s plan. Creation of Israel and the War of Liberation (a chronological account should suffice here).

(ii) The Arab-Israeli Wars from 1948 to Camp David Accord. The following conflicts should be studied – (1948-1949), the Suez Crisis (1956), the Six Day War (1967), the Yom Kippur War (1973), Sadat and the Camp David Accord (1979). For each of these events, the causes and results should be done in some detail. Events to be done very briefly.

(iii) The war in Lebanon. A general account of the war.

There are some distinct problems with the language in this description, which appears to give a so-called balanced view between the British-Zionist colonial project and the indigenous Arab population of the region. Yet the language betrays this illusion by calling the nakba (the catastrophe that befell Palestinians when they were expelled from their land and massacred by Zionist forces) “the war of Liberation”. Additionally, the 1973 war is identified as “the Yom Kippur War”, even though a neutral party would call it the October War (it is also known as the Ramadan War).

It is also striking to see such language given the aims for the course that the syllabus states:

5. To develop the capacity to read historical views in the light of new evidence or new interpretation of evidence.

7. To encourage diminution of ethnocentric prejudices and to develop a more international approach to world history.

8. To develop the ability to express views and arguments clearly using correct terminology of the subject.

9. To familiarise candidates with various types of historical evidence and to provide some awareness of the problems involved in evaluating different kinds of source materials.

These goals are important to keep in mind as one reads through and evaluates Lowe’s textbook. The chapter in his book on the Middle East is called “Conflict in the Middle East”, already setting up a particular way of viewing the region as if fighting of some kind or the other is intrinsic to the place.  He begins by defining the geographical region and the states it includes before explaining Israel’s placement in the region:

The Middle East also contains the small Jewish state of Israel which was set up by the United Nations in 1948 in Palestine. The creation of Israel in Palestine, an area belonging to the Palestinian Arabs, outraged Arab opinion throughout the world…. (221)

Israel is the only state that gets the adjective “small” to describe it even though states like Lebanon are smaller. This is one of the oldest Zionist tactics–to emphasise the size of Israel in order to suggest its vulnerability.

The introduction continues by continuing to highlight Arab sentiments about the Jewish state:

The Arab states refused to recognize Israel as a legal state and they vowed to destroy it. Although there were four short wars between Israel and the various Arab states (1948-9, 1956, 1967 and 1973), Arab attacks failed, and Israel survived. The Arab desire to destroy Israel tended for much of the time to overshadow all other concerns. (221)

This a-contextual summary of the region spends a great deal of energy characterising Arab people as if there are no distinctions among the various peoples and cultures or the regimes governing them (they are all stubborn: “refused”; violent: “destroy”). The book treats all “wars” the same even though the nakba in 1948 was certainly not one and in 1956 and 1967 Israel instigated those wars.

Lowe feigns neutrality by illustrating that viewing history is subjective, without, of course, revealing his point of view:

Interpretations of the Middle East situation vary depending on whose viewpoint one looks at. For example, many British politicians and journalists regarded Colonel Nasser (Egyptian leader 1954-1970) as some kind of dangerous fanatic who was almost as bad as Hitler. On the other hand, most Arabs thought he was a hero, the symbol of the Arab people’s move towards unity and freedom.

To be sure, nowhere in the book does Lowe make a similar statement about Winston Churchill. Indeed, elsewhere in the book, he never suggests that Churchill is anything other than a statesman valiantly fighting the Axis powers. By omitting anything about his role in creating and exacerbating the Bengal famine, Lowe secures Churchill’s position in a Eurocentric version of history. Meanwhile, the mere suggestion of Nasser’s comparison to Hitler helps readers, if reading chronologically will have just finished learning about World War Two, to equate the two leaders. Moreover, throughout the book Lowe never refers to Nasser as President. He only ever calls him “Colonel”, as if to suggest he was a military dictator. Of course, nowhere in the book does Lowe intimate that one might have a different point of view about Palestine or Israel.

In the next section of the book Lowe begins with a factual error, one that conveniently feeds into a Zionist tactic of making the world seem as if there is a battle between Jews and Muslims:

They all speak the Arabic language, they are all Muslims (followers of the religion known as Islam, except for about half the population of Lebanon who are Christian and most of them wanted to see the destruction of Israel so that the Palestinian Arabs could have back the land which they feel is rightfully theirs. (223)

First of all, Arabs belong to several religious groups although most are Muslim (Sunni and Shi’a) and Christian. But there are also Druze, Baha’i, Alawis, and Jews. By Jews I mean Arab Jews who have always lived in the Arab world (as opposed to the European Zionists who worked with the British to colonise Palestinian land). And while it is probably true that most Arabs wanted to see Palestinians rightfully returned to the land from which they were forcibly expelled, without understanding that there was a planned expulsion (known as Plan Dalet), to remove the Palestinians by destroying their villages and massacring innocent civilians, one would likely form a negative opinion about Arab people. It would be like saying that freedom fighters in India–whether Vinayak Savarkar, Subhas Chandra Bose, or Mohandas Gandhi–wanted to destroy the British without ever explaining what the British had subjected Indian people to through the course of their empire. Finally, the use of the word “feel” in the last sentence above–one that Lowe uses quite a bit to describe goals of Arab people, but not Israelis–suggests that it’s merely an emotional attachment to their land or homes and not a legal right. He fails to mention the fact that many Palestinians retain title deeds (some of which are also in Turkey in various archives) to their land and homes. Ironically, it is the Zionist Jews who “feel” that Palestine belongs to them–not the other way around.

When Lowe describes what he calls “interference in the Middle East by other countries”, he leaves quite a bit out, including the Sykes-Picot agreement:

Britain and France had been involved in the Middle East for many years. Britain ruled Egypt from 1882 (when British troops invaded it) until 1922 when the country was given semi-independence under its own king. However, British troops still remained in Egypt and the Egyptians had to continue doing what Britain wanted. By the Versailles Settlement at the end of the First World War, Britain and France were given large areas of the Middle East taken from the defeated Turks, to look after as mandates…Although Britain gave independence to Iraq (1932) and to Jordan (1946), both remained pro-British. France gave independence to Syria and Lebanon (1945) but hoped to maintain some influence in the Middle East. (223)

Once again, it is through his diction that Lowe misleads readers. He accurately states that Britain “invaded” Egypt, but it’s an aside–as if it is not as important as the fact of them ruling that country. It also doesn’t attribute any responsibility to France or Britain for their unilateral take over of land and makes it seem like it’s benign–they “look after” these countries and “gave” them independence. The fact that some Arab countries maintain strong relations with Britain or France is not contextualised either and thus it merely gives credence to the illusion that Britain and France was just a kind, if paternalistic, overseer, taking care of things until they were capable of independence. In reality, both countries partitioned the region and divvied it up between themselves, with careful attention paid to borders that would likely cause future problems so that they could maintain their control. This is especially ironic given U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s speech about nations having the right to self determination just a short time before carving up West Asia. Moreover, this partition ignored promises the British made to Arabs in the region who fought on behalf of the British during World War One in exchange for help creating their own independent states. Instead, the British installed puppets who could be relied upon to uphold British policy in the region.

A theme perpetuated throughout the chapter is that Arabs lacked unity, but it never says why because that would implicate the British and French colonial powers for using divide and rule tactics to maintain that instability. Similarly, the book continues with its negative characterisation of Arab states by saying:

Most of the Arab states had nationalist governments which bitterly resented Western influence. one by one, governments which were thought to be too pro-West were swept away and replaced by regimes which wanted to be non-aligned; this meant being free to act independently of both East (communist bloc) and West. (224).

The desire to be nationalistic and also not under the thumb of another nation should make sense to most Indians; and of course India occupied a similar position during this same period. To make sure readers don’t think this is a positive trait in a state, the tone here is quite negative. One by one Lowe moves on to illustrate how such regimes fell starting with Egypt:

At the end of the Second World War, British troops stayed on in the canal zone (the area around the Suez Canal). This was to enable Britain to control the canal, in which over half the shares owned by the British and French. (224)

Lowe continues explaining how army officers, led by Gamal Abd el Nasser, nationalised the Suez Canal for the Egyptian people. But his language, Egypt “seized power”, makes it seem as if that power didn’t belong to them. Nowhere is any mention of the British desire to create or maintain this canal because of its colonial holdings around the globe, which were also quickly decolonising–especially across Africa as many people across the continent were inspired by Nasser.

For Jordan, Lowe offers little to no context for King Abdullah’s overthrow:

King Abdullah had been given his throne by the British in 1946. He was assassinated in 1951 by nationalists who felt that he was too much under Britain’s thumb. (225)

This point about King Abdullah being “given” the throne by the British certainly suggests that as a result he would be subjected to British control. Indeed, Abdullah, who was killed in Palestine at the al-Aqsa mosque, was killed because he was a puppet of the British.

With Iran, the only non Arab state discussed in this chapter, much more detail is provided, although not much context and serious key facts are left out:

The Western-educated Shah (ruler) of Iran, Reza Pahlevi, resisted the Russians and signed a defence treaty with the USA (1950); they provided him with economic and military aid, including tanks and jet fighters. The Americans saw the situation as part of the Cold War–Iran was yet another front on which the communists must be prevented from advancing. However, there was a strong nationalist movement in Iran which resented all foreign influence. This soon began to turn against the USA and against Britain too. This was because Britain held a majority of the shares int he Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and its refinery at Abadan. it was widely felt that the British were taking too much of the profits, and in 1951 the Premier of Iran, Dr. Mussadiq, nationalized the company (took it under control of the Iranian government). However, most of the world, encouraged by Britain, boycotted Iran’s oil exports and Mussadiq was forced to resign. (225)

Reza Shah Pahlevi ran a dictatorship that was financially supported by the U.S. Meanwhile Britain controlled the money from Iran’s primary natural resource: oil. What upset Britain, at first, was the fact that the people of Iran democratically elected Mossadegh and then he proceeded to nationalise Iranian oil for the Iranian people. Britain was incensed by this and enlisted the help of the U.S. to overthrow Mossadegh. Kermit Roosevelt, for the CIA, worked tirelessly to make that happen in the first CIA coup. Language like Mossadegh was “forced to resign” leaves out quite a crucial detail, such as the U.S. role in making that happen. Likewise, as with Egypt’s Suez Canal, Lowe paints a picture as if the canal and the oil fields somehow rightly belong to Britain because they invested money in it. The reimposition of the Shah, furthermore, led to more American control over Iran, which ultimately led to the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Not unsurprisingly, Mossadegh’s actions ultimately inspired Nasser in Egypt and Nasser would also be subjected to a violent reaction from Britain in the form of a war in 1956.

When it comes to narrating the history of Israel, Lowe fails yet again as all he seems to be able to offer is a biblical one:

The origin of the problem went back almost 2000 years to the year AD 71, when most of the Jews were driven out of Palestine, which was then their homeland, by the Romans. (226)

The problem with this assertion is that the Romans never exiled any population. This is a Zionist myth, not a historical fact. Regardless, even if one tends to view the Bible as a history textbook, for a people absent for such a long time to violently uproot the people living in that land is unconscionable. Just imagine how Indians would feel if people who fled during the partition decided to come back and reclaim their homes and land. It hasn’t been even a century, and yet I imagine that people in India would not be willing to give up their homes and land.

Lowe jumps, as most Zionists do in their historical accounts, from AD 71 to 1897 when Theodor Herzl founded the modern Zionist movement. He explains a narrow context for its creation:

Zionists were people who believed that Jews ought to be able to go back to Palestine and have what they called “a national homeland”; in other words, a Jewish state. Jews had recently suffered persecution in Russia, France, and Germany, and a Jewish state would provide a safe refuge for jews from all over the world. The problem was that Palestine was inhabited by Arabs, who were alarmed at the prospect of losing their land to the Jews. (226)

Here a combination of misinformation and obfuscation through language makes this paragraph above sound quite reasonable. But there are problems. First, throughout this chapter, Lowe uses the word Arab to refer to Palestinians, something Zionists do because it makes it seem like, according to their narrative, that they have a number of places to live and the Jews have nowhere, so why not just give up their homeland for the European and Russian Jews. Second, Palestinians didn’t have a problem with their land being taken over because the people doing it were Jews; indeed there were many Palestinian Jews at that time residing in Palestine. They had a problem that anyone would take over their homeland. Lowe also fails to mention the depths to which Herzl’s endeavour was a colonial one. Both his admiration for Cecil Rhodes and his desire to make a Jewish homeland in Uganda or Argentina (because they were both controled by the British), makes this point clear. Finally, the desire for a specifically Jewish state, in a country where there were several religious groups living side-by-side, also reveals the problem of this project. However, Lowe’s reminder of oppression Jews faced at the hands of Europeans and Russians seems to somehow rationalise this (in the same way British Puritans who colonised North America rationalise their theft of indigenous land).

Lowe continues his attempt at explaining the history of Israel by distorting it further:

The British hoped to persuade Jews and Arabs to live together peacefully in the same state; they failed to understand the deep religious gulf between the two. Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany after 1933 caused a flood of refugees, and by 1940 about half the population of Palestine was Jewish. In 1937 the British Peel Commission proposed dividing Palestine into two separate states, one Arab and one Jewish, but the Arabs rejected the idea. (226)

Characterising the problem in Palestine as a religious one is a typical Zionist strategy, as I noted above. Further, Lowe continues to juxtapose problems European or Ashkenazi Jews experienced in Europe with Arabs, who had nothing to do with it. It is true that many Jewish people became refugees who sought a new home. But Lowe fails to tell his readers that both the U.S. and Britain closed its doors on them, refusing to allow them to even temporarily settle on their soil. This was a part of empire’s strategy to push them into Palestine so the West could have a foothold in the region. At the time this also was important for Britain so it could secure its hold over the Suez Canal, and thus an easier transportation route to India. Also left out of this is the fact that for four years prior to and following the Peel Commission, Palestinians led one of the longest resistance campaigns in history–which included work stoppage, striking, and a host of innovative activities to stop British and Zionist colonisation of their land. Yes, when a partition plan was presented to Palestinians, they rejected it. Is there a group of people in the world who wouldn’t fight to keep their land if they had the choice? (For maps indicating how much Palestinians were being asked to give up at this stage see here, here, and here.)

To his credit, Lowe does reveal that there was a Zionist terrorist campaign targeting Palestinians and British alike once the British, under pressure from the increasing conflict, limited the Jewish immigration numbers:

The Jews, after all that their race had suffered at the hands of the Nazis, were determined to fight for their “national home”. They began a terrorist campaign against both Arabs and British; one of the most spectacular incidents was the blowing up of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which the British were using as their headquarters; 91 people were killed and many more injured. (226)

The precursor to this admission of Zionist terrorism–although what is not mentioned is the targeting of Palestinians, which happened exerted a far greater toll–is the mention of Jews as a “race.” Aside from the fact that race is a social construct, there is no ethnically or genealogically unique group of Jews. As with other monotheisms, Jews proselytised, thus creating Jews from various cultural backgrounds. As for Zionist terrorism, it was extensive and far reaching all dictated by a plan to remove Palestinians from Palestine.

The final fib Lowe tells about the creation of Israel is the so-called war that ensued after Israel declared its independence:

In May 1948 Ben Gurion declared the independence of the new state of Israel. It was immediately attacked by Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon. (227)

The sentences above move beyond mythology and into the realm of fantasy, as many historians have illustrated over the last couple of decades. First of all, the Zionist Plan Dalet, to ethnically cleanse Palestine of its indigenous population had already been well under way for a few years prior to 1948. Many Zionists were part of the British army and received military training and had greater access to sophisticated weapons. The Palestinians, as well as the Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Jordanians, and Iraqis barely had an army at all. The ration was about 50,000 Zionist soldiers to 10,000 Palestinians (plus a moderate number of Arab irregulars–not any state army). What the repetition of this myth does, is perpetuate the biblically-rooted fantasy that Israel is a tiny David surrounded by a sea of Goliaths.

In spite of these facts, Lowe amplifies his Zionist sense that it was some kind of extraordinary feat that Israel won the so-called war:

Most people expected the Arabs to win easily, but against seemingly overwhelming odds, the Israelis defeated them and even captured more of Palestine than the UN partition had given them. (227)

He gives only a cursory and vague nod to the Zionist-created Palestinian refugee problem:

After some Jews had slaughtered the entire population of an Arab village in Israel, nearly a million Arabs fled into Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria where they had to live in miserable refugee camps. Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan. The USA, Britain and France guaranteed Israel’s frontiers, but the Arab states did not regard the ceasefire as permanent. They would not recognize the legality of Israel, and they regarded this war as only the first round int he struggle to destroy Israel and liberate Palestine. (227-228)

It is likely that Lowe is referring to Deir Yassin, a Palestinian village in Jerusalem, which has become infamous for the Zionist massacre there. However, this massacre was committed on 9 April–a good month before Israel declared its statehood and before its so-called “war of independence” began. Deir Yassin is an important milestone in Palestinian history, mostly because it scared other Palestinians into flight. But it was by no means the only massacre committed by Zionist militias (all of which became folded into the Israeli army after independence).

The most egregious oversight, however, is Lowe’s glossing over the expulsion of over 750,000 Palestinians and the destruction of over 500 villages, which were later forested over by the Jewish National Fund so that Palestinians could not return. He also fails to mention that Palestinians have the right to return to their land as enshrined in UN Resolution 194.

Finally, Lowe reiterates the idea that the Arab states are being difficult, stubborn, and defiant for not recognising Israel like Western states did. Once again, in the absence of context as to why people were so appalled at the take over of Palestinian land is conveniently left out.

After this section rooted in 1948, Lowe skips ahead to 1956 and the Suez War. Here, too, his theme continues of demonising Arabs, especially Nasser:

Colonel Nasser, the new ruler of Egypt, was aggressively in favour of Arab unity and independence, including the liberation of Palestine from the Jews; almost everything he did irritated the British, Americans or French: He organized guerrilla fighters known as fedayeen (self-sacrificers) to carry out sabotage and murder inside Israel, and Egyptian ships blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba leading to the Israeli port of Eliat. (228)

The use of the adverb “aggressively”, something Lowe never does when describing Israelis, posits Nasser once again as an unreasonable and dangerous man. But this paragraph also pieces together bits of history from different historical moments, none of which are related to the war in 1956. He blockaded the port in the Gulf of Aqaba in 1967. Palestinian freedom fighters made a much more powerful dent in their struggle during the 1960s–both after this particular war. Through his tone and cherry-picked events, Lowe also suggests Nasser was a problem for helping Algerians in their anti-colonial war against France and for siding with Russia in order to obtain weapons at the height of the Cold War.

Lowe does accurately portray the origin of the war as a “planned Israeli invasion of Egypt”, which he thinks “was a brilliant success” while British and French forces bombed Egyptian airbases (230). He mentions the U.S. demanding the war be halted, signaling a win for Egypt, and the positive effect the war had on Algerians who were fighting for independence, but he doesn’t mention Nasser’s triumphant influence from Ghana to India and everywhere in between.

The next war Lowe skips ahead to is the June 1967 War, which Israelis call the Six Day War. He claims that leading up to this war, a newly independent and left-leaning Iraq wanted to “wipe Israel off the map” (231). He says:

The Arab states had not signed a peace treaty at the end of the 1948-9 war and were still refusing to give Israel official recognition. In 1967 they joined together again in a determined attempt to destroy Israel. The lead was taken by Iraq, Syria and Egypt. (231)

Lowe also characterises the growing Palestinian armed resistance movement  in Syria, which “supported El Fatah, the Palestinian Liberation Movement, a more effective guerrilla force than the fedayeen” (231). Fatah was very much a part of the fedayeen whether in Syria or Jordan. While he does reveal that “The Israelis decided that the best policy was to attack first rather than wait to be defeated”, because troops amassed “along their frontiers” (232).

Of course, Israel’s success in that war meant it enlarged its colonial territories, including Syria’s Golan Heights, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and the rest of historic Palestine: the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Lowe mentions that “this time [the Israelis] had ignored a UN order to return the captured territory” (232). But actually, Israel has ignored every single UN resolution related to their territory. This resolution was Security Council Resolution 242, which made clear that in international law no state may hold onto, or move a civilian population into, a territory acquired by war. It also reiterated the necessity of solving the Palestinian refugee problem, a problem that was greatly increased with this new war.

The final war explored between Israel and its neighbours is the one war that Israel didn’t initiate. In this scenario countries like Egypt and Syria attacked Israel, at least in part, to recover territory that Israel had illegally occupied since the previous war in 1967. For Lowe, the war was caused because:

Pressure was brought to bear on the Arab states by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under its leader Yasser Arafat, for some further action. When very little happened, a more extreme group within the PLO, called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, embarked on a series of terrorist attacks to draw world attention to the grave injustice being done to the Arabs of Palestine. (232)

This statement, which opens this section of the chapter, is extremely vague, although when one reads on it is clear that he is referring to Palestinians having to resort to new strategies to call attention to their plight. But in relation to what action or what did or didn’t happen, it remains unclear. Interestingly, like many Zionists, it is after the PFLP’s attacks that the word Palestine began, finally, to appear in the mainstream media. As if to reinforce Lowe’s opinion of painting Palestinians as terrorists here, he includes a photograph of Palestinian children whom he describes as follows:

The child soldiers of the Palestine refugee camps; trained from the age of 7, these boys and girls would be ready for front-line service by the age of 15. (234)

Note: there are no photographs of Israeli soldiers in training nor are there any photographs of Israelis except for Menachem Begin signing a peace treaty with Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat. Thus, through images Lowe is able to show Israelis as those who are striving for peace, and Palestinians as desiring to maintain a state of war.

Israel won this war, too, largely because of its increasing arsenal gifted from the American  government. But it sparked an important response from oil producing countries, creating an oil embargo that resulted in a global energy crisis.

The next jump in history moves to the peace accord signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979, a treaty that would cost President Sadat his life for isolating Palestinians and the rest of the region. Lowe tells readers that “Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, bravely announced that he would continue the Camp David agreement” (236).

From this event he shifts to Israel’s peace treaty with the PLO. Oddly, this jump in time skips over the first intifada, a popular movement that ran the gamut from refusal to pay taxes to throwing stones at Israel armoured tanks. It is this development that likely led to pressuring the PLO into signing the Oslo Accords. Lowe fails to highlight the way that this agreement was one sided, as it sent Palestinians down the road which would force them to constantly make concessions for little to nothing in return. Instead, he merely states that in addition to the PLO and Israel recognising one another:

the Palestinians were to be given limited self-rule in Jericho (on the West Bank) and in part of the Gaza Strip, areas occupied by Israel since the 1967 war. Israeli troops would be withdrawn from these areas. (237)

Today it is clear that each and every so-called peace treaty Israel pushed Palestinians into signing was another tactic to increase its colonial rule of Palestinians. And just as Israel has never honoured a UN resolution, it has never honoured any promise made in its treaties. As a way to relieve Israel from any blame, because “four bombings carried out by the militant Palestinian group, Hamas claimed 63 lives” (237). Of course, Israel’s divide and conquer colonial practice that helped to bolster Hamas is not mentioned in the textbook.

The last three sections cover other wars: Lebanon’s civil war, the Iran-Iraq war, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In its section on Lebanon, Lowe brings up the issue of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in ways that is both confused and quite uninformed:

The presence of Palestinian refugees from Israel: This complicated the situation even more. By 1975 there were at least half a million of them living in squalid camps away from the main centres of population. The Palestinians were not popular in Lebanon because they were continually involved in frontier incidents with Israel, provoking the Israelis to hit back at the Palestinians in southern Lebanon. In particular, the Palestinians, being left-wing and Muslim, alarmed conservative and Christian Maronites who looked on the Palestinians as a dangerous destabilising influence. By 1975 the PLO had its headquarters in Lebanon, and this meant that Syria, the chief supporter of the PLO, was constantly interfering in Lebanon’s affairs. (240)

First, Palestinian refugees were forced into Lebanon by Zionists before the state of Israel existed. They are refugees from Palestine, not from Israel. Second, Palestinians do not necessarily live away from main centres of population (Sur, Saida, Beirut, Trablus). Indeed, in Beirut there are several camps within the city itself. Third, Palestinians are not only Muslim and not only leftist–whether fighters or not. Indeed, many Palestinian fighters were Christian and many were not leftists.

But throughout this section, Lowe represents the Lebanese Civil War in highly sectarian ways. While part of the issue is certainly Lebanon’s sectarianism, it is not as simplistic as Lowe makes it out to be. Because he sees Palestinians as mainly Muslim and Lebanese as mainly Christian, here is how he characterises the fighting:

In the south, bordering on Israel, fighting soon broke out between Palestinians and Christians; the Israelis seized this opportunity to send troops in to help the Christians. A small semi-independent Christian state of Free Lebanon was declared under Major Haddad. The Israelis supported this because it acted as a buffer zone to protect them from further Palestinian attacks. (240)

Instead of truthfully explaining that Haddad’s army–known as the South Lebanese Army–was not independent because it was a proxy militia for Israel, Lowe merely tells readers it was a Christian group wanting to protect themselves and the border. Moreover, to further complicate the sectarian nature of Lowe’s book, SLA ran Khiam prison, in cahoots with the Israelis, where freedom fighters such as Soha Bechara, a Lebanese Christian communist woman, were held and tortured for years.

Elsewhere Lowe continues to take plays from Zionists by rationalising attacks on Palestinians by calling it a “reprisal”:

In 1982, in reprisal for a Palestinian attack on Israel, Israeli troops invaded Lebanon and penetrated as far as Beirut. For a time the Gemayels, supported by the Israelis, were in control of Beirut. During this period the Palestinians were expelled from Beirut, and from then on the PLO was divided. (240).

This passage elides several points. True, Israel was aligned with the Phalangists or Kata’eb political party in Lebanon, a right-wing Maronite (Christian) group. Although he makes it clear that Israel “invaded” Lebanon (not its first time to do so either, and certainly not its last), the notion that Israel was aligned with a particular militia makes it seem as though they were somehow welcome. More horrendous is his use of the word “reprisal” to suggest that whatever Israel did–something Lowe elides here–was warranted. What he forgets to tell his readers is that 1982 is precisely the moment when Israel perpetrated on defenceless Palestinians in the Beirut refugee camp Shatila (and the surrounding neighbourhood of Sabra) under the cover of the Phalange militia. Even Israel’s Kahan Commission found Ariel Sharon guilty for his part in orchestrating the massacre.

In the final two sections of the chapter, Lowe covers up more key points as he glosses over the conflict between Iran and Iraq and later the U.S. and Iraq. But the conclusion to the chapter seems to be the one place where some truth emerges as well through both his tone and language:

The war and its aftermath were very revealing about the motives of the West and the great powers. Their primary concern was not with international justice and moral questions of right and wrong, but with their own self-interest. They only took action against Saddam in the first place because they felt he was threatening their oil supplies. Often in the past when other small nations had been invaded, no international action had been taken. For example, when East Timor was occupied by neighbouring Indonesia in 1975, the rest of the world ignored it, because their interests were not threatened. (244)

It is quite odd to see Lowe making such a statement at the beginning of the paragraph, and then regress so ignorantly at the conclusion of the paragraph and chapter. It is also strange that he sees self-interest here, but not elsewhere–for example Britain’s desire to control the Suez Canal or Iranian oil fields. But the icing on the cake is this conclusion when he imagines that the world ignored it because their interests weren’t threatened. Indeed, the West, especially the United States, actively participated in the massacre and occupation of East Timor.

While this is just a small response to one chapter in a history book, I could certainly continue examining and pointing out inconsistencies, omissions, and false statements throughout the volume. It should be a reminder that we cannot accept any text at face value and that we should question what we read.

on nonviolence or where is the palestinian gandhi?

khalil bendib
khalil bendib

a couple of days ago my friend huwaida arraf published an op ed in the seattle times that raised an important issue for americans: the age old question of wondering where palestinian “gandhis” are. it is a problematic question for many reasons not the least of which is that there are many as she explains:

We Palestinians are often asked where the Palestinian Gandhi is and urged to adopt nonviolent methods in our struggle for freedom from Israeli military rule. On April 17, an Israeli soldier killed my good friend Bassem Abu Rahme at a nonviolent demonstration against Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land. Bassem was one of many Palestinian Gandhis.

One month prior, at another demonstration against land confiscation, Israeli soldiers fired a tear-gas canister at the head of nonviolent American peace activist Tristan Anderson from California. Tristan underwent surgery to remove part of his frontal lobe and is still lying unconscious in an Israeli hospital. In 2003, the Israeli military plowed down American peace activist Rachel Corrie with a Caterpillar bulldozer as she tried to protect a civilian home from demolition in Gaza. Shortly thereafter, an Israeli sniper shot British peace activist Tom Hurndall as he rescued Palestinian children from Israeli gunfire. He lay in a coma for nine months before he died.

rory mccarthy wrote about the murder of bassem abu rahme yesterday in the guardian as well in the context of the weekly nonviolent protests in bil’in village, though mccarthy’s judgmental tone at palestinians who throw stones at israeli terrorists lobbing american-made tear gas canisters (produced at the new jersey based u.s. federal laboratories) and rubber-coated steel bullets at palestinians is problematic:

Friday’s demonstration lasted around three hours. The crowd repeatedly surged towards the fence, then retreated under clouds of teargas. The military sounded a constant, high-pitched siren, interspersed with warnings in Arabic and Hebrew: “Go back. You with the flag, go back” and, incongruously, in English: “You are entering a naval vessel exclusion zone. Reverse course immediately.”

The Bil’in demonstration was always intended to be non-violent, although on Friday, as is often the case, there were half a dozen younger, angrier men lobbing stones at the soldiers with slingshots. The Israeli military, for its part, fires teargas, stun grenades, rubber-coated bullets and sometimes live ammunition at the crowd.

There have long been Palestinian advocates of non-violence, but they were drowned out by the militancy of the second intifada, the uprising that began in late 2000 and erupted into waves of appalling suicide bombings.

Eyad Burnat, 36, has spent long hours in discussions with the young men of Bil’in, a small village of fewer than 2,000, convincing them of the merits of “civil grassroots resistance”.

there are so many problems with these various critiques of palestinians, usually made by foreigners, about palestinians’ right to armed resistance. for one thing the question that never goes away that huwaida asks–where is the palestinian gandhi–is completely ahistorical. indians did not win independence solely based on nonviolent resistance. there was a long history of armed resistance against the british before gandhi took center stage as radhika sainath explains in the electronic intifada:

In Gaza, Palestinians have once again been blamed for their own deaths. The British made a similar argument 151 years ago when they killed thousands of Indian civilians — 1,200 in a single village — in response to the largest anti-colonial uprising of the 19th century. If Israel truly desires peace with the Palestinians and safety for its citizens, it should look back to one of the greatest, and misunderstood, independence movements in history.

Most people believe India won its independence from the British exclusively through Gandhi’s famous strategy of nonviolence. They’re wrong; armed resistance has deep roots in India. During the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, also known as the First War of Independence, Hindus and Muslims serving in the infantry for the British East Indian Company revolted against the British Empire, killing British officers and civilians alike. While the majority of these cavalrymen were Hindu, Muslims also partook in the rebellion. These Muslim fighters called themselves “jihadis” and even “suicide ghazis.”

The British quashed the revolt, but for the next 90 years Indian violence, even terrorism, in response continued. In the early 20th century, Indian militants, frustrated with the Congress party — the party of Gandhi and Nehru — regularly resorted to acts of violence to overthrow the British. Official government reports note 210 “revolutionary outrages” and at least 1,000 “terrorists” involved in more than 101 attempted attacks between 1906 and 1917 in the state of Bengal alone (see Peter Heehs, “Terrorism in India During the Freedom Struggle,” The Historian, 22 March 1993). One young revolutionary, Bhagat Singh, later referred to as “Shaheed” Bhagat Singh, bombed the Legislative Assembly in 1929.

On the other hand, Palestinians are usually portrayed in Israel and the West as exclusively militants or terrorists. Yet Palestinians have a vibrant, albeit unsuccessful, history of nonviolent resistance. In 1936, the Palestinians maintained a six-month general strike, the beginning of what became known as the Great Arab Revolt. The British retaliated by declaring martial law, jailing and killing large numbers of Palestinians, and destroying numerous Palestinian homes. The revolt lasted for three years and was the largest and longest anti-colonial uprising in the British Empire.

all of this is making me think of rachel corrie, perhaps because i am teaching her play, my name is rachel corrie, in my drama class. to be sure, i taught fateh azzam’s ansar: the true story of an israeli military detention center and el funoun’s from haifa to beirut and beyond first so that my students had an opportunity to read and consider palestinian theatre first. i do not approve of people just privileging the white man’s perspective, as it were, over palestinians’ perspectives. and my students, until this semester, have never encountered drama written and produced by palestinians so this was important for me to do. but i also think reading corrie’s play is useful for a number of reasons not the least of which is its context as a play that was censored in the united states and the context of the international action revolving around boycotting caterpillar in relation to corrie’s death as well as so many palestinians who have died at the hands of american-made caterpillar d-9 bulldozers and whose homes have been destroyed as well. more on that shortly. but i want to first share a part of a monologue from the play that is supposed to be an email that corrie sends home to her mother who, at the time, had asked her about palestinian violence and whose email seemed to be alluding to that age-old question about the palestinian gandhi:

So when someone says that any act of Palestinian violence justifies Israel’s actions not only do I question that logic in light of international law and the right of people to legitimate armed struggle in defence of their land and their families; not only do I question that logic in light of the fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits collective punishment, prohibits the transfer of an occupying country’s population into an occupied area, prohibits the expropriation of water resources and the destruction of civilian infrastructure such as farms; not only do I question that logic in light of the notion that fifty-year-old Russian guns and homemade explosives can have any impact on the activities of one of the world’s largest militaries, backed by the world’s only superpower, I also question that logic on the basis of common sense.

If any of us had our lives and our welfare completely strangled and lived with children in a shrinking place where we knew that soldiers and tanks and bulldozers could come for us at any moment with no means of economic survival and our houses demolished; if they came and destroyed all the greenhouses that we’d been cultivating for the last however long do you not think, in a similar situation, most people would defend themselves the best they could?

You asked me about non-violent resistance, and I mentioned the first intifada. The vast majority of Palestinians right now, as far as I can tell, are engaging in Gandhian non-violent resistance. (48)

unfortunately, organizations like human rights watch feed into this point of view by alternately perpetuating the idea that palestinians do not have a right to armed resistance or by suggesting that there is somehow an equal playing field for palestinians resisting israeli colonialism.

in an article in electronic intifada from a few years ago, jonathan cook offers an important critique of human rights watch, one that he repeats in his amazing book disappearing palestine. the article is a critique of a report by human rights watch denying palestinians the right to non-violent resistance by women and children congregating in large numbers around buildings suspected of being targets of israeli terrorism in order to prevent the bombardment. here is cook’s critique of human rights watch’s denial of palestinian resistance–whether armed or nonviolent:

In language that would have made George Orwell shudder, one of the world’s leading organisations for the protection of human rights ignored the continuing violation of the Palestinians’ right to security and a roof over their heads and argued instead: “There is no excuse for calling [Palestinian] civilians to the scene of a planned [Israeli] attack. Whether or not the home is a legitimate military target, knowingly asking civilians to stand in harm’s way is unlawful.”

On HRW’s interpretation, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela would be war criminals. There is good reason to believe that this reading of international law is wrong, if not Kafkaesque. Popular and peaceful resistance to the oppressive policies of occupying powers and autocratic rulers, in India and South Africa for example, has always been, by its very nature, a risky venture in which civilians are liable to be killed or injured. Responsibility for those deaths must fall on those doing the oppressing, not those resisting, particularly when they are employing nonviolent means. On HRW’s interpretation, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela would be war criminals.

cook goes on to provide some advice to human rights watch and some context for why their reports are so often biased in favor of the colonizing apartheid zionist entity. he thinks about this in terms of priorities, context, and like corrie, common sense:

Priorities: Every day HRW has to choose which of the many abuses of international law taking place around the world it highlights. It manages to record only a tiny fraction of them. The assumption of many outsiders may be that it focuses on only the most egregious examples. That would be wrong.

The simple truth is that the worse a state’s track record on human rights, the easier ride it gets, relatively speaking, from human rights organisations. That is both because, if abuses are repeated often enough, they become so commonplace as to go unremarked, and because, if the abuses are wide-ranging and systematic, only a small number of the offences will be noted.

Israel, unlike the Palestinians, benefits in both these respects.

Context: The actions of Palestinians occur in a context in which all of their rights are already under the control of their occupier, Israel, and can be violated at its whim. This means that it is problematic, from a human rights perspective, to place the weight of culpability on the Palestinians without laying far greater weight at the same time on the situation to which the Palestinians are reacting.

Here is an example. HRW and other human rights organisations have taken the Palestinians to task for the extrajudicial killings of those suspected of collaborating with the Israeli security forces.

Although it is blindingly obvious that the lynching of an alleged collaborator is a violation of that person’s fundamental right to life, HRW’s position of simply blaming the Palestinians for this practice raises two critical problems.

First, it fudges the issue of accountability.

In the case of a “targeted assassination”, Israel’s version of extrajudicial killing, we have an address to hold accountable: the apparatus of a state in the forms of the Israeli army which carried out the murder and the Israeli politicians who approved it. (These officials are also responsible for the bystanders who are invariably killed along with the target.)

Palestinians carrying out a lynching are committing a crime punishable under ordinary domestic law; while the Israeli army carrying out a “targeted assassination” is committing state terrorism, which must be tried in the court of world opinion. But unless it can be shown that the lynchings are planned and coordinated at a high level, a human rights organisation cannot apply the same standards by which it judges a state to a crowd of Palestinians, people gripped by anger and the thirst for revenge. The two are not equivalent and cannot be held to account in the same way.

Second, HRW’s position ignores the context in which the lynching takes place.

The Palestinian resistance to occupation has failed to realise its goals mainly because of Israel’s extensive network of collaborators, individuals who have usually been terrorised by threats to themselves or their family and/or by torture into “co-operating” with Israel’s occupation forces.

The great majority of planned attacks are foiled because one member of the team is collaborating with Israel. He or she not only sabotages the attack but often also gives Israel the information it needs to kill the leaders of the resistance (as well as bystanders). Collaborators, though common in the West Bank and Gaza, are much despised — and for good reason. They make the goal of national liberation impossible.

Palestinians have been struggling to find ways to make collaboration less appealing. When the Israeli army is threatening to jail your son, or refusing a permit for your wife to receive the hospital treatment she needs, you may agree to do terrible things. Armed groups and many ordinary Palestinians countenance the lynchings because they are seen as a counterweight to Israel’s own powerful techniques of intimidation — a deterrence, even if a largely unsuccessful one.

In issuing a report on the extra-judicial killing of Palestinian collaborators, therefore, groups like HRW have a duty to highlight first and with much greater emphasis the responsibility of Israel and its decades-long occupation for the lynchings, as the context in which Palestinians are forced to mimic the barbarity of those oppressing them to stand any chance of defeating them.

The press release denouncing the Palestinians for choosing collectively and peacefully to resist house demolitions, while not concentrating on the violations committed by Israel in destroying the houses and using military forms of intimidation and punishment against civilians, is a travesty for this very same reason.

Common sense: And finally human rights organisations must never abandon common sense, the connecting thread of our humanity, when making judgments about where their priorities lie.

In the past few months Gaza has sunk into a humanitarian disaster engineered by Israel and the international community. What has been HRW’s response? It is worth examining its most recent reports, those on the front page of the Mideast section of its website last week, when the latest press release was issued. Four stories relate to Israel and Palestine.

Three criticise Palestinian militants and the wider society in various ways: for encouraging the use of “human shields”, for firing home-made rockets into Israel, and for failing to protect women from domestic violence. One report mildly rebukes Israel, urging the government to ensure that the army properly investigates the reasons for the shelling that killed 19 Palestinian inhabitants of Beit Hanoun.

This shameful imbalance, both in the number of reports being issued against each party and in terms of the failure to hold accountable the side committing the far greater abuses of human rights, has become the HRW’s standard procedure in Israel-Palestine.

But in its latest release, on human shields, HRW plumbs new depths, stripping Palestinians of the right to organise nonviolent forms of resistance and seek new ways of showing solidarity in the face of illegal occupation. In short, HRW treats the people of Gaza as mere rats in a laboratory — the Israeli army’s view of them — to be experimented on at will.

HRW’s priorities in Israel-Palestine prove it has lost its moral bearings.

i think that cook’s analysis is important as human rights watch has done little to change its ways in the past few years. for one thing human rights watch is repeating this phenomenon with its latest report on hamas warning them to stop killings and torture. but if you read the report, which i refuse to quote here, you see none of the above critiques taken into consideration (and for the record i know that people at human rights watch do read cook’s writing). there is no context, no common sense, and no sense of priorities. in the midst of massive, daily human rights violations against palestinians by israeli terrorists, human rights watch chooses to write about this. moreover, if they used their reports in a way that would push for palestinians to liberate their land and achieve a just freedom this issue could hopefully solve itself.

for instance, what makes one become a collaborator in the first place–the origin of the issue in the human rights watch report on hamas. israeli terrorists force palestinians into positions of collaboration for many reasons: to get out of prison, to see a loved one in prison, to go to al quds to pray, to go to an israeli terrorist hospital, to travel to jordan, to access your land, to keep your house from being demolished. many of these things can be arranged–albeit temporarily–by agreeing to become a collaborator. on al jazeera ayman mohyeldin reported on one of these recent phenomenons of fishermen in gaza being recruited and pressured by israeli terrorists to become collaborators:

still the question for me that persists is why human rights watch chooses to focus on a palestinian so-called violation without contextualizing it and at the expense of the daily violations against palestinians by the zionist entity. one of those violations is collective punishment–oftentimes in the form of punitive house demolitions as marian houk explains in electronic intifada:

According to ICAHD, “house demolitions are clearly a case of collective punishment, which is illegal under international law, in particular Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949).”

In the year 2000, Ir Amim reported, there were only nine house demolitions in East Jerusalem — after “then-Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek announced that he would refrain from most demolitions in East Jerusalem, saying in effect that it was not right to punish people for building illegally when they were not permitted to build legally.” However, Ir Amim says, “there are in excess of 1,500 outstanding judicial demolition orders that have been issued but not yet executed … these orders never expire, and tens of thousands of residents in East Jerusalem live in perpetual fear that they may awake to the sound of bulldozers on any given morning. Consequently … every demolition understandably evokes widespread fear throughout East Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem’s new mayor, Nir Barakat, has vowed to carry out home demolition orders vigorously, under the guise of implementing the “rule of law.”

According to B’Tselem, some 688 Palestinian houses were demolished in East Jerusalem alone between 1999 and 2008, the majority by the Jerusalem municipality, the rest by the Israeli Ministry of Interior. At least another 207 Palestinian homes were destroyed in East Jerusalem between 1988 and 1998 — and three years of data are missing for that decade.

Thousands of Palestinian homes have also been demolished in Gaza, although Israel claims this in most cases this was done for reasons of “military necessity.” In addition, 4,000 buildings were destroyed (and tens of thousands damaged) in various operations before and after Israel’s unilateral “disengagement” from Gaza, including during the recent invasion.

The Jerusalem Post recently reported that the Israeli army was very pleased with the performance of unmanned D-9 bulldozers that were used in the Gaza Strip during the closing days of the Gaza invasion. D-9s are huge machines built by the Caterpillar Corporation and then armored by Israeli Military Industries. It was reported in 2003 that work was beginning on the development of a version that can be operated unmanned by remote control — but their use has never previously been confirmed and an Israeli army spokesperson stated to this reporter that “its general policy is not to discuss the type of weapons we used.”

During her recent visit to the region, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was widely quoted as saying that demolition and eviction orders were “unhelpful.” But she was speaking about pending demolition and eviction orders issued against hundreds of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem — 88 in the Silwan neighborhood alone, just outside the walls of the Old City in East Jerusalem, to make way for what one Israeli lawyer who defends Palestinian rights called a “Jewish theme park.”

caterpillar bulldozer in the mikfiyya neighborhood of nablus
caterpillar bulldozer in the mikfiyya neighborhood of nablus

a related issue to all of this is the nonviolent boycott campaign targeting a number of companies, including caterpillar. the stop caterpillar campaign asks people to not buy caterpillar products, to divest from them among other activities because of the way this company profits as a result of destroying palestinian homes and murdering palestinian people. yet i always find it strange how prevalent caterpillar bulldozers are in palestine. the photograph above i took while i walked to school yesterday, but i could have taken it in any number of locations around the west bank of palestine. and it is not just the bulldozer itself. it is the clothes, too.

caterpillar shoes for sale in the old city of nablus
caterpillar shoes for sale in the old city of nablus

the photograph above, like the bulldozer itself, is ubiquitous here in palestine. i could have taken that same photo in any clothing shop anywhere around palestine. and this is frustrating. but it seems to me that the reason for this disconnection is part branding and part unconsciousness about connecting the dots. my students, for instance, yesterday know the clothes as “cat” but the bulldozers as “caterpillar” and thus don’t connect the two, even though the logo is the same. but also even though students see the caterpillar d9 bulldozers on television and know what they do to palestinian people and houses they don’t connect this with their own practices, with boycott. it is strange for me that they cannot see the irony in the fact that the same bulldozer company vehicles that destroy palestinian lives every day are also used to build palestinian homes, which will likely, one day be destroyed by yet another caterpillar bulldozer.

this is, of course, only one of many human rights violations that palestinians must live with on a daily basis. there are rarely any international reports on such violations, for many of the reasons cook makes clear. but there is a great desire to resist by any means necessary: both armed resistance and nonviolent resistance. the two exist together in any struggle for liberation whether india or south africa. but what i want to know is while westerners persist in asking ad nauseum “where is the palestinian gandhi?” why don’t they ask where is the zionist f.w. de klerk?

on disappearing

i’m still thinking about disappearance. i have been thinking about this since i heard esmail nashif’s really fascinating, original talk at the muwatin conference a few weeks ago. though he was speaking about a different type of disappearance: one that gives palestinians agency. a new strategy of resistance. a disappearance underground, to reorganize, to regroup, to restrategize. it really is hard not to think about disappearance in a general sense when you live in palestine because people disappear every day. palestinians are exiled, murdered jailed, dispossessed of their land, they go underground. Things disappear, too; palestinian homes are demolished, villages are destroyed. these are all kinds of disappearance.

and still other things disappear. information disappears. evidence disappears. or access to information disappears. the zionist regime commits crimes every day for decades and where does it go? where are the journalists in the west to report on it? where are the human rights workers to cover it? where is the united nations? the rest of the world. they seem to disappear, too, when it is convenient for them.

voices disappear. people’s voices get silenced. arab leaders normalize relations with the zionist state and contribute to the disappearance of liberation. a liberation movement disappears and becomes as a pseudo-state. united nations resolutions are passed and forgotten; they disappear, too. ngos subsume palestinian creativity and agency.

of course, it is that initial disappearance: that presupposes all of these aforementioned disappearances and continues the practice of disappearance. it is the disappearance of the palestinians who are refugees and the disappearance of their land. jonathan cook’s new book, disappearing palestine, which i just started reading connects past and present disapperances in crucial ways. he is a journalist i admire greatly and whose books i always get as soon as they come out. a rarity in the world of journalism: one who delves into historical context and who is committed to the struggle of all palestinians, including those living in 1948 palestine where he resides. i want to quote at length from his introduction because it gets at how these various disappearances are connected in important ways:

Israel’s enduring approach to the Palestinians–and the assumption, in Zionist thinking, of their eventual disappearance–was illuminated to me during a visit to a nature park close by the northern Jewish town of Beit Shean, built on the ruins of the Arab town Bisan after the 1948 war that established Israel. There I came across a small fortified settlement constructed entirely of wood–a replica of Tel Amal, one of the earliest frontier outposts in Zionism’s battle against the Palestinians for territory. The original enclosure and tall watchtower at its centre–known as a tower-and stockade–was built in 1936 to protect “Judaized” land in the Beit Shean valley from the Arab Revolt, a Palestinian uprising against Britain’s increasingly overt support for Jewish immigration. A militia was stationed at Tel Amal, its members taking turns in the tower to keep watch over their comrades from the neighboring kibbutz of Beit Alpha working the fields below. Once the land was secure, a new kibbutz, Nir David, was safely established next to the enclosure. The kibbutzniks then extended their reach by building a new outpost further along the valley. Within a few years there were several dozen such tower-and-stockades erected across Palestine.

Tel Amal was the physical embodiment of the Zionist philosophy of “dunam after dunam, goat after goat”: the whole of Palestine could be occupied step by step, and wrested from the natives. Moshe Sharett, one of the Jewish Agency’s leaders and a later prime minister, observed that the point of the tower-and-stockades “was to change the map of Eretz Israel by erecting new settlements, to make it as difficult as possible to solve the problems of this land by means of division or cantonization.” Compromise over territory was not part of the Zionist plan. In 1938, David Ben-Gurion, the head of the pre-state Jewish government, declared that, once his forces were strong enough, “we will abolish the partition of the country [between Jews and Palestinians] and will expand to the whole Land of Israel.”

At the end of the war of 1948, when the threat that the Palestinians might reclaim their land had been decisively thwarted, the remaining tower-and-stockades were converted into kibbutzim or moshavim. These rural cooperative communities, which for several decades attracted young people from around the world wanting to show solidarity with the new Jewish state, explicitly ban from membership the fifth of the country’s population who are Palestinian (the vestiges of the Palestinian population expelled in 1948). Today such communities control most of Israel’s usable land, holding it in trust for world Jewry rather than Israel’s citizenry.

Later, after the Six-Day War of 1967, the tower-and-stockade would become the prototype for Israel’s land-grabbing settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. In the early stages, armed civilians, usually religious fanatics, were encouraged to move into hostile territory to establish settlements to surround and fragment Palestinian communities. As these settlements were secured, less ideological Israelis were tempted there with offers of financial incentives from the state, such as cheap housing and low-interest loans. Today the job of the tower-and-stockade has passed from these established colonies to what Israelis sometimes call “illegal outposts,” small satellites of the main settlements in the West Bank that the government claims to oppose but that invariably become legal over time. The outposts have proved an ideal way to extend the boundaries of the main colonies and steal yet more land from the Palestinians. Inhabited by the most fanatical and violent of the settlers, the so-called “hilltop youth,” the outposts are sometimes justified as necessary by Israeli politicians because of the “natural growth” of the main settlements’ populations. But in truth their purpose is to consume vast areas of Palestinain land, which disappears at is “redeemed,” concentrating the rural Palestinian population into ever-narrowing confined spaces or driving them into the main West Bank cities for safety.

Today, the Tel Amal museum is the destination for endless parties of schoolchildren, there as part of their Zionist education to learn about the pioneering spirit of earlier generations. The youngsters are encouraged not only to reimagine conditions in the enclosure’s spartan living quarters but also actively to re-create the period, donning the khaki shorts and denim shirts of the kibbutzniks. Scaling the watchtower, the children pretend to survey the horizon, on the lookout for the Arab “enemy.” At Tel Amal, Israeli schoolchildren have the chance to re-enact the battle of redemption and celebrate the acquisition of territory. In the process, some are doubtless persuaded not only of Israel’s glorious past but also of the need to continue the struggle to take land from the Palestinians on Israel’s new frontiers in the occupied territories.

Zionism’s need to root Jews in the “Land of Israel” has always required a corollary: the uprooting of the native population. Whether adopting the settlers’ messianic language of returning to the Promised Land, the pioneer rhetoric of “redeeming” the land, or the bureaucratic jargon of “Judaizing” land, Zionists have been encouraged to regard their national identity as intimately tied to control over territory and the displacement of non-Jews who claim rival ownership. The staking of an indisputable claim to Palestine resonates with Zionists in several interrelated ways, including in the security, imaginary, and religious-mythical realms. It promises a personal and collective safety supposedly unattainable for populations that are stateless. It reinvents the supposedly weak Diaspora Jew led to the European gas chamber; now he is liberated, casting off his wandering and compromised nature to toil the land and become a muscular “Sabra” Jew. And inevitably it feeds on ideas of chosenness and return, the Jewish people’s armour against the twin dangers of modernity–secularism and assimilation. (4-6)

the continuity between pre-state and occupied land with respect to zionist policies, as cook shows, has always been about making palestinians disappear. whether it is golda meir doing it rhetorically and stating that “there is no such thing” as palestinian people. or whether it is literally disappearing villages, like bisan, so that we have to search for the ruins of palestinian life before an nakba. the disappearing act continues when israeli schoolchildren are taught a heavily propagandized, militarized curriculum of which this field trip cook describes is just one minor example. of course, this fact also disappears, especially in the u.s. media that only focuses on the american-israeli illegal settler itamar marcus’ racist propagandist venture as in a u.s. news and world report article this week. a fellow blogger, jillian york, wrote about this on the huffington post in which she quoted me.

the reason i love cook’s writing so much is that he never disappears palestinians in his writing. instead, what disappears is the zionist propaganda that characterizes too much of the world’s english language media. i’ve posted the film on this blog before, but for people who want to understand how palestinians voices and reality get disappeared from the media you should watch the film peace, propaganda, and the promised land. i will post it again though because it is important for people to watch it:

the film is old, but unfortunately the information conveyed in it remains true. there was a perfect example of this today. this morning i read a story about israelis announcing a new public relations campaign in one of their newspapers:

Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni and Israel’s ambassadors around the world are preparing to launch a global effort in a bid to secure backing for the anticipated operation in the Gaza Strip.

The campaign is intended to create an ‘international umbrella’ of support for the intensification of military action against Hamas, and possibly prevent the passing of UN Security Council resolutions against Israel.

and just a few moments later i saw that england’s independent had already picked up the piece:

The Israeli government faced growing pressure to adopt a tough military posture against Hamas as renewed rocket attacks against southern Israel moved to the fore of the Israeli election campaign yesterday.

what you learn in the documentary peace, propaganda, and the promised land is that the zionist regime writes press releases for the information they want to disseminate. lazy american and european journalists reproduce that material without doing the work of investigating, finding out the context, examining its effect on palestinians. the problem is that the other side of the story always already disappears in this process. the colonists’ voice works in tandem with the international media and palestinians struggle to get heard. to not be disappeared.

what you don’t see in the western media is the daily ways that the zionist regime, through their terrorist military, works to make palestinians disappear with american-made weapons. for instance, american media did not report on the israeli terrorist forces’ attack on gaza last night:

Palestinian sources in the Gaza Strip reported on Sunday night that a woman was wounded after the Israeli Army fired a surface-to-surface missile at a group of fighters east of Gaza city.

Medical sources at Kamal Adwan hospital reported that the Palestinian woman suffered mild-to-moderate wounds.

likewise palestinians disappeared into israeli jails last night, another story not reported in the western media:

Israeli forces confirmed that they seized 10 Palestinians this morning during raids in the West Bank, Maan news agency reported.

Three Palestinians were arrested in the city of Jenin, and seven more were arrested in the city of Nablus. All were stated by Israeli Military sources as “wanted”.

Palestinian security forces said in a statement that three others, not mentioned in the Israel’s account, were taken from their homes near the Israeli annexation wall in the town of Zeita, just north of Tulkarem.

Those arrested in the town of Zeita were identified as Kifah Abu Al-Izz, age 18, Nasr Abu Al-Izz, Age 22, and Muhammad Abu Al-‘Izz, age 30.

this erasure from the media is like a triple disappearance: first palestinians disappear into israeli jails for years, decades on end, next their absence is ignored, and their context as political prisoners is erased thus branding them terrorists, yet another label that erases them once more into a subhuman category. palestinians are always painted as extremists while israelis who are racists, terrorists are branded in ways that always infers that those who engage in racist activities are extremists (read: not the norm):

Extremists spray-painted “Mohammed is a pig” and “Death to Arabs” early Sunday on the walls and doors of the Sea Mosque in Jaffa, sparking the fury of the Islamic Movement in the mixed Arab-Jewish city.

The hate slogans also included “Kahane was right,” a reference to the slain Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the outlawed anti-Arab Kach movement, and “No peace without the House of Peace,” alluding to the Hebron structure from which dozens of far-right activists were evicted earlier this month.

but it is the norm. i have yet to see a palestinian mosque in a village that the zionists disappeared that doesn’t say precisely the same thing. same graffiti everywhere.

the disappearance here has two sides: one the refugees who are physically absent and the other is the people in 1948 palestine who are forced to disappear on a daily basis in all sorts of ways–to be rendered invisible. when they get to visible, when they are too present, various israeli terrorists–some in uniform, some not–come into suppress 1948 palestinians. it can drive one to a sense of madness as emile habiby describes in his masterful novel the secret life of saeed, the pessoptimist. in this novel there are many forms of disappearance–including actual disappearances in some magical realist chapters–but the one i am thinking of is the way that internalized colonialism disappears the “real” saeed, the protagonist, whomever he may actually be. habiby’s humor is absurdist and in this particular scene over the top as he rides in the van on his way to prison. as they drive through 1948 palestine, saeed looks out the window and comments about the palestinian villages he notices. the “big man” (the israeli disappearing saeed to jail) proceeds to correct saeed to ensure the village’s original name is disappeared in actuality, historically, and in memory:

I found that we were then at a crossroad between Nazareth and Nahal, passing the plain of Ibn Amir. the big man signalled to the policemen through the glass window separating him from “the dogs.” They led me out and stuffed me in between the big man and the driver. I made myself comfortable and sighed, breathed the fresh air deep, and remarked, “Oh, I see we’re in the plain of Ibn Amir.”

Obviously annoyed, he corrected me: “No, it’s the Yizarel plain!”

“‘What’s in a name?’ as Shakespeare put it,” I soothed him.

I spoke the line in English,causing him to murmur, “oh, so you quote Shakespeare, do you?”

I smiled, relaxing. But I noticed that the big man was growing ominously under his breath. Had I known what this implied, I’d have been better off keeping my knowledge of Shakespeare within my heart rather than quoting him by heart.

As we descended further down into the plain toward its city of Affulah, with the hills of Nazareth to our left, the big man began reciting to me the principles governing my new life in prison, the etiquette of behavior toward the jailers who were my superiors and the other inmates who were my inferiors. He promised, moreover, to get me promoted to a liaison position.

While he was going through these lessons, I became ever more certain that what is required of us inside prison is no different than what is required of us on the outside. My delight at this discovery was so great that I exclaimed joyfully, “Why, God bless you, sir!”

He went on, “If a jailer should call you, your first response must be: ‘Yes sir!’ And if he should tell you off, you must reply: ‘At your command, sir!’ And if you should hear your fellow inmates engaging in any conversation that threatens the security of the prison, even by implication, you must inform the warden. Now if he should give you a beating, then say–”

I interrupted him with the proper response, “That’s your right, sir!”

“How did you know that? Were you ever imprisoned before?”

“Oh, no. God forbid, sir, that anyone should have beaten you to this favor! I have merely noticed according to your account of prison rules of etiquette and behavior that your prisons treat inmates with great humanitarianism and compassion–just as you treat us on the outside. And we behave the same, too. But how do you punish Arabs who are criminals, sir?”

“This bothers us considerably. That’s why our minister general has said that our occupation has been the most compassionate known on earth ever since Paradise was liberated from its occupation by Adam and Eve. Among our leadership there are some who believe that we treat Arabs inside prisons even better than we treat them outside, though this latter treatment is, as you know, excellent. These same leaders are convinced that we thus encourage them to continue to resist our civilizational mission in the new territories, just like those ungrateful African cannibals who eat their benefactors.”

“How do you mean, sir?”

“Well, take for example our policy of punishing people with exile. This we award them without their going to jail. If they once entered jail, they would become as firmly established there as the British occupation was.”

“Yes, God bless you indeed, sir!”

“And we demolish their homes when they’re outside, but when they’re inside prison we let them occupy themselves building.”

“That’s really great! God bless you! But what do they build?”

“New prisons and new cells in old jails; and they plant shade trees around them too.”

“God bless you again! But why do you demolish their homes outside the prisons?”

“To exterminate the rats that build their nests in them. This way we save them from the plague.”

“God bless and save you! But could you explain that?”

“This was the justification, pure and humanitarian, made by the Ministry of Health, and quoted by the minister of defense when he explained the reasons compelling us to demolish the houses in the Jiftlick villages in the lowlands. That was the response he gave to the accusations thrown in our faces in the Knesset by that Jewish Communist congressman, that stooge of Nasser, King Husain, the Emir of Kuwait, and Shaikh Qabus!”

“And was he shut up?”

“Actually, they really screwed him.”

“How, exactly?”

“The speaker prevented him from continuing his speech. Democracy is not mere chaos, my boy. Now the Communists, as you know, are chaos mongers. Their representatives refused to obey the rules of democracy, and the speaker had him forcibly ejected from the sitting. That screwed him, alright!”

By now the police car was leaving the city of Affulah on the Bisan road, which led to my new residence. On both sides refreshing water was being sprayed on to the green vegetation, fresh in the very heart of summer. Suddenly the big man, cramped there with me and the driver in the front seat of that dogcart, was transformed into a poet.

While I sat there being my usual Pessomptimistic self, he was ecstatic: “Verdant fields! Green on your right and on your left; green everywhere! We have given life to what was dead. This is why we have named the borders of former Israel the Green Belt. For beyond them lie barren mountains and desert reaches, a wilderness calling out to us, ‘Come ye hither, tractors of civilization!'”

“If you had been with me, boy, when we crossed the Latrun road on our way to Jerusalem, you would have seen the Green Belt: the greenery of our pine-clad hills, trees everywhere hugging one another, branch intertwined with branch, while lovers embraced beneath them. Then you would have seen, facing these green-robed hills, your barren mountains devoid of any cover that could hide their naked rocks. There they remained, weeping for a quarter of a century, shedding all their earth. Let us wipe the tears dry while you weep away, building your palaces on the rock above.”

“Was this why you demolished the Latrun villages, Imwas, Yalu, and Bait Nuba, and drove the inhabitants away, master?”

“But we gave the monastery to the monks, for a tourist attraction. And we left the graveyards to those buried there, out of our faith in God. These great expanses, however, are ours, our inheritance from the war. ‘Let bygones be bygones.’ That’s an American proverb of German origin.” (123-126)

this dialogue between saeed and the “big man” comes towards the end of the novel. it is probably difficult to understand the satire and sarcasm here if you do not understand the history. but in american terms it is like an african american slave thanking his “master” for destroying his native africa, enslaving him, torturing him (in other words, what is known as an uncle tom). here we see saeed, a palestinian, ironically thanking his israeli “master” for destroying palestinian villages, forcing palestinians to flee their land and become refugees, and for imprisoning him. in other words: saeed thanks the “big man” for zionist disappearances of palestine and palestinians.

i love absurdism in most forms and the most gifted palestinian film director, elia suleiman, who comes from nasra (nazareth) as so many palestinian directors do, is especially good at it. his 1996 film, chronicle of a disappearance (which is finally out on dvd) also makes use of this theme of disappearance in an absurdist style. it has been a long time since i have seen the film. but here is a trailer of elia suleiman’s other brilliant film divine intervention, (which tam tam seems to be too stubborn to watch…still) :

and here is an interview with elia suleiman:

it is interesting that as i write this it makes me think of a friend from shatila refugee camp in lebanon who is a young, gifted filmmaker himself. suleiman is his favorite director and this young friend has the artistic vision to create the sort of cinema in this same tradition. but i learned today that he has disappeared. literally. he went to france for a conference and disappeared.