Palestine-Israel After Jenin

Against the Current, No. 98, May/June 2002

David Finkel

April 11, 2002—THE REPORTS SEEM almost beyond description, beyond belief.  Many hundreds dead, bodies lying in the street, some shot at close range; ambulance drivers, hospitals, journalists targeted; thousands taken away to unknown interrogation and detention camps.  Churches under siege; people by the tens of thousands trapped without food, water, essential medications; humanitarian aid convoys blocked.

All the while, the occupying army insists it is “taking care not to harm the civilian population,” even putting its own soldiers at risk to avoid innocent casualties.  In some ways this is the most chilling information, in that such pronouncements by attacking armies are generally a sign that civilians are being killed in huge numbers, and deliberately.

It is too soon after Ariel Sharon’s most recent massacre to have body counts or damage figures.  Only when thoroughly independent and professional investigations can be mounted, with rigorous attention to all the details, will we be able to cut through the disinformation and confusion and learn exactly what happened, and how, in Ramallah, Nablus, Tulkarem, Qalqilya, Bethlehem—and Jenin.

What we do already know is why the Palestinian city of Jenin has entered the roster of war crime scenes of recent times: Panama City, its poor neighborhoods smashed to rubble by U.S. bombs in 1989; Dubrovnik, Gorazde, Mostar, Pristina destroyed in the “Greater Serbia” rampage of Slobodan Milosevic; Grozny, the gutted capital of Russian-occupied Chechnya; Dili, East Timor, burned down by Indonesian thugs.

There are more, of course, all on widely differing scales of absolute killing and destruction.  But more important is what these savageries have in common: They are the necessary and inevitable products of wars against populations that refuse to remain subjugated.  They are enabled by the cynical indifference, or direct connivance, of world powers engaged in their Great Games of geopolitical strategic interest, grand or petty.

One more thing: Increasingly, sooner or later, the perpetrators of these acts wind up facing trial for crimes against humanity.  Sadly, given their age and the slow pace of justice, Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres (like Henry Kissinger) are unlikely to live long enough to come to the end they deserve.  But younger Israeli government and military officials are quite rightly concerned about their own prospects.

In the case of Jenin—the culmination of what also occurred on a devastating scale in other West Bank locations—the when is also significant.

The mass killing in Jenin by all accounts peaked on April 9.  This date happens this year to mark a joint anniversary, the day when Israeli Jews observe Yom Ha-Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Palestinian Arabs recall the massacre at Deir Yassin, the most significant event in triggering the flight of 750,000 people in the Naqba (disaster) that overtook the Palestinian people in 1948.

Under different conditions, this joint anniversary could have been the occasion for common commemoration and the beginning of reconciliation between peoples.  Instead it marks the day when the Israeli occupation has taken actions that make reconciliation a dead issue for a decade, if not a generation, or a century.

Never forget: When the present round of killing, and the next one and the one after that, have ended, whenever they end, however they end, the two peoples in historic Palestine will still be there.

They will coexist because neither will leave, notwithstanding the apocalyptic imaginings on the fringes of Zionist and Islamist fanaticism.  But it is the great practical “success” of the Zionist gospel-according-to-Sharon that the conditions of their coexistence are now unimaginably more bitter.

The choice facing the world could not be more clear.  Either the Israeli occupation will be confronted and defeated, because it will not end voluntarily, or the West Bank and Gaza will be the next Bosnia.  There will be Palestinian self-determination or—if this escalating scenario of destruction is allowed to continue—a Palestinian Srebrenica, and what after that?

I say “allowed” because the murderous cycle is preventable.  The helicopter gunships, the F-16s, the rest of the hardware that has pulverized West Bank towns and refugee camps are gifts from the United States.  Military and economic U.S. aid to Israel subsidizes the absurdly unviable settlement program.

The European Union’s highly favorable trade relations with Israel are also critical to its prosperity, even as what’s left of the Palestinian economy is utterly destroyed.  So aren’t all the world powers as fully guilty as Israel?  Why would other societies escape the consequences?

The death spiral in which Israel has locked its own population along with the Palestinians will not remain a local bloodletting.  If September 11 fails to teach us that, it has taught nothing.

Imperial Culture

Obviously this wasn’t the article that was intended to be written for this issue of Against the Current.  My intent was to follow up on my initial piece (ATC 97, March-April 2002) with some specific notes, particularly regarding Christian Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel, which couldn’t be included there for space reasons.

Those notes will have to wait. Instead we are left to confront a situation in which the memory of one week’s events are overwhelmed by the more gruesome atrocities of the next. “The atrocities occur on both sides,” as conventional wisdom correctly observes; but there is a crucial difference in the way these are perceived in our imperial culture.

It’s not simply the enormous disparity between the numbers of Palestinian compared to Israeli deaths, which is generally reported (and anyway, the human suffering is appalling enough all around).  Nor is it even the difference between the violence of an overwhelmingly powerful occupying army and a population resisting with almost nothing but human suicide bombers (more on this below).

The most fundamental difference lies in the news impact.  The effect of Palestinian suicide bombings in the American media tends to be cumulative, whereas acts of massive Israeli violence have only a short-term impact, even if (as in the case of the Jenin refugee camp) occasionally powerful.

Further, the memory of each atrocity of the Israeli occupation is erased the moment the next suicide bomber blows up an Israeli civilian market or bus stop—as if, in the conventional American mind, Israel receives an amnesty in the literal sense (as in “amnesia”) every time.

The result is an enormous and dangerous gap between the way events are perceived in the heartland of imperialism and the Arab world.  If you say, for example, “Kibya/Rafah/Sabra-and-Chatila/Jenin—Sharon,” the linkage is unmistakable in Palestinian and Arab consciousness: the massacre of an Arab village in 1953, the mass destruction in southern Gaza in the early 1970s, the slaughter in the Beirut refugee camps in 1982, the present crime against humanity in 2002—all commanded by Ariel Sharon.

There is practically no memory, let alone understanding of this linkage and its cumulative significance, in the American mind. This is intimately connected, of course, to the fact that the U.S.- Israeli strategic partnership and “Israel’s security” is the overwhelming priority for the United States’ management strategy in the Middle East, the priority naturally and faithfully reflected in the corporate media.

The Empire’s Conundrum

It is also in this context that we have to look at the policy conundrum facing the Bush administration as reflected in the “cease-fire missions” of General Zinni and Secretary of State Powell.

In the post-September 11 “war on terrorism,” Washington has recently been pulled simultaneously in two directions.  The first is all-out support to Israel’s assault on Palestinian resistance; the second is the need to build some level of support among Arab regimes for the coming war on Iraq.

Ariel Sharon has given the Bush administration a message: You know that Israel will always be your ally, especially when you attack Iraq or perhaps also Iran. But Israel is a jealous ally, which will not allow the United States to have Arab allies on the side. Israel won’t allow the creation of a U.S.-Arab coalition which might then be able to extract concessions from Israel.

Hence Sharon won’t accept Bush’s orders for rapid withdrawal from Palestinian cities, and will mobilize the major American Jewish organizations and fundamentalist Christian base in support of his position.  This combination constitutes an effective domestic coalition for ethnic cleansing in Palestine.

Confronting the dual and contradictory necessities arising from their global war drive, the elites of American global political and economic management (for short, U.S. imperialism) are trying to maneuver toward three objectives:

First, to force Arafat and whatever remains of the Palestinian Authority to surrender to overwhelming Israeli power and U.S. orders.

Second, even though Arafat and the PA will be defeated and humiliated, they are supposed to be strong enough to crush in turn any Palestinian elements (populist, Islamist or nationalist) who decline to surrender.

Third, once Sharon has won, he is to be compelled to pull back from his ultimate goals of permanent Israeli-Jewish supremacy in most of the Occupied Territories.

Any of these objectives by itself is difficult.  The prospects of achieving all of them are extremely dubious.  And so the level of violence and brutality escalates.  If there is a relative lull after Jenin, in the absence of some kind of decisive breakthrough it will only be temporary.

Resistance and Terrorism

The demand for Arafat to “make a 100% effort against terror” is particularly cynical, for two reasons.  First, obviously, as the Palestinian Authority argues, Israel’s destruction of the entire PA apparatus makes it impossible for Arafat to control the various military factions.  But there’s a deeper reason that the PA cannot admit.

Throughout the years of the Oslo and post-Oslo accords—as successive Likud and Labor governments expanded settlements, demolished homes, constructed apartheid bypass roads and built yet more settlements—the PA was utterly passive, organizing no resistance beyond meaningless diplomatic protest, while its top officials corruptly and notoriously enriched themselves.

It was precisely the level of the PA elite’s corruption, and above its fundamental dishonesty toward its own population, that made it such an attractive negotiating partner in the eyes of imperialism.  But the fact that the PA organized no resistance has also left it with no authority to control resistance when, inevitably, it breaks out.

It is important here to say something about the issue of terrorism in the Palestinian resistance struggle, particularly in the form of the suicide bombings in “Israel proper,” that is to say, inside Israel’s internationally recognized pre-1967 borders.

The extraordinary Israeli journalist Amira Hass has presented the most cogent explanation: Suicide bombings are the product not of religious fanaticism, but rather of a situation in which young Palestinians see that they have no part of the promising future that Israeli youth enjoy.

It is not simply a matter of impoverishment (there are places in world where the level of absolute misery is even greater).  Rather, the prospect facing a young Palestinian under occupation is a lifetime of unbearable humiliation and stress, punctuated by terror.

Imagine watching your elderly parents and grandparents stopped, strip-searched or verbally abused by eighteen-year-old Israeli soldiers.  Imagine your home demolished for “building without a permit,” when no permit can ever be obtained.  Imagine watching this happen on a daily basis to your whole society, with your people’s international image reduced to the level of being photographic appendages to piles of rubble.

If you marry and have a family you will not be able to raise and protect them. You (or your wife) in labor may be stopped at a checkpoint, unable to get to hospital to give birth.  You may be killed at any time for no particular reason, and die an essentially meaningless death.

In this absolutely insane social reality, the choice to take charge of your own destiny, to strap on an explosive jacket and take away from some Israeli kids the bright future you can’t have, may seem like a way to give yourself the final dignity of a meaningful death.  The situation is insane, but the choice itself is rational.

Rational—but absolutely wrong.  And here it becomes necessary to make some further distinctions.

The distinction between the Israeli occupation, which is absolutely illegitimate in its goals and all of its methods, and the Palestinian resistance, which is inevitable, democratic and progressive, is critical.

The militants who died defending the Jenin camp will forever be remembered as authentic national heroes; the Israeli troops who were killed there, some of whom were probably supporters of peace, died in the service of an occupation that will be remembered only as a scar upon humanity.

But within the camp of a legitimate struggle there are also judgments that must be made regarding legitimate and illegitimate methods.  In this resistance, attacks on Israeli military targets (including suicide bombings, for that matter) are legitimate, and in my own opinion—I am not speaking here for anyone else—so are attacks on the settlers, although not where children are deliberately targeted.

But attacks on civilians inside Israel, no matter how justified the rage that motivates them, are illegitimate as a matter of ethics, and politically catastrophic.

Israeli society is divided between the settlers and their ideological supporters, and the majority who want a normal life and hate the settlers for draining the economy and dragging the country into an unwinnable war. There can be no more self-destructive tactic for the Palestinian struggle than bombings that erase the distinction between Israelis in their own homes, and the settlers.

Those ideologues (Islamist, nationalist or Pan-Arabist) who actively favor erasing that distinction, who envision some kind of overwhelming of Israel by a mythical Arab or Muslim military force, are in fact promoting the unwilling national suicide of the entire Palestinian people.  No one has the right to impose that fate on a people who have not volunteered for it.

It must also be said that the Israeli national-religious camp, together with U.S. imperialism and most of the American Jewish establishment, are themselves promoting the suicide and collapse of Israeli society for the sake of their own twisted agendas.

It is a spectacle that can easily drive us to despair—but the Palestinian population and the brave anti-occupation movements in Israel will not give up, because they cannot afford to do so, and so neither can we.

Update: After Powell’s Mission

April 18, 2002—THE FACTS ABOUT Jenin remain officially in dispute.  But the fact that the Israeli army has tried to blocked access to journalists, investigators and desperately needed relief supplies—while claiming that the death toll is in the dozens, not hundreds—suggests that they know the truth.

The United Nations special representative to the Middle East describes what he saw at the refugee camp as “colossal destruction .  .  .  horrifying beyond belief.” Colin Powell couldn’t be bothered to have a look.

When I visited the West Bank and Israel in January (as I reported in ATC 97), I visited the offices in Ramallah of Al-Haq, the Palestinian human rights organization, and the Health, Development, Information and Policy institute (HDIP) headed by Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi.  Those offices are now trashed, computers stolen, records destroyed.

These organizations were never suspected of involvement with any form of terrorism or armed struggle.  But their destruction is not an accident or an “excess:” They have been targeted because they are dangerous in a more profound sense: They represent the struggle to create a democratic, grassroots civil society in Palestine.

That is what an occupier cannot tolerate, because it builds the population’s capacity to resist and assert its rights.  A monumental international campaign is needed to help these organizations rebuild and reorganize.  In addition there must be an outcry to force the release of all the kidnapped and detained.

Colin Powell’s mission was not to end the occupation, but rather to try to re-“normalize” it. It was a massive failure—not because he did not achieve an Israeli withdrawal, which the Bush administration only pretends to want for public relations, but for a more profound reason—because after Jenin there is no more “normal” to restore.

Norman Finkelstein’s new essay, “First the Carrot, Then the Stick: Behind the Carnage in Palestine” (, concisely states the central point:

“Through sheer exertion of will and despite a monumentally corrupt leadership, Palestinians have proven to be the most resilient and recalcitrant popular force in the Arab world.  Bringing them to their knees would deal a devastating psychological blow throughout the region.”

Ariel Sharon promised his Washington patrons that he would deal precisely that “devastating psychological blow.” He has succeeded instead in dealing a “devastating blow” to America’s standing in the Arab world.  Colin Powell’s failure is that he can’t undo the damage.

The United States’ war drive and the Israeli occupation may produce even greater horrors, but Jenin marks a turning point that cannot, must not, be forgotten as so many earlier events have been. This time, no amnesia.

from ATC 98 (May/June 2002)