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Understanding the Uprising

The Yellow Wind

by David Grossman, Translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 216 pp., $17.95

For its special issue published on Israeli Independence Day in May 1987, Koteret Rashit, a sophisticated Israeli magazine of the liberal left, commissioned a report on daily life in the occupied territories from a talented young Israeli writer, David Grossman. Grossman was the only Israeli novelist who had previously crossed the so-called Green Line in his fiction, particularly in short stories that are set in the West Bank. An Israeli-born Ashkenazi who speaks fluent Arabic—a rare breed in Israel—Grossman took a taxi to the West Bank every day for forty days. He did not go to Gaza. This fact is not accidental. Before the recent uprising the Gaza strip did not exist in the minds of most Israelis, even in the mind of a writer who took it upon himself to explore the repressed zones of the Israeli national consciousness.

Koteret Rashit asked for ten thousand words, but Grossman wrote far more. The entire magazine for that week was devoted to his story. The issue’s success was phenomenal, at least for Israel. A great many educated Israelis spent the Independence Day weekend reading Grossman’s article. Thus the book became a best seller before it was published; and its success, I think, tells us something about the situation in Israel before the recent uprising.

There were those who thought that his report did no more than preach to the converted; but it did not preach, and, moreover, the converted were not so convinced. Its appeal for many Israelis was that Grossman made them feel that he had undertaken the trip to the West Bank that each of them should have taken but knew they would never take. Then, too, it gave the impression that somehow there was no more need to go there: Grossman had done it for them. And the reason why he succeeded had much to do with the descriptive and distinctly “non-political” tone of his narrative.

Grossman’s report projects the tone of calculated naiveté of someone who, like Cary Grant in a Hitchcock film, unexpectedly finds himself a witness to strange and sinister events and is determined to tell what he has seen and heard. The clichés of regional politics are replaced by Grossman with detailed description, in which he draws on his own family for comparisons. An old woman in Deheisha resembles his Polish grandmother; a noble, bitter Arab reminds him of his father. It’s all in the family, in the mythical Family of Man.

I was not enthusiastic about Grossman’s report on that Independence Day a long year ago. At the time I thought that it provided an all-too-convenient moral escape hatch, providing a Victorian catharsis that was philanthropic more than political. I was wary of rereading it. Whatever force it had had then, I thought, would now have vanished. But I find the book has more vitality and greater insight than I thought when I first read it in Koteret Rashit. True, Grossman did not predict the uprising; he assumed that things would more or less continue as they had for almost twenty years. And yet he saw what seems to me the essential point—that the story of the occupation, and of the uprising, is a story of honor and humiliation. And the political conflict is a conflict between virtues and vices more than a conflict between interests.

Reading the many attempts to answer the question of what caused the Palestinian uprising of the last five months, I have myself come to think that the real question is a different one: Why didn’t the uprising happen earlier? Grossman talks to Raj’a Shehade, a well-known Palestinian lawyer and human rights activist on the West Bank and the author of a moving book, The Third Way, on life under the occupation, and asks him: “Why is it so easy to control you? How can you explain the fact that we rule more than a million and a half Arabs, almost without feeling it?” Shehade replies:

It takes no effort to rule a society accustomed to paternalism to the point that people do not even ask who is giving the orders. We make use of and accept authority so naturally that we do not even see the humiliation and shame it engenders.

Shehade was right to see that Israel was ruling over a society that had been used to accepting authority, even in the most intimate matters. However, like everyone else, Shehade was mistaken in believing that people who were suppressed would not feel deeply humiliated. At least the younger generation of Palestinians, born into occupation and growing up in constant friction with Israeli society, can recognize humiliation when they are subjected to it. Many in this generation work inside the State of Israel, speak Hebrew, and consequently compare themselves to Israeli young people, not to their counter-parts in Damascus or Saudi Arabia.

The Palestinian uprising that began in December was directed against humiliation. Should no settlement be achieved, it will be increasingly directed against oppression, indeed it is now largely directed against oppression as well. The regulations and practices of colonial rule, when successful, are only humiliating. Faced with resistance, these rules and practices become oppressive. The Israeli occupation of the last twenty years was basically humiliating. It is now becoming severely oppressive, not just because it has become violent, but because there has been a change in Israel’s definition of the enemy. Until the uprising the enemy, for the Israelis in power, was political: the members of the various Palestinian organizations. Now every Palestinian is an enemy.

Grossman is sensitive to how humiliation works, and the people he saw on the West Bank were willing to talk about it:

Why do they need to humiliate me at a roadblock in front of my children, who can see how the soldiers laugh at their father and force him to get out of the car?

These words are spoken by Taher, an Arab who went immediately after the June war of 1967 to a special school to study Hebrew, on the assumption that the Israelis were here to stay. He then says to Grossman: “Sometimes you push [us] so hard that we see how scared you are.” But an Israeli reserve soldier on the Jericho crossing point to Jordan tells Grossman:

More than once I’ve seen a young, angry soldier use his position to humiliate an elderly and venerable man, making him run all over the place in his socks, jeer [at him] and degrade him in front of people from his village. You can only guess what that man feels about Israel after such treatment.

Taher, the Israeli reservist, and Grossman make one central point clear. The humiliation takes place in front of the people the humiliated person is close to—parents are humiliated in front of their children, local dignitaries in front of their neighbors.

There is of course nothing new in the fact that rule by an occupying power humiliates the occupied—especially at points of friction such as the roadblocks that are set up to control people’s movements, the offices that issue permits, the military courtrooms in which violations of the occupation rules are tried. However, since the Israeli government claims to assert sovereignty over the occupied territories, a real and lasting injury is added to the insult. The Israeli occupation succeeded in hurting an essential element in the Palestinian society’s concept of dignity—the peasants’ ownership of their land.

The chapter of Grossman’s book I found most moving, and at the same time most melancholy, is an account of his visit to an Arab village of almost idyllic biblical beauty located in the Alfuqin valley just outside Israel’s 1948 borders. After 1948 Israel carried out attacks on the village in reprisal for raids across the border, and most of the inhabitants were forced to leave for a refugee camp on the West Bank. After the 1967 war it turned out that the Israelis needed the houses in the camp to resettle refugees from Gaza, and so the government allowed some of the uprooted villagers to return to their village in the Alfuqin valley. They were given a month to rebuild the village, and worked day and night to do so. One of the villagers Grossman spoke to compared his situation to that of those who remained behind in the refugee camp:

We now live here among real people. The people who stayed behind in Deheisha and in Jericho are miserable. They are going mad from sadness and longing for their land. They come and plead with us to give them a little garden plot. Just so they can regain a little self-respect. Something to live for. After all, it is not just land, it is everything.

For many of the refugees in the camps, both those under Israel’s current control and those beyond it, in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, Grossman found that “returning to the land” is taken literally. Most of them were born after 1948, but through some process of osmosis from their parents, they conceived the hope that they would return to the same villages, sometimes to the very same houses, in which their parents had lived. There may be no political solution that will satisfy the wish to return still nourished by the Palestinian refugees in the camps. The Wadi Alfuqin village cannot serve as the model for an eventual political settlement.

The uprising of the Palestinians in the territories is an act to regain their lost honor. In this respect, it is comparable to the Egyptians’ crossing of the Suez Canal in October 1973. However, while in the case of the October war many in Israel understood that the recapture of the canal prepared the way for a settlement, and that the way to Camp David was through the canal, the public attitude toward the Palestinians is different. The Israelis refuse to acknowledge the possibility that the return of the Palestinians’ lost honor could contribute to a political settlement. The announced wish of the Israeli government is to restore “law and order” to the territories—which has been accurately translated: “to erase the smile from the face of Palestinian youth.”

How can one explain Israel’s behavior in the recent uprising? It may seem bizarre to refer to the war between the Arab shabab (youth) and the Israeli army as the war of the shepherds (“And there was a strife between the herdmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdmen of Lot’s cattle”—Genesis 13:7). After all, the Israeli shepherds have an atomic bomb. Nor is the description of the war as an intercommunal civil war adequate. Until now it has been a war between the civilians of one nation and the army of the other, similar to the situation of the French in Algiers more than to the fighting between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Yet in one way the struggle in the territories seems like a biblical struggle: it is a battle of sticks and stones. This makes it immediately understandable to anyone watching TV or reading a newspaper. It is a rudimentary struggle in which the emotions aroused are intense and immediate—hatred and rage, frustration and helplessness, the enthusiasm of solidarity and the desolation of unceasing violence. And the psychology required for understanding the situation is a stone-age psychology.

What the daily screenings of the fighting have brought home more than anything else to an Israeli watching TV is the issue of honor. Israeli television practices self-censorship these days. Even before the government started to ban television reporters from the West Bank, the violent acts of Israeli soldiers that were shown abroad every day were almost never shown here. The Israeli public sees only carefully edited scenes taken from the foreign TV networks—mainly the daily rituals in which young Palestinians throw stones and burn tires.

And so, one evening in March, Israeli television viewers were shown the main road near Hebron where Israeli troops had set up a roadblock. On the hill overlooking the road a group of kaffiyehclad youths were throwing stones at the soldiers below. Girls on the rooftops of the village were cheering the youths on. The air was heavy with showers of stones and tear-gas fumes. Into the TV frame entered a group of high-ranking officers who had just arrived at the scene, headed by the central command chief, General Mitsna. The long-legged, lean Mitsna, whose Assyrian beard is like Herzl’s, began to walk up the hill. Alone, without a helmet, with a revolver: Gary Cooper at High Noon. One of the youths facing him made obscene gestures at him and moved toward him while continuing to throw stones. Another high-ranking officer from the group of officers, short and thickset, was now seen breaking into a run to catch the cheeky youth. He soon lost his breath. The TV sequence stopped at this point. We were not shown what followed. We simply saw the shabiba posed against the IDF high command. All was exposed, tense. The insult to the army is felt by many Israelis to be unbearable.

Such incidents may explain the clubs supplied to the soldiers. Why, government spokesmen ask, is any explanation needed? After all, clubs are weapons routinely used to control riots. Remember that at the very beginning of the uprising the response of the army’s officers was to fire on the rioters. Then they made mass arrests accompanied by quick mass trials; then they imposed curfews; and still later they expelled some of the “instigators.” It was then that the systematic beatings started. Today all these strategies are being used, often on the same day, and hardly a day passes without some Arabs being killed.

But the sticks are only partly explained as routine weapons for riot control. What must be understood is that by using clubs, the young Israeli soldiers, so it is thought, regain their honor. These soldiers are eighteen and nineteen years old, at an age vulnerable to masculine assertiveness. They are required daily to face crowds of stone-throwing youths of much the same age, or younger. By taking action, they are showing them who is really the stronger, who is the real soldier.

This is a far cry from the South Korean police with their plastic shields, their ethos of restraint, and their capacity to stand motionless through constant showers of rocks and bottles thrown by young people during the days of violent rioting last June. The South Korean police force saw its honor in self-discipline. In Israel, the clubs were necessary—so it was evidently believed in government circles—to restore the soldiers’ honor in face of the challenge from Palestinians. And I mean honor, not dignity—an adolescent, macho honor.

This violent rite has torn apart Israeli society today. Israelis are divided within themselves between two extreme emotions: “fuck the Arabs” and “to hell with the territories.” This first works to the advantage of people on the right, the second to the advantage of those on the left. True, the man responsible for sending the young men to break the bones of Palestinians is Labor’s defense minister Rabin. But the greatest enthusiasm for the beatings comes from the right. The peculiar hypocrisy of the Labor leaders does not allow them to identify with young men who do the beating, only to send them to do the job.

The attempt of the last five months to crush the uprising is accompanied by two contrasting psychological processes that are taking place in Israeli society. There are, on one hand, increasingly brutal attitudes toward, and treatment of, the Arabs. At the same time the conflict has become less abstract, more human. During the past unusually long and rainy winter, for the first time since the June war, Israelis were shown on television Palestinians plodding through the mud of their camps. The closeups of daily violent encounters give the Palestinians distinctive human features they never before had for the Israelis. Until now the faces of the Arabs from the territories who worked inside the State of Israel were hidden under what the Jerusalem poet Dennis Silk refers to as “invisibility powder”:

Rubbed into the skin of a million Ahmeds bused in from the
Territories. Into the skin, the hair, the khefiva, the shirt.
For Arabs should be worked but not seen.
(from “Vanishing Trick”)

There is today a new Palestinian presence in the Israeli consciousness, a growing interest on the part of Israelis in what Palestinians think and what they want. Thus, for example, in the pages of Israeli newspapers and magazines one recently found many articles about a poem written by Mahmud Darwish, a well-known Palestinian poet. Darwish now lives in Paris, is an active member of the PLO, and has many friends in Israel. Several Hebrew versions of the poem already exist, each with its own claims to accuracy, and daily cross-Mediterranean telephone conversations are being conducted with the poet, in which he is asked to “explain” different parts of the poem. The poem calls for the Jews to get out. (Roughly: “The time has come for you to get out / Dwell where you will but do not dwell among us.”) Over the telephone Darwish explained that he meant the Jews should get out only of the occupied territories. But the poem says explicitly, “Get out of our earth of our land of our sea.” There is no sea on the West Bank. Darwish said that he meant the port of Gaza.

Why was there such intense interest in Darwish’s poem? More than a few Jews in Israel still take seriously the idea of a “national poet” as a secular prophet who would express the collective consciousness of his people. The poet, in this view, is not a “critic and entertainer” but a shaman. This may help to explain why the words of Darwish’s poem have been taken here with such seriousness. But of course all of this seems bizarre—as if one needs to consult a poem in order to find out that the heartfelt wish of almost all the Palestinians is for the Jews to get out of Palestine. Not all of them, though. There are certainly some Palestinians, among them perhaps even Darwish himself, who wish for a secular democratic state with the Jews—in the hope that the Jews will guarantee in that state the degree of personal freedom that the Palestinians recognize exists in Israel for Israelis and that they fear will not exist in a Palestinian state.

Be that as it may, the political question does not concern what the Palestinians wish in their hearts but what their effective demands are, the demands for which a price will have to be paid. As far as those demands are concerned, the elusive Darwish of the telephone is more relevant than the “authentic” Darwish of the poem. Political and psychological reconciliation is not a necessary condition for a political settlement; while a political settlement can contribute significantly toward political—even if not ideological—reconciliation.

The trouble is that within the politics of honor and humiliation it is difficult even to talk of a political settlement. It should have been obvious to those Israelis who are interested in a settlement that the PLO is a central partner in negotiations. Even Shimon Peres, who opposes dealing with the PLO, admits that the PLO is ready for direct and immediate negotiations with Israel. (Although today, after the killing of Abu Jihad and Syria’s reconciliation with the PLO, the situation is less clear.) But for most Israelis, including those who favor an agreement, the refusal to talk to the PLO has become a matter of honor—quite apart from the wish to humiliate. At the same time, for the Palestinians of the territories, whose uprising was not inspired by the PLO, the issue of the PLO representing them in eventual negotiations with Israel has also become a matter of honor. The Palestinians have a moral advantage here. Their right to choose their own representatives is not only a matter of pride, it is also a matter of self-respect.

The first thing the Israelis need to do now is to return their conflict with the Palestinians to its political dimension. In a political conflict both sides try to defend and advance their own interests, and the defense of interests requires a certain degree of rationality. In a politics of honor and humiliation there is very little rationality, and a great deal of blood.

Grossman’s book has much to do with the way the dovish left in Israel sees the Palestinian uprising. Kant distinguished between two kinds of despair: “defiant despair” and “depressed despair.” People in the grip of depressed despair are paralyzed by it. In the state of defiant despair they are willing to fight against all oppression. The Palestinian uprising started when depressed despair turned into defiant despair. Grossman supplied a description of the Palestinians’ depressed despair. With the background of his description many of the dovish left in Israel were able to understand the new, defiant despair of the Palestinians. Grossman may not have changed political positions, but he has had an effect on political sensibilities.

Did this matter? The Israeli left is a marginal group in electoral strength, although it is influential as far as opinion among the Israeli elite goes—in the army, the press, the universities, and the arts. The left in Israel is hardly defined by positions on social and economic issues. It is almost entirely determined by its attitude toward the conflict with the Arabs. And, with respect to this conflict, two distinctions matter. The first, broader, distinction is between doves and hawks, which has to do with the willingness or refusal to give up occupied territories. The second, narrower, distinction, between left and right, adds one more element: the willingness or refusal to recognize the Palestinians, and the PLO as their representative. These distinctions are of course accompanied by an entire culture of symbols and images. The doves (or the left in the broad sense, as some would prefer) consist of Peace Now, the centrist party Shinui, and all the parties and factions to its left: a part of the Labor party, Mapam, Shulamit Aloni’s MCR, the Progressive party, and the Communists. The left in the narrow sense consists of many in Peace Now, many in Mapam, and the last three parties I have just mentioned, as well as all the peace groups considered more radical than Peace Now (forty-six groups by the latest count).

From a different perspective, the dovish left consists mainly of Ashkenazi sabras, who have, as foreign visitors often remark, a WASP-like self-confidence. They are entirely lacking in the traumatic fear of Arabs that characterizes the relatively new immigrants of the 1950s and their children—immigrant families who now make up well over one half of the population. The left in general has little empathy with, and no sympathy for, the immigrants’ fears. It is this attitude, and not just its actual political positions, that makes the left unpopular in Israel. Paradoxically, however, the left is also that part of the population that has truly absorbed the fact of Israel’s military might. The right-wing immigrants vacillate between a sense of megalomania about Israeli might, on the one hand, and, on the other, feelings of extreme self-pity and powerlessness. Between these extremes lies the playground of Ariel Sharon.

To both sides, young people are more important than they have been for many years, and this is especially true of Palestinian society now. It is mainly the young who are carrying on the uprising. (Women, too, of all ages, although much less visibly.) The early days of the riots created a strong sense of solidarity among the diverse Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza, and they also created a feeling of intense revolutionary fervor among the young. However, as the months pass, and as the measures taken by the Israeli authorities grow increasingly harsh, a “red guard” syndrome may be taking shape. By this I mean the ways in which young people can impose revolutionary standards that the rest of the society, especially parents who must support their families, may find difficult to accept.

There have been some signs of internal terror—for example, the murder of an Arab policeman in Jericho, meant to underscore the call for all Arab policemen in the territories to resign, as most did. Some older Palestinians say privately that such events recall to them their fears during the terror that accompanied the Great Arab Revolt in Palestine between 1936 and 1939. In fact there have not been many reprisals, and so far throughout the territories there is an impressive degree of Palestinian solidarity. If a reign of internal terror should take place, the tender age of the participants in the uprising will explain at least part of it. Young Palestinians have become the keepers of the “purity of the revolution” in a society in which the uprising is also an act of liberation from traditional paternalism.

Grossman’s book tells a story remarkably similar in outline to stories of the classic experiments with identical twins separated at birth. Following the 1949 armistice agreement between Israel and Jordan, the Arab village of Barta’a was suddenly and arbitrarily cut into two—one half in Jordan, the other in Israel. There were even cases of families separated in this way by the so-called Green Line. After the June 1967 war the two halves were reunited. A villager from the Jordanian side said of his fellow villagers on the Israeli side:

They always brag about how much like the Israelis they are, yet they don’t sense what the Israelis think of them…. I don’t envy them—they don’t have any pride.

From the Israeli side Grossman quotes the following:

My way of thinking [comes] from here. I’m already used to this life, even to our special status among you, on this quarter-democracy you have given us. Do you think I could go now and live with them in Nablus?

This was said before the uprising. And what of today? The village of Barta’a is three kilometers from the Wadi Ara road inside the heartland of the State of Israel. It is a main road passing through a valley surrounded by Arab villages and leading to the various kibbutz settlements located in the valley of Jezreel. During the last two months there have been a few incidents in which Israeli Arab youths have thrown stones at passing traffic. For older Israelis these stones bring back the ghosts of the Arab revolt of the late 1930s. Especially powerful for them is the fear that the uprising in the territories will not halt at the Green Line. Shamir’s right-wing camp is playing on these atavistic fears, using them to spread the message that this is a total war against the existence of the State of Israel within any borders whatever.

The political leaders of the Israeli Arabs well understand the dangers associated with stone throwing at Wadi Ara. They are apprehensive of a violent break with the Jewish population. One Arab member of the Knesset, a member of the Labor alignment, recently resigned in protest over Rabin’s brutal policies in the territories. This suggests that there may be a significant decrease in the Arab vote for Labor. Where those votes will go in the upcoming elections remains an open question. The Arab population in Israel makes up a voting bloc potentially larger than that of the Jewish religious parties. Its actual political power, however, is comparatively negligible. One reason is that the Arabs vote largely for two parties, the Communist and the Progressive, neither of them candidates for any type of coalition with the Labor alignment. The Communists are perceived by the Jewish public as controlled by Moscow, the Progressives as close to the PLO. There is now talk of a new joint Jewish-Arab party, to the left of Labor, which would take part in Israel’s party politics. But this is still just talk.

One of the most revealing stops in Grossman’s tour of the West Bank is the military court in Nablus. In the territories the Arabs are tried in military courts, but justice there is neither seen nor done, and there are no courts of appeal. Grossman reports on a case—he calls it Catch 44—in which a Palestinian was charged with having contacts with terrorist organizations. He was held in custody for forty-four days awaiting trial. His lawyer was Leah Tsemel, a radical Israeli Jew and an impressive advocate. It soon became clear to everyone that the defendant had had no contact with any enemy organization. However, acquitting him would amount to a confession of error, and that would be a sign of weakness. Besides, he had already been detained for forty-four days. The judge hit on a solution—he sentenced the Palestinian to the forty-four days already served, convicting him of a charge not included in the original charge sheet: unauthorized transfer of foreign currency. This, it turned out, was a crime for which he had never been charged and which he had not committed. All he was guilty of was receiving scholarship money from Germany.

This story pales in its evil when compared to the “blitz trials” of hundreds of people, many of them children, within two days, which began soon after the uprising started. The prostitution of the law, moreover, has filtered though the Green Line into Israel as well. The former president of the Supreme Court, an honorable man, recently headed a commission appointed to investigate the procedures and conduct of the security services. In its report the commission endorsed what it referred to as “moderate physical pressure”—a euphemistic expression meaning that torture is allowed for a serious purpose, as distinct from torture for pleasure. For their part, the security services did not wait for the report to carry out the beatings and other practices that in some cases seem indistinguishable from torture. The report now grants to such conduct official approval of a kind never granted before.

Grossman first called his book in Hebrew The Yellow Time—the time of hatred. When he was talking about the book and its proposed title to an Arab in a field dotted with yellow flowers, the man told him of the legendary yellow wind: an eastern, eschatological wind coming from the gates of hell and destroying all that is in its way. There is no hope of escaping its destructive powers. Until April, Secretary Shultz’s plan raised hope, especially in the Labor party, but it now seems that Shultz’s initiative is in a deep coma. The only chance for its resuscitation may come from Gorbachev’s side. So with the failure of Shultz’s plan the west wind may yet bring with it, as Shelley wrote, “Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red.”

Israel’s general elections will take place in November. My impression now, shared by many Israelis, as recent polls show, is that the Likud bloc is very likely to win. At any rate, it is now hard to imagine Labor forming its own government, although it may be called once again to join in a National Unity government. Three different political approaches may have emerged in Israel by then. The first is the Likud’s. It would recognize a new violent order as the status quo in the territories. Maintaining the occupation will certainly be expensive, but for the Likud its price would be tolerable. In the background some who favor this approach anticipate another round of war, maybe with Syria, with the implicit promise that while it rages a great many Arabs in the territories could be expelled.

The second approach would originate from the mainstream of the Labor party. It would come when party leaders realize that their traditional “Jordanian option” has become politically irrelevant, as Jordan itself has been making clear. The disappointment over the failure of this option would lead to a revival of Moshe Dayan’s plan, i.e., a unilateral withdrawal from only the densely populated parts of the West Bank (which would amount to putting the territories in a state of siege) and a unilateral evacuation of the Gaza strip.

The third approach would possibly emerge following a radicalizing process within some circles of the Labor party, especially if they are perceived to have done badly in the elections. This approach would call explicitly and clearly for talks with the Palestinians. Except, of course, that there is no telling whether the Palestinians will stand then where they stand now.

There will also be people, of all persuasions and in all parties, without any plan but with hope. The main hope will be that some outside power will intervene, impose a settlement, and save the region from its inhabitants. The only real hope, however, may lie in the fact that most large predictions about Israel and the Middle East have turned out to be false.

Jerusalem, May 4, 1988

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