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Living in an Impasse

As a war correspondent Fisk is deeply skeptical of the motives, perceptions, and performance of governments. While governments wish to show wars to their people as “a drama of opposites, good and evil, ‘them’ and ‘us,’ victory and defeat,” as a longtime war correspondent he knows that “war is primarily not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death. It represents the total failure of the human spirit.” And yet, he writes, for journalists war can be a supreme experience, “an opportunity to indulge in the only vicarious excitement still free of charge.” Many journalists have died reporting on recent wars. I wonder how many have really died for “vicarious excitement.”

When Fisk suggested that the vocation of a journalist was to “write the first pages of history” he was corrected by the remarkable Haaretz columnist Amira Hass. Her mother survived Auschwitz, and she has vowed to remain involved with the suffering people of the world. She lives in Ramallah in the West Bank and, as Fisk puts it, her “reports on the occupied Palestinian territories have outshone anything written by non-Israeli reporters.” “No, Robert, you’re wrong,” she told Fisk. “Our job is to monitor the centres of power.” Judging by his own writing, Fisk seems to approve of this definition. Like Emma Williams, he is an admirer of the Israeli press. “Thank God, I often remark, for Israeli journalism,” he writes, after reading a Haaretz column about the influence of the Israeli lobby in Washington on American policy.

Fisk’s powers of observation make his war reporting particularly vivid, and in his thirty years in the Middle East he never seems to have missed front-line duty in any available war. He visited Osama bin Laden twice, in Sudan and in Afghanistan, and was horrified at one point that bin Laden seemed to be trying to recruit him. In Sudan, bin Laden, a successful construction engineer by trade, was building a road over the 745 miles from Khartoum to Port Sudan. When Fisk arrived, introduced by Jamal Kashoggi, a Saudi journalist, villagers were lining up to thank bin Laden:

My first impression was of a shy man…. He would avert his eyes when the village leaders addressed him. He seemed ill-at-ease with gratitude, incapable of responding with a full smile when children in miniature chadors danced in front of him…. He was even more unhappy at the sight of a Westerner standing a few feet away from him.

Fisk noted bin Laden’s “fatal self-resolve.” “He was alarming because he was possessed of that quality which leads men to war: total self-conviction.”

Fisk traveled on an Iranian hospital train carrying the choking victims of an Iraqi gas attack. He resolutely refused to be “embedded” during Operation Desert Storm.1 His description of the “Highway of Death” and the wholesale slaughter of fleeing Iraqi troops at the end of that operation is shocking to read. It was, he writes, a

road of horror, destruction and shame; horror because of the hundreds of mutilated corpses lining its route, destruction because of the thousands of Iraqi tanks and armoured vehicles that lie charred or abandoned there, shame because in retreat Saddam’s soldiers piled their armour with loot. Shame, too, because we punished them all with indiscriminate, unnecessary death.

Fisk tried out the eight-by-five-foot hole that Saddam Hussein was captured in along with $750,000 in cash. He went through the books the tyrant had been reading—philosophical works by Ibn Khaldun and the pro-Shiite doctrines of Imam al-Shafei, volumes of Arab poetry, cassettes of Arabic songs, “tatty” pictures of Noah’s Ark and sheep at sunset. Fisk has developed a network of friends and acquaintances throughout the region who provide background and depth for his stories. His digression on the Iranian war poets of the Iran–Iraq War, for example, is deeply moving. He quotes the poet Parvis Habib Abadi, writing of Iraqi-occupied Khorramshahr:

My friend, how lonely we are,
Away from this city that was ours,
The candle’s guttered out, the butterfly consumed by fire
Everywhere, in every alley, I see just ashes, rubble, blood,
A head here, over there some long, blood-matted hair,
No hands left to comb it with.

Or, by another poet:

…Here it’s always red alert,
The siren never ends its moaning
Over corpses that didn’t finish their night’s sleep.
Where bat-like jets which hate the light
Bomb the cracks in our blind blackout curtains…
We can’t even trust the stars in case they’re spies,
We wouldn’t be surprised if the moon blows up….

Fisk blamed himself for having failed to break the story of the Iran-contra scandal, in which the US used unmarked Israeli planes to fly in Hawk anti-aircraft missiles to Tabriz, the proceeds of the transaction going to the contras in Nicaragua. Fisk had learned from a friend in air traffic control at Larnaca in Cyprus of a mysterious flight from Tabriz that had ended up at Ben-Gurion Airport because of “electrical failures” although the Israelis later on denied any knowledge of it. Fisk failed to follow up this lead, and a small Beirut magazine, al-Shiraa, broke the story and the incomparable tale of the visit to Tehran, ostensibly to get the release of hostages in Beirut, of Bud McFarlane and Oliver North bearing a Bible inscribed by President Reagan and a cake in the shape of a key. (Is it possible that this remains the only direct high-level US governmental contact with the government in Tehran since the Islamic revolution and the taking of the US embassy hostages a quarter of a century ago?)

Fisk’s aphorisms reflect his long experience of, and periodical exasperation with, the Middle East scene. “Terrorism,” he writes, “is a word that has become a plague on our vocabulary, the excuse and reason and moral permit for state-sponsored violence—ourviolence—which is now used on the innocent of the Middle East ever more outrageously and promiscuously.” “The role of journalism in the 1991 Gulf War was as cheap as it was dishonest…. We fed off war. We wanted to become part of it.” And again on journalists and the Gulf War: “They created war without death. They lied.” “The pumpkin of the Oslo agreement could never be turned into the golden carriage of peace.” (Fisk gives one of the reasons for this: the huge increase in the number of settlers in the occupied territories. In 1990, there were 76,000 settlers. By 2000, seven years after the Oslo accord, the number of settlers stood at 383,000.) And finally, “In the Middle East, the people live their past history, again and again, every day.”

Fisk closes his journey through the history of the Middle East with this conclusion:

I think in the end we have to accept that our tragedy lies always in our past, that we have to live with our ancestors’ folly and suffer for it, just as they, in their turn, suffered, and as we, through our vanity and ignorance, ensure the pain and suffering of our own children. How to correct history, that’s the thing.

As a journalist, Fisk does not suggest how this should be done. The legacy of history may well be more disastrous in the Middle East than in most places, and there it is mostly other people’s children who will suffer. History itself cannot be changed, but its legacy can be mitigated or even transformed, although sixty years of effort have failed to do this for what was originally called “the Palestine question.” One of the reasons for this failure is that the few governments who, together, might have had the necessary capacity, the objectivity, the influence, and the leadership have never been able to rise far enough above their own interests and disagreements to agree on, and cause to be accepted, a reasonably just solution.


Since these two books were published, the Israeli–Palestinian situation and the state of affairs in the entire region have dramatically deteriorated. The remark of a beleaguered Palestinian that Emma Williams took as the title for her book, “It’s easier to reach heaven than the end of the street,” has become truer than ever for Palestinians now facing a continuing Israeli assault on Gaza originally launched to recapture an Israeli soldier snatched by the military wing of Hamas—Israel holds some nine thousand Palestinian prisoners. This operation has wrecked the infrastructure of Gaza and made life for the Palestinians even more like hell on earth than it was before. More recently in Lebanon, the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah and the overwhelming air, ground, and sea Israeli counterattack have spelled national disaster on an enormous scale for Lebanon, while a daily shower of Hezbollah missiles has caused death, destruction, and paralysis in northern Israel.

Democratic elections have radically changed the political equation in the Middle East, but not in the way that democratization’s most vocal champions in the US had in mind. They have instead brought two strong “terrorist” organizations, Sunni Hamas and Shiite Hezbollah, not to mention a Shiite pro-Iran government in Iraq, into legitimate public life. This is presumably not what Condoleezza Rice had in mind when, on a brief stop in embattled Beirut, she described the current Lebanese nightmare as the “birthpangs of the new Middle East.”

After a month of violence and destruction with more than one thousand dead, the UN Security Council finally, on August 11, adopted Resolution 1701, setting out the conditions and arrangements for a cease-fire. At the very least this resolution has provided a way for stopping a devastating battle that neither Israel nor Hezbollah could win, an almost automatic process of destruction, fueled by pride, hatred, fear, and spite—Robert Fisk’s “total failure of the human spirit.” It is too early to say whether the resolution will decisively end the Lebanese/Israeli nightmare or prepare the way for a resumption of the search for a long-term settlement.

Resolution 1701 makes no mention of the Gaza fighting front, or of stopping the march of devastation there. The recent Israeli kidnapping of thirty-eight democratically elected legislators, including the speaker of the Palestinian assembly, has passed almost unnoticed.2 Is this what the march of democracy in the Middle East is supposed to mean?

Nor is the current tendency to regard Hezbollah and Hamas as the root causes of the problem likely to assist in reaching a satisfactory long-term peace settlement. Those organizations are relatively recent results of the problem, which goes back in its present form at least to 1948—Robert Fisk would say to the Treaty of Versailles. The basic reality that still inspires fanatical opposition in the Islamic world is the Israeli occupation and settlement of Palestinian lands. Current events in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan foster that opposition and ensure that organizations like Hezbollah or al-Qaeda get plenty of new recruits and gain increasing popular support to the detriment of established Arab governments.

One thing has not changed. After much brave talk about a “robust” international force, the United Nations and the Security Council are once again the last resort in an extremely dangerous political, military, and humanitarian disaster. After the Israeli invasion of March 1978, when UN officials, of which I was one, set up the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), we tried to persuade the council to agree to a mandate and military establishment sufficiently strong to deal with the various armed elements that we knew, through our observers, to be dominating the unruly territory of Lebanon south of the Litani River. The members of the council dismissed this suggestion, and UNIFIL has been widely, and unjustly, despised as inadequate or worse ever since.

That lesson may at last have been learned. The new, “robust” UNIFIL is to be 15,000-strong with another 15,000 Lebanese troops from the national army, which, incidentally, has not, within living memory, ever been persuaded to deploy its forces on its own country’s troubled southern frontier. UNIFIL will have a mandate to use necessary force in certain circumstances, but the task, even of a “robust” force, in such a complex political and military situation will still present enormous difficulties. That accounts for the current reluctance of governments to provide the necessary elements of a “robust” UN force. (The UN has no standing force of its own to act as an advance guard in this kind of situation. It badly needs one.)

It is easy to blame “extremists” on all sides for this long and seemingly endless horror story. Partisans in the outside world must bear their share of the blame. Nor has the United Nations for many years been able to make, and follow up, strong, just, and unanimous decisions on Middle East questions. In the spring of 1948, when five Arab states invaded the new nation of Israel, the council successfully ordered a cease-fire, appointed a mediator with whom all sides cooperated, and called for armistice agreements which, negotiated by the mediator, all the concerned governments signed and abided by—at least for some years.

Since that time the authority and standing of the Security Council has been eroded, not least by the cold war. Some of that authority might be recovered if, after four weeks of death and destruction, the council strongly supports its own creation, the new UNIFIL, and makes the clear, objective, and unanimous decisions necessary to overcome initial problems and the inevitable early weaknesses of the new force. The success of the new UNIFIL might provide a good start for the resumption of the search for a lasting peace.

The Security Council, and other international groups for that matter, have muddled and compromised and fiddled with the Middle East problem for many years. National interests and differences have all too often made a farce of the Security Council’s primary responsibility for international peace and security. The victims of these shortcomings are, among others, the great majority of the people of the Middle East, Arab and Israeli, who long for a peaceful future just like everyone else. Surely the world can do better for them than the barbarous and cynical display of the last few weeks?

—August 22, 2006

  1. 1

    When Fisk went independently to check if American troops had recaptured the town of Khafji (they hadn’t, but the “pool” had not been told that), “an American NBC reporter who was a member of the ‘pool’ confronted me. ‘You asshole,’ he shouted at me. ‘You’ll prevent us from working. You’re not allowed here. Get out. Go back to fucking Dhahran.’ He then betrayed me to an American marine ‘public affairs’ officer who announced to me: ‘You’re not allowed to talk to US marines and they’re not allowed to talk to you.’”

  2. 2

    See Ian Williams’s “Saving Face, Not Lives,” in which he analyzes the Security Council resolution: http://deadlinepundit.blogspot.com/2006/08/saving-face-not-lives.html.

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