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Living in an Impasse

It’s Easier to Reach Heaven Than the End of the Street: A Jerusalem Memoir

by Emma Williams
London: Bloomsbury, 450 pp., £14.99

Was ever a place on earth so haunted as the Middle East by the arrogance and thoughtlessness of the past, by the special interests and irresponsibility of powerful outsiders, and now by the cycle of outrage and revenge that consumes Israelis and Palestinians in an unequal but deadly struggle? Has any other historic problem absorbed so much effort to resolve it with so few positive results?

Hundreds—by now probably thousands—of books and studies have been written on different aspects of the Israeli–Palestinian problem. Occasionally there is a brief spell of cautious hope for progress, although such optimism is rarely shared by both sides at the same time. The short, violent, international wars of the first thirty-five years of Israel’s existence have given way to bloody local exchanges of violence between the Israeli and Palestinian communities, which have now spread to Lebanon and which both sides like to call terrorism. The conflict has become an intensely emotional issue in the confrontation between Islamic religious extremism and the interests and the principles of the industrialized Western world.

Any other struggle, between any other peoples, might well have ceased long ago to engage the world. The Israelis and the Palestinians, quite apart from the unique character and history of both peoples, each claim universal values and interests, and each have powerful external supporters—the United States for Israel, the Arab world, ineffectively, for the Palestinians, and now Iran and the extremist groups of the Islamic revolution as well. Extreme partisanship in the outside world serves to exacerbate the conflict. The partisan versions of the struggle, none of which truthfully conveys its reality, make the acceptance by either side of a reasonably just and workable solution more elusive than ever.

1.

The two books under review could hardly, at first glance, be more different. One is a personal reflection on three intense years in Jerusalem and the occupied territories during the second intifada. The other is a large-scale account of the struggle and its origins in the broader Middle East by a British journalist who has lived in the region for thirty years and has closely followed its wars, its violence, its intrigues, and its tangled relationships. Both books are notable for their depth of observation and insight and for the vividness of their descriptions of particular events and people. Both authors have a strong affection and respect for the suffering majority of Palestinians and Israelis inexorably caught up in the storm of violence, fear, mythology, and hatred that the former territory of Palestine has become.

Emma Williams is a medical doctor who has worked in Britain, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and South Africa. She is the wife of a United Nations official and mother of four children, the last of whom was born in Bethlehem during the second intifada. She lived with both Israelis and Palestinians during an unusually stressful and violent three years. By day she worked in the Al-quds University School of Public Health at el-Bireh near Ramallah and later at the al-Makassad hospital on the Mount of Olives. Her husband was stationed mostly in Gaza and the West Bank. At night they returned, sometimes with difficulty, to their home in an Arab part of Jerusalem and often talked far into the night with their Israeli and other friends.

The second intifada started in September 2000, six weeks after their arrival in Jerusalem, but Williams and her husband insisted on staying on as a family. They shared the fears and very different anxieties and hardships of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians to an extent rare for diplomats or international officials. Among other things they learned a lot about looking after, worrying about, and explaining violence and brutality to young children in a war zone. “We were all happy,” Williams writes. “It was just the situation, living alongside two extraordinary peoples who were bent on killing each other. Except they weren’t all. The killing was driven by the few.”

Working in Jerusalem often presents a dilemma for anyone who likes and respects both peoples and sees “the situation” as primarily an agonizing human tragedy perpetuated by mistaken policies and ambitions on both sides as well as in the outside world. “I had been changed by living here,” Williams writes, “stuck between the two communities, Israeli and Palestinian, moving from one to the other, hearing from each side about fear and hate and rage, facing the same things but as an outsider, and finding myself torn between the two.”

The second intifada started after Ariel Sharon, with an escort of one thousand police, visited the Haram al-Sharif/ Temple Mount in Jerusalem on September 28, 2000. It changed everything, and it also intensified the well-intentioned outsider’s dilemma. “People I had begun to know,” Williams writes,

were starting both to lose control and to be strangely accepting. Israelis were not horrified by their forces’ killings or by the likelihood of this provoking more bloodshed; they were horrified by the stone-throwing Palestinians. Palestinians were not surprised by Israeli actions, but no Palestinian voices called for the street to quieten down—neither to save the rioters’ lives, nor to save the political situation. Everyone was reacting to each event as it occurred, soaking up the version of events given by their own side.

The intifada soon went beyond stone-throwing. By the third day, some Palestinians had guns and began, in Williams’s words, “painting themselves into their TV stereotype: looting holy sites, giving way to uncontrolled rage.” Hate began to take over on both sides. Settlers attacked their Palestinian neighbors. Palestinian Israelis, protesting against the occupation, were harshly put down by the Israeli police. In Ramallah after the funeral of a Palestinian victim—ninety Palestinians were killed in the first ten days of the intifada—an enraged mob captured two Israeli soldiers and, in spite of the efforts of the Palestinian police to rescue them, beat the soldiers to death. Not surprisingly the Israelis reacted with rage. Apache helicopters set off to attack the Palestine Authority’s police, TV, and radio stations, as well as Arafat’s headquarters and other installations in Ramallah, Hebron, Jericho, and Nablus.

Williams had another constant worry. This time her husband, Andrew, called from Gaza:

I’m stuck. There are helicopter gunships hovering just out to sea, and they’re going to strike….”

Isn’t your office next to Arafat’s?”

Yes. Not far…. But we can’t leave, we can’t just abandon all the Gaza staff. We should go to see Arafat…to try to talk some sense into the man. I’ll call again soon.”

Some time later another call:

We’re in Arafat’s office.”

But…”

The helicopters are still hovering out there, but the IDF know we’re here. I got through to them. They won’t bomb us.”

Arafat himself did not cut a particularly sympathetic figure. “Arafat appeared on TV,” Williams writes, “visiting the wounded lying in Gaza hospitals—a sickening sight, knowing that whatever he felt for their suffering, he also found it useful. Both sides manipulated their suffering; victimhood was at a premium.” The consuming rage on both sides drove out all interest in the basic realities of the situation and silenced any serious debate about the future.

Let’s not forget,” a veteran American commentator told Williams, “that the Palestinians are resisting a military occupation…. They’ve had more than thirty years of oppression—and they’re in revolt.” Many had been driven off their land and forced to live in camps. They’d had to watch their land given away to settlers, and their freedoms shrink. They’d been granted a pretense of self-rule but seen their leaders lose out—sell out—and cream off millions in corruption while they “ran” the lives of their fellow Palestinians in brutal fashion, leaving the occupiers to say “look, they can’t govern themselves.” The Palestinians, the commentator said, lived with expropriations, closures, curfews, and having their homes demolished, “with humiliation that we…could not begin to imagine. And all of that,” the unidentified commentator continued, “was during the peace process. It’s not surprising they’re resisting, using whatever means they can. Vile, vicious, yes, all of that….”

And if you were the average Israeli you wouldn’t be doubting the IDF right now. Israelis are afraid, and so would you be. They’ve no idea if the IDF’s actions make sense, to them it’s self-defence, and the world condemns them for it. They’ve been told over and over that the occupation is not the issue—that anyway the territories are essential for Israel’s security—and that the “Arabs” attack out of hate and Islamic zeal, nothing more. So of course they’re terrified…. They’re fighting for Israel’s security. To most of them, Arafat is out to destroy Israel.

In November 2000 the suicide bombings started. This abhorrent and obscene form of attack served the unintended purpose of causing Palestinians in general to be condemned even more harshly as “terrorists” and, for large sections of public opinion especially in the United States, of converting the occupier into the victim. “A smokescreen hid the realities of the occupation,” Williams writes, “and it would be made thicker and blacker by Palestinian suicide bombings.”

The tendency of people to dismiss the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in the glare of the suicide bombings was brought home in Jerusalem by the news that Hillary Clinton, running for the Senate in New York, had denounced as “offensive and outrageous” the statement of a New York community leader that international law supported the right to resist an occupation. Clinton’s remark was in striking contrast to the seriousness and frankness of a number of leading Israeli journalists, politicians, and newspapers, Haaretz especially. Even in times of national danger, they challenged the legality and morality of the occupation and demanded simple decency in the way it was being conducted. Plain speaking and moral courage on such questions seem to be accepted as a matter of course in Israel; they are seldom matched either in the national politics or in the “mainstream press” in the United States.

A city under the constant threat of suicide bombings develops its own special way of life. Williams, with a family dispersed during the day—the children at school and her husband and herself away at work in different places—felt the full emotional effect of the bombs:

There was no getting used to suicide bombings. We would hear the “boom” over Jerusalem and know when it was not sonic, but murderous. After the boom the quick tally: family, friends, colleagues? Israelis did the same. If family and friends were not involved you could breathe again and carry on with the day—you had to—until the stories of the victims hit home: the children, old people, the personal tragedies, the heroism and the unbearable task of clearing up, of picking up the pieces of life and personality, dreams and hopes reduced to gobbets of flesh.

The bombings in restaurants, streets, and other gathering places were so horrendous, so shocking, that it was often impossible to think about much else at all.

A faulty alarm clock saved Williams and her children from arriving punctually at school at the moment when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the street outside. It was impossible not to ponder on the miracle of being spared. The bomber’s head had landed in the schoolyard, at the feet of the children’s kindergarten teacher. The children often discussed the episode. “Not his whole body, Mum,” nine-year-old Archie said, “just his head.”

Williams’s work at el-Bireh and at al-Makassad and her life with her Palestinian neighbors and friends in Jerusalem made her agonizingly aware of the stark misery and humiliation of the occupation. Virtually no family had escaped arrest of one or two of its members, and medical workers were particularly vulnerable when trying to help the wounded during Israeli operations like Defensive Shield. The Palestinians, as she came to know them, are an old and resilient people who are determined to carry on in spite of all discouragement and oppression. They almost take pride in going to and from work each day by various taxis, through several Israeli checkpoints, often harassed and delayed by capricious holdups. Despite—perhaps even because of—the steady erosion of their rights, their time, their property, their ability to work, and their access to their religious and historical center, Jerusalem, they persisted, Williams found, in making the best of their diminished life. Doctor Ibrahim, one of her medical colleagues, explained the quality sumud, being steadfast in the face of all difficulties, that keeps Palestinians going. During the second intifada, the constriction and immense difficulty of their lives, the curfews, the severe limit on movement, the shortages of almost everything, andthe physical danger also worked as an incentive and a challenge to their determination to remain in their ancestral land.

The occupation was, and is, another kind of disaster for Israelis. Occupation service is a nightmare for many young Israeli soldiers. Williams quotes Michael Ben-Yair, Israel’s attorney general from 1993 to 1996, on the genesis of the double judicial system in the occupied territories. After the 1967 war, Ben-Yair wrote,

we enthusiastically chose to become a colonial society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring settlers from Israel to the Occupied Territories, engaging in theft and finding justification for all these activities. Passionately desiring to keep the Occupied Territories, we developed two judicial systems: one—progressive, liberal—in Israel; and the other—cruel, injurious—in the Occupied Territories. In effect, we established an apartheid regime in the Occupied Territories immediately following their capture.

Williams describes the human effects of all this as she observed it. As someone with a foreign passport who only occasionally encountered difficulties at Israeli checkpoints, she describes the daily Palestinian ordeal of long delays, arbitrary refusals, young soldiers’ capricious judgments, and the sometimes lethal consequences when a sick or pregnant person being rushed to the hospital is stopped or rejected at a checkpoint. Collective punishment, “targeted killings” of resistance leaders with inevitable casualties among innocent bystanders, the demolition of Palestinian homes, the destruction or confiscation of olive groves and other valuable land, and recently, of course, the “Wall,” all add to the misery, perpetual anxiety, and uncertainty of the lives of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

The long and sudden curfews that became commonplace during the intifada were particularly dreaded. It is like being in prison, Williams writes,

but you have to fend for yourself, forced to remain indoors for days at a time, a brief release for an hour or two, and then several days’ curfew again. In the grinding heat of the Middle Eastern summer, a family of maybe fourteen people in two rooms, with no running water and no air-conditioning, you run out of baby milk because the army didn’t tell you how long the curfew would be, and anyway you have no money to buy food, or milk, as you haven’t been allowed to work for months, and if you step outside you may be shot on sight. Then, if someone does fall sick, you have to hope they don’t get too sick, because if they do then you have to risk breaking the curfew to get help. And the worry. And all the time the children scream because they are hungry and bored and just maddened with frustration.

In the last week of March 2002 the Arab League, including among others Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, offered Israel a peace plan which, based on the 1967 borders, would end the Arab–Israeli conflict and establish normal relations between Israel and the Arab States. Andrew, who had been at the meeting in Beirut, felt that, for all the obvious difficulties, the plan might offer a chance of progress. “The question is,” he said, “which lot of hardliners will screw it up for everyone else first.” His question was quickly answered. A Hamas suicide bomber blew himself up in a Netanya hotel, killing twenty-nine Israelis, mostly elderly people celebrating Passover. This atrocious action was described by Hamas as “a clear message to our Arab rulers that our struggling people have chosen their road and know how to regain lands and rights in full, depending only on God.” Israeli tanks once again rolled into Ramallah, Jenin, and other West Bank towns, in Operation Defensive Shield, to engage in unequal and immensely destructive battles with Palestinian fighters, the outcome of which was never seriously in doubt. After the operation the Israelis in their turn were accused of going too far and of blocking humanitarian assistance to the victims when it was most sorely needed.

In this ever-changing, ever-more-the-same process of violent action, reaction, and frustration, the “situation” was the enduring obsession of those living in and working out of Jerusalem. (In the Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem with her new baby well on the way, Andrew and the midwife were still engrossed in talk about the “situation” over Williams’s suffering body. “Hey, I thought, just for once can’t we drop the situation?” But she said nothing.) Williams worries that she left so many things unsaid, especially to her many Israeli and Palestinian friends, and particularly on the misery and injustice of the occupation that she observed every day at work and while getting to and from the hospital, where her colleagues and patients were all Palestinian.

She describes an emotional confusion that many decent people have experienced while trying to do something useful in the Middle East:

…There was watching Andrew come home each night having struggled all day to be professional. There was me coming home from work to pick up the children, leaving behind colleagues in a shrinking prison. There was going out in the evening to meet Israeli friends and being overwhelmed by how much I liked Israelis and Jerusalem and yet Israelis were the ones imprisoning my colleagues, and purposefully shrinking their world. And there was, at the same time, finding aspects of some Palestinians that were repellent: the brutal killing of collaborators, the rough justice meted out, the corruption, the treatment of women, the sickening so-called “honour” killings, the determination to see all the West as ranged against them. And then being appalled at my even contemplating the option of closing my eyes, shrinking down into the bubble, believing the myths, pretending it was somehow OK, or not happening, that we’d all get out of this, or that all’s fair in war—and that this was a war, as if the two sides were somehow matched.

Williams’s account of what the Israeli–Palestinian conflict means for ordinary people, how they react to it, and what they hope for may well be more useful in the long run than all the partisan rhetoric, the myths, the expressions of hatred, the blinding lust for revenge, and the easy recourse to extreme violence that have become so familiar.

The ultimate victims of the Israeli– Palestinian conflict are the large majority of people on both sides who want peace and a reasonably secure future to look forward to. Emma Williams’s affection and feeling for those people and her doctor’s dedication to healing has caused her to produce a moving and beautifully written book (which I hope will soon be published in the United States). It will certainly help outsiders to better understand both sides and their struggle. Is it too much to hope that it might even help Israelis and Palestinians to see each other in a less baleful light, as they must eventually do if they are to avoid a terminal calamity that they will inevitably have to share?

2.

Robert Fisk’s title, The Great War for Civilisation, was inscribed on the back of one of his father’s World War I medals. That war, his father’s part in it, and the Versailles Treaty which “created borders from Northern Ireland to Yugoslavia to the Middle East” and “formally ended the conflict and then spread its bloody effect across the Middle East” are constant points of reference in Fisk’s 1,100-page account of what he calls in his subtitle The Conquest of the Middle East. His extraordinarily readable book depicts a vast historical landscape. It includes the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, the dismantling, after World War I, of the Ottoman Empire and its consequences, the Iran–Iraq War, the 1915 Armenian massacre, the current Israel–Palestine conflict, Algeria and its terrible 1990s civil war, the 1991 Gulf War, the betrayal by the first Bush administration of the Kurdish and Shiite uprisings after that war, the arms trade, Bosnia, and the US invasion and the current violence in Iraq.

For all his erudition and his passion for the subject, Fisk is primarily a journalist, and his book, among many other things, is an important account of what a dedicated journalist actually does or tries to do, especially during wars. Fisk was originally inspired to become a journalist by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film Foreign Correspondent, which ends with the hero being referred to as “one of the soldiers of the press,… one of the little army of historians who are writing history from beside the cannon’s mouth….” (Taking up exactly that position beside some Iraqi-Soviet 155-mm guns in action during the Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s cost Fisk 25 percent of his hearing.)

Fisk started reporting from the Middle East for the London Times when he was twenty-nine years old. He lost respect for Rupert Murdoch’s Times during the Iran–Iraq War, when the United States actively supported Saddam Hussein. After the crew of the USS Vincennes panicked and shot down an Iranian Airbus with the loss of 290 civilian lives, the London editors of Fisk’s carefully researched story from the Gulf deleted every element that could be read as critical of the US. Fisk had seen some of the Iranian Airbus victims in the morgue at Bandar Abbas. The remains of a family on their way to a wedding in Dubai, the children in their finest party clothes, were particularly hard to bear. He felt that the editors’ cutting his story amounted to unethical censorship in order to conform to Murdoch’s political views. Nor did he find it acceptable “to risk one’s life for a paper, only to find that the courage necessary to report wars is not in evidence” among the paper’s editorial staff at home. He soon moved to the Independent where he has remained, and has recently been covering the war in Lebanon from Beirut.

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.

3.

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.’”

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    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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