Published on Thursday, October 26, 2000 in The Irish Times
Palestinians Haunt The International Conscience
by Deaglán de Bréadún
In Zionist theory, Israel was "a land without a people for a people without a land". Contemporary accounts of the declaration of statehood in 1948 record the great emotion that was in the air because the Jews, for so long persecuted and marginalised all over the world, now had a country of their own.
Strange though it may sound to modern ears, the recognition of Israel by the US came as a surprise at the time and people in the coffee shops of Tel Aviv ran out "into the blackness of the night" to express their joy.
But unfortunately Palestine was not "a land without a people" and the foundation of Israel tragically involved the displacement of many residents who were scattered to the four corners of the Arab world. The Palestinians now haunt the conscience of the international community just as the Jews did a few short years before.
The understandable jubilation that the Jews felt, especially having lost six million of their brothers and sisters in the Holocaust, was not shared by Ibrahim Abu Lughod, a leading Palestinian intellectual, who was then a young man in Jaffa.
Speaking to me at his office near Ramallah, on the West Bank, he recalls how in 1948 the Irgun, a Zionist guerrilla group, set off a car-bomb, causing many deaths. "That really frightened people. It was in the middle of the city." It contributed to what he calls an "exodus", an ironic echo of the famous Leon Uris book of that name about the influx of Jews into the fledgling state of Israel.
The massacre of 245 Arabs at Deir Yassin, which he describes as a "friendly village", which was not militant or strongly nationalist, "caused a tremendous panic". It was a "decisive event" for Palestinians. He stayed to help the resistance but when this proved futile he joined his family in exile.
"I discovered in December 1948 that we would not go back," he recalls. Since then he has spent many years in the US, especially Chicago, where he became a successful academic, but he has never abandoned the Palestinian cause and is now engaged in a project to establish a museum for his people.
Naturally he has strong sympathy with the youngsters throwing stones and risking their lives in unequal combat with Israeli soldiers carrying guns. He sees them as young nationalists driven to these desperate actions by the constant humiliation and repression they suffer at the hands of the Israelis.
He denies that they are religious zealots, although he allows that there could be a "religious consolation" from the belief that "when you are killed in battle you are not actually dead" but join your former comrades in eternity.
Unlike some other Palestinian thinkers, he believes the current intifada, or uprising, is carefully planned: "The Palestinian people are mobilised: they are engaged in a struggle against Israel."
A different view is taken by an Israeli thinker, author and human rights activist, Prof Israel Shahak. About the same age as Dr Abu Lughud, he now lives in Jerusalem but carries the memories of Belsen concentration camp, where he was incarcerated as a boy. He was released at the end of the war, when he was 13.
He shares the analysis of leading figures on both sides of the conflict that the second intifada will last a considerable time. He sees it coming to a slow and agonising end because of the sufferings of the Palestinians. He believes the Palestinians will lose this round because Israel is strategically better placed to inflict defeat than it was during the intifada of 1987-93. Instead of taking on the Palestinians street by street, the Israelis have a policy of "conquest from outside", containment rather than confrontation. Instead of sending troops into the camps, they set up roadblocks outside to control access, with a consequent saving of manpower.
The ruthlessness of the Israeli response to the demonstrations has made headlines internationally and television pictures of young Palestinians shot by soldiers have shocked viewers around the world. As a former inmate of Belsen, Prof Shahak has an intimate knowledge of man's inhumanity to man but he believes world public opinion will cut no ice with the Israelis: "They have the US on their side. They can disregard public opinion."
Prof Shahak disputes Dr Abu Lughud's analysis of the young militants and believes that this intifada has a strong religious dimension. For that reason, he continues, Israeli public opinion is much more unified this time. Recalling the spirit of the Six Day War, he says there is now a "mood of 67" in Israel and people are saying, "We have to be united because we are threatened by Muslims."
The foundation of Israel tragically involved the displacement of many residents who were scattered to the four corners of the Arab world.
© 2000 ireland.com