Following the passing of Shimon Peres—who died early Wednesday morning at the age of 93 after a recent stroke—much of the global mainstream press responded with adulation and mourning. At the same time, however, informed critics took the news as an opportunity to remind the world of the troubling and oppressive legacy of the former Israeli prime minister.
Robert Fisk, longtime Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent, wrote in his column Wednesday: "When the world heard that Shimon Peres had died, it shouted 'Peacemaker!' But when I heard that Peres was dead, I thought of blood and fire and slaughter."
"This was a man who from the very beginning [of his political career] was a war criminal. This was somebody who believed in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine."
—Diana Buttu, former Palestinian negotiator
Though Peres shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his role in brokering the Oslo peace accords, Fisk and others dispute the idea he should be upheld in such regard.
In the wake of his death, as Ma'an News Agency reports:
[Critics of Peres] were quick to point out that Peres joined the Haganah paramilitary group after he and his family moved from Belarus to British Mandate of Palestine in 1930. The Haganah was one of the principal forces behind the Nakba, or catastrophe—that left around 750,000 Palestinians as refugees abroad and wiped out some 500 Palestinian villages.
He also played a key role in the establishment of the first illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank through vast land confiscations of privately-owned Palestinian land, and became a fierce defender of the Israeli military’s multiple assaults and continued blockade on the Gaza Strip. During his tenure as prime minister in 1996, Peres also ordered and oversaw the Qana massacre in Lebanon in which the Israeli military killed and injured hundreds of civilians and UN peacekeepers.
"His image as a man of peace and his image as a man who went from a 'hawk' to a 'dove' betrays a fundamental blind spot with regards to the experience of the Palestinians and others in the region under Israeli colonialism and the policies of displacement, exile, and occupation that Shimon Peres and others were instrumental in implementing."
—Ben White, journalistIn his column, Fisk says he remembers the Qana massacre—and the role Prime Minister Peres played in executing and defending it—quite well. A Palestinian refugee facility run by the United Nations inside Lebanon, Qana was shelled mercilessly by the Israeli military following claims of nearby rocket fire. An estimated 106 civilians were killed and more than 100 others wounded in the attack. After defending the attack and then losing a subsequent re-election bid, Fisk assumes that Peres "probably never thought much more about Qana," but admitted that as a journalist on the ground, he "never forgot" what he saw when he entered the compound:
When I reached the UN gates, blood was pouring through them in torrents. I could smell it. It washed over our shoes and stuck to them like glue. There were legs and arms, babies without heads, old men’s heads without bodies. A man’s body was hanging in two pieces in a burning tree. What was left of him was on fire.
On the steps of the barracks, a girl sat holding a man with grey hair, her arm round his shoulder, rocking the corpse back and forth in her arms. His eyes were staring at her. She was keening and weeping and crying, over and over: “My father, my father.” If she is still alive – and there was to be another Qana massacre in the years to come, this time from the Israeli air force – I doubt if the word “peacemaker” will be crossing her lips.
Speaking on Al-Jazeera English, former Palestinian peace negotiator Diana Buttu said Peres should "absolutely not" be remembered as a man of peace. "This was a man who from the very beginning [of his political career] was a war criminal. This was somebody who believed in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and was somebody—when he was in a position of power—made sure that Palestinian land—land that was occupied, not captured—was then turned over and made into Jewish-Israeli settlements, which are war crimes under international law."
Separately on Al-Jazeera, Ben White, a journalist who has written several books on Israel/Palestine, also discussed the dark and troubling legacy of Peres' leadership as he questioned the dominant media and historical narrative emerging in the wake of his death.
"His image as a man of peace and his image as a man who went from a 'hawk' to a 'dove' betrays a fundamental blind spot with regards to the experience of the Palestinians and others in the region under Israeli colonialism and the policies of displacement, exile, and occupation that Shimon Peres and others were instrumental in implementing," White explained. "Those policies have been omitted and dismissed from the historical record today and on other occasions as well when other Israeli figures have passed away."
Yehia Ghanem, an Egyptian journalist and international war correspondent, said it's no surprise that Peres is receiving praise despite his deplorable record when it comes to human rights and the oppression of the Palestinian people.
Those people who "are praising him," said Ghanem, are the same people who have "supported Israel and all of its crimes throughout its history."
And while Fisk predicted the word "peace" will be used numerously in the various obituaries and tributes written in the next few days, he asked his readers to pay attention and also "count how many times the word Qana appears."