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Sunday, September 9, 2012

In the sacred memory of Rachel Corrie

Ruminating how and why the world remains as apathetic to plight of Palestinians as ever nearly a decade after Corrie's death

"All of the situation that I tried to enumerate above - and a lot of other things - constitutes a somewhat gradual - often hidden, but nevertheless massive - removal and destruction of the ability of a particular group of people to survive. This is what I am seeing here. The assassinations, rocket attacks and shooting of children are atrocities - but in focusing on them I'm terrified of missing their context. The vast majority of people here - even if they had the economic means to escape, even if they actually wanted to give up resisting on their land and just leave (which appears to be maybe the less nefarious of Sharon's possible goals), can't leave. Because they can't even get into Israel to apply for visas, and because their destination countries won't let them in (both our country and Arab countries). So I think when all means of survival is cut off in a pen (Gaza) which people can't get out of, I think that qualifies as genocide. Even if they could get out, I think it would still qualify as genocide. Maybe you could look up the definition of genocide according to international law. I don't remember it right now. I'm going to get better at illustrating this, hopefully. I don't like to use those charged words. I think you know this about me. I really value words. I really try to illustrate and let people draw their own conclusions."

This is how Rachel Corrie describes her predicament after a short but eventful stay at Gaza strip in an email to her mother sent on Feb 27, 2003. That was 17 days before her death in a blatant act of aggression by Israeli forces on a rampage of demolition. The world has seen many things since. Babies have been born and elderly people have died. More significantly, large number of children, teenagers and youth have also died the unnatural death. Most of them have lost their lives in violence of one kind or the other. Even more people have been languishing their lives in extremely miserable conditions, sometimes even worse than death itself. 

While violence in mass scale is not the monopoly of West Asia, it definitely epitomizes the phenomenon of sustained and systemic violence dictated by indulgent powers rendering the rest of the world the hapless witness of the butchery. This is indeed one thing that helps explain why so many violent periods were thrust upon the human history despite the fact that the ordinary men and women always detested the suffering that accompanied them. While innumerable conflicts, many of them major, rage throughout the world, the mass killing and displacement of the Palestinians is perhaps one of very few instances where a narrative of rectifying a historical injustice to one population with criminal injustice to another in the present is successfully sold to a large number of people. 

When I first read about the death of Corrie, an American student, fighting for the Palestinian cause I was a teenager and I was suddenly filled with an enormous sense of guilt. What Corrie did was perfectly understandable and reasonable under the circumstances. The realization that I was among the billions of mute spectators of one of the worst injustices in history made me restless. Then, I had not even been to Kathmandu, the capital, and knew very little about the machinations of the international power game. With time, that sense of guilt evolved into a sense of frustration and helplessness and as I entered the youth, I came to adjust to that reality in a way that is 'normal' to most of us. Regardless of what I wrote, said, shouted or objected in any other way, the world would proceed as usual; I would be the sole audience of what I had to say or express. Mentioning name of Corrie to friends would draw blank expressions and writing about her was also unlikely to get any reader other than myself. This was how the news of Corrie's life and death impacted my teenage and early youth days. 

After almost a decade now, reading emails sent by Corrie, an altogether different sense prevails in me. Over the period, I have learned that a fight for a just cause is never unworthy just because the prospects of success are slim or even nil. I have also learned that there is a very complicated set of real and perceived injustices carried about by groups of people defined by religion, race, region, caste and a host of other creeds, many of which intersect with one another so that it is next to impossible to formulate a universal protocol that defines and characterizes the injustices and their perpetrators.

So why does the plight of the Palestinians draw attention, sympathy and solidarity of people from across the world unlike many other instances of injustice? To me the explanation seems to be the fundamental difference in the nature of the power behind the crimes being committed in Palestine and elsewhere. In most of the worst spells of violence and genocide in history, the perpetrator has been a dictator of one kind or the other. By its very nature, dictatorship thrives around the persona of an all powerful leader who is nonetheless a mortal being. Death of such dictators has thus usually resulted in gradual if not sudden process of decline in the magnitude of such crimes. In case of religious violence also, an extremist group of irrational people in certain religion, often led by a petty demagogue, succeeds to incite a cycle of violence and counter-violence but eventually the rational people in either religion prevail and the extremists are sidelined bringing the violence in check. 

But the nature of the power behind the butchery in West Asia is altogether different. Israel is a vibrant democracy and so is United States that was the principal actor behind creation of Israel and practically backs each of Israel's deeds irrespective of the scrupulousness of the same. The European states and other allies of US are also mostly democracies. The combined power of US and allies in the contemporary world is overwhelming and that is unlikely to change in near future. Nor are their policies towards Israel likely to change. The dynamic nature of these powers makes them far more resilient and durable than any power in history that has perpetrated crimes of such a scale in any pretext.

To make the matters worse, the ideological siblings of the Palestinians, the Muslims in the Arab world are also forced into being the mere spectators of the carnage as their rulers have bartered the interest of the region to their own legitimacy in the eyes of the western masters. The Gulf monarchies are content at the lip service to the Palestinian cause that is compatible with their clandestine collaboration with the western powers in a process of giving away the valuable resources in exchange for the support to the brutal and autocratic ways of governance. The process of eviction and slow, programed killing of the Palestinians is thus an inevitable process with little realistic possibility of any change in the order of things in foreseeable future.

This, I think, largely explains why the Palestinian struggle for justice is different from many others. The formidable power of the perpetrators of the crimes means that the realistic possibility of any non-state movement forcibly upsetting them is next to nil (even though it is an altogether different matter that the paradigm shift in foreign policy of the changed governments in neighbor states like Egypt has a solid possibility of upsetting the Israel's cart). This is where the role of symbolic acts of resistance comes to keep the spirit of resistance intact and resilient. Corrie's attempt to prevent the bulldozer from leveling a hut of a young Palestinian family on that fateful days was a typically symbolic act which was so intolerable for the Israeli occupation drive that they ended up killing her even though now they say it was an 'accident' with same degree of hypocrisy as in every other similar case.

Corrie is now gone for more than nine years and the fortune of the Palestinians has changed little since. Israeli state is as aggressive and belligerent as ever. The wave of revolts that swept the region over the past two years, while having changed the lives of millions of people in the neighborhood, has failed to bring about any meaningful change to the plight of Palestinians so far, except for the possible and most likely unfortunate rapprochement between the Palestinian resistance group Hamas and the Gulf allies of US and Israel. Even though the situation is still fluid and final outcome yet to come, the collaboration between the western powers and their Gulf allies has meanwhile reached higher levels over the same period.

The eagerness of the people at executive posts of powerful states apart, how could a large majority of people in US, Europe and Israel itself condone or even approve the state terror of Israel in Palestine? To explain this collective psyche of the people who think that butchering of Palestinians is justified because the Jews were persecuted in the past and were the victims of the holocaust or just because some of the Palestinians have resorted to the desperate acts of terrorizing Israelis with rockets and bombs, a time tested pattern of perpetual communal violence can be useful. Some time and somewhere, a number of people from certain community get killed by assailants from another community. Instantly or after a time period, the news reaches the place where the community of the victims is organized and powerful. Rather than pursuing the assailants responsible for the crime, the latter choose the convenient method of burning and beheading anyone who happens to have been born in the community of the assailants. This way as the violence spirals, each side seeks to square the outcome by killing more and more people from the other side while the question of who incited the violence to start with disappears altogether. The deeds of assaulting and killing people morph from a crime in the ordinary sense to some sacred act exacting revenge and thus providing justice to one's community.

 The modification in Israeli case is that the vulnerable Arab people, with not even a distant connection to the major persecutors of Jews in the history, have been made the surrogate enemies of the Jews who were encouraged to converge in Israel from different parts of the world particularly after the world war II. The other difference from most of instances of communal violence is that the conflicting sides here have such a huge discrepancy in terms of power that one can afford to keep killing the people from other side at will with no meaningful prospects of matching retaliation. 

Just like the extremists in any religion, the Zionist movement has been successful in convincing a large number of people in Israel and west that the basic human senses of pain and pleasure can also be classified according to the strict religious and racial compartmentalization; that a Muslim family losing a family member feels less sorrow ( or no sorrow at all, as the narrative goes, as those are terrorist people by birth) than the Jewish family having suffered the same or that the death of an American soldier is equivalent to death of few hundred poor Afghans. This is also the ages old fallacy by which the perpetrators of heinous crimes in communal violence across the world justify their deeds. 

The moment the west ends its rhetoric about the universal applicability of the values like human rights and freedom of many kinds and starts practicing them, Israel would be reduced to a Lilliput in West Asia because the whole Israeli project is based on the negation of those values in favor of a ridiculously racial world perspective. But this is a highly unlikely thing given the very nature of the western powers that consciously make the selective use of the supposedly universal values to advance their own interests. This is indeed why the US-mediated negotiation between the Israel and Palestine have ended in utter failure.

To conclude this article, I'll allude two paragraphs from David Stannard's book 'The American Holocaust' that vividly illustrates the way in which the Europeans behaved with the native 'Indians' in the new continent to make way for the foundation of the great United States of America. This will help one understand why the rulers and a large section of population of US and Europe take side of Israel contrary to their avowed principles of respecting people's right to live peacefully. This will also shed light on what exactly is the practical meaning of the repeated statements of the US leaders and presidents that they would do anything to fulfill the dream of their founding fathers.

"The massacres continued. Columbus remained ill for months while his soldiers wandered freely. More than 50,000 natives were reported dead from these encounters by the time the Admiral had recovered from his sickness. And when at last his health and strength had been restored Columbus's response to his men's unorganized depredations was to organize them. In March of 1495 he massed together several hundred armored troops, cavalry, and a score or more of trained attack dogs. They set forth across the countryside, tearing into assembled masses of sick and unarmed native people, slaughtering them by the thousands. The pattern set by these raids would be the model the Spanish would follow for the next decade and beyond. As Bartolome de Las Casas, the most famous of the accompanying Spanish missionaries from that trip recalled:

Once the Indians were in the woods, the next step was to form squadrons and pursue them, and whenever the Spaniards found them, they pitilessly slaughtered everyone like sheep in a corral. It was a general rule among Spaniards to be cruel; not just cruel, but extraordinarily cruel so that harsh and bitter treatment would prevent Indians from daring to think of themselves as human beings or having a minute to think at all. So they would cut an Indian's hands and leave them dangling by a shred of skin and they would send him on saying "Go now, spread the news to your chiefs." They would test their swords and their manly strength on captured Indians and place bets on the slicing off of heads or the cutting of bodies in half with one blow. They burned or hanged captured chiefs."

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