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A footnote for the future

By Meron Benvenisti

Ha'aretz, December 13, 2001



There is a feeling that is familiar to anyone who reads accounts of history's catastrophes - profound sorrow and impotent rage at the myopia, arrogance, stupidity, cowardice, irrelevant considerations, and sloppy thinking that sets leaders on the path to disaster. A reader painfully pinches himself - the writing was on the wall, the signs were so clear and the results were so predictable that it is simply impossible to believe that the catastrophe was allowed to indeed happen. And so, with the wisdom of hindsight, the reader looks for explanations. Was there a flawed concept, a failure to lead, or a long- term social and cultural process?

There is a similar feeling of impending tragedy and impotent outrage over the events of the last two weeks that show how steep our slippery slope has become. The decline is not necessarily measured by the numbers of dead and wounded, the brutality of the closures and sieges, or assassinations planned and "accidental." No - it is measured by the uninhibited and shameless harnessing of the security forces to ideological chauvinist goals that have nothing to do with "security" and indeed sabotage it.

The rate of the slide is measured by how quickly people proud of their free thinking and moderation, are ready to join the chorus of propaganda, or even lead it. The efficiency of the military measures can be argued, the legal and normative restrictions of "the war on terror" can be suspended. But how can one explain the series of military actions whose only purpose was to humiliate the Palestinian collective, deny its legitimacy, and destroy its infrastructure?

Humiliating Palestinians at checkpoints is a serious matter, but might be excusable because of the need to crack down on the movement of terrorists. But humiliating, denouncing, and calling for the blood of the national leader, father of their nation and symbol of their nationhood, is another thing entirely. What pressing security need was there in the destruction of the chairman's helicopters - piles of junk already out of commission - if not the urgent urge to humiliate Yasser Arafat?

What was the purpose of bombing an empty building in Ramallah, other than knowing Arafat was nearby and someone could have the sadistic pleasure of making him hide under his desk? Why doesn't the choir of security experts abusing the Palestinian leader and calling for his "removal" also include those voices who know very well that his disappearance would create chaos that would make the current situation look almost like paradise?

Where are the intellectuals to warn against the primitive anthromorphology of distilling the conflict into nothing more than one man who has been turned into a hybrid of fearsome demon and a mockable scarecrow? What vital operational need was there in the barbaric break- in to the Palestinian Authority's Central Bureau of Statistics, stealing its data, if not the desire to deny the Palestinians the tools for independent social research? And where were their Israeli colleagues and academics who neither protested nor demanded an explanation that went beyond the ridiculous claim of "support for terrorist activity"?

The same claims were made about the Orient House takeover a few months ago and the PLO archive in Beirut 20 years ago. The excuses expose the ideological goal, not the security needs, of the Israeli government in recent weeks - defining the Palestinian national movement and its institutions as a terrorist movement and therefore an illegitimate collective.

That's the real meaning of Ariel Sharon's war on "the Oslo disaster" - it's not a war on the articles of the agreements. It is the very recognition of the PLO as the national movement of the Palestinian people that Sharon is still fighting.

He persuaded people who loathe violence to criticize Arafat's leadership, and to believe there is no partner, thus harnessing them to the "ideology" that in the Land of Israel there's only one legitimate collective, the Jewish people. The rest are a ragtag mass led by murdering gangsters.

Sharon hopes that getting rid of Arafat and destroying the PA will lead to general disintegration, that the regime will be captured by gangsters so he can say, I told you so. The Labor Party's cowardly ministers, the confused silence of the ideological opposition on the left, Arafat's own weak leadership, and the accumulation of anger, hatred, and desire for revenge, could lead to Sharon's ideology coming true, bringing down disaster on the heads of everyone here.

The involved observer can only pinch himself until it hurts, but the sorrow and impotent anger aren't being felt in retrospect, so they are unbearable. There's nothing left to do but express those feelings in real time. At least, when the historian one day writes the chronicles of the disaster, he'll be able to add a footnote in which are quoted the lamentations of the prophets of doom about the path to disaster.


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