THE TALE OF THE MUDDLE EAST
The Utter Righteousness of the Powerful ‘Victims’ Haunts Holy Lands
S P Singh
Punjabis on both sides of the Wagah border have a lesson for those engaged in the Middle East, and I will come to it in a short while as a post-script to this piece.
I was a sophomore when India's state-controlled TV channel Doordarshan started telecast of Bhisham Sahni's Tamas. There was a widespread national furor. Tamas divided the families along age lines, and the young ones turned towards their parents askance: “Did you too do this?” Hurt parents, new to the feeling of being questioned by their own offspring, had a readymade defense: “We were the victims. They were killing us, or would have.”
The righteousness of the weak has been an argument for inflicting untold misery upon the enemy; so no matter how strong you are, it helps if you rush to occupy the slot of righteousness of the weak. Israel now has dual righteousness. It has the ownership on both the righteousness of being victims and on the total powerfulness.
Naturally, the Palestinians have been left with no choice but to do the same. And we must remember what happens in such a situation. When both sides take ownership on both righteousness and powerfulness, there is no space left for compassion.
Over a span of three centuries, the Sikhs repeatedly suffered cruelty at the hands of their Muslim tormentors. But come 1947 Partition, and they resorted to exactly the same tactics towards a perceived enemy – the innocent Muslim neighbor. The feeling of course was reciprocated. The disciples failed the masters repeatedly throughout the ages. The Sikhs were no different in letting down their Gurus. Elderly Sikhs I meet have a defense: “We were the victims.”
This primary sense of victim hood is based on righteousness of the weak. If someone tries to kill you, kill him first. Victim hood is now almost second nature to Israelis. It gives a feeling of togetherness and authorizes the Israeli government in the name of the Israeli people to shoot at the enemy, including their civilians, as they shoot at Israeli civilians; as in war, like in war.
Entire consciousness of most Israelis now revolves around this righteousness of the victim. An average Israeli is much less aware of the negative effects of such power on the others who suffer from his country’s powerful acts.
See it this way.
Once a people see them as victims – no matter how powerful they are, just as Israelis – they have an advantage over the perpetrators. They do not have to take responsibility for their own actions, as these are only a reaction to the evil acts of the others.
Israeli needs to be reminded in these harsh days of bombs and fighting in Gaza and Lebanon, that it was the power-oriented behavior in Lebanon and in the occupied territories that contributed to the creation of both Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Hamas in the territories.
Besides, Israelis are making one more mistake. They are, at least for the benefit of their own people, putting all their enemies in one basket at a time when it was all the more crucial to draw a clear line differentiating the Hezbollah and the Hamas.
Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, acting violently against Israel in the face of international law, and also endangering the Lebanese government and people. But the Hamas government is an elected regime, elected via a democratic balloting by the Palestinian people. Also, Hamas itself is undergoing a bitter inner struggle. On one side, pressured by the Europeans, and delegates from Egypt and Jordan, is the moderate part of the Hamas, led by Ismail Haniya, and on the other is the military part, led by Haled Mashal.
Israel is refusing to talk to Hamas. It is thus the only people in the world, engaged in an intractable conflict with another people, who refuse to realize that only and only dialogue can lead to a compromise.
And is there a child in the Israeli or Palestinian territory who does not know or understand the basic contours of such a compromise? Return to the borders of 1967 (of course with slight changes), two states with their capitals in Jerusalem, and a systematic step-wise solution to the resettlement of the Palestinian refugees, including Israel’s recognition of its share in the creation of the intractable issue.
They agreed upon this formula in Taba in 2001.
(Here is an excerpt from the joint Israeli-Palestine statement of January 2001: “The Taba talks conclude an extensive phase in the Israeli-Palestinian permanent status negotiations with a sense of having succeeded in rebuilding trust between the sides and with the notion that they were never closer in reaching an agreement between them than today.
This was the compromise suggested by the Arab League in 2002.
This was the basis for the prisoners’ document.
By reaching a compromise, the Palestinians will be pulled out from the threatening balance of power in the region, as they are not an essential part of that balance but rather suffer from it just like the Israelis.
In Israeli media, the dominant phrase is “restore our deterrent”. It is a battle cry of the hawks. Unfortunately, neither the Hezbollah nor the Hamas are deterred by such actions; and thus the actions damage the deterrent further.
Also (and this is important) actions that may be “justifiable” may not necessarily be wise.
Israel is getting bogged down in a two front low intensity conflict. The world is now engaged by the daily rocket attacks, destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure, scenes of warships docking to accommodate evacuees, and decoding of Bush-Rice-Blair speak about how to delay a ceasefire.
But those in search of a permanent solution have to look far ahead.
Be clear on this point. Once the military operations are over in the north and the south, Israel will be faced with a Palestinian government that will be ready to enter negotiations with the Israeli government based on exactly the kind of compromise I have outlined above.
But by then, there will be a new question hanging: Will there be, then, an Israeli government capable of entering such a process of negotiations?
Israel moved out of Lebanon and Gaza, thus retrieving an internal consensus of righteousness. The long occupation of lands of the other people was a national discomfort. Israel was perhaps trying to be more comfortable by applying similar treatment to the West Bank too.
But in this search for comfort of the heart, preparing it for a battle of the mind, Israel forgot an important part. There were others in the region with similar problems – with of course the feelings of righteousness and powerfulness, and of being wronged historically at Israeli hands.
The Qassam missiles on Sderot and Ashkelon were unpleasant reminder of this other people. Whoever does not want to talk with them will get missiles and abducted soldiers. Because they too have the dual pedestal of victim hood and righteousness pinned to their chests.
So what must Israel do? Here is our recommendation. Do not get bogged down by Hezbollah. And do not disengage from the roadmap. Start talking to the Palestinians on the painful compromise (Yes, it IS painful, but to BOTH sides). It is a solution both Israel and Palestine need so badly.
A compromise is not based on either absolute righteousness or absolute powerfulness. It is based on compassion: Compassion for the people who suffer, who were killed, compassion for their family members, and compassion for a public that is tired of just and successful wars.
Just because a war is just, it is not successful. Just because a war is successful, it is not just. Just because it can be both is no reason that it must be fought. Compassion is a bigger end game. Act in ways such that a mere TV serial should not enable the younger generations to embarrass you. Ask those of us in India and Pakistan who have shed each others blood merely to cross lines drawn on a map.
July 25, 2006
P.S. By the Grace of the Gurus, the Sikhs did not start talking about fighting for their holy land – the holiest of the holy places, Nankana Sahib. So what happened? The local Muslim residents, who could have demolished Nankana down to the last brick since there was not a single Sikh for years, did not allow even a brick to be removed. Such is preserved a shared heritage, and such is heritage shared. May be the Middle East can learn from the sub-continent!
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