18 May 2011

Dead where it doesn’t count

Protesters climbing back up the summit from the border

The Human Province | By sean | 16.05.2011

Yesterday, I spent the day at Maroun al-Ras on the Lebanese border with Israel. Before I get to some of the reactions I’ve read about the event and some of the questions raised by it, I’d like to discuss the event itself.

Yesterday, Palestinians around the world commemorated the Nakba, which is the catastrophe of the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians upon the creation of Israel. I left from the Mar Elias camp in Beirut in a bus that had been rented by a young Palestinian activist who teaches physical education in a Palestinian camp. The passengers were Palestinians with a mixture of Lebanese, Bahraini and European companions. Everyone pitched in for the bus, and despite some organizational troubles, we set off on Sunday morning for the border.

Climbing up to Maroun al-Ras from Bint Jbeil

When we arrived, a bit late due to our late start, the roads had been closed, so we, along with all of the buses arriving with ours, had to stop at Bint Jbeil. We got out and walked up several kilometers of hills to get to Maroun al-Ras. There was a steady stream of people, mostly Palestinian, retracing in reverse the route that Palestinians had taken in 1948. There were old men and women, young children and whole families helping each other up the slippery slope to the peak of the hill through thorns and weeds, beating a path up to the border. At one point, I slowed down to help an old man who, with his family, had been forced to leave his village in Galilee when he was 12 years old. He was an old man now, helping his elderly wife climb upwards to steal a glimpse of their lost home.

At some places, old women would sit to rest before getting back up and resuming the journey. According to my map of Lebanon, the mostly uphill walk was about 6 or 7 kilometers to the summit overlooking the valley border. When we arrived at the top, the first thing we saw was a young man, probably about 16 or 17 years old, being rushed out on a stretcher. He wasn’t moving, and it seems that he was among the 10 killed yesterday.

Climbing up to Maroun al-Ras

At Maroun al-Ras, there is a summit overlooking a valley where the border lies. The Lebanese Army had set up a line to try to stop protesters from going all the way to the border fence, but many had slipped through and continued to do so bit by bit, forming two separate masses of people with the majority of the protesters looking on from the summit or settling in somewhere on the descent’s rocks and grass. At the crowded summit decorated with ubiquitous Palestinian flags, there were chairs, food stands, an ice cream truck and even a section for lost children. All in all, the top looked like a lively state fair with a political message: the people want to return to Palestine. This message, mirroring the chants in Tahrir Square and Tunis and translated into Hebrew as well, was printed on a giant banner at the top of the summit facing the border.

At the top of Maroun al-Ras

When we arrived, the youths, or shabaab, had already made it to the fence. Some were waving Palestinian flags, while others were throwing rocks over the fence. It should be noted here that the other side of the fence was empty except for a line of trees behind which the Israeli soldiers were stationed. The youths chanted their slogans, waved their flags and threw their stones. In response, the Israeli soldiers would periodically open fire. At no point were the Lebanese youth on the Israeli side of the fence. It’s unclear to me what kind of ammunition the Israelis were firing, but the high death toll (reported at ten so far) leads me to believe that at least some of it was live ammunition, although rubber bullets have also been known to be fatal.

In the end, more Lebanese soldiers were called in, and by firing in the air managed to push the crowd back from the fence. On the long walk back, we saw the same mixture of families, elderly folks and groups of teenagers coming back, only this time, some of the teenage boys had blood on their clothes from helping others who’d been wounded or killed by Israeli fire.

In a nutshell, protesters amassed at the border armed with flags, slogans and rocks from the ground, and Israel responded by opening fire and killing nearly a dozen youths.

When I finally returned home to Beirut last night after a night ride along the border by the Gates of Fatima and the old crusader castle, Beaufort, I was disappointed to see the news that others had died in Syria and Gaza during similar protests. I was also really disappointed in the responses that I saw on twitter and online from American commentators.

One post that really rankled me was from my friend Andrew Exum:

The Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Palestinians and Israeli peoples are all getting played right now. If you’re a Palestinian marking the Nakba on the border with Israel right now, that’s all fine and well, but you should be aware of those actors for whom this distraction is most welcome and who have every interest in using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and your own suffering for their own cynical purposes right now.

This sentiment has also been voiced by the Israeli government, which has claimed that this has all been drummed up by Iran and Syria in order to move attention away from Syria’s brutal crackdown of domestic protests. There is no concrete evidence for this, of course, except what Andrew calls the one rule he follows for Levantine politics: “just be cynical about the motives and actions of everyone, and you will never go wrong.”

Without even getting into the fact that Levantine politicians hardly have a monopoly on cynical motives, this strikes me as more than a little hypocritical. That Arab states have capitalized on the Palestinian issue for domestic point-scoring is a truism, but that doesn’t make the issue any less salient for Arabs across the region, and to imply that such non-violent protests are just tools for Damascus, as opposed to genuine reflections of public feeling, is problematic for several reasons. Likewise, for the idea that protesters are “getting played.”

The valley and border

First, it mirrors the sclerotic official discourse seen in Cairo, Tunis, Damascus, Sana’a and Tripoli during the Arab Spring: “these protesters are either foreign provocateurs or are just being naively used by America and Israel to undermine Arab governments and take attention away from the occupations of Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan.” This, of course, is roundly and immediately dismissed as “conspiracy theory” by Western analysts, despite (for example) clear evidence that the US has been funding Syrian opposition groups. Does Andrew think this means that the Syrian protesters, whose brutal killings the Nakba protests were meant to distract media attention from, are just stooges of the CIA and US State Department? Of course not, but this is the exact same logic at play, ironically being voiced simultaneously by Damascus and Tel Aviv.

Second, while Damascus, Hamas, Hezbollah, etc. may be happy to see such a successful turnout this year, they were far from the prime movers in the Lebanese protest. (I don’t know what happened at other protests, so I’ll limit my comments to the protest at Maroun al-Ras.) Every year, Hezbollah sponsors a protest at the border on Nakba Day, and maybe a thousand people show up to wave flags, chant some slogans and then leave.

This year was different. Hezbollah still supported the event, offering emergency paramedics, setting up a water buffalo and lawn chairs and even giving arriving buses boxes of snacks and juice boxes. But the independent actors, like the Palestinian activist who organized our bus, played a much larger role. An independent artists’ collective made up posters (much like they had done back in November last year, way before anyone thought there’d be protests in Syria, for a meeting of the Right of Return Coalition). Sparked on by the Arab Spring, Palestinian NGOs and collectives helped spread the word and organize the event. From what I can tell, political parties (Fatah, Hamas and Hezbollah) played a much smaller role than did grassroots associations from Palestinian and Lebanese civil society. One marker of this was the lack of political flags. With a couple of exceptions, the only flag being waved was the Palestinian one.

And finally, even if the event had been completely engineered by political parties, what would that prove? Isn’t the problem with these parties in the west that they are involved in armed resistance instead of non-violent protest?

Next comes Andrew’s defense of Israeli actions:

What were they supposed to do in the face of a breach of the border? And what did the protesters think would happen? (I know what Syria and some particularly cynical actors in Gaza and Lebanon probably hoped would happen: exactly what did happen.) But you can’t really fault a military for protecting the territorial integrity of its state by force.

I can honestly say that I didn’t hear anyone hoping that people would be hurt or killed. What I saw was families worried for their young sons and brothers but proud of their courage to stand unarmed against the most powerful military in the region to proclaim their right of return. Otherwise, this very same question (“what did they think would happen?”) could have been asked to young blacks lining up to not be served in Greensboro diners or that little girl going to the desegregated school in Little Rock. What did they expect would happen after such a provocation?

As for the protection of “territorial integrity,” there were no breaches of the border in Maroun al-Ras. There were kids throwing rocks over a fence at a tree line. This was a symbolic act, one born of a lifetime of dispossession and frustration. If shooting these kids dead is the appropriate act, then I suppose Edward Said should have also been shot dead back in 2000. Had the Israeli soldiers done nothing, the protesters would have likely chanted slogans, waved flags, tossed rocks and then gone home.

This brings me to a twitter conversation with a friendly online acquaintance, Blake Hounshell, who was discussing the violence of stone throwing and suggested that Palestinians ought to “read Gandhi” to get a better reception in the US.

First of all, there is the embarrassing fact that Palestinian non-violent resistance not only exists, but is commonplace. Every Friday for years now, non-violent protesters have organized protests against the Israeli separation wall that was deemed illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court. Has that helped their standing in the US? Several protesters have been killed by the IDF, and the Bil’in organizer, Abdallah Abu Rahmah, was thrown in prison. While I’m sure Blake has heard of Abu Rahmah, how many American pundits who’d like to lecture on Palestinians on non-violence have?

And does non-violence make much of a difference when it comes to American public opinion, or more importantly, official policy making? What happened when a US citizen and 8 Turks were executed on board the Gaza flotilla? A letter was sent by 87 US Senators supporting Israel’s “right to self-defense.” Violent or non-violent resistance, in the US, the game is clearly rigged when it comes to Israel and Palestine.

Finally, yesterday’s actions (and I include all of the protests here) were a far cry from the armed rebellion in Libya, which the US is currently supporting diplomatically and through military force. The protests were also a far cry from the events in Suez, when Egyptian protesters confronted the security forces, burning vehicles and generally fighting back. My point here is not to condemn the Libyans or Egyptians (whose revolutions I support, along with those in Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria), but to point out the double standard being applied. So armed resistance is acceptable in Benghazi and Misurata, but throwing rocks at Maroun al-Ras (or the West Bank) is somehow beyond the pale?

The fact of the matter is that all the hand wringing that’s going on about the shooting of unarmed Palestinian protesters would look a lot different had those protests been in Tripoli, Aleppo or Cairo, or had they been shot by anyone other than the IDF (the most moral military in the world, I’m told). But instead, like a ghetto murder in the Wire, these Palestinians are dead where it doesn’t count.

UPDATE: My friend George has much better pictures than I took. Check them out here.

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