Are we all Palestinians now?
Many in the West are suddenly interested in Palestine - for all the wrong reasons.
Dressed in army fatigues, members of the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) Islamic Society shouted abuse at the long line of people waiting to get into their meeting on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, ‘A New Hitler for a New Age? The Rise of Israeli Terror’.
‘Can you see what this says?’, harangued one, gesturing at a sign over the door that read ‘Palestinian checkpoint: you are now entering a secure Israeli area’. ‘Get in a straight line. Those who aren’t in line, push in!’, screamed another (to instil a sense of unfairness, for the English love their queues). They were Israelis; we were Palestinians.
When the audience finally began to shuffle through the ‘checkpoint’ 45 minutes later, the ‘Israelis’ searched all the men and interrogated the women. The woman behind me couldn’t produce her ‘papers’, so was taken aside - ‘What have you got in your bag?’ ‘Books.’ ‘What kind of books?’ On the wall of the lecture hall were quotes from Israelis: ‘We have to kill all the Palestinians unless they are resigned to live here as slaves.’
The head of the SOAS Islamic Society explained that the aim was to give a ‘very small representation’ of suffering in the Middle East, ‘for you to empathise with what it is like to be a Palestinian in the Occupied Territories’.
There is a growing movement in the UK and the USA empathising with the Palestinians. ‘We are all Palestinian’, read banners on a 75,000-strong demonstration in Washington DC (1).
Part of this reflects a natural sympathy with a group of people in dire straits. Trapped in squalid refugee camps, living under a constant state of siege, the Palestinians seem to have nothing - little means to control their lives, and few means of fulfilment.
There is also an idealistic impulse among some supporters - a couple of the students I spoke to at the SOAS Islamic Society meeting talked admiringly about the Palestinians as freedom fighters.
But there is a new, more disturbing sentiment behind this growing support for the Palestinians in Western nations: an identification with the Palestinian state of being oppressed and under siege. The roots of this empathy lie less in events in the West Bank than in the sense of powerlessness gaining hold in societies like the UK and the USA.
The anti-globalisation movement is a recent convert to the Palestinian cause. The anti-capitalist activist French farmer Jose Bove has made high-profile visits to the West Bank to confront Israeli troops. Hundreds of Westerners, many of them sympathisers with the anti-globalisation movement, are going to Palestine to stage ‘direct action’ in support of the Palestinians - keeping checkpoints to Palestinian areas open, or acting as ‘human shields’ to protect Palestinians under siege. Arms activist Angie Zelter told me that about 400 international activists - from Britain, America, Italy and France - were in the region during her last visit. Others have launched campaigns to boycott Israeli goods.
There is also a growing identification with Palestinians among the Muslim community in the UK. Thousands of British Muslims gathered in London for a demonstration against Israeli incursions into Palestinian areas on 14 April 2002. Many mosques participated, with buses coming down from Glasgow, Manchester, Oldham, Birmingham, Blackburn and Cardiff. According to the Muslim News, ‘This was the biggest demonstration in the history of British Muslims, even bigger than the one held against The Satanic Verses’ (2).
‘Recently, the Muslim community has been taking up the cause of Palestine’, said 24-year-old student Hasan al-Banna. ‘There has been an awakening among Muslim youth. Palestine is no longer just an Arab or a nationalist issue.’
More radical Islamic groups have also lined up alongside the Palestinians. The UK branch of the Islamic fundamentalist group al-Muhajiroun has released a number of statements denouncing Israeli incursions - which are generally seen as part of a Zionist-American conspiracy against Muslims. A recent press release claimed that ‘the US army was present along with the Israeli army in massacring the Palestinians, destroying houses and villages and arresting mujahiddin’ (3).
In their various ways, all these groups view the Palestinian issue through the spectrum of their own sentiments of frustration and powerlessness. The Palestinians are identified with because of their status as the ultimate victims.
The anti-globalisation movement has long promoted the idea that people and governments are in the grip of all-powerful corporate forces, which control our lives and determine our identity. Noreena Hertz has become a prophet for the anti-globalisation movement. Hertz says she wrote The Silent Takeover because ‘I needed to make sense of my own growing discontent, my own feelings that things were going awry. How could it be that life had in many ways never been better, yet I and so many around me seemed so troubled?’ (4).
But there is something indulgent about Hertz the Cambridge academic complaining that she is dominated by global forces. Acutely aware of its lack of foundation, the anti-globalisation movement is always latching on to causes that give it a bit of grit.
The Mexican Zapatista movement was one such cause. This peasant movement for land in southern Mexico became an international phenomenon after Western radicals made it their own. Another is the Bolivian water protests, which seem to gain an obligatory mention at every anti-globalisation meeting. In the Bolivian city of Cochabamba in 2000 people rioted in the streets to force a lowering of unpayable water prices. That this fairly routine event became the cause célèbre of the anti-globalisation movement shows the movement’s desperation for causes that it can leech off. Palestine is just the latest.
Interestingly, it is the ‘human shield’ action that seems to have the most poignancy for anti-globalisation activists. Lilian Pizzichini wrote in the New Statesman on 8 April 2002 about how she was ‘under siege’ in a house near Bethlehem, listening to sniper fire and being ‘kept awake by the ear-shattering sound of supersonic jets’. Her concluding line was: ‘I’m beginning to understand what it must be like to be a Palestinian.’
On the surface, the desire to feel Palestinian seems utterly bizarre. But for the anti-globalisation movement, it makes a certain sense. The Palestinians live out the state that anti-globalists can only talk about. Anti-globalists claim that they are controlled by sinister outside forces, that the odds are stacked against them. Palestinians really are controlled, they really are occupied. For the human shields, the experience lends their sentiments authenticity and substance.
Students from the SOAS Islamic Society showed a similar desire to live out the Palestinian experience. British Muslims are drawn towards the Palestinian cause for similar reasons - but these are posed in terms of Muslim identity.
‘I think a sense of Muslim victimisation is what people are feeling’, said Abul Taher, news editor of British-Asian newspaper The Eastern Eye. Conspiracy theories are widespread in Muslim communities - just after 11 September, rumours were rife among British Muslims that 3000 Jews who usually work in the World Trade Centre did not turn up for work on 11 September.
The conviction that Western governments and Jews are out to get Muslims finds its evidence in the Palestinian conflict. Young Muslims’ sense of alienation from their own political system fuels their identification with the Palestinians. ‘It’s evident that our government is supporting Israel’, 19-year-old student Hasah told me. ‘They are defending their political and economic interests.’ SOAS students at the Islamic Society meeting were deeply cynical about American and British governments, with one student railing against the ‘bloodsucking free society’ of the West.
There is also a view that the media is stacked against the Palestinians, and Muslims in general. The head of the SOAS society Students for Justice in Palestine said they were campaigning against the media, which ‘really distorts the facts’ of the Middle Eastern conflict, and ‘casts victims into the part of the oppressor’. Ahtsham Ali, vice-president of the Islamic Society of Great Britain, complained about the coverage of the pro-Palestinian march compared with the pro-Israeli rally a few weeks later. ‘There was a blatant misportrayal’, he said - the pro-Palestinian rally had been ‘hardly covered’, and the numbers had been underestimated, while ‘the pro-Zionist demo was in every paper’.
Perhaps there was more coverage of the Israeli rally, but perhaps this was because they had better press officers. The idea that there is an anti-Muslim conspiracy in the media is just not backed up in reality - just think of the concern about ‘Islamophobia’, or the harsh criticism of Israel during the siege of Jenin. That some Western Muslims hold this view shows only that they are searching for further evidence of their victimisation.
It seems that many Palestinian sympathisers in America and Britain are leeching off events in the Middle East. They identify with Palestinians as a way of gaining authenticity for their own soul-searching. It will be of little surprise if Palestinians decide they are better off without such ‘allies’.
The anti-imperialism of fools, by Mick Hume, New Statesman, 17 June 2002
spiked-issue: After 11 September
(1) Demonstrators Rally to Palestinian Cause, Washington Post, 21 April 2002
(2) Over 150,000 demonstrate against Israel, Muslim News, 14 April 2002
(3) Press release, al-muhajiroun.com, 4 May 2002
(4) The Silent Takeover, Noreena Hertz, Random House, 2001