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Friday, August 01, 2014

The Language Of Occupation

A version of this article was published in The Star.

“How can Africans not identify with victims when they've gone through the horrors of colonialism?” Horn of Africa analyst and Aljazeera contributor, Abdullahi Boru asked on Twitter recently, as Israel continued its punishing attack on Gaza. He was bemoaning what he described as the “uncritical support” the Jewish state was getting from some on the continent.

 Indeed, one would think that Africans would be among the first to recognize an anti-colonial struggle when they saw one. However it turns that colonialism can be rather easy to disguise when not dressed in the familiar tropes of white versus black. While it was easy to identify in colonial Africa and in apartheid South Africa, in the Middle East it is literally a different story.

When in 2009 Newsweek published a leaked copy of The Israel Project's 2009 Global Language Dictionary, it should have been a seminal moment of understanding of what is frequently, and euphemistically, referred to as the Middle-East conflict and the role that language plays in it. Instead it almost went unnoticed. The dictionary contains what Aljazeera political analyst Marwan Bishara described as “a well-thought, well-orchestrated media strategy to mystify, mislead and even misrepresent the reality.”

It is a strategy meant to influence how the news is reported and how the conflict is portrayed. And it has been most effective. It should be required reading for anyone interested in understanding how the “conflict” has been spun. It is a document that perverts language, emptying common words and phrases of their meaning and infusing them with grotesque implications. For example, to demand the dismantling of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank is equated with support for ethnic cleansing.

The document follows in a tradition of reporting on the Middle East situation that has served to sanitize the violence, obscure its causes and therefore its solution. It has been presented as an age-old intractable conflict, a product of thousands of years’ worth of implacable and impenetrable hatreds. A land soaked in the blood of religious zealots, inspiring the best and the worst in men. In short, it is a conflict that passeth understanding.

However, even a cursory glance at the facts will reveal the fallacy of this. Under the light of truth, the perplexing and ancient conflict turns out to be little more than a savage and all-too-recognizable colonial project. The very term “Middle East conflict” (which I have been struggling to avoid using –it’s harder than you might think), serves to cover up the initially UN sanctioned and continuing dispossession of the Palestinians by the Israelis. During the apartheid era in South Africa, no one referred to that situation as the southern Africa conflict as if we had two sides with equally compelling factual, moral and ethical arguments. In Gaza, where the Israelis have deliberately impoverished the population, there can be no such equivalence between occupier and occupied.

It is the same when one hears land in the West Bank, which is meant to be an integral part of or the territory of a future Palestinian state, described as “disputed”. What does this mean? How is it that someone can come into your home and declare it “disputed territory” simply because he desires it?

Accepting that there is indeed a dispute is necessary to accepting the idea of a “peace process” or “negotiations” to resolve it. After all, no one seeks reconciliation with a thief. One simply demands the return of one’s property and perhaps some form of compensation and punishment for the offender. It is now easier to understand why the late Tanzanian leader, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, opposed the idea of such talks.

Speaking in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, which saw Israel attack and destroy Arab armies and capture the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria, he declared: “attempts to coerce the Arab states into recognizing Israel – whether it be by refusal to relinquish occupied territory, or by an insistence on direct negotiations between the two sides – would only make such acceptance impossible.” Mwalimu Nyerere was very clear about what was at issue. There was no disputed territory or age-old conflict. The insistence on the idea of negotiations was to him a form of coercion. As Bishara more recently put it, “it’s the occupation, stupid”.

The fact is, the so-called peace process has proven to be little more than a cover for the continuing dispossession of the Palestinian people. In his book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, former US President, Jimmy Carter, who helped negotiate the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, details how the Israeli government has, at almost every turn, refused to implement agreements reached with the Palestinians while at the same time continuing to grab more land and impose an ever more onerous policy of apartheid on them under the guise of securing its citizens. He writes: "Israel's continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement... In order to perpetuate the occupation, Israeli forces have deprived their unwilling subjects of basic human rights. No objective person could personally observe existing conditions in the West Bank and dispute these statements."

One particularly egregious example of Israeli cynicism is its response to the 2003 Roadmap for Peace proposed by the Quartet on the Middle East (US, EU, Russia and the UN) and first outlined by U.S. President George W. Bush in a speech in June 2002. Israel demanded a full prevention and cessation of violence and incitement by the Palestinians, while reserving the right to itself perpetrate the same against them: “The Roadmap will not state that Israel must cease violence and incitement against the Palestinians”. It also demanded “absolute quiet” which no government on earth can guarantee and rejected any references to the key provisions of UN Resolution 242. According to a recent opinion poll, even a majority of Israeli voters do not believe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he says he wants to promote a peace agreement with two states for two nations. But more alarming are the signs that the extremist policies of consecutive Israeli governments and the cycle of violence they provoke are radicalizing not just the Palestinians, but their own population as well. Though 56 percent object to a unilateral annexation of territories, nearly a quarter of Israelis are willing to live in an apartheid state where Palestinians are denied full rights.

We can learn much from Mwalimu Nyerere’s stand. He, for example, had little trouble recognizing “the establishment of the state of Israel [as] an act of aggression against the Arab people ... connived at by the international community” while at the same time realistically pointing out that the fact of Israel’s existence was something that would not be undone and that the Arab states would need to accept.

That was, in fact, the real Middle-East conflict: the Arab world’s struggle to come to terms with the imposition of Israel. The Arab states were ultimately successful in doing this (something else few speak of). As Fouad Ajami wrote in 1978, a year after Anwar Sadat's famous trip to Jerusalem to address Israel's Knesset, the issue was "no longer about Israel's existence, but about its boundaries." Ultimate proof of this came with the 2002 Arab League offer of a full peace with and recognition of Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 line, establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank and a just solution to the refugee problem -a repudiation of the “Three Nos” of the 1967 Khartoum conference ("no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it").

“Israel has had her victory, at terrible cost in human lives. She must now accept that the United Nations which sanctioned her birth is, and must be, unalterably opposed to territorial aggrandizement by force or threat of force,” said Mwalimu Nyerere in 1967 and those words remain just as true today. The so-called Middle East conflict is neither ancient nor intractable. It is simply a Zionist colonial enterprise whose solution is as simple as the solution to the European colonization of the African continent. Full withdrawal from the occupied territories and independence for the Palestinians.

As an African, Mwalimu knew colonialism when he saw it. And as he said, “we cannot condone aggression on any pretext, nor accept victory in war as a justification for the exploitation of other lands, or government over other peoples.” Neither should the rest of the continent.

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