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Parallel Universes: Most of the World Sees Palestinians as the Victims, But in Israel and the US Events are Given a Different Meaning
17 April 2002
Of all the stories and testimonies emerging from the ruins of Jenin, one detail, picked up by the Guardian's Suzanne Goldenberg, captures completely the strange tragedy unfolding in the Middle East. It does not convey the horror wrought in that West Bank town, nor the suffering of its victims. But it says everything about why this disaster is happening.
Goldenberg describes a line of graffiti, written in "neat blue ink", on a wall in the home of Aisha Salah. She is a Palestinian whose house was seized by Israeli soldiers, for use as a base of operations. Before they left, one of them took up his pen and wrote on the wall: "I don't have another land."
That was no spur of the moment doodle. That is a phrase ingrained in the Israeli, and wider Jewish, consciousness. Ein Lee Eretz Acheret is even the title of a favorite Hebrew folk song, the kind of standard that will be performed at countless Israeli Independence Day celebrations later today.
That simple, almost apologetic phrase, "I have no other land" expresses how Israelis and Jews see themselves in this conflict - as a victim nation, exiled, dispossessed and desperate for their own home - and how far apart that is from the way almost everyone else sees them. It goes to the heart of the strange truth about the current conflict: that the two sides are living in parallel universes, where the same set of facts has two entirely different meanings depending where you stand.
Palestinians are clear on what they see. They are the victims of an aggression so brutal it has shocked even them, a people who have suffered so much. In the Battle of Jenin, as Palestinian national myth will no doubt come to know it, they have seen a town shaken and upended as if by man-made earthquake: homes sliced, whole blocks flattened and reduced to rubble.
The streets are strewn with corpses, and there are more underneath the wreckage. Palestinians say bodies were piled up and taken away in trucks; that men were lined up, thinking they were under arrest, and shot; that homes were hit by helicopter gunships even as civilians cowered inside. Among the dead are the elderly and the very young, left to die, it is said, because no ambulance was allowed to get near. For Palestinians, Jenin 2002 is a tragedy on a par with Beirut 1982, when Christian Phalangists massacred hundreds in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, unhindered by the Israeli army which then ruled the city.
The Palestinians' friends around the world will draw a similar conclusion. Most of world opinion will be outraged by the images at last coming out of Jenin: the front page of every broadsheet newspaper in Britain yesterday adopted the same tone of shock and fury at the havoc Israel had wrought.
Britons and others will see an already beleaguered people taking yet another pounding from a regional superpower which has no business being there in the first place. They will see the home-made pipe bombs and booby-traps, discovered by the Israelis, and see only the meager tools of resistance - the puny weapons of a powerless people confronting a mighty occupier.
The arrest of the key Palestinian leader, Marwan Barghouti, will just confirm the view that Goliath is trying to choke David. The images of the small, uniformed Barghouti led off by Israeli soldiers will evoke memories of every dissident detained throughout history, jailed by the hated regime he was struggling to depose. If he is put on trial, it will be seen as a show trial - an attempt by Israel to crush a political challenge by legal means.
Yet just a few short miles away, in Israel, these same events mean something else completely. Israel is a small nation, just 6 million people, that has faced an onslaught in recent months unimaginable in any other western country: every day bringing carnage to the high street, the wedding celebration, the religious service. Just as Americans were determined to wipe out the "hornets' nest" which had sent the 19 hijackers of September 11 their way, so Israel has finally set to work rooting out the terrorists who have made Israelis' lives a daily hell. In this view, Jenin is Israel's Kandahar, dispatching nearly one in four of the suicide bombers who have deliberately murdered civilians, often targeting the young and defenseless.
There is damage, to be sure. But, say the Israelis, it's not much worse than the way parts of Afghanistan looked after the US military set to work on al-Qaida strongholds there. Some civilians were killed, but that's what happens when terrorists hide among the innocent. To support the US battle against the Taliban only to oppose Israel's own war against terrorism is to be guilty of a double standard. What would the critics have Israel do? Sit there and take it? Israel asked Yasser Arafat to clean out the terrorists and he didn't do the job - just as the Taliban never booted out al-Qaida. So, following a lead set by George Bush and Tony Blair, Ariel Sharon did what he had to do.
Those weapons stashes found in Jenin, like the armed men who shot back, killing 23 Israeli soldiers, only go to show what kind of terror academy the town had become. As for Barghouti, would anyone have raised an outcry if the Americans arrested Mullah Omar? Yet, say the Israelis, there is ample evidence linking Barghouti to the young "martyrs" who kill themselves and others: he gets the credit for wresting the suicide tactic out of the hands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and getting Arafat's own Fatah movement in on the action.
Judged like that, Operation Defensive Shield is messy, yes, but wholly justified. And this is not only the view of Sharon and the hardliners in his cabinet. A poll conducted last week, admittedly before the truth of Jenin came to light, found 86% Israeli support for the military campaign in the West Bank. That would include a large number of people who once identified with the peace camp and the left.
And they do not inhabit this universe alone. On Monday an estimated 100,000 people, mainly American Jews, gathered at the steps of the US Capitol to protest in favor of Israel. They note the rise in anti-semitism worldwide, see an Arab "street" inherently hostile to any Jewish state in their midst, and reflect on the suicide bombers and their choice of targets - the latest, biggest one during a Passover seder - and believe that, not for the first time, Jews are facing an existential threat. And remember, like the song says, they have no other land. So they carry placards comparing Sharon to Winston Churchill, glad that someone is fighting back.
These are the two universes, now living in parallel. In Washington, thousands gather to demand justice for the endangered people of Israel. In London, 36 hours earlier, 50,000 gather demanding justice for the endangered people of Palestine. Both sides believe they are the victim, both sides are fighting for their very lives. And, like parallel lines, they never touch.