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Homeless? Feckless? Clueless?
Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist, wrote last week an insightful editorial entitled In the Springs of Fate in which she decried the current policies of the US Administration in Iraq...

18 May   |   2004   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... She used a most interesting neologism when she referred to ‘the Aeschylating cost of imperial ambitions and personal vendettas’. Topical and jagged though Dowd’s editorial certainly was, what truly caught my eye was her reference to Aeschylus - father of Greek tragedy, contemporary of Sophocles, warrior at the battle of Marathon and author of the trilogy of plays known as Orestia - and her fresh comparison of the situation in Iraq today with a modern-day chapter of Greek tragedy.

This unfurling tragedy, as Dowd perceives it in Iraq, is also taking place in Israel and Palestine. In fact, the latest UNSC Resolution 1544 (2004) is an example of this unstopping tragedy. The resolution calls upon Israel, inter alia, to respect its obligations under international humanitarian law, and insists on its obligations not to undertake demolition of homes contrary to that law. The homes that the Security Council is referring to are those that Israel destroyed last week in the al-Brazil and Tel el-Sultan neighbourhoods of Rafah, at the southern tip of the Gaza Strip. This latest wave of house demolitions though is nothing new. As Rami Khouri reported in his article The entangled web of Palestine, Powell and Arab power from the World Economic Forum at Sweimeh, near the Dead Sea in Jordan, ‘The most reliable and up-to-date United Nations data show that Israeli armed forces have destroyed an average of 2018 homes in Rafah in recent years, leaving18 , 382people homeless. Israeli bulldozers and bombs destroyed an average of11 . 6homes per month in Palestine in2000 ; that figure has increased steadily, to 25 homes per month in 2002, and 104 homes per month in 2004 to date’.

Peter Hansen, commissioner general of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) wrote a Comment in the International Herald Tribune on 19 May 2004 in which he announced that UNRWA and the government of Switzerland have jointly invited seventy countries to a major conference in Geneva next month that will ‘plan new strategies for improving the lives of the [Palestinian] refugees’. The theme of the conference will be helping the refugees to help themselves through improved access to jobs, housing, education and health care. Hansen’s Comment was informative about the unremitting work of UNRWA with59 Palestinian camps, as well as the 122 clinics or 660 schools. But it also mirrored the harrowing conditions experienced by Palestinians in those refugee camps. In one paragraph, Hansen describes some Palestinian camps where the ‘alleyways are so narrow that the dead need to be removed upright, because coffins cannot negotiate the twisting lanes. Peer into the concrete refugee shelters, some scarcely better than Dickensian hovels, and you will see families of 13 or more share a room with no windows. In some especially benighted places, you will meet mothers who sleep with their babies on their laps, to keep them safe from rats’.

This sobering description coincides with 56 years of dispossession and conflict that have battered the exiled Palestinian population and left them stranded in a stateless limbo. Is it any wonder that the Middle East gasps with uncomprehending amazement at expectations for democracy in camps where hope has fled and where life is questionable by ‘our’ standards?

In her book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, Barbara Tuchman writes, ‘Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs’. Indeed, wooden-headedness is also the refusal to benefit from experience, preferring to filter information through the lens of ideology and acquiring an addiction to the counterproductive. After all, and as Tuchman adds again with a reference to Homer’s Iliad, ‘Notwithstanding the frequent references in the epic to the fall of Troy being ordained, it was not fate but free choice that took the Horse within the walls’. How true that ‘fate’ as a character in legend represents the fulfilment of man’s expectations of himself.

Is this not what is happening also with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Year in year out, hope begets disappointment, and the ‘nay-sayers’ get to gloat while the rest of us despair, lacerate ourselves, second-guess those in charge and look at things anew. But this process of self-criticism is the pre-condition for the second wind, the grubbier, less illusory effort that often enough leads to some acceptable outcome. Can this acceptable outcome be found here? After all, as HB Michel Sabbah, Latin-rite Roman Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, indicated in an interview with Vatican Radio on 19 May2004 , ‘It is ignorance of another’s civilisation that leads someone to see him as an enemy. [] We are living in a situation of great violence in the world, particularly in the Holy Land. Religion is manipulated, and, in the name of the rights of nations or of freedom, it is assumed that there can be recourse to violence. [] There is a clash of ignorance, not of civilisations’.

From incursions into Palestinian territory, to the demolition of homes, from the building of separation walls and further settlements, to the day-to-day swatting of a whole proud people, an invidious occupation is bleeding Palestinians of their lives, lands and livelihoods. Weapons of mass destruction do not only have to be physical armaments that are convenient albeit dubious justifications for warfare. They are also the man-made practices of those whose arrogance for power has cleaved their humanity, and whose unbridled wish to settle scores and expand an ideology have overtaken their sense not only of what is appropriate or ethical but also of what is counterproductive and lethal for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Has the genie left the bottle for good? In the words of Thomas Friedman from the New York Times, is it possible that ‘the chessboard has been thrown up into the air?’ Are we witnessing today the ‘Aeschylating cost of imperial ambitions and personal vendettas’? In this recast Greek tragedy, have we all become homeless, feckless and clueless understudies?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2004   |   18 May


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