What Price Oslo?
By Edward Said
March 18, 2002

The television images on Al-Jazeera have been burningly clear. There is a kind of Palestinian heroism in evidence there that makes this the story of our time. An entire army, navy, and air force supplied munificently and unconditionally by the United States have been wreaking destruction on the 18 per cent of the West Bank and 60 per cent of Gaza afforded Palestinians after ten years of negotiations with Israel and the US. Palestinian hospitals, schools, refugee camps and civilian residences have been at the receiving end of a merciless, criminal assault by Israeli troops huddled inside their helicopter gun-ships, F-16's and Merkavas, and still the poorly armed resistance fighters take on this preposterously more powerful force undaunted and unyielding. In the US, CNN and newspapers like The New York Times fail, to their discredit, to ever mention that "the violence" is uneven and that there aren't two sides involved here, but only one state turning all its great power against a stateless, repeatedly refugeed, and dispossessed people, bereft of arms and real leadership, with the aim of destroying this people, "dealing them a terrible blow" as the war criminal who leads Israel shamelessly put it. As an index of how deranged Sharon has become, I might quote here what he said to Ha'aretz on 5 March: "The PA is behind the terror, it's all terror. Arafat is behind the terror. Our pressure is aimed at ending the terror. Don't expect Arafat to act against the terror. We have to cause them heavy casualties and then they'll know they can't keep using terror and win political achievements."

Besides symptomatically revealing the workings of an obsessed mind bent on destruction and sheer, unadulterated hatred, Sharon's words indicate the failures of reason and criticism loosed on the world since last September. Yes, there was a terrorist outrage, but there's more to the world than terror. There is politics, and struggle, and history, and injustice, and resistance and yes, state terror as well. With scarcely a peep from the American professorate or intelligentsia, we have all succumbed to the promiscuous misuse of language and sense, by which everything we don't like has become terror and what we do is pure and simple good -- fighting terror, no matter how much wealth, and lives, and destruction is involved. Swept away are all the Enlightenment precepts by which we attempt to educate our students and our-fellow citizens, replaced by a disproportionate orgy of vindictiveness and self-righteous wrath of the kind that only the wealthy and the powerful, it would seem, have the right to use and act upon. No wonder then that a fourth-rate thug like Sharon feels entitled (by emulation and derivation) to do what he does when in the greatest democracy on earth, laws, constitutional rights, writs of habeas corpus and reason itself are consigned to the rubbish bin in the pursuit of terror and terrorism. As educators and as citizens, we have failed in our mission by allowing ourselves to be bamboozled in this way, without so much as an organised public discussion about a defence budget that has shot up to $400 billion while 40 million people remain without health insurance.

Israelis, Arabs and Americans are told that love of country requires such expenditures and such destruction because a good cause is at stake. Nonsense. What is at stake are material interests that keep rulers in power, corporations making profits, people in a state of manufactured consent, just so long as they don't get up one morning and start to think about where, in this mad technologised rush to bomb and kill, we are going.

Israel is now waging a war against civilians, pure and simple, although you will never hear it put that way in the US. This is a racist war, and in its strategy and tactics, a colonial one as well. People are being killed and made to suffer disproportionately because they are not Jews. What an irony! Yet CNN never refers to "occupied" territories (always rather to "violence in Israel" as if the main battlefields are the concert halls and cafes of Tel Aviv and not in fact the ghettoes and besieged refugee camps of Palestine that have already been surrounded by 150 illegal Israeli settlements). For the past ten years, the great fraud of Oslo was foisted on the world by the US, with hardly an awareness that only 18 per cent of the West Bank were given up, and 60 per cent of Gaza. No one knows geography and it's better not to know, since the reality on the ground is so astonishing, considering the verbal hoopla and self-congratulation.

And that pseudo-pundit -- the insufferably conceited Thomas Friedman -- still has the gall to say that "Arab TV" shows one-sided pictures, as if "Arab TV" should be showing things from Israel's point-of-view the way CNN does, with "Mid-East violence" the catch-all word for the ethnic cleansing that Israel is wreaking on the Palestinians in their ghettoes and camps. Has Friedman (or CNN for that matter) ever tried to point out the difference between an attacking army fighting a colonial war on the territory of the people it has occupied for 35 years, and the people defending themselves against that butchery? Of course not, for indeed why should Friedman ever bother to say honestly that there is no Palestinian occupation, there are no Palestinian F-16's, no Apache helicopters, no gunboats, no Merkava tanks, in short, no Palestinian occupation of Israel. So much for Friedman's credentials as an honest commentator and reporter who has utterly failed, in unadorned terms, to explain the US view or to understand the Arab and Palestinian cause. Can he not see that he and his writings are part of the problem, that in their maundering self-justifications and the dishonesty in which he shows no sign of the self- criticism he keeps hectoringly expecting of others, he actually aggravates the ignorance and the misperceptions rather than reducing them? Poor journalist and educator, he.

The picture you get here is that Israelis are battling for their lives instead of for their settlements and military bases on the occupied lands of Palestine. No maps have been run for months in the American media. On 8 March, hitherto the bloodiest day for Palestinians of the 16-month Intifada, CNN's main evening news specified the death of 40 "people" and failed even to mention the death of several Red Crescent workers killed while their ambulances were prevented by Israeli tanks from getting to the wounded. Just "people," and no pictures of the hell they've been living in this the 35th year of military occupation. Tul Karm is undergoing a siege of sieges with 24 hour curfews, electricity and water cut-off, systematic round-ups and the removal of 800 young men, the wanton smashing of refugee houses, wholesale destruction of property (and I'm not speaking of nightclubs or sports facilities but of shacks and lean-tos that furnished twice displaced refugees with hovels for bare subsistence) and limitless cases of sadistic cruelty to unarmed and undefended civilians who are pushed and beaten and left to bleed to death, women allowed to give birth to stillborn babies while they wait needlessly at Israeli road-blocks, old men made to strip and take off their shoes and walk barefoot for a gum-chewing 18-year-old waving around an M-16 that my taxes have paid for. Bethlehem, its town center and university destroyed, flattened at 5,000 feet by valiant Israeli bombers swooshing in with their marvelous F-16's which I've paid for too. Balata camp, Aida and Dheheisheh and Azza Camps, the tiny villages of Khadr and Husam, all battered into rubble without even a mention by the US press, whose New York editors so obviously have no problems with it, with a few exceptions here and there. The uncounted dead and wounded, the unburied and unassisted, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of lives maimed, distorted, catastrophically marked by wantonly caused suffering, all of it ordered at a safe distance from the action in leafy, calm West Jerusalem by men for whom the West Bank and Gaza are distant rat holes filled with insects and rodents that must be "subdued" and driven out, taught a lesson in the accepted jargon of Israel's superb military. On Tuesday, in the biggest attack of all, Ramallah has been invaded and is being ravaged by 140 Israeli tanks, thus completing Israel's re-conquest of the already-occupied Palestinian territories.

The Palestinian people are paying the heavy, heavy unconscionable price of Oslo, which after 10 years of negotiating left them with bits of land lacking coherence and continuity, security institutions designed to assure their subservience to Israel, and a life that impoverished them so that the Jewish state could thrive and prosper. In vain during those 10 years did some of us warn that the distance between the US-Israeli language of peace and the appalling realities on the ground was never bridged, never even intended to be bridged. Words and phrases like "peace process" and "terrorism" took hold without reference to any real referent. Land confiscations were either overlooked or referred to as "bilateral negotiations" that were taking place between a state consolidating its hold on territory it wanted at all costs, and a mediocre set of uninformed negotiators whom it took four years to acquire, much less use, a reliable map of the land they were negotiating over. The worst misrepresentation of all is that in the 54 years since 1948, never has a narrative of Palestinian heroism and suffering been allowed to emerge. We are all depicted as violent fanatic extremists who are little more than the terrorists that George Bush and his cabal have imposed on the consciousness of a stunned and systematically misinformed population, aided and uncritically abetted by an entire army of commentators and media stars -- the Blitzers, Zahns, Lehrers, Rathers, Brokaws, Russerts, and their ilk. The Israeli lobby is scarcely needed with such faithful disciples trailing happily in its ranks.

But now that the Saudi peace proposal has become the point of discussion and of hope, it is necessary, I think, to put it in its real, as opposed to its supposed, context. First of all, this is the re-cycled Reagan plan of 1982, the Fahd Plan of 1983, the Madrid plan of 1991, and so on: in other words, it follows a series of plans many times put forward which in the end both Israel and the US have not only refused to implement, but have actively torpedoed. The way I see it, the only negotiations worth having should be on the phases of a total Israeli withdrawal and not, as was the case with Oslo, bargaining over what pieces of land Israel was willing very grudgingly to give up. There's been too much Palestinian blood spilled, too much Israeli contempt and racist violence dispensed for any serious return to Oslo-style negotiations brokered by that most biased of honest brokers, the United States. Everyone is aware, however, that the old Palestinian negotiators haven't given up on their dreams and illusions, and that meetings have been occurring throughout the raids and bombings. But I would argue that due weight be given to decades of Palestinian suffering and the real human costs of Israel's destructive policies before any negotiations accord undue status to Israeli governments that have trampled on Palestinian rights the way they have demolished our houses and killed our people. Any Arab-Israeli negotiations that do not factor in history -- and for this task a team of historians, economists, and geographers with a conscience are needed -- are not worth having, just as Palestinians must now elect a new set of negotiators and representatives in the hope of salvaging something from the present calamity.

In short, in whatever meetings that now occur between Israeli and Palestinian representatives, the gravity of Israeli depredations against our people has to be given attention and not simply brushed aside as so much past history. Oslo, in effect, pardoned the occupation, excusing it for all the buildings and lives destroyed over the first 25 years of occupation. After so much further suffering, Israel cannot be excused and allowed to walk away from the table with not even a rhetorical demand that it needs to atone for what it did.

I will be told that politics is about what is possible, not about what is desired, and that we should be grateful to get even a small Israeli pullback. I disagree strongly. Negotiations can only be about when the total withdrawal will take place, not what percentage Israel is willing to concede. A conqueror and a vandal cannot concede anything: he must simply return what he's taken and pay for the abuses that are his responsibility to bear, just as Saddam Hussein should and did pay for his occupation of Kuwait. We are still a considerable distance from that goal, although in the meantime the extraordinary unbowed bravery of all Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank has in effect politically and morally defeated Sharon, who will lose his seat in the not too distant future. But, that in two decades his armies can invade Arab cities at will, killing and sowing destruction without so much as a collective Arab peep speaks reams for the Arab world's leaders.

Lastly, what the various Arab rulers who are so delicately silent now while Palestine is being raped on TV think they are doing, I don't know, but I can imagine that deep in their souls they must feel no small amount of shame and disgrace. Powerless militarily, politically, economically and above all morally, they have little credibility and no real standing, except as obedient pawns on the American-Israeli chessboard. Perhaps they feel they are playing a waiting game. Perhaps. But they (like Arafat and his men) haven't learned the power of systematically disseminated information as a way of protecting their people from the onslaughts of those who consider all Arabs militant, extremist, terrorist fanatics. The good news is that the time for that sort of irresponsible and contemptible behavior is very short. Will the new generation do any better?

It is for a whole new attitude toward secular education to decide the answer, whether collectively we go down again to disorganisation, corruption and mediocrity or whether at last we can become a nation