“Why aren’t you, as an Arab lady, writing about Gaza?”
The messages started to arrive soon after Israel’s bombardment of Gaza had killed close to 300 Palestinians. Implicit was the pressure to tow the party line: Hamas is good, Israel is bad. Say it, say it! Or else you’re not Arab enough, you’re not Muslim enough, you’re not enough.
But what to say about a conflict that, for more than 60 years, has fed Arab and Israeli senses of victimhood and their demands to stop everything else we’re doing and pay attention to them because what’s the slaughter of anyone else – be they in Darfur or Congo – compared with their own? Hasn’t it all been said before?
And then the suicide cyclist in Iraq made me snap and I had to write, to lament the moral bankruptcy that’s born from the amnesia rife in the Middle East.
On Sunday, a man on a bicycle blew himself up at an anti-Israel demonstration in the Iraqi city of Mosul. The technique blessed by clerics throughout the Arab world as a weapon against Israel had gone haywire and was used on Arabs protesting against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.
That twisted full circle completed on the streets of Mosul can be captured only by paraphrasing Karl Marx – Israel is the opium of the people. What else explains the collective amnesia in the Middle East?
Has Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni forgotten that, just last year, she was close to ousting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for his handling of Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, launched under very similar circumstances to those that preceded the bombardment of Gaza? And yet, there she was making the rounds of U.S. news shows to explain why Israel had to act against Hamas. Does Israel want to make heroes of Hamas in the way it did Hezbollah?
Talking about Hezbollah, has Hassan Nasrallah forgotten that, while he rails against Egypt for aiding the Israeli blockade of Gaza, he lives in a country – Lebanon – that keeps generations of Palestinian refugees in camps that serve as virtual jails?
And the demonstrators in Jordan and Lebanon? Who reminds them that, in 1970, Jordan killed tens of thousands as it tried to control Palestinian groups based there, forcing the Palestine Liberation Army into Lebanon, where, in 1982, the Phalangists – Christian Lebanese militiamen – slaughtered 3,000 Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps?
Not a single Phalangist has been held accountable for that massacre. An Israeli state inquiry in 1983 found Ariel Sharon, then defence minister, indirectly responsible for the killings during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. But don’t hold your breath for an Arab inquiry. It is Israel that gives sense to our victimhood. The horrors we visit upon each other are irrelevant.
It is difficult to criticize Palestinians when so many have died in the past three days, but the Hamas rulers of Gaza are just the latest of their leaders to fail them. For those of us who long to separate religion from politics, Hamas has given truth to the fear that Islamists care more about facing down Israel than taking care of their people. Where was the anger when two Palestinian schoolgirls were killed in Gaza as Hamas rockets meant for Israel fell short, just a day before Israel’s bombardment began?
As for Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak, in power since 1981, has presided over a disastrous policy that, on one hand, maintains a 1979 peace treaty Anwar Sadat signed with Israel and, on the other, unleashes state-owned media fury at Israel that has fanned a near-hysterical hatred for the country among ordinary Egyptians.
Yes, Israel’s occupation of Arab land angers Egyptians, but there is absolutely no space in Egyptian media or intellectual circles for discussing Israel as anything but an enemy. So Mr. Mubarak is reaping a policy that plays all sides against each other in a bid to make himself indispensable.
But my question is: Where is the anger of Egyptians and others across the region at the human-rights violations and oppression in their countries? If such large crowds turned out in Arab capitals every week, they could’ve toppled their dictators years ago.
It is the ultimate dishonour to the memory of Palestinians killed in the past three days to call for more violence. It has failed to deliver for 60 years.
We honour the dead by smashing through the amnesia until we break through to the taboos and continue to smash. Talking to Hamas? Israel should do it if it will end the violence. Focusing on internal issues in each Arab country and ignoring the opium that is Israel? Egyptians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Syrians should do it before their states fail for the sake of Palestine.
Palestinians still have no state. What a shame it would be for one Arab country after another to fail in the name of Palestine.
By Mona Eltahawy.
Mona Eltahawy is a New York-based columnist for Egypt’s Al Masry Al Youm and Qatar’s Al Arab.