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The landscape of opposition

By Edward Said, Al-Ahram Weekly, end of May 2000

Israel's defeat in south Lebanon, its hasty withdrawal, and the still turbulent situation created after almost twenty years of a wasteful, incredibly destructive and, in the end, useless display of military power requires sober analysis free of the distortions imposed by the US media. The Israeli military presence in Lebanon was never really about the "defence" of Israel's northern border, but about political objectives designed originally to defeat the PLO, then to change Lebanon's political structure to its advantage, and finally to pressure Syria into accepting its diktats.

The first of these succeeded partially, and in 1993 ended up delivering an exiled and sidelined Yasser Arafat as a docile partner with Israel in ending the Intifada, policing the still occupied Palestinian territories, and attempting (so far unsuccessfully) to conclude the Palestinian quest for self-determination to Israel's advantage. The other two policy objectives were abject failures, as witness the crumbling of Israel's mercenary South Lebanese Army (routinely described by the media as "Christian" whereas it was equally if not predominantly Shi'ite), the emergence of Hizbullah with a successful policy of resistance and aggressive counterattack, and Syria's continued refusal to accept Israel's terms on less than complete withdrawal before making any peace deals.

The stranglehold on US media perspectives maintained by the supporters of Israel has produced an astonishingly reductive view of reality. Consider the use of the word "defence" to describe Israeli tactics, when it has the Middle East's only offensive air force, nuclear option and military-political apparatus totally supported by the world's only superpower. How can it be "defence" when for 22 years Israel has defied the international community by persisting in its various military occupations, bombing Arab capital cities at will, destroying civilian infrastructures and, in Lebanon alone, causing at least 20,000 deaths and uncounted thousands of wounded, 95 per cent of them civilian? Or take the word "peace" and its cognate, "peace process." Israel has tried to force "peace" on subjugated leaderships in the Arab world, and at the same time has continued aggressive policies of colonisation and annexation that have earned it opprobrium everywhere -- except in the US media, where its ethnic cleansing and systematic discrimination against non-Jews are either overlooked or justified cynically by exploiting Holocaust memories. There is a wider and wider gap in fact between US supporters of Israel and Israeli citizens, a sizeable majority of whom know that in the end Israel must acknowledge a realistic view of its own history and actuality before it can even nominally be accepted in the Arab and Islamic world. No matter how many times deflating phrases like "Iranian-backed" or "terrorist" are affixed by Israel and its media allies to the militias that beat the fabled IDF in Lebanon, there is no way to explain away that entirely local campaign which Israel so conclusively lost.

In reality, therefore, Israel's retreat from Lebanon was clearly the result of a determined popular resistance willing to take punishment and make sacrifices. Hizbullah was mobile where Israel's huge armoured and air preponderance were both cumbersome and ineffective (despite the damage they caused), braver and far more resourceful than the disillusioned and frightened foreign troops they faced alongside their treacherous local allies. Since the US media concentrated so one-sidedly on Israeli travails in Lebanon, it was forgotten that Israel had for over 20 years defied the UN resolution enjoining it to leave, and had for years and years imposed a dreadful regime of torture, collaboration and pillage on the long-suffering Lebanese citizens who were there. Rid of this reign of terror at last, liberated south Lebanon is the first challenge to the region's future that neither Israel nor the Arab regimes are likely to meet successfully.

The notion that the Arab-Israeli conflict might be ended has so far been based exclusively on what Anwar El-Sadat openly expressed and embodied: the idea that charismatic official leaders could negotiate a new peace between old enemies. This has been disproved by the examples of Egypt, Jordan, and the PLO, whose leaders have gone all the way without in fact persuading their populations to follow suit. With only a tiny and insignificant number of exceptions, no cultural or political figure of independent national stature, no popular, syndical or really autonomous non-governmental organisation among those Arabs whose leaders have made peace with Israel has in any serious way accepted the peace. Israel has remained "unnormalised," and basically isolated at the only level that counts in the long run. Resistance to its presence (not to its existence: the difference is important to remark) is still strenuously, not to say vociferously displayed, which is why the scenes of triumphal jubilation from south Lebanon have been played unendingly on Arab TV screens. Certainly Arab and Israeli businessmen continue their rather limited association, and there seems to be no sign of arresting globalisation, but that is all.

In other words, the conventional wisdom about peace-making in the Middle East has essentially been disproved, which is not to say that it will now cease or that present peace tracks will be abandoned. They won't. But an unexpectedly prominent landscape of opposition and resilience has been revealed and will not now quickly be re-submerged.

We mustn't forget, secondly, that the present structures of power in Israel and the Arab countries are the oldest in the post-World War II period; they are still extremely militarised, largely oligarchic in kind, and therefore unresponsive to change of the sort the Hizbullah victory represents. The United States has historically done business with obvious interlocutors and counterparts in the Middle East, despite occasional attempts either to coopt the Islamic opposition (as in Afghanistan) or to promote an American-style civil society (through foundations, business school programmes, and academic exchange). A vast sector of life sits just beyond the view offered by the regimes and the US, and, for the first time since the PLO emerged and was defeated in Jordan in 1970, this unofficial aspect of life geopolitically threatens the old, mostly frozen structures.

Islamist movements are part of this unofficial sector, of course, and what they offer is one intellectual and cultural alternative to the conventional one now in power. Many of these currents contradict each other, but they all speak of resistance to US-style cultural conformity and consumerism, they oppose what Israel represents as an arrogantly alien force which must be de-Zionised and defeated or stopped rather than negotiated with supinely (e.g. the Oslo model), and they all claim various kinds of connection to "authentic" popular forms of cultural and civil tradition. But there is a healthy secular opposition as well, fighting on several fronts (see, for instance, journalistic opposition to repressive press laws all across the Arab world; the human rights movement against torture and politicised judiciary branches; the women's rights and burgeoning environmental associations -- these exist in every Arab society today. This is not to mention academic, labour union, writers' and artists' organisations that are both vocal and active). All told, these secular forces provide stiff competition to their religious counterparts.

The situation is especially heated now, not only because Hizbullah liberated south Lebanon without official state support, but because all the front-line regimes face huge succession problems. Think of most Arab countries, and the first thing that comes to mind is how the old order cannot easily hand itself on past a new and ever-changing realignment of forces galvanised into opposition by the failure of what most people regard as unpopular, isolated, and ageing leaderships. For the first time since independence, Middle Eastern politics will be more influenced by how these seething internal currents play out than by outside powers or prominent figureheads. Whatever peace arrangements are made will therefore be subject not to what Barak and his various Arab partners decide between themselves, but to what in the Arab world and in Israel (to say nothing of Iran and Turkey) will come out on top, as political parties like Shas, Hizbullah, Hamas, plus a whole slew of secular opponents battle for a larger say in what has so far been off limits to them.

It may seem odd to say so now, but I am convinced that the secular opposition will ultimately win out over its religious opponents. The Middle East is far too heterogeneous, politically aroused and modernised a region to submit to what are in effect backward-looking, absurdly anachronistic visions that aim at establishing Muslim and Jewish theocracies. A rigourous contest over such matters as citizenship, identity, and political authority is the one that counts, and it is this that will determine the future in the long run. Meanwhile, we can expect volatile times ahead.


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