The message of the mortars

31 May 2001

Maintaining a website offering information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a pro-Palestinian perspective, my e-mail in-box is regularly filled with ‘advice’ about how the Palestinians should manage their Intifada.

Some recent messages have bemoaned the decision by Palestinian military groups to fire mortars at Israeli settlements.

“If only the Palestinians would stop using mortars,” goes the plea, “it would make it far easier for us to promote their cause.”

The logic of this argument is that firing a few, mostly ineffectual, mortars can somehow negate the reality of Palestinians being killed by the hundreds, crippled by the thousands, and injured by the tens of thousands — not to mention being subjected to a siege and an ongoing illegal expropriation of their lands and water resources during the current conflict.

That the sheer scale of Israel’s violence against Palestinians and existence of the occupation is not made clear by the media — to which the makers of this argument choose either to pander to or overlook — somehow escapes them as an important point.

The dilemma in which the Palestinians find themselves is like that of a man who, falsely imprisoned for most of his life and demonised by society, finds himself in a dark room being raped by a highly-decorated prison guard, when… he suddenly notices a rocket launcher lying within his reach.

Most of us wouldn’t be quoting Gandhi or Martin Luther King to the prison guard in this situation. We would be grabbing the rocket launcher and making him pay, like 99 percent of the other human beings on this planet.

People can only take so much before they strike back. The good news is that most people do understand that and it is people who are our target audience, not the media.

Working to make the Palestinians acceptable to the media will not work when the media consistently fail to highlight basic facts about the conflict such as the existence of Israel’s military occupation, or when the media equate the violence of a few individual Palestinians with the violence of the Israeli State’s army, not to mention the implicit violation of international law including the Geneva Conventions.

The media are not an acceptable starting point from which to build strategy, but the media are an acceptable, and an appropriate, target for our intellectual mortars. Exposing the media’s gaping structural biases is one of activists’ most effective tools.

The fact is that people don’t like being deceived or patronised. No one likes to be taken for a dupe. Consequently, challenging the failings of commercial media coverage while promoting alternative information sources is a good strategy for encouraging investigation.

Investigation engages people in a direct way with an issue and leads to involvement and wider mobilisation.

My primary motivation for visiting the occupied Palestinian territories in 1989, 1992, and 1993, and for moving to the Palestinian West Bank to live and work between 1994-1998, was that I wanted to see ground zero for myself, free of the filter.

During the 45 months I spent as an eyewitness in the country, five aspects of the conflict became very clear:

1. Your average Palestinian is not a bearded fundamentalist relishing violent acts of terrorism, or a wild-eyed radical who sits around all day discussing ways to kill Israelis.

Your average Palestinian doesn’t really look or sound that much different from your average American, your average Frenchman, or your average Israeli for that matter. Palestinians have hospitals, universities, scientists and educators.

They work, eat, shop, and watch television series like ER and The Simpsons, just like people everywhere else in the world.

They are normal human beings who happen to live in an abnormal and inhumane situation.

2. On the ground, you quickly learn that there is a history to the conflict, a fact that is consistently obscured by the media.

And it is a violent history of aggressive Israeli colonisation and ethnic cleansing of three-quarters of historic Palestine in the first half of the 20th century, a brutally repressive military occupation of the remaining quarter in the second half of the 20th century, and a series of peace agreements in the last decade that did not alter one iota either the process of colonisation or the repression.

The impact of this bitter history is such that every Palestinian family, without exception, has suffered at least one tragedy, in many cases several. Palestinian history — contrary to the propaganda efforts of pro-Israeli lobby groups — is not taught via twisted Jew-hating schoolbooks or television advertisements promoting the glories of martyrdom, nor by screaming mullahs in mosque pulpits…

It is a daily course taught by Israeli troops on Palestinian streets where people like you and me try desperately to go about living a normal life.

In other words, there is no past tense to Palestinian “history”: the same horrors that happened in 1948 continue to happen in the contemporary Palestinian experience.

Go to www.btselem.org and pick any report by this respected Israeli human rights organisation. Imagine yourself experiencing the testimonies you read. They will chill you to the bone.

3. However hard a Palestinian may try, there is nowhere to hide on the ground, no way to avoid the reality of Israeli military occupation.

It’s not possible to be a Palestinian “Uncle Tom,” kow-towing to the Israeli rulers and thus avoiding discrimination and repression.

Discrimination is not meted out or withheld according to individual cases. It is based on widely-held stereotypes and racism, enshrined in law.

And every day Israel redefines the meaning of “normal”, until F-16s attacks are unremarkable occurrences, just another image as we flip between channels.

Lulled by reasonable-sounding language, we don’t realise that these “military bases” — of which we see only a brief clip of indistinguishable ruins or trendy angles through a hole in the wall — are usually houses in a neighbourhood where people as uninvolved with the Middle East violence as you are, sleep or eat just 10 feet away from the “precision strike” — unfortunately unable to change the channel.

4. We the people of the world support the status quo.

Wherever you are reading this on the face of the earth — whether in Tucson, Arizona or Alice Springs, Australia — your government is either passively winking at the military occupation and repression by maintaining relations and trade with Israel, or in the case of the US, actively supplying Israel with the latest weaponry, paid for by your tax dollars. In its attempt to crush the current Intifada, Israel has deployed many US-made and/or funded weapons including:

Heavy weapons:
* F-16 fighter planes, Apache and Cobra attack helicopters, and Reshef patrol boats to attack Palestinian buildings and vehicles; and
* Armoured pile drivers and armoured bulldozers to destroy Palestinian homes and agricultural land.

Heavy ammunition:
* Naval and tank artillery including 76mm, 105mm and 120mm high explosive rounds;
* M114 TOW rockets and Hell-Fire air-to-ground missiles;
* Shoulder-fired, anti-armour Light Anti-tank Weapons (LAW) rocket launchers firing 84mm or 90mm rockets;
* M203 and MK19 grenade launchers;
* 40-90 mm mortars; and
* A modified version of the M494 105mm, an anti-personnel cluster bomb.

Smaller ammunition:
* 5.56 mm bullets for M-16 machine guns;
* 7.62 mm high velocity bullets for general purpose machine guns and Galil sniper rifles;
* 12.7 mm bullets for Browning machine guns and Barret sniper rifles; and
* The “less lethal” rubber-coated and plastic-coated metal bullets.

And let’s not forget the regular United States veto at the United Nations, barricading the last road left open to the Palestinians, which could lead to a peaceful legal resolution of their situation in the international community. Should also file this under “heavy weapons”?

5. Finally, it is morally indefensible to believe that you can maintain any sort of ‘balance’ in a conflict characterized by so profound an imbalance of power.

If you are witnessing a rape, or a child being abused, and the best you can do is express your “grave concern” like so many European and North American diplomats, you might as well join in.

There can be no equity in a situation where one side enjoys decisive military power on the ground and slavish protection from any meaningful diplomatic censure by the only superpower left on the planet.

The Palestinians’ very reasonable request is to be able to set up a state on their own land in order they might walk more than a few miles in a straight line without encountering a hostile military force.

None of these lessons are obvious from the media, and the television news is a particularly bad teacher.

The centrality of the television in Western society, and our consequent dependence on this flickering, transient medium for information, has resulted an Alice Through The Looking Glass reality where nothing is as it seems. The bombardment of our senses with chopping and changing imagery and sound to keep us entertained is so widely accepted that we do not question the appropriateness of the medium itself to confront serious issues.

The presentation of the rocketing of cities as ‘self defence’ is secondary to the image of the plane and the bomb, and it’s over so quickly that we fail to notice the subtle secondary message. Extend that surreality through seven years of the Oslo process and what we once called ‘apartheid’ on another continent has been passed off as ‘peace’ in Palestine.

So we sit on our regal sofas as armchair judges in possession of none of the evidence, we form opinions as couch juries ignorant of our Palestinian peers, and thus assume that we are qualified to lecture the oppressed about their use of mortars against their oppressors. The media never mention that the right of resistance has the backing of international law.

If there was one lesson that I learned above all others while on the ground of occupied Palestine, it was that the Intifada does not need to take place on the streets of Gazan refugee camps or on the edges of West Bank towns as much as it needs to take place in the minds of television viewers in London, Paris and Washington.

And, ironically, the media is one of the best educational tools we have to do that.

Nigel Parry is one of the four founders of the Electronic Intifada and worked at Birzeit University between 1994 and 1998. His journal from the time — A Personal Diary of the Israeli Palestinian Conflict — available at nigelparry.com/diary, documented the post-Oslo experience of Palestinians in the Ramallah area.