Black is for mourning, to say “we’re not conforming,” to war crimes in the Middle East

The deadly operation launched by Ariel Sharon this week in Rafah, the southernmost city of the crowded and occupied Gaza Strip, is picturesquely code-named “Operation Rainbow.”

Dressing up a murderous assault on unarmed civilians with an ancient symbol of glittering hope is obscene. One hue never present in any rainbow is black. But that’s the shade I’d like to focus on in this essay and call for action.

In the last 36 hours, I have received dozens of e-mail appeals urging people of good conscience to write letters to top officials in Washington and Tel Aviv in an effort to halt the war crimes we are watching hourly on our television screens.

Bitter experience gained from three years working on a war crimes case filed by survivors of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in a Belgian court under the principle of universal jurisdiction, only to be halted in its tracks by Donald Rumsfeld last June, [1] has taught me to expect nothing from the current incumbents of high political office in the US and Israel (all of whom are Likudniks, regardless of their religious affiliations).

Bush, Sharon, and those surrounding them display a brazen disregard for international law as well as an arrogant, sneering certainty that they are above all laws. It is highly unlikely that they or their underlings will respond to letters of protest or complaint from people lacking in wealth and corporate and/or lobbying clout.

As Bush noted with his characteristic smirk upon surveying guests attending an exclusive campaign dinner gathering of the richest people in the USA in July 2000: “This is an impressive crowd. The haves and the have-mores. Some call you the elite. I call you my base.”[2]

Given Bush’s skewed conceptions about political participation, your letters to the editor, to the US Secretary of State, senators, congresspersons, or the Israeli Knesset just won’t cut the mustard in neo-conservative America. Nor will rallies and demonstrations do much except make us feel good about being with like-minded souls for a few hours before returning to the nauseating, repetitive, and indelible images of US-taxpayer funded death, defilement and destruction on our television screens and computer monitors.

George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Ariel Sharon do not see us as fellow human beings, let alone as citizens or as the public. Rather, they view anyone opposing them with utter contempt. Our views do not matter in the least. US and Israeli leaders are enjoying their impunity, so couldn’t we all just keep quiet and not bother them?

Sharon’s latest comments, as reported by CBC News, stressed that Operation Rainbow aims to “bring Israel the quiet it has long deserved.” [3] Chillingly, he predicts that quiet is coming soon. Perhaps the quiet of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut on 18 September 1982, a stillness marred only by the drone of thousands of flies feasting on the 1000+ corpses? Sharon has massacred before, and it does not appear that anyone in DC officialdom can stop him from doing it again.

So let’s not appeal to US and Israeli officials, who are, after all, complicit in, and the key authors of, an increasingly global pattern of grave violations of the Geneva Conventions and UN resolutions. Both countries have structured their jural relationships with the rest of the world through force, intimidation, economic pressures, media manipulation, and diplomatic dealings, all with the aim of ensuring their immunity from prosecution for crimes such as those we have seen in the West Bank and Gaza (and not just this week) as well as in Falluja and Abu Ghraib.

Neither country has signed on to the Rome Treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC). The US is working hard to subvert and erode the ICC’s work even before it really begins by actively coercing countries in the developing world to sign non-extradition treaties with the US. Now that we’ve seen events unfold in Falluja and Abu Ghraib, it is easier to understand exactly why the US has been so insistent upon destroying the ICC, a judicial venue it would have good reason to fear given what is now happening in the Middle East as I type these words.

Sending Bush, Sharon, and their various minions hundreds of individualized form letters a day is not a bad idea: It might alert American and Israeli spinmeisters that their p.r. machines are not working as smoothly as usual. But writing letters to ask that criminals look into crimes is not going to make a dent in the underlying problems and dysfunctions that beset us all, from California to Kirkuk. What we must address is how and why the US manages to enjoy global military, commercial, and media dominance while simultaneously wrecking the emerging architecture of global justice.

What might restrain the Likudniks in Washington, DC and Tel Aviv from doing further damage to International Humanitarian Law and UN resolutions is a campaign of simple yet sustained and concerted action. It would take less time than writing a letter and would require only the adoption and deployment of basic but powerful symbols.

Taking some inspiration from the Israeli anti-occupation group, Women in Black, I suggest that everyone concerned about the disaster unfolding in Israel, Iraq and Palestine begin wearing black arm-bands in solidarity with Iraqis, Palestinians and Israelis, and furthermore, getting as many people as possible to wear these armbands daily as a sign of our refusal to be complicit in crimes, as an index of our anger, and as a symbolic (non-violent) arming of ourselves in the face of an escalating military madness of racist policies that will damage many, many innocent lives in the Middle East and beyond for decades.

Black is the color of mourning; the color that symbolically conveys, in many rites of passage, that one has reached a limit, that one must undergo a transformation, as there is no going back. Black is the end of innocence, the closing of a chapter. Black is the dark at the end of a long tunnel that has not led anywhere. Black is the message that it is time to seek some light and find our way back to the surface to breathe fresh air, and look one another in the face again without fear, shame, anger or hatred.

Black is not only about sorrow, grief or despair. Black is a teacher that warns, guides, nourishes, and births new possibilities. It marks a beginning as well as an ending.

What we do by wearing black is not only to mourn the murders of people in Rafah, the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, the senseless deaths of Americans sent into a war for profit, the horrific deaths of Israeli civilians in suicide bombings, but also to bemoan and protest the damage done to International Law while raising an alarm about the serious, but not yet mortal, wounds inflicted upon emerging frameworks of global governance, justice, cooperation, and community.

Black is also the color of oil, the real reason for the nightmare in Iraq. It sits upon us like the mark of Cain. So let’s subvert it and use it to protest the political economy that drives the abuses we see hourly on television.

In Israel, the phrase “the black flag is flying” refers to the fact that war crimes are occuring and that soldiers in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have the duty not to follow orders given under the black flag of criminal intent or negligence.

Black is traditionally the color of Mesopotamia (the land between the rivers), where urban life began with the advent of agriculture and writing. Iraq has the potential for being a great center of civilization, fruitfulness, learning, invention, and artistic and scientific achievements. The rich, black soil of Iraq, and the people of Iraq, are that country’s true and lasting wealth. Both have been misused and abused by Saddam and now the “coalition.” Iraq’s soil is meant to be sown, not used as a mass grave or dusted with depleted uranium.

I can only speak for myself, but black is the color of my mood and outlook each time I see the hourly news or photographic updates to this website.

If thousands of people in cities large and small throughout the world started wearing black armbands, that small symbolic gesture might encourage more people to talk about what is happening, and better yet, to think seriously and speak honestly about what is being done in our names in Iraq and in Israel/Palestine. Black is not a symbol of a nation. Rather, it stands for mourning, rage, and the need for transcendence, transformation, and the righting of a lot of wrongs. Black is a symbol of a humanity long over-shadowed and obscured by greed, hate, fear, and arrogance. It’s a sign that we are saying “No more!” We have reached the edge and we must find a new path.

This suggested action is not about being pro-Palestinian or pro-Iraqi, anti-US or anti- Israel. It is about being pro-sanity, pro-humanity, pro-international humanitarian law. In addition to harming and destroying individual lives today, the actions undertaken by the US and Israel threaten all our lives in the future to the extent that they undermine frameworks of international governance and mechanisms of justice.

International Humanitarian Law is your law. Know it. Use it. Hold abusers to it.[5]

[1] See for more details.
[2] Quoted in Matthew Rothschild’s November 2003 interview with Jim Hightower in The Progressive.
[3] “Israel ignores international outcry; continues sweep through GazaCBC News, 18 May 2004.
[4] See China Galland’s interesting book, Longing for Darkness (New York: Penguin, 1991) for more about the spiritual and political significance of blackness in a variety of cultural traditions.
[5] For more details on this important body of laws, see:

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  • BY TOPIC: Israel’s “Operation Rainbow” in Rafah, Gaza

    Dr. Laurie King-Irani, a social anthropologist, is a co-founder of Electronic Intifada and Electronic Iraq. She is currently writing a book on conceptions and practices of jurisdiction, sovereignty, and rights as expressed in local discourses about global justice and internatonal humanitarian law. An American citizen, King-Irani lives and works in British Columbia, Canada.