Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Taking on Friedman

Yesterday I shared the opinion of Thomas Friedman that people who draw attention to the political and economic realities that fuel terrorism, are themselves “one notch less despicable than the terrorists.” Friedman labels such people, “excuse-makers.”

One of the books I’m currently reading while in Australia is John Pilger’s Freedom Next Time. In the chapter entitled “The Last Tabbo,” Pilger examines the Israeli/Palestinian issue. This particular chapter is based on his recent documentary film, Palestine is Still the Issue. One of those Pilger interviewed for this film was Israeli graphic designer Rami Elhanan.

On September 4, 1997, Rami and his wife Nurit lost their fourteen-year-old daughter, Smadar, to a Palestinian suicide bomber. Without doubt, the actions of this and other suicide bombers can be called terrorism. I’m sure Thomas Friedman wouldn’t argue with this definition.

Yet according to Friedman, Rami Elhanan is “one notch less despicable” than the terrorist who killed his daughter. Why? Because Rami isn’t afraid to identify and examine the underlying reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands – an occupation that compel some young Palestinian men and women to engage in acts of terrorism.

As a result, Rami declares that “there is no basic moral difference between the [Israeli] soldier at the checkpoint who prevents a [Palestinian] woman who is having a baby from going through, causing her to lose the baby, and the man who killed my daughter.”

Rami and his wife Nurit, writes Pilger, “are among the founders of the Parents’ Circle, or Bereaved Families for Peace, which brings together Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost loved ones. They include the families of suicide bombers. They jointly organize educational campaigns and lobby politicians to begin serious negotiations [to end the conflict]”.

Following are excerpts from John Pilger’s conversation with Rami Elhanan, taken from his book Freedom Next Time (pp. 98-100), re-formatted as an interview.

Judge for yourself if Rami is one of Friedman’s “despicable excuse-makers.”


John Pilger: [As an Israeli] how do you distinguish the feelings of anger you must have felt as a father at losing your daughter, from the feeling of wanting to reach out [to the Palestinian people in order to find a way of living together]?

Rami Elhanan: Very simple. I am a human being; I am not an animal. I lost my child, but I didn’t lose my head. Thinking and acting from the guts only increases an endless circle of blood. You have to think: our two peoples are here to stay; neither will evaporate. We have to compromise in some way. And you do that by the head, not by the guts.

John Pilger: Have you made contact with the parents of the suicide bomber who killed [your daughter] Smadar?

Rami Elhanan: That was tried once; someone wanted to make a film about it, but I wasn’t interested. I am not crazy; I don’t forget, I don’t forgive. Someone who murders little girls is a criminal and should be punished, and to be in personal contact with those who did me wrong, it’s not the point. So you see, I sometimes have to fight myself to do what I’m doing. But I’m sure what I’m doing is right. I certainly understand that the suicide bomber was a victim the same as my girl was. Of that, I’m sure.

John Pilger: Have you made contact with the parents of other suicide bombers?

Rami Elhanan: Yes. Very warm and encouraging contacts.

John Pilger: What is the point of that?

Rami Elhanan: The point is to make peace, and not to ask questions. I have blood on my hands, too. I was a soldier in the Israeli army . . . if you are digging into the personal history of each and every one of us, you won’t make peace, you’ll make more arguments and more blame. Tomorrow, I am going to Hebron to meet bereaved Palestinian families. They are living proof of the willingness of the other side to make peace with us.

John Pilger: Isn’t the public mood in Israel quite different?

Rami Elhanan: I have a friend who says that what I am doing is like taking water out of the ocean with a spoon. We [in the Parents’ Circle] are very few, it’s true, and the world is being led by very stupid people: that’s also true. I’m talking about the American President and my own Prime Minister.

To take this word “terrorism” and build everything around it, as they do, you only make more misery, more war, more casualties, more suicide bombers, more revenge, more punishment. Where does that go? Nowhere.

Our task is to point out the obvious. George Washington was a terrorist, Jomo Kenyatta was a terrorist, Nelson Mandela was a terrorist. Terrorism only has meaning for those who are weak and who have no other choice, and no other means.

John Pilger: What has to be done to end this suffering?

Rami Elhanan: We have to start by fighting ignorance. I go to schools and give lectures. I tell the children how the conflict began by asking them to imagine a house with ten rooms where Mohammed and his family are living in peace. Then, one stormy night, there’s a knock at the door, and outside stands Moshe and his family. They are sick, beaten, broken. “Excuse me,” he says, “but I once lived in this house.”

This is the whole Arab-Israeli conflict in a snap; and I tell the kids that the Palestinians gave up seventy-eight percent of the country which they are sure is theirs, so the Israelis should give up the twenty-two percent that was left [following the 1967 war].

John Pilger: What kind of reaction do you get?

Rami Elhanan: I watch the faces of the kids when I show them the maps [of the offer Prime Minister Ehud Barak made to Yasser Arafat at Camp David before the “peace process” broke down. These maps reveal that swathes of the West Bank were held back from the Palestinians and kept for Jewish settlers]. And I tell them that we had seventy-eight percent, and the Palestinians had twenty-two percent, and that’s all the Palestinians want now, and I see ignorance lift.

You know, in Israel, the bereaved are said to be sacred. People give them respect because they have paid the price. I am due that respect, but of course there are people who don’t want to hear what I say.

John Pilger: What is the price that a society pays when it runs a military occupation?

Rami Elhanan: It’s an unbearable price. The list begins with moral corruption. When we don’t let pregnant women through checkpoints, and their babies die, we have reduced ourselves to animals and we are no different from the suicide bombers.

John Pilger: What do you say to Jewish people in other countries, like Britain [and the US]: people who support Israel because they feel they must?

Rami Elhanan: I say they should be loyal to real Jewish values, and support the peace movement in Israel, not the state at all costs. It’s only pressure from outside – from Jews, from governments, from public opinion – that will end this nightmare.

While there is this silence, this looking away, this profane abuse of our critics as anti-Jew, we are no different from those who stood aside during the days of the Holocaust. We are not only complicit in a crime, we ensure that we ourselves never know peace, and our surviving children never know peace. I ask you: does that make any sense?

John Pilger: But they might say the Jews are in danger of being pushed into the sea by the Arabs, that Israel must stand firm.

Rami Elhanan: Pushed into the sea by whom? We are the most powerful power in the Middle East. We have one of the greatest armies in the world. In this last operation [Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s attack on the West Bank in April 2002], we sent four armoured divisions against some five hundred armed people. It’s a laugh. Who will push us into the sea? Who can push us into the sea?

The real issue is played out every day at the checkpoints. The Palestinian boy whose mother is humiliated in the morning will be a suicide bomber in the evening. There is no way that Israelis can sit in their coffee houses and eat and drink while two hundred metres away desperate people are humiliated and Palestinian children are beginning to starve. The suicide bomber is no more than a mosquito. The occupation is the swamp.

Update: Brothers in Peace New Internationalist (January 1, 2010).

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