Saturday, August 05, 2006

Irreconcilable Narratives from 1967 to 2006

I was only seven years old then, but I still remember the frightening sound of the Israeli war planes up in the sky and the sound of the distant bombing and that of the Egyptian anti aircraft guns. We lived on the edge of Cairo adjacent to some nondescript military installation with whom we had a dispute over a small piece of property that was part of our house and would eventually become our one car garage. This was back in June 1967, just off school and looking forward to the summer and maybe a holiday on the Mediterranean beaches in Alexandria. I feel somewhat a fraud because these days have had such an impact on my life; Cairo was far away from the real center of the war and while hundreds of thousands from each of the three big cities of the Suez Canal had to flee their homes I am not really aware of any civilian destruction in Cairo itself. Yet those days of fear, panic and of nightly shouts of “tafou el nour” telling us to turn the lights off have left their mark on me.

Ten years later, while living in England, I would seek out Israelis to know how it felt on their side, what were they thinking, I would visit a synagogue in Manchester and attend meeting with Jewish Groups. Many years later I am still active in dialogue in person and on the internet advocating reconciliation and peace in the Middle East. I have now come to accept that there will NEVER be one set of facts surrounding the 1967 war; was it a war of self defense or a war of aggression? Why were the Egyptian POW’s brutalized by the Israelis? Why did Israel immediately (and later too) annex territory and just a few years later started a colonizing settlement policy? Was Egypt’s Nasser really a threat to Israel or just a loud mouth? How come the Egyptian army was not even on an “alert state”? But why did Nasser threaten to blockade the Red Sea? How come Israeli intelligence knew so much about Egypt that the Arabic Service of Radio Israel broadcast helpful hints to the students taking General Secondary School Certificate just few days before the start of the war yet thought that Egypt was really a threat? Can Israel be blamed to taking Nasser’s bravado seriously?

I now accept that there is no real factual answer to these questions. Each side has its narrative, its own proprietary set of facts that can be substantiated with loads of logic and evidence, yet diametrically opposing and irreconcilable. This was in the dark ages before the internet, blogs, 24 hours news station like CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera. Somehow I thought such contradictions in the basic facts ..what really happened could never be repeated in the Middle East. I was wrong! I have just returned to Boston from a business trip to Europe that included a four day side trip to Egypt. So, I was in the US for the start of the 2006 hostilities watching CNN and listening to NPR, moved on to the CNN International & BBC and then on to Al Jazeera, Al Manar (Hezbollah’s very own TV station) and Egyptian Government and opposition newspapers and talking to friends, relatives and strangers about the events.

Where best to start, simply the very basic facts are disputed and hence the positions that people take are radically different. While it is hard to generalize I will attempt to portray the basic facts as seen in my predominantly pro Israel US community & US media, a glimpse of Europe and lastly in Egypt. The Israeli Palestinian conflict is much more complex and so I will attempt to focus on the Lebanese Israeli war except of course the Palestinian dimension does play a very important role and supporting evidence of the various conflicting facts. Much of what follow will essentially be generalizations that aimed at capturing the main themes.

In the US, the situation is very clear cut. Hezbollah is already listed as a terrorist organization; the fact that it is a member of a Government we recognize is explained away as part of our support for the Lebanese Cedar Revolution aiming at ridding Lebanon’s of Syria’s occupation and national reconciliation. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and from Lebanon; Palestinian terrorists kept on firing rockets on Israel and actually carried a raid on Israel taking an Israeli soldier hostage. Israel attacked Gaza in self defense to silence the rocket attacks and to free its hostage; innocent Palestinians civilians were killed while Israel pursued armed terrorists; Israel had no choice but to attack those who attack her and these terrorists hide in civilian areas so there is bound to be civilian causalities; the onus is on the Palestinian terrorists, the Palestinian Authority which is clearly complicit in the terrorism and for the civilians who harbor them.

Hezbollah invaded the internationally recognized and undisputed border of Israel and killed Israeli soldiers and took two of them hostage. Hezbollah acts were essentially in support of the Palestinian terrorist and part of their hate of Israel, which they refuse to recognize, has a right to exist. The timing may have been motivated by Iran and its nuclear issues. The US must support Israel as a very active partner in the War on Terror or WoT. In this war, like Iraq and Afghanistan civilians will die but it is ultimately for their own good to liberate them from oppressive terrorists. This sort of logic is very prevalent across the entire political spectrum in the US not just in the strongly pro Israel community where I live. The limited voices of dissent mainly focus on the scale of destruction of Lebanon and the evacuation of the US citizens from Lebanon. Very few faint voices go beyond that and the vast majority of people see Israel very much doing the right and responsible thing.

European media including CNN International which is in competition with BBC World rather than Fox News and most people I talked to believe Israel’s version of the events on Lebanon but not Gaza. A relatively small minority buys the current hostility as part of the WoT, indeed most don’t see Iraq’s war as part of WoT either. There is a fair amount of sympathy for the Palestinians but not necessarily Hamas and Hezbollah is negatively viewed as a repressive terrorist organization that provoked Israel and was responsible for so much kidnapping, death and destruction for many years. The view of Israel is less glowing and there is tremendous sympathy with the Lebanese people and anger at both Hezbollah and Israel for killing civilians.

The Egyptian narrative is entirely different. The vast majority of the people I talked to, in fact everyone I talked to, believe that Hezbollah never ventured into internationally recognized Israeli territory but into an area that Israel has occupied since 1982. Israel has refused to hand this territory back to Lebanon claiming it was never part of Lebanon and was indeed part of Syria. Hezbollah attacked Israeli occupation forces and took two Israeli soldiers prisoners not hostage. Hezbollah is on record that while it does not recognize Israel it is a nationalist Lebanese movement and it leaves the struggle of Palestine to the Palestinians; its aims are purely liberating all Lebanese territory and freeing Lebanese hostages held in Israeli prisons. Hezbollah only fired rockets on Israeli towns after Israel attacked Beirut and its original operation was against Israeli military not civilians. I had not heard this version of events before I arrived in Egypt. The headline of the opposition newspaper “El Wafed” cried “Revenge …Revenge ..Revenge” after the Qana massacre which was shown in graphic details on al Jazeera and Al Manar TV and also on CNNI. El Wafed, the party that was re-established in the 70’s with a strong capitalist roots and alignment to the west has had to go fully populist and blatantly anti Semitic (contrary to its 1919 roots) to criticize the Government as incompetent and has called for freezing or canceling Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, probably knowing fully well that this would not be done. The Muslim Brotherhood was critical of Saudi Islamic rulings blaming Hezbollah and I have heard that some Wahabi influenced Imams were roughed up by the worshippers after the Friday prayers for taking anti Hezbollah positions. The general feeling is that Israel’s attack was premeditated and was waiting for an excuse; Israel military incursion into the area it occupied from Lebanon since 82 was the original provocation. Iran is no threat to Israel and it needs nuclear weapons to protect itself from the US & Israel.

In the lazy days of summer on the Egyptian Mediterranean coast people were completely occupied with the events and very sad of the destruction of Lebanon and the cruelty of Israel. Opposition parties are racing to attack the Government over trade with Israel and various trade unions and professional syndicates are kicking out members who have been engaged in “normalization” with Israel. The Opposition papers are as one sided and populist as Fox News; it is all Bill O’Riley without the ugly purple ties and as anti Semitic as he is anti Muslim & Arab if not a tad more. While talking heads on CNN & Fox talk with authority over Sunni and Shiite splits, they are clearly ignorant of how this sectarian issue plays such a minor role in countries such as Egypt which has virtually no Shiites but its majority Sunni Muslims has a very strong spiritual alignment with Shiite Islam not seen in countries such as Iraq.

I have always been very interested to learn more about the lives of the 1948 Palestinians who remained in Israel, those often referred to as Israeli Arabs who make up nearly one fifth of the population of Israel. When I heard that one of Hezbollah rockets landed in Nazareth and killed 2 children and saw on CNN the crowded streets I guessed it must have been the Palestinian part of Nazareth, later I heard on the BBC that it was indeed the case. I saw an interview with the distraught father on al Jazeera just once. I asked many of the people in Egypt I met if they knew that Palestinian kids were being killed by Hezbollah rockets, many people had no idea and were shocked. When I mentioned that Haifa shelters had Palestinian and Jewish Israelis in them they were surprised and somehow uncertain what to think. With so many CNN and other American reporters in the North of Israel I would have expected much more reporting on the Israeli Arabs, their living conditions, adequacy of shelters and the like but that too was lacking. The relative silence on the Israeli Palestinians or Arabs was virtually the only thing in common. Their existence is annoying inconvenience to both sides; their lack of adequate participation in Israelis society as an embarrassment to those wanting to present Israel as a liberal egalitarian society and whatever participation they do have in the Israeli society is too much for those who believe Israel is total evil that can never be reconciled with. At least there is some common ground but not much room for hope from this!

Aug 5, 2006