Suicide and Statehood

by Jonathan Wallace

Israel and the Palestinians each are at a crossroads, with suicide and statehood as the two choices of path before them.

Palestinian statehood

For the first time, a prospect of Palestinian statehood is in the air, seemingly endorsed by all parties, including the Americans and even the Israelis. As is always true in human affairs, there are many nuances as to the meaning of the endorsement, let alone the structure, identity and life of a Palestinian state.

The most important thing to say is that the Palestinians should have a state, both as a matter of fundamental (substantive) justice and the procedural redress of grievances. Unlike some current or recent states based on political abstractions, such as Yugoslavia, the Palestinians meet the criteria for statehood expressed more than a century ago by Ernst Renan: "For the essence of a nation is that all of the individuals have many things in common, but also that they have all forgotten many other things." The Palestinians, like the Israelis, are a cohesive people with a strong national narrative and cultural references in common. Also like the Israelis, they have a substantial collection of things-- crimes and follies of the past--that must be expunged from the national memory, to create the seamless nostalgia one feels at the singing of a national anthem or in saluting a flag.

Though Palestinian terrorism obscures rather than underlines Palestinian suffering, over the past sixty years most of the world has come to accept the necessity of Palestinian separation from Israel. Unlike other separatist movements (that in Quebec, to pick an extremely dissimilar example) which are standing up to power structures extremely interested in keeping territory, resources and cohesiveness, the Palestinians are not facing an opponent dedicated to keeping them or their country part of Israel. While there is a powerful, vocal and sometimes violent Israeli minority which desires settlements and expansion, for most Israelis the discussion seems to be about security (which is one of the cornerstones of statehood).

The Israelis are in the classic situation of the man who has somehow gotten hold of a panther by the head and is trying to figure out how to let go of it safely. The recent initiative, announced by Prime Minister Sharon, to retake Palestinian areas until they can be cleaned of terrorists, raises immense economic questions of whether Israel (which can ill afford to do so) is going to pay for required services and infrastructure, as one does in governed territories. Another equally unrealistic line of thought is to let the Palestinian areas sort things out or fester as they will, separated from Israel by the kind of impermeable barrier which exists only in the works of science fiction writers.

This raises another advantage of Palestinian statehood: Israelis will never be safe until Palestine is governed by a strong, stable government interested (as even Libya has now become) in renouncing terrorism and becoming a reliable member of the worldwide club of nations.

This seemed a matter of mere detail just a couple of years ago, at the height of the Oslo peace process. Now it seems close to unattainable, something that will require the passage of fifty years and the transformation of some of today's surviving Palestinian young people into old men and women desiring peace. I think future history books will record that both sides lacked the political will to go the last mile; Barak could not evacuate settlements, and Arafat could not renounce the right of return or (most significantly) control even the violent wing of his own group, Al Fatah.

The Israeli image of a Palestinian state has now shrunk terribly, from a partner for peace to (at best) a sort of puppet or Bantustan. Remarkably, this is a repeat of Ariel Sharon's image of Lebanon, which failed so miserably in 1983. Israel has the conception that some group of Palestinian collaborators exists who will take over from Arafat, quell the violence, and serve as self-interested, concupiscent and quiet allies of Israel. It is hard to imagine that any such people really exist (other than the low level collaborators who sell Palestinian terrorists to Israel for small amounts of money and are later hung from lampposts by enraged crowds). Instead, Prime Minister Sharon and President Bush should be seriously frightened by the prospect of Hamas or Islamic Jihad moving in to fill the vacuum left by the Israeli overthrow of Chairman Arafat (whom Israel seems to be trying very hard to kill "by accident").

The Israeli miltary strategy (if it can be called one) of destroying economic infrastructure (even to the point of destroying computers in commercial and educational institutions, busting up television studios and the like), creating fences, checkpoints and curfews, ending or painfully slowing the movement of workers, goods and even ambulances, tends in a different direction: creating a wasteland of rageful and suicidal people, a sort of Mad Max world of the powerful, criminal and appetitive, from which Israel then proposes to protect itself by tanks, guns and electrified fences. This immense failure of the imagination (or upwelling of a sadistic imagination) can never lead to a secure Israel.

The most important message to the Palestinians (which is largely getting lost, a tiny signal amidst the noise) is the old high school principal speech about rights engendering responsibilities. Revolutions and separatist movements are always about rights, never about responsibilities--possibly because the people fighting to be free have lived in a state of enforced childishness for too long (like Palestinians prevented from working, attending educational institutions or even having any level of cultural life higher than enraged street theater re-enacting suicide bombings). Milan Kundera's brilliant and simple idea in The Unbearable Lightness of Being is that life becomes dreary, mind-numbing and painful if responsibility is denied. His Czechoslovakian doctors, bureaucrats and intellectuals were not, for the most part, being imprisoned, beaten or tortured; they had enough to eat, were warm and comfortable in their homes; they had the freedom to drink, have sex, go to the movies; their lives were unbearable only because they didn't mean anything, because they weren't permitted the responsibility which brings meaning.

If the Palestinians want to have a state, they will have to satisfy everyone that they can assume the responsibility of governing themselves, which means entering into mutual guarantees with neighbors including Israel. There is no sense in assisting at the creation of a Palestinian state right now if it is as incoherent, bloody and potentially dangerous to neighbors as a Sudan or a Somalia. One issue that everyone has danced around, particularly American presidents encouraging a mid-east peace process, is how a Palestinian government will put Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah out of business.

This issue, which is really central, a precondition to peace or statehood, has been publicly treated almost as incidental, and therefore has become an arena for weak fingerpointing. The Israelis say, for there to be peace, you must arrest the terrorists. Then, when Arafat, insincerely and under intense international pressure, rounds up a few Hamas members, Israel (with that same sadistic military imagination,unmoored from any principles of liberal democracy or international law) seizes the opportunity to rocket the prisons where they are held. Then Arafat lets them go again. Wouldn't you? Sentencing them to death without a trial was not part of the deal. Bombs go off, and the Israelis respond sometimes not by killing terrorists, who are hard to find, but Palestinian policemen, who are much easier. You aren't arresting terrorists, the Israelis complain again. You aren't leaving me the police with which to do so, Arafat replies. Everyone is wrong and everyone is right; in this perfect moral murk the only important question is lost: when and how the Palestinians will have the moral will to stop the violence (at whatever cost to themselves to do so), and when Israel will have the reciprocal moral will to refrain from shooting Palestinian children who break curfew, blowing up television stations, bulldozing houses where terrorist once lived and displacing innocent residents, and the myriad other actions that continue to guaranty the daily supply of new suicide bombers.

Palestinian suicide

"Nothing human is alien to me." Daily I attempt the exercise of walking at least a few feet in someone else's shoes. I find both Ariel Sharon and Yaser Arafat to be despicable, violent men, both of whom have committed and tolerated many bloody crimes in their lives, but they are both very similar and familiar human types: amalgams of strong desire and excuses, and complete lack of any obstruction to the use of violence to accomplish goals.

Suicide bombers are another matter. Last week we had the report of the Arab-Israeli cab driver who specialized in transporting suicide bombers into Israel. In an interview, he spoke of the woman who got upset and changed her mind, and the other one-- a teenager--who calmly told him, "I have had a good meal and I am ready to blow up now." It is minimally possible to understand the phenomenon of a suicidal rage--the trite figure from the movies, who takes a weapon from his brother or squad mate's dying hand, and runs roaring to his death amidst superior enemy forces-- but the phenomenon of a suicidal calm is almost beyond my reach. Is it a stew composed of a complete loss of hope leading to a desire for self-destruction then mixed with powerful spices of nationalism and notoriety? Is a suicide bombing a paroxysm of meaning to end a meaningless life? The hardest bombers to understand, the people at the most alien end of the spectrum, were the Al Quaeda men of September 11, wealthy or comfortable graduate students, professionals and family men with good lives, from families which had never been displaced, and no apparent reason to want to die. Palestinian suicide bombers are at least formed in a palpable cauldron, while the Al Quaeda men seem to be made in a very abstract one. It is hard to know if anyone actually believes in the incredibly hoky stage-paradise with the seventy virgins--or whether female suicide bombers believe in a version gender-reversed for them, or would even regard this as a paradise.

Nonetheless, more than 120 Palestinians have killed themselves and others, or tried to do so, in the last couple of years, and a recent assessment by an Israeli security official is that the only bottleneck today is the supply of explosves, and not the number of people willing to strap them on.

It was very heartening to read of a statement, published in the Palestinian press and now signed by hundreds of Palestinian intellectuals and public figures, calling for an end to suicide bombing, principally because it deepens the mutual hatred and removes the last fragments of hope for peace. To end suicide bombing it will be necessary to end its cultural glorication; to transform it, in Renan's terms, from something the Palestinians will always want to remember into one of the crimes and follies they want to forget. France would be a very different type of nation today if it exulted in, rather than consigned to silence, the St. Barthelmy's day massacre of Protestants that was in fact one of the early formative moments of French identity. A disheartening symbolic moment was the publication of the photo of the Palestinian toddler dressed as a suicide bomber with (presumably) fake dynamite-- a remote echo of a photograph of me, or of millions of my generation, wearing a cowboy outfit forty-five years ago.

Most enthusiastic embracers of paroxysmal destruction--the Tokyo-based Aum Shirikyo sect, the Manson family, the Jones family in Guyana--believe that the last human work necessary is the cleansing violence, and that the building of the new world will be done by God or will spontaneously happen. It is rare that the same people can be adept at creating the conditions of intense violence sometimes needed (or thought to be needed) to get freedom, and the institutions of justice and democracy needed to sustain it. The more intense and mystical the commitment to violence, the less are the odds that any architect will exist (or be permitted to survive) to build the house that is needed after.

Every suicide bomber places a curse on his own people: a legacy of hatred, of returned violence, a situation in which the prospects for justice get ever further away. Among the curses of suicide, like any other violence, is that you cannot simply turn off the spigot when the goal is accomplished. This is a lesson the Algerians have been learning for a decade now, as the same tactics they used to free themselves from the French are used against them daily by a fundamentalist movement which desires to replace them as the government of the nation. By any means necessary.

Israeli suicide

While individual Israelis seem to want to live more than their Palestinian counterparts (the last Israeli suicide attack was the settler who stormed a mosque with his Uzi many years ago), Israel on the whole has as much of an obsessive attraction for self-destructive actions as the other side does. Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount accompanied by hundreds of policemen may not have put him at much personal risk, but it singlehandedly launched the entire country on an extremely self-destructive course. Now, a year and a half later, the Israeli public seems to be beginning to grasp the idea that Sharon, like a suicide bomber, has failed to lay down an escape route. The remarkable statement made the defense minister the other day--that punitive actions in the West Bank, though "necessary" to counter terrorism, also create new hordes of suicide bombers--was an acknowledgement that no-one in government has any idea how to make things better right now.

Scuba divers have a saying that in their sport it is literally possible to die of embarassment--by embarking on a dive for which you are not prepared because too ashamed to tell your buddies that you want to call it off. The Israeli nation has placed itself at serious risk of dying from the same cause. It is a pretty poor excuse for death that you are afraid of looking weak. I believe the Oslo peace process was not dead until Sharon went up the Temple Mount. Barak has kindly said that he believes that Sharon only intended to undercut him, and not to launch the second intifada. I believe Sharon desired to wipe away both Barak and Arafat with one daring move. However, like the Manson family or Aum Shirikyo, Sharon seems to believe that after the violence, the good society will somehow build itself.

Israeli statehood

Most Americans are quite used to not thinking about the legitimacy of the Israeli state, which was born in a contortion of violence in 1948 (seizing more land than was granted by the U.N. mandate creating both Israel and Palestine).

States depend not only on what Renan called a "daily plebiscite" of their own people, but (unless impregnably fortified and armed with unbeatable weapons) on the good will of their neighbors as well. Israel has always lacked the good will of much of the world--and antisemitism, a convenient red herring, is not the real issue. Among the "gifts" of the twentieth century (along with mass murder and weapons of awful power) is a weak but growing international consensus that (despite the rivers of blood which flowed centuries ago at the birth of every other nation, or, even earlier, when a Cro-magnon man clubbed the last Neanderthal to death) no new nations should be built upon the backs of another people. The Israelis are unlucky to have built their state in the second half of the twentieth century, rather than in say, 1360, when they could have gotten away with so much more.

While Israeli statehood may be much more advanced than that of the Palestinians, it too is a dish not yet fully cooked. The Israelis, though it angers them, seem resigned to the idea that they cannot finish their own job of statehood until they have assisted at the creation of a Palestinian state next door.

However physical security, finalization of international recognition, normal trade, and the restoration of their economy, all of which are terrifically important, are not the exclusive benefits granted to Israelis by Palestinian statehood. There is also (just as for the Palestinians) a psychological and cultural benefit in renouncing killing. Israeli killers cannot complete the work of democracy any more than Palestinian killers can. For this reason Ariel Sharon seems to me a paradigm of anti-democratic man, all about lies and (as a prior prime minister said) "force, might, beatings" and not about the institutions of stability, support, and repair. President Bush showed extreme bias in calling for Arafat's ouster. What he should have said is that there will not be peace in the Middle East until both Arafat and Sharon are gone.