Reaching people on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide

by Ghassan Rubeiz
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NEW YORK – Writing fairly about the Arab-Israeli conflict often feels like walking on thin ice. Arab readers advise me to be “bold” in reporting on Palestinian suffering. In contrast, pro-Israeli readers advise me to be more sensitive to the “Jewish perspective”. I try and often fail, but I continue to try.

First, I cite an example from the Israeli side of my readership and then discuss comments from the Arab side. Last week, my op-ed, “Israel cannot be a democracy and an occupier”, published in Arabisto, Alhewar and elsewhere, must have provoked many pro-Israel readers. I argued that the oppressive occupation threatens the democracy of the Zionist state: “The Zionist state elects its representatives peacefully; its media are robust and it has a thriving free market. This same country has five million Jews ruling mercilessly over five million Palestinians.”

A reader objected to my use of the adverb “mercilessly” in characterising the Israeli occupation. This reader wanted me to be able to reach more Americans. He said that if my audience had been non-Israelis in the Middle East, there would have been no problem with my language and underlying assumptions. But if my audience is in the United States, he suspected that I’d find more questioning and doubt. Knowledge of Israeli oppression and “mercilessness” has been muted and obscured by years of attempting to be “balanced” and to sympathise with the Zionist position. He thought my solution might be to modify some of my stronger statements.

I explained to this concerned reader that I believed the occupation was “merciless” because it keeps expanding territorially and eliminates the chance to establish a Palestinian state: a requirement for lasting peace. I further explained that, while Israel keeps pleading for peace, the occupation worsens for Palestinians. I added that the occupation is not serving Israel’s security. One day, Israelis might wake up and find themselves in a minority position. The alternative is equally nightmarish: one day, the Palestinians might face ethnic cleansing to Jordan, Egypt or Lebanon. There is no “mercy” in either scenario.

It is care for Israel, not hatred, which entitles its friends to speak firmly about the risk of its open-ended, oppressive and, yes, merciless occupation. Through an expanding occupation Israel is gambling on its future; its friends should proclaim loudly: wake up Israel! Today, the Palestinians are the victims; in the future, given changing demography, the power balance may shift. There seems to be more risk for the occupation to eliminate Israel than to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. The greater the risk for Israel, the more audacity is required from its caring critics.

I face similar charges from my Arab readers, many of whom object to my blunt criticism of Palestinian rockets that are fired into Israeli neighbourhoods. Granted, these rockets have caused little damage compared with Israeli air attacks on Gaza. However, I believe we should oppose these forms of resistance because they are morally unjustifiable and ineffective.

Resistance from Gaza in the form of rockets has not succeeded in ending the occupation. Moreover, it is rather unfair for those Palestinian resisters to expose innocent Palestinian civilians to retaliation from the Israeli side. Were these Arab rockets stopped, Israel would lose the moral protection from the world community to retaliate to Palestinian provocation. Each rocket fuels the common misconception that Hamas is the only problem, and Israel is simply retaliating in self-defence. Each aimless rocket makes the world unfairly forget how the Israeli occupation factors into Palestinian resistance.

Another group of readers simply does not expect me, as an Arab, to strongly criticise other Arabs. The idea that “Arabs should not criticise each other in public” is out-of-date. The notion that Israel does enough damage to the Arab image, that Arabs should not add insult to injury, does not hold water. It is my deep belief that the Arabs’ lack of self-criticism is perhaps the most serious social problem that we have continued to ignore since liberation from the Ottoman Empire.

It is much easier to write as an advocate for one side of the conflict. There is a large audience on either side of the divide to please the identity-trapped advocate. Responsible writers are always tempted to emotionally advocate the case for their own communities; but a higher calling orients committed communicators to speak their mind and reach people on both sides of the divide. The risk of being misunderstood is a given, but I have no interest in contributing to an ocean of polluted, one-sided writing.

I refuse to be disqualified from being a friend of Israel on the basis of being an Arab critic of the occupation. I appeal to Israeli critics to speak louder and to save Israel by saving Palestine along with the Palestinians.

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* Ghassan Rubeiz is an Arab-American social scientist based in Washington, who has spent much of his life working in and around the Middle East. Mr. Rubeiz writes about religion, politics and life in the Middle East. This article is part of a special series on responsible journalism in the Arab-Israeli conflict written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service, 2 April 2009, www.commongroundnews.org.
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
 
 
 
 
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