Palestinians in the Aftermath of Beirut
There is slight consolation for Palestinians in the realization that Israel did not achieve all its war aims in Lebanon. The accelerating propaganda efforts at convincing the world-the US especially-that Israel delivered Lebanon to the "free" world appear more preposterous everyday, but totally in keeping with the ingrained Israeli habit of supplanting reality with fantasy. True, the immense physical and human damage done to Lebanon has receded in memory some- what; and true also there is a meliorist and euphemistic aura surrounding Lebanon's new president, who aspires to being more a national president and more a symbol of unity than either the tradition of his predecessors or of his party might allow. But in the main Israel has not been able to turn its military successes into anything resembling a clear-cut political victory. The universal opprobrium heaped upon Begin and Sharon for the siege of Beirut and the Sabra-Shatila massacres, the intensified international awareness of the Palestinian issue, the minimal but definite steps forward taken by President Reagan and the Arab heads of state: all these are indications that Likud's plan for a Palestinian final solution failed to sweep the board clean to Israel's advantage. As the war's bill of $2.5 billion is presented by Israel to the US, it is likely that more rather than less regrets about the whole episode will be expressed; talk of the war's "opportunities for creative diplomacy" have long since given way both to disapproval of Israel's peremptory annexationist militarism and to a widening of the chasm between US and Israeli interests. This chasm corresponds with the difference between a major imperial and a minor sub-imperial power. Nevertheless, all this will not necessarily be to the Palestinians' advantage. The all-but-formal annexation of the West Bank and Gaza proceeds unchecked; the dispersal of more Palestinians to more places continues; the isolation of individual Palestinians, and of Palestinians collectively, increases the difficulty of their anomalous status; statehood seems further away.
In 1948, Israel was created as the culmination of a long process initiated in Europe, as an integral aspect of the great age of expanding colonialism. This time it was European Jews, suffering centuries of Christian anti-Semitism that were to climax in the horrendous Nazi slaughters of World War II, who sought to create a Western colony in the East. Their efforts succeeded, although in the process hardly anyone in the West who supported Zionism as a post-war reconstructive phenomenon noticed that Israel's birth erupted out of the ruins of Palestinian society. An Ottoman colony for many years, Palestine was nevertheless the communal home of the Palestinian Arabs. After decades of Jewish immigration into Palestine, the Jews there in 1948 numbered only a third of the total population; these Jews also owned no more than about 6 percent of the total land surface of Palestine. Yet this relatively new community of Jews defeated the unorganized, basically unarmed Palestinians, and along with them a miscellaneous force of other ill-equipped, poorly trained and unmotivated Arab armies. Well over 800,000 Palestinians were evicted from their homes by the Zionist forces. In 1967 the rest of Palestine-occupied by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1948-was taken over by Israel. Today the 4 million Palestinians exist in three dispossessed, dispersed, subjugated groups: there are the 650,000 Palestinian Israelis, colonized internally; there are the 1.3 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, under Israeli military occupation; there are the Palestinians in total exile from Palestine. Of this group, the largest is in Jordan; next in size is the community of 500,000 Palestinians who have been in Lebanon since 1948 (with the exception of a handful who came there in 1971). It is sometimes forgotten that Israel's war against the Palestinians in Lebanon is nothing more than a continuation-as brutal, inhumane and contemptible-of its war against those innocent Palestinian civilians who were driven from their homeland in 1948.
At very least then, the Lebanese conflagration provides Palestinians with some urgent opportunities for reflecting on the future, and of course on those aspects of the past that directly affect the future. Lebanon was a disaster: there is no way of avoiding the facts, each of which, separately or as part of a whole, confirms a picture whose tragedy and loss exceed the events of 1948.
From one point of view, Palestinian involvement in the Lebanese civil war and subsequently in free-for-all Lebanese politics was an unhealthy thing. Because Lebanon's style of politics is essentially combative but indecisive (no winner and no loser, runs the motto), Palestinians were involved in the frequently draining activity of holding on to unimprovable positions. Palestinian politics became a function of Lebanese politics, Palestinian sections of Beirut were mirror images of strictly Lebanese sections, Palestinian leaders adopted the style of traditional Lebanese leaders. In the meantime, essential goods and services were provided by the PLO to the largely indigent civilian and urban population whose representative it was: this was true in Beirut of course, but also in Sidon, Tyre, and Tripoli. The camps were protected as political domains ruled over by Palestinians, and on every level an impressive array of health care, educational, social, occupational self-help, and economic organizations pro- vided Palestinians with the communal and political identity denied them every- where else.
Above all, the Lebanese period in the history of the Palestinian national movement-a period of eccentricity, unresolvable paradox, and extraordinary international gains-was the first truly independent period of Palestinian national history. That it should have taken place outside of Palestine, even though a formidable nationalist consciousness arose in the occupied territories, is one index of how utterly difficult the Palestinian struggle is today. It is also an index of how seriously Israel took the emergence not only of a national movement but of a national history, that it destroyed a country, killed thousands of innocent civilians with outlawed weapons, and earned itself the lasting disapproval of many Jews, in order to strip Palestinians of their national identity and of their newly-formed national (as opposed to merely colonial) history. The climax to this campaign occurred when in West Beirut Israeli soldiers carted off Palestinian archives, destroyed the private libraries and homes of prominent Lebanese nationalists and Palestinian personalities, and literally heaped excrement over valuable rugs and cultural artefacts almost at the same moment that in Sabra and Shatila a gang of Lebanese psychopaths-armed, trained, and supported by Israel-was slaughtering Palestinian civilians under the light of flares provided by Israeli soldiers. This was all a concerted, deliberate attempt to roll back the history of the past several years: Palestinians, in Begin's rhetoric, were to be treated as terrorists and two-legged beasts, and neither as human beings nor as potential citizens. This made it easier to bomb them, and to pretend that Israel was working on behalf of humanity.
A curious symbiosis developed between Palestinians and Israel that was nurtured in Lebanon. Certainly the Israeli side of this relationship was more destructive and immoral: the ruins of Lebanon are ample proof of this. But there is a peculiar Palestinian syndrome that should not go unnoticed here, although it can be discerned in perspective only if the relevant data is taken into account. On the one hand, the Palestinians in exile are a nation and a people without territory; oppressed on all sides, this nation nevertheless evolved from the status of miscellaneous refugees into a considerable proto-state formation. On the other hand, none of this would have been possible without the political education undertaken by the PLO on behalf of a program foreseeing some sort of communal, multi-ethnic existence between Jews, Muslims and Christians in former Palestine. People are not easily mobilized out of their present misery without such a goal before them. To its credit, therefore, the Palestinian national movement argued the case for more than one equal national community in Palestine; to its discredit, the state of Israel and its Western supporters- with the exception of a few dissidents-argued no such thing. Palestinians were to be "inhabitants of Judea and Samaria," or they were terrorists; in either case they could not be considered true interlocutors of Israel. Throughout its history, Zionism in the main has tended to this sort of narrowing vision, and certainly it can be said that since 1967, since the Begin government came to power, since Camp David, since the almost complete colonization or annexation of occupied territories, the Palestinians have almost disappeared from the official Israeli Weltanschauung except as docile (or rabid) natives.. That the invasion of Lebanon could be covered by so inappropriate a phrase as "Peace for Galilee" reveals how far the moral and political impoverishment of Israel had advanced with regard to the Palestinians.
All the propaganda about the Palestinians emanating from Israel and its supporters-not least the United States-hardened, narrowed, and made more uninviting the field for the Palestinians. Change the charter, we have been told; renounce violence; recognize Israel; agree to Camp David; allow your representatives to be chosen by others. Few people discriminated between the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed. Still fewer reflected on the issue of proportionality: by what right did Israel claim for itself the privilege of killing 100 Palestinians for every Israeli? To this series of injuries Israel has commonly been asked to offer nothing by way of argument or political sense, nothing except more repression, more outrage, more dehumanizing actions and rhetoric.
For every Palestinian advance internationally, however, there was a small retreat internally-and now we come to the Palestinian side of the symbiosis. On the political level, in Lebanon, the unmovable Israeli wall of denials and attacks, coupled with a US policy as rhetorically empty as it was mendacious, caused Palestinians to dig in, gradually to relax strenuous political mobilization in favor of consolidating entrenched positions inside Lebanon, gradually to think less about liberation and independence than about defending the crucial political and territorial gains made in Lebanon. After all, there has been no liberation movement in this or any other century so beset with such immense difficulties as the Palestinian movement. No movement has had to deal with colonizers so morally creditable as the Jews. No movement has had to deal simultaneously with expulsion, dispossession, colonization and a terrifying kind of international illegitimacy. No movement has had to fight from a hundred different locations (excluding a national base) against a military- political alliance (Israel and the US) that would defy any but one or two modern nation-states in strength, resources and institutional power. No movement has been so unfortunate in its allies and its surrounding context.
Given these factors, then, Lebanon for the Palestinians became an increasingly more eccentric, more ironic place over time. Achievements like the territorial autonomy, the social and political administration of the refugee camps in Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon and Tyre, as well as the border areas of the South, were too quickly converted into quasi-permanent enterprises; the connection between those achievements and freeing the occupied territories from Israeli military occupation was not reflected upon enough, was not therefore a central project. International accomplishments-at the UN, in Europe and elsewhere-were thought of as inhabiting a different world. They were part of another department, which had very little to do with day-to-day life in Beirut. Slogans like "armed struggle" which date from the late 1960s, form a very different moral environment and a purely insurrectionary phase of struggle, lingered on unattended by reflection or political work. It was as if every Israeli advance on the ground was responded to by a Palestinian advance on a different territory, one of our own choosing. For this we were all responsible, those in Beirut, and those residing elsewhere.
There was a very healthy evolution of institutions and maturity, but faced with Sharon's tanks and his US-made airforce, Palestinians on the ground in Lebanon were not protected enough. Undoubtedly the Palestinian defense of Beirut was heroic, and almost miraculous, given the paucity of advanced weapons, air-defense systems, strategic advantages. No one in the world could have fought better in the Palestinians' place, just as it is also true that for the first time Arab resistance provoked thousands of Israelis to a radical reconsideration of what their nation was all about. But the question is, and remains to haunt us all: was the end in Lebanon avoidable? Was the substitutive nature of Lebanon a necessary phase or a disaster in the long run around which we should have maneuvered? Were the fruitless but encumbering ties with various Arab states inevitable, or were they pursued as an end in and of themselves? Was there enough understanding of the larger, the enormously complex global dynamic that involves the question of Palestine today? Were Palestinian politics and ideological struggle concentrated, directed, disciplined enough? Above all, has the new Arab environment of corruption, petro-dollars and mediocrity- presided over by the United States-seriously, if not definitively, affected the Palestinian national struggle?
It is far too early to answer these questions with anything more than impressions and emotions. Imperatives for the future nevertheless impose themselves immediately, and without much delay. For the first time in the history of the struggle between Zionism and the Palestinians two things have emerged, and together these alter the face of things irrecusably; together they must determine the future course of Palestinian history, otherwise there can be no Palestinian history to speak of. One new thing is that a constituency of disaffected Jews, Zionist supporters, Israeli nationalists, as well as fully aware Palestinians has emerged. The second new thing is that an unusual ideological- cultural-political space has opened up, making it possible for the first time to discuss and act on the question of Palestine in its own terms, not simply as a function of superpower rivalry or of the so-called Arab-Israeli conflict.
The defense and the fall of Beirut swept away a great deal, including a lingering faith in the US, which did not even abide by its commitment to guarantee the safety of Palestinians left behind after the PLO evacuation. But, the aftermath has created new political formations in a new political territory. The present limits to which Israel can go in its ethnocide against the Palestinians are defined internationally and regionally; the PLO remained intact as the actual political expression of Palestinian nationalism, Sharon's murderous actions and the Village League quislings notwithstanding. Yet on all sides the problems continue to accumulate. Dispersal and dispossession are accentuated in the post-Beirut period. Arab pressures on the PLO increase, as do the temptations simply to start replaying the old Arab game of summit conferences with its attendant collective ineptitude and functional disunity. The immediate possibility of a credible military option, to say nothing of a credible Arab deterrent, is not very high. Yet everywhere that Palestinians are to be found-Lebanon and the occupied territories especially-the political pressure to achieve a solution to the question of Palestine is exerted in ways designed to reduce Palestinians to uncountable statistics, the better to absorb them mutely and anonymously into someone else's scheme. Thus Reagan wishes them associated with Jordan, Israel sees them as uncomplaining resident natives, the Arabs want them as the spearhead for the wars they either cannot or will not fight.
It is essential, therefore, that much of the residual force that went into the defense of Beirut should now go into formulating a clear Palestinian political program. Historically, our formulations of where we are going also included such detritus as laments about an unacceptable past, attacks on our enemies, ideological prouncements aimed at a complex web of interlocking, sometimes contradictory Arab (and even Palestinian) constituencies. There can be no return to this impure style. Our constituency, given the Arab non-response to what happened in Lebanon, is neither the old one, nor a collection of salvaged remnants. There is first a Palestinian constituency that emerged from outside the barren avenues of official routines, positions and structures. This constituency can only be nurtured by someone of Yasser Arafat's vastly enhanced stature, sensitive to its make-up, to the innovative claims it makes, to the novel maneuvers it can allow. The other important, indeed crucial, constituency is that of Israeli and non-Israeli Jews who find Israel's present course unacceptable and disastrous.
Moreover, the loss of Beirut as a substitute for Palestine and the gain of many new places of exile accentuates the focus on the occupied territories, those last bits of Palestine still inhabited by Palestinians. The urgent issue now becomes the problem of keeping Palestinians there-despite, and because of, Israeli desires to expel them all-and expanding the juridical, political and cultural framework in which they live. Here too the old formulae don't apply anymore, as the disasters that overtook Camp David amply prove. The conflict in Palestine is not simply a territorial one: this fact cannot be strategized, Sadatized, or Kissingerized. There is a radical conflict between a view stating that Jews have more rights than non-Jews, and a view-as yet to be formulated with the cogency and power it deserves-stating that all present communities and individuals have, in principle, equal civil rights in Palestine. Every departure from this second view has brought sustained disaster to opponent and proponent alike. The need for a new politics in the occupied territories is the need for a new effective theory for combating tyrannical exceptionalism, by which one community's claim is given divine status, the other's reduced to an occasional appearance.
None of what is being said here can minimize the unimaginable complexity of the tasks ahead. No Palestinian is ever afraid to admit that the struggle we face may be far bigger than we are. Certainly any political theater that incorporates the swirl of Arab nationalism, Zionism, the history of anti-Semitism, anti- colonialism, Islamic, Jewish and Christian apocalyptic millenarianism, decolonization, imperialism, and the threat of nuclear annihilation, to say nothing of every variety of human degradation and exaltation, is an epochal stage indeed. To be a Palestinian is to stand at the nexus of these forces, either to be swept away by them or in some way to comprehend and employ their force constructively. If an Israeli military solution, no less than a cosmetic American or Arab solution, will not serve, this is the exact moment for Palestinians collectively, using all the means at their disposal, to state what will serve. Rarely in human history has the articulation of a program acquired such a revolutionary and far-reaching significance. But rarely too has so much of a people's political identity depended on the collective act of counting, rendering, and projecting themselves-beyond the armies, the states, the lamentable stabilities of the present.
Edward W. Said is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, a member of the Palestine National Council, and author of Orientalism and The Question of Palestine.