If ever a case of cognitive dissonance could be excused, if not expected, perhaps it might take place within a military occupation; to watch a portion of the territory be blown to smithereens provides an ample chance to cultivate one’s moral confusions. Hardly had the Gazan death toll reached a few hundred when I was drawn by chants and car horns to the center of Ramallah, where a nighttime demonstration—or was it celebration?—was underway. “Do you know why we’re here?” asked a fellow looker-on. I mumbled that I did not. “They got an Israeli soldier,” was what he dreamily replied. The spirit of resistance is habitually ambiguous; one struggles to discern whether a crowd is angry or exultant. It struck me there, amid the fireworks and shouts of indignation, that there may not be a difference. It was a truly moving thing to see that decades of dispossession have not robbed the Palestinians of their flair for moral outrage. And not till then had I imagined that the banner of Hamas, waved about so rampantly, could appear in any sense inspiring.
Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I had always felt that flags with the shahada ought to inspire one thing and one thing only: revulsion. And yet here I felt a genuine frisson of revolution—or its protracted and longsuffering anticipation. This is no more apparent than in the secular and radical circles in which it has become a guessing game to wonder when the intifada will erupt. “We’re just waiting for something to happen,” a friend lately remarked.
“I really don’t want another intifada, not now,” said our guest, a local Palestinian lawyer. Outside the sounds of slogans and the flags in green and black were diffused across the city streets; meanwhile, we had been discussing, over coffee and pastries in the modish café of a posh hotel, the decidedly unsexy subject of commercial litigation. I found my eyes drawn ever more to the nearby television, which kept me current as the Gazan death count climbed. “You know what’s the first thing to go during an intifada?” our guest continued. “The rule of law.”
What the Oslo Accords achieved in exchange for meaningful resistance was a relatively mollified bourgeoisie. Here in the West Bank, one can frequent trendy bars with foreign liquor and pretend the occupation is some distant thing, to be complained of almost clinically and hypothetically. Yet all it takes is the unsolicited redecoration of one’s window, courtesy of the I.D.F.’s bullets, to remind the population of its humiliating serfdom. And all it takes is a chilling message from one’s family in Gaza—or perhaps the revealing absence of that message—to bring hauntingly to mind the conflict’s human horror.
A ceasefire, by itself, is part and parcel of the logic of occupation. It is not so much “peace” as it is a stalemate—no, an insult to stalemates—with the Palestinians enfeebled and appendaged, a return to the nothing new. But is it fair to expect the Palestinians to demand more? And thus to risk undoing, in the fits of an intifada, whatever strides the petite bourgeoisie of Palestine has made? Our lawyer friend was worried about the fate of rule of law in an already beleaguered legal system; accusations of “selling out” can only go so far when one has daughters to take care of. All the same, the alternative to resistance looks increasingly intolerable, while the nightly protests here grow ever spirited.
The American friends of Israel have told me, implicitly and not, that their Palestinian neighbors, strapped from birth with suicide bombs, would like nothing more in life than to kill a Jew or three, and so deserve to be demeaned indefinitely in occupation. This is nearly too offensive and moronic to engage, except to say the logic really operates in reverse: it is precisely because they have endured four generations of exile and dispossession that the banner of Hamas seems so appealing. “What I hate most about the occupation is how monstrous it’s made me,” a friend confided to me. “I hate Israel, and I hate hating them.”
The irony is that with every child killed “telegenically” in Gaza, Hamas grows indelibly stronger. And while there is something Newtonian in the impulse to applaud the drizzling of rockets over Tel Aviv, I wonder how we secularists would feel when the theocrats of Hamas come to rain on Ramallah’s modernish parade.
History has shown that whenever religious radicals volunteer “the answer” to political questions, the parties of god waste no time in embarrassing their once-oppressors, in their ruthlessness, and their fellow travelers, in their gullibility. Why presume Hamas would be much different? Hamas has proved itself to be both criminal and incompetent—not to mention suicidal (in more than one way). The most discomfiting thing about being a comrade of the Palestinian cause is having always to remind oneself that the enemy of one’s enemy might not be so friendly.
For many Palestinians, Hamas represents the only viable resistance to Israeli hegemony and the consumerist complacency of the Palestinian Authority. But the singular virtue of Hamas is precisely that: negation. Though I can make no pretense of being a Palestinian and can claim no privilege of belittling their aspirations, I cannot help but recall the words of Edward Said in 1994: “Here too there is intellectual responsibility for saying that resistance cannot only take the form of rejection. We must as an alternative revive the secular ideals of liberation and enlightenment….”
It is incumbent now to say that the answer to ethnoreligious nationalism cannot be more ethnoreligious nationalism, just as the response to barbaric war crimes ought not to be more war crimes. It slanders the name of resistance to be reduced to the murderous, militant mind; at the same time, it confirms to the world and to Israel that the Palestinians—both in Gaza and in the West Bank—are uninterested in and incapable of civility. Why should we permit the shedding of Palestinian blood to appease and to vindicate the rightward flight of Israel’s hawks? Or, for that matter, simply to convince Hamas’s wretched paupers that resistance still has teeth? It is for such petty vanities that little boys get blown to bits on Gaza’s beach.
Yet one cannot let convenience or a compromised stability emasculate the Palestinian struggle. The civil, economic and political societies of Palestine and her allies must affirm the values of a secular resistance, with strategic and coordinated goals to subvert the occupation, to lay the groundwork for a genuinely liberatory movement. Only by upholding the norms of international law and civilized humanity can the intifada reach a moral high ground. This is a precarious position, but a better side of history to stand on than to fire the odd and futile rocket haphazardly at Haifa.