Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Tragic Politics of Fleeing

"The Tragic Politics of Fleeing"

by Rami G. Khouri Released: 28 Jan 2008

BEIRUT -- It was not exactly the Red Sea parting to allow a persecuted, enslaved people to flee to safety, but it was pretty close as far as political symbolism goes: Palestinians this week blew holes through the wall on the Egyptian-Palestinian border that Israel built to pen in the Palestinians in Gaza, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians poured over the border into Egypt. They went mainly to purchase the simple everyday needs that had been denied them recently due to Israel’s policy of total isolation and strangulation of Gaza and its people.

The scale and symbolism of events in Gaza clarify some simple truths about the Palestinian issue in its wider historical, political, and geographic context -- and perhaps also its moral context, thanks to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s insensitive and obtuse call to “think creatively” about how to deal with the Gaza situation.

It is ironic but not unexpected that 3500 years after the Hebrews fled their dismal life in Egypt and escaped eastwards to freedom across the miraculously stilled Red Sea, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians should be fleeing from the modern day descendants of the Hebrews -- the state of Israel -- who now play the role of the oppressive Pharaoh to the subjugated and dehumanized Palestinians in Gaza. The reversed political geography is politically stunning, and tragic for both sides.

The double irony, however, is that the indigenous Palestinians in both cases pay the heaviest price. In antiquity, the Hebrews who fled Egypt conquered and settled in Palestine, driving out the native Canaanites and others who can be seen as the ancestors of the Palestinians, just as the Hebrews can be seen as the ancestors of the Israelis and Jews today.

More significant are the continuing implications of Israel’s repeated attempts to force neighboring Arab states to assume responsibility for policing the Palestinian refugees and subduing the Palestinian nationalist resistance movement that were both spawned by Israel’s creation and the parallel exile and occupation of the Palestinians.

Two Arab leaders in particular suffer politically from this crisis -- Egyptian President Husni Mubarak and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel and the United States have tried unsuccessfully to use both of them to control Gaza, thwart the rise of Hamas, and protect Israel from Palestinian wrath, just as they used the Jordanian and Lebanese governments to achieve similar goals.

But Mubarak and Abbas cannot play the role of Israel’s subcontracted jailer, strangler and starver of the Palestinians in Gaza, and expect to remain credible with their own people or other Arabs. When an Arab leader is caught between acting as an agent and surrogate for Israel and the United States in treating the Palestinians like animals, or showing support for the basic humanitarian needs of Palestinians, they will lean towards helping the Palestinians. They will also try desperately to cling to the material aid and increasingly vacuous political validation they get from the US and Israel. Mubarak and Abbas sway in the wind this week, buffeted by their own untenable confusion about whether their primary role is to implement Arab, Israeli or American priorities.

The equally bewildered American position was reflected in Rice’s macabre call to deal “creatively” with the Gaza situation. Why “creatively”? Is this a kindergarten finger painting class? Why not deal with the Gaza situation on the basis of more compelling adult criteria, such as legality, legitimacy, and humanity?

The American call for “creativity” in dealing with Gaza is an ethical weapon of mass destruction. It will only aggravate the widespread disdain, fear and disgust that define much of the world’s attitude toward American foreign policy. Rice’s call for creativity is a cheap attempt to get around the moral, political and legal consequences of Israel’s many decades of brutality in Gaza, and Washington’s refusal to deal with the reality of Hamas’ election victory last year.

Israel and the United States refuse to do the hard work of making reasonable compromises that all the Arabs, including Hamas, have already suggested: to engage with all the Palestinians and negotiate, first, a long-term truce and, consequently, a permanent peace that is fair to all, that gives Israelis and Palestinians alike a chance to live in peace and dignity.

Rice's quest for “creativity” is a desperate bid to evade law, morality, human decency and constructive political compromise. It is a moral abomination that demeans all Americans in whose name it is spoken.

It is also one reason why the flow of thousands of desperate, dehumanized people across the Sinai -- fleeing subjugation and brutality, and in search of their own humanity -- was reversed this week -- 3500 years after today’s Israeli jailers were history’s jailed Hebrews. No surprises, here. Just politics and humanity taking their normal course.

The answer is not “creativity”. It is mutual respect, abiding by the law, and, above all, human decency.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

Copyright © 2008 Rami G. Khouri