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International Socialist Review Issue 18, June-July 2001

"What They Want is My Silence"

David Barsamian interviews Edward Said, author and spokesperson for Palestinian rights.

Edward W. Said was born in Jerusalem, Palestine, in 1935 and attended schools there and in Cairo. He received his B.A. from Princeton and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Said, University Professor at Columbia, is a prolific writer. His latest books include Reflections on Exile and The End of the Peace Process. He also writes a regular column for the Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat in London. For many years, Said has been the main spokesperson for Palestinian rights in the United States and has paid a price for his high-profile activism. His office at Columbia was set on fire, and both he and his family "received innumerable death threats," he writes. For more than a decade, Said was a member of the Palestine National Council. Since resigning from the Council in the early 1990s, Said has become one of the most public critics of Yasser Arafat and the so-called peace process. His was a rare voice of resistance amid all the euphoria when the Oslo Accords were signed on the South Lawn of the White House in September 1993. He understood instantly what Oslo meant and called it "a Palestinian Versailles." My first collection of interviews with Said resulted in The Pen and the Sword, published by Common Courage Press. A new collection is planned. Said, even while battling leukemia, maintains a rigorous speaking and writing schedule. I interviewed him in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in early May.

The ISR is running the interview in two parts. In the next installment, Said discusses globalization, U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, "the war on terrorism," sanctions on Iraq, and the Palestinian right of return.

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SINCE THE Al-Aqsa intifada began in late September, a number of events have occurred, including the election of Ariel Sharon as prime minister of Israel. What’s your assessment of the current situation on the ground in Palestine?

IT’S STALEMATED. I don’t think there’s any clear direction, except on both sides there’s a return to earlier, almost primordial positions–for the Palestinians to stay on the land and to resist to the best of their ability and for the Israelis to get them off the land. That’s Sharon’s policy. The policy is to use what they call "restraint" but what in fact is disproportionate force, including helicopter gunships, missiles, and tanks against a basically unarmed and defenseless civilian population and to do it out of a position of tremendous asymmetry, which is often obscured by the media. This isn’t a battle between two states. It’s a battle between a state with basically a colonial army attacking a colonized population, using all forms of collective punishment.

Politically, there really isn’t any way forward. What the Israelis want is the status quo without Palestinian resistance and what the Palestinians want is, officially, at least, the resumption of negotiations to the point that was reached in the last days of the Clinton administration. But for the people, what they want is the end of Israeli occupation.

Have the Palestinians done a better job in telling their story, getting their narrative out?

I DON’T think so, simply because the weight of Israeli power is so great that the Palestinians don’t have a chance. There is no organization. There are a few Web sites that if you want you can go to and get up-to-date Palestinian information on what’s happening. But in the sense that there’s a narrative–that there are easily available maps that show that what is at stake is military occupation versus liberation–none of that is easily available.

What the leading papers show is what they constantly refer to as "Palestinian violence" that seems to be gratuitous and directed at Jews.

You have a massive propaganda effort on the part of Israel, which has employed two, some say three, public relations firms in the United States, has the entire U.S. Senate at its beck and call, and has an enormous amount of financial, political, and other resources blocking any effort at the United Nations to protect Palestinian civilians against Israeli military onslaught.

The net result is that there is a very skewed situation in which Palestinians are dying. There are now more than 400 dead and upwards of 14,000 seriously injured, without any political benefit. It’s a tragic and, to me, absolutely unacceptable situation.

THE AL-AQSA intifada now has been largely relegated to the back pages of the newspapers. For example, today, the Albuquerque Journal has a small item on page 4. The New York Times has a piece on page 9. And the local Santa Fe paper, The New Mexican, has nothing at all. Unless there is some major atrocity or conflagration, it’s largely low-level background noise now.

MY IMPRESSION is that this is very much the popular Israeli feeling, that the Arabs are a nuisance and their presence is a fly in the ointment. Daily life for most Israelis in places like Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Hertzlia goes on. They’re completely insulated from what is taking place. Even the settlers on the West Bank and Gaza don’t have to see or deal with Palestinians. They’re protected from them, just as whites were protected from Blacks during apartheid because of the homeland system and because the roads went around in such a way as to avoid the vision of them.

Meanwhile, constant encroachment and economic suffocation is taking place. No one is recording that. It can’t be recorded by conventional means. Then the Israelis are trying to project an image of beleaguered victimhood, that this is a continuation of what Hitler did to the Jews. It’s the most unscrupulous kind of propaganda, basically blaming the victims.

In today’s New York Times, there is a full-page ad from the American Jewish Committee rehearsing some of the shibboleths surrounding the conflict. How can the Palestinians make their case heard in the face of such enormous outreach?

THE ADS are terrible. They’re basically lies–not just lies, but they remove the context entirely. They quote passages from the Egyptian and Syrian press, something that a mufti may have said, without supplying the context, which is that Palestinians are under attack by a Jewish state that is doing what it does in the name of the Jewish people and therefore there’s a causal relationship between the resentment and hatred that people feel in the Arab and Islamic world toward Jews–not because of classic European anti-Semitism, but because of what Israel is doing, which is barbaric. There’s no other word for it.

Second, what the ad doesn’t show, is the vast amount of outpouring of racist sentiment on the part of Jews. A few days ago, the main rabbi of the Shas Party, Ovadia Yosef, said that the Palestinians should be exterminated. They’re snakes. They should be killed. If you were to cull the press of Israel, you’d find far worse sentiments expressed about Arabs, Muslims, and Palestinians than in this silly collection of random sayings, most of them probably manufactured by the American Jewish Committee for the American consumer, who doesn’t know better.

Americans have no idea what their money is financing. All of this is paid for by the United States. All of the oppression of the Palestinians is taken out of the $5 billion that American taxpayers are giving Israel without any strings attached, along with the power to use arms that are meant for defensive purposes for offensive purposes.

In the meantime, Palestinians, unfortunately, haven’t yet come to the awareness that what we need is an organized campaign, which I think can be done. There’s a large Palestinian diaspora community that hasn’t been mobilized. There are many resources in Palestine, in the Arab world, which haven’t been mobilized. We’re still at a very primitive level of fighting for turf–who’s going to lead what.

We’re still under the thumb of a tyrannical and, in my opinion, at this point useless Palestinian Authority that wants to try to control information so as to keep itself in power and to go back to negotiations, which nobody wants. Certainly most Palestinians don’t want to return to interim negotiations for an interim settlement that gives the Israelis the right to do what they’re doing and continue the settlement, which has been ongoing never more than under the last prime minister, Ehud Barak. Most people think that Barak was a generous, nice man who was defeated because he was too soft on the Palestinians. The fact is that he was as brutal as Sharon. The rate of settlement under his regime was never greater under the four or five previous prime ministers.

So this is a continuation of a policy that has been unremittingly active in oppressing and subduing Palestinians in methods that far outstrip anything that was done in South Africa under apartheid. This needs to be pointed out, and it hasn’t been because the Palestinian leadership and many of the elite still believe that the way to move forward is to get Bush’s attention, to try to get the attention of the American administration, which is heedless.

If you look at what Colin Powell said when he asked that the Israelis withdraw from Gaza, after they made that famous incursion around the middle of April, he basically blamed the Palestinians for provoking them. Then he said Israel should withdraw because it’s disproportionately violent. But basically the administration, like all American administrations, is hostile to Palestinian aspirations. Therefore we should concentrate on constituencies in the United States that are friendly to us, the universities, the churches, the African American community, the Latino community, the women’s community. We’ve simply neglected them.

WHAT’S AT the root of that neglect? Why hasn’t there been more outreach?

PROBABLY THE root is the sense of terrible desperation and encirclement. There’s no way of overestimating the pressure under which all Palestinians live. Here we are, being slaughtered, basically, by a ruthless enemy, and all we have in our defense are young men throwing stones at tanks, missiles, and helicopter gunships. That is the basic reality.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is unable to lead. For one, its movements are severely restricted by the Israelis. Arafat has been stuck in Ramallah for months. Second, Israel has a policy of extrajudicial assassination, so everybody who occupies a leadership position in the Palestinian community is threatened directly with murder by Israel.

Most people are having a terrible time economically to put food on the table for their children. Most people are unable to work. There’s 60 or even 70 percent unemployment. There’s a sense in which we are alone. We are surrounded by enemies, and the world is paying us no attention, after 100 years of struggle against this determined enemy. That’s the main reason.

The other reason is ignorance. The Palestinian elites–the intellectuals and others–still think that there’s a shortcut to influencing America, which is the main actor in this besides Israel. Without America, nothing of this could be done. There’s an ignorance of how the United States is constructed and what the source of pressure, the points of pressure might be.

Wherever they’ve been used, for example, tactics of civil disobedience have worked. In 2000, there was a successful effort to stop Ben & Jerry’s ice cream from using water taken from an Israeli settlement on the Golan Heights. So Ben & Jerry’s became the focus of pressure and boycott, and in the end they stopped. There was a Burger King franchise sold to an Israeli settlement, Efrat, just south of Bethlehem. There was a concentrated boycott highlighting this, and it was also stopped. The franchise was rescinded. These tactics in fact work.

But what you need is a new leadership, an alternative leadership of intellectuals who make that a principal focus and don’t become diverted by things like worrying about the Arab League or whether the British or the Germans are going to do something. What we need is a disciplined focus on the main actors. One is Israel and the Israeli people, who have to be addressed. We’ve never done that. The second is America and the American people, those sectors of this gigantic country that might join us in a battle against this unending war of ethnic cleansing.

It’s important to learn the lessons in the wider society of the U.S. and liberation movements around the world. We haven’t taken advantage of that. There’s a lot of good will and a lot of people willing to help us.

DO YOU think that the fear that’s present in your generation is somewhat less in the younger generation?

THERE’S NO question about it. Not only us, but there’s a lot of understandable contempt for what this generation has wrought. All you have to do is look at the panorama in the Arab world. The problem is–and I’ve found this with working with young people in some of the new Arab organizations–they haven’t been able to draw from my generation the experiences and the accumulation of knowledge and achievement that we’ve made. These new organizations are reinventing the wheel, starting from scratch. They’re going back and doing things that have already been done and don’t need to be done again and can be built on rather than ignored and contemptuously swept aside.

There’s a problem of generational continuity which has to be worked out. I think it is being worked out. There is a tremendous reservoir of competence and achievement among young people that I see every time I go to universities around the country. Young Arab Americans allied with African Americans, women, Native Americans, who are very sophisticated. What we need now is an apparatus, a rethinking of how all of them can work together.

YOU JUST gave a talk in Bellingham at Western Washington University. What was the reception like there? I ask that because it’s not Berkeley, Madison, or Boulder.

I GAVE a large lecture on humanism which didn’t deal with Palestine. But earlier in the day I talked to a group of about 50 or 60 students from anthropology, literature, and political science. I found a startling, I wouldn’t say unanimity, but openness and not only openness but acceptance of the Palestinian position. There were no Arab Americans. They were all from Washington, basically from the Northwest. They had a very good understanding of the Palestinian situation, of the political situation in the Middle East and the work of the Zionist lobby in this country.

Even more ironically, one of their professors, one of the leading professors at that university, happens to be an American Jew who is not a Zionist. It’s in his class and thanks to his teaching and the reading that he does of my books, Noam Chomsky’s, and those of others that has brought these kids around. That’s a perfect example.

A few weeks earlier I was at Princeton. I’ve been giving a lot of lectures at universities. The minority is seen as right-wing extremist Zionists. The rest are very open and compassionate. I was in London last week. I gave a talk. There must have been 2,000 or 2,500 people there, a lot of them Arab, but a lot of them English. I also spoke at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Hundreds of students turned up from all over the Third World.

There, too, what startles me is the amazing openness and willingness to listen to the Palestinian position. We’ve never tapped that in any systematic way. That’s what strikes me as so stupid on the part of the conventional Arafatist leadership. So I try my best to draw some of that off to focus it on healthy Palestinians.

Now it’s a question of survival. But I think we have to go beyond survival to the battle of culture and information. And there are people in Israel who are also very anxious to hear what we have to say. We have to provide them with a message that Zionism has never done anything for them. More Israelis are beginning to understand that Israel, despite its enormous military strength and economic and political power, is more insecure than it ever was. There’s a reason for that. Since the leadership is unable to provide them with an understanding of it, we have to do it. So we have a lot of tasks on hand, but they are doable, and they don’t involve suicide and a kind of brave but in the end futile throwing of stones and exposing yourself to the depredations of the Israeli military.

YOU’RE A lightning rod for criticism, from the National Post in Canada to the Wall Street Journal to Commentary to the New Republic. That ties up a lot of your time in responding, doesn’t it?

I DON’T respond. It’s a total waste of time. These are propagandists who have a racist hatred of Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims that seems to be irremediable. And besides, it’s not the readers of the New Republic or the National Post. It’s their owners.

I suppose it flatters me that they think I’m important enough to keep attacking me. What it does do in fact is to interest more people in my work and my writing. That’s the way I respond to them, by producing more. I think what they want is my silence. Unless I die, it’s not going to happen.


David Barsamian is the director and producer of Alternative Radio.
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