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Look Behind The Label: From Cliché to Reality

August 26, 2012

Reporting from Lebanon during the 1980s, Robert Fisk denounced the tendency of reducing the complexity of reality into “a series of code-words which were as facile as they were politically dangerous”. The cliché which were coined by Western media to depict and make sense of the events of the civil war did not just fail to shed light on the reality out there- after all this ready-made, external reality just does not exist. Those cliché however invented and crafted a reality which collaborated “in a process of political bias” whereby one side in the conflict was the evil and the other the good. The affair of mainstream Western media with code-words to put the Arab world into words (and into reality) does not seem to be over. Nowhere are the clichés more eagerly utilized as they are to talk about Palestinians. The main function of the cliché is that it marginalizes the “people’s self concept” to put in its place the “people’s concept by others”.

Palestinians as One. Since 1948 the word Palestinian has been associated with a series of commonplaces which  conjures up a negative portray. As Edward Said puts it “Palestinians serves essentially as a synonym for trouble – rootless, mindless, gratuitous trouble[1]”. Being defined by displacement and dislocation, Palestinians are usually associated with the condition of refugees. Most of all they are seen as intransigent opponents of the existence of Israel: as a result, they are the heart of the Middle East problem. This is the concept of Palestinians as crafted by others. When Edward Said published his book “The Question of Palestine” he set out to present his “people’s self-concept”, Palestinians seen by Palestinians. The “people’s self-concept” broke the cliché of the typical Palestinian into pieces.

Breaking Up the Unity. Narrating the Palestinian story revealed the specific, detailed realities of the Palestinians which were destroyed by the general image. The specific realities emerged from fundamental historical episodes (1948 declaration of Israel) which scattered the Palestinian community across different territories. These patterns of geographical locations shaped their political struggles: for some the struggle was about return for other was about novelty and the birth of a new democratic and pluralistic society. For the Palestinians in exile in Lebanon or Syria want to return while Palestinians in internal exile (inside Israel and the Occupied Territories) want to stay but with independence and freedom.  The message was clear: under some circumstances Palestinians do not speak with one voice. The voices can be reunited such as in the aftermath of the war in 1967 when the PLO was able to coalesce the different communities around the single goal of resistance. However, under other circumstances the voices can be discordant. A look at the reality today reveals that this holds true.

The Cliché Today. Syria today offers an example where the clichés compress the discordant voices so that there is no space for anomalies. The Assad regime has historically presented itself as the main opponent of Israel and provided an haven for Palestinians and their political representatives, in particular Hamas. Palestinians therefore stood and stands on the regime side, one was told. As the country today is split into pro-regime and pro-opposition forces Palestinians are unwittingly drawn in the vortex. What party they supported was not in question: if the Assad’s regime was on their side, at least in the rhetoric, Palestinians today will back him up, so one is told in the mainstream understanding. There are however Palestinians who participated in protests, blocking roads and other revolutionaries activities; and those do not square well with the followers of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who took up arms to support the regime. The former were erased so that one, uniform Palestinian identity was perpetrated. Events in early August and the bombing of the Palestinian camp in Damascus allegedly by Army forces for retaliation for hosting refugees from rebels areas show the limitations of such analysis. The point is that people in the camps do not speak with one voice.

The production of a unique Palestinian identity in lieu of a plurality of voices is at work also in the Occupied Territories (OPT). One is told that the the leaders who run the Palestinian Authority PA (mainly Fatah) are the only possible negotiators. The alternative to the PA is extremism, one is told, so there is no alternative to the PA’s current leadership. Yet, this view silences those voices who calls for co-existence rather than confrontation with Israel. It conceals a much deeper and slowly re-emerging idea of the future: national liberation. National liberation, as understood by many in the OPT, is about the restoration of rights in their land regardless if in one state, two states or no state. It stresses equality of right and freedom between Jews and Arabs, it strives to peace not to strife.

Why Looking Behind the Label? In sum the cliché about Palestinian today compresses the varied assertions into a single identity,  a uniform Palestinian identity[2]. It serves to offer a ready-made image of a group so that it can be neatly put into a box. This has two consequences. Firstly, the cliché obscures an understanding of the events: why Palestinian camps are being bombed if the regime is on the Palestinian side? Looking behind the label helps understand that some stood on the regime’s side, others opposed it. Secondly, as the code words homogenize the plurality, they silence the voices which look for reconciliation and co-existence to highlight those voices which see the future in terms of victory and armed struggle. The cliché thus reveals the collaboration into the political bias. The self in self-determination is reduced to a group of terrorist and extremists who want the elimination of Israel. They are not deemed as negotiators, the occupation is to be continued. In this instance looking behind the label is to give back to all Palestinian to power to define their own self concept and to produce their own life chances.

[1] The Question of Palestine, Edward Said, p. 7

[2] This point is adapted by Mahmod Mamdani, “Saviors and Survivor”, Chapter 3.

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