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22 February 2007 Edition

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Book Review,

Middle East conflict: putting the blame where it belongs

Book Review, Intifada: The Long day of Rage

By David Pratt . Sunday Herald Books

For anyone who has immersed themselves in the work of Robert Fisk - Pity the Nation or his more recent The Great War for Civilisation - the all-consuming sense of outrage against the state of Israel can, sometimes, leave the reader wondering quietly to themselves about the very legitimacy of the state of Israel. Even to criticise Israeli foreign policy out loud can get you labelled as an anti-Semite.  Using any language of this kind has become one of the great political taboos since the latter part of the 20th century.

This is not the fault of Robert Fisk, who at times bends over backwards to balance his work: not an easy job, given that one side of the 1988 Intifada was for the most part armed with stones and popular resistance as its primary weapon, while on the other side we have the world’s second highest spender on arms, including long and short range missiles, helicopter gun ships, fighter jets, tanks, bulldozers, and the (mis)rule of law.

Thankfully, David Pratt does not feel the need to exercise Fisk’s acrobatic equivalence. In his new book, Intifada: The Long Day of Rage (Sunday Herald Books), he recounts his time in Gaza and the West Bank during both Intifadas, as an observer, correspondent and photojournalist.

Pratt does not pass stark judgements, preferring instead to place the blame for crimes against the Palestinians on short-sighted Israeli incompetence. “Israel is like the guy that sets fire to his hair and then tries to put it out with a hammer” is an insightful quote which can probably explain most of Israel’s actions, but it does not quell allegations regarding the fascist nature of Israeli tactics.

These tactics form a long and brutal list, but one is left wondering if a comparison to the harassment of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto would be more apt than that of a fool setting fire to himself. 

“Invisible transfers” are one case in point. The policy of expulsion from the West Bank and Gaza was introduced in 1967 to deal with the inconvenient problem of an Arab majority in the newly-expanded Jewish state. Over 90% of these deportations were of women and children. Pratt tells us, “In many villages the Israeli army would arrive and separate the men from the women. The women targeted would have minutes to pack and leave with their children...(only) after being fined for ‘illegal residence’.”

Again, in 1989 during the Intifada, after raiding a comparatively middle class community in the West Bank to collect the despised “occupation tax”, the Israelis - having finally emptied homes and businesses of goods such as fridges and furniture and televisions to the tune of  $1.5 million - then auctioned off all of the items to the good people of Israel. 

In isolation and in the context of Israel’s will to survive at all costs, these incidents may not amount to a hill of beans.  However, the backdrop to these events is one of violent oppression, extreme poverty and institutionalised racism against Palestinians.

Possibly the most racist leader that Israel has seen was the “butcher of Shatila” himself, Arial Sharon. His litany of crimes is documented here, including his night-time raid in 1953 on the village of Qibya; firing grenades into homes and blowing up houses indiscriminately; shooting dead anyone that sought refuge in the street or forcing them back into their homes, only to collapse the roof of the house on top of them with high explosive; and his murderous rampage in the Palestinian camps of Shatila and Sabrain in Lebanon, which left two thousand Palestinians dead.  One wonders about the EU policy of blocking Serbia’s entry into the EU because of the war criminals still being harboured there, while cutting off funds for the Palestinian people who refuse to be governed by war criminals.        

Any book worth its salt that deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will, inevitably, stir up passions and outrage.  It is to Pratt’s eternal credit as an observer to so many events that he never indulges in rancour or political hyperbole.  It is also to his credit as a narrator that he doesn’t have to.  


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