Book review: Palestinian views on suicide operations

Originally published on Electronic Intifada.

Asa Winstanley, The Electronic Intifada, 13 October 2009

The Making of a Human Bomb

In his new book The Making of a Human Bomb: An Ethnography of Palestinian Resistance, Nasser Abufarha examines the phenomena of Palestinian suicide operations. It is based on extensive fieldwork conducted in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, mostly in and around the northern town of Jenin. A native of the city, Abufarha interviewed families of suicide bombers, observed demonstrations and studied Palestinian cultural products that addressed suicide attacks. He also conducted interviews with activists from three different armed factions to explain suicide bombings, or “martyrdom operations” as they are more commonly known in the Arab world.

Abufarha traces the development of the concept of self-sacrifice in Palestinian society from the 1960s to the first Palestinian intifada (1987-1992). During the 1960s, Palestinian resistance fighters were known as the fedayeen or those who sacrifice for a cause. Contrary to common portrayal in the Western media, anyone fallen in the course of resistance to the Israeli occupation is honored in Palestinian society as a shahid, or a martyr, whether armed guerrilla or unarmed protestor.

Following the signing of the Oslo accords in the mid-1990s, the bombings by Hamas and Islamic Jihad were not supported by the majority of Palestinians, who mostly still hoped the “peace process” would lead to a Palestinian state. The two Islamic groups had to actively recruit for such operations.

By the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, the stone-throwing children of the first intifada had grown up. Having watching their friends fall as martyrs to Israeli brutality, volunteers began to offer themselves to the armed factions: if they were to be killed anyway, it was surely better to choose the manner of their death. In the words of one of Abufarha’s interview subjects: “we are all martyrs with execution on hold.” The new concept of istishhad arose: actively seeking martyrdom as an act of resistance.
Continue reading Book review: Palestinian views on suicide operations

Review: “Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide” by Ben White

This book is an excellent “guide for the perplexed”. It is perfect for those new to the subject. I personally will be buying copies and foisting it on friends and relatives. At the same time I was surprised how much a learned from it (particularly about the Palestinian citizens of Israel).

It is not a history book per say, but it is a highly readable journalistic summary of the main events in the history of the occupation, with a big emphasis on the Nakba (the ethnic cleansing of half the population of the Palestinians from their homeland in 1947-48 by Zionist militias and terrorist gangs). The second half of the book is about the reality on the ground right now. It combines interesting (and often shocking) facts and figures with anecdotes from individual Palestinians on the ground: many of whom were recorded in conversations with White himself.

It is all highly readable and only about 120 pages long. It includes an excellent “Frequently Asked Questions” section, a solid bibliography recommending further reading, and a huge list of action, news and information websites.

The book also avoids the infernal BBC curse of “balance”. It is not balanced: it is against occupation, against ethnic cleansing and against apartheid. But at the same time, it is not polemical, and never less than factual and humane.

The book fills a perfect gap. I’ve lost count of the times people have asked me “can you recommend one book to start learning about Palestine-Israel?” For the first time, I now have a definitive answer.

White defends his book from Hasbara attacks on his blog here.

Review: “Dreams from My Father” by Barack Obama

I went into this book looking for the “old” Obama, who one gets the impression was perhaps more radical before he started to compromise in order to win elections. It seems, though, that this is an illusion, and he was never really on the left in the first place. Obama has a good knack for making everyone think he agrees with them. In reality, when you re-read what he actually said, you find he avoids taking non-conventional positions (1). Ultimately this book is a long series of avoidance.No doubt it is an enjoyable read. It is thoughtful, accessible and interesting. He avoids giving easy answers to the many questions he poses on race, identity and society in general. For the most part, it is also quite humbly written. The middle section of the book recounting his time working in Chicago’s South Side leaves you with the sneaking suspicion that he actually achieved more than he recounts. This could be false modesty on Obama’s part, but the focus on the shortcomings and disappointments of his work as a community organiser makes a refreshing change from the self-glorification of most political memoirs.

However, all is not what it seems. The book was written before be became a politician, and he mentions in the new forward to the 2004 edition that there were a few things he would not have written now, but that he decided to leave the book basically as it was, even though they are politically inconvenient (p. ix — incidentally it would be interesting to get hold of an original 1995 edition of the book to see what changes were made). This is presumably a reference to things that Republican opponents could theoretically use for campaign ammunition, like his college drug use and his Black Nationalist acquaintances (horror of all horrors, he even admits while in Chicago to buying Louis Farrakhan’s newspaper “occasionally” (p. 201)). Look at things from another perspective though, and it seems pretty obvious that Obama decided to “come clean” about these things early on so as to sidestep such attacks. This was a smart move, as it mostly seems to have worked — for example, past drug use was never an issue in the presidential election.

He gives little indication that he wanted to be become a politician. He says he wanted to bring a new legal expertise from Harvard “like Promethean fire” (p. 276) back to the South Side to continue to fight on behalf of local communities. To be fair, he did return to Chicago after law school.

Evidence abounds, though, that Obama was thinking of becoming a politician as early on as the late 1980s, and certainly before Dreams From My Father was published. Writing in the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza says “Obama was writing ‘Dreams’ at the moment that he was preparing for a life in politics, and he launched his book and his first political campaign simultaneously, in the summer of 1995″ (2). This seems credible, and for all its honesty, Dreams should still be read with a proverbial pinch of salt, perhaps not so much in what it claims as what it omits. For example in recounting the part of his childhood spent in Indonesia, he mentions the huge massacres orchestrated by the dictator Suharto as he came to power in a military coup in 1965-66 (pp. 43-44:”The death toll was anybody’s guess: a few hundred thousand, maybe; half a million. Even the smart guys at the Agency had lost count” ). But he underplays the extent of CIA involvement: and more glaringly fails to mention that Suharto was supported by every US president from Nixon to Clinton (3).

The more I read this book, the more it became clear it is empty of conclusions. A memoir need not take political positions, but he poses so many questions and offers no answers. By the end of the book, you just find yourself wishing he would take a stand on something. Obama was clearly thinking more like a politician than a lawyer and wanted to avoid offending the wrong people. This fits well with his later “Change” and “Hope” slogans, which proved so popular precisely because they can pretty much mean what you want them to mean.

In summary then: a good read, and in fairness it raises some good points about about Black consciousness, Black Nationalism and race. But I can’t help but feel it is ultimately hollow, a politician building up his “narrative”.

(1) For example, his alleged past support for the Palestinians. While it does seem that he previously took a more balanced approach than his more recent conversion to the church of AIPAC, willing to hear from both Israelis and Palestinians, it is also true that he never made any concrete promises. See Ali Abunimah, “How Barack Obama learned to love Israel“, Electronic Intifada, 4 March 2007.

(2) Ryan Lizza, “Making It: How Chicago shaped Obama“, The New Yorker, 21 July 2008.

(3) See, for example, John Pilger, “Our model dictator“, The Guardian, 28 January 2008.

Reviewed 7 December 2008.

Review: “US policy towards Jerusalem and the Occupied Arab Territories, 1948 and 1967” by Candace Karp

A pretty dry, academic account of (surprise surprise) US policy towards the Israeli occupation of Palestinian and other Arab lands in 1948 and 1967 (with a focus on the status of Jerusalem in 1948). It’s a sound summary of the official US documentary record, supported by various memoirs etc. Its main problem is that its key conclusion is simply not supported by its own evidence.The main example of this is how Karp states in several places that US support for Israel was ultimately detrimental to “its own cold war interests” and that it was “largely instrumental in its own undoing”. But the very evidence she cites proves exactly the opposite. In 1948, the US did not want to send its own troops to Palestine, since it was concerned that the USSR would react by doing the same. Karp argues that the US failing to do so undermined it’s own strategic goal of “stability” in the region — yet none of the internal documentation she cites demonstrates this was a genuine regional goal. What is clear from what is cited here is that a central US goal in 1948 was to keep Soviet troops out of the region. By actively undermining the internationalization of Jerusalem (as called for in the November 1947 UN plan), they achieved this.

Keeping to what is revealed by the account of the documentary record, this is a pretty useful summary. One of the most interesting points that comes out is the fact that Israel’s supposed wish for peace with it’s neighbors was always clearly a lie. Something I learned was that Jordan and Egypt offered full recognition of Israel (in return for withdrawal the the 1949 ceasefire lines) as early as November 1967 (p 95) — with nothing for the Palestinians. Also Israel demanded control of Gaza and possibly the West Bank before it would even negotiate over withdrawal. There are other interesting such facts that come out.

But it is a bit of a missed opportunity in that it does not discuss how the Israeli aggression of 1967 led the US to start a massive military aid program to Israel. However it does quote the NSC Planning Board from August 1958: “if we choose to combat radical Arab nationalism and to hold Persian Gulf oil by force if necessary, a logical corollary would be to support Israel as the only strong pro-West power left in the Near East” (p 57). Beyond delusions, this is the key to understanding the last 40 years plus of extreme pro-Israel US foreign policy.

Reviewed 1 July 2008.

Review: “The Road Map to Nowhere: Israel/Palestine Since 2003” by Tanya Reinhart

An excellent sequel to “Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948”. Here Reinhart argues that the correct way to understand the 2005 Israeli redeployment from Gaza (the much vaunted “disengagement”) is in the context of massive US pressure behind the scenes, even rising to the level of military sanctions. The sancations (minor in relative terms, but huge in effect) were not explicitly linked to the Gaza pullout (which the Bush administration needed for PR purposes in the Arab world), instead they were triggered by attempted Israeli military technology sales to China. With the reality of the sanctions in the background, Sharon had little choice but to go through with the announced plan. Although he had been hoping all along for a chance to back out of the plan at the last minute, Hamas adhered to a one-sided ceasefire, and the US insisted that the pull out go ahead.She puts the case well and I was convinced by the end of the book, having initially been sceptical. Reinhart is much missed.

Reviewed 22 May 2008.

Review: “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” by Frank Miller

Philosophic pretence can not disguise what is essentially yet another very stupid story about a masked vigilante in tights who goes around beating criminals within an inch of their lives (as if police brutality has never been tried — and ever solved society’s problems). Making matters worse is the way Frank Miller thrusts his misanthropic ideology down the reader’s collective throat. This would be forgiveable if it was not at the expense of the plot and characters — who are essentially poorly developed stooges. On first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking the story is a critical reassessment of the American “superhero” as essentially a vigilante, little removed from the criminals he pursues. It soon becomes clear that, yes, Miller sees Batman in this way: but he approves of it. Witness his transformation of the mutant gangs into a sort of brown shirted “Batman Youth”. Look below the surface and you start to find an almost fascist world-view.

This book is extremely over-rated and was critically acclaimed at the time, probably because it was seen as something “new” and “gritty”. Spare me. You could forgive the ideology if the book worked as art unto itself. But once you remove that, little remains.

Compare this to the work of Alan Moore at the time. “V For Vendetta” stars a protagonist who is essentially sympathetic to the writer’s political views, but Moore wisely makes him a genuinely ambiguous figure, whose actions are often morally questionable. Compare this to Miller’s two-dimensional Batman. To the original dimension of the Batman character (“heroic”), Miller’s oh so great achievement was to add a second dimension: “gritty”. Oh, well done.

You get the feeling this book wishes it were Moore’s “Watchmen”. A masterful work, “Watchmen” is a complete and successful deconstruction of the superhero genre. “The Dark Knight Returns” on the other hand, is another desperate attempt to shock life into the long-since rotted corpse of yet another ridiculous superhero character.

Reviewed 4 April 2008.

Review: “Israel/Palestine: How To End The War Of 1948” by Tanya Reinhart

The late and much missed Tanya Reinhart wrote this 2002 analysis at height of the second intifada during the darkest days of the violence. It is extremely solid and many of her arguments here have been borne out by more recent events. Although one should always be wary of making predictions, many of her warnings have — unfortunately — come to pass. First of all, her deconstruction of Israeli war crimes, quoting almost entirely from Israeli media sources is devastating. She proves here how — contrary to the Israeli propaganda line, accepted in the western media — at its outset, the second intifada was in fact an unarmed, spontaneous, civilian uprising. The reaction of the Israeli army — systematically firing on unarmed demonstrators, killing dozens before the Palestinians fired a single shot — escalated the situation into an armed confrontation. Critically, she points out that the first suicide bombing inside Israel did not take place until over a month into the intifada: November 2nd, 2000. On October 4th (a mere week into the intifada), the Palestinian death toll already stood at 60. Another of her key points is that, far from being the “spontaneous defence against terrorism” of the Israeli propaganda line, the re-invasion of the Palestinian Authority areas had been long planned by Israel. Again, she convincingly backs this up with evidence from the Israeli media.

She also demolishes the myth of Camp David, showing that it was Barak that effectively destroyed the mainstream Israeli peace consensus, not Sharon. The best section of the book is the part in chapter 9 titled The Two Poles in Israel’s Politics. Here, she irrefutably shows how mainstream Israeli politics is in fact divided not between “hawks” and “doves” but between the road of apartheid under the guise of endless negotiations (the Alon-Oslo road) and outright ethnic cleansing (often with the slogan “Jordan is Palestine” — Sharon).

Here, she quotes from an article she wrote in 1994, which seems amazingly prescient in light of the recent rise of Hamas: “From the start, it has been possible to identify two Israeli conceptions that underline the Oslo process. One is that it will reduce the cost of the occupation, using a Palestinian patronage regime, with Arafat as the senior cop responsible for the security of Israel. The other is that the process should lead to the collapse of Arafat and the PLO. The humiliation of Arafat, and the amplification of his surrender, will gradually lead to loss of popular support. Consequently, the PLO will collapse, or enter power conflicts. Thus, the Palestinian society will loose its secular leaderships and institutions.”

Continue reading Review: “Israel/Palestine: How To End The War Of 1948” by Tanya Reinhart

Review: “Reporting from Ramallah” by Amria Hass

This is really disappointing. I’ve long respected Amira Hass’ reporting from the occupied West Bank and Gaza. And there’s is no question that, as the only Israeli reporting regularly from Palestine these are historically important news reports, taking us through some of the darkest moments of the second intifada.However, in retrospect, Hass frankly supports her “own side” too much here. The worst example of this is when she describes the second intifada as “the war the Palestinians have declared on us” and “Israel’s defensive war”, while her own reporting of events shows that it was the Israeli army who began shooting at unarmed demonstrators at the beginning of the intifada, escalating it into an armed conflict. Worse, there are moments that betray a frankly colonist mindset, the most egregious example of this being her description of Palestinians in a Hebrew class as having “lapsed” back into Arabic during discussions with her (a fluent Arabic speaker herself). It is possible that this is a bad choice of words by the translator, but somehow I doubt it. Instead of implicitly criticising the Palestinians for daring to speak their own native tongue, she should take a look at how many Israelis outside of the secret police take the time to learn Arabic. Again, she unambiguously describes the execution of Palestinian collaborators by Palestinian fighters as “murder” while at the same time describing in very neutral language “the shooting of children” by the Israeli army.

No doubt this is all typical Israeli terminology, but I thought Amira Hass was supposed to be “radical”? Maybe the selection of articles is bad (the editing of the volume is frankly pathetic with several amateurish typographical errors). But this still does not excuse the problems such as those described above.

On the plus side, her reporting has some very good moments. The best article here is probably the one in which she famously grills an Israeli sniper, extracting the news that they are told to shoot dead 12-year-old Palestinian children since they are considered adults: “he’s already had his bar mizvah”. Her reports on internal Palestinian issues are also very good, such as the interviews with unemployed workers and the families of those detained by the PA. Her report from Jenin is very good too. For moments such as these, the book gets three stars.

Reviewed 22 March 2008.

Review: “Hamas: A Beginner’s Guide” by Khaled Hroub

Hm. I’m in two minds about this one. Reading it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was rushed out in the wake of the January 2006 Hamas election victory — an attempt by Pluto Press to make a quick buck. It reads somewhat like a first draft in places, as if it were barely copy edited (there are several grammatical errors). However, in Pluto’s defence, they regularly publish extremely important books whose commercial value is probably less than “best seller”, so one can’t really blame them for wanting to make a bit of cash.All this is not to say that Hroub does not know what he talking about. Quite the contrary. It is clear he is extremely knowledgeable about the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement. But the book is frustratingly short on detail and, often, named sources. It is true that this is only meant to be a basic introduction, and insofar as that was the goal of the book it certainly succeeds. And if you are new to the conflict, it does a good job of dispelling the main Western myths about Hamas.

All, in all good, but it left me wanting to read Hroub’s more detailed book on Hamas.

Reviewed 3 March 2008.

Review: “V for Vendetta” by Alan Moore

It takes a little while to get going, and is a bit slow at the beginning, but it pays off in the end. The vision of home-grown British fascism (as opposed to a “what if” scenario where in the Nazi won WII) is all too convincing. Also, I love the way that the “surveillance society” aspects of the story just seem really tame to the Britain of 2008! Moore even got the propaganda on the CCTV cameras right: “for your protection”!The best aspect of “V for Vendetta”, though, is the well developed characters. It would have been all too easy for a lesser writer to make V an unambiguous super hero (and indeed, that’s apparently what the idiot Wachowski brothers set out to do in the Hollywood film — which I have no intention of watching and Alan Moore had his name removed from) and the fascists into Evil Nazi Baddies. But Moore is far too good an artist for that. That said, he still makes no apologies for fascism, and is obviously a supporter of V’s brand of philosophical “anarchy” (in contrast to the the socialism of the historical Anarchist movement). V’s actions and motivations are ambiguous at times, though — a fact that does credit to Moore and leads to a far more rounded and satisfying work.

Lloyd’s artwork is great, but the only thing stopping me giving this volume 5 stars is the colour work. To my mind, the whole thing would have worked 100% better in black and white, in which the original serialization of the first two books was apparently published in Warrior. The whole art style is made up of shadows and light. This may be just DC’s fault (and indeed, their reproduction here is pathetic — the pages are far too small as they are trying to squeeze the larger page size of British comics into the US format), but the authors apparently colourized it for the final volume when DC picked it up, allowing them to finish the story.

All in all, a political, noir classic, but I wish DC would issue a black and white version in the Absolute format. Because this work does indeed deserve the Absolute treatment. Read it, but I advise hold off buying it since they may well release an Absolute version (probably in colour though — bah).