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The Making of an Arab Icon

by Dr Jehad Al-Omari

On 11th May, a momentous event took place in Palestine on the outskirts of the Jenin Camp. I refer to the cold-blooded killing of a veteran Palestinian news reporter named Shireen Abu Akleh. Although Israeli forces have since the year 2000 assassinated or caused the deaths of 54 Palestinian reporters, not to mention all those imprisoned and those held without trial, this particular killing has proved to be the last straw for the Palestinians and the wider Arab world. Shireen Abu Akleh worked for the Qatari TV Station Al Jazeera, reporting from the Occupied Territories since 1997. Over the years, she had become a household name to many Palestinians and the wider Arab audience and her killing has shocked the region to an extent far beyond the expectations of the Israeli authorities, or at least of whoever it was that gave the order to eliminate her.

I am part of a generation of Arabs who were privileged to spend their formative years receiving a Western education in British universities and later to work with British colleagues in various institutions and organisations. Back in the late 1970s and early 80s, British universities were still financially accessible to many Arabs, given that the tuition fees were still affordable, and the Arab world was still buoyant and flush with cash from the rise in oil prices that followed the Arab oil embargo and the 1973 war with Israel. That war could have changed the balance of power in the region and forced the Israeli government to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the Palestinian issue had it not been for the blatant intervention on the side of Israel by the United States, which tipped the balance in Israel’s favour.

Throughout my life – and that includes the period since I left the UK to return to the Middle East – I have benefited enormously from my Western education and outlook and I remain extremely grateful for this. However, there is one thing that has always constituted a thorn in my side: the fickleness of public opinion with regard to the Palestinian issue and the outright pro-Israel bias. Although we have seen major shifts in opinion since the 70s, these have, alas, not been sufficient to resolve the Palestinian issue once and for all. A look back at some recent history will help to explain my feelings.

Those old enough to remember may recall that back in 1982, using as a pretext the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador in London by an Arab organisation (an attack which was actually formally condemned by the Palestine Liberation Organisation) Israel invaded Lebanon with the aim of dislodging the PLO from its base in that country. Israeli forces penetrated all the way to the capital, Beirut, resulting in the expulsion of PLO fighters from the city and their evacuation under the protection of a multinational force. However, it transpired that the operational success of this invasion did not satisfy the bloodthirsty government of Menachem Begin, because it was followed by a massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees – young and old, men and women – in the Sabra district of West Beirut and the adjacent Shatila refugee camp, carried out by Maronite Christian allies of the Israelis, under the watchful eyes of the Israeli army. There are two things that stick in the memory regarding this invasion.

Firstly, at the time, the Israeli invasion and the subsequent massacre of innocent Palestinians were widely reported and denounced by the Western press and received outright condemnation in many Western circles. Surprisingly however, by the end of 1982 and in the annual review of the year’s events, the British press backtracked on almost every condemnation of Israeli behaviour and performed what amounted to a U-turn, blaming the Palestinians as the aggressors. All suddenly seemed forgiven and forgotten, and one had the impression that at the time of the invasion and massacre the British press had simply felt obliged to ride the wave of condemnation in order to pander to public opinion but had subsequently reverted to its unreserved and unconditional support for Israel.

Secondly, following widespread condemnation of the Sabra and Shatilamassacre, there were calls for an international enquiry into what had happened. Although this enquiry did in fact take place, the perpetrators of those heinous crimes escaped retribution and remain unpunished to this day. Moreover, as a result of the invasion, many Palestinian families were uprooted from Lebanon along with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, and had to look for new lands to take them in, thus adding to the Palestinian diaspora.

Now fast-forward to 2003 and the preparations to invade Iraq on the pretext that its president, Saddam Hussein, was about to use ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Once again, those old enough will remember the surge in British public opinion against the war in Iraq which had been instigated by the George Bush administration in the USA and supported by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Readers may remember the massive demonstration against the war that took place in London, with numbers estimated as high as a million participants. These were British people from all walks of life, young and old, rich and poor. I myself was among them, actually standing next to a delegation from an organisation that called itself the British Witches Association.

Nonetheless, the British government followed its US allies, along with many other Western nations (including, ironically, Ukraine), in invading Iraq, killing hundreds, bringing about the deaths of thousands more, causing millions of people to become refugees, destroying the Iraqi economy, disbanding the national army and installing a puppet sectarian government that continues to lead Iraq from one disaster to another. And still the Iraqi people have yet to hear one single word of apology from the US or UK government and have not received any meaningful, constructive aid in rebuilding the country, helping refugees to return, or undertaking inter-communal reconciliation. Thanks to the Western invasion, based on the stated goal of destroying Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and bringing democracy to the Iraqi people, Iraq has been torn apart for almost 20 years and is likely to continue to be run by sectarian leaders and militias for another generation.

Returning to the present, within hours of Shireen’s death on 11th May, Arab social media were filled with outpourings of sadness and outright condemnation of the Israeli actions, and she became a rallying point for tens of millions of Arabs to express their outrage at what looks to many like a deliberate act of murder following weeks of escalation in tensions and violence between Palestinians and the Israeli army in Jerusalem and in Israel proper (as it is called). Prior to the month of Ramadan, which ended at the beginning of May, there were many intelligence reports of expected rising violence and, perhaps not surprisingly, the new government of Naftali Bennett appeared to be ill-prepared or just too weak to curb the Israeli right wing, especially with regard to the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. As one commentator put it, the controversial right-wing former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu comes across as an eminently moderate and wise leader in comparison with Bennett. How ironic that the combination of a discredited Palestinian National Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas and a weak Israeli Prime Minister has succeeded in providing Palestinians with a much-needed modern-day icon and symbol of unity that was previously lacking in spite of the numbers of Palestinians who had lost their lives during the last decade or two. Perhaps most significantly, the fact that Shireen Abu Akleh was a Christian Arab, although this did stir up some controversy as to whether she could properly be referred to as a ‘martyr’, has eventually proved a decisive factor in making her the new Palestinian and modern Arab history heroine for Christians, Muslims and secularists alike. In addition, the disgraceful attack by Israeli soldiers on the coffin-bearers at her funeral has helped to further consolidate Arab opinion and so reserve Shireen a place in modern Arab history, as illustrated by the massive turnout of Jerusalemites to bid her farewell amid church bells and Muslim supplications. This was the first day since the occupation of Jerusalem in 1967 that Arab Jerusalemites had managed to re-claim their city – albeit just for a day – so that they could honour their new martyr.

When all is said and done, and despite promises by the Israeli army command, who had initially tried to wriggle out of responsibility, to investigate her killing, we must not be blinded to the fact that the real issue is not what the findings of the enquiry into Shireen’s killing will be. The young Palestinians who are now taking the initiative on the streets of the West Bank – most of whom were born after the doomed Oslo Agreement of 1993 – will not wait for the Israeli government’s verdict or for the so-called international community to hand them justice, for they have learned the lesson that condemnations, enquiries and UN resolutions have failed to render justice to the Palestinians for the last 74 years. The real issue, on which Shireen Abu Akleh constantly reported and on which other journalists continue to report on a daily basis, is the expropriation inflicted on the Palestinian people, the denial of their right to self-determination, the daily confiscations of land, the arrest and imprisonment of Palestinian youths on the flimsiest of pretexts, detention without trial, the humiliating treatment of Palestinians at the Israeli army road-blocks which have fragmented the West Bank into isolated islands wedged between luxurious Israeli settlements.

Today there are many in Israel who will be hoping that the events of the past few days will blow over and be forgotten within a few weeks or months, just like the invasion of Lebanon, the 1996 and 2006 Qana massacres and the endless bombardments of Gaza. They hope that Arab memory will be as fickle as Western public opinion. On the flipside of the coin, there are also many Israeli citizens who are now asking themselves whether the Zionist Dream remains sustainable and whether the soul of the Jewish people is really being served by the apartheid state of Israel.


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