July 25, 2008
Israel and Arabs living on different planets
|Uri Avnery | Arab News|
|I spent the whole day flipping between the Israeli channels and Al Jazeera.
It was an eerie experience. In a fraction of a second I could switch between two worlds, but all the channels reported on exactly the same occasion.
Never before have I experienced the tragic conflict in such a stunning immediacy as last Wednesday, the day of the prisoner swap between the State of Israel and the Hezbollah organization.
The man who stood at the center of the event personifies the abyss that separates the two worlds, the Israeli and the Arab: Samir Al-Kuntar.
All Israeli media call him “Murderer Kuntar”, as if that were his first name. For the Arab media, he is “Hero Samir Al-Kuntar”.
29 years ago, before Hezbollah had become a significant factor, Kuntar, a Lebanese Druze and a Communist, landed with his comrades on the beach of Nahariya and carried out an attack that has imprinted itself on the Israeli national memory with its cruelty. In the course of it, a four year-old girl was murdered, and a mother accidentally suffocated her small child while trying to keep it from giving away their hiding place.
This Wednesday, the difference between the two worlds was apparent in its most extreme form. In the morning, the “Murderer Kuntar” woke up in an Israeli prison, in the evening the “Hero Al-Kuntar” stood in front of a hundred thousand cheering Lebanese from all communities and parties. It took him but a few minutes to cross from Israeli territory to the tiny UN enclave at Ras-Al-Naqura and from there to Lebanese territory, from the realm of Israeli TV to the realm of Lebanese TV — and the distance was greater than that transversed by Neil Armstrong on the way to the moon.
By talking endlessly about the “Bloodstained Murderer” who will never be freed, whatever happens, Israel has turned him from just another prisoner into a pan-Arab hero.
Nowadays it is already a banality to say that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. This week, a slight movement of the finger on the TV remote control was enough to experience this first-hand.
Emotions ran high on both sides.
The Israeli public was immersed in a sea of sorrow and mourning for the two soldiers, whose death was confirmed only minutes before the return of their bodies. For hours on end, all the Israeli channels devoted their broadcasts to the feelings of the two families, who the media had spent the last two years transforming into national symbols (as well as rating-boosting instruments).
No need to mention that not a single voice in Israel said even one word about the 190 families, the bodies of whose sons were returned to Lebanon on the same day. In this whirlpool of self-pity and mourning ceremonies, the Israeli public had no energy and interest left for trying to understand what was happening on the other side.
It was, of course, Hassan Nasrallah’s big day. In the eyes of tens of millions of Arabs, he has won a huge victory. A small organization in a small country has brought Israel, the regional power, to its knees, while some Arab leaders are bending the knee before Israel.
Al Jazeera brought all this live, hour after hour, to millions of homes from Morocco to Iraq and the Muslim world beyond. It was impossible for Arab viewers not to be swept along on the waves of emotion. I suspect that there were also quite a number of Israelis who made unflattering comparisons between this man and our own Cabinet ministers.
For Lebanon it was a historic day. Something like this has never happened before: all the country’s political elite, without exception, turned out at Beirut airport to welcome Kuntar, and at the same time to salute Nasrallah.
On Wednesday, Nasrallah became the most important and powerful person in Lebanon.
In Israel, some people blame the prisoner swap for the dizzying ascent of Nasrallah and the whole national-religious camp in the Arab world. But one can trace the blame even further back, to Ariel Sharon’s First Lebanon War. The deadly mixture of arrogance and ignorance that is typical of all Israeli dealings with the Arab world is also responsible for what happened on Wednesday.
This week, another important thing happened: in one great leap, the Syrian president jumped from American-imposed isolation into global stardom at a grandiose international show in Paris. The new status of Nasrallah as a central player in the Lebanese political game imposes on him responsibility and caution. A strengthened Bashar may be a better partner for peace, if we are ready to take the opportunity. The American negotiations with Iran may avert a destructive war, which would be a disaster for us, too. The legitimization of Hamas by the negotiations, when they are resumed, may lead to Palestinian unity, like the unity achieved now in Lebanon. Any peace agreement we signed with them would really have legs to stand on.
In two months Israel may have a new government. If it wants to, it could start a new initiative for peace with Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.