Friday, September 17, 2004

History Friday: The End of Easy Assumptions

I was 9 years old in 1982, hardly of an age to take much interest in the goings on in the middle east. However 7 years later I found myself on a London bound bus, heading home for school vacation, and in posession of Robert Fisk's Pity The Nation, an account of the Lebanese Civil War and subsequent Israeli invasion. His disection of the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps by Lebanese Christian Phalagist militias had the same effect on me as a punch in the face. Under the gaze of an Israeli invasion force, lead by current Israeli Prime Minister and then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, the fascist Phalangists went on a 24 hour rampage of slaughter, putting Palestinian women and children to the sword as a reprisal for the killing of the Christian Lebanese President-elect, Bashir Gemayel.After the Phalangists had finished their killing, the Israeli Army rolled in heavy armor, the only modern tanks in the region, to "secure" the area.

Much has been written about the failure of the Israelis to intervene and stop the massacres. Much more has been written about the level of Israeli complicity in the killing. Fisk's book sparked a desire in me to find out more about the region, a desire that informed much of my university career, and also sowed the seeds of doubt about my easily held and simplistic opinions regarding Israel. I have a well-documented distaste for conspiracy theories, but I couldn't shake the feeling, in 1989 as now, that Israel was somehow complicit in the Sabra and Shatila massacres.

This was a earth shaking revelation for me. As a child of the west growing up in the latter stages of the Cold War, Israel to me was the brave island of democracy in a sea of medieval or pro-Soviet despotism; living proof that goodness arose from tragedy; the heroes of Entebbe; and the victims of a racist conspiracy that stretched from the War of 1948 to the killings at the Munich Olympics. Now I learned that one of my paragons was deeply flawed, no matter how deeply they were involved in the mundane actualities of indiscriminate brutality.

I know it was starry-eyed and infantile of my teenage self to regard Israel as seperate and above the intrigues and squalor of other countries; to expect the unique persecution of the Jewish people to inform the Jewish homeland with a sense of idealistic fairness to all. Still, when those scales fell from my eyes with the reading of Fisk's account of the slaughter in Beirut in September 17 1982, I felt that I had been betrayed.

It is not Israel's job to seek the moral highground alone, any more than it is the job of any nation surrounded by hostile neighbors. It is however the job of Israel's friends to protect this unique nation by not only offering military and economic assistance but also by pointing out its failings and chastising and punishing horrendous behavior. Double standards are what are getting our young men and women killed; our politicians have no greater responsibility than to protect them from the poisonous fruit of election driven bias.

September 17th 1982: More than 1,000 people are feared to have been killed during a 24-hour rampage by Lebanese militia in West Beirut

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