Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Realities of Death

The value of life has little to do with the value accorded to death and the latter, writes Azmi Bishara, is determined as much by who did the killing as by the identity of the victim

General Elazar Stern, head of the Israeli army's Human Resources Directorate, said last week that "the Israeli army's hyper-sensitivity over the lives of its soldiers was responsible for some of the failures in the war [in Lebanon]." But you just can't choose to go to war and keep your soldiers safe. You have to say to your soldiers, "this is war and in war you kill and get killed," or if you're Israeli you say, "you kill Arabs and Arabs kill you." This hard and practical knowledge did not, though, prevent other Israeli generals from racing to the microphones to shout down Stern's statement and boast about the lengths to which the Israeli army goes to spare human lives.

Israel certainly has a peculiar attitude towards its soldiers' lives. According to its creation myth, Israel was founded to safeguard Jews whose lives were at risk in the Diaspora. The Israeli soldier is a symbol of this. Its attitude has also been influenced by the 1967 War syndrome, the belief that the army can wage war with minimal risk to its own ranks by replaying the strategies used in 1967; massive aerial bombardment, carrying the war deep into enemy territory and exacting a high toll so as to reduce the risk to one's own soldiers.

The last of these tactics was developed by Western colonialist powers and Israel has not departed from a Western colonialist sense of racial superiority that rates the lives of its own soldiers as being worth many times more than the lives of people in the colonies or the Third World in general. Were this not the case, then Palestinian spokesmen wouldn't bother cautioning Israel that the life of Corporal Gilad Shalit was being jeopardised by Israeli bombardment at a time when that same bombardment was harvesting Palestinian lives by the dozen.

In the 19th century, Karl Marx cautioned against the pitfalls inherent in an ostensibly universally applicable concept of man as abstracted from the perceptions and imagination of the European bourgeoisie. Individual man was the product of a set of specific historic conditions; could not be generalised, and nor could the value of his life and death. Discussions and conflicts in Europe and America over the importance of the individual have centred around groups of individuals that have been dehumanised at the level of citizenship rights, groups such as women, workers and minorities. Today, now that the concept of citizenship has become all embracing and non-exclusive in European societies, these countries -- and those that emulate them -- boast of the importance they accord to every individual and to the sanctity of his or her life. It still comes as a shock to the Western mind to learn of situations in which there is total disregard for the lives of the poor, as occurred in the US itself following the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. In contrast, the humanitarianism Western societies exhibit towards the world beyond their borders is riddled with hypocrisy despite the tears shed over the millions killed by disease, hunger and warfare.

Israeli leftists accused the Israeli Human Resources Directorate chief of wanton disregard for human life, arguing that the indifference to Arab or Palestinian lives would inevitably infect attitudes to Israeli lives.

Such are the arguments with which some political forces are trying to mobilise Israeli political opinion against the occupation. The reasoning is that the crimes perpetrated by the occupation ultimately corrupt Israeli society; the occupation is bad because it accustoms Israelis to killing. Apparently, it isn't enough for these moral pundits that the occupation oppresses those under occupation, it has to be proven that it is detrimental to the occupying power.

The premise might be correct but just think of the implications of such reasoning were it not. If the occupation did not rebound negatively on the society and government of the occupying power, then the only way for an occupied people to damage the occupier is to exact an ever greater price for the premeditated crime of occupation so as to open eyes, not only to the practical dangers of occupation, but to its moral dangers as well. This conclusion is not so much a confirmation of the hypocrisy of the Israeli army as it is of the hypocrisy of its critics who calculate the magnitude of the crimes perpetrated by the occupation in terms of their repercussions on Israel rather than on the basis of the respect for human life in general.

That the victim of aggression can harm his aggressor seems to confirm that there is no such thing as an all-embracing humanity, except in our heads. Such a concept only acquires meaning if it is accepted as universally and determines actions.

The Israeli military is more sincere than those who claim it no longer values Israeli lives because it accords no value to Arab lives, a claim that merely obfuscates a reality in which no equality exists in life or death.

The value attached to the life of the individual in wealthy colonising nations increases as the lives of individuals in poor and colonised nations is diminished. An inverse relationship exists, as opposed to the direct relationship claimed by those politically correct pundits who have adopted leftist rhetoric without its substance. That the oppressor is not free may hold true within philosophical definitions of freedom but practical political experience has taught that wealthy colonising nations have made their greatest leaps towards civil liberties during periods when the rights of occupied peoples are at a nadir. Marx came to this realisation in the 19th century, after observing the relationship between a European occupying power and another European country whose people spoke the same language as the occupier. But in the case of Britain and Ireland the colonisation was to all practical ends internal; it was corruptive and exacted a heavy moral toll upon the society of the occupying power.

In general, though, the world is a far more complex place and countries can all too easily accommodate themselves to a set of double standards governing rights to life, dignity and prosperity; one for the enemy, another for the friend, one for the citizen another for the non-citizens, one for the occupier another for the people under occupation. The Israeli Supreme Court, that bastion of Israeli liberalism, has preserved the total separation between the standards pertaining to citizens inside the Green Line and those applied to people on the other side. The discrepancy extends beyond the martial law enforced in the territories to embrace the judicial and ethical standards of judges who find themselves in a real quandary when faced with a case of discrimination against an Arab inside Israel, but who have no struggles of conscience when dealing with a similar case in the occupied territories. The standards are different because people, including judges, inhabit a reality that is at heart schizophrenic.

Do I have to summon up the horrors of Rwanda, Burundi and the lives of people in Madrasa, Afghanistan to drive home the point? Must I call attention to the degree of global concern for what would happen in Somalia should fighting erupt with Ethiopia? You can cry yourself hoarse about double standards and nothing will come of it until human life in these countries is accorded the same value as elsewhere. Nor will their deaths be taken seriously unless their lives are taken seriously. Everyone knows that equality is a myth, that a difference exists. Everyone knows that greater value is given to freeing Corporal Shalit than to freeing Palestinian detainees and, worse, that his life counts for more than the lives of 50 people in Beit Hanoun. It is no secret that world powers base their policies on such discrepant standards.

It requires no great feat of the imagination to know what would happen if 600,000 Americans rather than 600,000 Iraqis had been killed in Iraq. Isn't that why American officials have kept such a close eye on the daily American death toll, all the while keeping their fingers crossed that the figure doesn't climb above an acceptable level so that the American public won't start clamouring for an immediate withdrawal?

From another perspective, people accord greater importance to the death sentence handed to Saddam Hussein than they do to the death of thousands of Iraqi civilians, which is what made it possible for the current regime to bring the former Iraqi leader to trial while the ruling parties' own militias have been busy massacring Iraqis. Were there true equality in the right to life, it would be impossible to imagine such a trial and sentencing against a backdrop of corpses littering the streets. This applies as much to the current Iraqi government as it did to its predecessor; in some countries, particularly those with despotic governments, a single person's life and, hence, death, is valued above all others.

The life of a Rwandan is not equal to the life of a Frenchman. The life of an inhabitant of Gaza is not equal to that of Shalit, not when the Arabs announce after every meeting -- and as a gesture meant to ingratiate themselves to Israel -- that they have discussed "his case"; and not when they do this gratuitously, in keeping with a custom of gate-crashing weddings so that they can flaunt their proximity to a superior culture, rub shoulders and get themselves photographed with the world's political heavy- weights, court the admiration of opinion pundits in Israel or boost their own image by showing themselves to be "involved" in the issues that "matter".

There is no equality in death or in death tolls, not when the reality of the discrepancies are obscured by rhetorical rituals and diplomatic niceties and people feel they have to hide their true feelings for fear of being accused of racism. Indeed, the cant of commiseration and grief undermines any true confrontation with the problem of inequality when people not only don't change their opinions but refuse to change their behaviour, preferring instead to give it a euphemistic gloss.

A resistance movement can force the invader to at least fear killing the people for whom the resistance is fighting by exacting a price from the invader. In other words, it is possible to impose equality in death without imposing equality in life. Some peoples under occupation feel that by forcing their enemy to respect their deaths they stand a better chance of their own leadership respecting the lives of those who remain after the battle.

If a society's leadership doesn't value the lives of its own people, it cannot expect others to do so. That "do so" would be to suggest that it has the right to treat its own people as it wishes but that if outside powers refuse to respect their lives or deaths, then at the very least they should do so in consultation and coordination with it. This position reflects the sad reality in various parts of the world to which significant portions of international law are opposed. Yet, even if international law were applied to the letter it would not go very far towards redressing the imbalance between the scant attention paid to the death of a Palestinian at the hands of occupation forces or in the course of internal civil strife and the international concern shown for Shalit.

It is possible to extrapolate further; to appoint to an entire hierarchy of value, public opinion accords to the life and death of different peoples. The individual in the West ranks highest. Next come those who live next door or in close proximity. In the US, the life of an African American is worth more than the life of an African. In Israel, the life of a Jew killed by a police bullet is worth more than an Arab's and the life of an Arab citizen in Israel is worth more than dozens of Arabs mowed down by occupation forces. In Gaza the death of dozens killed by the occupation triggers greater outrage than the death of Gazans killed by other Gazans. An Iraqi killed by an American receives more attention than 20 Iraqis whom the militias have kidnapped, murdered and mutilated overnight. A similar scale applies to Lebanon. The relative value of an individual's death not only depends on who he is but on who his killer is.

It is a nightmarish hierarchy, a deadly reality