THE 
RED
CRITIQUE

 

Palestine and the Burden of "Evidence"

Kimberly DeFazio

 

3

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IMAGE AND IDEOLOGY

Main

The Israeli government and its benefactor the United States would like to see "Jenin" erased. Having failed to crush the resistance of the Palestinian people with overwhelming military force, the political representatives of big business are now trying to cover their tracks and hide their brutal practices behind the "fog of war". They claim that no massacre took place, that it was a "war", and dare the Palestinians to provide evidence that proves otherwise.

What is considered evidence, however, is never a simple matter of abstract truth. "Evidence", on the contrary, is always determined by objective interests: whether it serves the interests of those in power, or those struggling for social justice; whether it supports the interests of those who rule, or whether it questions those interests. The stakes of what constitutes reliable evidence are nowhere more clear than in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and whether the brutal military onslaught against Palestine is "justified" or whether Israel has committed genocide in the interest of expanding its territorial control and expelling all Palestinians from the Occupied Territories.

For example, even amidst reports of massacres in Jenin and international condemnation of Israel's invasion of Palestine, nearly three weeks after the Israeli military began its most massive and destructive attack against the Palestinian people since the Six Day War of 1967 (when Israel more than doubled its territory)—President Bush embraced Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the chief architect of the recent invasion, as "a man of peace".

Evidence of the terrorization and savage violence waged against the Palestinian people—evidence from the few who have been able to enter the occupied territories and report the suffering inflicted—was brushed aside as mere sensationalizing "rumors." Rumors, that is, without any serious substance, and aimed, it was suggested, at falsely representing the situation in order to create sympathy for Palestinian "terrorists".

So casually have reports of evidence of massacres been discarded by the U.S. administration that White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer baldly suggested that the Red Cross and United Nations needed to have access to Palestinian territories—not to confirm the shocking reports of massive numbers of dead in the refugee camp—but to deny them. That is, to put an end to rumors, and thereby subdue the international community's outrage over the Israeli invasion of Palestine, a point made quite clear by Fleischer when he repeated Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s comment that "There is a mythology sometimes to these events where numbers are bandied about".[1]

Why is it then that the U.S. media's ongoing "up to the minute" updates of the deaths of Israelis by Palestinians is not a "mythologizing" "bandying about" of numbers—but the Terrible Truth itself?? Why are the reported numbers of dead Israelis "evidence" which directly expresses the "truth" of the matter: that the Israelis have been so terrorized and traumatized by those they have colonized for the past 54 years that the Israeli military has no other choice but to eliminate Palestinians, if necessary, in the name of peace and security?

The issue of course is not that there is no reliable evidence of mass killings in Palestine, or that all questions of "evidence" are inherently "unreliable" and open to endless "interpretation". After all, even Sharon, after finding it no longer useful to entirely deny accumulating reports of massacres and facing growing international outrage, was forced to acknowledge that a large number of innocent Palestinians had indeed been killed–after which point Sharon used the tact of "re-interpreting" the massacres as a "normal" course of events in "war".

The real issue is that Palestinians are being denied the ability to present their evidence publicly, a denial that reflects their virtually powerless position in the imperialist world dominated by the U.S. and those who support U.S. (oil) interests, such as the state of Israel (with whom the U.S. has always had a "special" relation in order to safeguard its interest in a region resistant to the U.S.'s unparalled economic and military control over world resources). The Palestinians are denied the resources they need—not only in the form of building a case for the recognition of Israeli war crimes, but also in the form of such basic needs as food, shelter, doctors, education, . . .—in order to prevent the current invasion from being used as a basis for Palestinian demands for an independent state. A demand which would of course have a devastating impact on the Israel economy, which controls all the basic resources of Palestine, including its water and electricity, its ports and airports, its streets and borders. Even more importantly, the Israeli state, in its apartheid-like governance of Israel and Palestine, relies on the cheap labor of Palestinians, who are paid a fraction of the wages of Israeli workers. Even Israeli Arabs receive lower wages and many are denied basic rights such as the right to vote, even though they pay taxes, and the schools are segregated with few exceptions. Palestine is a "bantustan," the Israeli state its "master".

The denial of evidence is part of a long history of Palestine's colonization by Israel, which itself reflects an even longer history of the struggle between those who own and control social resources, and those who do not and are, as a result, subject to the dictates of those who do.

Henry Kissinger was very much aware of the class politics of "evidence" in his advice to Israel in the 1980s. In the wake of the first Intifada, begun in 1987 as a peaceful movement to protest growing Israeli brutality against Palestinians, Kissinger told a meeting of American Jewish leaders that "[t]he insurrection [in the Occupied Territories] must be quelled immediately, and the first step should be to throw out television, à la South Africa…The Palestinian Uprising must be suppressed brutally and rapidly".[2]

The powerless have always been forced to bear the burden of evidence, because they lack the means of access to the resources which would enable them to indict their oppressors and establish a legitimate basis for change.

But what has become even more critical today is the way in which "evidence" can be provided by the oppressed or in their defense—but that evidence is "re-framed" so to invalidate evidence of oppression and exploitation. That is, how one "reads" "evidence" has become an urgent question.

Sharon, for example, after outright denial of massacres, is now justifying the killing of Palestinians (not to mention the overwhelming destruction of Palestinian homes, hospitals, places of work, basic resources such as water . . . ) on the grounds of "war". In other words, when "evidence" can no longer be denied---it becomes a matter of "textualizing" evidence, or making it "undecidable". Suggesting, in other words, that it is open to endless interpretation, based on "context." And when one "context" becomes unprofitable, another will be found to take its place.  But what is this really an attempt to do but erase the fundamental context: the fact that Israel invaded Palestine, and declared war on a people it has colonized since 1948 (with initial support of colonial Britain and more recently that of the strongest imperial power, the U.S., which currently gives Israel over 5 billion dollars yearly in military and economic "aid"—more than 2 times the amount received by any other country from the U.S.)?  

So brutally certain has the "uncertain" and "indeterminate" become as a means for justifying Israel's actions that Israeli officials have yet to decide on a definite number of Palestinian deaths--and go so far as to suggest that it shouldn't matter anyway!  In a recent interview on "Meet the Press" in which former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked how many Palestinian civilians were killed ,Netanyahu responded that it could be  "seven or 27".[3] In other words, it doesn't really matter--and it will never be "confirmed". On the other hand, he was quick to add "but we lost 29 soldiers in the battle in Jenin"--a number Israel has never had any trouble confirming, since, after all, the Israeli state controls Jenin and all the means necessary to establish such a confirmation.  The issue however has never been a matter of "numbers" but the structure of power relations beneath the numbers.

If the international community does not recognize the situation as a war zone, Sharon and his supporters know, they may be liable to charges of war crime. Therefore it is urgent for Israel to make sure that all "evidence" of massacres is framed in a way that justifies what it has done. The most recent alibi is that the massive killings and destruction are a "normal" course of "war". As Dr. Raphael Cohen-Almagore, a member of Meretz, the Israeli civil rights party, put it in a recent interview on "Democracy Now!", "Well, wars are not pleasant things . . . when there is a war you are going to see some things that are not nice, not pleasant".[4] What Sharon and his followers leave out of course is that the practices unleashed on the Palestinians are "normal" only for the violent display of power and control of a powerful nation against a powerless people, who are in contrast often forced to defend themselves with "un-normal" strategies against their oppressors, such as guerilla warfare or suicide-bombers. Genocides, Holocausts and carpet-bombings are the "normal" tools of the powerful, and, Sharon, echoing the U.S., demands that the international community should recognize and accept these rules of history, rules made by and for the powerful.

Similarly, arguments about the "bandying about" of numbers are, clearly, attempts by U.S. and Israeli officials to convince citizens that the charges of "evidence" cannot be taken seriously if they in any way condemn Israel.  Any evidence that supports the Palestinian’s claims that the Israeli’s occupation and invasion are devastatingly unjust and must be stopped is not considered "evidence" at all—but "propaganda" (to use Sharon’s term). The only legitimate evidence in short is evidence that supports Israeli and U.S. interests to keep Palestine an occupied territory, in order to maintain Israeli and U.S control over the area (until such control is no longer profitable for the U.S.).  Claims by U.S. officials are thus really "pre-emptive" ideological strikes, to "prepare" citizens for impending public reports of atrocities, which they should treat as "tainted" evidence.  Such preemptive strikes were all the more necessary while a UN fact-finding team was preparing to enter Palestine.

Not only do such arguments prepare citizens to reject certain kinds of evidence as "illegitimate"—they also block any analysis of the conditions under which evidence is produced. For example, what these arguments violently conceal is that the Israeli military—following the U.S. in defying all international protocols—not only denied all journalists, reporters, human rights groups (even the U.N.!) from entering the refugee camps it had demolished and making public what the Palestinians had suffered--it actually shot at reporters, stopped ambulances and attacked international peace demonstrators. Israel, with the help of U.S. officials, U.S. financial support and U.S. international leverage, has managed to conduct its massive military attack against a defenseless people behind an internationally illegal curtain of press censorship. It has gone even further recently and banned a UN mission to Jenin!

And Israel is called the only "democracy" in the Middle East!

How can victimized people be expected to provide evidence of their situation if they are continuously denied the very means by which to establish their evidence? How can Palestinians be expected to "prove" that massacres have taken place, when there are reports that large numbers of bodies have been destroyed—not only buried beneath the rubble of bull-dozed houses and in mass graves over the Israeli border, but by explosions designed to eradicate all traces of death? How can the thousands of Palestinian prisoners detained by Israel prove that they have been tortured and detained under illegal circumstances, if they are refused access to lawyers and international mediating bodies?

 

The victims of history have always been required to carry the burden of proof, and denied the means of its provision. What is at stake is the attempt to conceal and justify the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as part of the larger history of (US) imperialism. Whether it is the invasion of Palestine, the coup in Venezuela, the rolling back of civil rights in the U.S., or  . . . what is becoming clear is that the imperialist nations of the world—those who own and control the world's resources at the expense of the many—will do anything, not only to maintain their power, but ensure that they can freely extend their reach over every aspect of human life, regardless of what it means for the majority of people.   The construction of "evidence" in other words is part of a much larger struggle by imperialists to justify their brutal practices.  

And even as they require the "other" to provide "evidence"—the imperialists have grown less and less interested in basing their own legal indictments on "evidence". In fact, a day after Bush called for the need for "transparency" in the Israeli invasion—suggesting that "evidence" is indeed necessary to make determinations of war crimes, etc.—it was proposed that the U.S. military tribunals need to be able to try detainees held in Cuba without "evidence"!  As reported in the New York Times, "Bush administration officials are considering a new legal doctrine that would allow prisoners to be brought before military tribunals without specific evidence that they engaged in war crimes".[5] The U.S. in other words has publicly stated that they have no "evidence" that would be legally indicting before any legitimate court (even kangaroo military tribunals!)—yet they expect the citizens of the most advanced democracy in the world to agree to life-long prison sentences, if not execution, nonetheless.

 Why is "evidence" the only criterion of truth in one case, but irrelevant in another?

The U.S. requires "evidence" only from those who would indict its own practices or those practices the U.S. supports; in order to imprison and even execute those it considers a threat, it requires no "evidence" at all.

But the heroic struggles of the Palestinians against the relentless military onslaught of the Israeli state will not be suppressed. Just as "Jenin" has become a symbol of resistance against the overwhelming force of global imperialism, inspiring people around the world to stand in solidarity and struggle for a world in which all peoples' needs are met, history will prove the just cause of the Palestinians and their struggle for a state, their struggle for freedom from oppression and exploitation.

 



[1] The Guardian, "Bush says Israeli invasion of Jenin must be investigated," April 20, 2002.

[2] Quoted in Phil Marshall,  Intifada: Zionism, Imperialism and Palestinian Resistance (Chicago: Bookmarks, 1989) 24.

[3] NBC, April 28, 2002.

[4] Dr. Raphael Cohen-Almagor. Interview with Amy Goodman. Democracy Now!. www.democracynow.org 12 April 2002.

 

[5] Neil A. Lewis, "U.S. Weighing New Doctrine for Tribunals," New York Times, April 21, 2002.

 

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