10 January 2001

Sharon's Intifada

On October 10, 680 A.D., as Christians reckon it, Imam Husayn, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the spiritual leader of the people who would become the Shi'ite Muslims, was ambushed by a rival Islamic army larger than his own. At one point in the battle, Husayn went forward with his infant son, Hossein, and begged the opposing army to let him obtain some water for the child. Someone in the opposing army responded by shooting an arrow into the child's throat, which triggered the final slaughter. According to Shi'ite thought, the loss of this battle was not a disaster, but the deliberate sacrifice by Husayn of himself and most of his followers and family, in order to awaken Muslims to the low state into which the Muslim political leadership (the Caliphate) had fallen. The death of Husayn established Shi'ism, and left it with its continuing dedication to martyrdom.

Perhaps today, when a Palestinian youth is wounded or killed by Israeli gunfire while he is throwing a only stone, the image of Husayn's murdered child glimmers in the Islamic collective unconscious. Otherwise, why do Palestinians encourage their children to place themselves in harm's way?

A sympathetic interpretation might say that the children, understanding the plight of their families, and knowing that they will go straight to Heaven if they die fighting for them, can't resist jihad (the holy struggle) against their oppressors in any way they can. The distraught parents simply can't hold them back.

A cynical interpretation might say that the Palestinian Authority, or PA, orchestrates the stone-throwing incidents that get filmed and photographed by journalists. They control everything, from the timing of the incident to the photographers' camera angles. One sees only the valiant and rebellious youth, not the row of photojournalists lying prone before him, capturing only the image of the child, without the adult gunman behind him, who will provoke the enemy's fire. The PA seeks to win the war for world opinion, because it cannot obtain victory directly.

A Zionist interpretation might say that these Palestinians are the descendents of the Philistines written of in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), whom God commanded the Israelites to scourge from the land, because they were guilty of sacrificing their children to the false god Moloch (Lev 18:21). They have changed their religion, but the tradition of child sacrifice continues. Their claim to the land is nullified by their tactics, which should be offensive to any culture in which children are protected.

A left-wing political interpretation might say that the Palestinians have been played as pawns by the Israeli Right, who were opposed to the concessions made by Israel to the PA as the price of peace. After all, the Intifada started in protest over the appearance of the hawkish Ariel Sharon along with numerous bodyguards at a holy site claimed by both Jews and Muslims. Now, as a result of the Intifada's violence, the whole peace process has been called into question by Israel's electorate, and Sharon has defeated Ehud Barakh to become Israel's new Prime Minister. Sharon, who leads a minority party that would have been marginalized had peace actually occurred, touched off the violence and used it to bring himself and his party back to political prominence.

A right-wing political interpretation might say that the violence touched off by Sharon's appearance shows that when the Palestinians speak of an internationalized Jerusalem, they mean one in which large sections are off-limits to Jews. At least in an Israeli controlled Jerusalem, Muslims can have access to their places of worship, and in times of peace, to any place the average Israeli may go.

There is partial truth to these and still more interpretations, for such is the nature of acts. Acts always mean more than the actor intends, because action needs interpretation to be understood. Deeds need words, which explainers supply based on their points of view. Deeds thus have power beyond words to communicate different things to different people. A Palestinian boy is shot by an Israeli soldier while throwing a stone. An Israeli soldier, barely older than the boy, is ambushed by a Palestinian crowd, beaten to death, and his body is dragged through the streets. Each act is a thing in itself, but also a symbol of something larger than itself.

Each is also an act of war. An act of peace would require more courage, and would be a more fitting testament to the memory of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by Islamic extremists because he flew from Cairo to Jerusalem. Or to the memory of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, who was assassinated by a Jewish extremist because he negotiated a peace treaty with Jordan which ceded land to the Palestinians.

And while we are speaking of acts, let us note the grand non-act that stands behind all other acts in the current drama of Palestine. Most Palestianians have been living in refugee camps since they fled Israel at its founding in 1948. They have not assimilated into the Muslim parts of the societies ( in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, for example) which harbor them for the same reason the Jews did not assimilate into pre-WWII European societies. No one wants them.

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