Trapped to a cause

The Middle East Conflict has imposed heavy burdens on both Arabs and Israelis, but in a year when violence has erupted across many lands in this region for other reasons, it might be time not only to audit the costs of this protracted dispute but also to survey who actually pays and in what currency. It makes sense to begin with the Palestinians and Israelis. Both peoples are locked into a conflict that exacts a high price, but Israel has managed to sustain its independence and also to deliver more opportunities and freedoms to its citizens than when the Jewish state was founded in 1948.

By contrast, Palestinians define their lives by the Nakba that is Israel’s mere existence as divested of homes and homeland with many residing in what was once thought as temporary dwellings offering the shelter typically extended to refugees. What the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said called “the victims of the victims,” pragmatically blaming Israel’s successes on their failures.   If located in refugee camps on Lebanese soil, Palestinians are restricted in movement and access to jobs and education; if in Syria, Palestinians are subjected to heavy surveillance and deployed as instruments of the regime for its own political purposes. Palestinians have not only become the classic emblem of the failures of Arab rulers to liberate their people from the wounds of colonialism and Zionism but also the unfulfilled mission justifying the concentration of power and command economy across the Arab lands.  But as they wait for their liberation, Palestinians are caught in the crossfire of many different battles and consequently pay a much higher price than Israelis for the perpetuation of this conflict.

Of course, a full inventory of these costs is impossible to compile partly because the currencies for payment are incommensurable. Casualties of war or terror can be counted, but the cost of opportunities lost, families fragmented or freedoms denied cannot be easily recorded on a balance sheet. But what cannot be denied is that Palestinians symbolize for Arabs their own sense of dislocation.

Ponder the implications for Syrians when their government proclaims its unwavering support for armed resistance to liberate Palestine not simply from oppression but also from the possibility that its sovereignty might be constituted by forging an agreement with Israel blessed by America. The costs imposed on ordinary Syrians for their regime’s commitment to the Palestinian cause is high even if hidden at times yet Damascus has been very visibly home to Khaled Meshaal and Hamas. Pursuit of Palestinian national rights can justify mobilizing a critical share of the country’s resources. Consider education. Syria’s leaders may urge its citizens to attend school and to learn, but, for the sake of the ’cause’ claim they need to control everything that is said or written. The regime may wish to encourage economic development but a call to arms channels resources; it normally does not generate investments. The idea of personal sacrifice may be appealing but it carries perils with its restrictions on personal freedom. Dedicating one’s life to a cause means surrendering some considerable measure of the power to make choices. And where citizens have no power to choose, ordinary people have little opportunity to display their talents and energy, to take initiative, and ultimately, to forge a democracy granting meaningful rights.

The violence that has reached Syria is not simply about people rising up to demand freedom–though it is that– it is also about a system of oppression falling apart. A regime enriching itself as more and more of its people cannot meet their basic needs does not have enough mechanisms of repression to keep operating as usual.  The forces tearing apart these regimes are too powerful to repress. But unless Syrians realize that they have not only been trapped by a cause as well as by a savage dictatorship, they will never be able to reclaim the right to make their own choices about their lives and about their framework of government.

Since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri Bashar lost the support of his Arab brothers as well as France and now he is losing his own people. To regain approval in and boost his regime at home, Bashar has been fueling anti-Israel and anti-American sentiment.

But Bashar has been playing the wrong cards he thought the proletariat would lay low. That has not been the case and now the Syrians are looking to topple the Assad regime, but to find their way to freedom, they must also understand the true sources of their oppression.

About the Author
Donna Robinson Divine is a Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government at Smith College and a Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) board member. Asaf Romirowsky is the acting executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).