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Nothing left to lose


Give me liberty or give me death!” Patrick Henry emphatically exclaimed in the Virginia House of Burgesses less than a month before the American Revolution erupted. In the two centuries that have since passed, his words have been recited over and over and have been imprinted in the minds of millions of people around the world. In his pithy phrase, Henry managed to capture the spirit that inspired the founding of the first modern democracy.

Henry understood that the very act of occupation is an act of violence. He also realized that the struggle for political freedom is likely to be brutal. And indeed one of the tragedies of human history is that liberty is usually obtained only after a bloody struggle during which both sides -- oppressor and oppressed -- incur painful losses.

History also teaches that those fighting for political freedom -- particularly when dealing with a foreign occupier -- are prepared to suffer much more than their enemy. Three million Vietnamese died in a horrific war, millions were wounded and a whole country was shattered, but the occupied people were willing to continue fighting.

The Palestinians are, in a sense, the Vietnamese of the Middle East. They are prepared to suffer much more than their enemy because they are fighting for self-determination. From Sept. 29 until Dec. 28, 313 people have been killed in the occupied territories and over 10,000 wounded. The Palestinians have buried 274 people (79 of whom were under the age of 17) and the Israelis 35; four foreign nationals were also killed.

But the current situation is characterized by yet another kind of violence, best termed collective punishment. Forty thousand Palestinians residing in the downtown area of Hebron have been living under curfew for over two months. These Palestinians are allowed out of their houses once or twice a week to go food shopping; men and women cannot go to work, children cannot go to school. Their houses have been turned into prison cells just so a few hundred Jewish zealots can realize their fundamentalist aspirations.

In other Palestinian cities and villages, hundreds of thousands of people are prevented from reaching their workplace due to the hermetic military siege. In some isolated villages, unemployment rates have soared to 70 percent. Acres of orchards and fields have been destroyed, thousands of olive trees uprooted and many houses demolished. Conditions are so severe that people are beginning to run short of food and medicine.

One does not need to be a political analyst to recognize that if negotiations are based on the principle of land for peace then the construction of new settlements becomes a major obstacle for achieving peace. In 1993, when Rabin and Arafat signed the Oslo peace agreement, there were 110,000 Jewish settlers; today this number has almost doubled. These figures suggest that in the past seven years Israeli prime ministers -- Rabin, Netanyahu and Barak -- have invested more in fortifying the occupation than in bringing peace.

While the settlers have become the emblem of the occupation and thus the major instigators of the current crisis, they have attempted to present themselves as victims. There is no doubt that it is frightening to live in a war zone, but unlike the Palestinians, the settlers can return home -- to Israel. Instead, they have created small militias and taken the law into their own hands. Regardless of what the settlers contend, in this conflict they are the aggressors; they are blocking the peace.

The Palestinians I talk to emphasize this issue and say that they have reached the point of no return. Many of them have never heard of Janice Joplin, the great American pop star, but recently they have adopted and internalized her refrain: Freedom, they insist, is just another word for nothing left to lose.

Neve Gordon teaches in the department of politics and government at Ben Gurion University, Israel, and can be reached at ngordon@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

National Catholic Reporter, January 12, 2001