In June, the seventh month of the uprising, two of us — Joe Stork and Jim Paul — traveled to the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, along with photographer Rick Reinhard. We saw firsthand the extent to which this unfolding political event has transformed, and continues to transform, a balance of forces which less than a year ago had seemed so static, so immovable.
Our visit coincided with a noticeable decrease in press coverage of the uprising in this country. Several factors lay behind this, in addition to the chronically short attention span of the major media. First, the uprising itself has moved to a new phase of organization, consolidation and political construction, and Israeli repression now aims at closing down institutions and jailing Palestinian activists by the thousands. This contest is inherently less dramatic, less reducible to 60-second film clips, than the mass confrontations between people and army that marked the first period. Second, Israel has choked off media access, shutting down Palestinian news services and jailing journalists, cutting telephone communication between the Occupied Territories and the rest of the world, and closing off camps, towns, neighborhoods and villages to the press at will.
This decline in coverage is an important aspect of a new stage in the political and cultural contest here in this country to interpret and define the meaning and significance of the uprising. The partisans of the state of Israel are delighted to see no longer the nightly filmed renditions of Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s “force, might and beatings” policy. “As the uprising story gets away from the headlines, support [for Israel] will bounce back,” predicted one official of the American Jewish Committee in June. The uprising, from this perspective, is just a temporary collapse of an “information” pattern which dutifully upholds certain core myths — such as the idea that Israeli troops rarely engage in gratuitous brutality, or that Palestinian intransigence is the main obstacle to a political settlement. Recuperation of these myths requires a long media vacation, and an uninterrupted diet of government press releases and official statements.
Israel’s ability to dominate media discourse is becoming more difficult as the Palestinians persist with their comprehensive challenge to more than 40 years of dispossession and distortion. Cogent critiques of Israeli policy in journals like Harper’s and the New York Review of Books, for instance, testify to the erosion of support among important segments of the US intelligentsia. Other institutions, too, have been caught up in this struggle to redefine the meaning of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Arab-American and other activists in the Jesse Jackson campaign forced the Democratic national convention in Atlanta to debate the issue of Palestinian national rights, and ten Democratic state conventions this year have endorsed resolutions calling for peace in the Middle East and supporting the Palestinian demand for an independent state alongside Israel.
This contest of interpretation and definition recalls a similar dislocation of prevailing notions in the summer of 1982. Six years ago this September, we published a special issue on Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. One goal of the invasion, Israeli officials boasted, was to destroy Palestinian steadfastness in the Occupied Territories. “Israel is fighting in Lebanon,” declared then chief of staff Rafael Eitan, “to win the struggle for Eretz Israel.” Ariel Sharon, the architect of the invasion, boasted that “the echo of this campaign is reaching into the house of every Arab family in [the West Bank] and Gaza.”
That special issue had already gone to press when Lebanese Phalangist forces, with Israeli support, entered the Palestinian neighborhoods of Sabra and Shatila. The ensuing massacre of many hundreds of unarmed civilians has placed Sabra and Shatila on a map of infamy, along with My Lai and Wounded Knee, and Guernica.
Even before this massacre, though, the horror of the siege of Beirut had led Kamal Boullata to create a cover for this special issue that evoked Picasso’s famous painting in unmistakable terms. In Beirut, writer and activist Fawwaz Traboulsi had already concluded that Picasso’s Guernica provided the truest pictorial reference for the experience of the siege and the massacre. When Fawwaz received the issue with Kamal’s cover, he immediately wrote to Kamal to express his appreciation for this original version of how Guernica prefigured Beirut, how Beirut recapitulated Guernica. In 1985, Fawwaz Traboulsi published his own “Beirut-Guernica: A City and a Painting” as a book in Arabic. He and John Berger have translated a portion of that text, which Kamal Boullata has designed for this presentation in Middle East Report.