Permission to Narrate Gaza by Ilan Pappe in ‘Gaza as Metaphor’ and thoughts about regime change


Reading Ilan Pappe‘s essay in the ‘Gaza as Metaphor’ book I began to believe that he was answering a question that I had asked myself. Don’t we in the UK need a new kind of activism? See my “Activism and Az Theatre’ in the Az Theatre blog.

His essay called ‘Permission to Narrate Gaza’ is one of many wonderful contributions in this volume edited by Helga Tawil-Souri and Dina Matar but Pappe’s was the contribution that really caught my attention. Here is an extract. He is responding to Edward Said’s call for Palestinians ‘to extend their struggle into the realm of representation and historical narratives’:

‘One can continue Said’s journey by challenging further the historical narrative and by questioning the hegemonic discourse on Palestine commonly employed by the powers that be. This questioning has to insist on including the historical context and new terminology when discussing the 2014 attacks on Gaza and the overarching question of Palestine. The new terminology can be presented best as several pairs of antinomies: the former in each pair representing a redundant term to be replaced by the latter more apt one. Occupation versus Colonisation; Peace Process versus Decolonisation; Peace Solution versus Regime Change; Two States Solution versus One Sate Solution; Israeli Democracy versus Israeli Apartheid; Israeli Defence Policy versus Ethnic Cleansing (and, as we shall see, Genocide in the case of Gaza)’ p.159 Gaza as Metaphor

He is summary and is concerned with breaking down illusions, of moving beyond the accepted given narrative of the situation. He is redefining the space of thought. I feel his reasoning has dimension. But, at the same time, he is summing up what has already been articulated. And the thoughts are based on recognising what is happening in Gaza.

I am particularly interested in his use of the idea of ‘Regime Change’. See The Specifics of British Regime Change and Is Regime Change a Paradigm Shift?

What was the first building block on the way to founding this new vision, what he calls a new ‘penning’? He is comparing the power of the pen with the power of the sword. Maybe it starts with a critique of the accepted thinking. Usually faced with the situation there in Palestine you meet ‘facts on the ground’. These facts on the ground are the arguments that set out the space, determine the basic ideas, the terms of the debate. Normally these facts and ideas send your mind round in circles. They make it not make sense.

The ‘two-state solution’ arises from the initial partition of the land in 1948 that was validated by the United Nations. The logical corollary of this partition is that the two peoples should live in separate spaces. He quotes sardonically the Robert Frost poem about ‘good fences making good neighbours’.

The next proposition is that the Peace Process should lead to the foundation of the Two States. This is a piece of double-think or, at any rate, it is the generation of thinking as a smoke screen. The Israelis are ‘pretending’ that they are not appropriating Palestinian land, most significantly the land which they occupied in 1967. So the next idea that hits the floor and smashes to pieces, is that what they are doing is ‘occupying’ the West Bank and Gaza, that what is taking place is an ‘occupation’, as if this is envisaged by the perpetrators as a time-limited process and that the ‘occupiers’ are planning to withdraw. Of course the ‘withdrawal’ of colonies from Gaza is a part of this feint. We are asked to believe that this was a part of the ‘occupation’ ending.

Already by criticising the Two-State solution, the Peace Process and the Occupation, the ground in view, and the mind, starts to clear. If these were pictures that obscured the real view then it is necessary to knock them down and dispense with them. The Peace Process is the biggest feint. There can be no peace without justice. It cannot be that a ‘peace’ can be constructed as if there has been a war between two parties whose conflict has reached a conclusion.

I have recognised for some time that the Peace Process is a fake game and finally knowing this was simultaneous with recognising that a genocide was happening. I don’t agree with Pappe that this is only happening in Gaza.

Of course, my use of the word genocide is specific. It is genocide in the strictest meaning of the word. This is as I understand it: genocide is, according to Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who invented the word and defined what it meant, the destruction of a human group. This idea of ‘human group’ often refers to an ethnic group, a ‘people’ but it can be any identifiable group. This means that the group has to be capable of being identified and the process of identification must be an integral part of the genocide itself. The victim group in a genocide, as such, may not exist as an identifiable group before the genocidal process begins. It may lack definition and a part of the genocide is to clarify this definition.

Understanding why genocide starts with the identification of the victimised ‘human group’ and does not start with the scale of the killing (the actual physical destruction of the group) is important because it clarifies the fact that the process does not start from the attributes of the victim group but rather with the requirements of the perpetrator group.

In the first movements of the operative definition of genocide when it was incorporated into the United Nations Convention on Genocide framework Lemkin struggled to maintain the political rather than only the ethnic definition of ‘human group’. In the wake of the Second World War when this process of formulation was undertaken considerable pressure (yes, an early example of the Israeli ‘lobby’) was brought to bear to ensure that the ethnic definition was primary.

This political consideration makes us mindful of the requirements of the perpetrator group rather then the characteristics of the victim group and brings attention to the fact that identification is a key part of the genocidal process. I believe it is this specific understanding of genocide that has been developed by the work of Daniel Feierstein. In his book Genocide as Social Practice he outlines five stages of Genocide.

Two main things are important in this. One is that mass killing is only one phase of genocide. It may be the final phase. The most important overall objective is the ‘imposition of the national pattern of the perpetrator group on the victim group’. Secondly, this work draws attention primarily to the characteristics of the perpetrator group. These characteristics amount to a need for social cohesion and the genocidal process provides a means of social reorganisation for the perpetrator group or society.

So there can be emerging or proto-genocidal movements. For example, during the Thatcher government years there was move towards a kind of ‘genocidal’ mentality when she designated the miners (or at least the active resistant sector of the National Union of Mineworkers) as ‘the enemy within’. This is like an internal declaration of war. Similarly, during the regime of the Argentinian junta there was an internal war against ‘subversive’ and political opponents of the regime. Daniel Feierstein draws attention to the parallels between the practices of this regime and the national socialist regime in Germany in his book.

Whereas I would resist the definition of genocide as simply and solely mass killing it is difficult to accept a definition that excludes killing or excludes the tendency towards mass killing. Processes of exclusion, the creation of ‘the other’ or of an enemy, appear to be endemic to human society so when does an exclusionary process of social organisation become genocidal?

One significant factor is the cohesion a group gains from considering itself more advanced or superior. It has to do so in relation to another group. It is this distancing itself from the other human group that is a crucial moment in the genocidal movement. The erasure of the other human group ‘as a group’ becomes the means of securing the identity of the genocidal group. What occurs is a specific relationship between different specific technologies of power, or techniques of social organisation, imposed on one group and the impacts, in terms of social cohesion produced, for the other group. Each stage of erasure is co-ordinate with each stage of cohesion.

It might be true that the moment of actual mass killing is the moment of self destruction for the perpetrator group. There has to be survivors of the victim group for the perpetrator group to have the ability to impose its ‘national pattern’.

The mass killing is an end game. This is the significance of Feierstein’s devastating observation that genocide is endemic to modernity. After all, modernity must be the point of arrival for advanced human groups as they distinguish themselves from those less ‘modern’ than themselves.

This brings our attention to another important aspect of what Ilan Pappe is saying. Having replaced Occupation with Colonisation, Two-State Solution with One-State Solution, Peace Process with Decolonisation he goes on to argue for Regime Change. He connects the need for regime change to the apartheid and settler-colonial nature of the Zionist regime.

This brings me back to the exploration of new activism with which I started. I said that Ilan Pappe concerns himself with changing the narrative and thus making an intervention with the power of his ‘pen’ in relationship to the Israelis powerful ‘sword’. What does the counterposing of these two forms of human power bring to our attention?

Why does the turn or change that he is pointing to open up key tactics and key strategic demands? What perspectives are opened up by BDS (Boycott, Divestment Sanctions) and the co-ordinate emphasis on the Right of Return. These are aimed at Regime Change

He is saying that the core of the current regime in Israel needs to change. It is not just a question of changing government policy. Policy change does not go deep enough. It is the basic premise on which the policy is constructed that needs attention.

Feierstein describes the genocidal process as consisting of a number of stages. Though these stages are chronologically ordered, some of the stages could take place at the same time. One of the stages, the last, is ‘symbolic re-enactment’. He describes this as the portrayal of the events of the genocide as composing the two absolutely distinct groups (we know from the historical record that such distinctions are not so absolute): innocent victims and diabolical perpetrators. These two groups, manifesting as absolute opposites of each other, assume a symbolic function as they enact a basic mythic story. And thus this story impels and motivates correlative action.

All ‘national patterns’ or national stories, narratives, are symbolically enacted in the construction and institutionalisation of the instruments of policy. For the symbolic enactment to take place the figures or characters in the story have to be recognisable and therefore both specific and general.

Augusto Boal says in his book The Rainbow of Desire, enacted stories can be related to in modes of varying qualitative intensity. He gives the key points in an array of perceptual responses from identification, to recognition and to resonance, pointing out that elements of these appropriative reactions can be fired simultaneously. It could be said that responses to a symbolic enactment of a genocide may have to operate at multiple levels for the actions that correspond to it to have effective force.

Several stories with different but related personages may reformulate and play out a basic mythic pattern, rather in the way that Ted Hughes in his book, Shakespeare and The Goddess of Complete Being, tells us that Shakespeare, along with other poets, articulate a key mythic formulation through a multiplicity of narratives.

If the basic story that the Israelis are able to tell, which is a symbolic re-enactment of a genocidal process in which they cast themselves as absolute victims, then what is the basic story of the UK national pattern? What are the components of this story?

From where can regime change emerge? The sense that I get from Ilan Pappe’s work is that the process of regime change must be accompanied if not preceded, by a new narrative. From what well-spring does this restructured narrative come?

It must come from profound and basic needs felt by the human beings who participate in such movements. Of course material circumstances such as appetite, hunger, need for shelter and so on may well play a part but it is demonstrable that these material exigences can equally work against the renewal that is envisaged in a change of regime.  The needs must exceed these material requirements.

Human beings are creatures whose actions are intentional. We hold ourselves together through the intentions that we formulate for ourselves. Thus we are creatures, but creatures who are political and mimetic. We formulate our intentions through language and this is a social tool. We collectivise our intentions but only so long as the mimetic processes, that hold us together as a group, can operate effectively. These understandings of the nature of human group behaviour have been explored by writers as diverse as Elias Canetti, Wilfred Bion and Rene Girard.

In order to co-ordinate and form our intentions, which are always experienced individually though formed collectively, we must engage in the organisational processes of symbolic enactment. How precisely symbolic enactment operates and is effective in social organisation may, at first sight, seem complicated.

It is perhaps by understanding how this structuring of stories takes place that new narratives can begin to be developed. It is at times when the old stories send us round in circles that this restructuring feels necessary. When the restructuring feels necessary we start to reject the old story and begin to look with interest not just at new stories but at how these stories operate. This, in turn, leads us to looking more closely at the basic parameters of human experience and at the sources of desire. To understand the way in which stories operate on us, we need to look at how we are in that stage of our lives that is pre-verbal.

This may be taking us too far from Ilan Pappe truly enlightening essay.

Does this new activism have implications for Regime Change here in the UK? We can compare the foundation of the state of Israel with the foundation of the UK state. One is immediately met with differences. The Israeli state was founded in 1948 through an armed land grab, a military appropriation of territory. This securing of occupied land is the prevailing raison d’etre of the state. Although the initial land grab and the subsequent land grab in 1967 were sudden and dramatic, the building and sustaining of the Israeli state project is a long-term venture. The sudden moments of change may give rise to, or make more apparent, a prevailing narrative or sustaining myth. This may have a relationship to the ‘national pattern’ that Lemkin refers to in his definition of genocide. Does the UK have a prevailing narrative, sustaining myth or national pattern that is comparable with Israel’s?

Many questions arise from these thoughts. Is the regime that reigns over the major part of Palestine comparable to the regime that reigns over the British Isles? They are very different in size. One started in 1948, the other could be said to have started in 1688. This last detail is, for example, open to question. Did what we can identify as the UK regime not start before that date? How much of the basic institution-building took place during the Tudor period. Certainly the Reformation and the political break with Roman Catholicism could be considered to be the starting point for the regime. Also the arrival of the Norman institutions in 1066 might similarly be considered thus. Equally, the advent of the 1832 Reform Act or that of 1867, or the battle of Culloden in 1745 or the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 may mark major points of no return or major starting points.

In fact, what you consider the key characteristic of the regime will determine what you believe the starting point might be. To some extent what you consider to be the starting point is dependent on your sense of what is happening in the current situation. Isn’t this to do with the fact that the social formations we are describing are not static entities? They are combinations of processes that are unfolding and developing.

On the one hand, this seems to be true and, if it is true, it must apply to both the regime in Palestine and the regime in the British Isles. On the other hand, it seems to be actively and immediately true in the case of the Zionist regime that it is facing a more violently contradictory situation.

Is this to do with the relationship of forces working on the internal development of the country and those working on the external development. By all accounts, Israeli society is held together by a deliberately engendered state of fear. This means that the whole society is constantly in a state of war. So the level of intensity and fragility of the social processes aimed at cohesion and security is very high. This is reflected absolutely in the level of dependence on external support. This means that there is a direct relationship between these internal and external tensions.

Both regimes are client states of a larger political entity but the level of dependence of Israel is much higher. Both regimes are colonialist. The colonial processes in one are ongoing and have yet to stabilise themselves whilst in the other, the colonialism is more of an historical factor. In this sense they are at different stages of development. The Israeli Zionist state project may be historically short-lived. The British state project has been sustained for at least 400 years (depending on your definition). There is also a relationship of what might be called precedence. Britain was the former colonial ruler of Palestine and before that the Ottoman ruled there. As Israel’s star waxed so Britain’s waned.

This reminds us of a kind of succession in the movement of history. The political forms are transposed from one player to another in a movement of variation on a theme of conformity. One state becomes like another state in order to match it. Then there are movements when one ‘model’ of statehood has hegemony and other states conform. This also must be to some extent the case with the relationship between Israel and the UK but more so with the relationship of Israel to the USA.

This means that all states are held in place in relationship to all other states and, once in a while, a state or group of states breaks away and forms a new movement. In this sense the internal constitutions of states appear to arise, at best, from the will of the people but are as much determined by the structure of the states with which they are in relation.

This dynamic between external conformity and internal aspiration is the tension that holds the structures in place. Both the regimes in Palestine and in the British Isles are ‘structured’ or held in place by their relationship to the hegemony of the USA. Of course these relationships are very different. You might think, at first sight, that Israel is more dependent on the USA than the UK is. However this may not be simply the case. This interconnectedness also means that regime change in one related political entity can be causally related to regime change in another. Regime change in one country can trigger regime change in another and it might also be true that regime change in one country is unlikely without regime change in another.

What Ilan Pappe is saying is that effective resistance starts with resisting the narrative that the dominant power is effecting or enacting. This potentially avoids the reciprocal structures that can lead to the emerging social movements being incorporated and stifling resistance. It involves ‘moving the goalposts’ or creating a new paradigm. This is why he is concerned with ‘replacing’ occupation with colonisation and peace process with decolonisation and so on.

Isn’t there an equivalent paradigm shift warranted by the politics of the UK? Is there a way of expressing it that is as simple and clear? Is there a tactical equivalent to BDS? Since these political regimes are connected isn’t the struggle for BDS indirectly a movement of resistance to the regime in the UK? Resistance is connected to regime change through a keener mode of activism: refusal.

I am grateful to Ilan Pappe for his provocative essay, to the editors of Gaza as Metaphor. We clearly need to seize on what is at the core of our problem in our own society and this will give us the breadth of perspective necessary to change the narrative and re-write history.