Hedges suggests Israel is an apartheid state

by Sarah Betts | 5/20/02 5:00am

Controversial Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hedges argued in a speech Friday that Palestinians choose to become "martyrs" in order to fight the "impotence" imposed on them by the Israeli government.

A former Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times, Hedges stirred up debate with an October 2001 article in Harper's Magazine entitled "Gaza Diary," which gives a disturbing view of life for Palestinians in the refugee camps.

Hedges' speech -- entitled "Israel and the Palestinians: The New Apartheid?" -- centered on the inequities suffered by the Palestinians. In a land where "war and death are a form of street theater," he described people whose lives of abject poverty and despair often erupt into violence.

The debate began even before the speech as Dartmouth Israel Public Awareness Committee members sat outside Dartmouth Hall distributing flyers to audience members that termed Hedges' story "marred by serious deficiencies."

The group distributed the flyers to "help members of the audience have a greater sense of Hedges' political views," DIPAC member Ana Bonnheim '03 said. "He is biased anti-Israel."

The fact sheet distributed by DIPAC took issue with Hedges' silence on the matter of suicide bomb attacks in his Harper's article and disputed several events mentioned by Hedges. The flyer used information obtained from the Anti-Defamation League and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting; both organizations oppose coverage they view as anti-Israeli.

One million Palestinians are crowded into Gaza, around 70 percent of them refugees, Hedges said. These people have barely the essentials of life, and he alleged that the Israeli government knowingly caused water and food shortages for the Palestinians.

"The borders are sealed, trade and travel stopped, chronic food shortages, and some 120,000 Palestinians have lost Israeli jobs," Hedges said. "The U.N. estimates that the Israeli blockade witholds $3.4 million a day from Palestine."

Hedges said that the state of the Palestinians under Israeli control is analogous to the plight of blacks in apartheid South Africa. "Nearly all the indignities visited on South African blacks are part of Israel's relationship with the Palestinians," Hedges said.

The squalid living conditions lead some to choose violence as a way of creating meaning in their lives, Hedges said.

"The decision to be a martyr has nothing to do with money or fanaticism," Hedges said. "They want brief meaning and glory, to fight the impotence of their lives."

He repeated the words he had heard from a young man who was part of a Gaza riot: "The world has left us powerless. We have no tanks or missiles. All we have to sacrifice is ourselves."

According to Hedges, many Palestinians view war as inevitable, and the poor economic situation in the area fuels support for militant groups such as Hamas, which people turn to for answers.

Arafat's government, he said, has little support because Palestinians view concessions he made in 1993 at the Oslo Accords as a betrayal, and because the government is notoriously corrupt."Arafat is a thug," Hedges said.

He looks ahead to a dark future for the area if no action is taken.

"The one million Arab Israelis could bring the violence deeper into Israel," Hedges said. "Even now, Jews don't want to go into the Arab parts of towns. Moderate Arab states have closed diplomatic offices in Israel. Time is not on the side of the peacemakers."

Hedges suggested that the present violence will mark " a day of reckoning" for Israel. In its treatment of the Palestinians, Israel may be defeating itself, he said.

"Zionist dreams have turned into occupation," Hedges said. "Israel is fighting against a subject people. It is not, as Barak told you earlier, a war on terror."

After the speech, the large audience of students, faculty, community members and visiting alumni asked Hedges their questions, many of which challenged the views he presented in his speech. One audience member said that the speech "could have been given by Arafat to inspire martyrdom."

In response to veiled suggestions that he was unsympathetic to the situation of Israeli Jews, Hedges clarified: "I believe in Israel's right to exist," but said he does not agree with policy which he sees as discriminating against those of a different faith.

"The state has defined its purpose as a Jewish homeland, and it excludes members of other religions," Hedges said. Because of this, he does not view Israel as a democratic state, after which supportive audience members applauded.

"I am not negating the persecution of European Jews," Hedges said. "But don't respond to a crime with a crime. I think what is happening in Palestine is a gross injustice. The U.S. should put pressure on Israel to let Palestinians live in dignity."

When asked by audience members how peace could be achieved between the Palestinians and Israelis, he responded that the Palestinians must have an autonomous state. An acceptable peace agreement, he said, should include return for the refugees or compensation for lost land.

The present war, he said, is one of liberation and will not be over until that happens.

Arielle Farber, a member of DIPAC, said that she was disappointed with Hedges' portrayal of Middle East events, and with his generally positive reception; while a few audience members vocally disagreed with Hedges, the majority openly supported his views and gave him a standing ovation.

"I was disappointed that he was not seen by the Dartmouth community as the radical that he is," Farber said. "His views are very one-sided, yet he was presented as an unbiased reporter."

Mohamad Bydon '02, who helped organize the speech, said that while DIPAC's presence at the speech was simply an opportunity for the group to "make their voice heard," much of their information was not objective.

"Israel is important for Jewish students, and they feel the need to respond to the criticism," Bydon said.

"Anyone who comes with a political bias doesn't want to listen," Hedges said of some audience members. "They can't distinguish between facts and opinions."