January 11, 2010

“…but we are the best friends of the Palestinian people!”

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Palestinian solidarity work in Ireland (check out www.ipsc.ie or the Irish indymedia site, www.indymedia.ie). Between support work for the Viva Palestina convey and the Gaza Freedom March, and commemoration events to mark last year’s massacre in Gaza it seems to have been non-stop.

Out of all the events, one thing stood out for me. It happened at the demonstration we held at the Egyptian embassy on New Year’s Eve. About 50 of us standing in the freezing cold in a suburban road deep in southside Dublin, chanting ‘shame, shame’ and ‘what would Nasser say?’ as well as the Palestinian contingent chanting slogans in Arabic. As part of the ritual of the protest, I had a letter to hand in to the embassy, asking their government to let the Gaza Freedom march through to Gaza. The policemen outside, stamping their feet in the cold, told me that since the embassy grounds are Egyptian territory, someone from the embassy would have to agree to receive the letter before they could let me in through the embassy gates – adding somewhat over-dramatically that the Egyptians could shoot me if I trespassed.

Well, that was fair enough, and I phoned up the embassy, got put through to the chargé d’affaires, and proceeded to start explaining that we had a letter to deliver and could they…I couldn’t get any further before he started raging at me: What were we doing having a demonstration? This shows no respect! How dare these people shout and scream. Don’t we know that the Egyptians are the best friends of the Palestinian people?

The phrase was repeated again and again – we are the best friends of the Palestinian people. Whenever I tried to speak, my sentence was cut off with this comment and a barrage of others. It was a bizarre performance. Some Sinn Fein members beside me could easily overhear the entire conversation and found it hugely entertaining. As one said afterwards, in his many years of protesting (and more) at the British Embassy he’d never encountered this kind of, well, undiplomatic hostility.

It displayed a genuine feeling of anger and even betrayal from the diplomat that we would protest outside the Egyptian embassy. A belief that went beyond the diplomatic point-scoring: ‘didn’t we know that the Palestinian Delegation disapproved of our protest’ ‘Why didn’t we meet with the Egyptian embassy beforehand? Everything could have been explained’. It was a belief that Egypt is indeed ‘the best friend of the Palestinian people’, albeit one that operates under difficult conditions.

Of course this only made the protest all the more worthwhile – to make the embassy staff understand that Irish people and Palestinians in Ireland don’t consider them this way. We might talk in our blogs about Mubarak being a stooge of the Americans/Israelis, but I guess they don’t read our blogs. Thinking about it, it was one of the most effective protests I’d ever been on – not only showing solidarity with Palestinians and our people being beaten up in Egypt, but also making the Egyptian diplomats realise (for the first time?) that their actions are unacceptable to those who stand in solidarity with Palestine.

However the phrase ‘the best friends of the Palestinian people’ resonated in my mind, because it’s a coveted position this one, being the best friends of the Palestinians. How many left-wing Zionists do we know who lay claim to that title? How many eurocrats assure us that Europe is really the best friend of the Palestinian people. It’s not just dictatorial Arab regimes who yearn to be the Palestinians’ bestest of best friends.

Or closer to home, what of those who went into Gaza in contravention of the admittedly messy Gaza Freedom March’s (GFM) decision not to go to Gaza after the Palestinian organisers advised against it. Were they also ‘the best friends’? They certainly considered themselves that way.

It’s easy to undermine the pretensions of these best friends, but more interesting is to ask what that phrase describes. It certainly doesn’t describe friendship, a relationship that rests on a sense of equality towards the other person. Perhaps a more accurate description for this attitude would be, ‘we have their best interests at heart’ – the affronted cry of any colonial master when their good intentions are questioned. The Palestinian people being backward, primitive, uneducated – they don’t know their best interests. It’s different for us who maintain discursive power towards these Palestinians (indeed can only maintain this power by denying it to Palestinians) – whether the well educated activist who knows what’s best, or the powerful government who simply wants that area of the world to be properly integrated into the global capitalist economy. It’s up to us to determine their best interests, which by amazing coincidence, coincides with our best interests.

So far so obviously colonial. But there’s more to being best friends than this. It inserts the personal relationship into one’s actions. While there’s no need for those of a colonial mindset to consult with Palestinians as to their best interests, saying that you’re best friends obviously does need the presence of some Palestinians. Indeed it goes further – it is the presence of these Palestinians that justify the attitudes of the ‘best friend’. It seems there’s a process whereby Individual Palestinians are co-opted (as individuals but also as representative of ‘the Palestinians’) to underscore the credentials of the ‘best friend’’ and their right to decree what’s in ‘the best interests’ of Palestinians as a whole.

In a way, best friend status is an insurance policy to protect against criticism, one very similar to the old antisemitic trick of declaring that one of their best friends is Jewish. It’s similar also to how people treat their pets as their ‘best friends’, a relationship that doesn't erase superiority/inferiority but reinforces it. Thus the Egyptians were able to produce the Palestinian Delegation, the left-Zionist always has a Palestinian friend who would be happy, oh-so-happy without the right of return and with second class status in her own land. And again closer to home those who split from the GFM and went in to Gaza could point to individual Palestinians who really wanted them there.

Declaring ‘best friend’ status to Palestinians can be seen as the modern idiom of the colonial mindset, one that has replaced the overtly patronising: ‘we have their best interests at heart’. It is of course no less patronising, no less colonial simply because it inserts the personal into the political. With the Palestinian people so powerless, small wonder that their ‘best friends’ have multiplied over the past few years.

Along with its other advantages, declaring yourself ‘best friends’ has the benefit of undermining solidarity activism – if one can produce Palestinians who disagree with solidarity activism: who then are solidarity activists in solidarity with? A political construct? Their own Palestinian ‘best friends’? There’s no doubt that such questions have been given currency because of the current crisis of leadership among Palestinians. And there’s no doubt that the question as to who and what solidarity activists are in solidarity with is legitimate. As a question it needs to be answered with reference to the equal status of Palestinians, and in response their continuous attempt to rebuild their own leadership and resistance to oppression.

However this is subject for another discussion. While a legitimate question, we shouldn’t blind ourselves to its hostile intent when it comes from 'best friends of the Palestinians'. These are people who use their ‘best Palestinian friends’ as weapons to be directed at solidarity activists, as crutches to support their colonial attitudes, as human shields to defend themselves against other Palestinians - never as equals whose demands need to be heard, understood and acted upon. This, I'd like to think is the difference between solidarity and even the best of colonial charity.

It is sometimes difficult for solidarity activists not to fall into the colonial trap, though most of the time we do manage to avoid it. It is the reason that 95% of those on the Gaza Freedom Movement didn't go into Gaza, the reason we were stood outside the Egyptian embassy, rather than inside drinking tea. In the end I’d like to think that this consciousness of Palestinians as equals and in charge of their own struggle for freedom is what justifies and makes worthwhile all our, sometimes frantic, solidarity work.

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