Mon, 20 Nov 2000

World trial by satellite TV

By Karim Raslan

KUALA LUMPUR (JP): A twelve-year-old Arab boy, while huddling for cover beside his father, was shot dead on Oct. 1 by Israeli soldiers.

In itself, the incident would have been unremarkable: just another death in the Middle East, a region noted for violence. Since that time some six weeks ago, over 220 people -- mostly Arab -- have been killed in various clashes across Palestine.

However, Muhammad al-Durah's murder -- the name of the twelve year old -- was different, at least for me, because his last few seconds were recorded in gruesome detail by a French TV film crew.

Satellite television brought his death into my living room, forcing me to acknowledge Mohammed in a personal way.

By way of comparison, the absence of TV cameras with their intruding all-seeing, all-recording presence had meant that the Palestinian uprising of the early 1990s, known as the intifada never possessed quite the same impact.

Furthermore, television had infused the horrific incident of a child's murder and the latest bout of violence with a stark, simplistic morality that would in turn come to haunt his killers.

Because in the world of instant, cacophonous images, the clown-like ethos of satellite TV reasoned argument was swept aside in the face of the vivid and the immediate. Answers are demanded, judgments made, goodies lionized and baddies vilified.

Muhammad's death insinuated itself into my imagination. Perhaps I am being overly melodramatic but there were times as I watched the incident when I thought I could hear his small voice -- tremulous and shaking with fear -- as the bullets ricocheted around his head.

However, leaning forward I would realize that while his lips were moving, his voice had not been recorded.

Scouring all the newspaper reports, I wanted to know more, much more about the boy, his death and his killer.

What about the bullet that delivered the final blow, the one that hit him in the abdomen? Did the man who fired the shot intend to kill a twelve-year-old boy? And the pain, what was that like? Was the flow of blood unstoppable? Could he have been saved? And his father, who was also injured, how did he feel? Was he bitter? Was he angry? What can any man feel when his son -- his twelve-year-old son -- is bleeding to death in his arms?

It has been a month since Muhammad's murder but the gruesome image has been scratched into my memory. It is as if the boy sat there and with a sharp but painfully jagged instrument carved his name into my thoughts, drawing a little blood with his frustration at my earlier disregard for his people's cause.

The incident has made the conflict in the Middle East -- a seemingly unending contest between the two peoples -- more real, more terrible and more disturbing than I ever thought possible.

His death has left me with a sense of having been a witness at the perpetration of an injustice, of having looked on and done nothing.

Of course I am a Muslim and my response is perhaps understandable -- some people would say it is only to be expected. Nonetheless, I suspect many other people, non-Muslims included, would have been affected in the same fashion.

Could it be that our impassivity, our lack of interest in what seems like an impossibly complicated (dare I even say "boring") face-off have only served to strengthen the position of the aggressors, the Israelis?

Reflecting on Muhammad's death as well as the awful fate of the Palestinians, a people who have been displaced, ignored and brutalized, I have realized that a once noble cause, a homeland for the Jews, a people who have systematically been victimized and butchered, was now debased.

After half a century of sanctimonious preaching, the scrupulously nurtured and to a large extent deserved mantle of victimhood has slipped off the shoulders of the Jewish people.

While no reasonable man or woman would deny the horrors of the Holocaust, the tragedy of European Jews which had once been such a source of moral strength for the Israeli cause in the 1950s and 1960s, it can no longer be used as a justification for the injustice presently being committed against the Palestinians. In essence, two wrongs do not make a right.

Decades of Israeli brutality against the Palestinians (assisted, it should be said, by a conscience-stricken Europe and America) have been permitted and it would seem even justified in light of the Holocaust.

For many western nations, including Britain, Zionist aggression -- the assertiveness of Ben Gurion and Moshe Dayan -- as well as their own carefully studied diplomatic inertia, constituted a form of atonement for the previous sins of inaction and in some cases, vis-a-vis the French, even collusion.

The dispossession of over two million Palestinians was silently accepted and then ignored. It was hoped that their suffering would be forgotten and the history of their presence in Palestine simply forgotten.

Nonetheless, it is now clear to me that the Zionists, as self- appointed heirs to the Jewish cause, had by their own violence, viciousness and insincerity damned themselves.

Led by men, such as the militaristic, hard-liner Ariel Sharon, who countenanced the massacre of refugees in Lebanon in 1982, the Israelis have unwittingly reduced themselves to the same animalistic level as their past adversaries and the TV cameras have unmasked their hypocrisy.

Muhammad's last recorded seconds -- defenseless and terrified -- have had such a searing impact on me, altering forever many of my perceptions and ideas about the interminable conflict between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine.

It made me wonder about the impression it must have had on other uninvolved spectators in countries such as China, Brazil, India and Nigeria, countries where the Jewish Diaspora were merely a distant, almost irrelevant historical event.

With the tape of Muhammad's murder being played endlessly on CNN, BBC and countless other TV stations across the globe, viewers must have been presented with a deeply disturbing set of images -- ones that would have challenged their long-held views about the relative position of these age-old adversaries.

On the one hand there were the stern-faced and heavily armed Israeli soldiers, and on the other, their pathetically ill- equipped Arab adversaries: men carrying machine guns faced with stone-throwing children.

The legendary conflict between David and Goliath, where a young Jewish hero triumphed against his lumbering opponent, now seemed woefully inappropriate.

There has been a shift in perception. The Israelis, with American connivance and support, had become Goliath. In the starkly moralistic language of television, where political figures are either black or white, all good or all evil -- where events are tragedies or blessings, the Israeli state was severely diminished.

Victims no longer, they had, in Hollywood terms, morphed into a force of evil: they were the child-killers.

The writer is a Kuala Lumpur-based lawyer and writer.