Column: Dispatches From the Edge: The Deadly Tales We Tell Ourselves

By Conn Hallinan
Friday August 18, 2006

History is the story we tell ourselves in the present about the past, but how we punctuate the story, where we put the periods, the commas and the ellipses, depends not on everything that happened, but on who is telling the story, where we stand in the narrative, and what outcome we want. 

Tel Aviv. An Israeli patrol was ambushed July 12 by Hezbollah terrorists near the Lebanese border. Three solders were killed and two others kidnapped. Israel launched a counterattack in an effort to retrieve them. This is the story Israel and the United States tell about the incident that touched off the Lebanon war. But Hezbollah also has a story, though the punctuation is different. 

Beirut. Resistance fighters captured two members of the Israeli Defense Force July 12 in order to exchange them for three Hezbollah soldiers Israel has held since 2000. The operation was also part of efforts to expel Israel from the Lebanese territory of Shebaa Farm. 

There is a counter for both of these stories: Hezbollah’s rockets threaten Israeli sovereignty; rockets were fired only after Israel bombed and shelled Lebanon. Hezbollah is ignoring United Nations Resolution 1559 to disarm. Israel has ignored at least five UN resolutions to withdraw from the West Bank and the Golan Heights. What about the Holocaust? What about the Crusades? Yahweh gave us this ground; Allah gave us this land.  

People punctuate stories so as to establish causality and to assure themselves that they stand with the angels. But such stories can kill, because when they reinforce narratives of victimization, they may perpetuate endless cycles of righteousness and revenge.  

Is humanity then locked into a world of subjective point and counterpoint? Doomed, like Sisyphus, to neverending efforts? By no means, but when it comes to solutions, it may be necessary to edit our stories even if they are true.  

There is at least one historical example that suggests there is a way to short-circuit the narrative loop. 

For just under 837 years, the English and the Irish have warred against one another. Terrible things have been done in those long centuries and the Irish have endless stories about them. They know when it began: On Aug. 23, 1170, Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke waded ashore with 200 Norman knights and 1,000 of men-at-arms near Waterford on Ireland’s southeast coast.  

Thus began the longest war in European history. For more than 40 generations the Irish seethed at the occupation, rising up time and again to fling themselves in bloody rage at armies they could not hope to defeat.  

The Irish call it “the long sorrow,” and they can recite it with the precision of a rosary.  

The stories, poems and songs that the Irish wrote about these events taught each generation about courage and resistance, but also about hatred, tribalism, and a certain kind of suicidal madness the poet William Butler Yeats called “an excess of love.”  

What are the stories Hezbollah will tell about Bint Jbail, which the most powerful army in the Middle East never fully secured? Like the English did to Dublin in 1916, the Israelis flattened the place with artillery and bombs, but that will not extinguish the narrative that Hezbollah held out against the mighty Golani Brigade. 

What are the stories the Israelis will tell about life in the shelters and the scores of dead and wounded civilians? Will they conjure up the spirit of Masada? Will they tell themselves that once again tiny Israel is beset by enemies on all sides? 

Both of these narratives will end up with a lot of people dead and homeless, econ-omies derailed, infrastructures shattered, while pumping up a tribalism that says, “We are special, we are better, we are owed this, and the wrongs we do to others are canceled out by the wrongs others have done to us.” 

History does not mark all roads, and all analogies are fraught with danger. Like the Oracle of Delphi, it many times predicts what we want it to predict. But the recent history of Ireland is worth some study. 

Starting in 1992, the principal antagonists in Northern Ireland began to talk with one another, in large part because majorities in both communities were fed up with the sectarian violence. It was not easy, but the talks led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which has kept the peace for the most part between warring Catholics and Protestants. It was a process the United States helped along, unlike the role the United States is playing in the current Middle East crisis. To reach an agreement, the parties had to get past a series of myths. 

The first myth is that force will get people to do what you want them to do. It never did, it never will. If Qassams and Katyuschas have not caused the Israelis to throw in the towel, why would Israel think that bombs and artillery would force Hezbollah or Hamas to give up? To suggest that Arabs will react any differently to violence than the Jews or the Irish is simply racist.  

The second myth is that that you can design someone else’s country. You cannot tell the Lebanese what their internal politics should be, nor the Palestinians that they can have a nation but only if it is riddled with Jewish settlements and surrounded by a wall. Such a Palestinian state is not a country but an open-air prison, much like Gaza is today.  

All the settlements will have to go, the borders returned to the 1967 Green Line, and Jerusalem will have to be shared. The occupation is illegal, immoral, and clearly not in Israel’s interest, despite being of its making. No one listened to David Ben-Gurion when he urged Israel to withdraw from the lands conquered in 1967. 

In return, the Palestinians will have to abandon the right of return and accept a deal that compensates them for the lands they lost in 1948. Regardless of the injustice behind the original expulsions, asking Israel to unilaterally dismantle itself is a non-starter. Israel is a country, if for no other reason than the Holocaust made it so.  

But Israel cannot continue to hide behind the argument that it won’t negotiate with “terrorists.” If England could talk to Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army, Israel can to talk to Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel recently held a two-day seminar on the 60th anniversary of the bombing of the King David Hotel by the Jewish resistance. The blast killed 92 people. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.  

There are those in the Middle East who will resist such a settlement, just as there are hardliners in the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland who reject the Good Friday Agreement. But in Northern Ireland those forces have been increasingly marginalized, and for all its fragility, the pact is generally holding.  

The world does not need more tribal allegiances and stories that tell us it is all right to blow up pizza parlors in Israel or flatten towns in Southern Lebanon. It needs solutions anchored in the real world, and a moral order that says there is no difference between a dead Jewish child and a dead Arab child. The living weep for them equally and no pain is greater or less because of the weight of history.