It was a cold October night last year when I entered the Curzon Soho cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue in London to watch Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir, the Israeli movie that retells in animation the story of a group of Israeli soldiers who stood idle as the Lebanese Forces Christian militia group massacred the Palestinian refugees of Sabra and Chatila.
In the eyes of some Arabs, the culprits are the Israelis and the Israelis alone. Growing up, I heard only that it was the Israelis who committed this crime: there was no mention of the small fact that Arabs carried out the killings, even if the Israelis did pave the way and stand guard at the gates.
Sadly, in the Arab world only acts committed by non-Arabs against Arabs seem to be worthy of condemnation: if an Arab is responsible for crimes against his brethren then there is always room to debate the merits of the argument. Saddam killed Iraqis and Kuwaitis. “Yes, but so did the Americans, why don’t you condemn the Americans?” Hizbollah and Hamas were partly responsible for hundreds of innocent deaths in 2006 and 2008 respectively. “Why don’t you condemn Israel?” Typically, talking about a crime by an Arab leader in the Middle East, one will almost always end up talking about other concerned parties. It seems to be a special built-in ability to auto-dodge accountability. No one ever admits responsibility in the Arab states and no one is ever held accountable (unless he is toppled, that is).
Israel, for example, launches an investigation after each war into the reasoning, conduct and actions of its leaders, in order to better itself – an act unheard of in the Arab world, which occupies itself with post-disaster self-congratulatory parades: which is why, when we perpetually do not take action, we Arabs find ourselves in a position where we can expect to have the international community act, and not always in our best interests (see Iraq).
President Omar al Bashir of Sudan, for example, cannot be taken to any Arab court simply because it would lack legitimacy, so he must be flown out for trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague: although I must admit I find the logic of issuing this arrest warrant to be slightly bewildering. Do they imagine for one moment that he will risk travelling out of his country, save to regimes that support him? Or that his country will turn him over, as Serbia so courageously did with Slobodan Milosevic in 2001 and Radovan Karadzic in 2008?
For it seems that Arab dictators have a disposition that I will call the Uncontrollable Urge to Stay in Power Syndrome or UPS. Certain UPS symptoms are common in many countries in the world, although only a few non-Arab leaders are able to master it fully. Symptoms typically include trying one’s best to rig ballot after ballot (Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus), using the media to influence voting (Silvio Berlosconi in Italy), and holding an unlimited number of ballots until the desired result of term extension is achieved (Hugo Chavez in Venezuela).
The reason the so-called Arab street was not outraged about the killing in Darfur was because it is Arabs who are carrying out the crimes, although they forgot that the victims are Arabs and Muslims. Just imagine for one minute our reaction if the Janjaweed death brigades were American. This may explain the numerous Arab pleas for a delay in the indictment; a postponement that is really yet another thinly veiled procrastination attempt.
I have written here before about the Sudanese president, after the news last July of a possible ICC indictment, arguing that Mr al Bashir had it coming all along. I am also greatly encouraged that Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC prosecutor, is considering ways to prosecute Israeli commanders over their war crimes in Gaza. This investigation must also be extended to Hamas leaders for endangering the lives of Palestinians and causing the deaths of hundreds of innocent children and women.
This last statement will, of course, cause uproar, for how can one ask for resistance fighters to be probed for their actions while their state is under occupation by a brutal power that respects human rights only inside its borders? But it is precisely because the Palestinians are suffering in the giant Warsaw-like ghetto of Gaza that Hamas must understand that it cannot continue to play “You’ll never guess what I’ll do next”.
As long as we continue to view the deaths of fellow Arabs as less significant if another Arab is responsible then we will never emerge out of this mess we find ourselves in called the status quo – and will never better ourselves.
This article first appeared in The National Newspaper on Friday the 13th of March 2009.