Battle of Algiers, Saigon, Bagdahd, Gaza

Palestinian Women Dying

I got stricken messages this morning as people saw the headlines and photos of the women in Gaza being gunned down. I had seen the falling bodies on the news late yesterday.

Some reports lead with the information that fighters were hiding out in the mosque, fewer with the courage of the women.

PALESTINIAN mothers and wives braved Israeli helicopter gunships yesterday to rescue 15 fighters besieged in a northern Gaza mosque, using their heavily veiled bodies as human shields.

“We risked our lives to free our sons,” said Um Mohammed, a woman in her 40s, after the rescue that followed protests against a bloody Israeli operation in the northern Gaza Strip that has killed 24 Palestinians.

The Dispatch

In response an Israeli spokesman solemnly reminded the world that when a religious site becomes a military location armies are no longer bound by rules prohibiting firing on them. Well, yes. Though of course his statement is as obtuse as the strategy that thinks making Israel safer will be accomplished by firing on un armed, veiled women.


I happened to see The Battle of Algiers the other night, after many many years. Gillo Pontecorvo, the director, had recently died and I wanted to see his master work again.

It opens with an unforgettable scene of a torture just ending. A middle aged Algerian, haggard and hollow eyed, is staring vacantly. The French officers seem to be kinder than their recent American counterparts — they offer the victim coffee and a kind of comfort, before dressing him in French cammies and forcing him to go with them to the location of the FLN leader he had just revealed. These are the men who wrote the first book on modern counter insurgency. Led by Lt. Col Philippe Mathieu [Gen. Jacques Massu in the actual war] torture and terror become prime weapons in the hands of the “civilized” armies. “If you want to stay in Algeria,” he says at one point, “you must accept the consequences.” Of course he was wrong: the consequences were accepted — the entire French government knew and acquiesced in the torture — see The Battle of the Casbah by the unrepentant General Paul Aussaresses for more on this — and yet the French did not stay. Algeria was “lost” and tens of thousands of French-descended citizens fled — who might have stayed and prospered if real intelligence had carried the day.

There is a scene later in which FLN fighters nearly slip by their French pursuers dressed as women. Suddenly a male shoe is spotted beneath the robes and a fire fight breaks out in the narrow streets of the Casbah, the Arab quarter.

In the central scenes of the film, three women, dressed as westerners — doffing their burkas and applying, hesitatingly, lipstick — take timed bombs (now called IEDs) into crowded bars and gathering places and leave them. The mayhem of innocent, though colonizing, bodies is the horrific result.

The images from the film merge of course with the images in the news. As I watched the film I saw it as less of a celebration of the Algerian rebels than I earlier did, and more as a dispassionate reporting: Women and children will participate, however they can, in the defense of what they know as their own. Women and children will, with courage and even foolhardiness, walk unarmed before guns, will hurl stones, will report troop movements, will plant bombs at the risk of their own lives. It was true in Algiera in the 1950s, in Indo China in the 50s and 60s. It has been true in the territories so grudgingly assigned to the Palestinians; it is true in occupied Iraq. So it seems to me as I see the nightly news.

Personally, I think the Palestinians would have won a renewed homeland years ago had they harnessed their unyielding, unbelievable courage into a militant Gandhian resistance, rooted in nonviolence. Had these brave women of yesterday stood silently in the way of tanks and guns, had the children pestered and made impossible soldier’s movements, had the men sat down at the border crossings and in the work places they once held in Israel the moral force, and the armed force, of the Israeli state would have collapsed. The support of so much of the western world for the existence of Israel would have found a different balance of moral imperatives and not followed a military logic so blindly. As Gandhi showed the brutal British an occupation cannot be sustained against such tactical and strategic use of non-injury, sustained by courage and willingness to sacrifice.

The Iraqis would not only have the US army back in its barracks and half-way out but would have a better chance of holding their country together against sectarian division. [Gandhi of course failed in this. He died mourning the Hindu-Muslim partition as his biggest failure.]

But that is not the case we have today. And so we watch, and suffer, with all the dead and wounded, with those who love them and those who dread each coming day; we watch and wait for the inevitable realization by the armies and the politicians who command them: beating others into acceptance and democracy will not work. To escape the mayhem, and the only logic that seems in play — kill them to the last person — fundamental assumptions have to change.

Members of the American military were said to have been shown The Battle of Algiers before going to Iraq. The Israelis are of course familiar with it. Though Pontecorvo says the only lesson to be drawn from the film is how to make a movie, not how to wage an insurrection, the one clear lesson of the film, and the insurrection itself, has been lost on Israeli and American: you can not win a battle of occupation.

The film ends with an apparent success by the French, capture of the last of the central cell’s leaders. The handsome, heartless paratroop Colonel is modestly proud of his success; he exits to congratulations. As the credits being to roll we are reminded that two years later, out of the blue as it were, mass uprisings began again. As we all know, France left Algeria soon thereafter. The US left Indo-China, following the French, after decades of bloody belief in their theories of human behavior and control.

The model of “intimidate them and they will yield,” if it was ever true, is no longer true. The belief that decapitating the leadership will make the people docile is as false as the belief that God is guiding the battle.

Not only do people resist in their thousands, at the risk of their own lives, and that of their children, domination by others, it also seems that the ten thousand year old instinctual human priority of sympathy to those physically nearest is changing. Our 5 senses are extended immeasurably by technology, and out sensibilities grow with it. Women shot down in Gaza now matter to us; chaos created by US meddling thousands of miles away is now apparent to us, felt to us, charges our emotions. We want it to stop. The brutalization of others, worlds and cultures away, triggers our innate empathy previously reserved for those nearest and dearest.

Though we are centuries away perhaps from a world settled into a saner and more benevolent place, and though we may never get there, even in the whipping cross currents of cruelty of today one senses there is opposition and the possibility of better lives leading us out of this.

Even today, in Israel, peace groups meet and release 2000 black ballons with SOS Gaza written on them, calling attention to the plight of the Palestinians without water and food for weeks because of the on-going clamp down on the territories.

[Cross posted at the Ruth Group blog.]

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