Craig Nelson: Arab echoes of grassroots protest

Roundup: Talking About History

[Craig Nelson is Associate Editor of The National]

If Gamal Abdel Nasser, the late president of Egypt and legendary champion of Arab nationalism, had risen from his grave during the heady days of November 1989, he would have rubbed his eyes in disbelief.

The stirring on the streets of Prague, Berlin and Bucharest not only spelled the end to the “enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend” politics that Nasser had mastered in playing off the rival superpowers against each other, it was a sharp break with the sweeping pan-Arab nationalism that Nasser espoused and the top-down political style he practised.

In 1989, the Arab world saw this fervour played out in the dun-coloured hills east of Bethlehem, where the drive for self-determination was attempting to erase the debacle brought about by Nasser’s thwarted pan-Arab vision 22 years earlier.

On November 5, 1989 – four days before the Berlin Wall fell – the people of the Palestinian town of Beit Sahour decided they would no longer pay for Israel’s occupation of their land. A coalition of Arab armies inspired by Nasser’s Pan-Arabist dream had failed in 1967 to expel Israel from the same soil; now, in an echo of the grassroots street protests sweeping Europe, the people of Beit Sahour would try to achieve it by refusing to pay their taxes. “No taxation without representation!” their leaflet cried.

In reply, Israel did not follow the path of Mikhail Gorbachev. When told on March 3, 1989, of the decision of the Hungarian Central Committee to “completely remove the electronic and technological defences from the western and southern borders of Hungary”, the Soviet leader did not condemn the move or order retaliation. According to recently disclosed notes, he simply told the Hungarian prime minister, Miklos Nemeth: “We are also becoming more open.” Thus did the first crack appear in the Berlin Wall.

Nor did Israel take the cue of opposition and reform communist leaders in Eastern Europe who, upon witnessing the vicious crackdown by Chinese authorities on protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, redoubled their efforts to avoid violent confrontation – an undertaking that prevented a bloodbath on the streets of Eastern Europe later that year.

Israel did none of this. Instead, in answer to the residents of Beit Sahour, it adopted Tiananmen-style methods of the Chinese government – a move that discredited the value of peaceful, grassroots political protest in the Palestinian territories, if not beyond, with consequences that reverberate to this day...

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