Waiting as Ethnic Cleansing

A review of Time Suspended

Omar Barghouti

In a Nietzschean declaration in the middle of the book, one of the authors of Time Suspended shouts in evident frustration: “I saw nothing in Ramallah. Nothing.” A peculiar statement, particularly coming after tens of pictures of things. What on earth did he mean?

The colored photos offer a glimpse of a possible answer. They rarely show people, as if the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) were emptied, as in the aftermath of a Tsunami or a Hiroshima-like act of genocide. In fact, we only start seeing people in the black and white pictures that come later, in settings that evoke images of World War II much more than current Palestinian reality under occupation. Indeed, the photographer saw ‘nothing'.

The ‘nothing' that the authors insist they saw, actually reflects their ability to see a deeper medium, a contextual layer lying behind the surface. They saw nothing of what they had been bombarded with on TV. They saw people perceived by other people as ‘nothing'. They saw an otherwise beautiful land reduced to a big space full of nothingness, of emptiness. They saw the “politics of disappearance” turning the occupied territory, at least in the minds of the occupiers, into a vacuum, into a “land without a people” all over again.

Checkpoints, roadblocks, sieges, and closures are all components of any well-planned colonial strategy to subjugate and control a captive population. Israel, however, has been unique in the last century in its use of waiting for an altogether different purpose. “The [Israeli] Jews are waiting for the Palestinians to lose heart and leave,” perceptively – and quite courageously, I must add – conclude the authors of Time Suspended .


With its suspenseful title, its simple, sometimes anecdotal, sometimes reflective, but always deeply philosophical text, freed from typically ‘western' inhibitions about expressing literary emotion, its ghostly – almost tragic – pictures, Time Suspended is both captivating and distinguished. It succeeds in grasping and effortlessly relaying the meaning of time under occupation. In brief, the book's witty, in-depth observations capture some elusive dimensions of oppression as well as the struggle against it, defying ‘standard' approaches to this overly researched (and often misrepresented) conflict.

Without claiming academic accuracy – indeed, some of the details are a bit off the mark – the book tactfully compels the reader to see, to reflect, and to imagine, all before its hard-hitting prose challenges his or her thoughts and any pre-conceived notions these thoughts may harbor. Upon opening the book, an inexperienced western eye is invited – perhaps forced – to observe the conflict from new angles. Nothing seen on western TV or read in western dailies could have prepared the average reader for those pictures or succinct, intense words. Through the potent weapon of repetition, evening news bulletins neutralize the goriest images, the cruelest injustices, making them part of what's normal, usual, “to be expected”. How much attention do you still pay to news of yet another atrocity in Iraq right now? I bet much less than you did two years ago. Explaining how the media spinmeisters work on the viewers' psyche, the author says:

“Battles and massacres filmed as they unfold became a routine ingredient of my ceaseless flow of domestic, small-screen entertainment. After a while, I became less responsive to the horrors. Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.”

Acutely realizing this, he decides to act , starting with an effort to learn firsthand about this thorny conflict and thereby sharing this knowledge with his readers:

“I wanted to go to Palestine to see things with my own eyes. […] I wanted to get rid of my compassion fatigue. Mass-mediatized disasters soothing me with formulaic chronologies. Tempting me with sensationalized soundbites. Mesmerizing me with media spin.”

The result of this effort is a book that can be quite irritating for an average westerner. But it is the type of tempting irritation that accompanies a sophisticated thriller movie or an anti-establishment avant-garde art exhibit. The lure of novelty overcomes the annoyance, convincing the reader to carry on reading. But doing that entails tearing down some of the intellectual gates that have grown around one's mind, ‘protecting' it from unwanted, undesired, non-conforming and critical thoughts. It demands no less than confronting what Augusto Boal calls the “cop in the head.” Never a nice showdown, for sure. The reader, nevertheless, can take comfort in the fact that the images that keep attacking his eyes as he flips through those pages will provide him ample ammunition to beat that formidable cop.

Only then will time run again, after being suspended since birth, for those typical readers anyhow… Time devoted to contextualized thinking, to challenging established norms, to critically reflecting on the past and the present, to humanizing the other – time to identify oneself as human above and beyond every other attribute, to empathize, to differ, to dare stand up to injustice and the war-mongering industries of domination. Time Suspended , in that sense, ‘un-suspends' time – at least for some readers.


Its effect on me was quite different. Consciously, before reading the text, I decided to only look at the photographs, which make up most of the book. My eyes devoured them more than once, sifting through those ugly, hurtful images over and over searching for meaning, for some theme, for an answer to the first question that struck me when I first opened this book: “why of all the images of occupied Palestine did they choose these? Why is the space so empty? Why isn't there any beauty?” Where did the community's sense of solidarity, the resistance – particularly ‘cultural' resistance – the awe and the enigma of the land of enchanting contradiction disappear into?

Although the text tries to fill some of that empty space with people, idiosyncrasies and human emotion, the photos insist on showing the horrific, static vacuum. They give a whole new meaning to the very notion of “ still images”.

I feel as if I'm watching a clock that has lost its arms. Nothing is happening, but you keep watching out of habit anyhow, waiting for some miracle to tell you the time. Nowhere is time more suspended than in those depressing snapshots.

After several viewings, I grew more understanding of the authors' perspective. I also became more aware that my own perspective is never ‘objective' either. Those images evoke memories in my mind – harsh memories of an apartment building hit by tank shells; a home occupied; an existence put on hold until the last flurry of bullets abated; an anger that was at times uncontainable; a heart squeezed dry of all ability to sense pain after having become addicted to it; a humanity breeched and injured with unconscionable impunity.

I cannot look at these images with any neutrality. They may not quite depict what I've felt, yet they somehow succeed in recalling those images from a dark corner of my memory where I'd abandoned them, waiting for them to wither away – with time . Those photos rewound the time for me, cruelly disrupting my plans to forever transcend my ‘victimness'. What right did that Belgian photographer have to take me back to a time I'd consciously striven to depart from, and who had granted this right? Clearly, I had! I chose to read/view the book of my own will. I signed the unwritten contract between reader and author. I must then suffer all the consequences, intended or not. But even without the Belgian photographs, could I ever have forgotten? I am, after all, like those Palestinian refugees described by the authors: “Stubborn and patient, they keep the memories of their lost country – a refusal to allow time to get a hold on space.”

Then I experience the text. You do not just read it. You engage in it at several levels. In a succinct sentence, it manages to describe a fundamental and consequential reality in the world's perception of the Arab-Israeli conflict: “The longer things last, the more the outside world starts to think of them as normal.” How true!

The author brilliantly contrasts “affirmative space” with “negative space,” the former belonging to the oppressor; the latter to the oppressed. He ask, ruthlessly: “How do the [Israeli] colonists manage to live with a view of so much injustice?” Only to provide no less insightful an answer: “by pretending that the Palestinians do not exist.” He further explains, “Israeli Jews treat their Palestinian neighbours […] with a mixture of negation and fear.” In those few observations, the writer has done what most others have abjectly failed to do: keenly observe the workings of a colonial system, ask the right questions and answer them with a flawless sense of moral consistency.


To most Israelis, the ‘sin' upon which Israel was established has effectively been erased from memory. Israelis in general are infected with “selective amnesia,” as I've described it elsewhere. To understand how they've managed to do this, one must delve into mainstream Israeli perceptions of the Palestinians. ‘Negation' and ‘disappearance' become much easier when you do not think of your victim as fully human. You can ignore a stray cat that you bump into every once in a while on the street. So long as it never bothers you. You easily forget that spider, awkwardly imprisoned in its tiny web in some remote corner of your storage room. So long as it doesn't extend its threads enough to scare you or your children. But you cannot ignore human beings suffering around you, particularly if you are the very cause of their suffering, unless you relegate them to the status of “lesser humans”, of relative humans. [1]


From the onset of this colonial project, the two main pretences given by European Zionists to justify their colonization of Palestine were:

1. Palestine was an empty space, an uncivilized wasteland;

2. Jews had a divine right to ‘redeem' Palestine, in accordance with a promise from no less an authority than the Almighty. Thus, any dispossession of the natives of Palestine, if their existence was recognized in the first place, was acceptable “collateral damage” to the implementation of God's Will.

Both the political and the religious premises above have been shown to be no more than unfounded myths, thanks in no small part to the diligent work of Israeli historians and archaeologists. [2] Even at the turn of the twentieth century, there was enough evidence of a lively society in Palestine to dispel the myth. Unperturbed, however, the founding fathers of Israel still advocated ethnic cleansing of Palestinians to allow for a distinctly Jewish state to be established. At the very core of the rationalization of the advocated radical displacement and uprooting of the Palestinians lies – to this date, alas – an entrenched racist belief in the irrelevance, or comparative worthlessness, of the rights, needs and aspirations of the native Palestinians. For instance, the author of the Balfour Declaration who first ‘promised' Palestine to the Jews, wrote:

“The four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.” [3]

This is a classic case of what I call relative-humanization .

I define relative humanity as the belief (and r elative humanization as its practice) that is based on the assumption that certain human beings, to the extent that they share a common religious, ethnic, cultural or other substantial identity attribute, are perceived as lacking one or more of the necessary attributes of being human, and are therefore regarded as human only in the relative sense, not absolutely, and not unequivocally. Accordingly, such relative humans are entitled only to a subset of the otherwise inalienable rights that are due to ‘full' humans.

Regarding the Palestinians as relative humans can explain why Israel – supported by the US and in many cases by Europe, too – has got away with a taken-for-granted attitude towards the Palestinians that assumes that they cannot, indeed ought not, have equal needs, aspirations or rights as Israeli Jews. This is the other dimension of the ‘negation' that the authors of Time Suspended did not contend with. Colonists do not always negate the existence of the colonized. At times, they only negate their human essence.

This relative humanization has manifested itself in all aspects of Israeli life to the extent that it has become indistinguishable, almost invisible, to most. It is like an unsightly birth mark that you grow accustomed to live with, so much so that you eventually forget its existence, particularly when those around you are too intimidated or apathetic to point it out to you.

Three specific areas best demonstrate this seminal and entrenched attribute of Israeli colonialism.


1. Denial of Palestinian Refugees' Rights


Far from admitting its guilt in creating the world's oldest and largest refugee problem, and despite overwhelming incriminating evidence, Israel has systematically evaded any responsibility for the Nakba , the catastrophe of 1948. The most peculiar dimension in the popular Israeli discourse about the ‘birth' of its state is the almost wall-to-wall denial of any wrongdoing. Israelis by and large regard the ruthless destruction of Palestinian society and the dispossession of the Palestinian people as their ‘independence'. Even committed Zionist ‘leftists' often grieve over the loss of Israel's “moral superiority” after occupying the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, as if prior to that Israel were as civil, legitimate and law-abiding as Finland !

In a classic example of the self-fulfilling prophecy paradigm, Israelis have always yearned for being a normal state – to the extent that they actually started believing that Israel indeed was so. [4]

This denial has its roots in both the Holocaust and in the unique circumstances created as a direct result of it, which allowed Israel to argue that, unlike any other state, it was obliged to deny Palestinian refugees their unequivocal right to return to their homes and lands. Preserving the Jewish character of the state, the argument went, was the only way to maintain a safe haven for world Jewry, the “super-victims” who are unsafe among the Gentiles. That, of course, was of much more import than the mere rights of the Palestinians. No other country on earth today could get away with a similarly overt racist attitude concerning its right to ethnic supremacy while being recognized by the enlightened west as a ‘democracy'.

Israel's denial of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homelands also reveals a level of moral inconsistency that is in many ways unique. The Israeli “law of return” for Jews, for instance, is based on the principle that since they were expelled from Palestine over 2,000 years ago, they had a right to return to it. The rights of Palestinian refugees, whose 57-year-old exile is a much younger injustice, however, are denied. Thousands of Israelis whose grandparents were German citizens have successfully applied for their right to return to Germany, to gain German citizenship and receive full compensation for pillaged property. As a result, the Jewish population of Germany quadrupled in less than ten years. [5] In another instance, Belgium has passed a law “enabling properties that belonged to Jewish families to be returned to their owners.” It also agreed to pay the local Jewish community 55 million euros in restitution for stolen property that “cannot be returned” and for “unclaimed insurance policies belonging to Holocaust victims”. [6] But the quintessence of moral hypocrisy is betrayed by the following news item reported in Ha'aretz:

“More than five centuries after their ancestors were expelled from Spain, Jews of Spanish origin […] called on the Spanish government and parliament to grant them Spanish nationality. [...] Spain should pass a law ‘to recognize that the descendants of the expelled Jews belong to Spain and to rehabilitate them,' said Nessim Gaon, president of the World Sephardic Federation. […] Some Sephardic Jews have even preserved the keys to their forefathers' houses in Spain…” [7]


2. Committing War Crimes with Impunity [8]


Two particularly glaring – and characteristic – examples of treating Palestinians as relative humans may help to further elucidate the point:


Birth and Death at an Israeli Military Checkpoint


Time Suspended eloquently describes the humiliating, master-slave nature of the relationships associated with the omnipresent checkpoints. Another aspect of those roadblocks must be added to fully comprehend their true meaning.

Rula, a Palestinian woman, was in the last stages of labor. Her husband, Daoud, could not convince the soldiers at a given military checkpoint to let them through to meet the ambulance that was held up by the same soldiers on the other side. After a long wait, Rula could no longer hold out. She started screaming in pain, to the total apathy of the soldiers. Daoud described the traumatic experience to Ha'aretz's exceptionally conscientious reporter Gideon Levy, saying:

“Next to the barbed wire there was a rock. […] My wife started to crawl toward the rock and she lay down on it. And I'm still talking with the soldiers. Only one of them paid any attention, the rest didn't even look. She tried to hide behind the rock. She didn't feel comfortable having them see her in her condition. She started to yell and yell. The soldiers said: “Pull her in our direction, don't let her get too far away.” And she was yelling more and more. It didn't move them. Suddenly, she shouted: “I gave birth, Daoud! I gave birth!” I started repeating what she said so the soldiers would hear. In Hebrew and Arabic. They heard.” [9]


Rula later shouted: “The girl died! The girl died!” Daoud, distraught and fearing for his wife's own life, was forced to cut the umbilical cord with a rock. Later, the doctor who examined the little corpse at the hospital revealed that the baby girl had died “ from a serious blunt force injury received when she shot out of the birth canal.”

Commenting on the similarly tragic death of another Palestinian newborn at yet another Israeli checkpoint, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Physicians for Human Rights said:

“We don't know how many have died like this because many people don't even bother to set out for hospital, knowing the soldiers will stop them. […] These people offer no threat to Israel. Those who do, like the suicide bombers, of course never go through roadblocks, which exist only to control, subjugate and humiliate ordinary people. It is like routine terrorism.” [10]


Hunting Children for Sport


In a 2001 issue of Harper's Magazine [11], veteran American journalist Chris Hedges exposed how Israeli troops in Gaza systematically curse and provoke Palestinian children playing in the dunes of southern Gaza. Then, when the boys finally get irritated enough and start throwing stones, the soldiers premeditatedly respond with live ammunition from rifles fitted with silencers. “Later,” writes Hedges, “in the hospital, I will see the destruction: the stomachs ripped out, the gaping holes in limbs and torsos.” He then concludes, “Children have been shot in other conflicts I have covered, […] but I have never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport.”

Based on this culture of relative-humanization of “the Other”, Nathan Lewin, a potential candidate for a federal judgeship in Washington and former president of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists writes:

“If executing some suicide-bomber families saves the lives of even an equal number of potential civilian victims, the exchange is, I believe, ethically permissible. […] It is a policy born of necessity – the need to find a true deterrent when capital punishment is demonstrably ineffective.” [12]


Diplomacy aside, ‘civilian' here stands for ‘Jewish' only, of course.

Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz has likewise advised Israel to entirely level any Palestinian village that harbors a suicide bomber. [13] I wonder if he would advocate the same policy in reaction to the two recent attacks against Palestinian civilians by Jewish terrorists – as even Ariel Sharon identified them.



Israel's Colonial Wall: Palestinian Human Rights v. Israeli Animal & Plant Rights [14]


Although Israel is now trying to present the Wall as a security barrier to “fend off suicide bombers”, the truth of the matter is that the current path of the Wall is anything but new. [15] It has been recommended to Ariel Sharon by the infamous “prophet of the Arab demographic threat”, Israeli demographer Arnon Sofer, who insists that the implemented map was all his. And unlike the slick Israeli politicians, Sofer unabashedly confesses that the Wall's path was drawn with one specific goal in mind: maximizing the land to be annexed to Israel, while minimizing the number of ‘Arabs' that would have to come along. But Sofer may be taking too much credit for himself. Ron Nahman, the mayor of the West Bank settlement of Ariel, has revealed to the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth that: “the map of the fence […] is the same map I saw during every visit [Ariel Sharon] made here since 1978. He told me he has been thinking about it since 1973.” Needless to say, there weren't any ‘suicide bombings' taking place then.

Despite the Wall's grave transgression against Palestinian livelihood, environment, and political rights, a “near total consensus” [16] exists among Israeli Jews in support of it. Several official and non-governmental bodies in Israel, however, are concerned about the adverse effects the Wall might have on animals and plants. The Israeli environment minister Yehudit Naot protested against the wall, saying:

“The separation fence severs the continuity of open areas and is harmful to the landscape, the flora and fauna, the ecological corridors and the drainage of the creeks. The protective system will irreversibly affect the land resource and create enclaves of communities [of animals, of course] that are cut off from their surroundings. I certainly don't want to stop or delay the building of the fence, because it is essential and will save lives… On the other hand, I am disturbed by the environmental damage involved.” [17]

  Her ministry and the National Parks Protection Authority mounted diligent rescue efforts to save an affected reserve of irises by moving it to an alternative reserve. They have also created tiny passages for animals and enabled the continuation of the water flow in the creeks. Still, the spokesperson for the parks authority was not satisfied. He complained:

“The animals don't know that there is now a border. They are used to a certain living space, and what we are concerned about is that their genetic diversity will be affected because different population groups will not be able to mate and reproduce. Isolating the populations on two sides of a fence definitely creates a genetic problem.” [18]


Little wonder, then, that Shulamit Aloni, a former member of Knesset, finds it necessary to state: “We do not have gas chambers and crematoria, but there is no one fixed method for genocide.” [19]

Then what? As the great Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire luminously observed, “reflection without action” invites acquiescence and complacency, turning one into an accomplice – to varying degrees – in the injustice being watched, read or experienced. The authors of Time Suspended reached a similar conclusion:

“The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If I feel there is nothing that can be done, then I start to get bored, cynical, apathetic.”


Well, if apartheid is the deepest, most enduring notion that sticks in one's mind long after reading Time Suspended 's description of Israel's colonial enterprise, the one action that convinced readers may entertain is South-Africa-style boycotts, divestments and sanctions. Only such morally sound interventions stand a chance to bring about Israel's full compliance with international law and the end of all this oppression and resistance.

At that point, Jews and Arabs in historic Palestine will finally be able to coexist without injustice, without masters or slaves, without ‘relative-humanization'. Only then can the clock regain its arms, ticking to the heartbeat of a process that may lead to a real, spirited, lasting and just peace in this mythologized Land of Peace.




1. The concept of “relative humanity” and its relation to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has first been discussed in an essay published in the Mediterranean Journal of Human Rights , Vol. 8, Number 2: 2004. The current text borrows from said essay.

2. Several archaeological studies have shown that most of the stories in the Bible used by Zionists to buttress their claim to Palestine are indeed not supported by the region's history; these studies are “based on direct evidence from archaeology and historical geography and […] supported by analogies that are primarily drawn from anthropology, sociology and linguistics,” as archaeologist Thomas L. Thompson has written ( http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/copenhagen.htm ). His findings are supported by the extensive, painstaking and authoritative research of distinguished Israeli archaeologists, including Ze'ev Herzog ( http://www.prometheus.demon.co.uk/04/04herzog.htm ) and Israel Finkelstein (see Aviva Lori, Grounds for Disbelief , Ha'aretz, May 10, 2003).

3. UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People: The Origins and Evolution of the Palestine Problem , http://domino.un.org/UNISPAL.NSF/0/aeac80e740c782e4852561150071fdb0?OpenDocument

4. Henry Kissinger once defined as Israel's ultimate objective, “a normality that ends claims [from Palestinians] and determines a permanent legal status.” Consequently, he has consistently counseled Israel, in return for recognizing a Palestinian state, to insist on a quid pro quo that included “a formal renunciation of all future [Palestinian] claims”, an unmistakable reference to the rights of Palestinian refugees to return and compensation. That, he maintained, was “the essence of reasonableness to Americans and Israelis.” Henry Kissinger, The Peace Paradox , Washington Post, December 4, 2000.

5. Reuters, Germany: Growing Number of Israelis Seeking Citizenship , Ha'aretz, June 17, 2002.

6. Yair Sheleg, Belgian Prime Minister Apologizes for his Country's Actions During Holocaust , Ha'aretz, October 7, 2002.

7. DPA, Sephardi Jews Demand Recognition from Spanish Government , Ha'aretz, October 15, 2002.

8. Amnesty International's examination of Israel's conduct during the current Intifada led it to conclude that “there is a pattern of gross human rights violations that may well amount to war crimes”, http://www.cnn.com/2000/WORLD/meast/11/01/mideast.amnesty.reut

9. Gideon Levy, Birth and Death at the Checkpoint , Ha'aretz, September 12, 2003.

10. John Pilger, Israel's Routine Terrorism , The Mirror, September 16, 2002. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/allnews/page.cfm?objectid=12202728&method=full&siteid=50143

11. Chris Hedges, A Gaza Diary , Harper's Magazine, October 2001.

12. Ami Eden, Top Lawyer Urges Death for Families of Bombers , The Forward, June 7, 2002.

13. Alan Dershowtiz, Jerusalem Post, March 11, 2002; cited in: Rod Dreher, Muslims vs. Dersh , National Review, November 22, 2002. http://www.nationalreview.com/dreher/dreher112202.asp

14. The so-called “Separation Barrier” has been shown by many researchers to be in effect separating Palestinians from their lands, and isolating them in restrictive Bantustans, fully under the control of the Israeli military. As such, the only proper and accurate name that can be applied to this mammoth barrier is: Colonial Wall or Apartheid Wall, as many have begun to call it. For details on the Wall, I refer to the Amnesty International report at: http://web.amnesty.org/pages/isr-index_2-eng which considers the wall to be a form of collective punishment, and therefore illegal; see also the Human Rights Watch report at: http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2003/ga10179.doc.htm , the B'Tselem detailed position paper at: http://www.btselem.org , or the UNGA resolution condemning the wall at: http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2003/ga10179.doc.htm

15. Meron Rappaport, A Wall in their Heart , Yedioth Ahronot, May 23, 2003, http://www.gush-shalom.org/archives/wall_yediot_eng.html

16. Ha'aretz Editorial, A Fence Along the Settlers' Lines , October 3, 2003.

17. Mazal Mualem, Old Habitats Die Hard , Ha'aretz June 20, 2003.

18. Ibid.

19. Shulamit Aloni, Murder of a Population under Cover of Righteousness , Ha'aretz, March 6, 2003. [Translated from Hebrew by Zvi Havkin].

Omar Barghouti is a Palestinian political and cultural analyst whose columns have appeared in several publications. His article “9/11 – Putting the Moment on Human Terms” was chosen among the “Best of 2002” by The Guardian. He is also a human rights activist involved in civil struggle to end oppression and conflict in Palestine/Israel.

He holds a Masters degree in electrical engineering from Columbia University, New York, and is currently a doctoral student of philosophy at Tel Aviv University. He contributed to a recent philosophical volume Controversies and Subjectivity , Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2005; he also contributed to The New Intifada: Resisting Israel's Apartheid , London: Verso Books, 2001. He advocates an ethical vision for a unitary, secular democratic state in historic Palestine.

Barghouti is a dance choreographer and the trainer of El-Funoun , Palestine's leading dance ensemble. He has spoke at several arts conferences on the relation between art and oppression.