"UNTIL the Palestinians are given back their rights we're going to have instability throughout the Middle East," declared John Pilger on ABC1's Q & A last night. "That is central to everything."
Yet, one of the most striking things about the uprising in Egypt was the lack of pro-Palestine placards. As Egypt-watcher Amr Hamzawy put it, in Tahrir Square and elsewhere there were no signs saying "death to Israel, America and global imperialism" or "together to free Palestine". Instead, this revolt was about Egyptian people's own freedom and living conditions.
Yet on the pro-Egypt demonstration in London on Saturday, there was a sea of Palestine placards. "Free Palestine", they said, and "End the Israeli occupation". The speakers had trouble getting the audience excited about events in Egypt, having to say on more than one occasion: "Come on London, you can shout louder than that!" Yet every mention of the word Palestine induced a kind of Pavlovian excitability among the attendees. They cheered when the P-word was uttered, chanting: "Free, free Palestine!"
This reveals something important about the Palestine issue. In recent years it has moved from the realm of Arab radicalism, where Egyptians and other peoples frequently demanded the creation of a Palestinian state, and has instead become almost the exclusive property of Western middle-class radicals, such as Pilger.
Emptied of its nationalist vigour and militancy, the Palestine problem, it seems, is now of little immediate interest to protesting Arabs and is instead the ultimate cause celebre for Western liberal campaigners who like nothing more than having a victimised people they can coo over.
The power and allure of Palestine in Western radical circles is extraordinary. Palestine is the only issue they get excited about. But there is nothing progressive in their pro-Palestine fervour. It is not driven by future-oriented demands for economic development in a Palestinian homeland in the West Bank or Gaza. Instead it is driven by a view of Palestinians as the ultimate victims, the hapless and pathetic children of the new world order, who need kindly, wizened Westerners to protect them from Big Bad Israel.
Today's pro-Palestine leftism is more anthropological than political. It treats Palestinians less as a people who ought to have certain democratic rights and more as an intriguing tribe to be prodded and preserved. Some Western radicals have even adopted the fashions of their favourite tribe. Step on to any university campus in the West, or join any left-wing march, and you'll see concerned-looking youths wearing the Palestinian keffiyeh scarf, a politically correct version of blacking up.
This is the politics of pity rather than solidarity. Groups of Western middle-class youth have taken Palestinian pity holidays in the West Bank and Gaza. They turn up and marvel at the dignity of this beautiful besieged people, like those wives of old Victorian colonialists who discovered they rather liked the African tribes they had been sent to Christianise. "I've never met people like the Palestinians. They're the strongest people I've ever met", gushed British peace activist Kate Burton, who hit the headlines in 2006 after being kidnapped by a Palestinian faction in Gaza....
...Palestinian pitiers have no time to think about the inconvenient fact that Hamas is an intolerant political entity that has no time for gay rights or women's equality. Instead, everything gets reduced to a Narnia-style story of wicked witches v happy fauns, because this is ultimately about providing vacuous-feeling Westerners with some much-needed momentum in their lives, not about untangling a messy political reality.
It's very revealing that Palestine has become less important for Arabs and of the utmost symbolic importance for Western radicals at exactly the same time. With the Palestinian people somewhat deflated, the Palestine issue can become perfect political fodder for the victim-oriented, fancy-dress radicals of the modern West.
Brendan O'Neill, The Australian