Pen Ultimate / Tempestuous Thoughts

Free associations connected to the words 'Israel,' 'Palestinians' and 'sea'

Like many Israelis, Palestinians and people of other nations and faiths, I also feel the urge to comment on this week's Israeli commando raid on the flotilla en route to Gaza. I try not to exercise my inalienable right to free expression whenever I don't think I have anything original to add to the discourse (and that is fairly often ). But as this incident happened on the high seas, and caused quite a storm, I cannot overcome the temptation to dive in with some quotes from Shakespeare's "The Tempest." The first scene of the play takes place onboard a ship, like the "Marmara" or the ship of our state, and the sea around it, metaphorical or real, is stormy. One Gonzalo, who serves the king (who is also onboard ), could actually be speaking for me today, when he urges the boatswain to take charge of the situation (something we often expect - at our peril - our democratically elected leaders to do ). The boatswain, who already has his hands full, answers: "You are a counsellor; if you can command these elements to silence, and work the peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more; use your authority: if you cannot, give thanks you have lived so long, and make yourself ready in your cabin for the mischance of the hour, if it so hap."

Poster lauding illegal immigration to Palestine in the 1940s.

Since I also realize that I don't have any authority over the elements (nor, I'm afraid, has anybody else ), I am making myself ready in my cabin for the mischance of the hour (day? week? year? ). But my brain has a mind of its own, and words like "Gaza," "sea" and ship" keep stirring up the recesses of my own personal RAM (random access memory ) and bringing up quotes.

I will not wax biblical here, but I do recall various decision makers on all sides mentioning "Gaza" and "sea" in the same breath in the not-so-distant past. To jog my memory, I took out the very useful volume (in Hebrew ) called "It's Inconceivable," compiled by Rafi Mann in 1998, which contains quotes, expressions and phrases that have been coined over the years by our politicians. I found there that on September 3, 1992, at a conference of the Washington Middle East Institute which took place in Jerusalem, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said about Gaza, as quoted in the daily Maariv: "If only it would just sink into the sea." When criticized for his bluntness, he elaborated in the same paper on September 27, 1992 ): "It seems the Palestinians got my point about Gaza. They understand that our rule over them is a burden for Israel."

On January 18, 1998, Yasser Arafat spoke at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, at a memorial rally for the deceased PLO leader Abu Iyad, about the plan for establishing a Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital, declaring: "And whoever doesn't like it can go and drink the sea at Gaza."

Haaretz's Amira Hass, who speaks fluent Arabic and lived for a couple of years in Gaza at that time, consulted with someone about Arafat's comment and was told that it is a variation of the popular Palestinian expression "Go drink seawater" - meaning, "Go to hell." Incidentally, in Hebrew, the expression "lekh le'aza" (literally meaning, "Go to Gaza" ) is an abbreviated form of "lekh le'azazel" - i.e., "Go to hell." Indeed, that is why Hass' book, based on her experiences, is entitled "Drinking the Sea at Gaza" (Picador, 2000 ).

Many other associations come to mind when it comes to Israelis, Palestinians and the sea. In the Israeli collective subconscious - or, actually, the collective conscious - dangers lurk in the east, south and especially the north. But still the predominant doomsday image is of the Jews being pushed by the Arabs surrounding them "into the sea," which is to the west. The body of water in question is the Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean Sea, which Jews seeking a safe haven and fleeing from the abyss of perdition and the Diaspora, especially during the 1940s, had to cross on poorly equipped and barely seaworthy vessels, braving both the elements and Great Britain's Royal Navy with all its might and glory.

That sea and the Arabs around us were apparently the only constant things in the ever-changing world around us, according to prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. When addressing a convention of local hoteliers in January 1989, he claimed there was no reason for Israel to change its policies concerning the Arab states, and declared: "The Arabs are the same Arabs, and the sea is the same sea." He remained the same Shamir and continued to make comments in that same vein for some time, as do a number of our leaders, which leads one to think that the saw is also still the same saw.

But back to the flotilla incident this week where the main protagonists (or their proxies ) remained, along with the sea, but played different roles: This time it was sympathizers of the state-seeking Palestinians crossing the Med, while those trying to stop them from reaching their destination were the Israelis. And just like before the establishment of the State of Israel, when British soldiers sought to prevent Jewish ships from reaching the shores of Palestine - these efforts didn't succeed this time either. But that's now water under the bridge, especially when no bridge is in sight.

From within all the associations I have with the subjects at hand, one quote has kept popping up persistently in my mind, and is also from a play. This time it's not Shakespearean, but rather Moliere's "Les Fourberies de Scapin" ("Scapin's Deceits" ), staged for the first time in 1671.

In Act II, scene VII, Scapin, the very inventive and scheming servant, informs a rich merchant named Geronte that his son has been abducted aboard a boat, or "galley," as it was called, and the sailors are demanding a ransom. During the scene, Geronte keeps repeating the same line, which has become a popular French expression for referring to an utterly unnecessary and damaging incident: "What the devil was he doing in that galley?" ("Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galere?" ) The word galere (galley ) is used in French nowadays to mean "a cumbersome, painful affair" - which indeed the incident that occured this week has become.