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By Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Nobel laureate for literature, visited Ramallah last week as part of a delegation from the International Parliament of Writers. Here is an excerpt of his reflections.

Arafat! Arafat! Arafat! He's to blame! That is what one hears repeatedly from Ariel Sharon and George Bush.

How can anyone with even a minimal grasp of the psychology of humiliation and desperation imagine that, within the context of the Middle East conflict, any one individual such as Arafat, no matter how highly respected by his followers, how sacrosanct his authority, could control a form of action that stems from both collective and individual desperation and trauma?

Arafat is simply not in control of the many arms of the Palestinian resistance. Not even the various resistance groups can boast absolute control over individual acts of determination and resourcefulness.

Timothy McVeigh took down more than 150 souls in Oklahoma in one fell swoop. No one has attempted to heap on the president of the pro-gun lobby the sole responsibility for McVeigh's homicidal resolve to avenge the victims of Waco. Nor, indeed, did anyone hold the prime minister of Israel responsible for the action, in 1994, of the Israeli military reservist, a medical doctor, who opened fire on a congregation of Muslim worshipers in a mosque in Hebron, killing a score or more before turning the gun on himself.

The irrationalities of the Israeli government and the United States in this regard have been mind-boggling. They would be ludicrous if they were not fraught with such predictably tragic consequences. Their insistence, for instance, at the early stages of the latest intifada, that the Palestinians observe at least a week of violence-free moratorium before peace talks could begin was surely apparent to all beings with a claim to reasoning as an infantile demand. In the end, even Sharon had to acknowledge its futility.
Now, watch our modern cyclops flail around like his mythical ancestor Polyphemus, blinded by Ulysses, hurling explosive boulders in all directions in the hope of hitting his assailant.

If I took anything away from my recent visit to Ramallah, it was the intensification of my private terror that so much critical interventionism in world affairs actually rests in the hands of leaders such as Sharon and Bush who have limitless military power at their disposal.

No, there was no revelation on this trip. Some months ago, I used the expression that the Israeli government was tearing out the heart and liver of Arafat and feeding them to his children. And who could fail to predict the consequences of such evisceration!

What I observed in Ramallah made me truly afraid for the Israelis -- that many of those who believed that their political leader was treading the right political path had never taken the trouble to project their minds into the refugee camps of the Palestinians, into their daily existence, even if the Israelis could not visit the physical reality to experience firsthand the daily humiliation and the scars of memory that fully spell out the condition of nearly all Palestinians today.

We saw the checkpoints through which thousands of Palestinians pass in order to go to work daily at their sole economic source -- Israel. We were trapped within endless motor convoys through which Palestinians pass to and from work.

Those convoys reminded me of my own country, Nigeria, between the first military coup and the Biafran civil war, and its immediate aftermath. It recalled the faces of despair, resignation, but also the simmering anger of a populace that faced daily humiliation at the hands of an arrogant military. This sense of humiliation in Ramallah was just as palpable -- you could touch it, measure it and weigh it. It found expression in numerous ways -- from the ordinary people in the streets, men, women and children, to university lecturers and students, writers and civic leaders. It was affirmed by foreigners who were compelled to share the lives of the Palestinians, including the staff of the U.N. refugee organization, UNRWA.

Numerous were the accounts of women who gave birth at checkpoints because of the inflexible control exercised over the movements of ordinary people, of deaths that occurred within ambulances that were trapped in convoys or at checkpoints. And, of course, we crunched mortar beneath our feet, picked our way through the rubble of demolished houses and saw, without any varnishing, the active policy of land encroachment by settlers -- demolish, create a no-man's land, then move into the vacated space when the Palestinian occupants had been harassed beyond the range of guns. These instances of dispossession, and their chilling methodology, have been meticulously recorded by U.N. agencies, foreign embassies and visitors. The evidence was overwhelming, indisputable.

Was I sufficiently detached during this visit? Of course. And then again, of course not. It is not possible to take only a clinical, objective view of the situation there. When human beings are being blown up in restaurants, in hotels and with a singularly grotesque sense of timing -- while sitting down to a holy feast, such as the Passover -- one experiences both rage and horror at the perpetrators.

My skin crawls whenever I hear ''martyrdom'' used as an equivalent of murder by suicide and especially mass murder.
Yet on the other side of terror, the state variety, to listen to a family give a graphic account of tanks crashing through their walls at night, bringing down mortar on sleeping members of the household, crushing innocents in their sleep, it is equally impossible to remain viscerally disengaged or fail to be morally assaulted.

If there are no innocents in any struggle, then let us give up the cause of humanity.

(c) 2002, International Parliament of Writers/Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services
For immediate release (Distributed 4/8/02)