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Applied Pontecorvo: Gaza

[ by Charles Cameron — lessons from Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers for the medium-term Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and other instances of asymmetry ]


Pontecorvo‘s film, The Battle for Algiers, really seared itself into me when I watched it again recently — and so it has been a bit of a template for other thoughts, and notably influenced some of my thinking as I was watching events unfolding in Gaza, now thankfully in cease-fire mode.

Pontecorvo, as I noted in my previous post, takes the side of the Algerians in their conflict with the French, and I suppose it’s only natural that a “reading” of the Gaza situation in light of Pontecorvo’s masterpiece will tend to support the Palestinian “cause” against the Israelis.

After all, Yitzhak Epstein, addressing the Seventh Zionist Congress in Basel in 1905, had a point when he said:

We devote attention to everything related to our homeland, we discuss and debate everything, we praise and criticise in every way, but one trivial thing we have overlooked so long in our lovely country: there exists an entire people who have held it for centuries and to whom it would never occur to leave.

On Thanksgiving Day I am reminded that my Lakota friends also have a point — but there’s what’s memorable, which can remain in very long-term memory indeed, and there’s what’s practicable, which may in practical terms be changing by the day or decade…


Let me put that another way.

I don’t need the words of a Zionist Jew from a century ago to give me that insight into the Palestinian side of things, but Epstein’s words remind me that there are facts in the heart on the Palestinian side, just as the Israelis are building facts on the ground in the occupied territories. What of the Israeli side, are there not facts in the heart there too? And on the Palestinian side, what of the ghastly hadith of the Gharqad tree? Must apocalyptic hate last till the end of time?

Of all the reporting I have read, this, from Dahlia Litwick in Jerusalem, struck the deepest chord:

I don’t know how to talk about what is happening here but it’s probably less about writers’ block than readers’ block. It says so much about the state of our discourse that the surest way to enrage everyone is to tweet about peace in the Middle East. We should be doing better because, much as I hate to say it, the harrowing accounts of burnt-out basements and baby shoes on each side of this conflict don’t constitute a conversation. Counting and photographing and tweeting injured children on each side isn’t dialogue. Scoring your own side’s suffering is a powerful way to avoid fixing the real problems, and trust me when I tell you that everyone — absolutely everyone — is suffering and sad and yet being sad is not fixing the problems either.


Here, then, are the parallelisms and oppositions that struck me, as I was reading about the Gaza conflict — may today’s cease-fire endure and a peaceful resolution emerge — in light of Pontecorvo’s film:

Gilad Sharon‘s words echo those of Col. Mathieu in the film: they think alike, and indeed their perspective is a not-uncommon one. But while I might otherwise have overlooked Sharon’s voice as but one among many in Israel, having just seen Pontecorvo’s film I take more note of it, and my mind seeks its rebuttal.

I find that rebuttal in the words of Thomas More, in a speech from Robert Bolt’s play that has stuck with me since I first saw Paul Scofield in the role in London at the age of sixteen:

I am, I suppose something of a Taoist by inclination. I think, with Lao Tse, that the way that can be phrased in words isn’t the authentic way — or as Count Alfred Korzybsky might put it, the map does not adequately describe the terrain — and so my feeling is that the letter of the law should be tempered by its spirit, and that justice should be tempered with mercy — a point I hope to return to.


There is one other moment in Pontecorvo’s film that struck me as prescient — the one when Larbi Ben M’hidi comments on asymmetry:

I’ve heard remarks of that kind (upper panel) repeated many times in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli situation, but the graphic impact of the image (lower panel) outweighs a thousand explanations.


Perhaps we can leave Pontecorvo for a moment, and consider the asymmetry further, and the symmetry:

The lower panel, by a Swiss cartoonist of Lebanese extraction, is titled An Eye for an Eye (Oeil pour Oeil) — a symmetry that is taken to its logical conclusion in a quote often attributed to Gandhi:

An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.


My apologia:

I am distant, and I am a writer: distant enough to take all humanity for my own side, and writer enough to wish to contribute what I can of concern and insight.

6 Responses to “Applied Pontecorvo: Gaza”

  1. morgan Says:

    Sorry Charles, I’m with the French colonel in this. There will be no peace until one side realizes it is beaten and my hope is the Israelis are the victors.

  2. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Sharon’s comment reminded me of “Kill them all: God will know his own.” Not quite parallel, because Sharon doesn’t invoke God to make an after-death judgement; Sharon just seems to want “them” gone, out of the way.
    The saying is often attributed to St. Dominic, in his orders to act against the Southern French heretics in 1236. But I’ve seen some dissent to that, and it’s a popular enough sentiment to have lasted. I’ve seen t-shirts with various illustrations (skulls are one) and the admonition, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.” That comes a little closer to Sharon’s formulation.

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Morgan:
    Forgive me if I’m a little long-winded here — I want to be clear about a confusing issue…
    Would it be fair to say you are arguing from your understanding of the Gaza conflict and its (perceived) necessities, so that we might understand your post to be saying, in effect, “In this case, I’m with the french colonel”?  I ask, because Thomas More (in Robert Bolt’s rendition) is arguing from general principle rather than from a particular case.
    I suspect a zen master might say that there are only, ever, cases, and never principles — but if there are indeed principles, as we in the western philosophical tradition tend to think, and if it is in the nature of principles that they should be applied without regard to one’s preferential views on specific cases, then I think More is articulating one such principle, and I’d be interested to hear what you’d say in response to him.
    I suspect that the inherent contradictions between “arguing from principles” and “arguing from cases” is one of the central perplexes of our times…

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Cheryl:
    I believe the saying was originally attributed to Arnaud-Amaury, Abbot of Cîteaux — a member of the Cistercians or Trappists, Thomas Merton’s order.  
    Interestingly from my POV, those words might more generally be seen as expressing a principle — not only that behind the Catholic assault on Béziers, but also Colonethe l’s strategy in Algiers and those words of Gilad Sharon.
    All of which leads me to wonder whether there’s anything of interest to be derived from the proposition:

    strategy : tactics :: principle : situation

    I trust the Zenpundit readership will enlighten me on both the similarities and differences… 
    and I’m asking because, to the extent that there may be some valid analogical correspondence, I’d imagine that the idea that strategy should dictate tactics would correspond to the idea that principles should dictate cases

  5. morgan Says:

    No Charles, I’m simply saying there will be no solution to the Gaza problem until one of the participants–Israel or the Palestinians admit they have been thoroughly beaten and give up. Which one that will be, I don’t know but I certainly have my preference. History, not philisophical musings, will determine the outcome. But this on-again, off-again series of clashes isn’t going to solve the problem. If it comes down to a military solution, and I expect it will, then it will take a thorough beating for the loser to admit his cause is a forlorn hope. To accomplish that the war will be brutal and all-uncompassing, collateral damge  be damned. {The  Allies in WW II weren’t too concerned with collateral damage as they leveled German cities.]. And, no doubt, will offend the sensisbilities of the rest of the world. If the clash is seen as an existential threat by both sides it will be a very nasty affair. And if nastiness is required, then the French colonel will be in demand.  

  6. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Hi Charles –
    I take it you’re saying something like “God will make the decisions as to the sheep and the goats.” Every context I’ve seen for that saying has had a different resonance, though: “Eliminate all so that the scum will be destroyed. God will take care of the innocent.” Which is laying a pretty big burden on God, or perhaps eschewing one’s own responsibility. Or subordinating the responsibility for the innocent to the responsibility to rid the world of heresy or whatever the scum are peddling.
    So it seems to me there are several possible principles that may be operative for the people making that kind of determination. I would be interested to hear what principle you think is operative.
    Strategy : tactics :: principle : situation makes sense to me, or maybe “application” might be substituted for “situation.” Need to think a little more about that.

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