What began as a family tour of southern Lebanon erupted into controversy when newspapers and websites throughout the Middle East reported that Edward Said, University Professor of English and comparative literature and renowned Palestinian academic, threw stones in the direction of Israeli soldiers earlier this month.
On July 3, a photographer from Agence France-Presse, a French news agency, captured Said on film just before he reportedly hurled a rock over the Lebanon-Israeli wire fence border towards an Israeli watchtower while he was visiting the Lebanese border.
Said is a prolific writer, whose texts on various Israel-Palestine issues, including his most influential book, Orientalism, have made him one of the West's most respected Arab intellectuals.
Since late May, when Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon after 18 years of occupation, it has become customary for Arab tourists to yell insults and throw stones both against and over the wire fence, which was hastily erected after the Israeli withdrawal. According to the New York Daily News, Said, who had not visited the location since 1982, when Israel began a full-scale invasion on Lebanon, joined the crowd, saying, "this Zionist phenomenon, which stole the land and displaced the people, is continuing," referring to Israel's declaration of independence over 50 years ago.
Unaware of news photographers at the time, Said released an official statement two days later in an attempt to explain his actions that have angered many Israelis.
According to the statement, Said and his family had spent the day visiting the notorious El-Khiam prison, where members of the Lebanese resistance force were "tortured and incarcerated in appalling conditions." After speaking to former prisoners who "spoke of their harrowing experiences," Said and his family drove to Kafr Killa, the border village, where Israel maintains a military post. Members of the crowd near the border, Said wrote, were throwing stones merely to "see whether in this disputed area they could reach the barbed wire."
Caught up in the moment, Said joined in and threw the stone as a symbolic act, the statement said.
"There were many people [at the border] all of them...elated by the absence of Israeli troops," Said wrote. "For a moment, I joined in: the spirit of the place infected everyone with the same impulse, to make a symbolic gesture of joy that the occupation had ended."
Said further wrote, "one stone tossed into an empty place scarcely warrants a second thought."
He then proceeded to declare the incident as "basically trivial," while comparing the stoning in the context of the work that he has done to ease tensions between Palestinians and Israelis.
"…As if that could ever outweigh the work I have done over 35 years on behalf of justice and peace," Said said, "or that is could even be compared with the enormous ravages and suffering caused by decades of military occupation and dispossession."
However, some sources argue that Said's actions, in addition to the daily stonings, go far beyond symbolic purposes and do, in fact, warrant examination.
Israel has complained that the ritual stonings violate the U.N. resolutions that ended the occupation, evidenced by the permanent injuries of several soldiers since the troops withdrawl.
Israel-based television journalist Dennis Zinn, who witnessed the stonings, counters Said's claim that members of the crowd threw the rocks for sentimental reasons. According to Zinn, "the Lebanese line up and wait to throw their rocks until soldiers and civilians are exposed."
Although Said claimed that he did not aim the rock at Israeli soldiers, nor did he see soldiers in the vicinity, an eyewitness account in the Lebanese newspaper, As-Safir, claimed otherwise. According to the eyewitness, Said had positioned himself less than 30 feet from soldiers in a two-story, blue and white watchtower, from which flew five Israeli flags, before throwing the rock over the border fence. The rock that Said threw hit the barbed-wire fence in front of the watchtower, hitting no one.
Said's actions, which angered Israelis, have prompted heavy press in Israel and the surrounding area: a Jordan Times photo caption read "SAID VS. ISRAEL" and Israel's best-selling daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth devoted half a page to the incident.
The incident has also rekindled an antagonistic relationship between Said and Justus Reid Weiner, an Israeli scholar associated with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an independent think tank. Last September, Weiner published a lengthy article in Commentary Magazine, declaring that Said had misled the public about the length of time he had stayed in Palestine. Although Weiner's article was met with critics who discredited the publishing as an ideologically-biased attack, the recent rock-throwing prompted Weiner to, once again, attack the credibility of Said.
"He often speaks in terms of reconciliation between Arabs and Israelis," Weiner said. "How could this possibly benefit reconciliation?... Said's claim that he wasn't throwing at anyone reminds me of Clinton's assertion that while smoking marijuana, he didn't inhale," Weiner said.
In response to the angered reactions of Israelis, Said expressed his surprise at the commotion surrounding the incident and emphasized that he has no ill feelings towards Israel.
"I'm totally astonished and somewhat disconcerted by this," Said said. "It's not hatred for Israel. It was an anti-occupation gesture. I have many Israeli friends. I've lectured in Israel and I continue to have contacts there. I'm certainly very much against military occupation of any kind, whether by Israel of Arab countries, Iraq or Kuwait or whatever. I've opposed occupation of every kind."
As a result of his action, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has urged the University and the Modern Language Association (MLA), in which Said served as president, to issue statements admonishing Said's actions and taking appropriate disciplinary action against Said.
"There is no such thing as 'symbolic' rock-throwing just as there is no such thing as a 'symbolic' stabbing or shooting," Morton A. Klein, ZOA president, said. "Bullets, knives, and rocks can kill and maim. Eight Israelis have been killed and thousands maimed by Arab rock-throwing attacks."
The University has declined to comment on the incident, saying that the school does not make judgements on the outside activities of faculty members.
But some students believe that silence from the University reflects poorly on the school.
"The University's action…or lack thereof, should reflect her past actions, if such a situation has arisen in the past," said Joshua Reich, CC '02, Jewish Student Union (JSU) member.
"It does not reflect well on the dignity of the University to have one of its most distinguished faculty members aggravating border disputes between two foreign nations by throwing rocks with a mob," Reich said.