Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Behind the Masks

Published: June 20, 2007

Every war has THE picture that captures its essence, and the Palestinian civil war in Gaza is no exception. My nominee would be the photograph of a Hamas fighter in Gaza, lounging in a senior Fatah official’s office over which he has just taken control. The masked Hamas fighter in jeans is relaxing in an ornate chair, holding a rifle in one hand and speaking — through the opening in his mask — on a telephone in the other. It has the weird feel of a Gap ad for Halloween.

In his essay on this page yesterday, Fouad Ajami described the two sides of the Palestinian civil war as “the masked men of Fatah” and “masked men of Hamas.” Indeed, the fact that masks were worn by the fighters on both sides is one of the unique things about this civil war — and it raises, for me, two questions. First, why were both the Hamas and Fatah fighters wearing ski masks? And two, where do you buy a ski mask in Gaza?

Oscar Wilde said: “Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.” So what truth does it tell us when fighters on both sides in this civil war (and in Iraq’s) are wearing masks?

The first answer is habit. Hamas fighters always wore masks when confronting Israel, so that Israel could not identify them for retribution. On June 16, though, Reuters quoted a Hamas spokesman as saying masks should not be worn in the intra-Palestinian war. “Wearing masks should only be near the borders and in fighting the Zionist enemy, not in the streets and near people’s homes,” said Khaled Abu Hilal.

But certain habits, especially bad ones, die hard — and they can end up warping your own society as much as your enemy’s. You can see what’s happened here: If it’s O.K. to wear masks when confronting the Jews, it eventually becomes O.K. to wear masks when confronting other Palestinians. If it becomes O.K. to use suicide bombers against the Jews, it eventually becomes O.K. to use suicide bombers against other Muslims. What goes around comes around.

Beyond old habits, though, there is also some new shame. These masks are worn by fighters who not only wish to shield themselves from Israel’s gaze, but also from the gaze of their parents, friends and neighbors.

After generations of Arabs highlighting the justice and nobility of the Palestinian struggle for statehood, there was surely an element of shame that Palestinian brothers were killing brothers, throwing each other off rooftops, dragging each other from hospital beds and generally ripping apart Palestinian society in a naked power struggle. There was nothing noble about this fight, which is why, I would guess, many wanted to wear masks. The mask both protects you against shame and liberates you to kill your brothers — and their children.

Putting on a mask is also a way to gain power and enhance masculinity. People in black masks are always more frightening — not only physically, but because their sheer anonymity suggests that they answer to no one and no laws. In our society, it’s usually only burglars, rapists or Ku Klux Klansmen who wear masks — either to terrorize others or make it easier to break the law. The mask literally says: “I don’t play by the rules. Be afraid, be very afraid.”

Think of how relieved you’d be to be captured in war by someone in a uniform and how frightened you’d be to be captured by someone in a mask. But given the breakdown in society we see in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian areas, that may be a luxury. Wars against masked men and gangs — whose true identities, agendas, rules and aspirations are never clear — will be the norm.

“These masks are the uniforms of the new armies of the 21st century and the new kind of violence,” which in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza “no longer distinguishes between war against the stranger and war against members of your own society,” argued political theorist Yaron Ezrahi. “Just as this new violence doesn’t have a front, it doesn’t have a face. It doesn’t have boundaries.”

That is why these masks announce one more thing: These young men do not report to anyone above them. They have no ranks. No leader can ever be sure of their allegiance. Every masked man is a general, and every militia is a cross between a self-funded criminal gang and a modern army.

Get used to it. In today’s environment, where the big divide is between the world of order and the world of disorder, you can expect to see a lot more confrontations between armies in uniforms and helmets and armies in blue jeans and masks.

Correction from Sunday’s column: While head scarves are banned in French public schools, French universities are exempted.