The cemetery at Hammam Chott is as beautiful a setting as could be wished for in a final resting place. On Tunisia’s eastern coast, the sea shines blue along the horizon, green forest covers mountains overhead, and a few trees are outlined in bright sun upon one of the hillsides that envelop the cemetery. Graves run lengthwise and in marble; ornamental stone Qur’ans across the headstones, a few verses of Arabic. Plants grow among the graves, including here and there the smell of wild herbs, thriving in the distinctive red earth of the Mediterranean’s rich and claylike soil.
It is one of many bizarre quirks in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party that a place so peaceful and distant could have played any role in British politics, still less one so inauspicious as it came to. The Hammam Chott suburb of Tunis, some twenty-five miles along roads of heavy traffic from the central district, is also the scene of the Israeli bombing perpetrated against Palestinians and Tunisians on October 1, 1985.
In memory of those killings, Corbyn visited this site on the anniversary of the attack in 2014 — part of a remembrance that came to be caricatured by British media as “wreathgate”: the name for a 2018 controversy that alleged Corbyn had visited a Tunisian-Palestinian ceremony in support of terrorism, rather than to condemn state terror, and join in the laying of a wreath. In some ways, the ready suffix “-gate” — used so freely to lend seriousness to an absence of seriousness — is itself a clue that that crisis was being manufactured.
Quite apart from the opportunity to pay respects to the deceased by visiting the cemetery, physical places have a weight to them, and so a permanence. The earth underfoot and the mountains above Hammam Chott function as an antidote to the placelessness and shapeshifting of industrial media — the attitude that in parts of the world the truth can be commandeered with an attitude of utter lawlessness, and about which you can write whatever you like, because nobody will go there.
Operation “Wooden Leg” was conducted on the morning of Tuesday, October 1, 1985, when the Israeli Air Force bombed offices of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in this residential suburb of the Tunisian capital. The official death toll, including both Palestinians and Tunisians, was sixty, with many wounded. But the precise number of fatalities is unknown, and some place the figure higher. Except for a 1976 hostage rescue in Uganda that left more than fifty Ugandans, Palestinians, and hostages dead, this is the farthest that Israeli forces have ventured outside of Palestine to prosecute their decades-long war on Palestinian resistance. The jets — US-made F-15s — refueled mid-flight in order to complete the trip to Tunisia and back to Palestine.
The fact that the PLO was housed in a Tunis suburb at all is itself testimony to Israel’s aggression in consolidating control outside of that land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea. Three years earlier, in 1982, the PLO had relocated to Tunisia, having been driven from Lebanon by Israeli attacks and eventually military occupation, both components in the social fracture that exacerbated Lebanon’s civil war and the sectarian divisions that continue to this day.
Tunisia had always been a state in solidarity with Palestine, though also loyal to the Western line on both foreign policy and Cold War anti-communism. The PLO, it was felt, could be trusted in Tunis with half an eye still on it. After the Hammam Chott attacks, Habib Bourguiba — the man who had once led Tunisia’s liberation struggle from France — asked openly, if pathetically, what Tunisia’s loyalty to the West had done to earn the Israeli bombing. Even the United States abstained when the United Nations Security Council subsequently voted to condemn the Israeli attacks — thus foregoing its usual veto on criticism of its ally.
Taken together with the war that drove the PLO out of Lebanon, Wooden Leg demonstrates not only the vastness of Israel’s footprint, but also the unintended consequences of its actions in internationalizing support for the Palestinian cause.
Writing on the Walls
Nowhere is this support so evident as in Tunisia. Walls and buildings across the country, particularly near the cemetery, attest to various elements of Tunisians’ revolutionary and pro-Palestinian spirit.
A stone column at a traffic circle in west Hammam Chott is flanked by Palestinian flags, with a human figure bursting from the statue, and the graffiti tags of football ultras at its base. A delivery of bricks is needed to remake the plinth, which is in need of repair — but also has the feeling of one of the municipal-level job-creation schemes by which Tunisia struggles between an ailing economy and high unemployment.
At the time of my visit, Israel was bombing Gaza. It was doing so with an intensity that would eventually earn these attacks — unlike Israel’s more regular bombing of Gaza — the title of “war.”
Discreet but also quite proud, a small Palestinian flag has been hung from a corner of the Hammam Chott council offices. On the walls of the backstreets winding up to the cemetery is a Zapatista mural — the sort of radical street art so typical of Tunisia, along with multiple demands to “fuck the police.” Such a backdrop raises the question of how its people — who secured democracy only in their 2011 revolution, though they recently suffered a coup — have ever been made to accept the repression of either domestic authoritarians or French colonialists. As Palestine attests, however, the suffering of, or freedom from, oppression is a variable that runs entirely separate from any internal quality; it is simply the case that the weak suffer what they must until they are able to overthrow it.
Inside the Palestinian section of the cemetery — behind an archway painted with the Palestinian meeting a Tunisian flag — are the Palestinian dead from the Israeli bombing. They rest here together with compatriots who were killed or died in Tunisia, whose bodies Israel refuses return to their homeland. In the same way, the security apparatus inside 1948-borders Israel still holds Palestinian bodies, which the West Jerusalem government refuses to return for burial in the West Bank.
The strategy is hardly unique to Israel, but is common among colonial and supremacist power systems — a totalitarian action that multiplies the impact of killing by denying a community rights to grieve, or to say goodbye. In 2020, France returned twenty-four skulls to Algeria for burial, over half a century after those anti-colonial fighters helped achieve the North African country’s liberation. The police bombing of the Black Power MOVE group in a poor neighborhood of West Philadelphia — an atrocity perpetrated just months before the assault on Hammam Chott — led to the bones of a child killed in the attack being kept by the Penn Museum.
Wooden Leg is likewise one of those abuses of power so naked, open, and evil that, combined with the aura of being known by its code name, feels like it should be a conspiracy. But the attack was simply of that brutal nature that is how the first face of power operates. Zionism, moreover, always had, and still has, a deliberate tactic of employing displays of extreme force with the aim of destroying resistance by inflicting massive psychological defeats. The strategy fails on its own terms and has wrought only needless misery, solidifying Palestinian support and resistance, delegitimizing the Israeli state project, and intensifying disquiet among the Jewish diaspora at what Israel does in their name.
The second, softer face of power operates by making it impolite to raise the abuses of the first. This was why Corbyn’s attendance at Hammam Chott offended the British establishment. To attack by bombing a building full of civilians is to destroy life. But to attack, by media, all Western representation at a memorial to that loss of life is equally sinister. The wreath-laying affair was a warning by British media that neither humanization of Palestinian or Arab deaths, nor recognition of Israeli wrongdoing by its allies (which Corbyn is, structurally speaking, as a British MP), will be tolerated.
A Very British Conspiracy
Since the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party, it has become impossible to deny that Israeli abuses, inside or outside of Palestine, have been reduced to a political game. Foremost and in moral terms, this weaponization is an offence to decency and the justness of the Palestinian cause. Less talked about, but crucial in a different way, it undermines the capacity of British politics to operate as a system capable of mediation or even basic competence in international affairs. Always the useful idiot in Atlanticism, now adrift from continental Europe, Britain’s island foreign policy is uniquely vulnerable to mavericks and hostile intent.
It has also become clear that the factional use of Palestine to settle scores within British politics or its Labour Party cares no more about Jewish pain — or an Israel that is just and safe — than it does about Palestinian suffering. Hammam Chott and the wreath-laying saga came to represent a sort of ground zero for this dehumanization of events by media frenzy, abetted by the political class. The French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, writing of the media campaign prior to the first Gulf War, referred to this phenomenon of media war as a “deterrence of the real by the virtual.”
Nothing could have proven the aptness of these words quite like the 2018 onslaught of accusations against the memorial service Corbyn attended. The mainstream media version said that he had been at a grave, laying a wreath, for a member of the Black September group that carried out attacks on Israel’s team at the 1972 Munich Olympics. This point, on which most of the smear campaign turned, is itself false; the members of that group were buried in Libya, not Tunisia, with Muammar Gaddafi’s state the only one at the time that would accept their bodies from Germany, and Israel refusing their repatriation into Palestine.
The graves in Tunis belong to men who worked for the PLO, recognized as the legitimate Palestinian leadership, though this fact proved insufficient to protect them from assassination by the Israeli state. Most prominent of the graves at which Corbyn was present is perhaps that of Atef Bseiso, a PLO communications director with no proven ties to any terrorist attacks anywhere. That this man was a “legitimate target” (a term itself inherently chilling, unless you have no fear at all that it could one day be used to describe you) is highly contestable, but when accusation is quickly piled atop accusation, even the innocent can quickly be made to look guilty.
In a café close to the cemetery, as if to further test the hypothesis about overlaying British media against Tunisian place, I reread articles from August 2018 and the belated frenzy over Corbyn’s visit four years before.
Among many op-eds, accusations, debunkings, demystifiers, and fact-checks, I am amazed anew at the sheer force of information and misinformation that rained down on the simple commemoration of a bombing in Tunisia that cost the world sixty Tunisian and Palestinian lives. I am amazed how peripheral, secondary, those lives and that irrefutable act of Israeli state violence are, compared to the attention given to where a then little-known politician from Britain’s Labour Party positioned himself during a ceremony one hot day in 2014. If there was violence in the Israeli attack on Hammam Chott, there is a different kind of violence in the way the attack and its victims are documented, not documented, or recast.
Much coverage of the event focuses on where Corbyn stood; who placed the wreath; if he personally handled the wreath as it was laid; on which grave the wreath was laid. Photos are shown, from different angles; photos are magnified. Colored annotations appear on the magnified images: a yellow circle, a blue square.
There is something sinister about the method, if not the magnitude, of deploying information in this way — something reminiscent of other denialisms in history. For instance, the idea that the side the barbed wire was stapled on indicates that the Bosnian man Fikret Alić was standing outside and not inside of a fence when he was photographed at a Serbian concentration camp in 1992. Serbian nationalists still allege the photo is “fake.” Holocaust denialism often rests on similar tiny claims — that bricks in Nazi kilns could not have withstood certain temperatures, for example. Again, the culture of misinformation finds a resonance in Baudrillard’s early 1990s assertion that “everything which is turned into information becomes the object of endless speculation, the site of total uncertainty.” An underappreciated ill effect of objections to Palestinians’ rights to physically defend themselves against physical attack is that they give unnatural prominence to the information war; this, in turn, allows greater human suffering beneath airwaves that quickly saturate us.
Something in the human brain responds fiendishly well to the notion of being privileged with insider information, a granular detail that appeals to us in a world all too macro. Perhaps this is an evolutionary quirk that — if it doesn’t kill us first — protects us from state lies, while potentially letting in countless smaller ones. What is certain — from Corbyn’s visit to a Tunisian cemetery, to allegations that Vladimir Putin brought Brexit to the UK and Donald Trump to the United States — is that self-styled “moderates” are as vulnerable to such conspiracy as any group. By virtue of the sheer quantity of political news consumed by such self-confessed junkies, they are perhaps most vulnerable of all.
By contrast, there is a simple honesty to Corbyn’s version of events. His statement during the frenzy, said people in Hammam Chott that day, “laid a wreath in memory of all those who have died in the hope that we have a peace process and peace in the future, so those raids are never repeated.”
The claim is supported by such elementary contextual information as the date — October 1 — being the date of the Hammam Chott attack. To make a controversy of a ceremony in Hammam Chott on any October 1, is to state, with a supreme and evil confidence, that you feel no need to address the sixty deaths by state terror that took place there on that day in 1985; that you can pretend no such thing, or anything at all of note, ever took place on that date.
After returning from Hammam Chott, back in central Tunis, I talk with a man who sits often outside my local store. He asks about places I have visited since arriving in the city, and his eyes widen when I mention the unusual destination of Hammam Chott, the sort of town that in Britain or the United States might now be regarded as a “left behind” sort of outskirt. “Israel,” he says knowingly, before flying in his hand as a makeshift bomber and making an explosion with his mouth. In his eyes is a sort of bewilderment, as if Tunis residents are still processing the extremity of the destruction that fell upon them from the sky that day.
Recent years and brushes with domestic political turmoil have seen Westerners develop a means of self-reflection that talks of countries as individuals; it runs complete with considerations of trauma, fragility, healing, and esteem. The tendency is not without merit, but is often inescapably suburban: a touch of Sigmund Freud by which the globally better-off add poignancy to their own countries. These populations are mostly unwilling to lend the same personhood to less powerful countries whom Western militarism and sanctions leaves far more vulnerable, with their national psyches — if such things are felt to exist or matter — far more fractured.
It is hard not to wonder what it might mean to Tunisians that Israel was able simply to bomb them that day in 1985. Could the penchant for psychological analysis of the feelings of nations and their people one day lead Westerners, particularly Israel and its allies, to address the psychological harm, and the trauma, caused by their policies in Palestine and beyond?
Even from downtown Tunis, the mountains of Hammam Chott are still clearly in view, their peaks crowned by a string of radio masts that are illuminated each night like a tiara.
On October 1, 1985, Israeli jets struck their targets beneath these mountains, officially killing sixty people and unofficially killing more, or possibly fewer. On October 1, 2014, Jeremy Corbyn was with those who together laid a wreath in their memory.
A truth is often unsatisfying in its simplicity, but such labors in the name of the truth are not for Jeremy Corbyn. A financially comfortable, respected man living in central London, he deserves his name clearing but he does not need it. The truth, the righting of the wrong, is for the people of Hammam Chott, sixty of whom died under Israeli bombs, on October 1, 1985.