March 9, 2007 - I was discussing with a friend the possibility of Israeli-Palestinian (or more generally, Jewish-Arab) dialogue. She sent me an article, entitled "Palestinians Debate 'Polite' Resistance to Occupation." The article provides some insight into Palestinian thought about the peace process. It reports widespread distrust within the Palestinian community in any notion of a non-violent intifada. A member of Hamas put it like this: "Nothing can be achieved through resisting the occupation in a polite way."
I can't say I was surprised, but for some reason the following statements caught me up short:
From Ahmad Muhaisen, described as a respected Palestinian thinker:
Expressing a commonly held opinion, Muhaisen described the Oslo agreement, and the intellectuals, as having reframed the conflict around negotiations, thereby robbing resistance to the occupation of its legitimacy. "If we return to the origins and show the world that there is occupation, and we are resisting occupation, then no one would say to us that we aren't allowed to do attacks. The first thing that needs to be said is that there is an occupation to be gotten rid of. It means that when you portray the issue correctly, no one can reject you. Even America itself can't say that it is with the occupation."
And this in a press release from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine:
"[The forms of resistance and the timing of attacks] is not the prerogative of a group of intellectuals, known to our people as mouthpieces of the propaganda of the Western democracies that regard the struggle of our people and their resistance to the occupation as terrorism."
As to the second statement, I would only ask, If the intentional killing of civilians for the primary purpose of spreading fear is not terrorism, then what is?
What else, I suppose, would one expect from the PFLP? But in a way Muhaisen's statement is far more disturbing. He says that negotiations rob the "resistance" of its legitimacy. Only violence is worthy of respect. "If we... show the world... we are resisting occupation, then no one would say to us that we aren't allowed to do attacks."
"Resistance to occupation" legitimizes everything, including the rejection of negotiations, and including the murder of unarmed civilians. People are robbed of their humanity, and become pieces in a bizarre and endless war game.
To be sure, there are tendencies on both sides to dehumanize people on the other. It is always that way in war. Israel is not free of such problems. The mutual hatred that has been building between both groups leads members of each to treat the other as less than human. There is even a fringe group in Israel that supports forcible transfer of Palestinians out of the West Bank. Fortunately they have no chance of success, and are rejected by the mainstream. On the Palestinian side, however, anti-Jewish hatred is institutionalized in officially sanctioned sermons, TV and radio broadcasts, and textbooks. Unlike the PFLP and other Palestinian terrorist groups including Hamas, which is now the Palestinian government, Israel does not justify the intentional killing of civilians. If it were ever to do so, I would close down this web site.
The Palestinians have extended the dehumanization of Israelis to a well-coordinated campaign to call into question Israel's right to exist at all. Not that long ago the notion would have been unthinkable. But today more and more people are taking seriously - on supposedly moral grounds! - the idea that Israel has no right to exist and indeed should not exist.
John Whitbeck, a lawyer for the Palestinians, argues that the demand that Palestinians recognize Israel's right to exist is "unreasonable, immoral, and impossible to meet." This is his reasoning:
There is an enormous difference between "recognizing Israel's existence" and "recognizing Israel's right to exist." From a Palestinian perspective, the difference is in the same league as the difference between asking a Jew to acknowledge that the Holocaust happened and asking him to concede that the Holocaust was morally justified. For Palestinians to acknowledge the occurrence of the Nakba – the expulsion of the great majority of Palestinians from their homeland between 1947 and 1949 – is one thing. For them to publicly concede that it was "right" for the Nakba to have happened would be something else entirely. For the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, the Holocaust and the Nakba, respectively, represent catastrophes and injustices on an unimaginable scale that can neither be forgotten nor forgiven.
Whitbeck actually suggests that the existence of Israel is equivalent to the Holocaust!! He conveniently fails to mention that Israel was created through a United Nations Resolution, immediately after which five Arab armies invaded and tried to exterminate the Jewish population. Yet Israel's haters keep trying to hang Israel with Holocaust guilt, to make Israel's destruction seem like a moral act.
The United Nations resolution that set off the so-called naqba (or "catastrophe") provided a two-state solution to the conflict! A Palestinian state would have been created in 1948, had not the Arabs responded with war. The "expulsion" Whitbeck mentions resulted from the rejection of this two-state solution and from the war that followed. The real naqba is the Palestinian absolutism that has always demanded all or nothing, and so has always ended up with nothing.
The publication of this kind of hatred in a reputable newspaper like the Christian Science Monitor only shows the extent of success of Palestinian propaganda.
Let us then examine the charge that supposedly justifies this hate: that all is fair when "resisting an occupation."
First, Israel did not begin with any intent to colonize the Palestinians. Israel gained control of the territories as a result of having to fight a defensive war in 1967.
Second, the Arabs had non-violent options for an Israeli withdrawal. But they refused negotiations in 1967 (Khartoum Conference), and they refused negotiations in 2000 (Camp David). It seems Yasser Arafat felt as Muhaisen and many Palestinians feel: the only respectable resistance to an occupation is a violent one.
Third, the Palestinians have made an end to the occupation virtually impossible at this time.
The third point needs some clarification.
There has been a growing awareness in Israel that the settlement project was a huge mistake. The opinion is not unanimous, but it is increasingly mainstream.
What became known as the "occupation" started in 1967. It came right after the Six-Day War, when Israel felt it was fighting for its very existence. When the war ended and Israel found itself sitting on parts of Jordan, Egypt, and Syria, the prevailing sentiment was that Israel could not simply return to the status quo ante, to a position in which once again it might have to launch a pre-emptive strike to prevent its invasion and annihilation by several Arab armies. At that time Abba Eban coined the term "Auschwitz borders" to signify the pre-1967 Israeli borders, and said Israel could never return to them. As one can see on a map, those borders are extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible to defend. They leave Israel perilously vulnerable, especially at its "waistline," which is close to its major cities and only nine miles wide.
Nevertheless Israel did want to negotiate land for peace, but as noted above, the Arabs refused. At first Israel held on to the land out of security considerations. After the Likud party came to power in 1977, Israel became more ambitious and increased the construction of settlements. The vision of a "Greater Israel" began to emerge. But especially after the first intifada, this vision came increasingly to seem like a dangerous fantasy. The Oslo peace process was intended to find a way out of the occupation and finally to settle the issue. It concluded in 2000 at Camp David, in what became a total fiasco.
Unable to negotiate a deal of land for peace, in August 2005 Israel unilaterally withdrew from all of its settlements in Gaza. This was a tremendous step towards ending the occupation; nevertheless, Israel was criticized for not extending its withdrawal to the West Bank.
In 2006 Israelis elected Ehud Olmert and the Kadima Party. Its platform endorsed the Roadmap as a path to peace, and advocated further withdrawals from the West Bank and the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state.
But the hopes behind disengagement were never realized. While Kadima (literally "forward") attempted to "look forward," the Palestinians elected Hamas to lead them, a terrorist organization whose charter vilifies Jews and calls for Israel's destruction. Palestinian terrorists took over the abandoned Gaza settlements and began to use Gaza as a staging area for rocket barrages aimed at Israel's southern cities. Life became a nightmare for the people of Sderot, Ashkelon, and nearby towns and villages.
Since the withdrawal from Gaza seriously imperiled southern Israel, a withdrawal from the West Bank, which would leave a Palestinian terrorist state at the threshold of Tel Aviv, became unthinkable.
If the Palestinians truly wanted the occupation to end, one would think the response to the Gaza disengagement might have been, "That's very good for a first step. Now let's come to the table and figure out the rest." But instead, seeing the Gaza disengagement as a sign of Israeli weakness, they escalated the violence. This message was not lost on Israelis. Even those who desperately wanted a way out of the territories were afraid of placing Israel's central cities directly within range of Palestinian rockets.
And so the impasse continues. Israel is convinced, with reason, that simply "ending the occupation" under current conditions would place it in mortal danger. When my anti-disengagement friends warned about "Auschwitz borders," I argued with them. I thought the risk of disengagement was justified, because it was both in Israel's self-interest and was the moral thing to do. But now I have no argument left against "Auschwitz borders."
I have heard Palestinian violence defended on the grounds that, according to international law, people under occupation have the right to resist with force. Whether or not this statement is true, it is being misapplied. First, the Palestinians consistently refuse to negotiate when they have the opportunity. Second, look at the form this "resistance" is taking: bullets, bombs, and rockets aimed at Israeli families. Palestinians defend this violence - which can only be called terrorism - by saying they are the weaker party, so they have to fight this way. So they look for people even weaker than they are to attack.
Israelis do not feel like the stronger party. They face batteries of rockets to the north and to the south, with the prospect of a potentially even more dangerous threat on the West Bank. Claiming weakness to justify terrorism does not carry much weight with them.
It is clear, then, that defending the Palestinian "resistance" in its current form dehumanizes Israelis. It is political rhetoric used to justify the murder of innocent people. At the same time, Palestinians feel the occupation dehumanizes them. There is no question that life for Palestinians under occupation has become much more difficult. Many causes of that difficulty, such as border closings, checkpoints, and the controversial security fence, were direct responses to Palestinian violence. Even so, no people should have to live an indefinitely stateless existence. I would like to see that come to an end. But it must happen under conditions that leave both sides secure.
This is not your standard occupation, as, for example, the Chinese occupation of Tibet, which was far more harsh, unprovoked, absolute, and left no way out even through negotiations. At some point the Palestinian people will have to assume responsibility for their role in its perpetuation. They cannot do so as long as they cling to their designation of helpless victim. Those who encourage that self-image are enabling the rejectionists and prolonging the conflict. The Palestinians are not powerless. They had other options, which they rejected. The message they are sending the Israelis needs to change. At the very least, Israeli territorial concessions must be greeted as a step toward peace and an opening for negotiations, and not as a retreat that should be exploited in a war for Israel's death.
I am willing to recognize the right of the Palestinian people to live in a state of their own within secure and recognized borders. I only ask that they do the same for Israel. The ongoing campaign to question Israel's right to exist is a dangerous one. It serves no one's best interests. Israel will not pass out of existence quietly, so even if those who think Israel should disappear get their way, the cost will be prohibitive. The only sensible solution - and I say this to people on both sides - is for there to be a place in the Middle East for Middle Eastern Jews and a place for Palestinian Arabs. If either side cannot accept that, let them be reminded that those on the other side are also human.
Allen, Lori A. "Palestinians Debate 'Polite' Resistance to Occupation." Middle East Report, no. 225, Winter 2002.
Whitbeck, John V. "What 'Israel's Right to Exist' Means to Palestinians." Christian Science Monitor, February 2, 2007.
Peace with Realism