Palestinians and Israelis must stop glorifying their own side and stop demonizing their enemies

August 4, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 4, 2014

Israeli novelist Amos Oz recently gave an interview to Dennis Stule of the German national news service Deutsche Welle. The dialogue caught the eye of multiple pundits, not least because the writer began the exchange in a novel way — by posing two questions to the news service’s audience.

Said Oz:

Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?

Question 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?

One of the writers who seized upon Oz’s questions was Philip Gourevitch, the New Yorker staff writer who wrote We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which may be the definitive account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. After quoting the passage that I’ve presented above, Gourevitch wrote:

Oz is no hawk. He is the godfather of Israeli peaceniks: in 1967, right after the Six-Day War — in which he fought — left Israel in control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, he was the first Israeli to call publicly for the creation of an independent Palestinian state in those territories, writing, “Even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation.” He has always opposed the establishment of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and, in 1978, he was a founder of Peace Now. He is a steadfast critic of the policies toward Palestinians of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and, in the Deutsche Welle interview, advocated once again an Israeli deal with the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas. “My suggestion,” he said, is “a two-state solution and coexistence between Israel and the West Bank: two capitals in Jerusalem, a mutually agreed territorial modification, removal of most of the Jewish settlements from the West Bank.”

Gourevitch’s commentary, which I would urge you to read in full (it’s a little more than 1,300 words), then turns its attention to an essay written by Rashid Khalidi, an Arab studies scholar at Columbia University and the editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies. (Disclosure: I earned a master’s degree from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, but I have had no connection or contact with Khalidi or his department. Also, a side note: An monograph published by the Journal of Palestine Studies in 2012 was prominently featured in my previous blog post.)

Khalidi, writing in Gourevitch’s publicationThe New Yorker, begins by examining the comments of another Israeli: that nation’s prime minister. Shortly after the start of the current Gaza war, Benjamin Netanyahu told the Times of Israel: “[T]here cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”

Noted Khalidi:

What is going on in Palestine today is not really about Hamas. It is not about rockets. It is not about “human shields” or terrorism or tunnels. It is about Israel’s permanent control over Palestinian land and Palestinian lives. That is what Netanyahu is really saying, and that is what he now admits he has “always” talked about. It is about an unswerving, decades-long Israeli policy of denying Palestine self-determination, freedom, and sovereignty.

Let’s acknowledge up front that Netanyahu is, at best, an unreliable partner in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. (In fact, I consider that to be a very charitable assessment of the prime minister.) But while Khalidi devotes many cutting — and, in many cases, completely valid — words to Israel’s brutal occupation and oppression of Palestinians, he barely mentions any bad acts or malevolent intentions on the part of Palestinians.

This is the geopolitical equivalent of whistling past the graveyard, and Gourevitch rightly condemns Khalidi for it:

[Khalidi] says, “We might not like Hamas or some of its methods, but that is not the same as accepting the proposition that Palestinians should supinely accept the denial of their right to exist as a free people in their ancestral homeland.” Right — of course it’s not the same. But that doesn’t negate the fact that Hamas doesn’t accept, or even nominally recognize, the right of Israelis to exist as a free people. As Khalidi says, we should pay attention when Netanyahu tells Israelis about controlling their security on the West Bank. So shouldn’t we also listen when Hamas tells Palestinians that they should never accept the existence of Israel—and that victory will not come until they have wiped out not only the Jewish state but all the Jews?

If you take an interest in the war in Gaza, you should read the Hamas charter, but Oz sums up its biggest idea handily enough: “It says that the Prophet commands every Muslim to kill every Jew, everywhere in the world.” If Khalidi has a problem with this, he keeps it to himself. While Oz has no problem saying that Israel’s violent occupation is unjust to Palestinians and endangers its own people, Khalidi refuses to acknowledge that Hamas exists to end Israel’s existence and thrives on Palestinian wretchedness.

In my view, Gourevitch’s dressing down is harsh but fair. But I find it lacking in one regard: He fails to take Khalidi to task for never once mentioning the killing of Israeli civilians by Palestinians.

From 2000 through 2005, according to Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Palestinians conducted 147 suicide bombings, killing 525 Israelis. All but a dozen of those victims were civilians, per the center, which is an Israeli organization. Some 73 percent of the suicide bombings took place in civilian settings such as buses, bus stops, hotels, nightclubs, restaurants, markets and malls.

These are shocking acts of terrorism, and these cannot be excused or ignored by Khalidi or other Palestinian allies, no matter how awful the killing of Palestinian civilians by Israelis.

Palestinians have in fact suffered civilian deaths at a much higher rate than Israelis. On July 14, Max Fischer of Vox, using data compiled by an Israeli human-rights group, found that 7,065 Palestinians and 1,101 Israelis have died in “conflict-related deaths” since late 2000. As Fischer wrote,

That number is even more staggering when you consider that there are about twice as many Israelis as there are Palestinians. This means, very roughly, that a Palestinian person has been 15 times more likely to be killed by the conflict than an Israeli person. Of course the conflict impacts Palestinians and Israelis far beyond just conflict deaths, but these statistics help show how utterly disproportionate the conflict has become in its toll.

Since the beginning of 2005, the ratio has become even more lopsided, with 23 Palestinians dying for every one Israeli who has been killed in this blood-soaked conflict.

It’s wrong to wave off the disproportionately high Palestinian death toll at the hands of Israelis. But it’s intellectually dishonest to dismiss — or to wholly fail to contemplate — Palestinian killings of enemy civilians, even if these have been rarer in frequency.

There must be some accountability for the criminals and terrorists who have killed civilians on both sides of the conflict. This accountability will by necessity be imperfect, so there also must be some modicum of forgiveness by the many, many people who have been wronged on both sides of the conflict.

For the conflict to be resolved peacefully, people must strive to divorce themselves from the “my country right or wrong” dichotomy that strips away gray areas that encourages holders to view their side as good and only good and their opponents as bad and only bad.

As The American Prospect’s invaluable Paul Waldman wrote last week, “[Y]ou don’t have to buy into the dichotomy. And once you step outside it and stop worrying about which team you’re on, it can become easier to see things clearly.”

Amen to that. Let’s hope more people come around to this way of thinking.

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