Thursday, February 13, 2014

Asking About the Palestinian Culture of War

Asking About the Palestinian Culture of War

Jonathan S. Tobin 

Almost all of the focus in the mainstream media on the Middle East peace process tends to be on the decision taken by only one of the parties involved in the negotiations. The perennial question from pundits and even veteran kibitzers like the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman is whether or not the Israelis are ready to take risks in order to achieve peace. That was the conceit of his latest column, “Israel’s Big Question,” and if it seemed familiar to readers, it was no accident. Friedman has been writing the same column for decades in which he asks Israelis whether they will leave the West Bank in order to retain both the Jewish and democratic identities of their nation. If they don’t, and Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative fails, Israel’s doom is, he says, sealed.

There are two problems with his reasoning and they are the same that apply to every other stale Friedman article on the subject that has been published since the Clinton administration. One is that Israel has already tried to trade land for the promise of peace and failed. The Palestinians turned down three offers of statehood in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem. And there is every indication that they will turn down a fourth offer of up to 90 percent of the West Bank that is being mulled by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government. Israelis have made the decision to take risks and make peace several times in the last 20 years and seem prepared to do it again if real peace—which means the end of the conflict rather than merely a pause in it—is on the table.

But the part of the equation that Friedman and the rest of the foreign-policy establishment always ignore is whether the Palestinians are ready to make peace. They’ve made it clear they won’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and won’t give up the “right of return” for the 1948 refugees. But Friedman’s assumption—as well as that of many of Israel’s critics—is that if the Israelis are sufficiently forthcoming those problems will disappear. Instead, they should be asking what it is about the political culture of the Palestinians that makes such intransigence not merely possible but inevitable. The answer comes in two separate stories that touch on what it is that both the PA’s negotiators and Hamas believe. Both make for instructive reading for those who treat the question of peace as one that is solely to be decided by the Israelis.

In Gaza, the Hamas government of the strip has apparently rejected the textbooks provided for schools by UNRWA, the United Nations agency that serves Palestinian refugees and their descendants. UNRWA has hired Hamas terrorists as staffers and has been rightly accused of helping to perpetuate the conflict by not seeking to resettle refugees so as to keep them in camps as props in the long Arab war against Israel. But while the textbooks they’ve published for Gaza schools apparently accept the Palestinian narrative of victimization and the illegitimacy of Israel, they are also seeking to encourage non-violence. The Hamas education ministry is particularly angry since the books emphasize the examples of peaceful protests. As the Times of Israel reports, Education Minister Mu’tasim Al-Minawi had the following objections:

The vast majority of examples [in the books] refer to [Mahatma] Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Helen Suzman, the Soweto Uprising, the Magna Carta and Apartheid, even though Islamic-Arab-Palestinian alternatives exist,” Al-Minawi said. “There are many models which could be used which are closer to the students’ understanding.”

But perhaps worst of all, the books focused on “peaceful resistance as the only way of achieving freedom and independence.” The entire eighth grade curriculum, Al-Minawi lamented, is “not dedicated to human rights but to domesticate the psyche of the Palestinian pupil, fostering negative feelings toward armed resistance.”

This tells us that Hamas is educating the children of Gaza not just to hate Israel and Jews but also to reject the Western frame of reference about human rights, even in the context of support for anti-Israel activism, which was clearly the intention of the UNRWA curriculum.

Also instructive is the mini-controversy inspired by Saeb Erekat, the man who represents the Palestinians in peace talks with the Israelis. Earlier this month at the Munich Security Conference, Erekat told his Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni that asking him to recognize the Jewish state was impossible since it would force the Palestinians “to change their narrative” about their history. Not satisfied with that, he claimed that his family—and the rest of the Palestinians—has a prior claim over the land to the Jews since they are descended from the biblical Canaanites and were there when Joshua Bin Nun “burned my hometown Jericho.”

The patent absurdity of this claim is such that even anti-Israeli academics have been slow to pick it up. Suffice it to say that there is no evidence that Palestinian Arabs have any connection with the inhabitants of the country prior to the Arab conquest that occurred in the seventh century C.E.

This can be dismissed as irrelevant to the problems of Israelis and Palestinians today. Like the debate about whether a separate Palestinian Arab identity is a 20th century invention, it is a moot point. Like it or not, the Jews returned to the land and aren’t leaving. By the same token there are millions of Arabs there who call themselves Palestinians and their aspirations must also be taken into account if the conflict is ever to be ended.

But if even Erekat—whom we are told by the media and the U.S. government is a man of peace—is determined to cling to a historical narrative that is based in rejection of Jewish rights to any part of the country, then what hope is there for peace?

Both Fatah and Hamas continue to educate their peoples in a culture that is not only steeped in hatred of Jews and Israel but in a worldview in which the rejection of Zionism is integral to Palestinian identity. The question Kerry, Friedman, and others who continue to hound Israelis to do what they have already tried several times to do—make peace—should be asking is when will the Palestinians give up their culture of hate and embrace one that would give peace a chance? Both the Hamas education ministry and Erekat show us that that such a decision is nowhere in sight.