The 'Palestinian Martyrdom' effect on stagnant Arab-Israeli negotiations

Whereas previous Israeli leaders overcame their contentious histories, the Palestinians remain unwilling to move past a culture of "martyrdom."

Palestinians in Gaza celebrate cease-fire (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinians in Gaza celebrate cease-fire
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Officials at Al-Quds University in east Jerusalem greeted Palestinian freshmen last week in front of a banner containing the likenesses of some of the most notorious terrorists in history. These included, according to the Palestinian Media Watch organization, Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin, Islamic Jihad's Fathi Shiqaqi and Abu Ali Mustafa of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The sign also proudly displayed a picture of Salah Khalaf, the former leader of Black September, which perpetrated the 1972 Munich Olympic Massacre of 11 Israelis. Of course, an image of Yasser Arafat was front and center, he being widely recognized as the father of modern terrorism before ostensibly agreeing to pursue peace with Israel.
Jerusalem has long slammed the Palestinian Authority for hailing "martyrs"—which it claims has indoctrinated a generation of youth with Jew-hatred—a practice that includes naming squares, parks and summer camps after killers.
The issue has taken on added significance since the election of US President Donald Trump, who has called on PA President Mahmoud Abbas to stop paying stipends to Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel for security offenses as well as to the families of those killed in confrontations with Israeli forces.
Ambassador Danny Ayalon calls for supporting the Taylor Force Act to stop the Palestinian Authority"s financing of terrorists. (YouTube/DannyAyalon)
More than half of the PA's estimated $700 million annual budget is allocated to these "salaries," which prompted the US Congress to draft legislation known as The Taylor Force Act—named after an American military veteran who was killed in a Tel Aviv stabbing attack—that would effectively cut off American aid to the Palestinians unless the policy is ended.
According to Palestinian political analyst Addie Awad, the veneration of martyrs is part and parcel of the Palestinian national identity. "They have made the ultimate sacrifice and are glorified by every occupied or oppressed people," he asserted to The Media Line. In Awad's estimation, "[the level of glorification] should depend on the context and the direction being taken. If a decision is made to fight in order to free the land then it makes sense to revere these people."
Nevertheless, he concluded, for diplomatic reasons it might behoove the PA to moderate its admiration of terrorists as opposed to turning them into "holy icons."
The ceremony at Al-Quds came days after the Palestinian city of Qalqilya erected a statue of Saddam Hussein, reportedly bearing the slogan "Arab Palestine from the River to the Sea"—a euphemism for the eradication of Jewish sovereignty anywhere between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea. The commemorative plaque omitted the fact that Arafat's decision to support Hussein's invasion of Kuwait led to the expulsion or exodus of some 400,000 Palestinians from the Gulf state—or more than half the number of Palestinian refugees created during the invasion of Israel by seven Arab armies following the Jewish state's declaration of independence.
Only in 2004 did Abbas open the door for the renewal of bilateral relations with Kuwait by formally apologizing for Arafat's position; however, there were no calls for dispossessed Palestinians to return to their former home nor an international refugee agency set up specifically to deal with their plight.
According to Dr. Irwin J. Mansdorf, who heads the Israeli-Arab studies program at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and conducts research on the political-psychological dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, symbolism has powerful effects as "when repeated enough a person acquires characteristics of the message or image being disseminated.
"For the Palestinians," he explained to The Media Line, "there is a very strong linkage between the displacement from their land and the belief that this was caused by foreign interlopers. As such, pervasive in their culture is the notion of 'resistance,' essentially a vow to destroy Israel."
Dr. Mansdorf believes that the Palestinian leadership must therefore launch a "cultural reeducation" program as a prerequisite to achieving peace and highlighted post-World War Two Berlin as an example of the potential for reformation. "The Jewish People suffered the greatest genocide at the hands of the Germans," he elaborated, "and yet two generations later the relationship between Israel and Germany is very strong. If you deny the Holocaust there you go to jail. When you work towards a common goal, eventually the hatred goes away."
Throughout Israel's history, various controversial figures have similarly been lionized by segments of the public; including, for example, Menachem Begin, the forebear of Netanyahu's Likud party, who during the British Mandate in Palestine organized the attack on the King David Hotel—where London's administrative headquarters was located—which killed nearly 100 people.
Begin, then the head of the outlawed Irgun underground movement, was himself considered a terrorist by British authorities. He would nevertheless go on to become Israel's first right-wing prime minister in 1977, setting the stage for his most notable accomplishment, the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt two years later.
Similarly, Yitzhak Shamir was the leader of the Jewish paramilitary group Lehi, which conducted many attacks against the British during the pre-state era, before becoming Israel's premier in 1983. During the hawkish Shamir's second term, he became the first-ever Israeli leader to attend a formal summit—the Madrid Conference in 1991—dedicated to forging peace with the Palestinians. Many analysts contend his presence at the event comprised de-facto recognition of Arafat's PLO, a precursor for the signing of Oslo Accords under then-primer Yitzhak Rabin, an Israeli war hero-cum-peace advocate who was likewise accused of employing excessive force on the battlefield.
For his part, former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was widely denounced as a war criminal during his lifetime due to his his renowned ruthlessness as an army general and was even forced to resign from his position as defense minister in the wake of the 1982 killings in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, for which an Israeli commission of inquiry found him personally responsible.
Like his predecessors, however, Sharon's legacy is intricately linked to peacemaking, as he devised and implemented the controversial Gaza disengagement in 2005—the unilateral withdrawal of the Israeli military from the Strip, along with the uprooting of some 8,000 Jewish residents, aimed at enhancing the prospects of forging a deal with the Palestinians but which ultimately gave rise to Hamas' reign of terror.
"On the Israeli side," Dr. Mansdorf explained The Media Line, "if you speak of Begin, Shamir and others, the purpose of their actions was to first achieve a state and then to defend it. Once they believed this was achieved, they moved on.
"The Palestinians," he continued, "are still focused on liberation even while they have had multiple opportunities to gain statehood."
In terms of achieving reconciliation, Dr. Mansdorf suggests that cooperation is the most important element but stresses that there remains so much cultural reinforcement in the Palestinian territories that any rapprochement, while not impossible, will take a long time.
Perhaps this more than anything else accounts for the lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front; namely, that while Israel has had its share of "freedom fighters," its citizenry has in large part been conditioned for co-existence by these same former strongmen who evolved into peace-aspiring statesmen.
To this end, Abbas might consider folding the "martyr card" should an offer for Palestinian independence again come his way (as it did in 2008). This would mark a stark break from his predecessor Arafat, who at Camp David in 2000 rejected a comprehensive agreement devised by then-Israeli premier and former military chief Ehud Barak and instead launched a bloody terror campaign—the Second Intifada—which today risks becoming the permanent symbol of an unending conflict.
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