Rattling the Cage: Giving up on the Palestinians

The character of Yasser Arafat was a reflection of the national character of the Palestinians.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
None of these kidnappings, bombings and killings would be going on now if the Palestinians hadn't welcomed Israel's exit from Gaza, settlers and soldiers, with only more rockets aimed at Israeli civilians. If the Palestinians had taken last summer's disengagement as a confidence-building measure and responded in kind by suspending attacks, instead of taking it as a sign of weakness that vindicated those attacks, things could have been different. If someone had told me in the 1980s or '90s that Israel would one day get out of Gaza, I would have predicted that this would definitely soften the Palestinians' attitude, that it would bring the two sides closer together. I would have said the same thing if someone had told me Israel would one day offer the Palestinians 100 percent of Gaza and 97% of the West Bank, including much of Arab east Jerusalem, in peace negotiations. But by the time Israel left Gaza, I realized the Palestinians - as a whole, not Mahmoud Abbas and the other powerless moderates - would conclude from this that terror works, and go out to do more. By last summer I looked to IDF retaliations, not territorial concessions, to bring Israel peace. I still do - on the border with Gaza, and one day on the border with a post-occupation West Bank. I still believe what I've always believed - that Israel has no right to rule the Palestinians, that ruling them is bad, not good, for Israeli security, so it's both immoral and impractical for Israel to gobble up the only territory the Palestinians have for their own. However, the belief I've lost is that the Palestinians are a basically rational, reasonable nation, that they can be talked into putting down their weapons and making peace with Israel - if not out of goodwill, than out of their own self-interest. What I believe now is that only Israeli military deterrence, which will no doubt require the periodic use of force, can get the Palestinians to stop fighting. MY DISILLUSIONMENT with them began after the 2000 Camp David talks - but not because they didn't accept Israel's offer. They had no obligation to accept it, and refusing it didn't make them into warmongers. What appalled me, instead, was how triumphant Arafat and the Palestinians were after the talks failed. "Saladin" they were calling Arafat as they carried him on their shoulders. The Israeli peace camp was stunned and trying not to despair, while our "partners" were exultant. Something was wrong here. Something was out of whack. After the intifada got under way, what embittered me was not that the Palestinians had gone to war. Tension was high after Camp David, Ariel Sharon and a thousand cops went up to the Temple Mount, the riot ended with a half-dozen Palestinians dead - I could understand a spasm of rage lasting a week or two. What blighted my view of the Palestinians was that the intifada didn't stop - because they were having too glorious a time killing and dying. For them it wasn't the tragedy that Bill Clinton and the Europeans were moaning over - it was the greatest thing they'd ever done. They just got crazier and crazier. (Again, Abbas and a few others were speaking against the terror from the beginning, but they didn't count.) At the same time came another source of disillusionment. After the intifada began, the Palestinians themselves declared proudly that their role model was Hizbullah. As with the disengagement from Gaza, they'd welcomed Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon as a "prize for terror" instead of a signal that Israel was serious about peace. (Unlike those who still regret that the IDF left Lebanon, I don't think this was the catalyst for the intifada, but only one of many.) Finally, what caused me to give up on the Palestinians was watching Yasser Arafat in action - without giving him every benefit of every doubt, but rather just taking him at face value. What a gargoyle, what a caricature of a corrupt, violent, temperamental, megalomaniacal dictator. The one time I saw him in person was in early 2001 at the Mukata, when US secretary of state Colin Powell came to visit, and, after addressing Powell as "general," he smiled that hideous smile of his and said, "But then, I am a general too." And all his lackeys in the hall exploded in laughter at the rais's legendary wit. This was the symbol of the Palestinian people. This was their leader, their inspiration, since 1969. The character of Yasser Arafat wasn't incidental to the national character of the Palestinians, it was a reflection of it. Which is a very depressing realization. SO WHY are they like this? Because they're Arabs, because they're Muslims, because they're a nation of the Middle East? No, not at all. We've made peace with Egypt. We've made peace with Jordan. The other Arab countries may not like us, but they're not fighting us. Look at what's been going on in this crisis with Gaza - while the Palestinians are being the Palestinians, Egypt has objectively taken Israel's side. Hosni Mubarak tried to broker a prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit that I'm sure Ehud Olmert would have gone for, but this meant, of course, that Hamas and its partners never would have considered it. (The deal was for Israel to release prisoners due to be released within the year anyway, in return for Shalit.) Right after the kidnapping, Egypt put 2,500 soldiers along the border with Gaza - to keep the kidnappers from smuggling Shalit into Sinai, and to keep masses of Palestinians from stealing into Sinai themselves. So the Palestinians' problem isn't that they're Arab or Muslim. It's not that they don't accept Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state in the Middle East - which Arab or Muslim around here does? But the other Muslims aren't fighting Israel over it; only the Palestinians are. The difference, the thing that's unique about the Palestinians in this region, is that they alone have had to build their nation in direct competition with a people that runs circles around them at nation-building. The other Arabs can hate Israel and go on with their lives. The Palestinians can't. The other Arabs can forget their losses in war to Israel; their countries are intact. The Palestinians' losses in war to Israel have left their country in pieces, and themselves scattered. They live with the results of their war losses to Israel every day. Evidently they can't forget, they can't move on. Nobody wants them for neighbors, either; Israel is determined to separate from them, while Egypt and Jordan are more determined to stay separate from them. This is another belief I've lost - in the possibility of a "viable" Palestinian state. With whom for leaders - Hamas and the Army of Islam and Islamic Jihad and al-Qaida? With half the state in the West Bank and the other half in Gaza, with nothing but "Keep Out" signs in the middle and all around? I still think Israel, because of its military superiority over the Palestinians, will one day leave the West Bank and live more or less in peace. But even if and when this conflict ends or at least winds down happily for Israel, I don't see a happy anything in store for the Palestinians. They're unlucky. History found them in the wrong place at the wrong time.