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Palestinian Suffering

Few people have suffered more constant misery and daily oppression in the last 50 years than the Palestinians. The key issue, however, concerns not the amount — although it has obviously been grossly exaggerated — but the sourceof that suffering. There are wildly varying accounts of who is to blame. Our purpose here is not to assess how much blame to assign – that everyone must do on their own – but to list the major contributors to Palestinian suffering, and what is the nature of that contribution. We welcome comment, further examples, suggestions, links, reflections, additions.



The most obvious source of Palestinian suffering is the Israelis. According to the dominant Palestinian “victim” narrative, the Zionists came into the region, took their land, and, when war broke out in 1948, drove almost a million of them from their homes and relegated those who remained to second-class citizenship. The dominant Israeli narrative has argued that they came as civilians, purchasing property, developing the economy, clearing malaria-infested swamps. Israelis claim that most of the refugees were created by the Arab armies that sought to destroy Israel and urged the Arab inhabitants to leave. Arabs, whose own leaders openly declared their intention to massacre Israelis, naturally believed that the Israelis would do the same to them.


Recently Israeli “new” or “post-Zionist” historians have questioned the Israeli version, arguing that there were concerted efforts to drive out Arab populations, as well as some actual massacres of Arab civilians. This revisionist work has received sharp criticism from historians who argue that these writers have misrepresented, even distorted the contents of the archives on which they base their work. (That Israeli historians would distort history to criticize their own country may strike some as bizarre if not inexplicable, but such a move combines both hyper-self-criticism with therapeutic history: If we apologize, maybe they’ll stop hating us.) Not surprisingly, the Palestinian reaction to Israeli post-Zionism has been more favorable: they think it confirms their narrative, and affirms their grievances.


Since the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 war, over 2 million Palestinians have come under the military rule of Israel; and since the two uprisings of 1987-92 and 2000-?, the hostilities have produced a particularly onerous situation, in which Palestinian suffering most obviously derives from Israeli actions –curfews, check-points and shut-downs. To those who do not know the history of the conflict, the image of the Palestinian David throwing rocks and the Israeli Goliath in his tanks and planes seems not only accurate but poetically ironic.

Book cover forThe New Intifada: Resisting Israel’s Apartheid


Most observers who, consciously or unconsciously accept the way that Arab and Palestinian leadership have framed the struggle in terms of zero-sum outcomes,  stop here. This is the foundation of both the Politically-Correct and the Post-Colonial Paradigms (PCP1 & 2). For the politically correct, who would not dream of challenging the Arab mind-set, there is no need to go further. Indeed some, exceptionally self-critical Israelis go still farther in the same direction: It is the Arabs who have sought peace and the Israelis who have rebuffed them. Obviously, Israeli victories mean Palestinian defeats; obviously Israeli presence means Palestinian displacements; obviously Israeli independence is a Palestinian Naqba. Obviously Israel and its ally America are the greatest contributors to Palestinian suffering. And were this the only way to conceive of the conflict, such a narrative might well be true.

But from the perspective of progressive, positive-sum interactions and the civil society such interactions foster, this can hardly be the whole story. On the contrary, when Zionists first came to Palestine the population was under a million. Today it pushes 10 million. Modern civil society and the culture of abundance that it produces can create many new opportunities for all involved. This need not have been a zero-sum conflict, and while some Zionists, observing the growing dominion of al Husseini, argued for kicking Arabs out, many more continued to argue for a productive collaboration. So we now turn to the other sources of Palestinian suffering, those who have either forced or encouraged the Palestinians to see it only as a zero-sum game, and to see the Israelis only through the lens of their own political rules:Dominate or be dominated.




The contribution of Arab political culture to the suffering of Palestinians is less evident to those who do not know the history of the conflict. Arab political culture before Zionism was among the most autocratic and exploitative of the many “traditional” political cultures: With Turkish administrators, wealthy Arab landlords living in Egypt, and Bedouin tribes raiding whenever they could, the plight of the Palestinian peasan thad involved plenty of suffering. That kind of suffering continues endemically throughout the Arab world today, regardless of whether the populace lives in an oil-rich state or not.


It is characteristic of prime-divider societies run by adherents of the dominating imperative.


But the Arab-Israeli conflict has increased the role of Arab political culture in the specific suffering of the Palestinians as a people. Fundamentally committed to zero-sumoutcomes in this conflict – Israel should not exist, and nothing short of the elimination of the “Zionist entity” could resolve the conflict – Arab political culture has consistently chosen wars they lose to resolution in this conflict. In the inability to succeed in this goal, Arab political culture has largely preferred negative-sum solutions than exploring mutually beneficial solutions.


In 1958, Ralph Galloway, former UNWRA director wrote:

“The Arab states do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations, and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders do not give a damn whether Arab refugees live or die.”

One might even make a more damning assertion: they do care;they want and need them to suffer.




Thus when the UN resolution of 1947 created two states, with the Palestinian one significantly greater than the Israeli, which consisted of three scarcely contiguous units, the largest of which was desert wilderness, the Arab League, without consultation with the Palestinian people (just coordination with the Nazi ally al-Husseini, rejected the partition and prepared for a war of annihilation.


Map of UN Partition: Note the three discontinuous Israeli “Bantustans.”


The ensuing disaster (al-Naqba) produced a much larger and contiguous Israel with a substantial minority of Arab residents, and a widely dispersed population of Arab war refugees. At this point, rather than negotiate the best possible situation for the refugees, the Arab League unanimously chose to continue the war and confine the Palestinian refugees to camps, as a weapon against Israel. The Palestinians became the sacrificial pawn of Arab politics, forced to live in squalor,indoctrinated with Nazi-inspired propaganda in their schools, and held up to the world as an example of Israeli crimes against humanity . And of course, the worse they suffer, the worse the crime.


But whose crime?


This state of affairs beggars the liberal imagination. Indeed many observers just assume that it was the Israelis who put the refugees in camps and kept them there. Michael Moore speaks about a visit to the refugee camps in 1988:

Although in my life I had already traveled through Central America, China, Southeast Asia, and other parts of the Middle East. I wasn’t ready for what I saw in the refugee camps in the Occupied Territories. I had never encountered such squalor, debasement, and utter misery. To force human beings to live in these conditions – and deo so at the barrel of a gun, for more than forty years — just made no sense.Stupid White Men, p. 178.

Now Moore seems to presume that it’s the Israelis who have done this to the Palestinians. (His next paragraph goes into how badly the Jews have been treated in the past and how sad that they should turn around and do it to someone else — the favorite formula of those attracted to moralSchadenfreude.) He seems to have no awareness that for the first (and critical) half of the Palestinian experience of refugee confinement, it was Arab rulers and Arab guns who kept them in misery, and that once Israel took over they tried to move these unfortunate victims out into decent housing, and it was the Arabs who pushed UN Resolutions insisting that they be returned to the squalor of the camps.


How muchmorenonsensical is that — it’s the Arabs who want their misery, not the Israelis?


Unless one thinks in terms of Domineering Cognitive Egocentrism, and the Honor-Jihad Paradigm.


After the second Naqba of 1967, with the Israelis offering to return most of the conquered territories in exchange for peace, the Arab League met at Khartoum and issued the “Three No’s”– “No negotiations, no recognition, no peace!” In the context of contributing to Palestinian suffering, this decision of the Arab League — with Arafat, al-Husseini’s nephew, representing the Palestinian people’s “interests” — reveals perhaps more than anything, the “incomprehensible” skew of this conflict. To save the “honor” of the Arab nation andnothave to recognize or make peace with this rebellious, tiny,Dhimmipeople, these Arab leaders preferred to leave over two million Arabs under Israeli rule. And given how for an Arab Muslim, it is a stain to one’s honor to live under the rule of another people — above all, a people who should be subject — they knew that this “occupation” they were sanctioning, would poison the Israeli’s world no matter how beneficent or economically advantageous Israeli rule might prove.


And when the Palestinians threatened the stability of the Hashemite kingdom in Jordan – the only Arab country to offer them citizenship – King Hussein’s troops massacred as many as 10,000 Palestinian men, women and children in one month, remembered in Palestinian lore as Black September. PLO troops fled to Israel rather than fall into Jordanian hands. Many Palestinians and other Arabs acknowledge their victimization by their “fellow” Arabs. Current Palestinian Authority Prime-Minister Mahumud Abbas said in 1976 that,

…the Arab armies entered Palestine to protect the Palestinians from Zionist tyranny but, instead, they abandoned them, forced them to emigrate, and to leave their homeland, and threw them into prisons similar to the ghettos in which the Jews used to live.” (Falastin a-Thaura, March 1976).

However, such honest remarks by Palestinians are tempered partly by their desire to enlist support from the very Arabs who victimized them, partly by their fear of reprisal, partly by their honor-bound need to believe that the Israelis are their greatest enemies.




Palestinian political culture, from the earliest period of Zionist settlement, has fostered the zero-sum mentality whenever possible. The uprising of 1936-9, supposedly fighting the British and the Zionists, ended up killing far more Arabs (vendettas, looting) than either English or Jews. The Peel Commission (1939) asked Arab rioters why, despite the increased levels of prosperity brought to Palestine by their arrival, they attacked the Jews, one Arab responded:

You say we are better off: you say my house has been enriched by the strangers who have entered it. But it is my house, and I did not invite the strangers in, or ask them to enrich it, and I do not care how poor it is if I am only master of it.”(Weathered by Miracles, p. 207)

The pattern whereby the Palestinians suffered more from the militant policies of their leadership than Israelis became a standard feature of all the “uprisings,” from the “nationalist uprising” of 1936-39, to the“intifada” of the late 1980sand the“second intifada” of 2000. In general, terrorists almost never limit their aggression to the “enemy”, and since their own populations do not have the protection that enemies can mobilize, they tend to suffer the daily impositions of their “militants” far more. And until it becomes completely unbearable, most people in such terror-dominated societies stay silent.




The degree to which Palestinian leadership has followed the lead of Arab League politics in victimizing its own people can best be seen in the formation of the PLO in 1964. Rather than demand the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, governed by Jordan, as a sovereign nation in which they might begin the long-overdue process of getting people out of the refugee camps and into decent housing and work situations,they ignored the plight of their brethren, and focused on the elimination of the Zionist entity. National Liberation consistently took second place to the annihilation of another nation.


The widespread practice ofexecuting “collaborators” without trial, evenwomen, has throttled any “moderate” Palestinian leadership from emerging.Rape and sexual assault of womenis a common form of intimidating other Palestinians into cooperation and as a way of rewarding one’s “soldiers” for their efforts. Palestinians themselves often acknowledge how much of their suffering derives from the corruption of their own leaders, but rarely do they take it the further step to wonder whether this is not merely corruption or violence, but also an endemic problem of their political culture.




The emergence of a powerfulculture of Jihad in Palestinian circles(Islamic Jihad and Hamas) have intensified the dynamic of self-inflicted suffering. Promoting aculture of deaththat encourages youth to die trying to kill Israelis has contributed immeasurably to the casualties among Palestinian youth, whetherintentionallyorunintentionally. The notion that suffering in this world winsrewards in the world to comegives a particularly powerful motivation to self-destruction. Indeed, Islamic Jihad gives a new meaning to positive-sum outcomes within the framework of negative-sum behavior: if a Muslim dies in battle with the infidel, he goes to heaven; if he succeeds in winning the Jihad, his reward is in this world as well. The war begun in October 2000, in which Islamic Jihad has played a particularly prominent role, hasinflicted immense suffering on the Palestinians, perhaps more than almost any earlier catastrophic rush to violence.




Once one factors in the ways in which Arab political culture thrives on victimizing the Palestinians, one becomes aware of another source of Palestinian suffering: the “support” the Palestinian leadership gets from outsiders, particularly 1) the Europeans, 2) the UN, 3) the “progressive left,” and 4) the media. For the last three decades, since the mid-1970s, these parties have become increasingly anti-Israel and, supposedly, pro-Palestinian.

The mistake appears in the very formulation. By falling into the zero-sum formulations of the Arab and Palestinian leadership, these major world forces reinforce the very figures who have most to win from victimizing the Palestinians.




The role of the Left may be the single most striking illustration of the ironic reversals in this conflict. One might argue in the last decade that the Palestinians have become the “chosen people” of the Left, in that anyone who is more critical of them than of the Israelis is considered a right-wing neo-conservative (at best). And yet, the Palestinians have hardly flourished under this “progressive” solicitude. Rather than urging the Palestinians to develop the kind of qualities necessary for a progressive state that takes care of its citizens and encourages freedom of thought and expression (e.g., public self-criticism, protection of dissidents), the Left has systematically “explained” Palestinian violence asthe result of Israeli (and American) policies. As a result, the Left reinforces the most regressive and fascist elements in Palestinian culture, even asthey claim to work for peace and civil society.




The contribution of the Media to Palestinian suffering may be the most subtle, but also the most pervasive. The nature of media coverage – if it bleeds it leads – has always favored violence, and in particular fed the need of terrorists for attention. Its superficial and dramatic news has encouraged thesystematic victimization of Arabs for the purposes of international sympathy. By ignoring or playing down thePalestinian calls for genocideagainst Israel andhatred of the West, while at the same time portrayingIsrael as the cause of warand of whateverdamage Palestinians do to themselves, the media have contributed to a profound misunderstanding of the sources of – and therefore the solutions to – the conflict.


But the principle “if it bleeds it leads” actually takes second seat in the MSM coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict towhocommits the violence. When Israeli kills a Palestinian child, it receives a good deal of coverage; when the Palestinians kill Palestinian children, newsreports are laconic at best. (GooglePalestinians kill Palestinian childand you get only entries on Israelis killing Palestinian children.)

Given the extraordinary sensitivity ofArab honor-shame cultureto public disapproval, one might even argue that the sympathy and understanding that the media grant to the mostdepraved of Palestinian terrorists, represents an enormous opportunity cost.


When 500 Palestinian intellectualsdenounced suicide terrorism, they did so because it did not serve the Palestinian cause — indeed it lost them international sympathy. Were the international community to have condemned it with even greater insistence, these voices would have had even greater strength. When the media mis-reported the outbreak of Oslo War in late 2000, arousing world-wide support for the Palestinians in their struggle for “freedom”, they encouraged Arafat to believe that “the whole world is behind him” so that he had no need to work to lessen the violence. By promoting and diffusing stories of alleged atrocities committed by Israel without a solid background check, the media reinforce the hate-mongering propaganda of the Palestinian leadership. “Balancing” negative coverage of the Arabs with unfounded accusations of the Israelis, for example, balancing stories of “honor killings” withaccusations of rape of Palestinian womenby Israelis and seizing on Palestinian accusation of “massacres.”


There is no question how much Palestinians have suffered and continued to suffer, but there are many sources to this suffering. To truly sympathize and help improve the wretched condition of Palestinians, one must understand the wide range the factors that cause their suffering. One way to conceive of this problem is to ask, what if the Palestinians had their own state? Would their conditions improve? To judge by their conditions under Jordanian rule (1948-67), or their conditions in Lebanon when the PLO had power (1970-82), orGaza after withdrawal(2005-), or by the fate of other Arab peoples ruled over by their own elites… no. If the state and its governors are committed to ruling for the people, if they pursue positive-sum strategies both domestically and with the Israeli neighbors, then we can hope for a dramatic improvement in their condition. But for that to happen, we progressives would need toput our shoulders behind a very different wheel.


Can we do it? What’s preventing us?

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