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Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He taught courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies for over 20 years.
The following is the second installment in a series of three articles. The first addressed how Israel lost its way; the third will demonstrate certain realities on the ground that are not subject to change short of a catastrophe. In that context, since Israeli-Palestinian coexistence is inevitable, both sides must choose between living in peace or perpetual violent conflict.
Although the 55-year-old Israeli occupation cannot be justified under any circumstances, Palestinian leaders have greatly contributed to its disastrous continuation. Their misguided policies over the years have tragically subjected four generations to a life of misery and hopelessness in pursuit of a delusional goal of destroying Israel.
Righting the Wrong
For the past 75 years, the Palestinians have raised four generations of aspiring youth who, like their counterparts in Israel and other advanced countries, dream of growing and flourishing while making their own mark by contributing to their community’s and their country’s prosperity and growth. They have failed not because they are incapable, or less talented, or unworthy of success: they have failed because their leaders failed them. Palestinian leaders failed them due to their shortsightedness, misguided policies, and unwillingness to accept Israel’s ineliminable reality. As such, they have played directly into Israel’s hands by threatening its very existence, which provided Israel with the rationale and justification for continuing the debilitating occupation.
Ironically, during the 75- year-old conflict between the two sides, Israel became a global power, a leader in every sphere of science and technology, with a powerful economy and formidable military, while millions of Palestinians are still languishing in refugee camps. If this does not demonstrate the utter moral and political bankruptcy of the Palestinian leadership, I don’t know what does. Thus, their insolvent policy only compounded their youth’s despondency and despair for which they conveniently blame Israel, giving rise to militancy and violence against a country with which they must coexist.
From the onset of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 1948, the Palestinian leadership adopted a policy of resistance and confrontation against Israel. Even at times of relative calm, the persistent denunciation of Israel on various issues, especially in connection with the Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem, and the Israeli settlements provided a constant reminder to every Palestinian youth that Israel is the obstacle that hinders their progress and shatters their dreams.
That is, the Palestinian leadership linked the fortunes and the future well-being of their youth to the destruction of Israel. As such, successive Palestinian generations condemn Israel for their misfortune which is constantly reinforced not only due to lack of genuine efforts on the part of the Palestinians to find solutions, but also because the longer the conflict persisted, the more it became intractable. At the present, the two sides are further apart than they were 30 years ago when the Oslo Accords were signed.
Indoctrination in schools
The indoctrination of Palestinian youth begins from a very young age in schools; it is one of the most potent ways to sway the minds of the young, and get them to believe whatever they are taught. In essence, Palestinian schools have become in part laboratories for anti-Israeli disinformation both through the teachers and textbooks. For example, in history books Israel is depicted not only as an occupying power that must be resisted, but as having no right to exist at all.
In geography books, the 1967 borders are not delineated, and in Palestinian maps the ‘state of Palestine’ covers the entire landmass from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. In the studies of Palestinian refugees, the blame is placed squarely on Israel for causing the catastrophe, al-Nakba, which is being inculcated in the mind of young pupils. The continuing occupation only reinforces what these young students are misled to believe.
As Mark Twain observed in his autobiography, “When even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind, in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast a doubt upon the validity of that superstition…” To be sure, in schools the Palestinian people are portrayed as being the victims of a brutal power. The misinformation and the selected truth about the conflict with Israel passes from one generation to the next, and today Palestinian youths view Israel the way their parents have, as an irreconcilable enemy to be resisted at all costs.
Brainwashing through public acrimony
Whereas the anti-Israel schooling is poisoning the minds of the young, it continues to be reinforced by the Palestinian leaders’ acrimonious public narrative against Israel. The day-to-day public denunciation of Israel further resonates in the minds of the young and they become increasingly in tune to resistance, rather than reconciliation. This state of mind is further bolstered, especially when they hear from extremist Palestinians leaders, such as Hamas, and the media about Israel’s ruthlessness which will not end until Israel is soundly defeated.
Moreover, disunity between extremist groups such Hamas and the more moderate Palestinian Authority makes it impossible for the latter to moderate its public acrimonious narrative against Israel, fearing being accused of appeasing the Israelis. Indeed, rather than preparing the public for the inevitability of peaceful coexistence and engaging in constructive public dialogue, they are poisoning the political atmosphere by promoting the belief that only the destruction of Israel would liberate the Palestinians from the bondage of occupation, allow them to reclaim the land, and restore their national pride and dignity.
Failing to invest in nation-building
The Palestinian leadership’s dismal failure to dedicate itself to nation-building made it impossible for hundreds of thousands of young people to find respectable employment, which kept them deprived of decent wages to support themselves and denied them a dignified life. Tens of thousands of young Palestinians cannot pursue higher education because more often than not they are forced to find menial jobs to help feed their families.
Thus, idleness and the lack of any prospect for a better and more productive life radicalizes many Palestinian youths who become disposed to join militant groups where they are embraced, feel respected, and are rewarded for their willingness to join the fray against Israel. Basically, they escape from their imprisonment in a life of despair as they are lured to go to a new prison, where they presumably find meaning to their lives. As Aldous Huxley cogently stated, “It is perfectly possible for a man to be out of prison and yet not free — to be under no physical constraint and yet to be a psychological captive, compelled to think, feel and act as the representatives of the national State, or of some private interest within the nation, want him to think, feel and act.”
Exaltation of martyrdom
Many young Palestinians who feel left out without any prospect of living a normal and productive life often search for a greater meaning to their lives and are swayed to believe that they can find in death the salvation that eludes them when they are alive. Martyrdom is glorified, especially when the cause for which they sacrifice themselves is for the good of the entire Umma (nation). The Quran makes many references to martyrdom including the following: “Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord; They rejoice in the bounty provided by Allah….” (3:169).
The problem here is that the Palestinian leadership, especially the extremists, do not preach for peaceful coexistence; instead, they praise acts of violence and terrorism against Israel, and honor the perpetrators’ courage and valor in sacrificing themselves for the greater cause of national liberation. Thus, for a multitude of young Palestinians, killing Israeli Jews and ridding themselves of the occupation has become a holy mission as if it were sanctioned by Allah. They seek martyrdom because they truly believe what they are told, that they will rejoice in heaven instead of continuing to be humiliated and mortified on earth.
Missing opportunities to make peace
From the time Israel was established in 1948, the Palestinians missed many opportunities to make peace. The late Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban put succinctly when he stated that “the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” a fact that prevented a multitude of young Palestinians from enjoying the fruits of peace and becoming constructive players in nation-building who are able to take pride in their achievements.
Starting with their refusal to accept the UN partition plan in 1947, the Palestinians have indisputably missed a number of opportunities, but it will suffice to name only a few. Following the Six Day War in 1967, the Palestinians turned down Israel’s offer to return all the territories captured in war in exchange for peace (with the exception of the final status of Jerusalem). In 1977, the Palestinians rejected the invitation to join the Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations which could have resulted in in an Israeli-Palestinian peace along with the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement signed in 1979.
At Camp David in 2000, the Palestinians missed another historic opportunity and walked away the last minute when a comprehensive agreement was afoot. The most violent uprising—the Second Intifada—that began a few months later stunned the Israelis, who concluded that Palestinians are simply not interested in peace. And finally, in 2007-2008 the Palestinians once more walked away from negotiations, this time over a disagreement in connection with percentages of land swaps.
Since then, largely under Netanyahu’s and Abbas’s leadership, no substantive peace negotiations have taken place, and sadly a fourth generation of Palestinians is now flagging between corrupt dictatorial leadership and self-destructive extremism, with no prospect for any meaningful life. Neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas have any plans or strategy that will help bring an end to the most destructive conflict to which they have subjected their youth for 55 years and counting.
This is how the Palestinians lost their way. As they continue to revel in the illusion that they can destroy Israel, they in fact are sowing the seeds of their own destruction. It’s time to wake up before they forfeit the next generation’s chance to live in peace and realize their dreams and aspirations to prosper in their own country, which they richly deserve if only given the opportunity.