Arafat’s strategy is suicidal in more ways than one.
By Victor David Hanson, a military historian and author most recently of
“Carnage and Culture” (Doubleday, 2002).
April 2, 2002
For all the efforts of our contemporary theorists to harness and sometimes
refashion history, the facts of the past belong to no one – and won’t go away.
Those who conjure it up often discover to their dismay that they themselves are
subject to its brutal laws of truth.
The Palestinians are fast learning of history’s ironies and unintended
reminders, as they seek to invoke the past to convince Americans of the
righteousness of their present plight.
Take the idea of the occupation of Arab lands since 1967, which the
Palestinians now cite as a singular historical grievance that needs immediate
rectification through intervention of the U.S. But sadly occupation and partition
are the bastard children of war; and history, rightly or wrongly, is not kind to
states that repeatedly attack their neighbors – and lose.
Ask the millions of poor Germans who had their ancestral lands confiscated by
Poland and France – and their country subsequently partitioned for a half
century. Why do the Russians still occupy portions of the old Japanese
homeland decades after the surrender? How is it that the British won’t give up
Gibraltar long after their successful battles against the Spanish fleet? And why
must the world give far more attention to Palestine than it does to Tibetans,
Irish and Chechens?
The situation on the West Bank is not only commonplace in history’s harsh
calculus, but prevalent even throughout the Arab world today. Right next door
in Lebanon, Syria controls far more Arab land than does Israel.
And if Palestinians suffer second-class citizenship under Israeli
occupation, they are worse off in occupied Lebanon where, as helots, they are
denied basic rights to employment, health care and government services.
Kuwait ethnically cleansed all Palestinians – perhaps a third of a million – just a
decade ago. Well after the 1967 Six Day War, the Jordanians themselves
Before the intifada more Palestinians sought work in a hated Israel than
in a beloved Egypt.
History suggests that there is more going on in Palestine than the
morality of occupation.
The Palestinians have turned to suicide bombers – terrorists boasting of a new
and frightening tactic that cannot be stopped. But they should recall the
kamikazes off Okinawa that brought death, terror and damage to the American
fleet – before prompting horrific responses that put an end to them for good and
a lot more besides.
In general, the record of terrorist bombers – whether Irish, Basque or
Palestinian – who seek to reclaim “occupied” lands is not impressive in winning
either material concessions or the hearts and minds of the world.
Palestinian spokesmen decry asymmetrical casualty figures, as if history has
ever accorded moral capital to any belligerents that suffered the greater losses
Again, ask imperial Japan or Nazi Germany whether the ghosts of
millions of their dead today carry moral weight when their governments once
sought war against their neighbors.
Deliberately trying to blow apart civilians will never be seen as the moral
equivalent of noncombatants dying as a result of the street fighting in the West
Afghans accidentally killed by errant bombing in Kandahar are different
from those deliberately incinerated on Sept. 11.
Somalis killed in Mogadishu by American peacekeepers – far more
civilians dying there in two days than in two years on the West Bank – are not
the same as those murdered by thugs in jeeps trying to steal food from the starving.
Americans learned in Vietnam and Mogadishu that it is hard to distinguish
civilians from soldiers when gunmen do not always wear uniforms and take
potshots from the windows of homes: They are real killers when alive, but
somehow count as “civilians” when dead.
The problem is not that the Palestinians are losing more than the Israelis
due to their greater victimhood or morality, but rather that they find themselves
losing very badly to a military far more adept at fighting.
Nor do the Palestinians’ cries for justice exist in an historical vacuum. True, the
current Arab-Israeli war – at least the fourth since 1948 – is fought over the
West Bank; but that is only because the theater of operations has changed
somewhat since the Arab world lost the first three wars to destroy Israel proper.
Less than two years ago, Yasser Arafat was offered almost all of the
West Bank and would now be the unquestioned strongman of his own tribal
fiefdom had he taken such a generous Israeli offer. His own scheming and the
intifada – not Israeli extremism – brought back to him his old nemesis, Ariel Sharon.
Again, the problem for the Palestinians is not that Americans are ignorant of the
historical complexities of the Middle East, but that we know them only too well.
Palestinian spokesmen give us moralistic lectures about remaining disinterested
as “honest brokers” – even as they appeal to Arab anti-Semitism and racial
solidarity on grounds of national, religious and ethnic empathy.
That double standard puzzles America, because by any such measure we
also find affinity in shared values, and so have almost none with the
Palestinians, who, like the entire Arab world, do not embrace real democracy,
free speech, open media and religious diversity.
Nor is it good public relations for illegitimate dictatorships of the Arab League to
shake fingers at democracies in America and Israel on issues of equality and
fairness. The problem is not that the Palestinians object to the idea of displaying
preferences per se, but that their own biases and prejudices have so little
appeal to Americans.
We are told that the Palestinians have a long memory of, and reverence for, the
past – especially the injustice of 50 years of lost homelands.
But Americans are not ahistorical. We remember Sept. 11, and the
Palestinians who cheered our dead before being admonished by a terrified Arafat.
For the last three decades Palestinian terrorists and their sponsoring
brotherhoods have murdered Americans abroad. Palestinians embraced Saddam
Hussein’s cause and clapped as Scuds plunged into Tel Aviv and blew apart
American soldiers in Saudi Arabia.
An entrapped Arafat now calls for American succor, but a few months
ago scoffed that the U.S. was irrelevant as far as he was concerned. The
problem, again, is not that Americans have forgotten Palestinian acts, but that
we remember them all too well.
The Arab world warns of its martial prowess and deadly anger – as American
flags burn, threats to kill us are issued, and “the street” shakes its collective
But we Americans remember 1967, when we gave almost no weapons
to the Israelis – but the Russians supplied lots of sophisticated arms to the
Arabs. In the Six Day War, the state radio networks of Syria, Egypt and Jordan
boasted to the world that their triumphant militaries were nearing Tel Aviv even
as their frightened elites pondered abandoning Damascus, Cairo and Amman.
And we recall the vaunted Egyptian air force in 1967, the invincible
Syrian jets over Lebanon, the Mother of All Battles – and the Republican Guard
that proved about as fearsome as Xerxes’ Immortals at Thermopylae.
A beleaguered Arafat now wildly works his Rolodex for support for his
autocracy. But history answers cruelly that strongmen in their bunkers are as
impotent as they are loquacious – and as likely to receive disdain as pity.
Moammar Gadhafi was a different man after the American air strike
proved his military worthless and his person no longer sacrosanct.
The rhetoric of the Taliban in September promised death; in October they
and their minions went silent.
In wars against bombers and terrorists, the past teaches us that peace
comes first through their defeat – not out of negotiations among supposedly
We all would prefer, and should strive for, peaceful relations with the
Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Syrians – and all the other 20-something
dictatorships, theocracies, and monarchies of the Middle East – as well as a
state for the Palestinians. But the day is growing late; our patience is now
exhausted; and sadly an hour of reckoning is nearing for all us all.
The problem is, you see, that we know their history far better than they do.