By Bret Stephens, October 22, 2005.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas paid George Bush a friendly
visit Thursday in the Oval Office. At the Rose Garden press conference that
followed, Mr. Bush stressed Mr. Abbas’s responsibility to “end terror
attacks, dismantle terrorist infrastructure, maintain law and order and one
day provide security for their own state.”
Mr. Abbas himself made no mention
of the words “terrorism” or “terrorists.” But he did demand the release of
those he called “prisoners of freedom,” now being held in Israeli jails.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict no longer rivets world attention
the way it did a few years ago. Still it rolls along, as it has for decades
and as it probably will for decades to come. And the reason for this is
well-captured by Mr. Abbas’s use of the term “prisoners of freedom.”
Who are some of these prisoners? One is Ibrahim Ighnamat, a Hamas
leader arrested last week by Israel in connection to his role in organizing
a March 1997 suicide bombing at the Apropos cafe in Tel Aviv, which killed
three and wounded 48.
Another is Jamal Tirawi of the Al Aqsa Martyrs
Brigades: Mr. Tirawi had bullied a 14-year-old boy into becoming a suicide
bomber by threatening to denounce him as a “collaborator,” which in
Palestinian society frequently amounts to a death sentence.
And then there
is 21-year-old Wafa Samir al-Bis, who was detained in June after the
explosives she was carrying failed to detonate at an Israeli checkpoint on
the border with Gaza. As Ms. Bis later testified, her target was an Israeli
hospital where she had previously been treated – as a humanitarian gesture – for
burns suffered in a kitchen accident. “I wanted to kill 20, 50 Jews,” she
explained at a press conference after her arraignment.
Many explanations have been given to account for the almost
matchless barbarism into which Palestinian society has descended in recent
years. One is the effect of Israeli occupation and all that has, in recent
years, gone with it: the checkpoints, the closures, the petty harassments,
the targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders. I witnessed much of this
personally when I lived in Israel, and there can be no discounting the
embittering effect that a weeks-long, 18-hour daily military curfew has on
the ordinary Palestinians living under it.
Yet the checkpoints and curfews are not gratuitous acts of
unkindness by Israel, nor are they artifacts of occupation. On the contrary,
in the years when Israel was in full control of the territories there were
no checkpoints or curfews, and Palestinians could move freely (and find
employment) throughout the country.
It was only with the start of the peace
process in 1993 and the creation of autonomous Palestinian areas under the
control of the late Yasser Arafat that terrorism became a commonplace fact
of Israeli life. And it was only then that the checkpoints went up and the
clampdowns began in earnest.
In other words, while Palestinian actions go far to explain Israeli
behavior, the reverse doesn’t hold. How, then, are the Ighnamats, Tirawis
and Bises of Palestinian society to be explained?
Consider a statistic: In the first nine months of 2005 more
Palestinians were killed by other Palestinians than by Israelis – 219 to 218,
according to the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Interior, although the
former figure is probably in truth much higher.
In the Gaza Strip, the
departure of Israeli troops and settlers has brought anarchy, not freedom.
Members of Hamas routinely fight gun battles with members of Fatah,
Abbas’s ruling political party. Just as often, the killing takes place
between clans, or hamullas.
So-called collaborators are put to the gun by
street mobs, their “guilt” sometimes nothing more than being the object of a
neighbor’s spite. Palestinian social outsiders are also at mortal risk:
Honor killings of “loose” women are common, as is the torture and murder of
Atop this culture of violence are the Hamas and Fatah leaders, the
hamulla chieftains, the Palestinian Authority’s “generals” and “ministers.”
And standing atop them – theoretically, at least – is the Palestinian president.
All were raised in this culture; most have had their uses for violence.
Arafat, those uses were to achieve mastery of his movement, and to harness
its energies to his political purpose. Among Palestinians, his popularity
owed chiefly to the fact that under his leadership all this violence
achieved an astonishing measure of international respectability.
Hence Mr. Abbas’s Rose Garden obeisances to the “prisoners of
freedom.” The Palestinian president leads a society in which dignity and
violence have long been entwined, in which the absence of the latter risks
the loss of the former.
This is not to say that Mr. Abbas himself is a
violent man. But his fate as a politician rests in the hands of violent men,
and so far he has shown no appetite for confronting them.
Instead, he has sought to entice groups such as Hamas into a
democratic process. As with Hezbollah in Lebanon, they have been happy to
get what they can out of politics while refusing to lay down their arms. In
doing so, they make a mockery of Mr. Abbas’s stated commitment to “one
authority, one law and one gun” – that is, to the very idea of a state, and
therefore to Mr. Abbas’s presidency of it.
Talk to Palestinians, and you will often hear it said, like a
mantra, that Palestinian dignity requires Palestinian statehood. This is
either a conceit or a lie. Should a Palestinian state ever come into
existence in Gaza and the West Bank, it will be a small place, mostly poor,
culturally marginal, most of it desert, rock, slums and dust.
One can well
understand why Arafat, a man of terrible vices but impressive vanities,
spurned the offer of it -and why his people cheered wildly when he did. Their
dignity has always rested upon their violence, their struggle, their
“prisoners of freedom.”
For Mr. Abbas, the problem is that statehood and dignity are not a
package. They are a choice. And if history is any guide, the choice he must
make is not one he is likely to survive.