Palestinian Violence Overstated, Jewish Violence Understated

Time to Change the Story

The Israel Project hired pollster
Stanley Greenberg to test American opinion on the Middle East conflict
-- and got a big surprise. In September 2008, 69% of Americans called
themselves pro-Israel. Now, it's only 49%. In September, the same 69%
wanted the U.S. to side with Israel; now, only 44%.

How to explain this dramatic shift? Greenberg himself suggested the
answer years ago when he pointed out that, in politics, "a narrative is
the key to everything." Last year the old narrative about the Middle
East conflict was still dominant: Israel is an innocent victim, doing
only what it must do to defend itself against the Palestinians. Today,
that narrative is beginning to lose its grip on Americans.

Well, to be more precise, the first part of the old narrative is
eroding. Nearly half the American public seems unsure that Israel is
still the good guy in the Middle East showdown. But the popular image
of the Palestinians as the violent bad guy is apparently as potent as
ever. The number of Americans who say they support Palestine remains
unchanged from last September, a mere 7%. And only 5% want the U.S.
government to take such a position.

Those numbers reflect the narrative that President Obama recited in
Cairo on June 4th. He chided the Israelis for a few things they are
doing wrong -- like expanding settlements and blockading Gaza. To the
other side, though, his message was far blunter: "Palestinians must
abandon violence." Of Israeli violence he said not a word.

The president's speech implicitly sanctioned the most up-to-date tale
that dominates the American mass media and public opinion today: The
Israelis ought to be reined in a bit, but it's hard to criticize them
too much because, hey, what would you do if you had suicide bombers and rockets coming at you all the time?

That view is a political winner here. In the latest Pew poll,
62% of Americans say Obama is striking the right balance between Israel
and Palestine; of those who disagree, three-quarters want to see him
tougher on the Palestinians, not the Israelis. A Rasmussen poll finds even stronger support for a pro-Israel tilt.

There are, however, two things wrong with his narrative. First, though
it's somewhat less one-sided than the story that prevailed during the
George W. Bush years, it is far from impartial, which means the U.S.
still cannot act as an even-handed broker for peace in the region.
Since no one else is available to play that role, it's hard to see how,
under the present circumstances, any version of a peace process can
move forward.

The second problem is that the popular narrative just doesn't happen
to match the facts. In reality, unjustified violence is initiated on
both sides -- and if anyone insists on keeping score, Israel's
violence, official and unofficial, outweighs the violence coming from
the Palestinians.

Coming to Grips with Jewish Settler Violence

Israeli violence is often overlooked here because so much of it is done
by official order of the state. Americans are quick to side with the
man who wears the badge. Even when he lets loose the kind of violence
that recently devastated parts of the Gaza Strip, the reigning assumption is that his gun is a force for law and order.

But what about the kind of violence Palestinians are so often accused
of, the unauthorized civilian-on-civilian kind -- what the experts term
"non-state-actor violence" and the rest of us simply call "terrorism"?
Though you may not know this, much of it these days is done by Israeli

"Palestinian civilians bear brunt of settler violence," Agence France-Presse recently reported:
"Nestled amid rolling hills and with an eagle eye's view to the
Mediterranean coast, Nahla Ahmed's house has all the elements of
Eden... if it weren't for the Molotov cocktail-throwing neighbours. 'We
put bars on the windows after the first attack, three years ago,' says
the 36-year-old mother of four. 'Now they come each week.'"

attacks aren't always with Molotov cocktails; sometimes Jewish settlers
throw tear gas canisters, simply spray a Star of David on a wall, or
cut down trees owned by Palestinians. In other incidents, settlers have
shot and killed a 16-year-old boy, fractured the skull of a 7-year-old girl with a rock, set a dog on a 12-year-old boy, and shot dead
an Arab man but let his companion go when he identified himself as
Jewish. These are not egregious, isolated cases of mayhem; they're just
a few random examples of what's happening all too often on the West
Bank. To see how depressingly common such violence is, just Google
"West Bank settler violence" for yourself.

It's easy enough to see what the violence looks like too, since a lot of it has been captured on video. And this is just violence against people. The violence against property is far too common to begin to catalog.

Last December, Jewish settlers in Hebron went on a rampage, shooting at
Palestinians, setting fire to homes, cars, and olive groves, defacing
mosques and graves. Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister at the time,
said he was "ashamed" of this "pogrom."

Yet few such settler crimes are seriously prosecuted by the Israeli
authorities. The Israeli rights group Yesh Din has documented this in
an extensive report, which, the group carefully notes, is merely one more in a long line of similar reports:

"Since the 1980's many reports have been published on
law enforcement upon Israelis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
All of the reports... warned against the failure of the authorities to
enforce the law effectively upon Israelis... who committed offenses
against Palestinian civilians... Yet the problem of attacks against
Palestinian people and property by Israelis has only grown worse,
becoming a daily occurrence."

Assessing Hamas Violence

Jewish settlers who commit violence claim just what the Israeli
government claims when it directs state-sponsored violence at
Palestinian areas: Self-defense -- it was nothing but self-defense. And
it's certainly true that there are incidents of individual Palestinians
venting their frustration violently. After all, they've been living
under an arbitrary, demeaning, and sometimes brutal occupation for 42 years.

According to the common Israeli and American narratives, however, the
real culprit and chief roadblock to peace is the constant violence --
suicide bombings and rocket attacks -- planned and carried out by a
well-organized political party, Hamas. Again, as it happens, this
popular version of events is simply not borne out by the facts.

Consider suicide bombings. In 2003 Israel's premier newspaper, Ha'aretz, reported
that Hamas had decided "to stop terror against Israeli civilians if
Israel stops killing Palestinian civilians." Though it's not clear that
Israel did stop its own killings, Hamas soon halted its devastating
suicide attacks. There were two in 2004 and not a single one in the
nearly five years since then, according to the Jewish Virtual Library run by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (a source hardly sympathetic to Hamas).

The same source counts no "major attacks" on Israeli civilians by any
Palestinians since 2006. Though there have been other attacks since
then, their frequency has dropped dramatically, and none have been
carried out by Hamas itself.

Israelis generally know what most Americans still don't: Suicide
bombing, supposedly the trademark of "Palestinian terrorism," has
virtually ceased. As a result, Israel's chief complaint has switched to
Hamas rocket attacks. How can we let them have the West Bank, the
argument goes? Look what happened when we pulled all our settlements
out of Gaza and got nothing in return but thousands of rockets. That's
why we had no choice but launch our full-scale assault on Gaza in
December 2008: to put an end to them.

In fact, though, Hamas rocket attacks had ended in July 2008, when
Israel agreed to the ceasefire Hamas had been asking for. That
agreement held for four months until Israeli troops killed six Hamas
operatives -- shortly before Hamas and Fatah were scheduled to create a unified government. It's a familiar Israeli tactic: block Palestinian unity and then complain of "no partner for peace."

Hamas was also moved by the plight of its people in Gaza, growing
increasingly short of food, medical supplies, and other basic goods due
to an ever-tightening Israeli blockade.

Yet all this is lost in the story that most Israelis tell, and most
Americans believe, about why Hamas began shooting rockets (which,
compared to the massive Israeli onslaught in response, did relatively
little damage). Equally lost is Hamas's return to its moratorium on
firing rockets after the recent Gaza war, formally confirmed by the party's leader, Khaled Meshal, in the New York Times.

Occasional rockets do fly out of Gaza, provoking the usual Israeli
demand that Palestinian authorities must prevent every single incident
of violence before there can be any talk of peace. That's something
like holding the U.S. government responsible for the recent shooting at
the Holocaust Museum in Washington or the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P.
Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

A Mirror Image?

Still, the Palestinian governments in both Gaza and the West Bank could
do more to control the private violence of their people, just as the
Israeli government could do more to control Jewish settler violence.
Yet none of these governments act vigorously because they risk
alienating a small but significant portion of their political support.

As the Times's Ethan Bronner recently wrote:
"There are striking parallels between the hard-core opponents of a
peace deal on each side. They are generally driven by a belief in a law
higher than any created by human legislatures; they are exceptionally
motivated; and they are very well organized... Many Israeli governments
have fallen over the issue."

For the risk of offending hard-core groups, neither side sees obvious
countervailing political gain. While a minority on both sides condemns
the violence of its compatriots, the majority seems to accept it as an
excessive, unfortunate, but understandable response to provocations
initiated by the enemy. So neither Hamas, nor Fatah, nor the Israeli
government see any clear advantage in bending over backwards to stop
attacks by non-state groups.

What's more, as Uri Avnery,
the grand old man of the Israeli peace movement, explains: "On both
sides, the overwhelming majority want an end to the conflict but do not
believe that peace is possible -- and each side blames the other." Each
side blames the other because so many on each side believe that those
who perpetrate the violence represent the entirety of the other side.
We could have peace, the universal complaint goes, if only "the
Palestinians" or "the Israelis" would stop their violence.

The tragedy is that, on both sides, those who inflict violence gain
little of practical value from it. Indeed the motives that keep the
conflict boiling may have little to do with any hope of practical gain
from it. When researchers
asked nearly 4,000 Israelis and Palestinians what it would take to make
peace, few focused on tangible benefits like gaining more land or
resources. Most on both sides wanted see "their enemies making symbolic
but difficult gestures." They agreed that they would be willing to make
concessions, but only if "the other side agreed to a symbolic sacrifice
of one of its sacred values." The violence done by non-state actors is
perversely satisfying, even if ultimately useless, because it's the
most visible way to win little symbolic victories.

A New Narrative

Palestinians can argue, with good reason, that treating the two sides
as mirror images creates a false equivalence. After all, one side is
the occupier, constantly inflicting symbolic defeats through the use of
state-sponsored violence that dwarfs the violence of its private
citizens, or sometimes even more powerfully just by using its ability
to re-organize the landscape. The other side is the occupied, a people
with virtually no tools of state violence to wield even if they want
to, struggling every day just to survive. In the U.S. and around the
world there is growing pressure to reverse the traditional narrative of
these last decades and turn the Israelis into the bad guys.

Given the tiny fraction of Americans who identify as
pro-Palestinian, it's fruitless to think that a majority of us would
ever adopt such a reversed narrative -- nor would it be very helpful,
regardless of the facts. If the Obama administration really intends to
be an even-handed broker, forcing the two sides to move towards genuine
compromise at the negotiating table, it needs to represent a nation
that tells an even-handed story.

Old narratives don't die out simply because they fail to fit the facts.
They die out when a more appealing story comes along. The eroding
support for Israeli policies in this country signals a growing appetite
for a new, more even-handed narrative, one that says this:

The crucial conflict is not between Israel and Palestine. It's
between peace and violence. Violence comes from both sides. But there's
also the possibility of fostering a strong push for peace on both
sides. Here in the U.S., we should urge our government to stop taking
sides in the blame game, condemn all the violence -- including, for the
first time, Israeli violence -- and support all forces of peace that
exist or arise.

It is hard for many of my fellow Jews to accept the painful truth that
we are as capable of violence as the Palestinians, or anyone else. But
this new narrative is gaining ground rapidly in the American Jewish community, where groups like J Street and Brit Tzedek v'Shalom are making well-organized efforts to promote it and act upon it.

As non-Jewish Americans become aware of that change, they are likely to
feel freer to adopt the even-handed narrative as their own, too. When
enough of them do, the political winds in this country will change.
Then the White House will feel safe enough to tell Israel, as well as
Palestine, to stop both state and non-state violence. That's a
necessary first step for an even-handed broker who hopes to open a path
to peace.

© 2023