“Terrorist attack” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu charges. “Murder!” cries Defense Minister Ehud Barak. “Nothing can justify the opening of fire at innocent people.” “Killed because he is Jewish," claims Science and Culture Minister Limor Livnat.
Livnat might be forgiven for emotional exaggeration. It was her nephew who was killed, apparently by Palestinian policemen, after he and several carloads of Jews ran through a Palestinian security blockade in Nablus on the West Bank. They had failed to stop when the police fired warning shots in the air.
Palestinian police officials say they are investigating, and the local Palestinian governor said that the shooting was “a mistake.” A Palestinian security official said the police had “identified suspicious movements.” The Israeli military says it was not a terrorist attack. The Jews threw stones at the police and had violated rules barring them from the site -- the purported tomb of the biblical Joseph -- without permission.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu whipped up emotions by using the word “terrorist” and demanding that the Palestinian Authority "take harsh steps against the perpetrators who committed this heinous act against Jewish worshipers who were on their way to prayer." The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has condemned him for “improper and harmful inflammatory declarations.” But there are sure to be growing demands from Israel for harsh punishment.
Compare that to another tragic killing in Nablus, in early January, 2011. Israeli soldiers shot a Palestinian dead at a checkpoint. His crime: After legally passing through the checkpoint he turned in the wrong direction. (The Israelis tell Palestinians whether they’re allowed to turn left or right.) And he was holding a bottle or can of Coca-Cola, which the soldiers claimed looked like a suspiciously dangerous object. “The soldiers apparently felt threatened," an Israeli military spokesperson explained; it was all done “according to the Israel Defense Forces rules of engagement.”
Two days later the incident disappeared from the news. A Google search finds no evidence of any follow-up by the Israeli authorities.
The double standard here is an old story. Israelis always expect harsh revenge when a Jew is killed, while a Palestinian killed by the Israeli military is just an unfortunate incident in the line of duty.
But for those who care about justice for Palestinians, it’s the double standard in the U.S. that is most important. The killing of the Israeli Jew was reported on a slew of U.S. online news sites. The Palestinian’s killing was reported in just three (according to a Google News search). That’s no surprise either. Statistical studies confirm what even the most casual observer of American mainstream media must suspect: Jewish Israeli deaths are covered far more often and more extensively than Palestinian deaths. That’s true even when the Jews die in the Occupied Territory of Palestine, where they certainly don’t belong according to international law.
Given this imbalance in coverage, the casual observer does not know that in fact far more Palestinians that Israelis die in this conflict. The result: Most Americans assume that it’s the Israelis, not the Palestinians, who are constantly in danger. So they assume that whatever Israel does is justified by the supposed need for national self-defense.
That mistake is reinforced by U.S. politicians, from the president on down, who constantly pledge that the U.S. will always guarantee Israel’s security. Never a word about Palestinian security -- as if it the victim of decades of occupation and economic strangulation had nothing to worry about. So it’s not surprising that polls show Americans sympathizing with the Israelis, not the Palestinians, by a margin of at least 4 to 1.
In this climate, the Obama administration is afraid to put forth its own peace plan -- as so many figures in the foreign policy establishment, including the editors of the New York Times, want him to do -- because that would mean pressuring Israel to make concessions. If Obama makes even the most reasonable demands on Israel, the Republicans would portray him as “a friend of the Palestinian terrorists.” No president is going to take that chance with an election looming.
That’s a potential tragedy for the Palestinians. A weakened or paralyzed Obama will not be able to extend the helping hand the Palestinians need to get a just peace. Nor will he be able to stop the Israeli response to a UN vote in September endorsing Palestinian independence. That Israeli response could turn very nasty, indeed.
The Palestinian Authority leadership seems to understand their plight. They are now putting out the word that they’d rather have a negotiated settlement before the UN meets in September. Yasser Abed Rabbo, Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told Al-Hayat newspaper that the PA will defer its UN effort if "real and serious" negotiations with Israel begin. Moreover they’re willing to make a major concession: They’ll accept a settlement according to "the 1967 borders, very limited exchange of land and no exchanges of populations."
“No exchange of populations” sounds very much like the Palestinians giving up the right of return to homes within Israel proper, as long as all the settlers living in what becomes Palestine leave their settlements. And the “very limited exchange of land” means that, as nearly all observers now assume, a few of the very biggest Jewish settlements in the West Bank will be annexed to Israel.
So it looks like the Palestinians are eager to have Obama present his own peace plan. The only way to help them out is a massive push to shift the political mood in the U.S., which means debunking the myth that Israel is insecure, that a Palestinian state will put Israel in danger, that Israel is the underdog always fighting in self-defense. It’s amazing how many Americans actually believe all that.
As long as they believe it, Israel will maintain its hold on the U.S. public’s sympathy. The public will maintain the double standard that always favors Israel. Obama will be politically paralyzed. And the Palestinians will, as always, be the ones who suffer.
All the facts in the world about Israel’s oppression of Palestinians won’t make much of a dent in U.S. public opinion until the myth of Israel’s insecurity is punctured.