Who's to blame for Palestinian suffering?

Posted: Mar 23, 2004 12:00 AM

Many people see the Arab-Israeli conflict as a hopeless morass, a maelstrom of hatred with no beginning or end. Both sides are victims and victimizers, so goes the refrain.

It is true that both sides are suffering, but on closer examination this neat symmetry of blame breaks down.

Recently, we recorded my syndicated television show from Jerusalem. During that time, we talked to Israeli Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu about his attempts to revamp the Israeli economy along free-market lines. We also talked to Diaspora Affairs Minister Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident, about being imprisoned for 13 years, much of it in the Siberian gulag, and continuing the fight for human rights as an Israeli elected official.

Sharansky sees no contradiction between his struggle for human rights then or now.

"On one hand, so many people feel Israel is a big violator of human rights, but I know Israel demonstrates more sensitivity to human rights than any other democracy in the world," said Sharansky. He added, "the depth of all concessions should only be (comparable) to the depth of democracy on the other side."

In Ramallah I met with Palestinian Authority Minister Saeb Erekat who condemned the recent outbreak of suicide bombings. He also cackled at Sharansky's assessment of himself as a human rights activist and wondered aloud how the Jewish people, who have historically suffered so much oppression, could be so brutal in their treatment of Palestinian Arabs.

The Palestinians, however, are no strangers to brutality. This week, Israeli soldiers caught an 11-year-old boy who had been given a bag to carry through a checkpoint on his way to school. The bag was full of explosives, and when the child was detained the terrorists tried to set the bomb off by dialing the attached cell phone. The bomb failed to explode, but if it had, it would have led to the scenes I saw at Israel's Hadassah Hospital - victims of suicide bombings stretched out on their cots, their faces dotted with shrapnel marks, green and blue tubes strung up across and through their bodies.

Along the West Bank and Gaza, cars are smashed and burning. Mourners drag themselves across the sands in grim funeral processions. Kids chant, "I want to be a martyr."

Which brings us to the next point. People assume that the Palestinian suicide bombers are dying for a cause. Oftentimes, they are not. Military and police sources shared countless stories that suggest the suicide attacks are a response not to Israel, but to the oppressive forces within Palestinian society.

Our military sources recalled the story of a woman who recently detonated herself and four others at the border checkpoint. What went unreported was that the woman had been having an adulterous affair. She was given a choice: Be stoned to death, or go on a suicide-bombing mission. She chose the latter because it was the only way to restore "honor" to her family.

Our intelligence sources also talked about how more children are being used to deliver explosives. Often it is younger siblings, traditionally treated as second-class citizens, who try to affix honor to their names by carrying out bombings. This sort of pathology is maintained through social and religious myths that indoctrinate the youth to extremism. Schoolrooms are decorated with pictures of suicide bombers, who are praised and glorified by teachers. One of the most popular pastimes for school kids is a card game called "how to be a suicide bomber."

From a young age these children are taught to blame the ruin of their lives on a nexus of crippling political decisions handed down by Israel. In a land where large portions of the population are starving and lack a sense of future possibilities, this kind of social conditioning holds a special appeal, suggesting a more glorious alternative to poverty.

Of course, the Palestinian leadership knows that it cannot dislodge Israel by force. And yet it continues to condition its citizens to engage in brutal and arbitrary suicide attacks.

The obvious implication is that many Palestinian suicide bombers aren't dying for change so much as they are dying because their own oppressive government is using them as pawns to keep themselves in power.

Meanwhile, Palestinians suffer. They are poor. They lack a court system, and even many basic rights. Their leaders have created a society dedicated not to building their own state but to destroying another - and sacrificing their own children in the process.

It is in the world's interest to have a peaceful Palestinian state. This will not occur until the Palestinians are no longer oppressed - not by Israel, but by the Palestinian dictators who send hopeless citizens across the border to martyrdom.