Palestinians must take responsibility for savage streak in their society

The topic of the day-long conference was torture, and Palestinians were describing the horrific methods the Shin Bet used in prison to get information out of them. Photos and illustrations of these practices were shown on a screen. Human rights activists, Palestinian and Israeli, spoke at length and in detail about Israel’s routine use of torture against Palestinian prisoners.

This was in 1993, in a Tel Aviv conference room, and I was there as a reporter. Toward the end of the day, during a Q-and-A with the audience, I asked about the torture of Palestinians by Palestinians. For some time, Hamas, Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had been targeting West Bankers and Gazans whom they considered collaborators, including Palestinians who worked for Israelis, and, in Hamas’s case, “moral collaborators” who sold alcohol or racy videos. The issue was well-known; B’tselem was preparing a massive report on it, and I wanted to know what these people had to say.

Palestinians in the audience turned and glared at me. From the panel, the Israeli lady who headed the Public Committee Against Torture, which organized the conference, also glared at me. I don’t remember getting a straight answer. But during the break that followed, a middle-aged Palestinian activist came up to me with a stern, reproachful expression and said, “That will be a legitimate question — after we have our own state.”

As people headed out to the lobby, the Israeli emcee looked at me a little sheepishly and said in a low voice: “These people aren’t comfortable with self-criticism.”

He was right, and what he said still holds true — as can be seen from the general Palestinian reaction to the March 11 massacre of the Fogel family in the settlement of Itamar, which was distinguished by the butchery of three children, ages 11, 4 and three months.

Before going into the moral cowardice of the Palestinians’ reaction, I want to emphasize that from all evidence, they do genuinely deplore it, with few exceptions. Even Hamas said “harming children is not part of Hamas policy,” even though this belies history. Not only Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas spoke of his revulsion at the murders of children, so did leading PA media, so did Palestinians on Facebook, so did Nablus residents interviewed by Channel 10 reporter Shlomi Eldar, so did the half-dozen East Jerusalem shopkeepers I interviewed.

“We think it’s inhuman to kill people like that,” said Murad Muna, a grocer. “Nothing justifies going into a house and killing children,” said Nabil Feidy, a currency dealer. .

After the killings, some people in the Gazan town of Rafah handed out sweets, a group calling itself the “Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades of Imad Mughniyeh” claimed responsibility, and Islamic Jihad called it a “heroic operation.” Otherwise, Palestinian society has come down on this slaughter of a family asleep, above all of children.

They are not the amoral creatures that so many Israelis consider them to be. If you actually talk to Palestinians, you see that they’re as human as anyone else, they know the difference between right and wrong, and they know that stabbing children to death, any children, is the worst abomination.

What Palestinians cannot do, though, is take collective responsibility for such an abomination — which, after all, happened before — not often by any means, but there have been instances of Israeli children being stabbed, shot or stoned to death by Palestinians, and not recklessly, but methodically. It happened in Itamar before, at the height of the second intifada in 2002, at Kibbutz Metzer the same year, in Tekoa the year before, and there have been other cases over the years.

The cold-blooded murder of children cannot be mitigated by anything on earth. It is outside of politics, outside of anything the “other side” does, no matter who the other side is and what he does. When children are murdered, the blame belongs to the murderer, not to any enemy he might have had.

And when it happens more than once, more than twice, when it’s something that “crops up” over the course of time, then it means there is something very wrong in the society that that murderer comes from. It doesn’t mean the society is savage, but it means there is some streak of savagery in it that’s been allowed to come out.

Palestinians aren’t a nation of child killers, they’re a nation like any other that abhors such acts. And if they have a streak of savagery, they’re not the only nation in the world that does.

But what’s depressing about the Palestinian reaction to this atrocity is their refusal to take any responsibility for it — to say this was an act plainly committed in our name, in the name of our cause, it isn’t the first time it’s happened, so we have a problem. We, Palestinian society, have a problem, not just the murderers. This was a Palestinian-made abomination, this is our shame, and we have to collectively accept responsibility, we have to swear to rid ourselves of this savage streak.

No way. The only Palestinian I heard even suggesting that the massacre had anything to do with them was an Israeli Palestinian, MK Ahmed Tibi, who said in Knesset that it “shames the Palestinians.” I think he’s right; I think that deep down, Palestinians are ashamed of what happened in Itamar, but they don’t have the courage to admit it — not even to themselves.

Some shopkeepers I talked to on Nablus Road said that as much as they condemned these killings, there was no reason to suspect Palestinians as the killers, and they repeated the wholly unsubstantiated local “news” that a Thai worker had been arrested for killing the Fogel family over an unpaid debt. “There’s no way Palestinians could get close enough to a settlement to get inside,” said Mazen Shweiki, who runs a photo gallery.

Others assumed that the murders had been carried out by Palestinians, but said the killings by Israeli soldiers and settlers of Palestinians in the area, “including children,” in recent months had provoked them.

So who or what, ultimately, was to blame? I asked Feidy, the currency dealer. “Only one thing is to blame — the occupation. Always,” he said.

The PA media took the same tack. Even the anti-terrorist Popular Resistance Committees, which organize the weekly protests against the security fence in Bil’in and other West Bank villages, blamed the occupation for this “despicable crime”

The murders of these children, said the Committees, were also “part of the escalation generated and mobilized by the policies and actions of the Israeli occupation … Therefore we believe that the Israeli government bears full responsibility for the occupation and its consequences.”

In Palestinian eyes, anything any Palestinian does to any Israeli is a consequence of the occupation. If a Palestinian stabs three Israeli children to death in their beds, that’s a consequence of the occupation. If a Palestinian were to stab 300 Israeli children to death in their beds, that, too, would be a consequence of the occupation.

I’m about the last person to say that Israel is blameless for the violence in the West Bank, and I’m also about the last one to say Palestinians don’t have the right to resist the occupation. But when looking at Palestinian behavior, there has to be some point where Israel’s responsibility ends and Palestinian responsibility begins, and I’d say that point was definitely reached on March 11 in the Fogel home.

For once, the Palestinians should have left off the “but …” For once, they should not have changed the subject. For once, they should have looked inside their own society for the root causes.

They didn’t. They have a victim’s mentality — even worse than Israel’s, which is saying a lot — that absolves them of all responsibility. And because they don’t have the courage to take responsibility for anything any of them have ever done to any Israeli, things they genuinely despise, such as the murder of children, are liable to happen.

Until Palestinians acknowledge the savage streak in their society — even if only to themselves — and resolve to root it out, then, if history is a guide, there will be more abominations done in their name. And it’s completely legitimate to expect Palestinians to understand this — even before they have their own state.

Larry Derfner writes from Israel for U.S. News & World Report, The Jerusalem Post, and other publications.