May 27, 2004
Barbaric Acts Kill Palestinian Sympathy
I know there are many Palestinians out there who are sickened and ashamed by what happened in Gaza to the remains of the six dead Israeli soldiers.
I don't hold them responsible; I don't associate them with those acts just because they are Palestinians or Arabs, not in any way.
In fact, I think it's important now to remember Arabs like the Palestinian man who drowned in the Sea of Galilee a couple of years ago trying to save a drowning Israeli boy. I remember a Jaffa Arab who was killed in 1992, I think, trying to stop a wild man from Gaza who was slashing at Jewish children with a saber.
An old Iraqi Jewish woman in Ramat Gan once told me how her neighbor back in Baghdad, a rich Sunni Muslim, had sheltered her family and scores of other local Jews from a pogrom, and had told the rioters that if they wanted to kill the Jews in his house, they would have to kill him first. A lot of Jews who survived the 1929 pogrom in Hebron could have described the same kind of scenes.
There are some Arabs who have a humanity and courage that is rare to find in any society -- including, by the way, among Jews. Then there are many Arabs, although I can't guess what proportion, who are just ordinary decent people.
But there are some Arabs living in the Middle East who are, to say the least, indecent. They do things that Jews here or anywhere else don't do, no matter the provocation -- and Jews over the years have had their provocations, including some even worse than anything faced by the Palestinians.
There is no shortage of Israeli soldiers who have done despicable things to Palestinians -- although less despicable, on the whole, than what soldiers in most, if not all, other armies have been known to do to their enemies.
The point is, we are living next to a society that is, for all its decent people and even its righteous gentiles, different from ours in a crucial way: some of its members are out and out monsters.
Their behavior is utterly demented, yet they're perfectly sane. Worse, they're not only tolerated, they're cheered by many of their peers. And the decent members of Palestinian society seem powerless to stop them or prevent them from coming out again and again.
I'm an Israeli leftist who hates the occupation, and there are a lot of things the Palestinians do that I'm willing to put down to circumstances, to this long tragedy we've been living in. Zionists, after all, deliberately killed plenty of innocent Arab civilians in the '30s and '40s.
But there are no circumstances that mitigate this reveling in the body parts of the enemy, the grabbing and parading of Israeli bones and gore as trophies. That's something that can't be traced to politics, and there is no political solution for it.
Wherever this behavior comes from, it didn't begin with the bone-snatching in Gaza's Zeitoun neighborhood. In this intifada, it began with the crowd dancing on the blood of the two soldiers lynched in Ramallah. It resurfaced when two boys in Tekoa were bludgeoned literally to a pulp. It gets reprised every time a crowd of Palestinians gathers to celebrate another bus full of Israelis getting blown apart.
This prominent feature of the intifada has hollowed out any idealism I once had about "making up" with the Palestinians and becoming good neighbors. While there are so many I've met whom I would love to have as neighbors in my apartment building, and a great many more I haven't met who are in no way monsters, as far as the Palestinian nation goes, I want a hard border between them and us, and separate national lives -- because of what we were reminded of at Zeitoun, because Palestinian society allows that element to flourish.
I'm afraid that this deformed face of the intifada has withered the idealism of a lot of people on the Zionist left. I don't think it's made anybody a fan of the occupation, or changed their ideas about where the final borders should be, but it's blighted the spirit of the peace movement. Speaking for myself, it's deadened my heart toward the Palestinians.
As much as ever, I'm still filled with rage at Israelis who enjoy abusing and humiliating innocent people. I still have no tolerance for sadism. But my attitude has become sort of abstract, a matter of conscience alone, because while I still feel fury at the bullies, I no longer feel compassion for the victims.
If I knew that the civilians being treated viciously were not enthusiasts of Hamas, Islamic Jihad or Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, that they did not root for the violent deaths of Israeli children, then my heart would go out to them as before.
But since the intifada began, I know there's a very strong chance that a given Palestinian goes around hoping that the suicide bombers will get through. So unless I know otherwise, I'll believe in his human rights, but I can't feel any sympathy for him. Too much candy has passed between Palestinian hands for that.
Sympathy for the Palestinians and shame over their repression were the animating emotions of the Israeli peace movement, but the eager barbarity of the intifada has removed much of that shame and about all of the sympathy. What remains for peaceniks is a hatred of injustice and brutality, and a yearning for security, but a numbed heart.
To all the brave and humane or even just decent Palestinians out there, I'm sorry. In no way am I blaming you. I just hope you won't blame me, either.
Larry Derfner is the Tel Aviv correspondent for The Jewish Journal.