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Jewish Journal

Fatah fighters’ escape to Israel and what it means

By Rabbi Abraham Cooper and Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

August 21, 2008 | 12:42 am

Even for the complex Middle East it was a moment of exceptional irony. Some 180 Fatah loyalists fleeing a series of shootouts and summary executions by Hamas

on the streets of Gaza ran for the border -- banking on the mercies of the enemy they usually target.

Remarkably, Israeli soldiers braved Hamas fire to save the Palestinians. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, however, opted to return the fighters to Gaza. The first group of 35 returnees was promptly arrested by Hamas.

Seeing the danger to their erstwhile foes, the Israel Defense Forces balked at transferring the rest of the Fatah men, while the Association for Civil Rights in Israel appealed to Israel's Supreme Court to block the forced repatriation. Finally, Israel prevailed upon Abbas to give safety to his own followers, and they were sent to Jericho.

The reaction in the Arab world to this incredible turn of events is instructive. Writing in Beirut's Daily Star, columnist Rami Khouri offered an assessment of the larger issue:

"This is the latest and most troubling example of how a once-grand and noble Palestinian national liberation movement has allowed itself to degenerate into ineptitude.... As Fatah and Hamas battle it out like a bunch of armed neighborhood gangs, it will not be surprising to see some friends of Palestine quietly walk away, mumbling that if the Palestinians wish to kill each other and destroy their own society, they are free to do so."

Writing in Al-Hayat, Mohammad Salah goes even further:

"The flight by Ahmad Hilles and other Palestinians to Israel in search of safety away from the bullying and aggression of Hamas affirms that the Palestinian issue is on its way to disappearing, evaporating and being forgotten. It also proves that Israel, for many Palestinians, is a refuge or objective one seeks and heads toward when Palestinians oppress each other."

The border episode should have been cheered by nongovernment organizations and church groups who insist that peace will come to the Middle East not through governmental fiat, but when people on both sides recognize the humanity of the other.

Other developments, however, indicate that we are a long way off from moving beyond widely held stereotypes in the Arab World that depict Christians as bloodthirsty crusaders and Jews as the offspring of pigs and monkeys. The reaction to a University of Haifa course shows just how much toxicity prevails in the Arab street.

Professor Ofer Grosbard, assisted in a project by 15 Muslim students, quoted verses from the Quran that would help Muslim psychologists reinforce in their religious patients concepts like respect, responsibility, honesty, dignity and kindness. Their selections were vetted by three Islamic clerics.

Nonetheless, the project drew furious responses. Speaking to Gulf News, Dr. Abdullah Al Mutlaq, of the Senior Ulema Board in Saudi Arabia, insisted that the project should not be trusted by Muslims, because it is run by Jews who openly show their hatred to Islam and Muslims, and that Grosbard's interpretation of the Quran's lessons in human dignity and kindness would give Muslims the wrong impression of their religion. Not surprisingly, officials of the Palestinian Authority concurred.

Don't expect the caretakers of the global civil society to challenge the Arab world anytime soon. Some self-appointed activists, operating in the rarified moral high ground of nongovernmental organizations, refuse to be impacted by the facts. For even as Israelis fought to obtain the safety of Arab fighters on Aug. 5, two boats in Cyprus were preparing a mission to burst through Israel's sea blockade into an embrace with Hamas. The success of the mission was to be measured by Google hits on BBC and Iranian media coverage, not by any humanitarian cargo for the beleaguered residents of Gaza.

Israel has consistently allowed such supplies in and arranged passage for many critically ill patients to Israeli hospitals. This despite the fact that at least one ill woman from Gaza used the privilege of shuttling back and forth to an Israeli hospital to try to smuggle a bomb that would blow up the very facility and doctors who treated her.

Most nongovernmental organizations (NGO) that see themselves as protectors of Palestinian interests remain blind and silent, both about the Israeli largesse and the rupture of Palestinian society. Have they ever wondered what issues Israelis grapple with, what their needs are in the Gordian knot we call the Holy Land?

Did anyone consider the reaction of the parents of Gilad Shalit to the Fatah rescue? Shalit is the Israeli soldier kidnapped near that very crossing where the Fatah members were saved by other Israeli soldiers.

And what of the bereaved families of Vadim Nurhitz and Yossi Avrahami, two Israeli reservists who took a wrong turn into Ramallah? Taken to a PA police station, they were brutalized and dismembered by a mob. Rather than protect the two soldiers, a PA policeman at the station participated in the lynching.

For too many, repeating empty mantras about the "occupation" is much easier than rethinking the nature of a future Palestinian state and how it would treat its own citizens or its Jewish neighbors. Indeed, too few in the international community care enough to demand a modicum of accountability from the Palestinians.

These events present a microcosm of a clash not between two governments but of two fundamentally different cultures. Nothing will ever change until the world comes to understand the truths that led the Fatah fighters to choose the Israeli enemy over their Palestinian brothers?

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of interfaith relations for the Wiesenthal Center.

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