Posted by Omar Baddar on July 21, 2017 in Blog

Screen_Shot_2017-07-21_at_12.59.29_PM.pngEnding US financial backing for attacks on civilians in Israel and Palestine is a noble cause, and deserves the backing of all Americans. But when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee attempted to address the matter with the Taylor Force Act, they did it with the wrong framing and focus, advocating cutting US funding for the Palestinian Authority (PA) for what is misleadingly described as the PA’s policy of “rewards for terrorism”. Before addressing why this characterization is misleading, let me first explain why the entire conversation is framed terribly.

Elephant in the Room

By dedicating this hearing to Palestinian violence against civilians, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ignored the elephant in the room, focused on the mouse instead, and disregarded the fact that the mouse got into the room through the gaping hole the elephant created when it crashed through the wall in the first place. When it comes to attacks on civilians in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nothing compares to the massive, sustained assault on Palestinian civilians by the Israeli military. We are incidentally in the midst of the 3rd anniversary of Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, which left more than 1400 Palestinian civilians dead, including some 500 children. During the assault, Israeli soldiers engaged in unlawful “deliberate or reckless attacks” on civilians that constituted “war crimes”, used Palestinian children as human shields, and shot and killed fleeing civilians, including in cases where there were no militants around. Human Rights Watch said it documented “numerous serious violations of the laws of war by Israeli forces in the past decade, particularly indiscriminate attacks on civilians.”

The Israeli military also has a history of dropping more a million cluster bombs over civilian areas in Lebanon, which led one Israeli commander to admit: “What we did was insane and monstrous”. This is the same army that fought against the Israeli supreme court to try to retain the practice of using Palestinian civilians as human shields in military operations. Though the legal effort has failed, Israel effectively encourages the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields by offering what Human Rights Watch calls a “slap on the wrist” as punishment when soldiers do engage in it. And if the word of the most credible human rights organizations wasn’t enough, Israeli soldiers themselves have come forward with confessions of attacks on civilians. 

These crimes against Palestinians are often portrayed as part of Israel’s “self-defense”, but as an occupying power dominating an entire society that lives outside of its borders, Israel can no more invoke “self-defense” than an armed introducer in a house robbery can claim “self-defense” against the rightful owners and residents of a home. It is precisely this illegal occupation, with all the violence it entails, including land appropriation for settlements and the demolition of Palestinian homes, that’s the driving force of the cycle of violence. A serious attempt at ending the violence would start with an effort to end the occupation, and a serious look at stopping US financial support to attacks on civilians would look at US military aid to Israel, which directly sustains Israel’s atrocities against Palestinian civilians.

Mischaracterizing the PA’s Policy

Because, as demonstrated above in detail, thousands of Palestinians are killed unlawfully by Israeli forces, and because many spend years in Israeli prisons for offenses that qualify as legitimate resistance under international law, including non-violent resistance, the Palestinian Authority established a policy of providing compensation for those who are killed or imprisoned in the conflict with Israel.

One seemingly unintended consequence of this policy is that the families of Palestinians who engage in acts of terrorism against Israeli civilians also become beneficiaries of this compensation program. While this is an undeniable consequence of this program, claims that the PA has a “pay-for-slay” policy to encourage terrorism, or that it’s a policy where “the bigger the killing, the bigger the financial reward”, those are utter lies that have been uncritically adopted by media outlets covering this issue. There is no factual evidence indicating this compensation program has inspired violence. Frankly, it’s dehumanizing to suggest Palestinians are willing to kill themselves and others for money, especially when violence has been a long-standing feature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, driven by political injustice, regardless of this policy. It can also be legitimately argued that children who lose a breadwinner, even when the breadwinner is a terrorist, should not be punished for their parents’ crimes and should still receive financial assistance from the government to survive.

Notwithstanding all of these counterpoints, a reasonable person can still take issue with the idea that an act of terrorism can result in financial gain for the perpetrator’s family. So how can this be remedied? One obvious way would be to exclude people who are convicted of acts of terrorism against civilians from this compensation program. But there is a major problem here: Mass arrests of Palestinians is a key feature of Israel’s occupation, and Israeli forces regularly engage in the torture of Palestinian prisoners (according to Amnesty International) including the torture of children, and convictions of “terrorism” that are based on confessions extracted by torture are not exactly reliable. So under this type of mass violence against Palestinian prisoners by Israeli authorities, it becomes difficult to pick out real terrorists who have attacked civilians among the masses of killed or convicted Palestinians who are simply the victims of Israeli occupation. This leaves us with a small number of incidents where it is indisputable that a Palestinian assailant has engaged in a deliberate act of violence against civilians. But to ignore the mass violence of the occupation and to focus on these few cases instead may give understandable satisfaction to some, but this fails to meaningfully address the real driving force of this tragic cycle of violence, and perpetuates the trend of one-sided accountability.

“Culture of martyrdom”

One of only two witnesses (both of them staunchly pro-Israel) at the lopsided Taylor Force Act hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was neocon diplomat Elliott Abrams, who raised concerns about “Palestinian political culture” contributing to terrorism. He recently wrote that Palestinians have a “political culture that elevates violence against Israelis above any positive achievements.” This is a grossly defamatory characterization of Palestinian culture, especially when it has been the Palestinians who have consistently compromised on their rights since the early 1990s to reach a peace agreement with Israel. It was Israel’s refusal to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories (indeed, its expansion of that occupation instead) that led to repeated outbreaks of violence and perpetuated the conflict. Even the US State Department just highlighted Palestinian efforts to combat terrorism, saying incitement against Israel is “rare and the [Palestinian] leadership does not generally tolerate it.”

Still, one should acknowledge an element of truth in an otherwise slanderous indictment of Palestinian culture: Many Palestinians don’t restrict their lionization of Palestinian fighters to those who engage in legitimate resistance to Israel’s occupation, some also celebrate as “martyrs” those who are killed while carrying attacks on civilians, and that should absolutely be combatted. But you’ll notice many of those who raise this legitimate point are deafeningly silent on Israeli incitement to violence. You don’t see them posting about Israeli rabbis who justify the killing of Palestinian children, or raising the alarm about Israeli settlers’ celebrations of a Jewish terrorist who massacred dozens of Palestinian worshipers in a mosque. You don’t see them expressing concern about the polls showing half of Israeli high-schoolers rejecting equal rights for Arab citizens, or about the Jewish extremists who attack western peace activists who come to protect Palestinians from settler violence, or who threaten journalists. You don’t see them sharing videos of Israeli mobs terrorizing Palestinians with racist chants and violence. You don’t see them bemoaning the state’s honoring of terrorists-turned-political leaders. You don’t see them even echoing Israel’s own Supreme Court’s warning about the normalization of “Death to Arabs” chants during soccer matches. It is much more convenient to pretend that Palestinian culture alone, regardless of the decades of oppression and dehumanization Palestinians continue to live under, is the real problem here. Those comfortable with the status quo can go on pretending. Those who are interested in a just and lasting peace should stop pretending, and should get to the hard work of resolving the core issues of this conflict. It’s the least Israeli and Palestinian victims of violence deserve from all of us.