It’s a Borderline Case
By A.D. Freudenheim  

19 July 2004

I haven’t written about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in weeks, because it is simply too depressing – unchangingly so. Both sides seem to be controlled by (if not actually dominated by) the ideological fatalists, though it is difficult despite the polls and studies even to know which opinions are held by the majority on either side. Not much there is certain except perhaps this: whichever group is most in denial about the realities of the situation, that is the group that somehow manages to dictate the terms of engagement in the conflict for either side.


The news late last week that an offshoot group of Fatah kidnapped several French aid workers in the Gaza Strip and held them hostage, briefly, is a new(ish) twist in the fight. Hostage-taking has been a recurring theme recently in Iraq, but has not been a tactic used by Palestinian terrorists in some time; they have been too busy blowing up themselves and others to worry about trying to capture and hold people against their will. Perhaps this is all very calculated on their part, as they would no doubt like us to believe – but the messages are all wrong. For one thing, as inexcusable as hostage-taking is, it does generally show a stronger respect for life; at least, more respect for life than blowing up one’s self and whoever else happens to be around at the time. It is difficult to attribute any positive value to terrorist activities, but life-preserving is probably better than life-taking in most instances.

The absurd nuances in all of this do not become more easily understood by examining those who were taken hostage. Capturing the local Palestinian police chief is easy to understand: the terrorists and the notional Palestinian Authority are very much at odds. But French aid workers are likely friendly to the Palestinians; the French have been more active supporters of the Palestinian cause than almost any other Western European nation in recent years, and aid workers in Gaza are risking their lives implicitly, just by virtue of antagonizing the Israelis, never mind the dangers of living in an impoverished, violent, occupied land. Why, then, this group of Palestinians would take French hostages is very much a mystery.

Then, there is the mystery of the terrorists themselves. The New York Times reported on Saturday that the kidnappers were from the “Abu al-Rish Brigades, a small faction loosely linked to Mr. Arafat’s Fatah movement, according to Palestinian security officials”; they apparently took the hostages to give force to their demands that they be added to the Palestinian security forces.[1] (How the kidnappings were to prove that the men were up to the formidable task of serving as security for the Palestinians was not discussed.) More significant is the attribution of the group itself; this formulation is seen often in news reports: a group “linked” to Fatah, a movement or faction itself controlled by Arafat. A day earlier, another Times article included quotes from an interview with Muhammad Dahlan, head of the Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security Force, which reported: “‘They are against the intifada; at the same time, they are with the intifada,’ he [Dahlan] said of Fatah’s leaders, without naming the top one. ‘They are against the terror, and they are with the terror.’”[2]

And so even as Mr. Arafat maintains his role as head of a Palestinian quasi-government, he also maintains his role as head of a violent political movement which, it seems, supports “loosely” the terrorists whose actions so brutally undermine the cause of Palestinian independence and the credibility of the Palestinian Authority.


The Israelis are hardly innocents, however. The single biggest mistake they made was the decision not to return the lands of the West Bank and Gaza in return for a peace deal soon after the 1967 war in which they captured the territories. Of course, the argument – rightly – is that the Arab leaders of the time would not have made peace in the late 1960s and early 1970s; but the Israelis didn’t try, either. Since then, Israel’s leaders have compounded their errors, through a combination of mistaken policies and misguided actions.

Israel’s settlement policy has created heavily-barricaded Jewish villages throughout the occupied territories. Its security policies, both before and after the start of Intifadas #1 and #2, sliced up the occupied territories, putting a premium on the value of the Jewish settlers while creating entrapped, enclosed, and sometimes-desperate Palestinian villages. Israel made decisions to raze not only homes but olive orchards and planted fields. It implemented a policy of “targeted assassination,” strikingly similar to extra-judicial murder. And a foolish decision to create a necessary border fence between Israelis and Palestinians – which it continues to build not along the border, but instead along a pathway that suits the Israeli need to protect the illegal settlements. These are a few of the more recent mistaken strategies and tactics of Israeli governments, past and present – and this is to say nothing of the failure of Israel-as-democracy to truly integrate and accept the Israeli-Arab citizens within its midst.


Israeli policy and action has helped to sustain a level of poverty and hopelessness among the Palestinians that surely contributes to the sense that the Palestinians have nothing else to lose except their lives. Life, however, is the only thing that the Palestinians do have, and they have only themselves to blame (with the aid of their broader cousins in the Arab world) for making poor choices in politics, in war, and in peace. In politics, they have failed to demand leadership from those who think of nothing but being seen as “leaders” but in practice do very little. In war, they have allowed what may be a minority of militants to determine whether and how to fight a larger, more powerful enemy – one which, as they have should have learned by now, will not make the distinction between militant minorities and the rest of the population. And in peace they have encouraged the world to wonder whether they even truly know the meaning of the word.

[1] “Rash of Kidnappings in Gaza Challenges the Authority of the Palestinian Government,” by Greg Myre, The New York Times, 17 July 2004
[2] “Isolated and Angry, Gaza Battles Itself, Too,” by James Bennett, The New York Times, 16 July 2004
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