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The Missing Elements in the Debate Over Palestinian Incitement

In a development that should surprise no one, letters are circulating this week in both the House and Senate denouncing Palestinian incitement - actions or words that impel Palestinians to commit acts of violence against Israelis - and connecting such incitement to last week's heinous murders in the settlement of Itamar.  The House letter, being circulated by Reps. Rothman (D-NJ) and Austria (R-OH), calls on President Obama to do all in his power to "insist that President Abbas reenters peace talks, without preconditions, and demand that President Abbas eliminate all vestiges of incitement coming from his government, Palestinian entities, or officials."  The Senate letter, being circulated by Sens. Kirk (R-IL) and Gillibrand (D-NY), addressed to Secretary Clinton, demands that the Palestinian Authority "stop allowing the incitement that leads to such crimes [as the one committed in Itamar]."

Yes, incitement is a serious issue and it is right for Congress to be concerned.  Palestinian endorsement of violence and hate speech continue to be a problem.  APN has consistently called on - and continues to call on - the PA to address this very troubling issue.

However, both letters are flawed, focusing solely on this one aspect of a problem that has many facets:  

Israeli anti-Palestinian incitement is also a problem.  
The letters omit any mention of the ugly anti-Palestinian incitement that exists in Israel, often coming from the mouths of employees and officials of the government.  For example, there was the 2009 publication and distribution of a book by a rabbi from the settlement of Yitzhar (located in the same area as Itamar and whose residents are well known for their attacks on Palestinians - see here, here, here, and here, for example).  In the book, this rabbi, who is regarded as one of the religious leaders of the far right-wing settlers, offers guidance on when it is okay to kill non-Jews (including, explicitly, children).  After months of public outcry and silence from the government, a criminal investigation was belatedly launched, engendering a sharp backlash from some rabbis and no indictments or punishment.   That rabbi's yeshiva is funded by the government of Israel (and receives tax-exempt donations from the U.S.).   Likewise, ubiquitous graffiti in the West Bank - especially in Hebron - and in mixed Israeli-Arabs of Israel - declares sentiments like "death to the Arabs," "Kahane was right," "Arabs out" and "no Arabs, no terror."

The letters also omit any mention of the disgusting anti-Palestinian rhetoric that has followed in the wake of the Itamar murders.  This includes the article by Gilad Sharon - son of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - who wrote a piece in Yedioth Ahronot  (Israel's largest circulation newspaper) articulating openly racist, disgusting views of all Palestinians.  Such vile pronouncements in all likelihood have contributed to the "price tag" operations against Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel that have been seen in recent days inside Israel and in the West Bank.

Israeli actions in the West Bank are also a problem.
The letters omit any mention of Israeli actions that, by their nature, fuel Palestinian anger and hatred and empower extremists.  Incitement is indeed an issue, but actions can speak louder than words.  And actions that humiliate and marginalize the Palestinian people and discredit their leaders' call for non-violence have a huge impact.  Israel's decision to use the Itamar murders as a pretext to approve new massive settlement construction - in what was explicitly framed as collective punishment against all Palestinians for an act that was condemned by the PA - is an example of this.

Right-wing vilification of the peace camp is growing.
The letters omit any mention of the frightening and inflammatory rhetoric being aimed against Israelis and other Jews who support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  In the wake of the Itamar murders, there has been a chorus of voices in Israel recklessly blaming the crime on peace activists.  In effect, they argue that opposing the expansion of settlements causes terrorism.  This appears to be part of a cynical effort to exploit this horrific crime in order to shut up anyone who disagrees with the settlers' agenda (and to be part and parcel of ongoing efforts in the Knesset to pass anti-democratic laws that will achieve the same goal).  Such defaming of the left is not without precedent - it was endemic in Israel in the months that lead up to the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and it has been the context for recent attacks on peace activists in Israel, including the placing of a bomb at the home of Professor Sternhall.  It includes the words of the mayor of Ariel, Ron Nachman - who is well known in Congress - who explicitly placed some responsibility for the terrorist attack on Peace Now, by name (article, video).  (For the record, Peace Now unequivocally condemned the attack and condemns all use of violence and terrorism.)

PA efforts to curb incitement have been having an effect.  
The letters fail to mention the fact that the incidents of incitement that are being cited today are notable precisely because they have become the exception to the rule, as compared to the past when virulent incitement was the norm on Palestinian television, in mosques, etc.  Indeed, reading the Congressional letters leaves the impression that the problem of Palestinian incitement against Israel is at its peak today.  The reality is quite different:  the PA, under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, has worked hard and with real effect to stop incitement in areas under their control.  More needs to be done, but the improvement is significant, considering that real-life conditions that breed Palestinian hatred of Israel - the occupation and all that it means for their lives - have not gone away.

Israel's own record in memorializing those who commit acts of violence is poor.
The letters omit any reference to the fact that, when it comes to things like memorializing terrorists, Israel does not have clean hands.  As noted in the 3/19/10 edition of APN's Legislative Round-Up (the last time this issue came up in Congress)
•    the Israeli government permits annual memorials for Meir Kahane (whose party was outlawed for its racist policies, and the two groups associated with him - Kach and Kahane Chai - are both US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations). 

•    the Israeli government has permitted settlers in Kiryat Arba to turn the grave of Baruch Goldstein - the Israeli-American settler who on Purim in 1994 massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron - into a memorial shrine that has become a pilgrimage site for right-wing extremists where they celebrate Goldstein's actions and his legacy.  The grave is located in a park in Kiryat Arba (which by definition is State Land) - a park named for the man who inspired Goldstein and inspires many Jewish extremists today, Meir Kahane (the same Meir Kahane discussed above).  The 16-year anniversary of that attack was celebrated last month (2010).  Goldstein's gravestone reads "Here lies the saint, Dr. Baruch Kappel Goldstein, blessed be the memory of the righteous and holy man, may The Lord avenge his blood, who devoted his soul to The Jews, Jewish religion and Jewish land. His hands are innocent and his heart is pure. He was killed as a martyr of God on the 14th of Adar, Purim, in the year 5754."

•    ...the Israeli Knesset held a special commemorative session in honor of a dozen pre-1948 Jewish underground fighters know as the "Olei HaGardom" who were executed by the British  - members of the Lehi (aka Stern Gang) and Etzel (aka the Irgun) - for attacking both British military officers and British and Arab civilians.  Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered an address during the session lauding the fighters and rejecting any comparison to their actions and terrorism.  As noted in the settlers' news outlet,"the two most famous Olei HaGardom were Shlomo Ben-Yosef and Dov Gruner. Ben-Yosef was executed on June 29, 1938 (Sivan 30) after he shot at an Arab bus carrying near Tzfat in response to frequent Arab attacks against Jews in the country's north. Gruner was executed on April 16, 1947 (Nissan 26) after attacking a British police station in Ramat Gan."  Countless streets, neighborhoods, museums, public squares in Israel are named this group or the individuals associated with it.  The state has also issued postage stamps commemorating them and their deeds.

Palestinian incitement should not be ignored.  However, Congress' failure to acknowledge, let alone address and condemn, all words and actions that sow anger and hatred, and potentially, violence, is deeply troubling.  Such words and actions have become a regular feature of Israeli life - whether by means of actions to expand settlements, by ugly tracts distributed in synagogues, by slogans at public rallies, in speeches and edicts of prominent rabbis, and in the media.  They are especially evident after something so horrific as the murders at Itamar.  Such words and actions fuel Palestinian hatred of Israel in ways every bit as powerful, or more powerful, than any mosque speech or square dedication do.  And such words and actions have the demonstrated potential to fuel attacks against both Palestinians and Israelis.  Congress should wake up to this reality before the next tragedy.

One final point:  yes, incitement is a serious issue, but it is also a red herring - it is simply not the chief obstacle to peace.  The chief obstacle to peace today is the lack of leadership and political will on all sides.  This leaves the way open for provocative actions by Israel on settlements, and the concomitant refusal of the Palestinians to come back to talks.  If members of Congress want to push for peace, they should be pressing all sides, and especially the Obama Administration, to get serious, stop the provocations and the foot-dragging, and work in earnest to achieve an agreement.