Palestine Misunderstood
Image by Chetanya Robinson (Flickr)

Palestine Misunderstood

Petra Marquardt-Bigman
Petra Marquardt-Bigman
9 min read

From my home on the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv, I hear the Muslim call to prayer every day as it issues from a mosque half a mile away in neighboring Jaffa. Jewish Israelis see Arabic on their money, on street signs, on buses, and on the labels adorning foodstuffs that provide consumers with nutritional information. They hear Arabic in the stores, shopping malls, and cafes they routinely frequent. And if they visit a clinic or hospital, Jewish Israelis will hear Arabic spoken by their fellow patients, and by the doctors and nurses who tend to them. Israel may be the world’s only Jewish state, but Arabs account for roughly 21 percent of its population, so the sounds and sights of the Arabic language are simply part of daily life in this corner of the Levant.

So I was surprised to learn, from an article written by Michael Humeniuk for Quillette, that “when Jewish Israelis hear spoken Arabic, which they perceive as screams, they don’t know if a bomb is about to go off or one guy is simply complimenting another guy’s shoes.” Humeniuk is from Toronto, and his article is a well written and (presumably) well intentioned attempt to look beyond the “solemn stereotypes” he and other Westerners have absorbed of Palestinians “as freedom fighter or terrorist—geopolitical character actors within the grand narrative of what is vaguely described as ‘the Middle East conflict.’” Others, like him, who have travelled to Middle East because they are “touched and troubled by the plight of the Palestinians,” are so preoccupied by the politics of the conflict that they forget to notice “the Palestinian people themselves—how they cook and eat, how they tease and flirt, how they celebrate and mourn.” It is to this unenlightened view that Humeniuk wishes to offer a corrective.

Unfortunately, as Humeniuk relates his experiences in Palestine’s de facto capital, it becomes increasingly evident that he knows little about the region, its people, or its complexities. And so his lesson (audaciously entitled “Ramallah for Beginners”) soon lapses into tiresome clichés that contrast a heavily fortified and paranoid Israeli state with a portrait of peaceable donkey-riding Palestinians quietly tending their picturesque olive groves or enjoying the city’s party life (“cheaper and more welcoming,” we are told, than that offered by Tel Aviv). This perspective not only misunderstands the fraught history and political present of the region, but it unhelpfully caricatures Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs on both sides of the Green Line that separated Israel and the Jordanian-annexed West Bank before the Six Day War of 1967.

Humeniuk’s essay lends implicit support to the notion that a Palestinian state will be modern, open, and peaceful, if not positively progressive, and not the bastion of fanaticism that exists in Israelis’ fearful imagination. The wishful thinking this requires is betrayed by his own testimony. Lest Humeniuk and his Jewish-Canadian friend Ari are mistaken for Israeli settlers, they take care to disguise their Nissan Micra by hanging Islamic prayer beads from the rear-view mirror and laying a Keffiyeh—”the black-and-white scarf symbolic of Palestinian opposition to Israel”—across the dashboard. “You’re also,” he adds, “supposed to smoke—constantly—as many Palestinian men do.” This subterfuge is presumably intended to emphasize the importance of local knowledge, but it also suggests that recognizable Jews should worry about attracting the kind of dangerous hostility from Ramallah’s populace conspicuously absent from the rest of Humeniuk’s account.

Humeniuk and his companions drive to Qalandia where they gaze respectfully at a section of the border wall decorated with portraits of Yasser Arafat and Marwan Barghouti. Barghouti is blandly described as “a leader of the First and Second Intifada, who’s been imprisoned in Israel since 2002.” Imprisoned for what? Humeniuk does not say, although he reports that a slogan separating the two paintings reads “Free Barghouti” as if he were the victim of an injustice that demands international attention and urgent redress. In fact, Barghouti led Fatah’s notorious al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a terrorist militia responsible for the murder of scores of Israeli citizens by suicide squads during the Second Intifada. In 2004, as the murderous war he and Arafat instigated raged on, Barghouti was convicted on five counts of murder (and acquitted, lest it be assumed this was a foregone conclusion, of 21 further counts), and sentenced to five consecutive life sentences.

Barghouti and Arafat did more than most to wreck the prospects of peace, but Humeniuk implies that the mural venerating them is part of a more general Palestinian commitment to the idea of the romantic revolutionary. Che Guevara, he notes approvingly, “is a common figure on T-shirts worn by Palestinian men,” and he stops to pose for pictures in front of a 20-foot statue of Nelson Mandela, “surrounded by flowers and elevated a few steps above the sidewalk…with a necktie colored in the same red hue as the triangle on the Palestinian flag.” Mandela’s view of the conflict was complicated, but that has not prevented Palestinians from appropriating his legacy and moral authority. “Culturally,” Humeniuk writes, “the Palestinians identify with any sort of political underdog.”

But while countercultural icons of revolutionary terror like Guevara may appeal to a Western appetite for radical chic, and statesmen like Mandela may help to drape the Palestinian cause in the idealism of peace, truth, and reconciliation, these are not the only historical figures openly and unapologetically celebrated in Palestine. A statue of Saddam Hussein stands in the city of Qalqilya. Additional public squares commemorating the genocidal Ba’athist can be found in Jenin and Ramallah, and a “Martyr Saddam Hussein School” has been established in Yaabad. Unveiling the Qalqilya statue in 2017, MEMRI reported that the District Governor Rafi Rawajba enthused, “Saddam was an emblem of heroism, honor, originality and defiance, as was the martyr Yasser Arafat. [Both served as] a compass for the Arabs and their resolute decisions, and when they departed, Arabism departed with them.”

Meanwhile, a political culture that rewards terrorists and their families and memorialises and eulogises suicide bombers as heroic martyrs is not only destructive to peace efforts, but destructive to Palestinian society itself. As Thane Rosenbaum pointed out in a 2017 article for the Washington Post, “When murderers are hailed as heroes and welcomed into the high ranks of government, when public squares and streets and summer camps are named after terrorists who killed Israeli children, Palestinian leaders can’t reasonably expect their next generation to dream of becoming doctors, teachers and peacemakers.”

It is unfortunately also clear that support for terrorism is prevalent among Palestinians. Opinion surveys among Muslim populations conducted by the Pew Research Center over several years show that Palestinians were the strongest supporters of suicide bombings targeting civilians “in order to defend Islam from its enemies.” The highest level of support was recorded in 2007, when 70 percent of Palestinians expressed the view that suicide bombings targeting civilians in defense of Islam could be justified. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Pew also monitored Muslim public opinion about al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden for several years, and the survey results document that Palestinians were bin Laden’s most ardent admirers. Survey participants were asked if they had “confidence” in bin Laden “to do the right thing in world affairs,” and in 2003, 72 percent of Palestinians responded in the affirmative. By 2011, when bin Laden was killed by US special forces, 34 percent of Palestinians still expressed “confidence” in him, and the Islamist terror group Hamas condemned the US for assassinating “an Arab holy warrior.”

It may reassure Humeniuk to report stories of Palestinians freely imbibing Arak and unveiled women in tight jeans watching men running burnouts in Nelson Mandela Square, but this is hardly a representative picture of life in the territories, or indicative of what an independent Palestinian state might look like. Opinion surveys provide a more reliable indication of Palestinian views than the impressions gleaned by Canadian tourists, and demonstrate how misguided the Western Left’s rosy picture of Palestinian society can allow itself to get.

A Pew survey from 2013 of almost 40,000 Muslims in 39 countries found that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were often among the Muslim populations with the most extreme views about the role of Islam in society: 89 percent of Palestinians said they wanted sharia law; 66 percent endorsed the death penalty for Muslims who convert to another religion; 76 percent supported mutilation as a punishment for theft, and a shocking 84 percent said they wanted adulterers stoned to death. When asked how much political influence religious leaders should have, 29 percent of Palestinians said religious leaders should have a lot of political influence, and another 43 percent said they wanted religious leaders to have at least some political influence. These views are reflected in the Palestinian draft constitution, which stipulates that the “principles of the Islamic shari’a are a main source for legislation.”

While Humeniuk notes in passing that there is a “difference between how Arabs behave in Ramallah and Tel Aviv,” it is important to understand that Israel’s Arab citizens have developed a distinct identity. According to a poll published in April 2019, a majority identify as either Arab-Israeli (46 percent) or Palestinian-Israeli (19 percent), whereas a minority prefer to identify only as Arab (22 percent) or Palestinian (14 percent). These results are supported by another recently published poll showing that “65 percent of Arab-Israelis are proud to be Israelis.”

As the Israeli academic and columnist Alexander Yakobson has rightly emphasized, similar surveys have shown for years that Israel’s Arab citizens have “a strong Israeli identity,” and the poll results also indicate “not just an appreciation of Israel’s advantages (and a fear of the disadvantages of Palestinian rule), but also expressions of pride in Israel.” That doesn’t mean that Israel’s Arab citizens don’t have plenty of criticism for Israeli government policies, but they have no interest whatsoever in the so-called “one-state-solution” that would replace Israel with yet another Arab-Muslim majority state. Instead it is clear that “[a] huge majority of Israeli Arabs not only don’t want to live in ‘little Palestine,’” (i.e. a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza), but that “they also don’t want to live in the larger Palestine from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. They want to live in Israel.”

At the same time, Israeli Arabs want the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to have a state of their own. In a poll conducted a year ago, 82 percent endorsed a two-state solution, and the pollsters noted that this result was “typical of the high level support from Israeli Arabs in previous surveys.” Among Jewish Israelis, however, support for the creation of a Palestinian state sits at just 43 percent, which is largely due to the bitter lessons from Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. I don’t agree with those who now argue that the Gaza pullout was “a mistake,” but the hope that Palestinians would be eager to demonstrate their commitment to peace by working to transform Gaza into a Singapore on the Mediterranean was obviously naive.

Just as the vacuum created by Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000 was filled by Iran’s theocratic Shi’ite proxy Hezbollah, so the vacuum in Gaza was filled by Iran’s Sunni clients Hamas. Today, Gaza is an Islamist terror enclave from which more than 10,000 rockets have rained down on Israeli towns and cities—in one of the most recent barrages this May, hundreds of rockets were launched during a single weekend. In addition, tunnels have been dug under the border to facilitate attacks and abductions, and for more than a year, rioters have tried to breach the border fence and launched arson kites that have started devastating fires destroying thousands of acres of crops, grazing lands, forests and nature reserves on the Israeli side of the border.

For tourists visiting from Europe or North America, it’s perhaps natural to be taken aback by the sight of border areas “full of military construction: concrete compounds, barbed-wire fences and sniper towers.” It would indeed be nice to do without all that. In the 1990s, when peace seemed possible to the optimists among us, we used to imagine that in the not-too-distant future, we wouldn’t have to send our kids to the army because the Middle East would look like Europe, and open borders and free movement would allow Israelis to take a scenic drive to Beirut or Damascus, just as Europeans can drive from Berlin to Paris or Rome.

But as so often in the Middle East, the pessimists were right. The region has remained a bloody mess in which religious fanatics vie with putatively secular authoritarians for control of dysfunctional states riven with confessional and sectarian hatreds. The Jews are the only indigenous non-Arab non-Muslim minority that has managed to build a (relatively) safe haven and a thriving modern state that served as a refuge for most of the roughly 850,000 Jews driven from their ancient communities across the Middle East.

Given the grim fate of minorities even in today’s Middle East, it’s downright cynical for Humeniuk to conclude that “No matter how deep you look into the conflict, whether you blame the Jews, or blame the Arabs, or blame both, this really is just Man’s oldest game: drawing lines in the sand and calling what’s on your side ‘mine.’” Well defended borders may seem like some kind of chauvinistic anachronism when your home is in Toronto, but when your home is just a short drive from Gaza and a few hours from Damascus, those “lines in the sand” are a matter of life or death.

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Petra Marquardt-Bigman

Petra Marquardt-Bigman is a German-Israeli writer and researcher with a Ph.D. in contemporary history.