Sunday, July 13, 2014

Israel and Its Arabs: Rockets, Riots, and the Dream of Coexistence

by Seth Mandel

One age-old critique of Israeli deterrence, self-defense, and unwillingness to give away the store in negotiations with the Palestinians was psychological: didn’t Israeli leaders realize, it was asked (rhetorically), how they were radicalizing a new generation of Palestinian youth, who only knew “occupation?” I often would wonder why these same voices didn’t ask the reverse question: what if a generation of Israelis grew up in a time of recurring intifadas and ceaseless rocket fire, condemning Israeli youth to PTSD and burdened by an instinct to constantly look over their shoulder? How might such a generation feel about its Arab neighbors?

Of course, neither argument is a legitimate defense of violence. The importance of personal responsibility in the Middle East cannot be reiterated enough. Whatever the pretext, whatever the grievance, the conflict would spiral completely out of control if the affected population decided contempt and vengefulness were sufficient cause for vigilantism. And Israelis should (and generally do) know better than to say, “well, the other side does it.” But those who would blame Israeli policies for the “radicalization” of Palestinian youth should take a look at the other side of that equation, and be consistent. The New York Times delves into the topic today.

In an article about Israeli soul searching after the murder of an Arab teen last week, the Times makes yet another foray into the world of moral equivalence but ends up undermining its own point. After all, the Times did not also write an accompanying article about Palestinian or Israeli-Arab soul searching. Nonetheless, even if such soul searching is one-sided, it is welcome. No society should desensitize itself to the murder of children.

The Times then tries to pin Israeli radicalization on the religious right, but accidentally stumbles upon a different point. The reporter discovers that religious leaders are condemning such violence in no uncertain terms and discouraging their followers from even contemplating it. The Times goes looking for another factor, and finds one:

Tamir Lion, an anthropologist who studies youth, said he was troubled by the changing attitudes among Israel’s young people. For many years, Mr. Lion interviewed soldiers about why they chose to enter combat units. “The answers,” he said on Israel Radio, “were always about the challenge, to show I could make it, the prestige involved.”
That began to change in 2000, he said. “I started to get answers — not a lot, but some — like: ‘To kill Arabs.’ The first time I heard it, it was at the time of the large terror attacks, and since then it has not stopped.”
A generation has grown up in a period of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with suicide bombs and military incursions, rocket fire and airstrikes. Young people on both sides may think about the other more as an enemy than as a neighbor.
Those who blamed Israel for radicalizing Palestinian youth could do so freely because they never thought Israeli youth could be radicalized in sufficient numbers to expose their hypocrisy. They might now be wondering if they were wrong.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think they were: Israeli youth may be resentful of the Palestinians who have tried to kill them since the day they were born, but the rare vigilantism will likely remain rare. In part, that’s because of such soul searching. When Israelis go missing, the entire nation holds its breath. When a gruesome hate crime is carried out, Israelis wonder what went wrong.

And that’s what makes this current conflict so worrying for Israelis. It was epitomized by the scene of Arab rioters in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat destroying a light-rail train station built to connect them with the rest of the city. The symbolism was impossible to ignore. As Jonathan Schanzer told the Free Beacon:

The total destruction of the modern light rail—which was seen as a symbol of coexistence between Israeli and Arab areas of Jerusalem—is evidence of mounting frustration among Israeli Arabs, who have increasingly clashed with Israeli police as tensions reach a boiling point following the murders.
“These are Arab-Israelis in Jerusalem, and they destroyed a multi-million dollar project that connected them to the rest of the city,” said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). “This is apartheid, self imposed.”
Israelis know Hamas and its supporters want an unending genocidal war against the Jews. But they believe that Israel’s Arabs want what they want: peace, safety, coexistence. When Israel’s Arabs destroy symbols of such coexistence, when they explicitly reject Jewish Israelis’ overtures, they raise the concern that the coexistence they prize is illusory, a time bomb with an exposed fuse.

Another intifada, or something like it, would reinforce this concern. And Israelis who see–and deplore–the rise in anger and mistrust after the last intifada know how precarious that coexistence will be if each generation grows up with its own intifada. And they’re all too aware of the limits of soul searching if they’re the only ones engaging in it.

Seth Mandel


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