Debunking 6 common Israeli myths

14 April 2002

MYTH 1: THERE IS NO MORAL EQUIVALENCE BETWEEN SUICIDE BOMBINGS ON THE ONE HAND, AND ISRAEL’S KILLING OF PALESTINIANS ON THE OTHER

Suicide bombing is a reprehensible and unacceptable tactic. These attacks should stop immediately. What needs to be added, and what is almost always missing in American media commentary is a similar condemnation of Israel’s deliberate targeting of Palestinian civilians.

Since the Palestinian uprising started in late September 2000, more than 1,500 Palestinians, and 400 Israelis have been killed (as of April 12, 2002), the vast majority on both sides being unarmed civilians. Most of the deadly violence against innocent civilians, therefore, has been committed by Israeli forces and has been directed at Palestinians.

Israel and its supporters claim that while Palestinian suicide bombers deliberately target Israeli civilians, Israel tries to avoid harming Palestinian civilians and that those who have died are “collateral damage.” Hence, they argue, there is no moral equivalence between the killing of civilians by Israel and Palestinians. This defies both common sense and all the available evidence.

On the one hand, Israel wants us to believe that 400 of its own civilians were deliberately targeted, while more than three times as many dead Palestinians all somehow just got in the way of what Israel claims is its humane and disciplined army. It is, in essence, an argument that 1,500 people all died by accident.

Every human rights group that has examined Israel’s practices has documented systematic and deliberate use of violence targeted at unarmed Palestinian civilians by Israeli forces. Physicians for Human Rights USA which investigated the high number of Palestinian deaths and injuries in the first months of the Intifada, concluded that:

“the pattern of injuries seen in many victims did not reflect IDF [Israel Defense Forces] use of firearms in life-threatening situations but rather indicated targeting solely for the purpose of wounding or killing.”

[Source: PHR USA, 22 November 2000]

This finding was based on “the totality of the evidence” the investigators collected about:
“the high number of gunshots to the head; the volume of serious, disabling thigh injuries; the inappropriate firing of rubber bullets and rubber-coated steel bullets at close range; and the high proportion of Palestinian injuries and deaths.”
The findings of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch confirm this pattern. Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has documented and condemned the targeted use of violence against Palestinian civilians and has found evidence of systematic torture of thousands of Palestinian detainees, including children.

What has been confirmed by human rights groups has also been observed directly by journalists.

In October 2001, Harper’s magazine published the “Gaza Diary” of journalist Chris Hedges. Hedges’ entry for June 17, 2001 provides even more shocking evidence of the wanton and deliberate killing of Palestinian children by Israeli soldiers at Gaza’s Khan Yunis refugee camp.

Hedges writes:

“I sit in the shade of a palm-roofed hut on the edge of the dunes, momentarily defeated by the heat, the grit, the jostling crowds, the stench of the open sewers and rotting garbage. A friend of Azmi’s brings me, on a tray, a cold glass of tart, red carcade juice.”

“Barefoot boys, clutching kites made out of scraps of paper and ragged soccer balls, squat a few feet away under scrub trees. Men in flowing white or gray galabias — homespun robes — smoke cigarettes in the shade of slim eaves. Two emaciated donkeys, their ribs protruding, are tethered to wooden carts with rubber wheels.”

“It is still. The camp waits, as if holding its breath. And then, out of the dry furnace air, a disembodied voice crackles over a loudspeaker.”

“”Come on, dogs,” the voice booms in Arabic. “Where are all the dogs of Khan Younis? Come! Come!”“

“I stand up. I walk outside the hut. The invective continues to spew: “Son of a bitch!” “Son of a whore!” “Your mother’s cunt!”“

“The boys dart in small packs up the sloping dunes to the electric fence that separates the camp from the Jewish settlement. They lob rocks toward two armored jeeps parked on top of the dune and mounted with loudspeakers. Three ambulances line the road below the dunes in anticipation of what is to come.”

“A percussion grenade explodes. The boys, most no more than ten or eleven years old, scatter, running clumsily across the heavy sand. They descend out of sight behind a sandbank in front of me. There are no sounds of gunfire. The soldiers shoot with silencers. The bullets from the M-16 rifles tumble end over end through the children’s slight bodies. Later, in the hospital, I will see the destruction: the stomachs ripped out, the gaping holes in limbs and torsos.”

“Yesterday at this spot the Israelis shot eight young men, six of whom were under the age of eighteen. One was twelve. This afternoon they kill an eleven-year-old boy, Ali Murad, and seriously wound four more, three of whom are under eighteen. Children have been shot in other conflicts I have covered — death squads gunned them down in El Salvador and Guatemala, mothers with infants were lined up and massacred in Algeria, and Serb snipers put children in their sights and watched them crumple onto the pavement in Sarajevo — but I have never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport.”

There can be no doubt that Israeli troops have been targeting innocent Palestinian civilians for death from the beginning of the uprising. This understanding was also reflected in UN Security Council Resolution 1322, passed on October 7, 2000, which
“Condemns acts of violence, especially the excessive use of force against Palestinians, resulting in injury and loss of human life.”
In making the moral superiority claim, Israel’s apologists are either shamelessly denying the irrefutable evidence cited above and are simply lying, or they are asserting that some forms of murder are morally superior to other forms of murder.

MYTH 2: ISRAEL’S INVASION OF PALESTINIAN CITIES AND REFUGEE CAMPS IS SELF-DEFENCE AGAINST SUICIDE BOMBINGS

The Israeli claim that its attacks on the Palestinians constitute “self defense” ignores the fact that its posture in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip is, by definition, not defensive. Since 1967, Israel has maintained tens of thousands of heavily armed troops outside its borders for the purposes of stealing land from the Palestinians and forcing them to live as non-citizens under a foreign military dictatorship.

Seized Palestinian land has been used to build Jewish-only settlements linked by a network of Jewish-only roads, in flagrant violation of UN Security Council Resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention. This colonization is, and can only be, carried out by the violent suppression of any and all Palestinian resistance to the occupation.

Throughout the years of the “peace process” during the 1990s, Israel continued to construct settlements, doubling the number of settlers in the West Bank from about 100,000 to 200,000 according to the Israeli group “Peace Now.” At least 34 new settlements have been built since Sharon took office.

The settlement colonization policy is, and can only be carried out by the violent suppression of any and all Palestinian resistance to the occupation. Throughout the years of the “peace process” Israel continued to construct settlements, doubling the number of settlers according to the Israeli group “Peace Now.”

The entire international community has recognized that Israel’s military occupation must end, and that its continuation, along with the settlement policy, and the massive repression they entail is a guarantee of continued bloodshed. Israel’s brutal actions in the occupied territories are designed to consolidate and entrench the occupation and expand Israeli colonization, and are therefore, by definition, not defensive in nature.

MYTH 3: ARAFAT REFUSES TO CONDEMN SUICIDE BOMBINGS IN ARABIC

Even before Yasir Arafat’s statement on 13 April 2002 condemning terrorism Arafat had repeatedly condemned suicide bombings both in Arabic and in English. Here are just two examples obtained from BBC monitoring.

1. On Palestinian TV, on 28 March 2002, at 20:08 GMT, Arafat stated in Arabic:

“On this occasion, I would like once again to reiterate our condemnation of yesterday’s operation in Netanya, in which a number of innocent Israeli civilians were killed and wounded. This operation constitutes a deviation from our policy and a violation of our national and human values. I affirm our commitment to working toward an immediate cease-fire, as we informed General Zinni. We highly value his efforts. We informed him that we are ready for the immediate implementation of the Tenet’s work plan without conditions, and without prejudicing any of its articles. Also, we have informed him of our readiness to implement the Mitchell Report recommendations in cooperation with the four-way US-Russian-European-UN committee headed by Gen. Zinni.”
2. On December 16, 2001, in a speech on the occasion of Id al-Fitr in Ramallah (Gaza Palestine Satellite Channel Television, in Arabic, on 16 December 2001 at 16:00 GMT) Arafat stated in Arabic:
“Today, I emphasize once again the complete and immediate halt to all armed operations. Once again, I call for a complete halt to all operations, especially suicidal operations, which we have always condemned. We will punish all those who carry out and mastermind such operations. This also applies to the firing of mortar shells, which have no objective but to provide an excuse for the Israeli attacks on us, our people, our children, and our women. Any violation of this decision will be considered an attempt to harm the higher national interests of our people and of our Arab nation.”

MYTH 4: ARAFAT HAS NOT DONE ENOUGH TO STOP TERRORISM

The basic assumption behind the Israeli claim that Arafat “must do more” to stop attacks on Israel is that the primary role of the Palestinian Authority is not to work for the security and well-being of the Palestinian people, but rather to guarantee the security and safety of Israeli occupation forces, settlers and civilians, even while Israel rules millions of disenfranchised Palestinians, and continues to seize their land by force.

Even if such an arrangement were politically tenable, the realities of the past ten years made it impossible. The Palestinian Authority is not a sovereign state, but a quasi-authority which at the height of its power was only given control over 17.2% of the Israeli occupied West Bank (so called “Area A” under the Oslo and subsequent accords). Even Israel with all its military and economic might could not guarantee its own safety when it controlled every inch of the West Bank.

Over the past 18 months, Israel has systematically attacked all the facilities of the Palestinian Authority, including police stations, prisons and intelligence headquarters, and killed and assassinated many Palestinian security officers. Hence while crippling and killing the Palestinian security forces, Israel makes the ludicrous demand that these same forces go out and work on Israel’s behalf.

Israel has further undermined its own claim that Arafat is “in control” of all the violence, by continuing to demand that he act while he is a prisoner of the Israelis in two rooms of his Ramallah headquarters, with no outside contact, no electricity and barely enough food and water.

The suicide bombings which have followed the brutal Israeli re-invasions of almost every major West Bank town since late March 2002 prove conclusively that there is no level of violence or ruthlessness that either Israel or the Palestinian Authority can employ that will eliminate those determined to answer the suffering of millions of Palestinian civilians under decades of Israeli military occupation by inflicting suffering on Israeli civilians.

The only way to end suicide bombings and other kinds of Palestinian violence is to end the extreme violence of the Israeli military occupation which produces and fuels both Palestinian resistance against the occupation forces and violent attacks against Israeli civilians. Absent a political process explicitly designed to end the occupation, there is little reason to believe that such attacks can or will end.

MYTH 5: ARAFAT SPURNED BARAK’S GENEROUS OFFER AT CAMP DAVID AND BROKE OFF NEGOTIATIONS WITH ISRAEL

One of the most powerful myths propagated in the US media today is that at the Camp David summit in July 2000, then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak made an amazingly generous offer to the Palestinians that Yasir Arafat wantonly spurned, broke off negotiations and then launched a violent uprising against Israel. No element of this, the most cherished of media myths is true. In fact, Barak’s offer was anything but generous. It was Israel that broke off the negotiations, and the committee headed by former US Senator George Mitchell found no evidence to back the Israeli claim that the Palestinian Authority had planned or launched the Intifada.

This myth was given life in large part by President Clinton who immediately after the Camp David summit broke his promise to Arafat that no side would be blamed for failure, and went on Israeli television declaring that while Barak made bold compromises for peace, Arafat has missed yet another opportunity. Let’s go through the evidence bit by bit.

Barak’s “generous” offer

What Barak offered at Camp David was a formula for continued Israeli military occupation under the name of a “state.”

The proposal would have meant:

  • no territorial contiguity for the Palestinian state,
  • no control of its external borders,
  • limited control of its own water resources, and
  • no full Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory as required by international law.
In addition, the Barak plan would have :
  • included continued Israeli military control over large segments of the West Bank, including almost all of the Jordan Valley;
  • codified the right of Israeli forces to be deployed in the Palestinian state at short notice;
  • meant the continued presence of fortified Israeli settlements and Jewish-only roads in the heart of the Palestinian state; and
  • required nearly 4 million Palestinian refugees to relinquish their fundamental human rights in exchange for compensation to be paid not by Israel but by the “international community.”

At best, Palestinians could expect a kind of super-autonomy within a “Greater Israel”, rather than independence, and the devolution of some municipal functions in the parts of Jerusalem inhabited by Palestinians, under continued overall Israeli control.

See maps showing what the Israeli proposals would have looked like in reality on this site.

John Mearsheimer, professor in the department of political science at the University of Chicago, recognized the limitations of what Palestinians were being asked to accept as a final settlement, concluding that

“it is hard to imagine the Palestinians accepting such a state. Certainly no other nation in the world has such curtailed sovereignty.”

[Source: “The Impossible Partition,” New York Times, January 11, 2001]

The reality was far from the wild claims routinely made on the editorial pages of American papers that Barak had offered the Palestinians, 95, 97 or even 100% of the occupied West Bank. Barak himself wrote in a New York Times Op-ed on 24 May 2001 that his vision was for
“a gradual process of establishing secure, defensible borders, demarcated so as to encompass more than 80 percent of the Jewish settlers in several settlement blocs over about 15 percent of Judea and Samaria, and to ensure a wide security zone in the Jordan Valley.”

[Source: “Building a Wall Against Terror,” New York Times, 24 May 2001].

In other words, if Barak intended to keep 15 percent of “Judea and Samaria” (the West Bank), he could not have offered the Palestinians more than 85 percent.

No one can seriously talk about Israel being willing to end its settlement policy if 80 percent of its settlers would have remained in place.

Robert Malley who was Clinton’s special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs, participated in the Camp David negotiations. In an important article entitled “Fictions About the Failure At Camp David ” published in the New York Times on July 8, 2001, Malley added his own, insider’s challenge to the Camp David myth. Not only did he agree that Barak’s offer was far from ideal, but made the additional point that Arafat had made far more concessions than anyone gave him credit for. Malley wrote:

“Many have come to believe that the Palestinians’ rejection of the Camp David ideas exposed an underlying rejection of Israel’s right to exist. But consider the facts: The Palestinians were arguing for the creation of a Palestinian state based on the June 4, 1967, borders, living alongside Israel. They accepted the notion of Israeli annexation of West Bank territory to accommodate settlement blocs. They accepted the principle of Israeli sovereignty over the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem — neighborhoods that were not part of Israel before the Six Day War in 1967. And, while they insisted on recognition of the refugees’ right of return, they agreed that it should be implemented in a manner that protected Israel’s demographic and security interests by limiting the number of returnees. No other Arab party that has negotiated with Israel — not Anwar el-Sadat’s Egypt, not King Hussein’s Jordan, let alone Hafez al-Assad’s Syria — ever came close to even considering such compromises.”
Malley rightly concluded that, “If peace is to be achieved, the parties cannot afford to tolerate the growing acceptance of these myths as reality.”

The negotiations continued

While it is true that the July 2000 Camp David summit ended without agreement, the negotiations did not end. They restarted and continued until Barak broke them off in January 2001. Since then Israel has refused to enter political negotiations with the Palestinians.

On 19 December 2000, six months after Camp David, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators returned to Washington and continued with negotiations. These negotiations were based on a set of proposals by President Clinton which went beyond Barak’s offer of July 2000, but still fell short of minimum Palestinian expecations. Nevertheless, the Palestinians went on with the talks.

By some accounts these were proving fruitful. The Los Angeles Times reported on 22 December 2000, that:

“Amid signs that the two sides appear to be edging toward some sort of compromise on the emotional issue of Jerusalem, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators worked through the start of the Jewish Hanukkah holiday Thursday expressing a rare shared optimism.”

[Source: Los Angeles Times, December 22, 2000. “Hopeful mood fuels talks on Mideast peace; Negotiations: Israelis, Palestinians work through Jewish holiday as signs surface of a compromise.”]

In January 2001, the talks moved to Taba, Egypt, where they reportedly continued to make progress. They broke off at the end of January, and were due to resume but Barak canceled a planned meeting with Arafat. Shortly thereafter, Barak lost the election to Ariel Sharon, and the talks have never resumed.

The New York Times reported on January 28, 2001:

“Senior Israeli and Palestinian officials concluded nearly a week of stop-and-start negotiations in Taba, Egypt, tonight by saying jointly that they have “never been closer to reaching” a final peace accord but lacked sufficient time to conclude one before the Israeli elections on Feb. 6….. At a joint news conference in Taba, Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami of Israel called the two-way talks, from which the Americans were conspicuously absent, “the most fruitful, constructive, profound negotiations in this phase of the peace process.” He said the two sides hoped to pick up where they left off after the elections — although his boss, Mr. Barak, is expected to lose.”

Source: New York Times, January 28, 2001, “Mideast Talks End With Gain But No Accord.”

So how is it then that all these commentators and Israeli officials continue to deny that talks which the Israeli foreign minister at the time called “the most fruitful, constructive, profound negotiations,” never took place? How is it that so many continue to claim that it was the Palestinians who walked away from the bargaining table when it was Israel that stopped the talks and refuses to resume them?

MYTH 6: ARAFAT STARTED THE INTIFADA

Although the Camp David summit ended almost three months before the beginning of the Intifada, and negotiations continued between the Israelis and Palestinians even as violence raged, many pro-Israeli commentators maintain that Arafat launched the Intifada as a direct response to the Camp David proposals, just because he prefers war to peace! This is belied by all the evidence.

The Intifada was a reaction to years of worsening conditions in the occupied territories during the period of the so-called peace process, when Israel doubled the number of settlers on occupied Palestinian land, and tightened its noose around the Palestinian population. But the spark was Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Haram Al-Sharif with 1,000 armed men on 28 September 2000, a deliberate desecration of a holy site whose purpose was to send a message that Israel would always control the Palestinians by brute force.

The Palestinian protests that broke out in reaction to Sharon’s incursion included stone-throwing but absolutely no firearms. The Israeli response, however, was lethal.

The New York Times reported on 30 September 2000 that:

“Four Palestinians were killed at Haram al Sharif, known to Jews as Temple Mount, in a second day of rioting that began when Ariel Sharon, the rightist opposition leader, visited the Muslim compound on Thursday to assert Jewish claims to the site. Wearing full riot gear, Israeli police officers today stormed the Muslim area, where they rarely set foot, to disperse Palestinian youths who emerged from Friday prayer services to stone first a police post at the Moghrabi Gate and then Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall.”

“Dr. Khaled Qurei, director of the Makhased [sic: Maqassad] Hospital on the Mount of Olives, said the hospital had treated more than 150 men, women and youths, many of whom were wounded by rubber bullets and some by live ammunition. The Israeli police denied that live bullets had been used.”

Source: “Battle at Jerusalem Holy Site Leaves 4 Dead and 200 Hurt,” New York Times, 30 September 2000.

The report did not contain even an allegation by the Israelis that any Palestinian had used firearms. But Israel’s killing of unarmed protestors sparked wider protests throughout the occupied territories. Within weeks, dozens of Palestinians, almost all unarmed civilians, both inside Israel and in the occupied territories had been killed.

Despite the clear chronological order of the events, Israel and its supporters in the US media continue to maintain that Arafat and the Palestinian Authority launched the Intifada.

The high-profile investigative committee headed by former US Senator George Mitchell stated in its final report that:

“The [Government of Israel] asserts that the immediate catalyst for the violence was the breakdown of the Camp David negotiations on July 25, 2000 and the “widespread appreciation in the international community of Palestinian responsibility for the impasse.” In this view, Palestinian violence was planned by the PA leadership, and was aimed at “provoking and incurring Palestinian casualties as a means of regaining the diplomatic initiative.”
The report continued:
“In their submissions, the parties traded allegations about the motivation and degree of control exercised by the other. However, we were provided with no persuasive evidence that the Sharon visit was anything other than an internal political act; neither were we provided with persuasive evidence that the PA planned the uprising.”

“Accordingly, we have no basis on which to conclude that there was a deliberate plan by the PA to initiate a campaign of violence at the first opportunity; or to conclude that there was a deliberate plan by the GOI to respond with lethal force.”

Finally, the Mitchell committee agreed that:
“The Sharon visit did not cause the “Al-Aqsa Intifada.” But it was poorly timed and the provocative effect should have been foreseen; indeed it was foreseen by those who urged that the visit be prohibited. More significant were the events that followed: the decision of the Israeli police on September 29 to use lethal means against the Palestinian demonstrators; and the subsequent failure, as noted above, of either party to exercise restraint.”

[Source: SHARM EL-SHEIKH FACT-FINDING COMMITTEE FINAL REPORT, April 30, 2001]

Despite the report’s effort to lay blame on both sides, and thus appear even-handed, it is clear that on the one-hand Israeli violence fuelled and led to the spread of the uprising, and that there is no reason to accept Israel’s claims that the Palestinian Authority planned or started the uprising.

Ali Abunimah & Hussein Ibish
14 April 2002. Last updated 3 May 2002.

Ali Abunimah is one of the four founders of The Electronic Intifada. Hussein Ibish is communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Related Links:

  • Coverage trends: Ultimate hypocricy: Israel’s targeting of Palestinians spun as part of the “War Against Terrorism”
  • Coverage trends: Misrepresentation of Barak’s offer at Camp David as “generous” and “unprecedented”
  • Action items: Israel’s “smoking gun” a damp firecracker: Israel’s crude attempt to ‘link Arafat to terror’ backfires
  • Article: Was Arafat the Problem? by Robert Wright, Slate, Thursday, April 18, 2002, at 4:14 PM PT.