By Nathan Sharansky, former deputy prime minister of Israel, is chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center and the author, most recently, of « Defending Identity » (PublicAffairs, 2008), in The Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2009.
« Nowhere on earth do terrorists get so much help from the Free World »
Israel’s assault on Hamas is just the latest in a long chain of military clashes, the scripts of which are always the same. On one side, there is the Israeli army. Technologically and militarily superior, its soldiers are motivated by a powerful commitment to their country’s security. On the other, there are Palestinian terrorists whose aim is to kill as many innocent Israelis as possible by unleashing missiles and suicide bombers on civilian centers. Then, when Israel retaliates, they appeal to the world with gruesome images of Palestinian suffering as part of a global campaign to prevent Israel from defending itself.
Sooner or later, the tactics of the Palestinian terrorists work. The voices of protest in response to Palestinian suffering grow louder until international pressure stays Israel’s hand.
Inevitably, some of these protests come from Israelis. Last week, before the tanks had begun rolling into Gaza, the journalist Tom Segev put it bluntly in a column he wrote in Ha’aretz. « A child in Sderot is the same as a child in Gaza, » he wrote, « and anyone who harms either is evil. »
Mr. Segev is correct when he says that the suffering of children on either side is intolerable — this is why the pictures from Gaza make us shudder. But he is wrong to draw a moral equivalence between the two sides. In this, he lends a hand to the Palestinians’ most shameful military tactic: pimping the suffering of their civilians as a weapon of war.
Palestinian children are dying today not because of Israeli brutality, but because their own leaders have chosen to use their children as human shields, and their pain as a battering ram against Western sensibilities.
Of course, it is easy to blame Hamas. It is they, after all, who deliberately put their weapons caches in mosques, their rocket launchers in schoolyards, and their command centers in hospitals — all with the explicit goal of maximizing the tragedy of an Israeli response.
Yet Hamas is not the only Palestinian group at fault. In 2005, shortly after the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, I met with the chief of staff to the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. My question to him: Now that we have uprooted thousands of Jews and empowered Gazans to be masters of their own fate, can we hope that within a year’s time there will be fewer refugees in the camps? « Absolutely not, » he said. « The refugees will be relocated only in the context of the final status [agreement]. How can we move them if we do not know where they will live? Maybe they will live in Israel. »
In withdrawing from Gaza, Israel made painful concessions for peace by forcibly removing Jews from their homes. And yet even the Palestinian Authority, the most moderate among Palestinian political groups, would not consider easing their own people’s plight in the wake of Israel’s compromise. This is because the suffering of the refugees is essential to their broader political struggle.
How does the West respond to the obvious exploitation of Palestinian refugees? Soon after my meeting with Mr. Abbas’s chief of staff, I met with the ambassador of one of the West’s most enlightened countries. I asked: Why are the Palestinians not willing to help their own refugees? « I can understand them, » he answered. « After all, they don’t want the refugee problem to be taken off the agenda. »
This reflexive « understanding » for the Palestinian leaders’ abuse of their own people is the heart of the problem. For decades, the international community has actively assisted in building the terrorists’ unique system of control — over where Palestinians live and in what conditions, and over what they think — by allowing terrorists to turn the refugee camps into the center of the Palestinian war machine. Instead of working to relieve the refugees’ misery, the United Nations has dedicated an entire agency, UNRWA, to perpetuating it. For the rest of the world’s refugees, the U.N. works tirelessly to improve their conditions, to relocate them, and to help them rebuild their lives as quickly as possible. With the Palestinians, the U.N. does exactly the opposite, granting refugee status to the great-grandchildren of people displaced in 1948, doing nothing to dismantle the camps, and acting as facilitators for the terrorists’ goal of grinding an entire civilian population under their thumb. Nowhere on earth do terrorists get so much help from the Free World.
It is not only the refugee camps that the West has helped sustain. For years, Hamas in Gaza — like Hezbollah in Lebanon, and like the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat — has been amassing huge stockpiles of weaponry, most of it under the noses of Western observers who are meant to prevent the import of such weapons. It’s as if we are telling the terrorists: Go on, build your armies, prepare for war. We understand.
The same can be said about the use of children as human shields. Where was the West when Palestinian leaders were actively transforming their children’s classrooms into indoctrination centers for martyrdom?
And so, invariably, the script is played out: Hamas fires its missiles, Israel responds with military force in Gaza, children are killed, their pictures are played countless times on televisions in the West, articles are published saying both sides are evil, and Israel is pressured to stop.
Whether this war will bring about lasting change, or just provide another breather before the next battle, depends to a very large degree on the Free World. A successful Israeli campaign — in which Hamas is eliminated as the controlling force in Gaza — will bring an unprecedented opportunity for Western leaders to change the rules of the game when it comes to Palestinian civilians. It’s time for the West to recognize the human rights of Palestinians — not only when they are suffering in war.