Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, recently published an op-ed in the New York Times essentially explaining and doubling down on his recent comments that he made in front of the United Nations Security Council regarding the situation in Palestine (the areas in the West Bank inhabited by Palestinians). In these comments he stated that there was a “profound sense of alienation and despair driving some Palestinians – especially young people”, and that “Palestinian frustration is growing under the weight of a half century of occupation and the paralysis of the peace process”. He then continued with the controversial comment that “as oppressed peoples have demonstrated throughout the ages, it is human nature to react to occupation, which often serves as a potent incubator of hate and extremism.” In his op-ed he continued “No one can deny that the everyday reality of occupation provokes anger and despair, which are major drivers of violence and extremism and undermine any hope of a negotiated two-state solution.”
Ban’s essential point is that Israel’s actions in the West Bank cause the dozens of violent terrorist attacks that have been committed against innocent Israelis in the past several months. Life in Palestine is just so terrible because of something that Israel is doing that individual Palestinians have naturally decided that the only option that they have is to stab a mother to death at her home in front of her children or shoot to death a couple driving home from dinner while their children are sitting in the back seat. These acts are not the violent acts of criminals committing heinous, gruesome, racially motivated crimes against completely innocent people, but rather the inevitable reactions of people who have been provoked and angered into having no choice but to lash out and kill strangers.
Ban seems to treat this hypothesis as an indisputable fact, but is there not an alternative possible reality? A reality in which Palestinians are self-governed and live relatively free and prosperous lives? A reality in which most Palestinians do not live in absolute despair and poverty? A reality in which extremism, libel, propaganda and hate infiltrate Palestinian culture to the point that relatively ordinary people are being driven to commit horrific violent acts against innocent civilians? A reality in which young people see terrorists treated as heroes and decide to commit terrorist acts to feel like they are doing something important with their lives?
No one can really know what it’s like to live in Palestine other than the Palestinian people themselves. As foreigners we can only attempt to understand this truth based on the information available to us, which is mostly comprised of YouTube videos, articles and statistical data. To support Ban’s hypothesis, we have videos of Palestinians smuggling bread, or having their homes demolished to make way for new housing communities. We have footage of Palestinians caught in the crossfire and getting assaulted by Israeli soldiers after being mistaken for rioters.
We also have lots of misleading and mislabeled information, such as the case of 13-year old Ahmed Manasrah, who stabbed an innocent boy nearly to death with his cousin and was hit by a car as he ran away. The label on the YouTube video showing the aftermath (a struggling injured Ahmed lying on the street) states “Israel shooting of Palestinian kid.” In reality, Ahmed was not shot, and was actually saved by Israeli paramedics and treated at an Israeli hospital (in a room down the hall from his Jewish victim). When viewing these videos we have to take in to account that it is in the interests of Palestinians to appear as victims to the rest of the world. Palestinians might have an adequate supply of bread but still stage a video of children passing bread through a wall to each other to make it seem as though they do not have enough food. Which isn’t to say that all of these videos are propaganda, but simply that they might not all be accurate or accurately reflect what it’s like to live in Palestine.
These videos of despair seem to be heavily contrasted by ordinary “man on the street” videos in Palestine. I suggest that anyone interested in this topic watch the Ask an Israeli/Ask a Palestinian project videos by Corey Gil-Shuster. In these videos ordinary Palestinians on the streets of Ramallah and other towns and cities in the West Bank are interviewed about political issues. These videos seem to show a vibrant, prosperous civilization in Palestine, with streets full of educated people, nice restaurants, stores open for business and cars on the streets.
If you look at the people who are actually committing these terrorist attacks, most do not seem to fall into a category of someone living in a state of despair. Most come from middle class families and have good job and life prospects. Most are well educated and well fed. When interviewed regarding why they committed terrorist attacks, their answers usually relate to the Al-Aqsa mosque libel (the lie that Israel wants to take over or shut down the Al-Aqsa mosque compound) and nationalistic explanations (we need to stop the Jews from taking our land, fight for the Palestinian cause, etc.). Many also cite seeking revenge for another Palestinian killed in the process of committing a terrorist attack or fighting in a violent riot (often not knowing the full details of the person’s death).
These explanations seem to indicate that these people are not killing because they are personally oppressed by the Israeli government, but rather that they are upset at the same things that Ban and other apologists seem to be upset at. Things like the Israeli presence in the West Bank, Israel’s existence in general and the unfortunate transfer of Palestinian refugees in 1948 from coastal regions of modern Israel to the in-land regions of the West Bank and coastal Gaza.
Many would argue that new housing construction in the West Bank authorized by Israeli authorities is evidence of oppression on its face. As though somehow having a town full of Jewish people living on a hillside that is visible to Palestinians is so infuriating that it would drive a Palestinian to kill. In his op-ed, Moon states “Israeli settlements keep expanding. The government has approved plans for over 150 new homes in illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. Last month, 370 acres in the West Bank were declared “state land,” a status that typically leads to exclusive Israeli settler use” as evidence of Israeli oppression.
These expansions may be a hindrance to a final peace deal, and to a foreigner it is quite difficult to understand why Israel would expand to areas outside of greater Jerusalem. However, living near a Jewish neighborhood should not be seen as a provocation to kill Jewish people. Is it not possible that the Jewish people living in these towns in villages will one day live in the Palestinian state? Why is it a requirement that the Palestinian state be completely ethnically cleansed of Jewish people? Is it not just greed and racism that demands that no Jews live in territory that will one day become the Palestinian State?
Of course there is the argument that these lands have been wrongfully taken from Palestinian residents. On rare occasions there are Palestinians who have been living on these lands for decades without any title to the property, many of whom are relocated into housing in other areas to make way for new construction. One can imagine that this must be quite frustrating for someone who has laid claim to a plot of land. But frustrating enough to kill? And how many of the two million Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank have actually been forcibly relocated in their lifetimes? A small handful. If any of the killers in the current Palestinian intifada (violent uprising) were forcibly transferred I would love to be proven wrong and see evidence of that fact.
Finally, the lack of progress on creating a Palestinian state is often cited as a reason that Palestinians are killing innocent Jews. As though not having a nation-state with delineated borders is so infuriating that Palestinians need to kill people. Even though 98% of Palestinians in the West Bank live under the civil authority of the Palestinian Authority and almost half live under its complete police control, there is just not enough independence to avoid despair. Somehow having a fully recognized state in the West Bank that is free of Jews is the only thing that will end the suffering.
Of course most of the blame for the lack of progress on a Palestinian state doesn’t belong to Israel, as on several occasions the Palestinian Authority has rejected offers for most of the West Bank for a Palestinian state in return for recognition of Israel and peace. Surveys of Palestinians show that they do not see a Palestinian State as the most important goal of the Palestinian people. And the one time that Israel tried pulling its military and civilians out of a Palestinian area and handing it over to Palestinians in Gaza, the people elected a militant terrorist organization in to power who immediately turned the land in to a theocratic military dictatorship via a violent coup. What is to guaranty that this won’t happen in the West Bank and that Palestine won’t be sent in to a state of chaos?
This isn’t to say that a Palestinian state in the West Bank shouldn’t be the ultimate goal and solution to the Israeli/Palestinian problem. But to say that violence exists simply because this goal hasn’t been achieved is ridiculous. At this point a Palestinian State would likely just provide terrorists with a military base from which to launch attacks on Israel. Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank is insulating Palestinians from the radical forces sweeping the region. The last thing that Palestinians in the West Bank need is for ISIS or Hamas to gain control and turn Ramallah into another Gaza City or Raqqa.
Yes, one cannot really know what it’s like to live in Palestine unless one is a Palestinian. However, the evidence does not seem to point to a Warsaw Ghetto situation in which people are so oppressed and desperate that they have no choice but to rise up against their oppressors. Rather, the evidence seems to show a culture in which many Palestinians have been egged on to commit violent acts by their leaders. A culture in which children are told that Jews are the enemy, Israel is an illegitimate state and that Palestinians will eventually rise up and push the Jews in to the sea. A culture that treats murderers as heroes and a government that pays stipends to their families. A culture that is supported by a complacent and morally inept United Nations that continues to label the perpetrators of violent acts as victims of an occupation, when in reality they are simply violent criminals who should be treated as such.