Sympathy for Palestinian Misery

The question was a valid one: “How could you, a conservative and a gentleman, be for them?”

The asker is an acquaintance of long standing, also a gent, so I bothered to explain. “Because I’ve been there and have seen what’s going on up close.”

Needless to say, it was the Middle East we were talking about, and my sympathy for the Palestinians rather than for tiny Israel, surrounded as it is by hostile Arab nations. I was based in Amman starting in 1969 and through the “Black September” one year later, when King Hussein destroyed the PLO effort to take over his country. I had visited the Palestinian refugee camps, occupied by those evicted during the founding of Israel in 1948. I then covered the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and have visited many more such camps in Lebanon since then. All I can say is, once you’ve seen the misery of life in those camps it would take a heart of stone not to feel something for the Palestinians.

But don’t take my word for it. Israel is operating “a regime of state terror whose raison d’etre is the theft of Palestinian land and, whenever possible, the expulsion of its Palestinian owners,” wrote David Schulman in the October issue of The New York Review of Books. “I have seen this system in operation over the course of the past twenty odd years,” said Schulman, who is a Jewish professor at Hebrew University in Israel, .

Pro-Israelis might immediately think of Schulman, “There goes yet another self-loathing Jew.” I don’t know the professor, but I’ve met a lot of Israelis who not only agree with him, but who are adamant that Israel under Netanyahu has become an occupying power bent on capturing the whole West Bank. One thing is for sure, state violence against Palestinians living under occupation has escalated dramatically.

It is hard for me to describe what I’ve seen with my own eyes when Jewish settlers come face to face with Palestinians. These settlers are religious fanatics, mostly young men and women, who are imbued with a burning racist hatred for Palestinians. When disputes between these two groups occur, the Israeli army and police, though supposedly neutral, invariably side with the settlers. Thus, one more Arab village empties out and the Israeli religious fanatics move in. The plan is a simple one and openly espoused by government officials: Make life unbearable for the Palestinians so that they will leave for Jordan or Saudi Arabia—or anywhere else—and eventually the entire West Bank will be Jewish.

Well, it’s a pipe dream, because there are 5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza who are not exactly wanted by other Arab countries. Netanyahu’s plan, expressed in 2019 to Israeli Army Radio, was to annex all the West Bank settlements and historic sites tied to Israel. But then came Oct. 7 and we know the rest.

Or do we know the whole story? There is a longtime pattern in that disputed land: Netanyahu was first propelled into the prime minister’s office by the public reaction against Palestinian suicide bombing attacks. Ever since then, he and his hardliners have encouraged the growth of extremist Palestinian groups, such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, because the threat they pose helps to keep Netanyahu and the Likud Party in power.

The horrific attacks of Oct. 7 have now been followed by the massacre of innocent Palestinians in Gaza, with more than 3,000 children reported killed there during the last three weeks, which is more than in all global conflicts combined during the last year, according to the nonprofit charity Save the Children.

Israel for many years has practiced unrelenting violence against the Palestinians as an occupying power. The Palestinian extremist groups, for their part, often outdo the Israelis in violence. And then the deadly pattern starts all over again. Do I mean that the Oct. 7 attacks were justified? Of course not, but it is clear that in its reaction Israel is losing the public relations battle, which is according to Hamas’s plans.

Back in America, the Middle East conflict has turned American universities into battlegrounds. Unfortunately that means my Palestinian sympathies are shared with leftist students who wish to cancel Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, and other great Americans. These students are often blinded by their simplistic ideology, except in this case it is undeniably true when they say that the Palestinians are a people oppressed by a colonizing regional superpower.

Had I never visited and lived among the oppressed as well as the oppressors, I certainly would be on the side of the Israelis. Just look what they’ve done with their land compared to what the Palestinians have accomplished: zero. And yet, I have lived there and have seen what is going on with my own eyes and cannot ignore what I’ve seen. I first wrote a variation of these words more than 40 years ago and they still apply: A Palestinian mother cries as bitterly as an Israeli mother does after losing a child, so something must be done.          ◆

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