Re-humanizing the Palestinians

by The Dartmouth | 11/21/01 6:00am

By Mohamad Bydon '01

In the Oct. 28 issue of The New York TimesMagazine, award-winning journalist Joseph Lelyveld wrote an article entitled "All Suicide Bombers Are Not Alike." Lelyveld, in an attempt to understand suicide-bombing, stopped in Gaza and spoke to the Palestinian parents of a "martyr." He describes the father of the deceased Ismael as "solemnly prideful" and his mother as "resolutely cheerful ... [She] betrayed not a hint of sadness as she spoke of her departed son."

This description struck me as rather bizarre, especially since I've been through Palestinian refugee camps myself and have met the parents of suicide bombers in south Lebanon. I have seen mothers weeping over their "martyred" sons and have had the experience of watching a tearful middle aged woman walk up to a militant leader, kiss his hand and beg him to leave her son alone so that he may live.

Lelyveld's account is indeed a surprising one because it describes Palestinian mothers as being somehow less attached to their sons than mothers in other parts of the world. But Lelyveld is not alone: many others in the media have taken the approach of attacking Palestinian parents for the deaths of their children. Some, like Lelyveld, have chosen to depict parents in Gaza and the West Bank as joyous supporters of their sons' deaths, while others have simply blamed them of negligence in allowing their children to confront Israeli soldiers with rocks. A few have gone so far as to suggest that Palestinian youths are being used as "human shields" in this current Intifada.

Upon seeing refugee camps in Lebanon or reading descriptions of those in the occupied territories, one is struck above all by the immense number of people living in so limited a space. Nowhere are the camps allowed to physically grow in size. In the Khan Younis camp of Gaza, while the number of inhabitants has doubled over the past 50 years, the camp remains confined to the same space allotted it by the Egyptian authorities in 1949. Gaza, meanwhile, has become one of the most densely populated places on earth. While Jewish settlers enjoy the comforts of government subsidized housing, 10-member Palestinian families have been relegated to living in wretched one room shacks. This, in addition to a Palestinian population growth rate of 3.7 percent, changes the fundamental question from "How could they send their children out into the streets?" to "How can they keep their children at home?"

Yet some American journalists have ignored these issues and turned their attention to propagating a theory of "child sacrifice" in which Palestinian parents or leaders are gleeful about the death of young Palestinians, hoping to garner world sympathy to their side.

Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, in response to the sight of Israeli soldiers shooting a nine-year-old Palestinian girl, wrote in October of last year, "You feel as if you are watching a modern form of ritual sacrifice. The Palestinians seem to have no qualms about putting up their youth to be shot at ... " The statement not only tries to blame Palestinian civilians for the crimes of Israeli soldiers, but also ignores important reports on the issue.

Jessica Montell of B'tselem, an Israeli human rights agency, investigated the allegations that Palestinians are using their children as "human shields," ultimately finding "no evidence of organized exploitation of children" during this Intifada.

Chris Hedges, former Middle East Bureau Chief of the New York Times, wrote an article published in the Oct. 2001 issue Harper's Magazine about his seven day stay in the Khan Younis refugee camp of Gaza. He wrote of his astonishment as he witnessed Israeli troops taunt Palestinian children over loudspeakers and open fire when the boys aged 10 or 11 years old approached.

In an interview with NPR, he also described Palestinian parents of suicide bombers as being heart broken by the loss of their sons: "Despite the rhetoric we hear ... Sitting around the house with these parents, with the puffy eyes and the thousand yard stare, it's very clear that these parents are as devastated as any parent would be to have a son die."

The government of Israel adamantly denies the charges that its soldiers instigate violence and continues to insist, like it did after the Nablus bombing that killed two children, that Palestinians are using their own children as human shields. This argument (used by the apartheid South African government during the 1984-85 uprising of black youths) is based on the dehumanization of Palestinian parents and the Palestinian people in general. To argue that Palestinian fathers would ritually sacrifice their children for a TV image or that Palestinian mothers would feel no pain over the death of their suicide bomber sons is to reject the basic humanity of the Palestinian people. The truth is that Palestinian parents love their children as much as parents anywhere in the world; and that the loss of a child devastates Palestinian parents just as it would devastate American parents. No respected journalist would argue that Israeli settlers are responsible for the deaths of their children because they have willingly and gladly moved with their families into a war zone, or into a part of the world in which they know they will be targeted. But somehow with the Palestinians, it's different.

The dehumanization of the Palestinians and their presentation as a violent, malicious people stems back to the early days of Zionism. The child of two Holocaust survivors, Norman Finkelstein writes: "the first Zionist settlers in 1882 acted as if 'they were the rightful lords and masters of this land.' Their 'first impression' of the Arab was 'that this stranger respected strength and that the language of physical force was the only idiom he understood' ... A correspondent from Palestine in 1886 wrote that his Zionist comrades did not 'regard the fellahin [Arab farmers] as human beings; and for every small thing, they beat and punish them with whip.'"

Although the Palestinian natives held the Jewish settlers with similar scorn and although most of the aforementioned sentiments have disappeared, it remains disturbing to hear advocates of Israel's military heavy-handedness say that Palestinians understand nothing but the rule of force. It remains disturbing to hear the comments of Israel's recently assassinated Tourism Minister Rehavan Zeevi, a throwback to the days of old. He publicly referred to Palestinians as "lice" and as a "cancer spreading within us."

I think of how long the Palestinians will have to live in their current state of wretched diaspora when I read columns by people like Rob Dreher of the Washington Post.

The Palestinians of course are demanding freedom, a homeland and a solution to their refugee crisis. Many are going about clamoring for statehood violently, others are doing it peacefully. The last time a people behaved similarly in that region we gave them a state ... and called it Israel. But somehow it's different if you're a Palestinian.