When a horrified world sees films and photos of a youngster shot dead in hisfather's arms, most people don't think about who started the fighting, themerits of Israel's right to preserve law and order and protect its citizensfrom attack, or the history of the conflict going back to the BalfourDeclaration of 1917.
Rather, they see up close the heartbreak of human suffering and tend to blame the combatant with the more powerful army,perceived as the occupier. It may not be fair, but it's reality.
That's what Arafat & Co. are counting on. Few of us stop to contemplatethe immorality of sending youngsters out onto the front lines of combat,hurling rocks and stones at soldiers, but that's what the Palestinians havedone at least since the Intifada of 1987--and with great success, asIsrael's image was transformed from David to Goliath almost overnight. Forthe Palestinians, using their young people as fodder against the Israelis iseffective precisely because the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are trained torespond with restraint, often putting themselves in danger rather than firingon youthful combatants.
In Lebanon during the 1982 war, I spoke with Israeli soldiers who told me oftheir moral dilemma when confronted with the possibility of firing on Lebanese boys as young as 10 and 11 who were running toward them with Katyusha rocketlaunchers on their shoulders. Some soldiers who resisted paid with theirlives. But since when do we empathize with armed soldiers rather than cutelittle kids?
Today, when we see funerals of teenage boys martyred for the Palestiniancause, we need to realize that in many cases they were encouraged andincited to violence not only by the Palestinian leadership but often bytheir own families, who have been told by their national and religiousleaders that sacrificing a youngster for the cause of jihad, or holy war, isof great merit.
Amal al-Durrah, the mother of the 12-year-old boy, Muhammad, who was killedthis past week, said later, "My son didn't die in vain. This was hissacrifice for our homeland, for Palestine."
The kind of society where mothers encourage their unarmed children to taketo the front lines is one where fervent nationalism and religiousfundamentalism is so strong, and poverty so pervasive, that a human life isdevalued, worth less than the promise of individual martyrdom or collective statehood.
It is the sense of victimhood that churns the cycle of violence in theMideast. Each side believes fervently that it is the more embattled. TheIsraelis are surrounded by some 20 Arab or Muslim states, some of whom, like Iraq and Iran, continue not only to call for the destruction of the "Zionist entity" but also to develop nuclear weapons to make that happen. Since the day Israel declared statehood in 1948, they have not had a day of genuine peace. ThePalestinians say they are the new Jews, a people oppressed and seeking anational homeland. It's a simpler message, not complicated by redrawn mapsand broken promises.
But when peace seemed attainable at Camp David this summer, it was YasserArafat who backed down, fearing for his life if he gave up Muslim claims tothe Old City of Jerusalem. So far, he seems to believe that his greatestweapon is not the prospect of peace but the threat--and occasional use of--violence, be it terrorist bombs or a renewed Intifada. Until thatsensibility changes, until the Palestinians believe they have something togain by making sacrifices for peace, the bloodshed is sure to continue.