When a horrified world sees films and photos of a youngster shot dead in his father's arms, most people don't think about who started the fighting, the merits of Israel's right to preserve law and order and protect its citizens from attack, or the history of the conflict going back to the Balfour Declaration 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 contemplate the immorality of sending youngsters out onto the front lines of combat, hurling rocks and stones at soldiers, but that's what the Palestinians have done at least since the Intifada of 1987--and with great success, as Israel's image was transformed from David to Goliath almost overnight. For the Palestinians, using their young people as fodder against the Israelis is effective precisely because the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are trained to respond with restraint, often putting themselves in danger rather than firing on youthful combatants.
In Lebanon during the 1982 war, I spoke with Israeli soldiers who told me of their 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 rocket launchers on their shoulders. Some soldiers who resisted paid with their lives. But since when do we empathize with armed soldiers rather than cute little kids?
Today, when we see funerals of teenage boys martyred for the Palestinian cause, we need to realize that in many cases they were encouraged and incited to violence not only by the Palestinian leadership but often by their own families, who have been told by their national and religious leaders that sacrificing a youngster for the cause of jihad, or holy war, is of great merit.
Amal al-Durrah, the mother of the 12-year-old boy, Muhammad, who was killed this past week, said later, "My son didn't die in vain. This was his sacrifice for our homeland, for Palestine."
The kind of society where mothers encourage their unarmed children to take to the front lines is one where fervent nationalism and religious fundamentalism is so strong, and poverty so pervasive, that a human life is devalued, worth less than the promise of individual martyrdom or collective statehood.
It is the sense of victimhood that churns the cycle of violence in the Mideast. Each side believes fervently that it is the more embattled. The Israelis 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. The Palestinians say they are the new Jews, a people oppressed and seeking a national homeland. It's a simpler message, not complicated by redrawn maps and broken promises.
But when peace seemed attainable at Camp David this summer, it was Yasser Arafat who backed down, fearing for his life if he gave up Muslim claims to the Old City of Jerusalem. So far, he seems to believe that his greatest weapon is not the prospect of peace but the threat--and occasional use of-- violence, be it terrorist bombs or a renewed Intifada. Until that sensibility changes, until the Palestinians believe they have something to gain by making sacrifices for peace, the bloodshed is sure to continue.