Hoover Daily Report

The Palestinian Identity

Monday, February 4, 2002

On a clear March night in 1986, accompanied by a young Palestinian lawyer named Jonathan Kutaeb, I drove from Jerusalem to Nablus to pay respects to the family of Zafir el-Masri. El-Masri had been assassinated by a Palestinian fanatic for daring to cooperate with Israel by serving as mayor of an important town. But the Palestinians attending his funeral treated him as a hero.

Because of his unique standing, the Israel Defense Forces held back, allowing the funeral to become an emotional display of national sentiment. Illegal Palestinian banners were waved wildly. Masked celebrants chanted their allegiance to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). El-Masri's shroud was passed from hand to hand above a crowd pulsating with energy.

On the drive to Nablus, my friend Jonathan tried to put the significance of el-Masri's funeral into words. "Palestinians have always relied on some outside force to deliver us from occupation. First it was the pan-Arabism of Nasser and Assad. Then the Russians. Then the PLO from its bases in Lebanon. Then the Americans after Camp David. Now we know that by asserting our identity we must deliver ourselves."

When the first intifada erupted more than a year later, I was back in the states, covering the Pentagon. From afar, I felt great sympathy for the Palestinian people and little for Israeli settlement policies. Israel, in my view, had vital security interests in the West Bank and Gaza, the foremost of which was a Palestinian community that accepted Israel's right to exist. Settlements whose defense required a stifling, humiliating military presence were obstacles to real security.

Oslo would later seem a triumph of reason over ruin. The principle of mutual recognition could succeed selfish, destructive obsessions with national destinies. Israel could return to its central mission of providing a haven for world Jewry while the Palestinians could build a nation reflecting their values and character.

Instead, today there is heartbreak. And this time blame for the failure rests almost totally with the Palestinians. Yes, the settlements have expanded. But this Palestinian uprising began as many settlements were being negotiated away by a prime minister who had staked his political life on true compromise.

Far more troublesome is the evident mentality of the Palestinian community. Does a man who blows his body to bits for the transcendent joy of killing a score of Jewish teenagers accept the humanity, let alone the statehood, of his victims? When a third of all Palestinians identify the terrorist Hamas organization as their preferred political vehicle, are they ready to administer the holy city of Jerusalem side by side with Israelis? When their teachers and mullahs argue the falsity of the Holocaust and the truth of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, can one believe the Palestinians have any peace to trade for land?

As I recall the drive to Nablus nearly sixteen years ago, part of me still yearns for the Palestinians to affirm their identity. Another part of me fears they have already done so.