World leaders and political pundits have speculated that the January 9, 2005 Palestinian elections may have set up some new opportunities for renewed Middle East peacemaking efforts. This is encouraging. However, I suspect that Middle East peace will depend on much more than the success of the elections and finding the right successor to Yasser Arafat. It will require an attitude adjustment on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Recently I stopped by a demonstration on Rittenhouse Square in my hometown of Philadelphia. It had been advertised as a protest against Israel’s “separation wall.” The wall, intended to stop Palestinians from entering Israel to carry out attacks, is actually cutting off hundreds of thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians from essential services in nearby towns and villages and from their farming land – a main source of subsistence for Palestinians in the region. As one might have predicted, when I arrived at the demonstration, I found a number of Zionist counterdemonstrators concurrently vying for their own soapboxes on the Square. As I observed the highly emotional exchanges between the two sides, it occurred to me that this is why the violence in the Middle East won’t stop.
Each side was on the defensive. Each side went on pointing fingers and spewing blame, hate rhetoric and racial slurs, but never really listening. The same thing is happening in the Middle East, with both the Palestinians and the Israelis engaging in senseless killing while pointing fingers and blaming the whole problem on the other side. It reminded me of a childish schoolyard fight – the kind that breaks out between children who have lived long enough to have assumed their parents’ prejudices by osmosis. The difference, though, is that schoolyard fights involve sticks and stones, not bombs and bulldozers.
As I introduced myself to various demonstrators on both sides, I mentioned that I was involved with Amnesty International, and I remarked on how sad it is to see all the violence and death and human rights violations on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The responses were sadly predictable, but still shocking to this idealistic humanitarian.
Several of the Zionist counterdemonstrators pointed at me and shouted that Amnesty International (a Nobel prize-winning human rights organization) is anti-Semitic. It would appear that they don’t like the fact that Amnesty speaks out against the human rights violations on both sides of the fence (or wall, in this case), including those committed by the Israelis. Meanwhile, the pro-Palestinian factions expressed their disappointment with Amnesty’s political neutrality and condemnation of human rights violations by Palestinians against the Israelis.
Yes, Amnesty International has consistently condemned violations by all parties in this tragic cycle of violence that has killed and injured many hundreds of civilians on both sides. We condemn the killing of Israeli civilians, including children, by Palestinian suicide bombers. At the same time, we condemn the destruction of Palestinian homes, agricultural land, water and electricity networks and other crucial infrastructure by the Israeli army (using U.S.- supplied Caterpillar bulldozers, incidentally). Human rights violations are wrong no matter who commits them.
Each side needs to step back, set aside their egos, look inside themselves and think of the children. Until the parties on each side can stop and see the humanity on the other side, and take responsibility for their own part in the ongoing cycle of violence, I fear that it will just continue indefinitely.