The Sickness in Both Israeli and Palestinian Societies

Violence, incitement and racist hatred don’t just increasingly plague Israel. Palestinian society is just as sick – and unlike Israel, lacks a leader voicing genuine self-criticism.

Ori Nir
Ori Nir
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Palestinians clash with Israeli forces in East Jerusalem, November 4, 2014.
Palestinians clash with Israeli forces in East Jerusalem, November 4, 2014.Credit: AP
Ori Nir
Ori Nir

The despicable violence, incitement, racism and hatred that are plaguing Israelis and Palestinians these days demonstrate just how sick both societies are - yes, both – and how desperately they need to separate from each other into two independent states.

The occupation is not the only cause for the sickness on both sides, and ending it will not be a panacea for all the ills of Israeli and Palestinian societies. But it undoubtedly is a necessary component of the long-term therapy that each society needs if they are to function normally.

Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin was spot on when he courageously stated recently that Israel is a “sick society,” which demands treatment. “I’m not asking if they’ve forgotten how to be Jews, but if they’ve forgotten how to be decent human beings,” Rivlin said of Israeli Jews. In recent speeches, statements and Facebook posts since becoming president in July, Rivlin has been lamenting the ever deepening swamp of brutality, bigotry and intolerance threatening to drown Israeli society.

The Palestinians don’t have a national figure with Rivlin’s integrity. I wish they did, because their society too is very sick, indeed, and could use Rivlinesque self-criticism.

Take for example a recent poll conducted simultaneously across the Arab world, to gauge Arabs’ attitudes toward the Islamic State, the Jihadi organization better known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL. In most Arab societies, some 10 percent expressed a positive attitude toward ISIS. In Palestinian society, the proportion was a whopping 24 percent. One in every four Palestinians (!) views this ultra-militant, ultra-violent group as either “positive” (4%) or “positive to some extent” (20%).

Take Palestinian reactions to the recent ISIS-style attack on Orthodox Jews praying in a Jerusalem synagogue. Yes, there was the usual dancing in the Palestinian street and handing out of sweets when news spread about the two East Jerusalemites who turned a synagogue into a slaughterhouse. While this repulsive custom can be dismissed as the work of a handful of hooligans, the efforts of Palestinian pundits and opinion leaders to find justifications for the attack are not.

In the couple of days that followed last week’s attack, I scanned the web sites of the Palestinian daily newspapers, and found only one article that flatly and unequivocally condemned it not only as counterproductive for the Palestinian cause but as immoral. The author, veteran commentator Hasan al-Batal of the pro-Fatah Ramallah-based al-Ayyam newspaper, received many negative (and some positive) reactions. He published them all, verbatim, in his daily column the next day under the headline “When you’re surrounded by insanity, your reason won’t benefit you” – a loose translation of a common Palestinian proverb.

Surely, it would be absurd to expect that the two societies would not become severely infected by 47 years of occupation and 27 years of on-again off-again violent conflict since the first intifada.

The occupation corrupts both the occupied and the occupiers. It settles not only on the land but in people’s hearts and minds. Well into the second generation of occupied and occupiers, young Israelis and Palestinians have internalized the occupation to the extent that they can’t imagine life without it. Without leaders who inspire hope for a future of peace, young Israelis and Palestinians have lost the ability to dream, to envision a different reality.

Last week I met with a dozen Palestinian journalists from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, who were on a tour of the U.S. I tried to explore with them what an independent, sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza could look like. They simply could not envision it. The occupation, an anomaly that was supposed to be temporary, is so pervasive, so enduring and omnipresent in their lives that they cannot imagine life without it.

I have closely followed both societies over the past three decades as their illness, fed by violence and hopelessness, has progressed. I know that even if the occupation ended tomorrow, healing will take many years. But healing will only be possible once the two societies separate, so they can mind their own illnesses. We must let the healing begin.

Ori Nir, formerly Haaretz's Palestinian affairs correspondent, is Americans for Peace Now's director of communications and public outreach. Follow him on Twitter: @OriNir_APN

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