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Amjad Atallah

Amjad Atallah

Posted: October 2, 2009 02:42 PM

How To Kill Your Friends, Big and Small

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Palestinians today woke up to two news stories -- one that made them celebrate and one that made them cringe. Unfortunately, the U.S. was not involved in the celebratory story.

Yesterday, the Palestine Liberation Organization's representative at the United Nations in Geneva pulled a resolution at the Human Rights Council that appeared to have widespread backing. The resolution would have recommended the findings of the Goldstone Report to the General Assembly or Security Council. The Goldstone Report, you will recall, found that both Israel and Hamas may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity and recommended concrete steps to investigate the crimes.

The PLO's ambassador, Ibrahim Khraishi, told the New York Times that if the report went to the Security Council it might force a U.S. veto. As a compromise to actually burying the report, as Israel and the US have demanded, the new resolution would delay its consideration by the Human Rights Council until next March.

Many Palestinians viewed the move to delay consideration of the report as more than just a diplomatic tactic to stay in America's good graces -- it reinforced a stereotype among many Palestinians that the West Bank leadership simply does not care about the civilians in the Gaza Strip. Paradoxically, it removed a legal tool that could be used to hold Hamas (as well as Israel) to account for targeting civilians.

But this wasn't the only thing on the news channels last night. Israel's on-again off-again negotiations with Hamas over the fate of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, being held in Gaza now for over three years, have resulted in a small breakthrough. Hamas has been trying to negotiate the release of some 1000 Palestinian detainees, including women and children, who have been held by Israel for years. Israel currently holds some 10,000 Palestinian political prisoners.

The small breakthrough included today's exchange of a videotape message from an apparently healthy Shalit proving that he is still alive for 19 Palestinian women including at least one originally detained when she was only thirteen years old. The exchange took place today.

It is important to note that the Israeli government and the West Bank PA are not in any negotiations over the release of Palestinian political prisoners. The West Bank PA has committed itself to achieving its aims solely through reliance on the United States and negotiations with Israel. In other words, the United States and its willingness to apply incentives or disincentives to Israel replace both violent and non-violent resistance as West Bank - PA tactics. So far, Israel has not felt any need to negotiate prisoners with Abbas or even to stop taking prisoners from within areas allegedly under Abbas' control in the West Bank.

Palestinian political prisoners are THE number one hot button issue among Palestinians under Israeli occupation. To imagine its emotional resonance, just remember how we felt when Iranians were holding American hostages or, if you are Israeli, imagine how you feel about Gilad Shalit. Palestinians are like us in this and many other respects and the best barometer of how Palestinians feel about something is to imagine how we might feel if it were us.

The impact of these two stories was visible in this morning's headlines in the on-line edition of the Palestinian news agency Maan:

Headline One: PA's Geneva envoy: I delayed the Goldstone report.

Headline Two: Israel declares victory as PA backs down at UNHRC

Headline Three: 19 women released from prison in exchange for tape

This comes on the heels of President Abbas' handshake with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations, after Abbas insisted he would only meet if there was a settlement freeze, which Netanyahu did not deliver. The headlines threaten to cement a narrative that the United States cannot possibly find comfortable:

"Fatah capitulates to US and Israeli pressure with no tangible payoff. Hamas holds firm and gets Palestinian prisoners released."

You don't need to be an Arabist, or have graduated with a PhD in Middle Eastern studies, to recognize that our pattern of behavior with the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank is killing them.

The entire structure of the PA is in fact hurting our friends by tasking them with managing the occupation instead of concentrating on state-building. As such, some may argue that the PA's system of patronage, by paying civil servant salaries, is a pay-off for its quiescence. However, most Palestinians believe that this is a subsidy to reduce the cost to Israel of occupying the Palestinian territory. Israel has responsibility for the people under its occupation. Allowing the Europeans, Arabs, and Americans to assume those costs directly using the West Bank PA as a pass-through makes sense for Israel.

And while Palestinians appreciate their salaries, they, like Americans, tend to focus on issues of national humiliation rather closely. Forcing the Palestinian leadership to delay an investigation into the killing of its own civilian population reminds the Palestinian public that its leadership is being asked to entrench the occupation - not lead it to independence.

While our policy demands are counter-productive to our friends in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Israel's policy demands of us are becoming increasingly counter-productive to our national interests. Israel has continued to demand that we pay for their settlement activity even when we have stated clearly that they are illegitimate. Israel continues to openly encourage Americans to demonstrate and lobby Congress for confrontation with Iran and urges American lawmakers to think of war as a necessary evil, despite admitting that even a nuclear Iran wouldn't be an existential threat to Israel. Israel keeps threatening to go to war by itself knowing it would force us to defend them when the inevitable retaliation came.

Perhaps Israeli leaders don't realize that we are fighting two wars already and they are not going well. Perhaps they don't realize a war would have a potentially devastating impact on the world economy and our "jobless" recovery. Perhaps they don't realize that a war would almost overnight raise our old rival Russia, to almost Soviet-era preeminence. Perhaps they don't realize that our actual enemy - al Qaeda - has been fantasizing of the day when its two greatest enemies, the United States and Iran would go to war with each other. General Anthony Zinni had a good list of all the other negative consequences related to a military strike when he last spoke at the New America Foundation. Perhaps Israeli leaders don't realize what a disaster this is for America or they don't care.

Either way, you can forgive a friend for putting their own interests before yours or forgive them for demanding steps of us that would be suicidal if you were especially magnanimous. But it is hard to forgive oneself for taking those steps.

We need to begin to consider the consequences of our demands on the Palestinians, particularly before we have begun to end the occupation, and Israel needs to consider the consequences of their demands on us, particularly while we are in difficult wars. Friends should treat each other better.