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Ghassan Khatib

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Textbooks, Grasshoppers, and the Question of Incitement

Posted: 04/05/10 05:25 PM ET

There is a great opportunity in the next few months to reach a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This may seem a surprising view just now, but there is a competent and responsible Palestinian government in place which is serious about establishing a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel. And there is strong public support for this objective. The evidence is all around you if you come to see the reality.

It would be tragic if Israel were to miss this opportunity -- tragic for Israel as well as for Palestinians. It is profoundly mysterious to us as to why the current Israeli government seems unable to envision how the Palestinian state which we are building is the best way of ensuring a lasting peace. Not to mention righting the many injustices of its long and costly occupation.

Yet instead, the Israeli government seems determined to ignore the positive reality and hark back to previous times. Take for example Israeli accusations of Palestinian 'incitement.' Incitement is a very elastic concept and hard to define. If it means putting incitement propaganda into schools, the Palestinian National Authority has already made successful efforts to deal with this.

The Ministry of Education began tackling this issue in the 1990s when it began a phased introduction of new textbooks in all subjects and all grades, a process which was completed in 2006. Several independent reviews of the textbooks have reported positive conclusions on the removal of incitement. European donors have consistently monitored our textbooks to ensure that they are satisfied; in a statement to that effect, the EU states that the "new textbooks, though not perfect, are free of inciteful content and improve the previous textbooks, constituting a valuable contribution to the education of young Palestinians." (See full statement) Indeed, few countries' textbooks have been subjected to as much scrutiny. It is hard to define where free speech shades into incitement. Two sides may see the same incident very differently. This is certainly the case with Israelis and Palestinians, whose historical narratives are usually oppositional.

For Palestinians, the very fact of Israel's occupation is incitement. Recently our media prominently reported pictures of Palestinian farmers being ordered to strip by Israeli soldiers. Most reasonable people would regard such behavior by an occupying army as incitement.

Meanwhile, Israel has done nothing to tackle its own government-sponsored incitement. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, who called for the cleansing of Arabs, is revered by followers of a movement whose political party is a member of the Israeli coalition government -- not to mention his responsibility for educating thousands of students, with substantial government funding. Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, who supports the killing of non-Jewish children, remains head of a religious school in an Israeli settlement, and has not been removed, as would be expected by a community regarding itself as, democratic, liberal and civilized. These pronouncements are not exclusive to right-wing parties or religious figures, but transcend them to be part of the dominant discourse in Israel. Menachem Begin, Israel's Prime Minister proclaimed that Palestinians are 'a beast walking on two legs', and it was Prime Minister Itzhak Shamir who said that "[The Palestinians] would be crushed like grasshoppers ... heads smashed against the boulders and walls." This is discourse that demonizes, demoralizes and dehumanizes an entire people, and should certainly be considered incitement.

Israel has been complaining in recent weeks about a Palestinian decision to name a square in Ramallah after a Palestinian woman, Dalal al-Mughrabi, regarded by Israelis as a terrorist. While some view this as incitement, others view it as honoring heroism in the pursuit of freedom.

Indeed, Israel could be held culpable for the same thing. Shlomo Ben-Yosef Street, in Akko, is a reminder to Palestinian residents of the man who, in 1938, attacked a bus full of Palestinian civilians, seeking to kill them all. Ben-Yosef is one of 12 members of the Jewish Underground honored by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a speech last month, when he said that their 'message of sacrifice and heroism remains alive'. These 12 were sentenced to hang by the British for the murdering and bombing of Palestinian civilians in the 1930s and 1940s.

Visitors to Israel fly in and out of Ben Gurion Airport. For Palestinians, this is the ultimate affront. David Ben Gurion, the founder of Israel, is also the man who dealt with 'the Arab Problem' by expelling thousands of Palestinians. Under his leadership 69 Palestinians were killed in the Qibya Massacre of 1953.

We must agree to disagree that our historical narratives will never be reconciled and move on, to a two-state solution with Palestine and Israel living side by side in peace. The Palestinian leadership is ready to work even harder to combat incitement, but this must happen in tandem with efforts by Israel -- a sovereign state for 62 years -- to tackle its own incitement issues, seeking a common definition through a third party, as provided by the Oslo Accords. But in the end, the best way to purge incitement is to end the occupation once and for all.