The Israeli reaction to the events in the Jenin refugee camp raises several significant questions. Why indeed does the vast majority of Israelis–not just extreme rightists–appear not to be reacting to the killing of numerous innocent civilians, including children? Even if there was no deliberate massacre; even if we can argue that it was the terrorists who forced innocent civilians to remain in their booby trapped homes who bear the guilt for their deaths–why haven’t we heard at least an expression of condolence on the part of the Israeli public mainstream, with the exception of a few eternal peace professionals? Why this anger at United Nations envoy Terje Larsen, even after he repeatedly explained that he did not say and never intended to say that Israel carried out a massacre in Jenin?
The sad answer to these questions appears to be that the conflict has reached such a level of hostility that every incident is perceived as a zero-sum exercise. Thus, even someone expressing sadness upon the death of Palestinian children is perceived as a “traitor” who is not sufficiently grieving over the death of his own people.
The Palestinians appear to have a larger responsibility for the deterioration of the situation. This can be proven with a simple chronology: until the Passover massacre in Netanya and the Israeli offensive that followed, official Israel, and many rank-and-file Israelis, continued to express sorrow over Palestinian civilian casualties, particularly children, that were caused by Israeli actions. In contrast the Palestinians focused on indiscriminate terrorism directed against Israeli civilians; women, children and the aged were “preferred” targets no less than soldiers. (I do not intend here, God forbid, to legitimize attacks on soldiers, but simply to state that a war against soldiers could still be considered within the acceptable “rules” of war, in contrast with attacks upon civilians, including settlers.)
It is the focus of the current war on civilians– in contrast with all of Israel’s previous wars (including the 1948 War of Independence, in which civilian casualties were secondary targets)–that has generated the sense that this is a total war, one between peoples. Hence the absence of compassion. If they have no pity on our children (actually, on their own children as well), why should we have pity on theirs?
But there is more. What has sharpened the Israeli lack of compassion is the international campaign to protest Israel’s acts of self-defense. The combination of these two phenomena has gone to the depths of Jewish identity to arouse primeval gut Jewish emotions. For the first time since the Holocaust (perhaps with the exception of the days that preceded the Six-Day War on 1967) Jews–this time in their Israeli identity–have again felt that their backs are to the wall: they are struggling not only for their physical existence, but for their right to exist in principle. Even if these sensations are exaggerated, they cannot be denigrated or dismissed; a people that has experienced the mass extermination of the Holocaust has the full right to fear for its fate in more “minor” situations as well.
One of the “proofs” in Israeli eyes of the totality of the struggle is the recent wave of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe. If the Palestinians explain terrorism against Israel as one aspect of a general escalation of their national struggle, how do they explain the wave of attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions in Europe? After all, the Jews of Europe bear no responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; why should they suffer as its victims? Thus if they are indeed the targets of a wave of attacks, this strengthens the sense that we are confronting a total offensive against our very national existence. The silence of Palestinians and other Arabs in the face of these attacks proves ostensibly that they are satisfied with them–whereas were Jews, even under present circumstances, to attack mosques in Europe, no doubt the entire Jewish leadership, including in Israel, would raise its voice in protest.
Accordingly if the Arab states, and particularly Palestinians, want to invoke a confidence-building measure that might restore among Israelis the sense that this is not an all-out struggle over Jewish national existence but rather a Palestinian struggle for national freedom–they could, for example, launch a public diplomacy campaign against attacks on Jews worldwide, and especially in Europe. If Palestinians make their voices heard on this issue then perhaps the sense of total struggle will diminish, and Israelis, too, can express sorrow over the deaths of Palestinian children, regardless of the situation in which they were killed and the question of responsibility for their deaths.
Yair Sheleg is a member of the Editorial Board of Ha’aretz daily newspaper.