The situation unfolding in Gaza and the West Bank is, in some significant ways, an inevitable consequence of factors beyond the control of the Palestinians. The lawlessness, the intra-Palestinian violence and the general social unrest, were all predictable. When any society has been subjected to prolonged repression and deprivation, it usually reacts with violence, first directed against the perceived source of the oppression. Only in later stages, after this repressive situation has been sustained over a long period of time, does the violence turn inward in self-destructive and antisocial behavior.
In large measure, of course, Israel bears significant responsibility for this tragedy. Their relentless public relations machinery is working overtime in an effort to absolve them of any blame. What is taking place they argue, is evidence of the violent nature of Palestinian society and provides reason enough for Israel to separate itself and protect itself from these people.
But Israel cannot escape its paternity for this situation. What is unfolding is the direct result of their policies. Palestinians, today, live as a captive people with the basic conditions of their lives determined by others.
I am, I confess, what some may call a “bleeding heart liberal.” Having studied other similar situations of prolonged oppression (Native Americans, African Americans, South Africa, and Algerians under French colonial rule); I understand the degree to which human behavior is shaped by political forces or the conditions of their social and political environment. The same is true in interpersonal relationships. There is ample evidence, for example, that demonstrates how battered or abused children, themselves, become batterers and abusers. I, therefore, cannot affix principal blame for the current situation on the victim.
Put any people in the same conditions that the Palestinians have lived under during the last century and they would fare no better.
Palestinians have no control over their economy, nor do they have the freedom or opportunity to grow their economy. And so, they live with two-thirds of their population below the poverty line, 50% unemployment (with 80% of youth unemployed in Gaza). Compounding this economic depravation is their lack of control over their lives. Palestinians continue to be victimized by land confiscation, home demolitions, collective punishment, and control over their movements and denied of free access to the outside world (and now, even the movement within their already confined areas). And then of course, there is the repeated acts of violence they have endured.
The despair and the anger resulting from these circumstances have distorted all aspects of daily life and have now become internalized, with potentially devastating consequences.
But the story cannot be allowed to end here. Though I am a liberal, in the sense I described, I also believe in free will and the requirement of leadership to rise above the circumstances of daily life and to challenge one’s society and oneself to do better.
While it is true that Palestinians are victims, Palestinian leaders who are witnessing their society on the precipice, cannot just accept this situation as it is. There must be prophetic voices that rise up and call on Palestinians to take a new course, to deny the occupiers their ultimate victory. In other times and places, there have been Nelson Mandelas, Bishop Tutus, Martin Luther Kings and Jesse Jacksons, who have emerged to challenge the status quo, to unify their peoples and to move them from self destruction to self-improvement, and, in varying degrees, to liberation.
Palestinians are clearly in need of a new direction and new leadership. It will not come about through this election alone. And if it does not occur, the aftermath of this election may be as dangerous as the current situation, with new feuds replacing old feuds and internal unrest and score settling continuing to define daily life.
None of this, to be sure, absolves the Israelis from their ultimate responsibility for having set this table, or the US and the international community for their neglect in turning a blind eye to the behavior of the occupier that has created the intolerable conditions under which Palestinians are living.
But given all of this, there is the urgent need for a conscious leadership to emerge that will help move this long beleaguered people away from the precipice, so that Ariel Sharon and the policies he championed for so many years are denied a final victory.