This week, John Kerry explained that the reason Israeli babies are being stabbed in their strollers “is the massive increase in settlements over the course of the last years…and there’s an increase in the violence because there’s this frustration that’s growing.”
And there’s one settlement project in particular that’s really frustrated Palestinian national aspirations—the Temple Mount. If Israel wants to reduce tensions, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Wednesday, it should “uphold the status quo on Haram al-Sharif–Temple Mount.”
That’s what the Palestinians say, too. It’s because Jews desecrate Haram al-Sharif “with their filthy feet,” as head of the US-allied Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas explained, that Palestinians are killing Israelis. Likewise, the latest wave of heroic operations, said Fatah as well as Hamas, is nothing but the Palestinians “rising to defend their al-Aksa Mosque and confronting terrorist settlers.”
In other words, the State Department has now adopted the Palestinian narrative. By lending credence to this lie, the Obama Administration legitimizes both the PA and Hamas’ rationale for murdering Jews.
Toner’s statement is not just obscene, it’s also false. Since the outbreak of the Second Intifada, which many wrongly believe started when Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, Israel has indeed changed the “status quo” twice—both times to further restrict already-limited Jewish access to the site. When Jews are allowed to visit the Temple Mount, they’re not allowed to pray and are subjected to relentless harassment from veiled harpies. Does Toner think that Israel should restrict Jewish access even more?
Israel limits Jewish access to the Temple Mount for reasons of political expediency—Jerusalem doesn’t want to cause problems with its ally Jordan, which controls the religious foundation responsible for Haram al-Sharif. Nonetheless, it’s an outrage. Why, in a free country like Israel, should Jews not be allowed to visit and pray at the most historically and religiously significant site in Jewish history?
Imagine if Muslims couldn’t pray at Haram al-Sharif. Comparisons to segregation would abound—just as African-Americans couldn’t drink from white water fountains, or sit at the front of a bus, Muslims aren’t allowed to pray at one of their holy sites. But Jews, according to Obama’s State Department, should have their rights to peaceful prayer even further abrogated at the Temple Mount. If Jews do pray there, on even walk there—in the capital of their own country, no less—then the cycle of violence will start back up again. And, naturally, the Jews will be to blame.
In light of this blame-narrative, here’s what I’d be telling Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi about how need to reconfigure our policy:
Caliph, habibi, we need to get the Americans off our backs, and watching this new Palestinian intifada on TV gave me an idea. The Americans say we’re too violent. But how are we more violent than the Palestinians? These guys are stabbing babies. They’re stabbing kids on bicycles. This one guy ran a car into a bus stop and then started hacking at people with a meat cleaver. And then their martyrs stand there in the middle of the street waiting to get shot like zombies. But the Americans still call the PA an ally—they give them hundreds of millions of dollars a year and are likely to support their bid for statehood. Amazing! Forget about beheading Christians—we need to start killing Jews!
It’s hard not to join with those who conclude that the Palestinian national movement has moved to a new phase of nihilism. With ISIS on the march throughout the Levant, and Iran surging with money, weapons, an alliance with Russia, and with Al Qaeda running wild in Sinai, and with Hamas still firmly in control in Gaza after three destructive wars, it was inevitable that Palestinian discourse in the West Bank would take an especially brutal, psychotic turn. How else are they supposed to compete for attention? In a region where political discourse gets more brutal by the week, sanity is an option for losers.
The tragic reality, however, is that the Palestinians, like most of the rest of the Arabs, made their choice a long time ago. The problem isn’t that the Palestinians chose war with Israel again and again; rather, it’s that they had no second act, no plan B for what to do next if they couldn’t eradicate Israel. War consumes precious resources—not just money and human beings—but also a people’s sense of possibility and a sense of the future. If a society is geared only toward waging war, then the objects of that society’s affection and contempt will be shaped by a garrisoned imagination.
Societies geared towards stabbing, shooting, and blowing up their neighbors don’t prize doctors or lawyers or literature professors. Their innovations come in the fields of martyrdom and murder. From the terrorists who invaded the Olympic village in Munich, to airplane hijackers, suicide bombers, Hamas’ tunnels, adults who ram cars and trucks into innocent civilians, and knife-wielding teenagers, Palestinian ingenuity has consistently made itself felt in one field and one field only: devising ghoulish ways to murder Israelis.
This is why Ariel Sharon was eager to withdraw from Gaza and didn’t care that he had no agreement with Palestinian leadership. He knew that the leaders of such a people could never be trusted, and he wanted to disengage from a society that could only affect Israeli society for the worse. Why should the success of Israel be dependent on the success of a culture that not only seeks to kill Israelis but is also murdering itself?
Yet to call the latest wave of Palestinian violence “mindless” or “leaderless,” or to see it as the result of “frustration,” is to entirely misunderstand the tragedy of the Palestinian national cause. The Palestinians have never been mindless. Their violence is mind-numbingly grotesque in order to achieve the strategic aim of causing the Israelis—or enough Israelis—to flee from the land they colonized, in the same way that the French ran from Algeria, or the British from Kenya. Faced with a wave of knife-wielding teenagers and car-rammers who can turn normal life into a horror movie at any moment, they hope to terrorize ordinary Israelis into a state of moral fear that will at last send them fleeing back to Germany or Poland.
From a national-strategic point of view, the problem with the latest wave of Palestinian violence, like its predecessors, is not that violence doesn’t work to bring about social change (it often does, as Germany, Japan, and the Roman Empire can all attest), but that the underlying premise in this particular case is wrong. Israelis do not understand themselves to be colonial occupiers from Europe. Most Israelis were born in Israel, and many of their parents come from Arab lands to which they cannot return—nor have any desire to return to. Even most Israelis with immediate European ancestors understand themselves to be descendants of the indigenous people of the land of Israel, not foreign interlopers. They believe the land they are living on is theirs, and they have no interest in “going back” to a Europe that slaughtered their families in the worst mass-murder in human history, which doubled as an unmistakable declaration that Jews are not Europeans.
Decades of unending Palestinian violence have succeeded in pushing even moderate, liberal-minded Israelis into a state of moral disgust that has convinced many not only that peace between the two sides is hopeless, but that Palestinians themselves are doomed. The fate of a people who are so entirely unprepared to deal with the modern world—morally and psychologically—is not a fate that any sane person would wish to share.
Indeed the same is happening across the Middle East, where the Arabs are building an Iron Wall of social disintegration, terror, and chaos to keep the West out. The major battleground right now is Syria, where the region has decided to wage a generational war to settle a host of issues—historical, religious, political, sectarian, ethnic—that will almost surely not be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction when it ends, 10, 20, 50 years from now. What will be left is a horribly traumatized place that looks like the surface of the moon.
In a sense, the Obama administration is right to want to disengage from the Middle East, just as Sharon did. It must seem to the White House that there’s no use getting in between two lunatics when they’re intent on fighting. It’s different for Israel, of course, because the Jewish state isn’t going anywhere. Nor can Israel do anything to stop the fighting, or prevent the Arabs from committing social suicide.
For several decades, long before Obama came to the White House, American policymakers and their peace processes have had the effect of compelling Israel to be responsible for saving Palestinian society from itself. Thus, the State Department’s recent statements are the logical, if vicious, consequences, of a long and immoral tradition. The tragedy, of course, is that not all Palestinians seek disengagement from Israel, which, while as imperfect as any Western democracy, nonetheless offers prosperity, freedom, and hope to anyone who will seize it. There is no shortage of Palestinians—not to mention Arab Israelis—who dream of a peaceful life, or going to law school or medical school, or unraveling the secrets of the human genome, or exploring life on other planets. And every gruesome murder that is perpetrated in the name of their community pushes every one of those people that much further from their worthy goals.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).