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Palestinian Violence Overstated, Israeli Violence Understated?

As American public opinion shifts away from Israel there may be an opening for peace.

| Thu Jun. 25, 2009 12:20 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

The Israel Project hired pollster Stanley Greenberg to test American opinion on the Middle East conflict — and got a big surprise. In September 2008, 69% of Americans called themselves pro-Israel. Now, it's only 49%. In September, the same 69% wanted the U.S. to side with Israel; now, only 44%.

How to explain this dramatic shift? Greenberg himself suggested the answer years ago when he pointed out that, in politics, "a narrative is the key to everything." Last year the old narrative about the Middle East conflict was still dominant: Israel is an innocent victim, doing only what it must do to defend itself against the Palestinians. Today, that narrative is beginning to lose its grip on Americans.

Well, to be more precise, the first part of the old narrative is eroding. Nearly half the American public seems unsure that Israel is still the good guy in the Middle East showdown. But the popular image of the Palestinians as the violent bad guy is apparently as potent as ever. The number of Americans who say they support Palestine remains unchanged from last September, a mere 7%. And only 5% want the U.S. government to take such a position.

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Those numbers reflect the narrative that President Obama recited in Cairo on June 4th. He chided the Israelis for a few things they are doing wrong — like expanding settlements and blockading Gaza. To the other side, though, his message was far blunter: "Palestinians must abandon violence." Of Israeli violence he said not a word.

The president's speech implicitly sanctioned the most up-to-date tale that dominates the American mass media and public opinion today: The Israelis ought to be reined in a bit, but it's hard to criticize them too much because, hey, what would you do if you had suicide bombers and rockets coming at you all the time?

That view is a political winner here. In the latest Pew poll, 62% of Americans say Obama is striking the right balance between Israel and Palestine; of those who disagree, three-quarters want to see him tougher on the Palestinians, not the Israelis. A Rasmussen poll finds even stronger support for a pro-Israel tilt.

There are, however, two things wrong with his narrative. First, though it's somewhat less one-sided than the story that prevailed during the George W. Bush years, it is far from impartial, which means the U.S. still cannot act as an even-handed broker for peace in the region. Since no one else is available to play that role, it's hard to see how, under the present circumstances, any version of a peace process can move forward.

The second problem is that the popular narrative just doesn't happen to match the facts. In reality, unjustified violence is initiated on both sides — and if anyone insists on keeping score, Israel's violence, official and unofficial, outweighs the violence coming from the Palestinians.

Coming to Grips with Jewish Settler Violence

Israeli violence is often overlooked here because so much of it is done by official order of the state. Americans are quick to side with the man who wears the badge. Even when he lets loose the kind of violence that recently devastated parts of the Gaza Strip, the reigning assumption is that his gun is a force for law and order.

But what about the kind of violence Palestinians are so often accused of, the unauthorized civilian-on-civilian kind — what the experts term "non-state-actor violence" and the rest of us simply call "terrorism"? Though you may not know this, much of it these days is done by Israeli Jews.

"Palestinian civilians bear brunt of settler violence," Agence France-Presse recently reported: "Nestled amid rolling hills and with an eagle eye's view to the Mediterranean coast, Nahla Ahmed's house has all the elements of Eden... if it weren't for the Molotov cocktail-throwing neighbours. 'We put bars on the windows after the first attack, three years ago,' says the 36-year-old mother of four. 'Now they come each week.'"

The attacks aren't always with Molotov cocktails; sometimes Jewish settlers throw tear gas canisters, simply spray a Star of David on a wall, or cut down trees owned by Palestinians. In other incidents, settlers have shot and killed a 16-year-old boy, fractured the skull of a 7-year-old girl with a rock, set a dog on a 12-year-old boy, and shot dead an Arab man but let his companion go when he identified himself as Jewish. These are not egregious, isolated cases of mayhem; they're just a few random examples of what's happening all too often on the West Bank. To see how depressingly common such violence is, just Google "West Bank settler violence" for yourself.

It's easy enough to see what the violence looks like too, since a lot of it has been captured on video. And this is just violence against people. The violence against property is far too common to begin to catalog.

Last December, Jewish settlers in Hebron went on a rampage, shooting at Palestinians, setting fire to homes, cars, and olive groves, defacing mosques and graves. Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister at the time, said he was "ashamed" of this "pogrom."

Yet few such settler crimes are seriously prosecuted by the Israeli authorities. The Israeli rights group Yesh Din has documented this in an extensive report, which, the group carefully notes, is merely one more in a long line of similar reports:

"Since the 1980's many reports have been published on law enforcement upon Israelis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. All of the reports... warned against the failure of the authorities to enforce the law effectively upon Israelis... who committed offenses against Palestinian civilians... Yet the problem of attacks against Palestinian people and property by Israelis has only grown worse, becoming a daily occurrence."
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