I’ve been reading about some of the Palestinian militants that have been released in exchange for Gilad Shalit. At least some are indeed terrorists, using the UN definition of “acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes.” Some aimed specifically at military targets, which most scholars would not classify as terrorism, but some went after cafés, buses, etc. One of the two women released, Amna Musa, is a powerful example: she convinced an Israeli teen to come with her and then had him shot. One man grabbed the wheel of a bus and drove it off the road – 16 people died. Another stabbed a 15 year-old girl to death. But Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas says to those released, “We thank God for your return and your safety. You are freedom fighters and holy warriors for the sake of God and the homeland.” Anticipating the Palestinian celebrations of the prisoners’ return, the Israeli press had been full of opinion pieces that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed in his speech, “The State of Israel is different from its enemies: Here, we do not celebrate the release of murderers. Here, we do not applaud those who took life. On the contrary, we believe in the sanctity of life. We sanctify life. This is the ancient tradition of the Jewish People.” The Israeli ethical critique of the Palestinians is a strong one: terrorism, and praise for terrorism, is wrong.
At the same time, I have been reading about and indeed seeing the careful, patient, often quiet, sometimes less subtle Israelization of Palestinian homes and neighborhoods. It is happening across East Jerusalem, in Hebron, in Bethlehem, and even in the Old City. Palestinian houses are demolished and turned into parking lots, and then five years later those parking lots turn into Israeli settler housing. A barrier necessary for Israeli security is placed not between areas of greatest Israeli settlement and Palestinian settlement, but through the middle of Palestinian areas. Schools are underfunded in Palestinian neighborhoods. Approval of home repair is delayed. Identity cards are revoked. Streets and then whole neighborhoods are renamed from a Palestinian identity to a Jewish identity. Settlements are placed on hilltops near Palestinian villages. An entire modern bureaucratic apparatus is mobilized to push Palestinians out of their homes. As Prime Minister Abbas said in his U.N. speech, “The Israeli government …continues… the systematic confiscation of the Palestinian lands and the construction of thousands of new settlement units in various areas of the West Bank, particularly in East Jerusalem, and accelerated construction of the annexation Wall that is eating up large tracts of our land, dividing it into separate and isolated islands and cantons, destroying family life and communities and the livelihoods of tens of thousands of families. The occupying Power also continues to refuse permits for our people to build in Occupied East Jerusalem, at the same time that it intensifies its decades-long campaign of demolition and confiscation of homes, displacing Palestinian owners and residents under a multi-pronged policy of ethnic cleansing aimed at pushing them away from their ancestral homeland.” The Palestinian critique of the Israelis is a strong one: driving people from their homes is wrong.
Assuming two sides in any conflict are morally equivalent is intellectually lazy, or possibly dishonest. In this case, the two sides are not mirror images. Each has a different challenge in striving for a more ethical society. Each does, however, have a significant change it needs to make.