After returning from an awful weekend trip with a Christian youth group, I told my mother I wanted to stop going to church in the next town over and worship where we lived. "Nobody likes me over there," I said. Her response was direct and brutal: "Maybe they are not the problem. Maybe it is you."
It was a shock. Mothers are not supposed to talk that way to their 11-year-old sons (so I thought). In the years since, I have tried, with varying degrees of success, when in a difficult position, to look at the role I played in creating the circumstances I find myself in.
Maybe I have behaved in unlikable ways and need to stop. Life together with other people — with any measure of peace — requires a willingness to dispense with a false belief in one's innocence. We all tend to believe that nothing is ever our fault; more likely, we realize that many things are.
There are times when I wish my mother could remonstrate with the Palestinians intellectuals, many of them Christians, whom I meet in the course of my work. Listening to them talk, it often seems as if the difficulties they describe are solely the result of other people's acts. Most unsettling of all, however, is the willingness of Western peace and human rights activists to affirm this crippling narrative of innocence.
Instead of patting Palestinians on the head and telling them that everything is Israel's fault, perhaps it is time to bring them up short and tell them, "Maybe it is you!" — and insist that Palestinians look closely at the injustices and mistakes perpetrated by Arabs over the past few decades. Perhaps it is time to confront Palestinians with the choice they face: They can keep trying to deny the Jewish people their right to a sovereign state, or they can make peace and get a state of their own; they cannot do both. If Palestinians are interested in making peace, perhaps they need to start earning the trust of the Israelis, bring an end to incitement, educate their children for peace instead of murder, and begin building a future for themselves and their children without blaming Israel for every setback they endure.
Here, the ability of the Palestinians to romance and recruit sympathetic, empathetic and condescending peace activists actually works against them. It hinders their development as a people because it prevents them from developing the human capacity for agency, or ability to, in the words of psychologist Albert Bandura, "influence intentionally one's functioning and life circumstances... [People] are not simply onlookers of their behavior. They are contributors to their life circumstances, not just products of them."
All too often, outsiders to the Israel-Palestinian conflict encourage the Palestinians to view themselves as onlookers to their own suffering, without encouraging them to think what their leaders did to cause this suffering. Over the long haul, such condescension does not help, and can be lethal.
You can see this condescension in the blurbs promoting The Drone Eats With Me: A Gaza Diary, (Beacon, 2016) by Palestinian writer Atef Abu Saif.
"This is what war is like in the twenty-first century—the voice of a civilian in the onslaught of drone warfare, a voice we have never heard before," writes Michael Ondaatje, author of the acclaimed text, The English Patient. Molly Crabbapple, the radical author of Drawing Blood, declares that Saif's book "deserves to become a modern classic of war literature." It would seem that Saif has written a text of towering importance.
Alas, he has not. Saif does provide a powerful first-person narrative of the suffering endured by the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip during the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas. The stories Saif tells in his diary, portions of which were previously published in Western newspapers, are harrowing, tragic and well written, particularly when he recounts the suffering endured by parents whose children were killed by Israeli missiles and gunfire. The entry for July 15, 2014, is emblematic:
On the TV, the father of one of the children killed in an attack on the Shuja'iyya quarter on July 9 wails at the corpse of his son: "Forgive me, son, I could not protect you!" It is very hard to watch, knowing deep down that this might be me in a week's time. Being a father brings with it a deep-seated instinct to protect, but also an assumption that you can protect. You are your children's hero, their superman. You tell yourself you can outwit the planes, the tanks and the warships, to protect them. You can do anything for their sake. But this father on the TV could not have done anything differently to protect his son. Only the pilot had any choice in the matter.
The problem in Saif's thinking becomes evident in the last sentence: "only the pilot had any choice in the matter."
The notion that the Israeli pilot is the only one who has any responsibility for the child's death is simply false. A lot of bad choices were made — by Palestinians — prior to the death of the young child and Saif knows it; he just can't — or will not — address these choices, at least not in this text.
By placing all the blame on the Israelis for the death of the child, he is encouraging his readers to believe that the Palestinians are powerless to change the circumstances under which they live. According to him, only the international community, which Saif laments as ineffectual and indifferent, can do that.
The reality that Saif will not confront in his book is that Hamas, the terrorist organization that controls the Gaza Strip, bears a huge measure of responsibility for the suffering he documents. Hamas has repeatedly started wars that it cannot win against a country that cannot afford to lose. During these conflicts, it has launched rockets from schoolyards and has used hospitals as command centers for its leaders, putting civilians on both sides of the conflict at risk. When children are killed by Israeli strikes in Gaza, Hamas puts their bodies on display to demonize Israel, and writers such as Saif assist in this tactic.
Hamas has summoned civilians to the rooftops of buildings to serve as human shields after Israel warned that these buildings would soon be under attack. During the war in 2008–2009, Hamas diverted food and fuel from their intended recipients as part of its policy of increasing the suffering in the Gaza Strip in order to make Israel look bad. It has used cement and other building materials allowed into the Gaza Strip — ostensibly for the benefit of Palestinian civilians — in order to construct tunnels that can penetrate Israel and serve as a means to kidnap Israeli soldiers and civilians.
In the months prior to the 2014 war, Hamas leaders openly declared that they were going to invade Israel and cross all sorts of red lines in the upcoming conflict. Hamas made good on this promise by attempting to hit nuclear facilities in Dimona with long-range missiles. The missiles hit the city, but missed the city's nuclear facilities.
The attempted attack on Israel's nuclear installation in Dimona during the 2014 war is in line with countless declarations from Hamas that it seeks the destruction of the Jewish people. Apart from both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas Charters, a few months before the summer war, for instance, a show broadcast on a Hamas-run television station encouraged Palestinian children to kill all the Jews.
During its 2012 fight with Israel, Hamas leaders declared that killing Jews is a religious obligation. Hamas promotes a genocidal organization that seeks Israel's destruction and yet Saif does not speak a word about this lethal ideology or actions before or during the 2014 war.
Insisting that Saif confront Hamas's misdeeds in a book that recounts — page after page — the tragic deaths of Palestinian children as a result of Israeli airstrikes might, to some readers, seem like a merciless and heartless thing to do. But if the goal is to bring these deaths to an end, that is exactly what Saif and other Palestinian intellectuals need to do.
All too often, the Palestinian deaths are used to shut down the conversation about what Palestinian leaders have done wrong and about the underlying causes of the conflict. Honesty requires that the deaths of these Palestinian children serve to drive — not obstruct — the conversation toward Palestinian agency and responsibility. As long as average Palestinians view themselves as ineffectual and helpless, their leaders will continue to rob them blind and put their children in harm's way.
To be sure, Saif has, condemned Hamas for its totalitarian behavior after the organization prevented him from leaving the Gaza Strip to attend a literary awards ceremony in 2015 where he was to receive acclaim for his book, The Suspended Life. This text, which was short listed for the International Prize for Arabic Literature in 2015, does reportedly hint at Hamas's oppressive agenda and style of governance. Saif is quite articulate and forceful declaring that "Freedoms retreated gradually under Hamas rule in Gaza."
Another Palestinian writer from Gaza, Asmaa al-Ghoul, has also been critical of Hamas on this score. Speaking in Oslo in May, 2013, she declared, "Journalists in Gaza also have to face a lot because of the Islamist government of Hamas. It is a dictatorship pure and simple." This may help to explain criticism of Hamas, however, is nowhere to be found in Saif's book.
Predictably, Saif is quite forceful in his condemnations of Israel. In his entry for July 20, 2014, written in response to an Israeli drone strike that tragically killed Palestinian children, He writes:
Who will convince this generation of Israelis that what they've done this summer is a crime? Who will convince the pilot that this is not a mission for his people, but a mission against it? Who will teach him that life cannot be built on the ruins of other lives? Who will convince the drone operator that the people of Gaza are not characters in a video game? Who will convince him that the buildings he sees on his screen are not graphics, but homes containing living rooms, and kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms, that there are kids inside, fast asleep; that mobiles hang over their beds; that teddy bears and toy dinosaurs lie on the floor; that posters line the walls? Who will convince him that the orchards his craft flies over in the dark aren't just clusters of pixels? Someone planted those trees, watered them, watched them as they grew. Some of those trees are ancient, in fact, maybe older than the Torah itself, older than the legends and fantasies he read about as a boy.
On and on he goes in an emotionally powerful but intellectually dishonest lament. Saif simply cannot come to grips with the responsibility Palestinian leaders have for the suffering in the areas they govern. Nor can he come to grips with the humanity or the hopes and dreams of the people on the other side of the conflict. The reference to the Torah is a gratuitous slap — as is his use of the words "legends and fantasies" to describe what goes on in the drone operator's head.
Sadly, the book is not a "classic of war literature," but instead, just another text in the overpopulated genre of anti-Zionist polemics, otherwise known as "resistance literature." In the world Saif describes, the Palestinians are innocent victims without any capabilities or responsibility for the circumstances they are in; the Israelis, to him, are the all-powerful monsters who have nothing but contempt for the international community that fails to hold them accountable.
This is exactly what Saif's condescending patrons and boosters in the West are looking for — narratives that allow them to embrace and broadcast baseless hatred for the Jewish state in the name of human rights.
Westerners who feast on this narrative do not help the Palestinians, but hurt them, by responding to the misdeeds of Palestinian elites with condescending pats on the head instead of the rebukes they warrant.
Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee For Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).