My Dinner with Mustafa and Marwan

When Palestinian leaders feast -- while imploring their people to starve.

As reported in the NY Times on February 21, the Israel Ministry of Justice has announced that in the absence of further specific evidence against him, Islamic Jihad “spokesperson,” Khader Adnan, will be released from administrative detention on April 17, 2012.  In return, Mr. Adnan agreed to terminate a 66-day hunger strike (in protest of his detention) that had left him close to death.

Extolling Mr. Adnan’s fortitude in going more than nine weeks without food, Palestinian Parliament Member Mustafa Bargouthi lamented in a NY Times op-ed that,

“Palestinians have tried armed struggle; we have tried negotiations; and we have tried peace conferences.  Yet all we have seen is more Israeli settlements, more loss of lives…and the emergence of a horrifying system of segregation.”

Decrying Israel’s “security barrier,” which “pens us into what are best described as Bantustans,” Bargouthi proclaimed that, “others must now show similar courage” to that displayed by Adnan.  Were they to do so, he argues, “the last surviving apartheid system in the world” could be brought down, Israelis could be made to cease “being part of the last colonial-settler system of our time,” and “Palestine” could be made free.

Of course, Bargouthi has some of his “facts” wrong.  Israeli Jews, for example, are not “colonial settlers,” but rather a people with a valid claim to secure self-determination in at least part of their ancestral homeland (a claim that Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinan Authority, together with most of the Arab world, consistently deny).  Likewise, Israel is not an “apartheid” state.  Israel’s Arab citizens have full and equal rights not enjoyed by women, gays or ethno-religious minorities anywhere in the Arab world (including the PA-controlled West Bank).  And Israel’s security barrier – the putative symbol of Israeli “segregation” policy – was not brazenly erected despite Palestinian participation in “negotiations” and “peace conferences,” but because certain Palestinian “spokespersons” kept blowing themselves up in Israeli hotels, buses, and restaurants.  (The results of the security barrier speak for themselves:  In 2002, prior to its construction, 457 Israelis were murdered in such attacks.  In 2009, after its construction, the murder toll was eight.)

Factually deficient or no, Bargouthi’s piece made for such stirring reading that on the evening of its publication hundreds of jailed Palestinians refused their meals in a show of solidarity.  Sadly, the momentum of this “group fast” was derailed by the discovery that, while the participants went hungry, Bargouthi’s famous cousin, Marwan (the jailed Fatah leader) was eating dinner in his cell in front of a prison surveillance camera.

Although both Bargouthis have been roundly chastised for their seeming hypocrisy, the overture they were trying to make will be self-evident to any master of subtlety:  By feasting as they implored others to starve, Marwan and Mustafa were cleverly signaling their endorsement of the Obama Doctrine of “leading from behind” (which our president employed to such stunning effect in Libya last year, thereby setting that country on the road from secular dictatorship to Sharia-style utopian theocracy).

The Bargouthis’ signal likely comprised an attempt to enlist the American president in their campaign against Israel’s policy of “administrative detention.”  But even though President Obama has some small experience at leaving others to go hungry while he eats, an embrace of the Bargouthis’ anti-administrative detention strategy could prove politically risky -- especially when one considers that Obama’s own Gitmo policy (which holds much in common with Israel’s “administrative detention”) commands overwhelming support among American voters.

When Adnan is finally released, he will have spent four months in detention.  A long stretch -- not “Gilad Shalit” long, but long.  Israel utilizes its policy of detaining suspects without charge only if they are deemed an imminent security threat and publication of the charges against them would endanger Israel’s intelligence network.  Hence, the charges against Adnan remain unknown (although in his role as “spokesperson” for Islamic Jihad -- a terrorist organization responsible for 118 Israeli deaths and 759 casualties -- he has at least once been caught on video exhorting others to become suicide bombers.).  Of note, Israel has employed “administrative detention” not only against Palestinians, but also against Israeli Jews.  For example, in a story that somehow escaped the media, a number of underage Jewish females from Gush Katif were held without charge for weeks during the 2005 Gaza disengagement.

To be sure, Mustafa Bargouthi deserves plaudits for recommending “peaceful protest” as a Palestinian tactic since it would constitute a decided improvement over the violence that has pervaded the Palestinian movement to date.  But hunger strikes are a cruel thing to recommend to anyone, and in the case of Gaza it would be particularly inhumane.  Back in the halcyon days of 2010, when Gaza’s shops were “bursting with goods” and when Turkey sought to run Israel’s Gaza blockade with a humanitarian supply of hand-held pipes (apparently, the only item that was lacking) replete with an instructional video on how to pummel Jews in the head with them, Gazan grocery stores were reportedly “stocked wall-to-wall.”  Could the Bargouthis themselves comply with a hunger strike amidst such temptation to eat?  I think not.

Happily, there is an easier path.  Indeed, had Mustafa and Marwan invited me to dine with them on Adnan Solidarity Night, I would gladly have indulged them with my own modest proposal for setting “Palestine free.”  It consists of having the Palestinians adopt a unique one-step program known to the French as “saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’” the next time statehood is offered to them.  True, the burden of accepting this course would be great.  The Palestinians would have to forsake their much-coveted streak of having “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity” (a 75-year record, dating to the days of Britain’s famous 1937 Peel Commission).  And they would likely have to sacrifice another venerable Palestinian tradition by actually adhering to the terms of the peace treaty they would have to sign.  But if they could endure such “selfless” and “nonviolent” acts (and if Mustafa Bargouthi would mention to PA President Mahmoud Abbas that their Parliament hasn’t held a free election for six years), “Palestine” might finally get its long-awaited taste of freedom.

The next opportunity may not be as far off as most academics and media experts think.  Despite rumors that he is literally one of those “awful” Likudists we’ve been hearing such horrid things about, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu endorsed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse as far back as 2009.  Even more promising, in a speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress just last year, he declared that if Mahmoud Abbas would abandon his newly forged ties to Hamas (a group whose charter calls for Israel’s eradication) and make peace, “Israel will not be the last country to welcome a Palestinian state as a new member of the United Nations.  It will be the first to do so.”

The cost of embracing the “one-step to freedom program” will surely strike many Palestinians as daunting.  But the rewards would be immense – and Palestinians would not have to starve themselves to bring it about.  It is a course worth considering.

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