Cultural obstacles are the real barriers to Israeli-Palestinian peace

“The attacks on civilians, breaking their arms, and beating them, constitute humiliation, disgrace, and injustice,” Nasser Al-Laham, the editor-in-chief of the Palestinian Authority’s Maan News Agency, said about Palestinian rule in the territories.

“Prison cells? Torture? Burn marks?” he asked. “What have we adopted from the Arab countries apart from their garbage?... Is this the kind of homeland we want — a homeland in which I can no longer trust my neighbor? A homeland in which my fellow citizen comes and, in front of my wife, drags me by my feet or by my hair and tramples me underfoot?...  You’re doing this under the pretext of fighting Israel? You’re lying!”

Al-Laham’s outrage, which he voiced in a recent TV interview, puts the lie to the well-entrenched narrative that borders, settlements, and Jerusalem explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Peek below the surface and you will find the cultural obstacles, and the distrust they engender, that really drive the conflict — and that will require nothing short of a Palestinian cultural revolution to erase.

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Based on the events of recent days, here are four huge cultural obstacles that prevent progress toward peace:

First, the obstacle of Palestinian rule.

In Gaza, activists launched the “Want to Live” campaign in March to protest rising prices, high unemployment, and new taxes imposed by Hamas, the Jew-hating terrorist group that seized control of the Strip in a bloody coup against the Palestinian Authority in 2007 and today runs it with an iron fist.

In response, Hamas cracked down harshly. Its security forces have beaten women and children with clubs, breaking their arms and legs; raided homes; seized journalists’ equipment; and jailed activists and officials from Fatah, the Palestinian Authority’s governing party, which Hamas blames for the protests.

The Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank, has condemned the Hamas crackdown, with President Mahmoud Abbas denouncing the “dogs” who sent a Fatah official to the hospital for a beating that required 18 stiches to his head. The Palestinian Authority, however, rules the West Bank in similar dictatorial fashion, brooking no opposition.

Palestinian leaders will need to respect the rights of their own people before we can hope that, at some point, they’ll respect the rights of Israelis to live in peace — which leads to the next obstacle.

Second, the obstacle of Hamas-Fatah conflict.

The two factions are fighting one another with the “only weapon” they have at their disposal to assure their popularity among Palestinians: their continuing efforts to “kill Jews,” as Itamar Marcus, Palestinian Media Watch’s director, wrote last week.

As Hamas launched rocket attacks that prompted Israel’s retaliatory bombing of military targets in Gaza, Hamas sought to strengthen itself politically and weaken Fatah by pretending that the latter had condemned its activities.

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Hamas falsely accused the spokesman for the Palestinian Authority’s Security Forces of calling Hamas’ action “criminal” and falsely accused the Palestinian Authority’s Police Commissioner of seeking to track down whoever carried out the “spiteful operation” that left an Israeli father of 12 and a soldier dead.

Palestinian factions that compete over who’s more committed to killing Israelis won’t be making peace with Israel any time soon — which leads to the next obstacle.

Third, the obstacle of martyrdom.

“This young man,” Senior Fatah official Mahmoud Al-Aloul said of Omar Abu Laila, who gunned down two Israelis in the West Bank last month and was then killed by Israeli forces, “exercised the choice of the people, this choice that represents all of you that are fighting and all the youth of Palestine.”

It was a sentiment expressed widely by Palestinian officials and writers. Fatah’s Facebook page called the terrorist a “martyr hero;” Fatah Revolutionary Council member Muwaffaq Matar called him “the most current, quality role model… of Palestinian heroism;” and Palestinian politician Bassam Abu Sharif praised him as a “noble jihad fighter… who solved the problem… who blazed the trail…”

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority continues to pay prisoners and the families of “martyrs” who tried to kill Israelis, to meet with prisoners and their families, and to hold events to honor prisoners and “martyrs.”

A Palestinian leadership that turns killers into martyrs won’t be making peace with the country of those they want to kill — which leads to the next obstacle.

Fourth, the obstacle of Israeli rejection.

Not surprisingly, decades of terrorism, Jew-hating, and martyrdom by the Palestinian leadership and people who — let’s not forget — have rejected multiple Israeli officers of a state to call their own have understandably taken their toll on a weary Israeli public. 

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported in late March that 42 percent of Israelis support some form of West Bank annexation, something that used to be a fringe idea, as compared to 34 percent that still hold out hope for a two-state solution.

So, here’s an idea: Let’s escape the comfort of our irrelevant debates over settlements, borders, and Jerusalem and, for a change, grapple with the cultural obstacles that represent the true barriers to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Lawrence J. Haas, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of, most recently, "Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World".