Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 46, February 2004

What's wrong with the Palestinians?

In the past I have written columns critical of the Israeli government and its actions against the Palestinians. As it was perhaps predictable, I have therefore been accused of anti-Semitism by some readers. This month, it is the turn of the Palestinians to be considered rationally speaking, and I can’t wait for the mail I will find in my box after this column. Oh well, at least I am an equal opportunity offender.

Historically, of course, the Arabs’ behavior against Israel is easy to condemn: they engaged in wars with the stated purpose of annihilating the state of Israel, a goal which was part of the charter of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (the pertinent articles have been abrogated in 1996, as part of the peace process facilitated by US President Clinton). While it is certainly true that Israel as a modern state came about in a way that, shall we say, wasn’t exactly Kosher (because of the political and diplomatic mess caused by the British occupation), it seems to me that any group of people who elects as their main goal the destruction of another group of people cannot be considered with too much sympathy.

Furthermore, PLO leader Yasser Arafat has perhaps been the worst thing that ever happened to the Palestinians. He has clearly been much more interested in cultivating his ego and consolidating his meager power than truly worrying about the fate of his people. Indeed, the recent power struggles at the top of the Palestinian administration between Arafat and whoever happens at the moment to be so foolish or naive as to think of being able to open a new chapter in Palestinian history, have become symbolic of the permanent stall of the “peace process.” That new chapter will be opened, one is forced to conclude, only after Arafat will be gone because of the natural biological decay that eventually overtakes every human being (the same, it appears, will have to be the case for Cuba and Castro -- though the latter has done significantly more for its people than Arafat has done for the Palestinians).

It is also true that, for all the (perfectly justified) call for independence from Israel, the Palestinians are the only Arabs living in a democracy, and they are enjoying its fruits while at the same time invoking the help of sinister characters like the now deposed Saddam Hussein, Libya's Muammar Gheddafi, and the Saudi’s royal family -- none of whom is particularly well known in the world for encouraging free speech. Indeed, when Palestine will be an independent state (and I am confident that this is a matter of when, not if), its people will have some hard choices to make in terms of form of government -- choices that may truly influence (hopefully for the better) the rest of the Arab world.

But the Palestinians have another, much more urgent, choice to make right now: they need to make up their mind whether to pursue nationhood within the respect of the United Nations charter, or to continue to use terrorism as their alternative diplomatic tool. Let me be clear on two things here. On the one hand, I in fact think that there really is no choice: the Palestinians have to outlaw their violent Islamic group and incarcerate their leaders--the sooner the better. On the other hand, I am not here condemning terrorism in all forms and for all purposes (boy, is this going to cause some angry e-mails!). The United States of America was established out of what were initially terrorist actions against the British crown. Italy, my native country, started its own independence movement around the middle of the 19th century with an underground group of patriots called the “carbonari” (coal men, because of their habit of going around always dressed in black). The carbonari are patriot heroes for the Italians, but they were (justly) considered terrorists by the Austro-Hungarian government then occupying Italy.

What I am suggesting is that terrorism is simply the way poor people wage their wars: if you don’t have tanks to roll into town, you can always throw a bomb at a vehicle full of your oppressors. However, terrorism -- like war -- is justified only under extreme circumstances, and only for as little as possible. While the Palestinian circumstances may at one point have called for violent action against Israel, they certainly have ceased to do so for many years. Ever since the international community (and in particular the United States), as well as a majority of Israeli themselves, have started to see a Palestinian state as eventually inevitable, suicide bombers have only delayed that long-waited moment to hasten which they have irrationally agreed to tear themselves into pieces.

The Palestinian people, then, are on the brink of an historic moment (in fact, they have been there for several years already). They are currently torn between two opposite forces that are attempting to bring them towards completely different directions. On the one hand, they have the terror of Islamic fundamentalism; on the other, they have the hope for the first Arab democracy to emerge by choice (the Iraqi one, if there ever will be such thing, is being imposed from outside -- something that is much more unlikely to work in the long run). Palestinians simply cannot go both ways, and they must make the choice now, before yet another external power is going to make it for them, leaving them to live with whatever the consequences would be for generations to come.

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2004