Ghassan Khatib
April 26, 2010 - 12:00am

Israel has recently returned to condemning Palestinians and their leadership over what it calls "acts of incitement". It is clear that Israel is trying to draw attention away from the important issues on the table. This is a strong indication of the predicament that faces the country in light of mounting pressure from the international community, especially the US, to cease the illegal expansion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem.

The latest condemnation came in reference to a street that has been named after Yahiya Ayyash, a Hamas leader. This is not a new name. In fact, the name was given in 1998 and the Israeli government was aware of it then and has been since. The condemnation thus is just another random selection by the Israeli government in a long-standing attempt at delegitimizing whatever Palestinian leadership there happens to be. Israeli officials even describe the peaceful and legitimate action of boycotting illegal settlement products as incitement.

Incitement is a very elastic concept and hard to define. If it means putting incitement propaganda into schools, the Palestinian National Authority has already made successful efforts to deal with this. The Ministry of Education began tackling this issue in the 1990s when it commenced a phased introduction of new textbooks in all subjects and all grades, a process that was completed in 2006.

Several independent reviews of the textbooks have reported positive conclusions on the removal of incitement. European donors have consistently monitored our textbooks to ensure that they are satisfied; in a statement to that effect, the EU states that the "new textbooks, though not perfect, are free of inciteful content and improve the previous textbooks, constituting a valuable contribution to the education of young Palestinians." Indeed, few countries' textbooks have been subjected to as much scrutiny. It is hard to define where free speech shades into incitement. Two sides may see the same incident very differently. This is certainly the case with Israelis and Palestinians, whose historical narratives are usually antagonistic.

For Palestinians, the very fact of Israel's occupation is incitement. Recently our media prominently reported pictures of Palestinian farmers being ordered to strip by Israeli soldiers. Most reasonable people would regard such behavior by an occupying army as incitement.

Meanwhile, Israel has done nothing to tackle its own government-sponsored incitement. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, who called for the cleansing of Arabs, is revered by followers of a movement whose political party is a member of the Israeli coalition government--not to mention his responsibility for educating thousands of students, with substantial government funding. Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, who supports the killing of non-Jewish children, remains head of a religious school in an Israeli settlement, and has not been removed as would be expected by a community regarding itself as democratic, liberal and civilized.

These pronouncements are not exclusive to right-wing parties or religious figures, but transcend them to be part of the dominant discourse in Israel. Menachem Begin, a former prime minister described Palestinians as "a beast walking on two legs'", while another prime minister, Yitzak Shamir, said that "[The Palestinians] would be crushed like grasshoppers ... heads smashed against the boulders and walls." This is discourse that demonizes, demoralizes and dehumanizes an entire people and should certainly be considered incitement.

Israel has also been complaining in recent weeks about a decision to name a square in Ramallah after a Palestinian woman, Dalal al-Mughrabi, regarded by Israelis as a terrorist. While some view this as incitement, others view it as honoring heroism in the pursuit of freedom.

Indeed, Israel could be held culpable for the same thing. Shlomo Ben-Yosef Street, in Acre, is a reminder to Palestinian residents of the man who, in 1938, attacked a bus full of Palestinian civilians, seeking to kill them all. Ben-Yosef is one of 12 members of the Jewish underground honored by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in a speech last month, when he said that their "message of sacrifice and heroism remains alive". These 12 were sentenced to hang by the British for the murdering and bombing of Palestinian civilians in the 1930s and 1940s.

Visitors to Israel fly in and out of Ben Gurion Airport. For Palestinians, this is the ultimate affront. David Ben Gurion, the founder of Israel, is also the man who dealt with "the Arab Problem" by expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Under his leadership 69 Palestinians were killed in the Qibya Massacre of 1953.

And outside Jericho, deep in occupied territory, the main road that runs along the border to Jordan and up the Jordan Valley is named in honor of Rehavam Zeevi, a former minister of tourism, who called for the ethnic cleansing and transfer of all Palestinians including those who have Israeli citizenship.

We must agree to disagree that our historical narratives will never be reconciled, and move on to a two-state solution with Palestine and Israel living side by side in peace. The Palestinian leadership is ready to work even harder to combat incitement, but this must happen in tandem with efforts by Israel--a sovereign state for 62 years--to tackle its own incitement issues, seeking a common definition through a third party, as provided by the Oslo accords.

In the end, the best way to purge incitement is to end the occupation.


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