Why Americans Struggle to Understand Palestinian Violence

To many Americans, the spate of random stabbings and car-ramming attacks in Israel, often carried out by young Palestinians, seems unfathomable. One significant reason such attacks are hard to understand is that a lot of Americans assume that basically everyone everywhere wants the same things: a good life for themselves, a bright future for their children. But that life-affirming orientation is far from universal. Yet that assumption has shaped the common view of the Palestinian cause. The result: it subverts our ability to understand what animates that cause.

Listen to George W. Bush, who imagined that a desire for “liberty” and prosperity was universal. Launching a crusade for democracy in the Middle East, Bush maintained that Palestinians just want “the opportunity to use [their talents and] gifts to better their own lives and build a future for their children.” A handful do, but all? Polling data and Hamas’s 2006 electoral landslide (which Bush’s policy made possible) showed that many, many Palestinians endorse the Islamist cause and its violent means.

Or listen to Barack Obama, who zealously insists that “regardless of your faith, people all have certain common hopes and common dreams.” People everywhere, he claims, “simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives.” According to a poll conducted just a few months after the 2014 Gaza war, 80% of Palestinian respondents supported attempts to stab or run over Israelis — foreshadowing the lethal knife and car attacks of recent weeks. And, despite Hamas’s deliberate use of human shields and emplacement of rocket launchers within residential areas during that war, many Palestinians endorsed the Islamists: 79% of respondents backed “Hamas’s way of confronting” Israel, notably including rocket attacks.

Notoriously, leaders of Hamas routinely declare how they love death like Israelis love life (here, for instance, is one clip compiled by the invaluable Palestinian Media Watch). One counterargument you hear is that, in fact, Hamas represents a marginal, fringe phenomenon of “fantasists” (Bernard Avishai has made that point in his book The Hebrew Republic), while the political “center” among Palestinians remains sane, concerned with peace and the good life. That, however, doesn’t square with the enduring popularity of Hamas, a group exhibiting utter contempt for human life.

But you might press the point by claiming that there’s a difference between ideologues and the proverbial man in the street. Consider then the beliefs of one Palestinian mother — hardly an ideologue — who was interviewed at an Israeli hospital last year, where her child was being treated. The gist: she calmly explains that life just is not precious to her, that death is natural and welcome, that martyrdom is a noble thing. From all indications, she comes across as earnest.

Or listen to the heartfelt words of this woman, speaking at her son’s funeral. Project what it must be like to mourn the loss of your own child, and then contemplate that mother’s statement: “This is the first time I see joy in my heart. This is the first time I see such joy. This is the first time. Thank Allah for giving him Martyrdom.”

These data and anecdotes point to a wider — and frightful — phenomenon. What many Palestinians believe to be morally right, what they hold up as noble and worth pursuing, differs fundamentally from what Americans (and many others) view as pursuing the “good life.” That difference in moral outlooks illuminates the seemingly incomprehensible, wanton attacks that Palestinian carry out. When we gloss over it — as Bush, Obama, and many commentators have done — we undermine our ability to understand a critical issue: the perverse philosophic ideas shaping the Palestinian side of the conflict.

(Originally published on Times of Israel.)