Jewish World Review Dec. 7, 2001 / 22 Kislev, 5762

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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THE PALESTINIANS' MYTH -- A COMMON misconception about Arab terrorism against Israel is that it is committed in an effort to derail the "peace process." President Bush echoed that fiction on Sunday when he commented on a wave of ghastly attacks that had just killed 26 Israeli civilians and maimed scores of others.

"Clearly there are some in the world who do not want us to achieve peace in the Middle East," he said. "They will use violence and terror to disrupt any progress that's being made."

That gets it exactly backward. Palestinian terrorists do not blow up crowded Israeli pizzerias because they want to provoke Jerusalem into abrogating the Oslo accords and abandoning the policy of "land for peace." On the contrary: The Palestinian leadership uses terrorism to accelerate the Oslo process -- to render Israelis so desperate and demoralized that they will make even deeper concessions, surrender even more land, and struggle even harder to make peace with their enemies.

Yasser Arafat's Potemkin arrests this week notwithstanding, his Palestinian Authority is as wedded to terrorism as Hamas and Islamic Jihad are. All three share the same goal: the elimination of Israel. Hamas and Islamic Jihad say so explicitly; Arafat is a bit coy. When speaking to Western audiences, he confines his demands to the disputed territories and Jerusalem. But with Arab audiences he is blunt: "The struggle will continue," he vows, "until all of Palestine is liberated." And as the maps, emblems, and rhetoric of the Palestinian Authority make clear, "all of Palestine" means all of Israel.

Strip away the rhetoric, and the Arab war against Israel is based, above all, on hatred of Jews. That is as true today, when an Arafat-appointed sheik promises "blessings to whoever saved a bullet to put in a Jew's head," as it was in the 1920s and 1930s, when the Jews of Hebron were massacred and the mufti of Jerusalem sang Hitler's praises.

But it is not so easy to strip away the rhetoric. To justify their violence and irredentism, Arab propagandists have developed an elaborate mythology about a stolen homeland, an ancient Palestinian nation, and a cruel expulsion at the hands of the Jews. And they have repeated it so often and so loudly that much of the world has come to believe it.

A small vignette: While attending the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's national convention in 1991, I stopped at a booth selling historic Palestinian artifacts. This was two years before Oslo -- Arafat was still in Tunisia and there was as yet no Palestinian Authority -- and I can remember the wistfulness with which the merchant showed me the old postage stamps marked "Palestine."

"These were issued in Jerusalem," he told me, "when Palestine was ours -- before the occupation."

There was the myth in a nutshell: Palestine used to belong to the Palestinians, who ruled it from their capital in Jerusalem until the Jews swarmed in and drove them out. That is the root of all the violence and grief, and until the Palestinians can return to their homeland, the violence and grief will go on.

The truth is rather different.

The truth is that there was never an Arab country of Palestine, and Palestinian Arabs were never a nation. The truth is that Jerusalem was never the capital of any Arab state or province. The truth is that in all of recorded history, only one people has ever made Palestine west of the Jordan a sovereign nation-state with Jerusalem as its capital: the Jews.

So closely was Palestine associated with Jews, in fact, that in the years before Israel's birth, those who spoke of "Palestinians" were usually referring to the region's Jewish residents. Arab leaders rejected the notion of a unique Palestinian Arab identity, insisting that Palestine was merely a part of "Greater Syria."

Not that they saw Palestine as much of a prize in any case. Until the Zionist enterprise got underway, Palestine was stagnant and mostly barren. Its Arab population was small and declining. With Jewish development, however, came economic opportunity and better living conditions; these in turn attracted huge numbers of Arab immigrants from beyond Palestine's borders.

But if the Arabs didn't consider themselves Palestinians, they nevertheless ended up with most of Palestine. When the Ottoman Empire was broken up after World War I, the Allies carved a raft of new Arab countries from its territory, reserving only Palestine to fulfill their promise of a Jewish national home. But in 1922, Great Britain severed the 77 percent of Palestine that lay east of the Jordan River and created yet another Arab country -- today's Jordan.

The Arab myth of an ancient homeland stolen by Jews is dramatic and affecting, but it is still a myth. Three-fourths of historic Palestine is sovereign Arab territory, and has been barred to Jews for 80 years. Arabs displaced by war from one part of Palestine have always had the rest of Palestine to resettle in -- if only their Arab brethren would permit it.

The Jews, meanwhile -- the real Palestinians -- try to live on just the sliver of land that lies between the river and the sea. But even that is too much for their neighbors, who cannot abide a Jewish state of any size. On the day it was born, they tried to wipe it out. They have been trying ever since.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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