Wednesday, March 16, 2005

A Tale of Two (Groups of) Fanatics

Since the beginning of the “Second Intifada,” one of the most pointed criticisms of the Palestinian Authority has been that it was not making a good-faith effort to stop the fanatics who were routinely targeting Israeli civilians. Added to this was the belief that the Palestinian leadership under Yassir Arafat did not constitute a legitimate government since it was incapable of controlling the disparate elements within Palestinian society and establishing the rule of law. Many critics posited that the Authority’s reluctance to act stemmed from the fact that it believed such actions would ignite a civil war.

There are legitimate arguments to be made that Israeli military operations against the Palestinians actually made it more difficult for the PA to rein in the militants. Even so, the critique that the PA was not capable of unifying the Palestinians and was therefore not a legitimate political body in charge of the Palestinian territories was sound. Governments in nation states must be able to monopolize the use of force in the society, and the PA was not able to do so. It is no surprise that one of the first actions taken by the new Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas has been to crack down on the militants in order to demonstrate to the Israelis (and the world) that the PA is in charge so that peace negotiations can proceed.

Much less attention has been paid to the Israeli fanatics who are illegally expanding settlements throughout the Palestinian territories. Just as the Palestinian fanatics believe that Israel must be destroyed, the Israeli religious militants believe that the Palestinians have no right to their own state and that Israel has Biblical claims to an area many times greater than the current state.

This is why a new report commissioned by Ariel Sharon is so important. The report not only documents the illegal activities of the settlers, but also how numerous Israeli government agencies have been complicit in assisting the illegal settlement expansions. The conclusions are damning since these settlements are illegal under international law, according to Israeli law, and are specifically cited as barriers to the “peace process.” The report fully confirms accusations made by the Palestinians that Israel has also not been honoring its commitments, and is in fact exacerbating the problem.

Sharon and the Israeli government are now faced with the task of dismantling these settlements in order to demonstrate that Israel respects the rule of law, and that a minority group of extremists will not be allowed to derail the chances for peace. This is dangerous business; the former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by a Jewish fanatic for his attempts to confront extremism, and the extremist settlers are currently vowing to resist any efforts to remove them from the illegal outposts.

Like most “hotspots” in the world, the Israeli-Palestinian situation pits the majorities of largely rational and peace-seeking people against the fanatical minorities within their ranks who will stop at nothing to get what they want. In some sense the greater world is held hostage to the actions of these extremist minorities since so much of world opinion is shaped by events in this volatile region. In fact, it can be persuasively argued that Islamic fanaticism is fueled much more by the ongoing conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis than by anything else, and that U.S. interests are best served by helping to accelerate the creation of a Palestinian state. Let us hope that the Bush Administration sees it this way, and makes a serious effort to bring A Palestinian state into being in its second term.

J.S.

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