walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: March 12, 2013
Did the Palestinians Murder Baby Omar?

Eleven month old baby Omar died horribly and tragically during Israel’s eight day bombardment of the Gaza Strip last November. A striking and heart-wrenching photograph of his distraught father became a centerpiece in the usual and predictable Hate-Israel campaign accompanying the military strike. Baby Omar, the son of BBC journalist Jihad al-Masharawi, died with two relatives, and the deaths were widely attributed to a missile fired by an Israeli warplane.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights blamed Israel for young Omar’s death, as did Omar’s father Jihad, his colleagues at the BBC (including Paul Danahar, who visited the al-Masharawi home soon after the attack and tweeted photographs of the burned building and commented “Questioned [sic] asked here is: if Israel can kill a man riding on a moving motorbike (as they did last month) how did Jihad’s son get killed”), and numerous commentators and news outlets around the world. In the Arab world the story added another log to the bonfire of hate. Europeans preened themselves as usual on their inspiring moral superiority to the despicable Jewish hotheads. Germans in particular reflected on the pleasing irony that Germans today are so much more moral and fair minded than the Jews.

But today the United Nations, an organization not noted for pro-Israel bias, said it was probably a Palestinian rocket that killed young Omar, not an Israeli airstrike. The head of relevant UN office cautioned that he couldn’t “unequivocally conclude” Omar was killed by Palestinian rocket. But he said information gathered from eyewitnesses made it seem that the death was “attributable to a Palestinian rocket” that “fell short of Israel.”

Confusion and anger will doubtless remain over who should be held responsible for Omar’s death—the Palestinians or the Israelis. Already there are some commentators urging the Washington Post and others to correct the facts, and the bereaved father Jihad called the UN’s findings “rubbish“, according to the BBC.

Facts are always good and investigations matter, but the question of who pulled the trigger on poor Omar is about more than which side happened to fire the weapon that happened to kill this particular unfortunate victim on this particular day. The deeper question is who bears the fault for the conflict that for so many decades has taken so many innocent lives in so many campaigns and so many cycles of attack and retaliation.

Many Palestinians and their sympathizers blame all the conflicts on the Jews who settled in Arab Palestine and on the Western powers who supported what they see as an essentially colonial and imperial project. Every civilian casualty, every dead baby, they lay at the door of the Zionist movement and its imperial allies.

The more nuanced version of the Blame Israel case says that, whatever has been the problem in the past, Israel’s refusal to make the necessary compromises for a two state solution is the underlying cause of war today. Therefore it was Israel that killed Baby Omar, no matter whose fingerprints are on missile that ended his life.

Israel and its supporters argue that it is Palestinian intransigence, especially on the part of Gaza’s ruling authority, Hamas, that is blocking a two state solution. In addition, the Gazans started last November’s military action by firing rockets aimed at Israeli babies. If Palestinian babies then die in the crossfire that Palestinians started, the responsibility for their deaths lies with the futile, muddle-headed, and murderous fanatics who launched the doomed attack.

Arguing over the specifics of a particular death is less about engaging with the underlying issues than about propaganda campaigns. The agony of grieving parents aside (and the parents of infants surely have the right to denounce those they hold responsible for the deaths of their children), the political authorities and the rival well established propaganda and activism networks on both sides of the conflict are simply using dead kids as political tools. That is what they do, and the propaganda war has assumed particular bitterness in this long conflict because propaganda is the best and in some ways the only weapon that Palestinian activists have. After a century of effort, Palestinians remain feeble and divided in the realms of political and military action, but they are extremely good at calling attention to their suffering and creating sympathy for their cause. In this realm they can turn Israel’s strength and power against the Jewish state by highlighting their status as underdogs and attacking superior Israeli military capabilities for responding “disproportionately” to their derisory military force.

Israel has developed no effective counter to this Palestinian tactic and continues to exist in a situation in which Israel wins all or virtually all of the military contests, but the Palestinians convert their own military defeats into moral capital. Neither side finds this situation satisfactory, but neither side is able to do anything about it.

The real problem is less with the Israelis and the Palestinians than with an international community, which has never faced up to its own moral and political responsibility for the situation in which both sides are trapped. The UN’s failure to provide a security umbrella as the British gave up their mandate and the Arabs rejected the partition plan was understandable in the light of chaotic world conditions at the time, but historically it was this UN failure that set the stage for the tragedy of the Palestinians and the decades of conflict ever since.

The people of Gaza are in an untenable situation. Their strip of territory is mostly barren desert. It is vastly overcrowded, and without aid from outside it could not survive. A two state solution that condemns Palestinians in Gaza to Gaza is not a solution for the problems Gazans face. It is small wonder that ever since 1948 the West Bank has been more open to compromise solutions of the dispute.

Until the international community stops thinking of both Israelis and Palestinians as irrational thugs and savages locked in a senseless conflict, and until it realizes that in many ways it is the international community that killed Baby Omar, the killing will continue. Israel cannot make the Palestinians whole without ceasing to be Israel, but Israel does not bear the full responsibility for their plight. The UN imagines itself to be a kind of umpire standing morally and politically above the conflict, judging the relative faults and merits of the gladiators wrestling down in the mud below. The international community owes both Israelis and Palestinians a great deal, and this unacknowledged debt and the continued global flight from responsibility remain today as they have for decades principal causes of this endless, tragic war.

[Photo credit: Getty Images. During the last hour of hostilities, militants launch rockets from Gaza City as an Israeli bomb explodes on the horizon on November 21, 2012 on Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip.]

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