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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Why Incitement is Ignored

Filed under: Jerusalem

The brutal Palestinian terror attack on Itamar has brought back the core issue of Palestinian incitement to center stage. After all, what prepares a Palestinian terrorist to slit the throats of Israeli children and kill their parents in cold blood? The fact is that serious experts in bringing to a halt the most intractable conflicts in recent history have all pointed to incitement as a key cause for the outbreak of mass violence.

Take for example the writings of the late Richard Holbrooke. He was probably the most accomplished and experienced U.S. diplomat that served in recent years in the Department of State. Indeed, Holbrooke was responsible for the greatest achievement of the Clinton administration in foreign policy – the Dayton Agreement that ended the Bosnian War. Before that, he had served as the U.S. ambassador to Germany, assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs and then assistant secretary of state for European affairs.  His ideas should be seriously considered by those looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well.  

In his book, To End a War, on the Dayton Agreement, Holbrooke considered why the war in Bosnia erupted. He raised the theory that was widely cited in intellectual circles in the 1990s that the war in the Balkans was due to “ancient hatreds” between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. But then he dismissed this idea completely and argued instead that the hatred that fed the conflict had been deliberately inflamed. He wrote that there was a deliberate policy of incitement by the Serbian leadership through Belgrade television, which spread ethnic hatred “like an epidemic.” In short, incitement was not a symptom of the Balkan Wars but rather, according to Holbrooke, it was a root cause.
Unfortunately, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, incitement has not been taken as seriously. Formally, there are many clauses on incitement throughout the Oslo Agreements, especially the 1995 Interim Agreement. The parties are legally bound to abstain from incitement and hostile propaganda. They were supposed to foster “mutual understanding and tolerance.” The first phase of the 2003 Roadmap calls on “all Palestinian institutions to end incitement against Israel.” But in practice many of these clauses were dormant. Israeli governments put the greatest attention to the most politically explosive issues like borders and security. The most senior officials in the Prime Minister’s office were involved in those committees and not in the incitement committee. There were those who undoubtedly felt that if Israel complained about incitement, it would be perceived that it was looking for an excuse to get out of the peace process and not make any concessions.
Dennis Ross wrote an 800-page book, The Missing Peace, in which he tried to analyze why the Oslo Agreements failed. He criticized the United States for ignoring the issue of Palestinian incitement: “The Palestinians’ systematic incitement in their media, an educational system that bred hatred, and the glorification of violence made Israelis feel that their real purpose was not peace.”  He insists that any peace process in the future must be based on a code of conduct that prohibits behavior that contradicts peacemaking. Ross is extremely open in explaining the reasons why the U.S. did not deal with the incitement issue. Washington was always afraid of halting the peace process. It did not want to confront Arafat and mistakenly accepted his arguments that he was too weak. But Ross warns that there cannot be successful negotiations if there is one environment at the peace table and another environment in the streets.
The most extreme case of incitement that has been on the international agenda in recent years is incitement to genocide, which is a war crime under Article 3 of the 1948 Genocide Convention. The UN Tribunal on Rwanda actually convicted three Hutu leaders for incitement to genocide in December 2003, showing how seriously this issue is taken.  When a leading Hamas member, Yunis al-Astal, who serves in the Gaza Parliament, called for incinerating the Jews (mahraka), Israel has every reason to use the laws against genocidal incitement, as well. Al-Astal was calling for a new Final Solution; in Arabic, mahraka al-yahud means Holocaust.

Incitement does not have to be as extreme as direct incitement to mass murder, as in the Rwandan or Hamas cases. There are clear cases of incitement to violence, alone, perpetrated by the Palestinian Authority alone. For example, Palestinian Media Watch reported that Palestinian Authority Television carried a report on July 8 and July 15, 2010, of a Palestinian child saying that the Sixth Fatah Conference of August 2009 was important because it made “us aware…that we will be combatants and wage resistance against the Israelis.” One of the strongest elements in any effort to promote violence is to advocate the demonization of an opponent. In this spirit the PA’s senior religious leader characterized Jews as the “enemies of God.” It is impossible to seriously advance peace when Palestinian institutions and official media are still calling for a return to war.

Incitement can also involve denying the legitimacy of the other side. Israel and the PLO exchanged letters of mutual recognition in 1993, which was supposed to improve how the parties related to each other. When the PA educational system prints maps that show Israeli cities as part of Palestine, that might not promote violence, but it is undoubtedly a form of incitement. On many occasions, the attacks on the legitimacy of Israel are prevalent in Palestinian mosques, as well. Unfortunately, this kind of activity continues under the Palestinian Authority. Incitement not only mobilizes Palestinian society for future conflict. It is used by the Palestinian Authority to build its own legitimacy with the Palestinian street.

Last summer, the Israeli government decided to take the issue of Palestinian incitement seriously and has appointed officials to monitor what the Palestinian leadership is saying. In his joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 6, 2010, President Obama voiced his concern with the incitement issue: “I think it’s very important that the Palestinians not look for excuses for incitement.” But it never seemed that the Administration took this seriously. Instead, it made its Middle East policy rivet around the issue of settlement construction. The settlements, though politically controversial, did not contravene the Oslo Agreements. Palestinian incitement was a direct violation of written Palestinian commitments.

More than ever, Israel has a strong foundation today for demanding zero tolerance at the negotiating table for continuing incitement by any agency of the Palestinian Authority. This is not a side issue that can be ignored but goes to the root of any meaningful peacemaking in the future.

The writer, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN, is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.