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What Palestinians really want (A Western-Israeli obsession)

If you follow Israeli and American mainstream logic, all it takes for the occupation to end are a few nice words from Palestinian leaders.  

We have been asking the wrong questions: A popular debate in the days following the military escalation between Israel and Hamas had to do with the prospect of negotiations with Hamas, and whether the organization “has moderated.” In this conversation, evidence is tossed around from both sides in the forms of quotes from political figures, militants, supporters and spiritual leaders, followed by heated arguments over their meaning, context, quality of translation, status of the person in question, and so on.

Examples: The Times of Israel reported on a Gaza cleric who calls a violation of truce with Israel “sinful” and the Jerusalem Post reporting that Khaled Mashaal says he accepts a Palestinian state on ’67 borders; there is Jeffrey Goldberg in the New York Times, explaining why Hamas cannot be reasoned with, and a New York Times editorial reminding us that Hamas is “consumed with hatred for Israel.” These are just a few random links from recent days; such pieces – both reports and analysis – are everywhere, all the time.

I don’t claim to possess more knowledge than any of the above on the inner struggle within Hamas and the power balance between “moderates” and “hawks.” On a side note, the mere question betrays the real bias of the media: Even when criticizing Israeli policies, most journalists examine reality from the Israeli perspective, or more precisely, from the perspective of the Israeli elite. After all, nobody asks whether one should talk to Israel, or to certain parties who take part in the Israeli government, however extreme their opinions might be.

The desire to pick the “right” Palestinian leaders goes hand in hand with the obsession with things they say or think. Trying to crack the Palestinian mind is like a national sport in Israel: Is Hamas’ Khaled Mashaal ready to recognize Israel? Could his statement be translated and understood as permanent recognition, or just a temporary one? Did Mahmoud Abbas give up the Palestinian right of return? Will he recognize Israel? Will he recognize it as a Jewish state? And if he does, will he mean it?

In its most extreme moments, this discourse is driven by people who never met a Palestinian yet talk as if they have an intimate understanding of their psyche that only a Freudian shrink might claim to hold; at other times it’s the self-proclaimed advocates of peace who wonder “whether there is a partner.” There are NGOs and think tanks, journalists and publications who make it their goal in life to tell the world “what Palestinians really think,” with an emphasis on “really.”

These issues are not just discussed on the public level. I have witnessed this all too many times: The Israeli (or American) meeting a Palestinian in a “reconciliation” or “peace building” conversation which all too quickly takes the form of a political interrogation. The Palestinian might be a farmer whose problem is with the land he lost to the separation barrier, but he must have the “right” opinions regarding the final status of Jerusalem, the refugee problem and the historical legitimacy of Zionism before he can tell his story or state his claim.

In the saddest moments, the Palestinian will play along, hoping that if he does play by our rules, his claim will be recognized (it probably won’t, there are many other questions to answer). In other cases, the Palestinian refuses, and his interrogator can retreat to his comfort zone of self-righteousness. Mission accomplished.

The bottom line is that none of this matters. It’s all a huge red herring. Nothing a leader says now determines the way he will act in the future. Public statements are important only to a limited extent and agreements depend on the continued willingness of both sides to uphold them. As long as both parties feel that they benefit from a certain status quo, or that their interests are better served than by any alternative, the deal they reach could hold. If one party is coerced into signing but doesn’t have its interests and desires addressed, all the nice declarations won’t matter. Twenty years after the historic peace deal that should have ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but didn’t, you’d think that people would get it.

The arguments about the meaning and importance of the Hamas charter are all but identical to the decade-long debate over the PLO charter. How much effort and time was put into forcing Arafat to change it, and how little did it matter when negotiations collapsed in Camp David and violence returned. The same goes for today: Given the right pressure, a certain Palestinian leadership could be made to promise Israel anything. Yet none of it would matter if you don’t address the fundamentals of the conflict: The occupation, the refugees, the holy sites, the settlements, the access to land and to water. The leaders would change their minds and if they don’t new leaders (“more extreme”) will come. Reality will prevail over rhetoric.

The fact that the West – even many well-intentioned liberals – continues to put Palestinians through litmus tests before acknowledging their basic human rights is further evidence of how biased the political conversation is. Rights shouldn’t be conditioned – that’s why they are called “rights” – and if anything, it’s Israelis who should explain why they deny them from millions of people, not the other way around. Instead, again and again we hear demands regarding things Arabs say, or write, or think, or feel. Taken together, they all feel too much like an excuse to avoid treating the Palestinians like equal human beings.

In the next post: A better litmus test

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    1. Aaron Gross

      The thing about human rights is that they seem to be changeable at whim, and nobody seems to be really sure exactly who it is that decides what they are. Does writing them down on paper make them morally binding?

      But if so-called human rights are absolute, as you say, and if it’s a human right to return to your home after cessation of hostilities, and if it’s a human right to be re-united with your family, and if the State of Israel is morally bound to respect human rights – then we should just shut down the State of Israel right now and save all the trouble. There’s no way that Israel can exist without violating so-called human rights.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ya3cov

      @Aaron Gross Exactly. Israel must be (and will be) dismantled like apartheid South Africa.

      Reply to Comment
      • Aaron Gross

        By whom?

        Reply to Comment
    3. Max

      Aaron, even if we define ‘human rights’ much more restrictively, the problem still deserves an answer from those Noam is critiquing. Say we consider human rights the right to peaceable assembly, the right to vote, and the right to trial by jury.

      Even by this bare-bones standard, by most fair accounts Israel gets a failing grade on human rights in its relationship with residents of the West Bank.

      Noam, I agree with almost all of this. I only start to wonder at your last few sentences. Isn’t it fair to say that there are un-addressed issues for Israelis, as well? The media fails to acknowledge rocket attacks 90% of the time (until Israel strikes back). And when they are acknowledged, it is only to report a death count, without any acknowledgement of the impact these attacks have on the south.

      To me, this is part of a broader tendency in the media to slip into repeated narratives, easier and safer to report because they have become established thinking. The meta-narrative you describe here – what matters is what leaders express to the media, not what they actually do – is a classic trope.

      I am not searching for false equivalence, but just wonder how much this is ingrained pro-Israel bias and how much it’s just that the popular press is mostly dumb.

      You have nailed the way this plays out on a personal level, though, at least for me. I have been reading PRIME’s dual=narrative textbook this week and find myself struggling over and over not to read the Palestinian side trying to detect the author’s “real” politics, while holding no similar standard to the Israeli side. Difficult habit to break.

      Reply to Comment
      • Aaron Gross

        Max, I don’t think anyone considers the right to vote as a human right. Populations under belligerent occupation have no right to vote – certainly no such right in international law, anyway. Neither do most stateless persons.

        I don’t know whether peaceable assembly is considered a human right, but I’d guess not, with the same counter-example of belligerent occupation.

        Trial by jury, only if you charitably translate that to “due process”; Israeli citizens aren’t granted trial by jury either.

        This kind of illustrates my point, that in human rights discourse, “human rights” means pretty much whatever the speaker says it means.

        Reply to Comment
        • Aaron Gross: I think a lot of us would suggest that if “belligerent occupation” entails curtailing of such human rights as voting, due process, and peaceable assembly, it only emphasizes the fact that “belligerent occupation” is itself a denial of human rights.

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        • JFG

          “that in human rights discourse, “human rights” means pretty much whatever the speaker says it means”

          Really? So your logic is, because human rights has no universal definition, we cannot see them ever in violation? And this is the thread upon which pro-Israel support hangs?

          “Trial by jury”, incidentally, is omitted from the UDHR, so it is of little consequence that that right is not granted to Israeli citizens (let alone non-citizen Palestinians)

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          • Aaron Gross

            We can charitably translate “trial by jury” as “due process,” which is a right in human-rights law. But as I pointed out in the follow-up to my other comment, it’s a derogable right, and Israel has made a derogation.

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        • Max

          I don’t really know how to respond. If you find this definition of human rights inadequate, perhaps you should propose an alternative? If your answer to the issue is that it is impossible to define ‘human rights,’ then you’ve taken quite a fringe position.

          Reply to Comment
          • Aaron Gross

            Two alternatives: Legally, talk about the actual human rights that are part of law. (See my follow-up to my own comment.) Morally, one can talk about moral and immoral, just and unjust, without any reference to human rights. It’s only in the last 60 years or so that anyone’s even been using this vocabulary.

            Reply to Comment
        • Aaron Gross

          My answer was essentially correct, but there were some minor errors. This correction will also answer some of the replies to me. Warning: It’s actually even worse for your side than I initially said.

          I’ll talk only about the law here, not about metaphysical so-called rights, which anyone can conjure out of thin air. There is in fact a right to a court trial, but that is a derogable right. It’s derogable in any public emergency, not just related to occupation. And, in fact, Israel has made a derogation with respect to administrative detention, as recognized by the ICJ.

          The right to peaceable assembly is a human right (I was wrong about that), but even normally it’s quite limited by considerations of state security. It, too, is derogable, though it’s so limited that Israel doesn’t even need a derogation. For instance, it doesn’t even protect peaceable demonstrations inciting resistance against an Occupying Power. Contra Noam, all human rights are limited and relative, not absolute – even non-derogable rights. But, again, that particular right is derogable anyway.

          The right to vote would be absurd in any belligerent occupation. The occupied population has many rights, of course, but autonomy contradicts the whole idea of belligerent occupation, which is non-consensual effective control.

          Finally, Israel is in violation of at least some human rights law. The right not to be tortured is non-derogable, so Israel is in violation of that.

          There’s nothing illegal about belligerent occupation per se. It’s been regulated by treaties and conventions for two centuries. It’s a recognized aspect of war.

          Reply to Comment
        • Joseph Ryan

          Are you suggesting that people should be denied voting, and that the citizenry has no clue what to do about situations?

          Reply to Comment
    4. XYZ

      I quote from this piece:
      The bottom line is that none of this matters. It’s all a huge red herring. Nothing a leader says now determines the way he will act in the future. Public statements are important only to a limited extent and agreements depend on the continued willingness of both sides to uphold them.

      Ah yes, why pay attention to the HAMAS charter and what it says about a conflict to the death with Israel, realizing that HAMAS won a free election among the Palestinian public with this platform? This article is pushing the old Orientalist line “Arabs don’t really mean what they say” and if their official charter says something, we shouldn’t take it too seriously if we don’t like it..

      If we look at the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Arab leaders, unlike those from Israel, have been remarkably consistent in the positions and have held up their promises to their people, even at great cost to themselves and their countries. Certainly, cease-fires have been declared at times but Arab leaders, who are much more deeply rooted in their peoples’ culture and history are aware that there is a long history of making cease-fires with the enemy, with the understanding that they are temporary. This is what many Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen in Egypt are saying…the ‘peace agreement’ with Israel is temporary and has outlived its usefulness.

      IT is time the “progressives” start dropping their cultural blinders and end this arrogance that says everyone in the world thinks like them and wants the same things as them and begin to really try to understand peoples and cultures as they ARE and not as they WANT them to be.

      Reply to Comment
      • elaine kurpiel

        Hamas cares about the Palestinians and most Palestinians have found that Hamas is much more willing to help than anyone else. There is much good Hamas has done – starting schools, helping with rebuilding homes and roads, and supporting all Palestinians. They are NOT terrorists. In my opinion, and many others, Israel is the terrorists. I don’t believe anyone would want to live stateless, enslaved, unable to export or import needed goods, see their families destroyed by Israeli rockets simply because they are Palestinians. Israel went through some horrible times, as many others countries have. And yet they feel they are entitled and do not hesitate to visit destruction on others as they have experienced themselves. And, I remember reading that Israelis have mentioned more than once that they ” do not recognize Palestinians as Human.” But god forbid anyone says that about them. Israel, look at your government and decide if you really want such a person as Netanyu ( SP ) to represent you.

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        • Kolumn9

          If suicide bombs being intentionally exploded in buses and restaurants full of civilians qualify as terrorist acts then the organization that dispatched the bombers is a terrorist organization. Can we agree on this?

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    5. AYLA

      exactly. this is the bottom line. thank you!

      Reply to Comment
    6. Weinstein Henry

      Noam, you state that the political conversation is biased “if you don’t address the fundamentals of the conflict: The occupation, the refugees, the holy sites, the settlements, the access to land and to water”.
      Do you really consider that the political conversation is not biased when one don’t address the existence of the state of Israel and Israeli citizens’ security concerns?

      Reply to Comment
    7. Kolumn9

      This is the parallel process to the Western funding of numerous left-wing Israeli NGOs. There are several narratives that are acceptable to the people who are looking at this conflict from the outside world and these are the ones that will get attention and funding. On the Israeli side these sponsored voices (like 972mag) are basically marginal because they are dwarfed by the voices of the Israeli and Zionist establishments with a massive modern economy behind them and billions of yearly donations from the Diaspora. To some extent dominant Israeli narratives are themselves held captive to these external clients, but this seems to be fading (very slowly). The Palestinians on the other hand have little independent power to influence this conversation and are dependent almost entirely on external validation and support (whether Western or Islamic or Iranian). For example, even when Hamas wins elections and is clearly the rising party within the Palestinian territories its rhetoric and discourse will be mostly ignored except where it fits into certain Western narratives – they are really moderates, support the two state solution, are nationalists not Islamists, derive from economic misery, hold their beliefs due to traumatic life experiences, etc, etc, etc.

      The current Western lens is one of conflict resolution. A focus on declared Palestinian ‘rights’ is unlikely to get much of a fair hearing unless it can be argued that it can constructively lead to a solution. Given that a focus on such Palestinian ‘rights’ in aggregate usually translates into a call for eliminating Israel, I can’t imagine this picking up much steam until you convince the Israelis that maintaining Israel isn’t worth it and convince Westerners that this is the way to a resolution of the conflict.

      In any case, ‘rights’ are probably the most vague concepts possible. Where do they come from? Who and why should anyone care about them? What happens when they conflict? Who gets to come up with new ones? For example, there seems to be relatively wide support in some circles for the “right to not have one’s religion defamed”. I say go fly a kite, but hey, what am I to do but insist on my own right to practice my own religion which insists on defaming all the other religions three times a day.

      Reply to Comment
    8. JKNoReally

      This piece should have been called “Palestinian ‘rights’ are more important than Israeli security” because, like a lot of pieces on +972, that’s the only meaningful point being made here. Deciding to address the statements of Palestinian leaders as a vehicle for this argument shows how out of touch the author is – Western sympathy for Palestinians relies in large part on continuous deception from Palestinian leaders: do you really want the West to start looking behind the rhetoric? Because they’re just going to find a lot of rejectionism and other nasty ideas they don’t like. The author is letting his own convictions interfere with his assessment of what it is possible to get other people to believe about Palestinian rights.

      Reply to Comment
      • Some Body

        I thought looking behind rhetoric means looking at the reality of people’s lives, not at ideas. But then, this is something Zionist apologists would rather avoid at all costs, because it shows their propaganda for the bunch of lies that it is. You’re still getting it all wrong, JKNoReally.

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    9. Noam, you suggest a great question: “Should Palestinians, Europeans, Arabs, Turks, etc., etc. talk to Israel?”

      As a friend of Palestine, I’ve always favored talking to Israel. But one must choose the language of the discussion carefully.

      So, not the language of force. Nor the language of international law. Nor the language of UNSC (or, of course, UNGA) resolutions. Not citizen-BDS, Oh No! All those words will be met by contempt, or a new “Pillar of Mischief”.

      Hmm. In that case what’s left?

      Nation-level-BDS is what is left. Looking forward! But I will not be inconvenienced. In the USA, Israeli goods will be on the shelves for a long time to come.


      Reply to Comment
    10. Rights have to be enforced, at least potentially, to exist. A phrase James Madison used in the Federalist: “Every right must have a remedy,” which can mean as well “no remedy, no right.” I advocate your Declaration of Indpendence as a constitutional document to lock in, textually, rights, which can expand, evolve from there.

      Words are used to circumscirbe acceptable political moves. The present contest over the holy word “occupation” shows this. Western powers occupied parts of Africa in the 1700-1900’s although there was no State “occupied”; rather, occupications were often lifted through the imposition of a Western boundary State. International law restricts itself to States because–now–only States are assumed to exist. The failure of the (fantasy) UN 47 partition means, conviently, corporate Palestinians do not exist. The evolution of terrorism allows us to speak of “population control” to prevent terrorism in “unoccupied” non State areas: Gaza and the Bank.

      Noam’s farmer example, above, seems a way out. The farmer needs/wants specific things and might use rights language to press this. These “rights” include livelihood and (somewhat) free labor–the defense of existence (personal survival is still an acceptable common law defense). These rights are articulated, and maybe later enforced, through interaction with the “other,” in confrontation. The greater political battle is not at issue, although many would make it so to control this MICRO outcome. To construct and implement rights with a superior power you have to interact regularly with it, in a micro level. In Gaza Israel has stumbled into a way of not interacting directly at all. But to have rights acknowledged without exterior force on the superior power, that power must itself be in contention internally on what rights are therein. Rights articulation within Israel could become a way to articulate rights/interaction across the occupation barrier. What people live is the engine, not what elite commentary says the world must be. When these two are sufficiently dislinked, first violence results on both sides, then, perhaps, resolution–but again, there must be rights formation within the superior power upon which the inferior can grab hold; and the superior/inferior must interact regularly, albeit it in difficult and aweful ways–this the “natural court” of rights formation.

      This is why, in my view, long term nonviolence in the Bank may make headway–if it renounced that violence which will come from “inside” to, indeed, stop interaction between the superior/inferior. Under nonviolence, they must continue to interact if any hope is to be at all.

      Or so I say.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Shlomo Krol

      This is very true in regard of the red herring and so. Like a Marxist paradigm of the base and superstructure.
      The Palestinian and Arab societies are in the period of transition, which is long and difficult: from pre-industrial to industrial society. This transition is accompanies with youth bulge, urbanization, erosion of the traditional society, failure of secularization etc. There is no use of talking about peace in this situation. But Israel cannot just be paralyzed by the turbulence in the Arab world. The end of the occupation, of the colonization and of the inequality is the primary Israeli interest. Israel needs Palestinian state, it’s like a national liberation – for Israel no less than for the Palestinians.

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        Yes, this is the argument that Livni and Olmert have used “creation of a Palestinian state is a vital interest of Israel”. In other words, it will be bad for Israel if it doesn’t create a Palestinian state. If that is the case, why should the Palestinian leaders stick their necks out and make unpopular concession just in order to help Israel? Is that the Palestinian goal? The Arab-Israeli conflict is, unfortunatley a zero-sum game. It is this because the Arabs have defined it as such. Thus, the Arab leaders are not going to do anything to ‘help’ Israel. So forget about reaching a peace agreement based on mutual compromises.

        Reply to Comment
        • “The Arab-Israeli conflict is, unfortunatley a zero-sum game. It is this because the Arabs have defined it as such.” : Expanding settlements, denying prior residents access to land, water, trees, is zero sum, and it is all under the control of Israel.

          Reply to Comment
    12. Shlomo Krol

      The Palestinian and Arab societies are in the period of transition, which is long and difficult: from pre-industrial to industrial society. This transition is accompanies with youth bulge, urbanization, erosion of the traditional society, failure of secularization etc. There is no use of talking about peace in this situation. But Israel cannot just be paralyzed by the turbulence in the Arab world. The end of the occupation, of the colonization and of the inequality is the primary Israeli interest. Israel needs Palestinian state, it’s like a national liberation – for Israel no less than for the Palestinians.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Ignatz

      You know what? Human Rights are actually pretty well defined. They well may be inconvenient obstacles to you doing whatever you feel like doing, but that’s the problem with laws in general.

      No, Aaron, human rights do not mean whatever the speaker says they mean, and that includes you saying that they are meaningless.

      No, Kolumn9, there is no such thing as “Palestinian rights in aggregate”. What there is, is the list of rights carefully defined in the IDHR and the various treaties to which Israel is a signatory. Note: they apply equally to Israelis and Palestinians (i.e. the right of return is there to protect Israelis, too, and they would be the first to claim it if they were forced to flee).

      Human Rights are not “changeable at whim”, it’s very clear “exactly who it is that decides what they are”, they are legally and not just “morally” binding.

      Commenters here are expending large amounts of energy making guesses about what International Human Rights Law actually includes and doesn’t (examples above: the right to return to your home? to be reunited with your family? to peaceful assembly? to vote? to due process? not to be belligerently occupied?)

      Why not stop guessing and go and look them up?

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Human rights are reasonably well defined in the UDHR, but they are so broad and so often in conflict that they are practically meaningless and are really just slogans used by power games within international diplomacy. For example, according to the UDHR, both Israelis and Palestinians have a right to life and security. What happens when an Israeli’s right to life and security are being infringed upon by a bomb blowing up that was attached to the Palestinian sitting next to him? What is the legitimate recourse in terms of protecting that right? What body is meant to ensure that this right is protected?

        Are you suggesting that there aren’t large political organizations whose objective is pursuing Palestinian ‘rights’ in aggregate as a means of achieving political ends?

        Last I checked the PLO and Hamas were very much political organizations who use Palestinian frustrations and claimed ‘rights’ as a means of pursuing national objectives in conflict with Israel.

        Reply to Comment
    14. Niz

      I hope this situation continues for a while. What a great life, the Israelis have. Living behind the wall and constantly monitoring, in xenophobic fear their neighbors. This phobia -also historical- pushes them to react violently. They need to have full security, which means being able to crush all their neighbors at once. That of course is a self fulfilling prophecy. The point is, the Jews came (yes you came- except for Mizrahi’s who actually have the real right to the land) and they have to live with the damn stinking Arabs. Uhhh…the tragedy of the white jewish europeans living with these disgusting savages. heheh…
      Slowly, slowly the Ashkanazis die and the land goes back to the brown people…little by little this structure based on violence and division erodes. You eat falafel, you say kus ummak, you started having the same Arab machismo…slowly, slowly, your self hatred will erode, because let’s face it, you only hate the Arabs, because you really hate being Jews. It’s okay habibi…it’s okay, the holocaust is over…and we the palestinians, have to let you live your psychotic delusions! Like a patient, you will wake up or destroy yourselves.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        I was entertained by your post. Bravo!

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      • The Trespasser

        Hate Arabs?
        Yawn. I don’t think that Arabs are even theoretically capable of causing massive hatred.
        One wouldn’t hate fleas or ants.

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    15. Richard Witty

      “What Palestinians Want”.

      The reason the question is asked is to outline a path to reconcile. “We can live with that. Let’s talk about that. We need this.”

      It’s THE best question in this part of the planet, not something to ridicule or dismiss.

      Further, although Palestinians have great potential arguments for reviving their community, the deep division and contradictions in their argument and chosen methods, has kept them stuck.

      To lay the blame on Israel is to keep them as children.

      And, to encourage in any way, the zero sum approach (us OR them), enforced by violence, is to promote war. “War, What is it Good For? Absolutely NOTHING!!!”

      Solidarity is that, advocacy of zero-sum. Peace is much better.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Gcynic

      Were not the French, Dutch, Belgian and Polish Resistance “consumed with hatred” for the Nazis?
      Jaabari was a Hamas moderate in the process of dealing with a cease-fire but Bibi and Co don’t want moderate Hamas leaders. They would prefer to portray them as hard-line “terrorists” but ask the ordinary Gazans who the terrorists are. Aletter from Hamas to George W. Bush offering to accepy Israel within the 1967 borders went unanswered. I wonder why? Presumably because the US military/industrial complex would prefer to see the conflict continue to fester. More profits – Eh?

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        “Jaabari was a Hamas moderate in the process of dealing with a cease-fire”

        Nonsense. That dirty little liar Baskin did not ever presented “draft of truce”

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        • Richard Witty

          The military commander of the Qassam brigades a moderate.

          Interesting degree of self-medication.

          Reply to Comment
          • Richard Witty

            There are other ways to argue for Palestinian rights and dignity, than to excuse the orchestrater of anonymous mass murder.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            The problem is that during nearly 70 years that is the only proposed way.

            Which is probably why Rabin have had brought Arafat back from the oblivion.

            Reply to Comment
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