The Magazine

Exploiting the Palestinians

Everyone's doing it.

Jan 13, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 17 • By MAX BOOT
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IN AN INTERVIEW LAST MONTH with Britain's Sunday Times, Yasser Arafat rebuked Osama bin Laden for seeking to exploit the Palestinians' cause for his own ends. "Why is bin Laden talking about Palestine now? . . . He never helped us. He was working in another, completely different area and against our interests," Arafat was quoted as saying. "I'm telling him directly not to hide behind the Palestinian cause."

Good advice, but it's doubtful bin Laden will take it. Just about everyone else exploits the Palestinian cause--Arafat first and foremost, but also, according to the latest reports, some of his Israeli "peace partners"--so why shouldn't old fur face?

Whenever the serious issues of the Middle East are raised, from oppression in Saudi Arabia to nuclear weapons development in Iran, the answer one hears from Europeans, Arabs, United Nations functionaries, all sorts of supposedly serious people, is invariably the same: The real issue is the Palestinians. Until we resolve their horrible plight, peace will never come to the Middle East. This is an absurd argument since even if Israel ceased to exist tomorrow, this would not affect in the slightest the tensions between Islamic fundamentalists and secularists, between rich Gulf kingdoms and their poor cousins, between Shiites and Sunnis, between democrats and dictators, or the countless other San Andreas-sized fault lines that run through the Dar al-Islam (House of Islam). It is helpful to remember that all of the dead in the Arab-Israeli wars of the past half century amount to only a tiny fraction of the million killed during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the 100,000 killed in Algeria's civil war since 1992, or the 100,000 killed in Lebanon's civil war from 1975 to 1990.

Surely anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the Middle East knows that the plight of the Palestinians isn't "the" issue. So why do so many people insist that it is? Let us count the reasons.

For the Europeans, championing the Palestinian cause allows them to assuage lingering colonial guilt by championing the aspirations of a Third World people who claim to be oppressed by Western imperialists--in this case, Israelis. It also allows Europeans to trumpet their moral superiority over pro-Israel Americans. And, last but not least, it allows them to curry favor with both oil-rich Arab states and their own growing Muslim minorities. Europeans hope that Arabs will show their gratitude by doing business with them and not targeting them for terrorism. All of this comes at a price, though: The E.U. is one of the Palestinian Authority's main non-Arab bankrollers, to the tune of $10 million a month.

For Middle Eastern states, championing the Palestinian cause is even more vital because doing so provides an important pillar of legitimacy for their manifestly illegitimate governments. Naturally the Arab states' interest is in preserving "the struggle," not in succoring the Palestinian people who (along with the Israelis) are its chief victims. There are almost 4 million Palestinians and most live in conditions of unrelieved squalor; large swaths of the West Bank and Gaza Strip make the South Bronx look like Club Med by comparison. The only Arab state that has granted citizenship to Palestinians is Jordan; the others prefer to keep them as an unassimilated, militant minority.

More than 1.1 million Palestinians are jammed into 59 refugee camps whose support comes mainly from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and other international bodies. As former U.S. ambassador to Morocco Marc Ginsberg points out, all the Arab states combined donate less than $7 million to UNRWA, just 2.4 percent of its $290 million budget. (Kuwait, Egypt, Libya, Oman, Qatar, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates collectively contribute a grand total of zero.) By contrast, the Great Satan forks over $110 million, or 38 percent of UNRWA's budget. The Arabs prefer to spend their money to support Palestinian suicide bombers. Saddam Hussein alone has paid an estimated $20 million over the past two years to "martyrs'" families. The Saudis held a telethon to raise millions more. The Arab League as a whole contributes $55 million a month to Arafat's tyrannical Palestinian Authority, which keeps the suicide bombings coming.

Many Palestinians are privately appalled at these "martyrdom operations," which are killing their youth, destroying their economy, and empowering their religious fanatics. But Arab states are delighted. What are a few dead Palestinian teenagers in return for hurting Israel and its backers in America?