Palestinians are incredulous. When the Palestine Media Watch website noted that, for the fourth time, the Palestinian Authority had named one of its schools after the late head of the 1970’s terror group Black September, the news created a bit of an uproar in Israel. A spokesperson for Prime Minister Netanyahu accused the PA of glorifying terrorists, but the response from the PA wasn’t the least bit defensive. Though the Obama administration continues to insist that the PA is a partner for peace, the PA gave a telling answer to the Israeli charge. The Palestinian Authority official in charge of Tulkarem—the district where the most recent Salah Khalaf school was dedicated—said the following: “The occupation [Israel] is delusional if it thinks the Palestinian people can change its culture.”
This statement reveals something that most peace process advocates and critics of Israel either don’t understand or willfully miss. The PA’s repeated refusals of Israeli peace offers isn’t rooted in how many homes are built by Israelis in existing West Bank settlements or differences over where the border between a putative Palestinian state and Israel should be drawn. Rather, the problem is something far more deep-seated: culture.
As poll after poll of Palestinian public opinion has shown over the years, support for violence against Israelis and Jews and the rejection of Israel’s legitimacy isn’t merely a policy preference or a position taken by the PA at the United Nations. It is rooted in a Palestinian political culture that views the Jews as having no rights to any part of the country, and sees violence taken against them is an act of patriotism.
Like his boss, Yasir Arafat, Khalaf’s role in history as the author of some of the most brazen and depraved terror incidents of the postwar era secured him a place of honor among Palestinians. Black September claimed to be distinct from the Palestine Liberation Organization but was, in fact, under Arafat’s orders. In that capacity, Khalaf planned the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre of Israeli athletes, a series of airplane hijackings, as well as the assassination of two American diplomats in Sudan. Like Arafat, Khalaf later posed as enough of a moderate to convince Secretary of State James Baker that he was someone that the U.S. should deal with. He was never held accountable by the U.S. for his attacks on Americans, let alone Israelis. And he was eventually killed by a member of the Abu Nidal splinter group as part of an internecine Palestinian conflict.
This culture that venerates murder and death isn’t just part of the Palestinian past. It also inspires the carnage of the present. By continually honoring Khalaf and a host of other murderers of Jews, the PA is validating a mindset that views terrorism as laudable. The lesson imparted to children is clear and can be traced to the most recent upsurge in terror known as the “stabbing intifada” in which Palestinian teenagers and even young children have played a tragic part. It is impossible to separate the incitement to terror by PA schools and media and the decisions of so many youngsters to sacrifice their lives by attacking random Jews with knives. These kids are certain they will be hailed as “martyrs” and “heroes”—like Khalaf—no matter how gruesome their assaults might be.
Nor is this culture one that is separated from diplomacy. The century-old war against Zionism is inextricably linked to Palestinian identity. Putting Khalaf’s name on schools and honoring other terrorists in similar ways explains why the PA has chosen to try to sue Britain over the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which recognized the Jews’ right to a national home. It’s also of a piece with the Palestinians most recent diplomatic success: a series of votes at the UN’s education, scientific, and cultural organization—UNESCO—in which they have persuaded the world body to view Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and Western Wall as exclusively Muslim shrines.
If a two-state solution is to be achieved, Palestinians must learn to share the country, and that murder of Jews will have to cease to be their national sport. Until that happens, it won’t matter how much Western leaders like President Obama—who appears to be considering supporting the Palestinians at the United Nations after the presidential election is concluded and he is freed from political constraints—do to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction. As they’ve always done, they will reject every peace offer no matter how generous or sensible it might be.
Theirs is a culture that denies history and turns morality on its head by treating killers as role models. Palestinians believe it is unreasonable to ask them to give it up. But if their conflict with Israel is ever to be solved, that is exactly what they must do.