Focused on the wrong thing

What are the goals of Palestinian Awareness Week?

In many ways, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resembles domestically sticky political conflicts in the United States and other developed nations with which we are more familiar. Consider wealth redistribution: there are two sides to the argument, each unwavering as they see their argument as both practically and morally correct. These views are enforced by a list of facts each side is capable of producing at a moment’s notice: “taxing the rich is economically inefficient; the poor need to be taught how to improve their own situations,” or “equitable distribution improves the opportunities of the poor, and boosts economic output by increasing the productivity of the disadvantaged.” Here is the problem: both statements contain some truth. What you believe depends on your values and point of view; the analysis can support any statement.

This type of debate leads to circular, unproductive conflict and rhetoric. We get too caught up in arguing over inconsequential facts, and rarely talk about what we want out of a resolution. Without a set of goals in place, facts and counter-facts about who did what and when they did it first primarily serve to mire the discourse.

Before going into what the main goals of any resolution should entail, let’s nail down a couple of starting points: in polls, both the Israeli and Palestinian publics want peace, and the majority of Israelis favor a two-state solution. The governments show more variation: Fatah and the Israeli government both seem to agree with their citizen’s wishes; Hamas is reticent. Additionally, democratic countries, like Israel, fight fewer wars, especially among themselves. Since the majority of both countries want peace, this presents a solution and set of goals toward which we can set our problem-solving: improve the political and civil rights given to Palestinians, and reap the rewards of a majoritarian solution pursued from both sides of the conflict.

As of 2009, Israelis, including the one million Arab-Israelis, most of whom are Palestinian, enjoyed some of the best political and civil rights in the world. Freedom House, an organization that ranks worldwide access to rights with 1 being the best and 7 the worst, gave Israel a 1 for political rights and a 2 for civil rights–the same scores as Japan or Italy. Ten percent of the Israeli parliament (the “Knesset”) is comprised of elected Arab-Israelis, and an Arab-Israeli serves on the Prime-minister’s cabinet. Public education is available in both Hebrew and Arabic, and services are provided to towns of both Israeli and Arab majorities. Even in the hotly contested zone of East Jerusalem, the Israeli government provides municipal services to Arab residents.

In addition to providing rights and services to Israeli citizens, Israel also provides the majority of power and fuel to Gaza and the West Bank. One might assume that this would be the job of the Palestinian government’s energy-rich Arab neighbors, but somehow substantial aid has yet to materialize from that sector.

By contrast, the areas under the Palestinian government were given a political rights ranking of 5, and a civil rights ranking of 6. According to Freedom House, women still suffer wanton disregard for their rights as citizens, citizens are not always free to vote how they choose, and some schools teach hatred toward Israel as part of the curriculum. These are symptoms of a government that shows casual disregard for the welfare of its constituents. Some might argue that the lack of proper political institutions inside Gaza and the West Bank is a function of its poverty, but examples of poor countries creating solid political institutions before material wealth is created can be found. Why is the outrage over the lack of internal rights directed at Israel? How do the lines at checkpoints for entrance into Israel trump paying women an equal wage? How do they legitimize Hamas from hearing the demands for peace from its citizens?

These remarks are in no way meant to assign blame or belittle the important efforts of MIT student groups as they work hard to increase awareness about an ongoing conflict. Our comments are merely meant to focus attention on parts of the problem that increased awareness might actually solve. The Palestinian government is in terrible need of reform. Without a government representative of their wishes, no society can enact the policies that best serve its interests. Similarly, awareness of the situation is important, but must be goal-focused: How can we help end the conflict? Give Palestinian citizens the rights they deserve within their own government.

We appreciate the intense work and organizational skill displayed by the PAW event staff in putting together a week’s worth of talks and activities for the MIT community. We know that many of our Palestinian colleagues share our views about the relative importance of discussing the future over arguing about the past, and we hope that with continued cooperation both here at MIT and around the world, Palestinians will one day enjoy a government that shares this view with its citizens.

This column was written on behalf of MIT Students for Israel. Matt Fisher is a senior in Courses 14 and 17, and a staff writer in the Arts department.