Free Palestine!

November 23, 2010

Brett Stephens
Should the United States offer—and Israel accept—diplomatic guarantees, plus $2 billion worth of fighter jets, for the sake of a 90-day settlement freeze? Er, no. Israel can afford the planes, or at least it can afford them better than the perception that it’s getting a free ride from U.S. taxpayers. The U.S. should not put a price on things it ought not to do anyway, like recognizing a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. And bribery is generally a bad idea, particularly between friends. Then again, bad ideas are what you get when you’re operating from bad premises. Premises such as: There is a deal to be had between Israelis and Palestinians, or that the settlements are the core of the problem.
So what is the core of the problem? Consider the predicament faced by a Palestinian named Walid Husayin from the West Bank city of Qalqilya. Mr. Husayin, 26, is suspected of being the blogger known as Waleed al-Husseini and author of an essay, posted on the Proud Atheist Web site (proud-a.blogspot.com), titled “Why I Left Islam.”
The pseudonymous Husseini makes no bones about his opposition to religions generally, which he says “compete with each other in terms of stupidity.” But nothing seems to exercise his indignation more than the religion he used to call his own. Islam, he writes, is “an authoritarian religion that does not respect the individual’s freedom of choice, which is easily noticeable from its barbaric verdicts such as stoning the adulterous, pushing homosexuals off a cliff and killing the apostates for daring to express a different viewpoint.”
And that’s just Husseini getting started. The essay proceeds by way of a series of questions, such as “Is Islam a religion of tolerance?” Answer: “The sacred texts of Islam also encourage blatant war and conquest of new territories.” What about equality? “Islam has legitimized slavery, reinforced the gap between social classes and allowed stealing from the infidels.” Women’s rights? “I have a mother, a sister and a lover and I cannot stand for them to be humiliated and stigmatized in this bone-chilling way.” The prophet? “A sex maniac” who “was no different than barbaric thugs who slaughtered, robbed and raped women.” And so on.
This being the Arab world, it should come as no surprise that Mr. Husayin has spent the past 24 days in detention, that he has been forbidden from receiving visitors or speaking to a lawyer, that he faces a potential life sentence, and that people in Qalqilya have called for him to be burned alive.
The systematic violation of Palestinian rights by Palestinian officials is an old story, as is the increasingly Islamist tilt of what was once supposed to be a relatively secular, progressive society. Whatever might be said in favor of freedom for Palestine, there has been to date precious little freedom in Palestine, whether in the Hamas-controlled statelet of Gaza or in the parts of the West Bank under Fatah’s dominion.
That’s a problem. It’s also a problem that when the Associated Press covered Mr. Husayin’s ordeal, reporter Diaa Hadid offered that “the Western-backed Palestinian Authority is among the more religiously liberal Arab governments in the region,” and that “Husayin’s high public profile and prickly style . . . left authorities no choice but to take action.”
How nice to see AP reporters sticking up for free expression. Indeed, the consistent willingness of Western news organizations to downplay stories about Palestinian illiberalism and thuggery goes far to explain why so much of the world misdiagnoses the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Settlements are a convenient alibi: They foster the illusion that the conflict can be resolved by Israeli territorial concessions alone. But if that were true, Gaza would have turned peaceful the moment settlements were withdrawn five years ago. The opposite happened.
Why did Gaza become more violent, internally as well as toward Israel and Egypt, the moment it was rid of Israelis? That’s the central question, and one too few observers seem willing to address for fear of where the answer might lead. Yet it ought to be self-evident. The culture of Palestinian illiberalism gave rise to the discontents that brought about civil war and then Hamas’s swift rise to power. Hamas is theologically committed to Israel’s destruction. That commitment is politically popular: It shapes, and limits, what even the most progressive Palestinian leaders might be willing to concede to Israel in any deal. The result is what we now have: Negotiations that are going nowhere, at an increasingly heavy price for all parties, including the United States.
Like George W. Bush before him, President Obama has observed that the U.S. can’t want peace more than Israelis or Palestinians themselves do. But America can, uniquely, stand for freedom like no other country. Mr. Husayin—assuming he’s the author of those blog posts—surely knew how much he risked by speaking his mind, and it’s tempting to conclude he had it coming.
But if Palestinians cannot abide a single free-thinker in their midst, they cannot be free in any meaningful sense of the word. And if the U.S. can’t speak up on his behalf, then neither, in the long run, can we.
Write to bstephens@wsj.com