This past weekend Mohammed Oudeh died in Damascus of kidney failure at the age of 73. His death was a tragedy of sorts, in that he died peacefully in his bed with loved ones around him. His legacy, like so many from his generation, is unpunished murder, corruption, and the continued misery of his people and others.
Oudeh participated along with men like Yasser Arafat and George Habash (a Christian, let’s remember) in the PLO’s shift away from its long-running guerrilla strategy against the Israelis and toward high-profile terrorism. Oudeh was a member of Black September, one of a series of Fatah spin-off brands. In his role in that organization he planned, though did not participate in, the kidnapping and murder of eleven Israeli athletes and a German policeman at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Oudeh narrowly survived Mossad’s impressive campaign to eradicate those involved in the incident, having been shot six times in a failed assassination attempt in Warsaw in 1981.
The people who engineered this shift toward random murder as a political tactic have consistently justified their actions by claiming that they brought the issue of Palestinian suffering into the media spotlight. Oudeh is no different. They remain incapable of acknowledging what that spotlight meant. The Swiss are known for cheese and clocks. The Americans are known for big cars and loud, smiling, ignorant tourists. The Japanese get noticed as the people who take all those pictures. By allowing themselves to become The People Who Enthusiastically Condone the Slaughter of Random Innocents to Get on the Evening News, Palestinians have set their own cause back generations.
Don’t like the characterization? Don’t blame me. I haven’t blown up a single school bus. This is the point where we cue the soundtrack about Palestinian suffering. The plight of the Palestinians is terrible, far more intolerable than Americans typically know. But Americans know all about terrorism. So… how would you say that strategy of high-profile violence has worked out so far?
Terrorism is a tactic that perpetuates terrorism. That’s all it accomplishes. Its own nihilistic energies propel it long after the grievances it purported to right are addressed. Ask the Irish about this. Once that poison is in the well there are few known ways to it can be purged.
If Palestinians had responded to Arafat and his type with the same horror as the rest of the world, they would probably have a state of their own by now. People forget, but Israel was not all that popular in the sixties and seventies, not even in the United States.
Yet any discussion of terrorism among Palestinians, or worse yet among religious Muslims from the wider world, gets immediately bogged down in defensiveness. If you can’t recognize a qualitative difference between the violence exercised by Israeli commandoes in seizing the Gaza “aid” ships and terrorists deliberately blowing up buses full of schoolchildren, then there is no room for a civilized conversation on the subject.
In fairness, there is a growing movement among Palestinians away from the tactics of the past. Few Americans have noticed, but Palestinian and allied terrorist groups like Hezbollah have been extremely careful over the past generation to avoid any harm to Americans, in particular. And the Fatah-based Palestinian government that retains control in the West Bank has been very successful in reining in terrorism. But even so, go find vocal Arab or Palestinian criticisms of men like Oudeh. I’ll wait right here.
This is the forgotten dimension in the quest for some form of settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The Israelis are by no means innocent in this struggle, but they can be reliably shamed when their conduct exceeds bounds. As yet there is no identifiable lever that can be used to constrain the tactics of the Palestinian leadership, especially in Gaza.
This is bad news. In spite of all the propaganda spewing from right-wing Israelis and American Fundamentalists, the Palestinians desperately need a nation of their own. The persistent refusal of a significant swath of Palestinian society to reject sociopathic violence as a form of political expression will continue to make that impossible.
There has been significant progress in the West Bank in recent years that could lead to a responsible Palestinian state. It is hard to know what might happen in Gaza if elections could be held. The Bush Administration’s all-too-typically inept handling of the last round of elections put a terrorist group in charge there. If they could be replaced in fair elections, there could be hope. In the meantime, let’s remember men like Oudeh for what they are. If there is justice, he will find no more peace in death than his victims found in life.
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