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A Murderer’s Life and the Chances of Peace

The New York Times did a valuable public service today by profiling the life of Muqdad Salah. But the story, which demonstrated how unlikely peace between Israelis and the Palestinians is, wasn’t intended as an indictment of Palestinian society. Salah, 47, is, as the Times reported, doing his best to make up for lost time. You see, he lost 20 years of his life to a prison sentence in an Israeli jail from which he was liberated last year. To help ease his transition back to society, the resident of Burqa in the West Bank got a generous settlement from the Palestinian Authority, an honorary rank of brigadier general in the PA military, and praise from his neighbors and fellow Palestinians. In the seven months since he got out, he has married a much younger woman, remodeled a family home, and bought a business. He’s now the picture of a successful Palestinian, but he’s got a couple of problems. One is that the no-show salary of $1,800 a month he’s collecting from the PA (which gave him $100,000 at his release) isn’t enough to live the life of ease he craves. The other is that his travel is restricted. And oh, yes: some Israelis are really mad about the fact that a terrorist with blood on his hands like Salah is walking around free and enjoying life.

Although his profile would seem to be similar to the stories of those Americans who were wrongly convicted of murder but who are then released many years later because the courts have discovered that they are actually innocent, Salah wasn’t sprung from jail because of new DNA evidence or a witness who has recanted their testimony. There’s no doubt that it was he who took an iron bar and struck a 72-year-old Holocaust survivor over the head and murdered him in cold blood in 1993. The only change in the story is that while Salah claimed at his trial that he killed Israel Tenenbaum while he was sleeping, now he boasts that he had a grudge against the aged hotel security guard and killed him while he was awake.

Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren does a good job of amassing a lot of interesting detail about Salah’s life after prison and the way he and the dozens of other Palestinian terrorists who were released last year as part of the price Israel paid to get PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to return to peace negotiations. But she gives away the game when she attempts to strike a note of Olympian objectivity about the story when she notes that they have been “demonized as terrorists by Israelis and lionized as freedom fighters by Palestinians” but are just ordinary guys looking to “build apartments or start businesses, searching for wives and struggling to start families.” The problem here is not that these ordinary people are caught in the middle of a national struggle in which both sides distort the meaning of their actions. To the contrary, that most Palestinians consider a guy who brutally killed an elderly Jew is a hero worthy of a public subsidy (actually paid for by the PA’s foreign donors) tells us all we need to know about the chances for peace.

The story of the re-entry of Salah and his fellow killers into Palestinian society is one that is ripe for the usual sociological examination of the problems of ex-prisoners. Though they are showered with love, their lives are not a bed of roses. As one concerned Palestinian bureaucrat notes to Rudoren:

“We receive them as national heroes, we give them awards and medals, and then we leave them to face their problems alone,” said Munqeth Abu Atwan, who works at the ministry. “Can you tell a hero that you need a psychiatrist, you need to participate in a rehabilitation program?”

Alas, not. Pity poor Salah and his colleagues who are trapped in a Garry Cooper-style silence about their problems and can’t unwind to a therapist because of their stature as heroes.

The problem here isn’t so much the manner with which Rudoren reports the extraordinary spectacle of a government that is praised by the United States as a good partner for peace for Israel treating Salah as a hero. She interviews the family of his victim who still mourn the man who was born in Poland and evaded death at the hands of the Nazis only to be felled by an Arab who thought it was an appropriate protest to slaughter him. Tenenbaum’s daughter even says that she wouldn’t mind her father’s murderer going free—a stance that is rare among families of Israeli victims of terror and probably the reason why Rudoren chose Salah as her subject rather than some other killer—if it would lead to peace.

But the fallacy at the core of such thinking—which is the basis of the U.S. pressure on Israel to release even more such killers—is that the very fact that Palestinians treat men with Jewish blood on their hands as heroes illustrates that theirs is a culture which is not ready for peace with Israel. Only when such people are regarded as relics of an age of unreason rather than lionized by Palestinians will it be possible to imagine that they are prepared to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and live in peace beside it. Until then, gestures such as Salah’s release only make it likely that Palestinian society will produce and honor more such killers, making peace a distant dream.

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