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This is a story about two people going to jail and the countries sending them there. Both are Palestinians and were sentenced on Monday in courts separated by an hour’s drive. Jamil Tamimi was sent down for 18 years at Jerusalem district court, in Israel, for the murder of British student Hannah Bladon. Bladon, a religious studies undergraduate at Birmingham university, was in Israel on an exchange programme. On Good Friday 2017, she was riding the Jerusalem light rail to church when Tamimi stabbed her seven times with a seven-inch knife. The frenzied assault stopped only when the other passengers managed to overpower him. Hannah was taken to hospital but died soon after arrival. She was 21 years old.
The murder bore all the markers of a terrorist attack. In fact, Tamimi had just been released from a psychiatric hospital and is thought to have been attempting ‘suicide-by-cop’ — slaying the student in the hopes a responding police officer would shoot him dead. He was charged with murder but reportedly reached a plea bargain with prosecutors on the grounds of mental illness, reducing his sentence from life to 18 years. ‘This was not a terrorist incident,’ the prosecutor told the court. ‘This was a terrible murder carried out by a mentally ill person.’ In a statement, Hannah’s family protested the leniency of the sentence, saying ‘it makes no difference whether this was a terror attack or just another crazed murderer’.
Our second convict is Issam Akel, and he did get a life sentence. He was convicted at Ramallah high court, in the Palestinian-run section of the West Bank, of attempting to sell land to a Jew. Akel was also sentenced to hard labour for the transaction, which involved property in Jerusalem’s Old City. He actually got off lightly; selling land to a Jew carries the death penalty under Palestinian law. Fortunately for him, he also holds US citizenship and the state department is reportedly working to extradite him. If you get your news from the BBC, you might have missed this story, what with it not appearing to merit a single word on the corporation’s website. Happily, there was space on the Middle East page for a puff piece on Kholoud Nassar, ‘a Palestinian Instagrammer in the Gaza Strip [who] wants to show us a different side of life there’.
When Tamimi and Akel stood to hear their sentences on Monday, the world got to hear — if it chooses to listen — two countries with two very different values systems. But it seems we are on the periphery of the only Middle East territory nobody wants to occupy: The Land of Awkward Facts. Isn’t saying Israel and the Palestinians have different values perilously close to saying one country’s values are superior to the other’s? It is and they are, as these two convictions underline. There is racism at work here but it doesn’t lie in preferring the society that produced the sentence given to Jamil Tamimi to the one that jailed Issam Akel. Israel showed leniency to a vulnerable person who committed a horrific crime. The Palestinians showed no mercy to a member of their own population who committed the crime of selling real estate to a Jew. The primary victims of the Arabs’ century-long war against a Jewish homeland have been the Arabs themselves. They don’t just miss opportunities for co-existence, they jail them.
And we avert our eyes and let them get on with it. To do otherwise would mean confronting awkward facts that might disturb safe certainties. Why talk about the Palestinians jailed for selling land to Jews when we can demand Israel release the Palestinians jailed for killing Jews? Why talk about the stipends paid to the families of terrorists who murder Israelis when we can condemn Israel for the security fence built to stop the terrorists getting in? Why talk about the Palestinians’ insistence that the West Bank be rendered Jew-free before they pledge to accept a state there when we can repudiate Israel’s cunning scheme to ‘Judaise’ Judea? Why talk about Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate Palestinian president, and his explicit, on-the-record, even book-length distortions of the Holocaust and Zionism when we can decry Netanyahu’s chauvinism and alliances with fellow chauvinists? Why, in short, face up to the real ‘obstacles to peace’ when we can pretend building houses in the West Bank is what’s really holding things back?
Interrogating Palestinian politics, culture and social attitudes terrifies liberal souls because we might find things we don’t like. Things like Issam Akel’s sentence. Like jihad-themed kindergarten graduations. Like rocket launchers set up in civilian areas. Things that can’t be willed away with a sombre head shake and a plea to ‘both sides’. Things that might lead us to question the Palestinians’ interest in peace. Question our entire approach to the conflict since at least 1967. Question the viability, or even desirability, of a Palestinian state.
I’ve always railed against liberal blindness and hypocrisy on Palestinian extremism as a product of anti-Israel bias. I’m not so sure anymore. I’m starting to wonder if the real bias is against the Palestinians. We expect Israel to operate like Belgium south of Beirut and castigate it for failing to live up to our values (or what we claim to be our values). We expect almost nothing of the Palestinians, and certainly not for them to conduct their affairs as we do (or tell ourselves we do). In Jerusalem, we see Boers; in Ramallah, Zulus. This is not pro-Israel — it is based on the myth of Israel as a white European colonial enterprise — but it is flagrantly anti-Palestinian. Yes, these two cultures are distinct (though there is a deal of crossover). Yes, Palestinian culture has a lot of work to do to catch up on democracy, human rights, minority rights, and much else besides. But none of this is inherent to being Palestinian; these are political and social values and they, and the cultures that espouse them, can change. This, however, is at odds with the underlying assumptions of Western policy on the Middle East in which Israeli misdeeds are aberrations to be condemned and corrected while Palestinian misdeeds are shrugged off, excused or justified. This is just who they are.
The sentiment is sympathy but the logic is pure bigotry. We are not friends of the Palestinians. We are not lending them solidarity by indulging their outrages. We are treating them like a savage tribe from an Edgar Wallace adventure, benighted but noble in their own way, wide-eyed grateful to the white man for understanding their backwards customs. There is your racism. Issam Akel is going to jail for selling land to a Jew and our hearts break for his jailers because they couldn’t possibly know any better.