Thursday, February 16, 2006

"If I Speak
In The Arab World,
I Will Be Shot"

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, hope for the Muslim world comes in the form of people the Jihadis would like to kill:

Khaled Abu Toameh used to work for a Palestine Liberation Organization newspaper. Now he writes for the Jerusalem Post and for Mortimer Zuckerman's U.S. News & World Report, and he's so critical of the PLO that two pro-Israel advocacy groups, StandWithUs and Hasbara Fellowships, recently brought him on a speaking tour to North America.

Nonie Darwish grew up in Gaza City, where her father was the head of Egypt's armed resistance to Israel known as the fedayeen. Now she worries about the "systematic indoctrination into hate in all Arab schools" and is on a speaking tour with a retired Israel Defense Force colonel that is sponsored by another pro-Israel group, the Israel Project.

With Muslims burning down embassies over cartoons and voting to elect Islamic extremists in the West Bank and Gaza, there's a tendency among some in the West to write off pretty much the whole religion or civilization as unfit for self-government.

That'd be a mistake. If the light at the end of the tunnel in the Arab world has seemed hard to find lately, it does exist, as the cases of Mr. Abu Toameh and Ms. Darwish demonstrate. I met with them separately in New York last week.

How did their views change? Ms. Darwish, 57, said she had not met a Jew until she moved to America at age 30. As a child, she was taught, "Don't take candy from any stranger, it could be a Jew trying to poison you."

Then, ten years ago, her brother in Gaza had a stroke. A panic ensued over whether to send him to Cairo Hospital in Egypt or Hadassah Medical Center in Israel. The matter was settled by an Egyptian diplomat in Gaza: "If you want him to live, you send him right now to Hadassah." And so his life was saved.

Ms. Darwish said that while her mother was in Jerusalem taking care of her brother, she noticed that Jews who had been kicked out of Egypt by Nasser, who had confiscated their property, had rebuilt their lives in Israel. "They are not left in refugee camps like we did to the Palestinians," Ms. Darwish said.

Mr. Abu Toameh's views are shaped by what he has seen as a reporter - not so different from what the Palestinian Arabs who voted for Hamas have seen. He sees former Arafat officials like Jibril Rajoub and Mohammed Dahlan - "icons of corruption, warlords" - depicted by some Western Arabists as a "younger generation, reformists."

"The Palestinians don't buy it," Mr. Abu Toameh said. Mr. Dahlan, with no official government position, moves around Gaza in a 12-car convoy with 70 bodyguards. "People look at him and say, 'This is all the CIA money.' I think Mohammed Dahlan is one of the main reasons why people in Gaza voted for Hamas."

Much of what Mr. Abu Toameh and Ms. Darwish have to say is unconventional. "A lot of times we hear, 'Is America going to pressure Israel for peace?'" Ms. Darwish said. "I don't hear the media asking, 'When are the Arabs going to pressure the Palestinians for peace?'"

Mr. Abu Toameh said American policy in advance of the Palestinian elections can be summed up as "If you don't vote for the same thieves who have been stealing your money for ten years, we are going to punish you."

He said that the linkage between Gaza and the West Bank is more in the minds of Western diplomats and even Israelis than in the culture of the Palestinians. The West Bank feels more Jordanian, Gaza more Egyptian. They are "two separate entities," Mr. Abu Toameh said, reporting that in 1994, when Arafat tried to bring Palestinian policemen from Gaza to Ramallah, the Gazans were kicked out in five days. The dialect is different and intermarriage is extremely rare.

As for the safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza that Secretary of State Rice, among others, has fastened on as an issue for negotiation, residents of the West Bank laugh sarcastically, "Finally, we can visit Gaza! The Jabaliya refugee camp? What am I going to do?" When the safe passage does exist between Gaza and the West Bank, it is used only by VIPs. "I never heard of ordinary people using it," Mr. Abu Toameh said.

Both Ms. Darwish and Mr. Abu Toameh emphasized the limits to free speech and freedom of the press in the Middle East. "If I speak in the Arab world, I will be shot," Ms.Darwish said. Mr. Abu Toameh notes that an independent free press does not exist in the West Bank or Gaza. "They burn it down. They beat you up," he says. "The media there is controlled by the PLO."

Which explains why these sorts of voices are rarely heard in the Arab press. But doesn't explain why they are rarely heard in the American press.