It's not easy being a Palestinian these days. The latest suicide bombings in Jerusalem have caused a major image problem for a people that was slowly gaining some recognition from the western world, not to mention support for an independent Palestinian state. But what by many was viewed as the first real progress toward peace in the area was blasted to pieces along with the bombs that went off in Jerusalem. Once again the Palestinians were seen in the United States as the main aggressors, the roadblock to peace as the tanks rolled into position.
Still, major human rights groups -- including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Israeli Jewish rights groups B'Tselem and Peace Now -- continue to release detailed reports accusing Israel of everything from the use of deadly force against Palestinian protesters to the systematic torture of prisoners. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has aggressively pursued these policies, and dismissed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as irrelevant, the groups claim. Meanwhile, Sharon enjoys the full support of the United States, despite having been recently indicted by a Belgian court for his leading role in the 1982 massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, where between 800 and 2,000 civilians were killed by paramilitary gunmen under the control of the Israeli army.
Despite this downtrodden history, the Palestinians have very little sympathy these days. The world has recoiled in horror as Palestinian terrorists detonate nail-studded suicide bombs on buses, in shopping malls and at pizza parlors, killing and maiming teenagers in the name of Islam. Worse yet, Arafat seems unable or unwilling to do anything substantive to rein in the bombers. His pleas for peace talks ring hollow, and America -- after announcing support for a future Palestinian state just a few months ago -- now seems willing to let Sharon do whatever is necessary to defend his country and its people.
Hassan Mallah has a strong personal interest in this bloody situation. Mallah, 43, is a Palestinian-American who until recently was the president of the Islamic Center of Spokane. Following September 11, he has been working overtime to explain Islam to packed houses throughout the Inland Northwest. He has spoken at St. John's Cathedral, the Church of the Nazarene, Eastern Washington University, Spokane Community College, Whitworth and on both local and national radio stations.
Mallah was born in the West Bank town of Tulkarm and vividly remembers the Israeli occupation in 1967. Ever since then, Mallah has been a strong opponent of the occupation and a supporter of Palestinian independence. After a career in computer business in Saudi Arabia, he has lived in the United States for 18 years. He became an American citizen in 1988.
Talking about the situation in Israel, he sounds weary and somewhat bitter.
"There are massacres happening," Mallah says. "People can't go from one town to another. There are concentration camps there. What's happening in there is exactly like what happened to the Jews in Germany. They are shooting indiscriminately into the houses and the neighborhoods." Recently he says his relative, a 30-year-old mother of five, was shot dead by Israeli soldiers while sitting in her living room.
"They are destroying homes, destroying crops, destroying the infrastructure of the towns, the water supply -- all of that stuff. It has nothing to do with the intifadeh. Why destroy underground water facilities unless you want to make it very difficult for people to live there?" says Mallah. "It's like hell. People cannot imagine. Nothing you see on TV can compare with what's happening there. There are Israeli checkpoints everywhere. How can that be an independent state? What they have done, the Israelis contained the Palestinians in specific towns, and they are like in a big jail. It's not freedom."
Mallah believes the Oslo peace accords failed because the Israelis acted in bad faith from the beginning.
"They don't want to give the Palestinians their land, after they already agreed on this," he says. "They agreed to withdraw from certain areas, and all the governments, before Sharon even, did not fulfill that promise. They always find an excuse."
Sharon has demanded that Arafat control Hamas and other militant groups. But Mallah scoffs at this.
"Before Arafat came to the West Bank [in 1993], Hamas was there. Israel couldn't stop Hamas. There were suicide bombings before Arafat showed up. Now they want Arafat to do the impossible job that they couldn't finish? They're using that as an excuse."
And Mallah doesn't see peace any time soon in the region.
"Violence brings violence. When the Israelis come and assassinate Palestinians and kill kids and innocent people, the Palestinians go do the same to the Israelis," says Mallah. "It's a cycle. If you are asking me, 'Do I agree with that?' then, no, I don't. But where is it going to end?"
On one hand, Mallah's analysis of
the problem and his proposed
solution is appealing in its clarity and simplicity. But one wonders if relations between Jews and Muslims are so poisonous now that peace is impossible. Radical Muslims have called for the destruction of Israel. Might the violence against Israelis be due to simple anti-Semitism?
Mallah says no, Islam is not inherently anti-Semitic, because historically Jews have been well treated by Muslims.
"Before Israel appeared, the Jews lived in Muslim countries and they were protected. Much safer than the Jews in Europe with the Nazis and the Christian Crusaders," he says.
And he supports the right of Israel to exist within the 1967 borders. "[Israel] is a fact now," he says. "They are established; it's a state. They have the right to have their own land. Even if they did not take it rightfully, it's theirs now."
Mallah adds that Hamas is about much more than just suicide bombings. "They care about their people. Not like Arafat and his group, thieves who steal the money that should come to the people," says Mallah. "Hamas has social responsibilities. Schools, hospitals, taking care of orphans, all of that stuff. And at the same time, it's a resistance movement to the occupation. You call them terrorists because that's what Israel wants them to be called." But he doesn't believe that Hamas wants to destroy Israel, despite many reports to the contrary.
It's hard to tell where unreported facts end and conspiracy theories begin. Certainly life is tough for the Palestinians. No one knows whether the two sides to this conflict can pull out of their tailspin of hate and retaliation and finally achieve the peace that has been so elusive.
But for Mallah, events are taking a dark turn with the suicide bombings and the retaliation they are spawning. "Sharon is a war man. He's the man behind the invasion of Lebanon. He will use any excuse to start a war with the Palestinians and get rid of them."