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Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert wrote an article in the New York Times (“He who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn’t“) explaining why starting cycles of violence is so easy. There are many forces at play, of course, but two basic principles of human psychology are nearly always at work and can explain these cycles even when there’s no ill will, deceit, greed, or bigotry.

“First, because our senses point outward, we can observe other people’s actions but not our own. Second, because mental life is a private affair, we can observe our own thoughts but not the thoughts of others. Together, these facts suggest that our reasons for punching will always be more salient to us than the punches themselves — but that the opposite will be true of other people’s reasons and other people’s punches.”

In other words, we hear our own thoughts and feel our own pain, while we don’t hear the other person’s thoughts or feel their pain. Thus we see the wrongs others do but not the reasons, while we see the reasons for our own bad behavior but we don’t feel the consequences. So if someone hits us, we instinctively hit back harder. Then they respond in kind. And so on. Everyone feels only his own pain and can only think of striking back until it goes away. It’s completely irrational, of course. But it’s basic human psychology.

Thus when an experiment was done in which two volunteers were told to go back and forth exerting an equal amount of pressure on each other’s fingers via a mechanical device, “they typically responded with about 40 percent more force than they had just experienced. Each time a volunteer was touched, he touched back harder, which led the other volunteer to touch back even harder. What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind.

“Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating. Neither realized that the escalation was the natural byproduct of a neurological quirk that causes the pain we receive to seem more painful than the pain we produce, so we usually give more pain than we have received.

“Research teaches us that our reasons and our pains are more palpable, more obvious and real, than are the reasons and pains of others. This leads to the escalation of mutual harm, to the illusion that others are solely responsible for it and to the belief that our actions are justifiable responses to theirs.”

So that’s the basic psychology of cycles of violence. But of course it’s not the end of the story. Because sometimes there is a measurable, objective reality of one person or group initiating more cycles of violence than another.

For example, when I was a kid and my younger sister and I fought, I was almost always the one who started it. I didn’t admit it to myself at the time (or to Mom), but it’s true. I was older than my sister, I was more powerful, I was more sophisticated, and I was insecure. And I took it out on my little sister. I’m not proud of it, but I can’t deny it. (I’ve since apologized to her for my behavior, and we get along pretty well now.)

So how does objective reality stack up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It certainly seems, if you read our mainstream newspapers, that the recent stabbings of a settler family and the Jerusalem bus bombing (which killed one woman and injured several others, and which I thoroughly condemn on both moral and strategic grounds), shattered a “lull” in violence that had lasted for some time.

It seems that way. But the reality is very different. Palestinian civilians die weekly if not daily for such offenses as sleeping in their own beds or wandering within 300 meters of Gaza’s border wall on their own land. Not to mention the settlement construction (read: theft and destruction of other people’s property) that goes on constantly.

All in all, Israelis have killed over 150 Palestinians since Cast Lead, including 39 children. Until the settler stabbings, Palestinians had killed a total of 6 Israeli civilians (one a child) and three soldiers in the past two years. (Source: B’Tselem, an Israeli NGO, and Remember These Children) And here’s just a random sampling of news from a typical day in Palestine.

Well, there’s good news. Nancy Kanwisher of MIT, along with Johannes Haushofer and Anat Biletzki, went to the trouble of doing a thorough scientific study that answers the question of who usually initiates Israeli-Palestinian cycles of violence. Here’s the Huffington Post article that shares the results (copied below), released in the midst of Israel’s horrific bombing campaign against Gaza called Operation Cast Lead. It should give anyone pause who’s blaming Hamas for the current ‘cycle of violence.’

I just hope to God Israel isn’t gunning for yet another Cast Lead. So much gruesome violence, for less than nothing. (As a little preemptive strike to the hasbarists — Of course Israel has a right to defend itself. But no one has a right to take 1,000 eyes for an eye. That’s not just illegal, it’s psychotic.)
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Reigniting Violence: How Do Ceasefires End?

By Nancy Kanwisher, Johannes Haushofer, & Anat Biletzki
Huffington Post
January 6, 2009

As Israel and Palestine suffer a hideous new spasm of terror, misery, and mayhem, it is important to ask how this situation came about. Perhaps an understanding of recent events will afford lessons for the future.

How did the recent ceasefire unravel? The mainstream media in the US and Israel places the blame squarely on Hamas. Indeed, a massive barrage of Palestinian rockets were fired into Israel in November and December, and ending this rocket fire is the stated goal of the current Israeli invasion of Gaza. However, this account leaves out crucial facts.

First, and most importantly, the ceasefire was remarkably effective: after it began in June 2008, the rate of rocket and mortar fire from Gaza dropped to almost zero, and stayed there for four straight months (see Figure 1, from a factsheet produced by the Israeli consulate in NYC). So much for the widespread view, exemplified in yesterday’s New York Times editorial that: “There is little chance of restraining Hamas without dealing with its patrons in Syria and Iran.” Instead, the data shows clearly that Hamas can indeed control the violence if it so chooses, and sometimes it does, for long periods of time.

Second, and just as important, what happened to end this striking period of peace? On November 4th, Israel killed a Palestinian, an event that was followed by a volley of mortars fired from Gaza. Immediately after that, an Israeli air strike killed six more Palestinians. Then a massive barrage of rockets was unleashed, leading to the end of the ceasefire.

Figure 1. Number of Palestinian rockets fired in each month of 2008 (adapted from The Israeli consulate in NYC [pdf])

Thus the latest ceasefire ended when Israel first killed Palestinians, and Palestinians then fired rockets into Israel. However, before attempting to glean lessons from this event, we need to know if this case is atypical, or if it reflects a systematic pattern.

We decided to tally the data to find out. We analyzed the entire timeline of killings of Palestinians by Israelis, and killings of Israelis by Palestinians, in the Second Intifada, based on the data from the widely-respected Israeli Human Rights group B’Tselem (including all the data from September 2000 to October 2008).

We defined “conflict pauses” as periods of one or more days when no one is killed on either side, and we asked which side kills first after conflict pauses of different durations. As shown in Figure 2, this analysis shows that it is overwhelmingly Israel that kills first after a pause in the conflict: 79% of all conflict pauses were interrupted when Israel killed a Palestinian, while only 8% were interrupted by Palestinian attacks (the remaining 13% were interrupted by both sides on the same day). In addition, we found that this pattern — in which Israel is more likely than Palestine to kill first after a conflict pause — becomes more pronounced for longer conflict pauses. Indeed, of the 25 periods of nonviolence lasting longer than a week, Israel unilaterally interrupted 24, or 96%, and it unilaterally interrupted 100% of the 14 periods of nonviolence lasting longer than 9 days.

Figure 2. For conflict pauses of different durations (i.e., periods of time when no one is killed on either side), we show here the percentage of times from the Second Intifada in which Israelis ended the period of nonviolence by killing one or more Palestinians (black), the percentage of times that Palestinians ended the period of nonviolence by killing Israelis (grey), and the percentage of times that both sides killed on the same day (white). Virtually all periods of nonviolence lasting more than a week were ended when the Israelis killed Palestinians first. We include here the data from all pause durations that actually occurred.

Thus, a systematic pattern does exist: it is overwhelmingly Israel, not Palestine, that kills first following a lull. Indeed, it is virtually always Israel that kills first after a lull lasting more than a week.

The lessons from these data are clear:

First, Hamas can indeed control the rockets, when it is in their interest. The data shows that ceasefires can work, reducing the violence to nearly zero for months at a time.

Second, if Israel wants to reduce rocket fire from Gaza, it should cherish and preserve the peace when it starts to break out, not be the first to kill.

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P.S. Johannes Haushofer just got in touch and let me know there’s a new study out by these same researchers that’s even more salient because “it shows directly that both sides retaliate for previous aggression from the other party,” i.e., that Palestinian violence isn’t simply random and implacable. This should be shouted from the rafters by all who cry for the security of ordinary Israelis. But of course it won’t be.

Here’s the abstract:

“In the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Israelis and Palestinians each tend to see themselves as victims, engaging in violence only in response to attacks initiated by a fundamentally and implacably violent foe bent on their destruction… Prior studies using these methods have argued that Israel reacts strongly to attacks by Palestinians, whereas Palestinian violence is random (i.e., not predicted by prior Israeli attacks). Here we … crucially show … that when nonlethal forms of violence are considered, and when a larger dataset is used, Palestinian violence also reveals a pattern of retaliation: (i) the firing of Palestinian rockets increases sharply after Israelis kill Palestinians, and (ii) the probability (although not the number) of killings of Israelis by Palestinians increases after killings of Palestinians by Israel. These findings suggest that Israeli military actions against Palestinians lead to escalation rather than incapacitation. Further, they refute the view that Palestinians are uncontingently violent, showing instead that a significant proportion of Palestinian violence occurs in response to Israeli behavior. Well-established cognitive biases may lead participants on each side of the conflict to underappreciate the degree to which the other side’s violence is retaliatory, and hence to systematically underestimate their own role in perpetuating the conflict.”

Read the full report here [PDF].

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Once again, Jon Stewart leads the way in pointing out America’s exquisite hypocrisy in the Middle East. John Oliver joins Stewart in an info-mercial-like skit advertising America’s special Freedom Packages, designed for each country in the Middle East based on its levels of resources and America’s friendliness with its dictator.

You can view it here.

The surprising part comes at the end, when Stewart once again dares to point out the elephant in the room with a fine-print disclaimer that parodies those of designer drugs:

“Freedom packages may cause America to experiences unintended consequences including but not limited to: Inflammation of local or ethnic tensions. Strengthening of one or more of America’s traditional enemies. Current allies becoming future enemies who one day use American-supplied rocket launchers against us. Jobless, unmarried 19-year-old men with dynamite underwear may wish to take out frustrations on freedom package suppliers. If you experience an insurrection lasting over four months, seek diplomatic attention immediately. Offer not valid in West Bank or Gaza.

Jon Stewart is not perfect by any means. But he’s further ahead and less fearful than any other well-known pundit I know of. And he’s arguably the most influential source of news in the country among people with brains, decency, and a sense of humor.

This can only be a good thing.

Pamela Olson’s book Fast Times in Palestine, a non-fiction novel of life in the Holy Land, will be published next month.

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Needless to say, I condemn the killing of five members of a settler family in a West Bank settlement called Itamar. But I also “resent anyone who has a record of endorsing or even excusing the settlement project, not to mention the slaughter of many more innocents in Lebanon, Gaza, etc., who demands condemnation of this heinous act without any qualification or context.”

Here’s Uri Avnery, Israeli ex-fighter, former Knesset member, and veteran peace activist, explaining (not justifying, only contextualizing) how this kind of thing comes about.

Revenge of a Child

Uri Avnery
Gush Shalom
November 16, 2002

Since last Sunday, a question has been running around in my head and troubling my sleep: What induced the young Palestinian, who broke into Kibbutz Metzer, to aim his weapon at a mother and her two little children and kill them?

In war one does not kill children. That is a fundamental human instinct, common to all peoples and all cultures. Even a Palestinian who wants to take revenge for the hundreds of children killed by the Israeli army should not take revenge on children. No moral commandment says “a child for a child”.

The persons who do these things are not known as crazy killers, blood-thirsty from birth. In almost all interviews with relatives and neighbors they are described as quite ordinary, non-violent individuals. Many of them are not religious fanatics. Indeed, Sirkhan Sirkhan, the man who committed the deed in Metzer, belonged to Fatah, a secular movement.

These persons belong to all social classes; some come from poor families who have reached the threshold of hunger, but others come from middle class families, university students, educated people. Their genes are not different from ours.

So what makes them do these things? What makes other Palestinians justify them?

In order to cope, one has to understand, and that does not mean to justify. Nothing in the world can justify a Palestinian who shoots at a child in his mother’s embrace, just as nothing can justify an Israeli who drops a bomb on a house in which a child is sleeping in his bed. As the Hebrew poet Bialik wrote a hundred years ago, after the Kishinev pogrom: “Even Satan has not yet invented the revenge for the blood of a little child.”

But without understanding, it is impossible to cope. The chiefs of the IDF have a simple solution: hit, hit, hit. Kill the attackers. Kill their commanders. Kill the leaders of their organizations. Demolish the homes of their families and exile their relatives. But, wonder of wonders, these methods achieve the opposite. After the huge IDF bulldozer flattens the “terrorist infrastructure”, destroying-killing-uprooting everything on its way, within days a new “infrastructure” comes into being. According to the announcements of the IDF itself, since operation “Protective Shield” there have been some fifty warnings of imminent attacks every day.

The reason for this can be summed up in one word: rage.

Terrible rage, that fills the soul of a human being, leaving no space for anything else. Rage that dominates the person’s whole life, making life itself unimportant. Rage that wipes out all limitations, eclipses all values, breaks the chains of family and responsibility. Rage that a person wakes up with in the morning, goes to sleep with in the evening, dreams about at night. Rage that tells a person: get up, take a weapon or an explosive belt, go to their homes and kill, kill, kill, no matter what the consequences.

An ordinary Israeli, who has never been in the Palestinian territories, cannot even imagine the reasons for this rage. Our media totally ignore the events there, or describe them in small, sweetened doses. The average Israeli knows somehow that the Palestinians suffer (it’s their own fault, of course), but he has no idea what’s really happening there. It doesn’t concern him, anyhow.

Homes are demolished. A merchant, lawyer, ordinary craftsman, respected in his community, turns overnight into a “homeless”, he and his children and grandchildren. Each one of them a potential suicide bomber.

Fruit-trees are being uprooted in their thousands. For the officer, it’s just a tree, an obstacle. For the owners, it’s the blood of his heart, the heritage of his forefathers, years of toil, the livelihood of his family. Each one of them a potential suicide bomber.

On a hill between the villages a gang of thugs has put up an “outpost”. The army arrives to defend them. When the villagers come to till their fields, they are shot at. They are forbidden to work in all fields and groves within a one or two kilometers range, so that the security of the outpost will not be endangered. The peasants see from afar, with longing eyes, how their fruit is rotting on the trees, how their fields are being covered by thorns and thistles waist high, while their children have nothing to eat. Each one of them a potential suicide bomber.

People are killed. Their torn bodies lie in the streets, for everyone to see. Some of them are “martyrs” who chose their lot. But many others – men, women, children – are killed “by mistake”, “accidentally”, “trying to escape”, “were close to the source of fire” – and all the hundred and one pretexts of professional spokesmen. The IDF does not apologize, officers and soldiers are never convicted, because “that’s how things are in war”. But each of the people killed has parents, brothers, sons, cousins. Each one of them a potential suicide bomber.

Beyond these are the families living on the fringes of hunger, suffering from severe malnutrition. Fathers who cannot bring food to their children feel despair. Each one of them a potential suicide bomber.

Hundred of thousands are kept under curfew for weeks and months on end, eight persons cooped up in two or three rooms, a living hell difficult to imagine, while outside the settlers have a ball, protected by the soldiers. A vicious circle: yesterday’s bombers caused the curfew, the curfew creates the bombers of tomorrow.

And beyond all these, the total humiliation which every Palestinian, without distinction of age, gender or social standing, experiences every moment of his life. Not an abstract humiliation, but an altogether concrete one. To be dependent for life and death on the whim of an 18-year old boy in the street and at one of the innumerable checkpoints that a Palestinian has to pass wherever he goes, while gangs of settlers pass freely and “visit” their villages, damage property, pick the olives in their groves, set fire to the trees.

An Israeli who has not seen it cannot imagine such a life, a situation of “every bastard a king” and “the slave who has becomes master”, a situation of curses and pushes at best, threats with weapons in many cases, actual shooting in some. Not to mention the sick on the way to dialysis, the pregnant women on the way to hospital, students who don’t get to their classes, children who can’t reach their schools. The youngsters who see their venerable grandfather publicly humiliated by some boy in uniform with a runny nose. Each one of them a potential suicide bomber.

A normal Israeli cannot imagine all this. After all, the soldiers are nice boys, the sons of all of us, only yesterday they were schoolboys. But when one takes these nice boys and puts them in uniforms, pushes them through the military machine and puts them into a situation of occupation, something happens to them. Many try to keep their human face in impossible circumstances, many others become order-fulfilling robots. And always, in every company, there are some disturbed people who flourish in this situation and do repulsive things, knowing that their officers will turn a blind eye or wink approvingly.

All this does not justify the killing of children in the arms of their mother. But it helps to grasp why this is happening, and why this will go on happening as long as the occupation lasts.

{{ end of article }}

Every American and Israeli I’ve tour-guided in the West Bank says the same thing: “Now that I understand what’s going on here, I can’t believe more Palestinians aren’t more violent.”

It reminds me of a quote by Sir Thomas More: “One day when I was dining with him there happened to be at table one of the English lawyers, who took occasion to run out in a high commendation of the severe execution of justice upon thieves, who, as he said, were then hanged so fast, that there were sometimes twenty on one gibbet; and upon that he said he could not wonder enough how it came to pass, that since so few escaped, there were yet so many thieves left who were still robbing in all places.”

I condemn the murder of a settler family. I also condemn the parents for raising their children on stolen land among violent fanatics — Itamar settlers are known for doing great violence against innocent Palestinians while the Israeli army does nothing to stop them. The children didn’t deserve any of this.

Bottom line: The occupation is a cancer. Sitting around waiting for it to go away doesn’t work with cancer, and it won’t work here. Right or wrong, anyone not actively working to end the occupation is inviting more incidents like this to happen.

Last night I fired up the Daily Show on my computer, something I hadn’t done in weeks. A segment came on about Peter King’s bizarre McCarthyist witch hunt against American Muslims. (Watch it here)

Jon started off by showing videos of bigoted, mean-spirited, embarrassingly ignorant things random mobs of American citizens have been doing lately to try to intimidate American Muslims and… honestly I don’t know what they’re trying to do. They look like Pavlov’s dogs. As if they don’t even know why they’re salivating anymore.

The camera cuts back to Jon: “But so far,” he says sardonically, “none of this stuff is working. They’re still Muslims. Getting a free pass on their Musliminess. The people need a champion in Washington.”

Cut to Candy Crowley of CNN: “Thursday the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Republican Peter King, will open hearings on what he calls radicalization in the American Muslim community. He says that the threat of homegrown terrorism is on the rise and American Muslims are not doing enough to stop it.”

Back to Jon: “Wow. It’s not enough for US Muslims to be law-abiding. To avoid Congressional investigation, they have to be actively stopping terror plots.” Then Jon pauses, and his hand flies to his mouth. “Oh my God,” he says. “Wait until they find out I’ve done nothing to stop the West Bank settlements!”

I almost spit my burrito out. You could hear the audience audibly gasp, as if they couldn’t believe he’d gone there either. Then they began to clap appreciatively. By that time Jon had already moved on to the next joke.

It happened very quickly. If you blinked, you could have missed it. But this was the first time I’d ever heard anyone compare the settlements to terrorism on cable TV. And the audience, though taken by surprise, wasn’t outraged. On the contrary, once they got over their shock, they seemed to get it. It was a one-two punch, both defending the American Muslim community and condemning the settlements in the strongest terms I’ve ever heard from a mainstream-liberal public figure.

Jon’s a smart guy. If he hasn’t figured out what’s going on over there, it’s a matter of time before he does. I get a sense even now that he wishes he could say more. But that little snippet was an incredibly brave thing to say—and another indicator of changing times.

Perhaps we should contact the Daily Show and thank him for that. (email: thedailyshow@comedycentral.com) I’m sure he’s getting plenty of comments from the other side.

Pamela Olson’s book Fast Times in Palestine will be published next month.

P.S. This spoof of Israeli brainwashing in kindergarten is also well worth watching. Adorable, hilarious, and very telling.

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Here’s a piece from a letter I wrote back in the fall of 2007, during the olive harvest.

(Scroll to the end to see pictures from this trip.)

I was living in Ramallah and had been meaning to visit a friend of a friend up in Salem village near Nablus. It happened that some other foreigners were heading up for the harvest at the same time, so we went together in a service taxi, walked through the Huwara checkpoint south of Nablus, and caught another taxi to Salem.

We ran into my friend’s friend on the main road of the village, a tall friendly guy in a cowboy hat named Nasir, and followed him and his sisters and aunts and cousins and brothers to the first little olive grove to get to work. He pointed out landmarks along the way, including the cemetery.

He said, “That’s where my uncle and my sister are. My only uncle was killed by the Jewish when he was herding sheep in 1970.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“They just found him and shot him,” he said. “And my little sister was killed by Israeli soldiers in the First Intifada.”

These sorts of stories from Palestinians are so common they’re almost banal. People speak of them relatively matter-of-factly in day-to-day conversation because there’s little choice. It’s either that or give yourself ulcers (which doesn’t help anything) or go completely insane. But his voice had a clear edge to it.

He quickly changed the subject, and we finished the trees on the first piece of land in no time. We moved to another area overlooking the broad valley below, and for the first time we saw the massive trench that the Israeli army had dug through Salem’s land. An Israeli-only settler road had already been built through Salem’s fields, which isolated the villagers from most of their land. They could still access their land, but not always, and certainly not freely. Settlers and soldiers could deny them access and/or harass and intimidate them whenever they got the notion in their heads to do so.

As if this weren’t enough, one night the Israeli army dug a massive trench 100 yards out from the road, something like twelve feet deep and half a mile long, which isolated the villagers from this additional strip of productive land and isolated them even further from the rest. (To get tractors to their land, for example, they have to go far out of their way, and often they’re not allowed to pass at all.) Not to mention putting a huge, devastating scar on this idyllic landscape. It’s a jaw-droppingly maniacal thing to see.

“I guess it’s to keep out all the Palestinian tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers,” I said, and everyone laughed.

(In case anyone’s not sure, Palestinians don’t have any tanks or APCs. Or Apache helicopters or Hellfire missiles. Or nuclear weapons.)

At the end of the long day of harvesting, we rested on the family’s gorgeous porch, which also looked out on the panorama of the valley (and the trench) with a view as big as a movie screen — the Palestinian version of HDTV.

And we got a show that night, too. As some villagers who had ventured out past the trench were making their way home, an Israeli army jeep pulled up and three soldiers got out and ran toward them, ordering them to stop and shooting live bullets in the air. Of course the soldiers had no reasonable right to arrest the men for venturing onto their own land. But the soldiers could easily shoot, maim, or kill the villagers, then maybe file a report that said, “Three saboteurs were neutralized while trying to infiltrate a settlement area” or “Two Palestinians were killed while resisting arrest in a closed military zone,” which no one in the chain of command would have much incentive to question. Everyone knows this.

So the villagers stopped and allowed themselves to be arrested and put in the jeeps and taken away. The women came back without their men, weary and worried but calm and composed. They’d been through this (and much worse) so many times.

The brother of a British friend was visiting, and he had only been here a week — enough time to be shocked several times but not yet enough to hit his limit and start to go numb. The scene he witnessed clearly left him feeling ill and startled.

Nasir noticed and, rather astoundingly, apologized to him. He said, “I’m sorry for you to see this. It seems like it upset you, ya’ni. But we are used to it. Don’t worry.”

A few years ago I was talking to another British friend who lived in Nablus for a year. We were talking about how (relatively) chill Palestinians seemed vis-a-vis the excruciating things they kept going through, things that made us feel sometimes like we were going insane even though we didn’t have anything like the worst of it and could leave whenever we wanted.

We were talking about the way Palestinians talked about things, and the way they welcomed foreigners and Israeli peace activists and really anyone who came in good faith, despite everything. It was almost unbelievable.

“I felt like I understood what they were going through, to some extent, and I was prepared for that,” my friend said, sounding stunned. “I just never figured they’d be so bloody reasonable about it.”

The sun went down shortly after the live arrest scene on the big screen, and we weary harvesters were presented with a table full of mansaf, a dish with chicken and rice and bread and an addictively savory yogurt sauce. It was fabulously delicious, and we ate contentedly and gratefully.

The other foreigners had commitments the next day and left shortly thereafter, but I stayed on for the next day’s jaunt out past the trench. The minaret of the town mosque announced that the villagers had been given permission by the Israeli authorities to access their own land, and in the morning Nasir’s sister woke me up at 8:00 (long after everyone else had already headed out) to take me and the family’s horse out to their land.

I felt my skin crawl a little as we passed the trench. As I often do in these situations, I found some self-preserving instinct in myself hoping I didn’t look too Palestinian, so that if any random soldier or settler decided to take a potshot, hopefully he wouldn’t aim at me. It’s is a terrible thing to think for so many reasons, and it always makes me feel bad.

We crossed it and the settler road without incident, and Nasir’s sister and the horse and I headed up to the little island of a hill in the center of Salem’s valley, which was planted with many “Roman” olive trees, so-called because they were something like a thousand years old. Up here the air was fresher and the trees less dusty, and the view of the village across the valley was lovely. We took pictures of each other on the horse and in trees and harvested and chatted all day in a mix of Arabic and English. Mostly Arabic. It’s great practice for me to go to villages, where fewer people speak English.

We shared another gorgeous dinner that evening, then I took off back to Ramallah, where I had a job interview the next morning.

I got a minor scare on the way back, though. I was walking through Huwara checkpoint in the dark when a spotlight suddenly shone on me from one of the guard towers, nearly blinding me. I stopped, unsure of what to do. I reached toward my bag for my documents, but then the light started flashing at me, like a warning, so I put my hands up to wait for instructions.

A Palestinian shouted at me from the other side of the fence on my left, “You have to walk this way.”

Finally I realized what had happened. I had been really tired and was thinking of something else, and I’d accidentally tried to walk through the checkpoint’s car lane. I quickly retreated and switched to the pedestrian lane.

I was lucky. God knows how many Palestinians and Iraqis have been killed for making similar mistakes.


Harvesting olives in Salem village, near Nablus


All the land in the photograph (except the most distant mountains) belongs to Salem, but Israeli settlers have built an Israeli-only road as well as an enormous trench through it and taken control of huge areas of it


While shepherds watched their flocks by night…


View of Salem village from the fields


Harvesting those dusty dark lavender fruits


My friend’s horse


Another friend in a tree


Me in a tree


Me not in a tree


A friend on a horse


Palestinian Zorro?

The following is a piece from the Jerusalem Post (JPost), which is usually a pretty right-wing Israeli paper, but it has one amazing column called Rattling the Cage by Larry Derfner.

Let me back up a minute. Last night I went to a debate about the Goldstone Report featuring former Congressman Dr. Brian Baird (D-WA) (you can pretty much guess he’s no longer a Congressman based on the fact that he tells the unvarnished truth about the situation in Israel/Palestine — that kinda thing gives you a very short shelf life in Washington) and Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY), who defines the concept of Progressive Except for Palestine. The moderator was a columnist at the New York Times, Roger Cohen, who frequently covers the Middle East and usually knows what he’s talking about.

Dr. Baird, who actually visited Gaza and saw the results of Operation Cast Lead for himself, and also visited Sderot and talking with several Israeli officials, argued that the Goldstone Report is a fair document with respect to both the reality of what happened during Operation Cast Lead and the international laws that were violated by both sides, and it should be taken seriously and acted upon.

When Weiner wasn’t fabricating demonstrable falsehoods out of whole cloth (There are no Israeli soldiers in the West Bank? Goldstone didn’t criticize Hamas?), he countered by talking really loudly about how Israel is…

Well, here’s the thing. I don’t need to tell you what Anthony Weiner said because Larry Derfner, in the following article, explains most of his points. It’s amazing. Almost as if Weiner were reading from some pre-fabricated set of talking points. Guess that’s what you gotta do when you don’t have any actual arguments — when you’re called upon to defend the indefensible. [My comments are in brackets.]

After you read this, watching Israel apologists at work becomes kind of entertaining. I bet we could make a good drinking game out of it.

Rattling the Cage: Tips for information warriors

Larry Derfner
Jerusalem Post
March 2, 2011

As you well know, Israel has never been in such peril as it is today. Anti-Semitism has risen to historic levels. Israel’s enemies are arming themselves with weapons that endanger not only its existence, but its very existence. And now, added to these grave existential threats comes the upheaval we’ve seen spreading throughout the Middle East.

In these days of uncertainty, a volunteer army of steady, sure, confident voices in Israel’s defense is more critical than ever. Here is a set of talking points for you to use when fighting the information war for Israel’s survival. B’hatzlaha — good luck.

1. “Our hearts are with the protesters in the square, but…” This lets your audience know at the start that you, as a supporter of Israel, are in favor of democracy, even for Arabs. Then you get to the “but,” and after the “but,” you only mention the bad, terrible things that could happen.

For example: “But Islamic fundamentalists could take over, just like they did in Iran.” “But the new leaders could tear up the peace treaty with Israel.” “But they could support terrorists like al-Qaida.” “But they could destabilize the whole region and start World War III.”

You start off paying lip service to the good — democracy — but keep it brief and vague, and then when you get down to specifics, hit them with one doomsday scenario after another. By the time you’re through, your audience will be more scared of Arabs than ever.

2. “Stability.” This was the point to bring up during the Egyptian uprising — not that we were against democracy and in favor of tyranny, God forbid, but that we were for “stability,” i.e. Mubarak. Today, of course, it’s a little late for that argument. But while it’s become dicey to use the stability gambit against Arabs protesting against dictators, it can be adapted to shore up the case for Israel — and, indirectly, still make the case against the Arab protesters.

It goes like this: Instead of saying, “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East,” which may not be the case for long and which sounds like you want to keep it that way, you say: “Israel is the only stable democracy in the Middle East.”

This reminds your audience of all the terrible things that could happen with these uprisings, and, again, leaves them more scared of Arabs than ever.

Now that your listeners are in a black mood, now that they’re booing the Arabs again, it’s time to lift their spirits and get them cheering for Israel. Time to switch from negative to positive.

3. “Vibrant democracy.” This is the oldest of old chestnuts in the Israel advocate’s basket of goodies — that Israel is a “vibrant democracy.”

The funny thing is that it used to be true — the Right would fight it out with the Left, they went back and forth from the government to the opposition, there would be huge rallies by the settlers and huge rallies by the peaceniks. Today there’s no Left, there’s no fight, there are no huge rallies. Today the only debate is between the hard-liners who want to jail all the Arabs and leftists today and the moderates who counsel patience. The settlers keep building, the army keeps slugging away and barely a peep is heard in protest. But you can still sell people on Israel’s “vibrant democracy” — show them clips from the shouting matches in Knesset. Remember: It’s not the steak, it’s the sizzle.

[And don’t forget — Israelis want peace. Netanyahu’s just sitting there at his lonely little table waiting for the Palestinians to come to him and negotiate peace. If only the Palestinians would come to him and make peace! (Palestine Papers? What Palestine Papers?)]

4. “Israel is not perfect.” This is indispensable. It shows the audience that you’re not a propagandist, not a shill, not trying to sell them a bill of goods — and that criticism of Israel is welcome, so long, of course, as it’s fair. What is fair criticism of Israel? To say that Israel is not perfect — that’s fair. Israel makes mistakes — that’s fair. And if anybody asks you for an example of a mistake Israel has made, you can say, “Well, we thought the Palestinians wanted peace, but…”

Or, “Well, we thought the world would support us when we tried to make peace, but…”

In other words, Israel’s mistake, Israel’s imperfection, is that it’s too good. That’s criticism, and audiences will be impressed with your candor.

[Israel’s so awesome, in fact, that whenever it does anything wrong, it investigates itself thoroughly and punishes the wrongdoers to exactly the extent they deserve — and I know because Israel tells me so. Let’s see ’em do that in Saudi Arabia!]

5. “Delegitimization.” A really cool word that you can use against anybody who says anything about Israel that you don’t like. Israel’s oppressing somebody? Delegitimization! Israel’s violating somebody’s rights? Delegitimization! It shuts people up. When you say they’re “delegitimizing” Israel, it’s like you’re saying they’re denying Israel’s right to exist, like they’re calling for the destruction of Israel, like they’re calling for the Jews of Israel to be wiped out! It puts people on the defensive beautifully. It’s like calling them anti-Semites without actually using the word, which was getting pretty stale, kind of embarrassing. Delegitimization sounds a lot more sophisticated, and it does the job more effectively.

[See also: The UN is biased against Israel, so we can safely ignore anything it says, any resolution it passes, and any report it commissions. (And hope nobody mentions the fact that Israel was founded by a UN resolution.)]

6. “Denying Israel’s right to self-defense.” This can be used against anyone who questions the divine justice behind anything the IDF does. Anybody who suggested that maybe Israel should not have banned pasta, for example, from entering Gaza was denying Israel’s right to self-defense. Anybody who wonders whether the army should take more precautions before shooting at Gazan fishermen, farmers and metal scavengers is denying Israel’s right to self-defense. Even Israeli combat soldiers who describe killing, brutalizing and humiliating Palestinian civilians are denying Israel’s right to self-defense.

Again, that’s like denying Israel’s right to life itself, which is a pretty serious charge. And an intimidating one. Use it liberally.

[Weiner hit this one particularly hard.]

7. “Context” or “contextualization.” This is a fancy way of saying “the background to a story that makes Israel look good and/or the Arabs bad.” If, on the other hand, the background to the story makes Israel look bad and/or the Arabs good, then this is not “context” or “contextualization,” it’s “propaganda.” For instance, if Israel blockades Gaza’s coast and airspace and attacks it with jets, helicopters, tanks and snipers, and you point out that Gazans fire Kassams at Israel, that’s putting the story in context. But if Gazans fire Kassams at Israel and someone else points out that Israel blockades Gaza’s coast and airspace and attacks it with jets, helicopters, tanks and snipers, that’s propaganda.

[And if Gazans were killed at a ratio of 100:1, and their entire civilian infrastructure was decimated for no militarily justifiable reason (and several Israeli officials admitted as much), and their economy and freedom are strangled by an illegal siege that collectively punishes a million and a half people, including six-year-olds seeking cancer treatments… Just say with a blank expression on your face, “Yeah, I know, war is bad, nobody likes war, but that’s what happens when law and reason break down,” and move right along.]

8. “Lawfare.” Sounds like “warfare,” doesn’t it? That’s the point — to turn lawsuits against the occupation, whether in foreign courts or in Israel’s own courts, into the equivalent of war. In other words, the equivalent of killing people. In other words, the equivalent of terrorism.

Going to court against the occupation is terrorism.

But you don’t want to use the word “terrorism” for a lawsuit, just like you don’t want to use the word “anti-Semitism” for some CNN story. So you call the CNN story “delegitimization” and the lawsuit “lawfare.” You gotta be subtle.

[See also: No one has the right to tell Israel where it can and can’t build on its own land. Not even if they’re giving Israel $10 million in aid every day. Not even if Israel is actually building illegally on someone else’s land. If Israel is building it, it is legal by definition, and it is in Israel by definition. And if prisoners are in Israeli prisons, they are guilty by definition. And if someone is killed by Israel, they deserved it by definition. And if a hospital or factory or school was destroyed by Israel with no military justification… um, well, by definition, the building had it coming, because… 12,000 rockets! Sderot! And if Hamas was holding to the ceasefire and Israel was actually the one who violated the ceasefire… er… 12,000 rockets! Sderot! Hamas! Democracy! Self-defense! The louder the better. (Weiner got audibly louder as the night wore on.)]

9. “Incitement.” This is the one to bang away at when there’s no, or nearly no, Palestinian terror to speak of, like there hasn’t been for years. When there was terror, you could say, “When the Palestinians stop terror, they will be amazed at how generous we are.” But now we’re in a bit of bind because the Palestinians have basically stopped terror, and, well, what does that leave us to work with? It leaves us incitement! When a Palestinian preacher quotes something gruesome from the Koran, when a Palestinian newspaper accuses Israel of war crimes, when a Palestinian textbook accuses Israel of ethnic cleansing, that’s incitement, and they have stop it or there will never be peace.

All right, we’ve got our rabbis, and they’re saying all sorts of crazy things about killing gentiles and how Arabs are animals and God knows what, and we’ve got this foreign minister who says he wants to execute Arab Knesset members who meet with Hamas and bomb Egypt, and the polls say half of Israelis want the Arabs gone, period.

But that’s not incitement, that’s… that’s… Israel’s vibrant democracy! Yeah, say that. If that doesn’t work, then try, “Israel is not perfect.”

And if they still complain, accuse them of “delegitimization.”

Remember, Israel is at war, the information war. All is fair.

[If all else fails — just make stuff up! Americans don’t know what’s going on, and Washington doesn’t care.]

[[end of article]]

And that, my friends, is what it’s like to listen to Representative Anthony Weiner defend war crimes. What was funny, though, was that in this case, the moderator, the opponent, and about half the audience actually knew what was going on and called Weiner out on his more egregious counterfactuals (All the settlements are in Israel? Lentils were never forbidden from entering Gaza by Israel? Gaza is a sovereign nation?), which I think was something of a surprise to Weiner, who’s used to the echo chamber of Washington. But Weiner didn’t care. He just talked more quickly and loudly and said “vibrant democracy” and “self-defense” a few more times. And soon he’ll be comfortably back in Washington, where everyone agrees with him — or at least has to fervently pretend they do.

Afterwards I sought out Dr. Baird to thank him for everything he’s doing. I said, “I lived in the West Bank for two and a half years, and it’s really strange to hear a Congressman talk about the Middle East and not feel a complete sense of cognitive dissonance.” He laughed, and we talked for a minute about the utter lack of regard for truth or logic in Washington when it came to this conflict. I spent less than two years working in the Beltway trying to tell people who were not interested what’s going on over there before I gave up and decided to write a book instead. I have no idea how he kept his sanity doing it year after year.

He reminded me of the USS Liberty veterans I met when they memorialized the fortieth anniversary of the massacre in the summer of 2007 at Arlington National Cemetery. They all had the most astonished, pained looks on their faces when they talked about the way the government ignored their demands for any kind of inquiry into the incident. They know the truth is on their side — they were there. But the government, by brushing them off for forty years, essentially calls these good servicemen liars or crazy people.

But still they press on, every year renewing their demand. And Dr. Baird presses on, telling it like it is to a country that’s slowly, ever so slowly, one person at a time, coming to realize that something’s a little off. And judging from Weiner’s frequent deer-in-headlights look mixed with peevish smugness and outrageous gaffes, some part of his mind probably knows he’s living in the kind of deep denial that doesn’t allow one anywhere near the facts.

And that kind of thing has a short shelf life in reality.

Pamela Olson’s book, Fast Times in Palestine, will be published next month.

The book was published on May 20, 2011. Visit my main website for the latest news and information!

      Praise for Fast Times in Palestine

“Olson seamlessly weaves her own personal journey with history, politics, and even a love story. The result is a moving, inspiring account of life in Palestine that’s enormously informative yet reads like a novel!”

“As an Israeli whose life was shaped by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I found Fast Times in Palestine moving and refreshing. Pamela Olson comes to the Middle East with a blank slate and is therefore able to hold up an undistorted mirror to the reality she encounters. Her approach is fresh and unprejudiced, and that makes her book unique.”

“Pamela Olson leads the reader on an exciting, funny, at times heart-wrenching journey, carefully deciphering complex political and historical issues. Olson is a talented writer, intelligent and exceptional in her ability to convey both tragedy and hope, remaining morally grounded and refreshingly honest.”

“In a field overcrowded with arcane academic texts and strident polemics, Pamela Olson has broken through with a refreshing read that packs gritty journalism into a fast-paced, intimate personal narrative. Fast Times in Palestine is info-tainment at its best, offering audiences of all ages an accessible and uniquely human portrayal of a people struggling for dignity in the face of occupation and apartheid.”

“Maybe he’s just not that into you. Or maybe the reason he hasn’t arrived for your date is because he’s tied to a chair being interrogated for no reason other than that teenage Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint didn’t like the way he looked at them. It’s love in the time of Occupation as Pamela Olson, a young American woman, takes us on the emotional roller-coaster of her very personal experience of life in Ramallah — and in doing so lays bare the human drama of a people living under the control of a state that denies them the rights of citizens. A charming book brimming with tension and tragedy, but also with the humor, warmth, everyday foibles and irrepressible hopes of a people determined to live free.”

    ~ Tony Karon, Senior Editor, TIME

“Olson’s masterful storytelling, imagery, and wit take the reader on a transformative journey through Palestine.”

Fast Times in Palestine is part adventure story, part searing reportage, part love story, and wholly absorbing. It is written with infectious humor, dazzling verve, keen insight, and deep passion. If you want to know what everyday life is like for the Palestinian people, go to Palestine; if you can’t, read this book.”

    ~ Dr. Kenneth Ring, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of Connecticut, and co-author of Letters from Palestine

“Olson does not merely report on the world of others; she steps into their shoes and sees the world through their eyes. Fast Times in Palestine is a heroic and touching journey to self-awareness that will awaken the reader to a more humane perspective on the Arab world in the midst of the horrors and humiliations of a brutal occupation.”

Fast Times in Palestine will open your eyes to the human story inside the political drama. Mixing humor, memoir, political intrigue, romance, and sociological commentary, Olson’s heartfelt work will change how you understand the Middle East.”

    ~ Patricia Ryan Madson, Professor Emerita of Stanford University and author of Improv Wisdom

“Pamela Olson operates in a great tradition of American explorers, from Martha Gellhorn to Susan Meiselas to Rachel Corrie — open-minded women who have thrown off a lot of tired received wisdom about a fearful part of the world in order to see it for themselves, then brought that understanding back to their own culture. This book is a triumph of sympathy and observation.”

    ~ Philip Weiss, Editor of Mondoweiss and author of American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps

Review by the Wylie Agency (one of the top literary agencies in the world)

FAST TIMES IN PALESTINE is an extremely powerful, deeply moving, and potentially far-reaching book that fills what is truly an unacceptable gap in popular understanding of the Israel/Palestine situation (and the Arab world in general) by giving a face to the Palestinians, so often demonized or ignored by Western press, experts, and laypeople alike. It is also a pleasure to read.

Olson is a sympathetic and relatable narrator who, like many readers, has very little knowledge of the Middle East beyond news blurbs and stereotypes before she travels there herself. She skillfully guides readers through her travels and encounters, gradually building on our knowledge of the region so that, by the later parts of the book, she is tackling complex political and historical issues in a way that is accessible to all…

The book also succeeds as a tender and fascinating portrait of a culture about which generally very little is known (and much is misunderstood) in the Western world. Discussions of cuisine, garb, architecture, daily prayer, holidays and festivals, family structure, relationships, leisure activities, women’s rights, and the Koran are seamlessly woven into Pamela’s well-crafted personal narrative. Her account is rife with intimate and evocative descriptions of the places she visits and memorable portraits of the people she meets along the way.

Olson’s account is at once funny, gorgeous, shocking, and (I think) galvanizing. Her story manages to be heartbreaking and yet believably hopeful at the same time. I strongly feel that this is an intelligent, important piece of work that is sure to generate dialogue and elicit impassioned responses from any and all sides (and probably change quite a few minds as well).

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My book

Fast Times in Palestine is in bookstores worldwide! Order on Amazon, or check out the book's website.

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Books I Love


A Doctor in Galilee,
by Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh

The Hour of Sunlight, by Sami al Jundi and Jen Marlowe

The Goldstone Report, edited by Adam Horowitz, Lizzy Ratner, and Philip Weiss

Mornings in Jenin, by Susan Abulhawa

The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, by Ilan Pappe

Zabelle, by Nancy Kricorian

Cosmos, by Carl Sagan

Impro, by Keith Johnstone

Improv Wisdom,
by Patricia Ryan Madson

Walden and Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau

To Kill a Mockingbird,
50th Anniversary Edition,
by Harper Lee