Columnist Bill Maxwell does a serious disservice to readers when, disregarding fact and context, he recklessly levels false charges against Israel regarding its conduct toward the Palestinians (Israel turns page, finds a sense of humanity, Sept. 12). Moreover, his sweeping accusations betray a sharp double-standard as he turns a blind eye to the truly severe abuses inflicted on Arabs by the Palestinian Authority and neighboring Arab states.
In reference to Israel's just having released Palestinian prisoners in fulfillment of recent agreements, he makes the astonishing claim that “the conditions under which the prisoners languished made Israel one of the world's worst violators of human rights.” By any rational measure, such a statement is baseless - including even in the estimation of Palestinians themselves.
A June 1999 poll by a Palestinian organization, the Center for Palestine Research and Studies in Nablus, found that more than 70 percent of Palestinian respondents in a sample of West Bank and Gaza residents considered Israel's record on democracy and human rights “very good” or “good.” Strikingly, just 27 percent of the respondents gave similar ratings to the Palestinian Authority.
Nor is Maxwell any more attentive to the realities where prison conditions specifically are concerned. Again, there is dramatic contrast between the generally satisfactory, though surely imperfect, conditions in Israeli prisons and the situation in neighboring countries. A 1990 assessment by prison expert Rita Simon, a professor at American University, found that “conditions at the detention camps/prisons run by the Israeli Defense Forces are neither inhumane nor intolerable. The prisoners look and sound healthy and adequately fed.” She noted that “the administrators afford the prisoners a reasonable degree of dignity and respect,” including permitting them to prepare their own food and practice their religion.
In contrast, a State Department report describes Jordanian prisons as “severely overcrowded and understaffed.” Allegations of torture abound. In Syria, prisons “generally are poor and do not meet international standards for health and sanitation.” Released prisoners report torture by electrical shock; pulling out of fingernails; forced insertion of objects in the rectum; beatings, sometimes while the victim is suspended from the ceiling; and hypertension of the spine. Egyptian prisoners suffer overcrowded, unhealthy conditions and are commonly subjected to torture; 11 died in 1998 due to medical neglect.
Maxwell's apparent indifference to these far more egregious abuses of Arab prisoners raises the question of whether he is genuinely interested in the victims or, as it seems, merely intent on attacking Israel.
The columnist made other factual errors that indicate striking unfamiliarity with events in the Middle East. He wrote that “under Ehud Barak's leadership, Israel has begun the process of making peace with the Palestinians. The nation has signed important agreements and started carrying out the transfer of 160 square miles of West Bank territory to the Palestinian Authority.”
Is it possible the columnist doesn't know the Oslo process has been under way since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Declaration of Principles on the White House lawn in September 1993 and shortly thereafter ceded territory in Gaza and Jericho? His successor, Shimon Peres, continued with the hand-over of major Palestinian cities, and Benjamin Netanyahu carried on the process with the handover of 200 additional square miles of land and 80 percent of the city of Hebron. All this was done despite the fact that Israel did not get in return its foremost requirement: respite from Arab terrorism and violence. Instead, the country suffered the greatest losses to terror it had experienced during any comparable period in its history.
Finally, Maxwell applauds the introduction of new Israeli textbooks which include Arab views that the creation of the Jewish state was a “catastrophe.” He pronounces this a sign of Israel's budding maturity.
But he is mute about another textbook story in the Middle East. While Israeli schools promptly introduced peace education after the Oslo process was launched, teaching Jewish children support for the peace process and positive attitudes toward Arabs, in Palestinian schools students in all grades to this day study textbooks full of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement. A ninth-grader's text says, “You have to be wary of the Jews because they are swindlers and treacherous.” Children are exhorted in poems, text and homework exercises to work for the destruction of Israel.
Maxwell has said he holds Israel to a higher standard than other nations, but as Charles Krauthammer has pointed out, this is, in reality, “a weapon. If I hold you to a higher standard of morality than others, I am saying that I am prepared to denounce you for things I would never denounce anyone else for. If I were to make this kind of judgment about people of color — say, if I demanded that blacks meet a higher standard in their dealings with others — that would be called racism.”
Appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on October 23, 1999.