Israelis decry Palestinian praise of killer

February 2, 2012 - 2:05 AM
Mideast Israel Palestinians Incitement Debate

FILE - In this March 12, 2011 file photograph, a rescue worker carries a bag containing the body of a baby from a home in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Itamar, after Palestinians infiltrated Itamar early Saturday and killed five people.(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File)

AWARTA, West Bank (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's latest complaints about Palestinian "hate speech," after relatives of the killer of a Jewish settler family praised him in a phone call to the official Palestine TV, spotlight the intense animosity and mutual distrust that have blocked peace talks for years.

Netanyahu argues that President Mahmoud Abbas' government has failed to educate Palestinians for peace, stoking Israeli suspicions about a hidden Palestinian agenda, and that this poses a major obstacle to any peace deal.

The Palestinians and Netanyahu's dovish Israeli critics say the Israeli leader is cynically creating a bogus issue to deflect from what they see as the real cause of the paralysis — his refusal to halt building in Jewish settlements in the occupied lands the Palestinians want for their state.

The latest case of fingerpointing began last week, with phone calls from this Palestinian village to a live show on Palestine TV that relays greetings from relatives to thousands of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

The presenter took calls from the mother and aunt of one of two teenagers convicted in last year's brutal killing of a family of five — including three children aged 11, 4 and four months — who were stabbed to death in their sleep in the Jewish settlement of Itamar, just a West Bank hilltop away from Awarta.

The mother identified Hakim Awad as the one "who carried out the Itamar operation," calling the 17-year-old "my precious son, the apple of my eye." The aunt said she was sending greetings to "all the heroic prisoners" and then gave the names of six imprisoned members of her clan, including Hakim, whom she praised as a "legendary hero."

"We also send greetings," the presenter said before ending the conversation.

During a meeting this week with the visiting Irish foreign minister, Netanyahu brought up the incident, accusing Palestinian TV of glorifying the killers and demanding a Palestinian government condemnation.

Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib said the station cannot be held responsible for the opinions of viewers expressed in a live call-in show. Emad al-Asfar, the program director at Palestine TV, said callers are not screened and that he has no control over what they might say during a live program.

Netanyahu's Arab affairs adviser, Ofir Gendelman, insisted the calls from the Awad family were prearranged. Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said that in any case "it was clear to the anchor of the program that the individuals concerned were the murderers of innocent children, and she nevertheless praised them."

The underlying dispute is over something much more fundamental — suspicions about the other side's real intentions.

Many Israelis say that more than 60 years after the Holocaust, the Nazi genocide of 6 million Jews in World War II, Israel still faces enemies sworn to its destruction, including Iran and the militant Palestinian Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007. They say Israel cannot let down its guard and that its security concerns are paramount.

In many speeches, Netanyahu has placed his concerns about alleged Palestinian hate speech in this context, especially when he believes it's condoned or encouraged by the Western-backed government of Abbas, Israel's negotiating partner.

Israelis have long complained about what they say are negative portrayals of Israel in Palestinian schoolbooks and anti-Semitic diatribes by Islamic clerics and others in Palestinian media.

"We would argue that incitement is a real problem," said Regev. "It is at the center of the peace process. If the Palestinian Authority is not willing to condemn incitement, if it is tolerating the demonization of Jews, what is their message?"

Netanyahu even linked his latest allegations to Abbas' reluctance to continue low-level border talks, suggesting the Palestinian leader would have to choose between one or the other. "We hope the Palestinian Authority decides to resume the talks and back away from terror and glorification of killers," Netanyahu said this week.

Palestinian officials say he is blowing the incitement issue out of proportion, as a way of avoiding serious negotiations over creating a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu "is fishing for anything," PLO official Hanan Ashrawi said of the incitement debate. "We don't need to incite anyone. The (Israeli) occupation is deliberately provoking Palestinians in every way," she said, referring to the many restrictions Israel imposes on Palestinians, including on their movement.

Asked about the issue on Wednesday, visiting U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that "hate speeches or provocations, they are not helpful. They are not acceptable."

Former Israeli negotiator Yossi Beilin said incitement is also a problem on the Israeli side and that Netanyahu "will always find excuses, even for himself, for why he does not sit with the Palestinians."

Others say praise of killers strikes a raw nerve in Israel, after Palestinian suicide bombings and shootings killed hundreds of Israelis during an uprising last decade.

"Most Israelis are already skeptical about the peace process," said lawmaker Danny Danon from Netanyahu's Likud Party. "Hearing those voices does not give any hope to the Israelis."

In Awarta, home village of Hakim Awad and his 20-year-old cousin and accomplice Amjad, residents are still struggling with their feelings about the murder of the Fogel family from Itamar.

Amjad's father, 44-year-old Mohammed, was in denial, saying his son couldn't possibly have done such a terrible thing. Hakim's family refused to talk to reporters.

Like other villages in the area, Awarta lost hundreds of acres of land to Itamar over the past 30 years, and village farmers have repeatedly been attacked by settler vigilantes, particularly in recent years, said Mayor Sami Awad, a distant relative of the killers.

Still, many were initially shocked by the murder of the Fogels, particularly the children, he said. The mood changed after Israeli troops descended on Awarta in search of the perpetrators, imposing a curfew for 40 days, detaining hundreds for questioning and raiding almost every home, he said.

"At the beginning, all the people were against it, against the killing of children, but now people have sympathy with them (the killers) because of the violence of the settlers," he said.

Moti Fogel, whose 37-year-old brother Ehud was among those killed by the Awad cousins, said hate speech is a problem on both sides, but Israel must not let it stand in the way of a peace deal.

"We need to reach an agreement," said Fogel, a peace activist, Netanyahu critic and journalist. "The current situation cannot continue."