Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas paid George Bush a friendly visit Thursday ...Mr. Bush stressed Mr. Abbas's responsibility to "end terror attacks, dismantle terrorist infrastructure, maintain law and order and one day provide security for their own state."
Mr. Abbas himself made no mention of the words "terrorism" or "terrorists." But he did demand the release of those he called "prisoners of freedom," now being held in Israeli jails.
...Who are some of these prisoners?
- ...Ibrahim Ighnamat, a Hamas leader arrested last week by Israel in connection to his role in organizing a March 1997 suicide bombing at the Apropos cafe in Tel Aviv, which killed three and wounded 48.
- ...Jamal Tirawi of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades: Mr. Tirawi had bullied a 14-year-old boy into becoming a suicide bomber by threatening to denounce him as a "collaborator," which in Palestinian society frequently amounts to a death sentence.
- ...21-year-old Wafa Samir al-Bis, who was detained in June after the explosives she was carrying failed to detonate at an Israeli checkpoint on the border with Gaza. As Ms. Bis later testified, her target was an Israeli hospital where she had previously been treated--as a humanitarian gesture--for burns suffered in a kitchen accident. "I wanted to kill 20, 50 Jews," she explained at a press conference after her arraignment.
Many explanations have been given to account for the almost matchless barbarism into which Palestinian society has descended in recent years. One is the effect of Israeli occupation ...the checkpoints, the closures, the petty harassments, the targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders. ...Yet the checkpoints and curfews are not gratuitous acts of unkindness by Israel, nor are they artifacts of occupation. On the contrary, in the years when Israel was in full control of the territories there were no checkpoints or curfews, and Palestinians could move freely (and find employment) throughout the country.
It was only with the start of the peace process in 1993 and the creation of autonomous Palestinian areas under the control of the late Yasser Arafat that terrorism became a commonplace fact of Israeli life. And it was only then that the checkpoints went up and the clampdowns began in earnest.
...How, then, are the Ighnamats, Tirawis and Bises of Palestinian society to be explained?
Consider a statistic: In the first nine months of 2005 more Palestinians were killed by other Palestinians than by Israelis--219 to 218, according to the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Interior, although the former figure is probably in truth much higher. In the Gaza Strip, the departure of Israeli troops and settlers has brought anarchy, not freedom. Members of Hamas routinely fight gun battles with members of Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas's ruling political party. Just as often, the killing takes place between clans, or hamullas. So-called collaborators are put to the gun by street mobs, their "guilt" sometimes nothing more than being the object of a neighbor's spite. Palestinian social outsiders are also at mortal risk: Honor killings of "loose" women are common, as is the torture and murder of homosexuals.
Atop this culture of violence are the Hamas and Fatah leaders, the hamulla chieftains, the Palestinian Authority's "generals" and "ministers." And standing atop them--theoretically, at least--is the Palestinian president. All were raised in this culture; most have had their uses for violence. For Arafat, those uses were to achieve mastery of his movement, and to harness its energies to his political purpose. Among Palestinians, his popularity owed chiefly to the fact that under his leadership all this violence achieved an astonishing measure of international respectability.
Hence Mr. Abbas's Rose Garden obeisances to the "prisoners of freedom." The Palestinian president leads a society in which dignity and violence have long been entwined...he has sought to entice groups such as Hamas into a democratic process. As with Hezbollah in Lebanon, they have been happy to get what they can out of politics while refusing to lay down their arms....they make a mockery of Mr. Abbas's stated commitment to "one authority, one law and one gun"--that is, to the very idea of a state, and therefore to Mr. Abbas's presidency of it.
Talk to Palestinians, and you will often hear it said, like a mantra, that Palestinian dignity requires Palestinian statehood. This is either a conceit or a lie. Should a Palestinian state ever come into existence in Gaza and the West Bank, it will be a small place, mostly poor, culturally marginal, most of it desert, rock, slums and dust. One can well understand why Arafat, a man of terrible vices but impressive vanities, spurned the offer of it--and why his people cheered wildly when he did. Their dignity has always rested upon their violence, their struggle, their "prisoners of freedom."
For Mr. Abbas, the problem is that statehood and dignity are not a package. They are a choice. And if history is any guide, the choice he must make is not one he is likely to survive.
Mr. Stephens is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.