TUESDAY is NEWSDAY: "One Tough Neighborhood" (feature story)

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One Tough Neighborhood

David Brog

By David Brog 

The Arab Revolt has spread to Syria. And Syria’s President – Bashar Assad — is proving himself to be an Arab dictator of the old school. Rather than give up power, he’s chosen to fire on his own people. So far, an estimated 400 Syrians have been shot and killed for the mere act of political protest.

Such brutal behavior has come as a surprise to many American policymakers who’ve had high hopes for Syria’s young president. You see Bashar Assad is a second-generation dictator. His father – Hafez Assad — was the one who seized power and had blood on his hands. Young Bashar, we were told, was a different sort. Breathless visitors came home from Damascus to report that Bashar was a cultivated, Western-oriented man who had lived in London and spoke fluent English and French. What’s more, he was an eye doctor – a man of medicine – who would seek to heal the Middle East as he would a pair of ailing eyes.

Now we see Bashar Assad for the power hungry monster that he’s always been. His years of support for Hamas and his steady supply of missiles to Hezbollah were not harmless political games. By backing these terrorist groups he helped to scuttle peace and spill blood. And now we see that his disregard for human life extends beyond Israelis to any of his own citizens who would dare to demand democracy.

Only when we compare him to others in this truly ugly neighborhood do Bashar’s fangs begin to fade. Indeed, young Bashar is far less brutal than his father. Here’s how daddy handled political unrest. In the late 1970’s, Sunni Muslims launched a revolt from their base of support in the Syrian city of Hama. In 1982, Hafez Assad put down the revolt by destroying the city. According to the lowest estimates, Assad killed 10,000 people in Hama. Syrian human rights activists have put the death toll closer to 40,000. The vast majority of these victims were innocent civilians.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the neighborhood, the democratic forces recently unleashed in Egypt are beginning to show their true colors. In a poll released yesterday by the Pew Research Center, a whopping 54% of Egyptians stated that they’d like to annul Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. Only 36% of Egyptians support honoring this treaty. And the poll also showed that the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed even more favorably than the forces that led the recent democracy protests.

Finally, even closer to Israel, blood has once again been spilled on the West Bank. Over the weekend, a group of Israelis visited the Palestinian-controlled town of Nablus. Unlike Palestinian infiltrators into Israel, their goal was not to murder civilians. The goal of these “infiltrators” was to pray. You see, Nablus was built on the site of the Biblical city of Shechem, where the bones of Joseph – “which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt” — were buried.

Most visits to Joseph’s Tomb are coordinated in advance with Palestinian Security Forces. This visit was not. Yet rather than question the unexpected pilgrims, or detain them, the Palestinian Security Forces opened fire on them. One Israeli was killed, and four others were wounded.

Israelis often like to remind us Americans that their country is located in the Middle East, not the Mid West. And their point is well taken. Israel is indeed in a tough neighborhood. And the nature of her neighbors must impact the risks that Israel takes in her search for peace. In a region where human life is too often cheap, and where generations have been educated to hate Israel and Jews, the line between trust and fantasy quickly thins.

Ronald Regan taught us to trust but verify. Israel must demand more. Israel must be in a position to trust but repel. The day that Israel loses the ability to repel aggression from the likes of Assad, Hezbollah or the Muslim Brotherhood will be her last. There goes the neighborhood.




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