Sticks and Stones

What's Wrong With Throwing Rocks?

08.06.13 7:15 PM ET

Muhammad Abu Hashem is the protagonist in Monday’s front-page article in the New York Times about the culture of rock throwing among West Bank youth. He has two hobbies: (1) "Children have hobbies, and my hobby is throwing stones"; (2) "One of his hobbies is rescuing abandoned bird eggs and nurturing them in cages warmed by light bulbs until they hatch."

In case you missed it, Muhammad is our sensitive hero, a freedom fighter driven to symbolic and self-destructive violence by the odious Israelis. And he’s an animal lover! Jodi Rudoren, the Times Jerusalem bureau chief, is the author of this simplistic and, frankly, bizarre article.

To summarize: The article tells the story of the Abu Hashem family of Beit Ommar, whose seven male members have all spent time in Israeli prison over the past three years for a variety of offenses—including rock throwing. There is talk of stone throwing as a "rite of passage," of Palestinian children playing "Arabs and Soldiers," and of 10-year-olds who "feel happy" when they pelt soldiers with stones. Along the way, Rudoren simultaneously exalts and minimizes Palestinian violence (an impressive journalistic feat), romanticizing a culture that encourages violent and dangerous behavior by children.

There is a story here, of course—a story about the toxic culture of victimhood among Palestinians, the abject failure of adult leadership, and the potential consequences for the peace process. Rudoren ignores that story. Instead, she is content with quoting our hero and his hollow platitudes: “A day with a confrontation is better than a free day.”

First, let’s get this out of the way: Throwing rocks at cars is extremely dangerous. That fact somehow gets overlooked in the article’s description of the ‘honored act of defiance’ and the "futility of stones." Rudoren gets by with a brief quote from an Israeli woman who feels like she is "driving through a warzone" whenever she goes to get pizza. The woman also mentions an Israeli man and his infant child who were recently killed, but Rudoren doesn’t bother to, say, verify the story or anything. (The victim’s name, in case you were wondering, is Asher Palmer).  

Rock throwing is also illegal, both in Israel and around the world. In Australia, Section 49A of the Crimes Act provides a maximum 5-year prison sentence for "throwing rocks and other objects at vehicles and vessels." In the United States, tossing rocks at cars can be a felony assault, or get you charged with "throwing a deadly missile" in some states, which comes with a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. There is nothing at all unusual or extreme about Israel’s treatment of rock throwers.

What do Palestinian leaders think about the "hobby" that lands their children in prison? At the high school in Beit Ommar, where 20 students missed class because of prison time, a teacher "views the stone throwers with a mixture of pride at confronting Israel and fear for their safety." Meanwhile, a stone thrower who was recently released from prison is welcomed home "like a war hero with flags and fireworks, women in wedding finery lining the streets to cheer his motorcade."

Rudoren’s article has all the elements of a classic underdog story: Children vs. soldiers (never mind that the 17-year-old Muhammad is just a year younger than his IDF counterparts); rocks vs. guns; stealing fruit that was grown on "stolen" land (Muhammad finds it "especially delicious"). There is even a love story, as Muhammad tells his girlfriend, "Be careful, I am maybe one month outside and 10 months in prison." (Don’t worry, they stay together: “She said, ‘O.K., I am waiting for you’”). 

Can you blame Rudoren for getting caught up in this romantic story of a teen fighting the big bad Israeli army all by himself? Yes, you can. Rudoren is a journalist for the New York Times and has a responsibility to evaluate rather than parrot. In her glowing description of stone throwing, she crosses the line of objectivity, becoming a mouthpiece rather than a reporter.

But despite her journalistic blunders, Rudoren has, in fact, hit on a kernel of truth: The intellectual and ideological core of the Palestinian resistance movement is hollow. Palestinian supporters quickly attempted to discredit Rudoren’s revelation. In +972 Magazine, Noam Sheizaf bemoans her “pseudo-anthropological investigation” into stone throwing that misses the legitimate reasons for the practice, such as "occupation" and "resistance." Sheizaf complains that Rudoren uses the "tone, language and arguments of the Israeli opposition" in her piece. 

In fact, the problem is just the opposite. Rudoren has done a wonderful job of capturing how Palestinians feel and think about throwing rocks at Israelis. No matter that the practice is aimless and misguided in reality, a self-destructive habit and mindset passed down from father to son. In Beit Ommar, it remains a "rite of passage and an honored act of defiance." And that is precisely the problem.