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FRIEDMAN: Amazing compassion, breathtaking cruelty


<WC1>I just saw a remarkable new documentary directed by Shlomi Eldar, the Gaza reporter for Israel's Channel 10 news. Titled "Precious Life," the film tracks the story of Mohammed Abu Mustafa, a 4-month-old Palestinian baby suffering from a rare immune deficiency. Moved by the baby's plight, Eldar helps the infant and mother go from Gaza to Israel's Tel Hashomer hospital for lifesaving bone-marrow treatment. The operation costs $55,000.

Eldar puts out an appeal on Israel TV and within hours an Israeli Jew whose own son was killed during military service donates all the money.

The documentary takes a dramatic turn, though, when the infant's Palestinian mother, Raida, who is being disparaged by fellow Gazans for having her son treated in Israel, blurts out that she hopes he'll grow up to be a suicide bomber to help recover Jerusalem.

Raida tells Eldar: "From the smallest infant, even smaller than Mohammed, to the oldest person, we will all sacrifice ourselves for the sake of Jerusalem. We feel we have the right to it. You're free to be angry, so be angry."

Eldar is devastated by her declaration and stops making the film. But this is no Israeli propaganda movie. The drama of the Palestinian boy's rescue at an Israeli hospital is juxtaposed against Israeli retaliations for shelling from Gaza, which kill whole Palestinian families. Dr. Raz Somech, the specialist who treats Mohammed as if he were his own child, is summoned for reserve duty in Gaza in the middle of the film. The race by Israelis and Palestinians to save one life is embedded in the larger routine of the two communities grinding each other up.

"It's clear to me that the war in Gaza was justified — no country can allow itself to be fired at with Qassam rockets — but I did not see many people pained by the loss of life on the Palestinian side," Eldar told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

"Because we were so angry at Hamas, all the Israeli public wanted was to (expletive) Gaza. <WC>.<TH>.<TH>. <WC1>It wasn't until after the incident of Dr. Abu al-Aish — the Gaza physician I spoke with on live TV immediately after a shell struck his house and caused the death of his daughters and he was shouting with grief and fear — that I discovered the (Israeli) silent majority that has compassion for people, including Palestinians. I found that many Israeli viewers shared my feelings." So Eldar finished the documentary about how Mohammed's life was saved in Israel.

His raw film reflects the Middle East I know — one full of amazing compassion, even among enemies, and breathtaking cruelty, even among neighbors.

I write about this now because there is something foul in the air. It is a trend, both deliberate and inadvertent, to delegitimize Israel — to turn it into a pariah state, particularly in the wake of the Gaza war. You hear the director Oliver Stone saying crazy things about how Hitler killed more Russians than Jews, but the Jews got all the attention because they dominate the news media and their lobby controls Washington. You hear Britain's prime minister describing Gaza as a big Israeli "prison camp" and Turkey's prime minister telling Israel's president, "When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill." You see singers canceling concerts in Tel Aviv. If you just landed from Mars, you might think that Israel is the only country that has killed civilians in war — never Hamas, never Hezbollah, never Turkey, never Iran, never Syria, never America.

I'm not here to defend Israel's bad behavior. Just the opposite.

I've long argued that Israel's colonial settlements in the West Bank are suicidal for Israel as a Jewish democracy. I don't think Israel's friends can make that point often enough or loud enough.

But there are two kinds of criticism. Constructive criticism starts by making clear: "I know what world you are living in." I know the Middle East is a place where Sunnis massacre Shiites in Iraq, Iran kills its own voters, Syria allegedly kills the prime minister next door, Turkey hammers the Kurds, and Hamas engages in indiscriminate shelling and refuses to recognize Israel. I know all of that. But Israel's behavior, at times, only makes matters worse — for Palestinians and Israelis. If you convey to Israelis that you understand the world they're living in, and then criticize, they'll listen.<WC> <WC1>Destructive criticism closes Israeli ears. It says to Israelis: There is no context that could explain your behavior, and your wrongs are so uniquely wrong that they overshadow all others.

Destructive critics dismiss Gaza as an Israeli prison, without ever mentioning that had Hamas decided — after Israel unilaterally left Gaza — to turn it into Dubai rather than Tehran, Israel would have behaved differently, too. Destructive criticism only empowers the most destructive elements in Israel to argue that nothing Israel does matters, so why change? How about everybody take a deep breath, pop a copy of "Precious Life" into your DVD players, watch this documentary about the real Middle East, and if you still want to be a critic (as I do), be a constructive one. A lot more Israelis and Palestinians will listen to you.

<i>Thomas Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times.</i>