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Originally published Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 3:50 PM

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Guest columnist

Bus ads shed no light, only heat on Middle East conflict

Guest columnist Alex Alben says the Metro Transit bus-ad controversy does little to enlighten people about the complicated history of the Middle East conflict.

Special to The Times

THE bus ads simply state: "Israeli War Crimes; Your Tax Dollars at Work." A Seattle group called "The Seattle Middle East Awareness Campaign" claims they hope these full-length ads, showing a collapsed building in the Gaza Strip, will raise awareness of America's "one-sided" support of Israeli policies that violate human rights.

A few facts, both recent and historical, which don't neatly fit on the side of a bus panel:

• The Palestine Liberation Organization was formed in 1964 in east Jerusalem. It's charter called — and still calls — for the destruction of the state of Israel. At the time, Arab nations occupied most of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, begging the question of what the PLO intended to "liberate" aside from its leader Ahmed Shukairy's stated goal of "driving the Zionists into the Sea."

• The Israeli government withdrew from Gaza in August 2005, uprooting 21 Israeli settlements. In January 2006, the terrorist group Hamas won a majority of votes in elections held in the West Bank and Gaza, creating a violent rift with the "moderate" PLO leadership of Mahmoud Abbas. Both Egypt and Israel imposed a blockade of certain goods in and out of Gaza.

• Since 2005, Hamas has fired more than 8,000 rockets and mortars at southern Israel from Gaza, killing and wounding many civilians. Hamas operatives fired these rockets from houses, mosques and schools. The Quassam IV Rocket has a 22-pound warhead and a range of up to nine miles. You can find more information about them at the Ezzedeen Al-Quassam Brigade's website, "The military wing of the Islamic resistance movement Hamas."

• Iran funds both Hezbollah and Hamas, supplying them with weapons and supporting their radical agendas against both the United States and Israel. Iran seeks to keep the Israel-Palestinian conflict simmering in order to increase its footprint in the region and counter America's military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The "free speech" card has been played to justify the bus ads, but no serious-minded person would maintain that inflammatory images of fallen buildings is a way to educate people about a complex and emotional conflict in a foreign land. The ads don't rise to the level of foreseeably inciting or producing violence, which would take them out of the protected speech category.

Defenders of Israel could retaliate by taking out Metro bus ads that attempted to put Israel's actions in Gaza in perspective, raising revenue for King County, but probably not providing meaningful context for citizens of Seattle.

Given our exposure to images of violence in the Middle East over the past generation, ranging from PLO suicide bombers to Israeli military responses in Lebanon and Gaza, it is not surprising that many people find plenty of blame for both sides. Or that some tilt toward sympathy for the Palestinians, who have been sustained as political pawns for 60 years by their so-called Arab allies and let down by their own leaders, who have lined their pockets with European and American aid dollars intended to foster economic development.

The bus ads shed only heat, not light, on the controversy. They are intended to foster anti-Israel opinion. Even the name of the group, "Stop30billion-Seattle" misleads people as to the economic and military aid figures from the U.S. to Israel, failing to mention the billions of foreign aid dollars American taxpayers supply to Arab countries.

Israel has made political and military mistakes in the decades since Egypt's Nasser and other Arab rulers mobilized their armies on its borders prior to June 1967, precipitating the Six Day War that led to Israel taking Gaza, the Golan and West Bank of the Jordan River. The political debate within Israel reflects the different approaches to reconciling its future with the Palestinians and Syria.

So, on the eve of Christmas, we are reminded of how far we are from achieving peace on Earth and goodwill toward the men and women of the Middle East — a controversy that is not enlightened in any way by the Metro bus ads.

Alex Alben is writing a book about digital culture. You can reach him at

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