As Obama retreats, Palestinians renew their Struggle

Told by an Indian that “Gandhi is truly dead in Gujarat,” he responded, “Perhaps, but he has surfaced again in Palestine, in the village of Bil’in.”

Anita Desai, quoting Pacifist activist David Shulman, New York Review of Books, Feb. 11, 2010.

American Middle East policy has been weighted in favor of Israel ever since President Harry Truman rejected the advice of Secretary of State George C. Marshall and pushed through a resolution at the U.N. General Assembly giving most of Palestine to the Jews, who were then a minority of the population. As the new state of Israel proceeded to expel the original inhabitants and seize more of their land, Washington turned a blind eye–”and footed the bill.

This lopsided relationship has continued under almost every president, kept in place by a powerful Israel lobby and an unrelenting disinformation campaign. The one exception was President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who in 1956 ordered Israel, France and England to turn back from their attempted invasion of the Sinai. Israel’s current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has stretched the relationship to the point of mockery, not only thwarting every effort by President Barack Obama to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace but doing so with almost gleeful defiance.

Obama’s response has been a full retreat to the failed policy of urging the two sides to resume negotiations, which means letting the Palestinians go it alone while Israel takes more and more of their land. Instead of supporting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his demand that Israel stop all settlement construction before he will take part in peace talks, Obama sent his special Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell to urge Abbas back to the negotiating table.

In the tradition of his predecessors, Netanyahu made sure the mission would fail. While Mitchell was in Ramallah in late January trying to persuade Palestinian leaders to resume peace talks, Netanyahu announced that the huge settlement blocs of Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel that extend deep into the West Bank would belong permanently to Israel. Two days later the prime minister spoke at a tree-planting ceremony in the Ezion settlement bloc south of Jerusalem and declared, “This place will be an inseparable part of the State of Israel. We are planting here, we will stay here, we will build here.” Ezion was part of the West Bank until 1967, when Israel illegally annexed Jerusalem and extended its boundaries to include the town.

Mitchell was still in Israel when Netanyahu stipulated that any future Palestinian state must be demilitarized, with Israel continuing to control its borders and air space as well as the Jordan Valley. In a recent article in the Nation, Henry Siegman recalled that shortly after 1967, while he was head of the American Jewish Congress, Israeli officials showed him maps of the captured West Bank on which future settlements were strategically placed to assure Israel’s permanent hold on the territory. Those settlements are now a reality, Siegman writes, and Netanyahu’s conditions for Palestinian statehood would leave Israel’s occupation in place. Under these circumstances Abbas had no option but to refuse to resume negotiations.

Following Mitchell’s humiliating trip, the Obama administration not only threw in the towel but laid half the blame on the Palestinians. Obama told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times that he had doubts whether Israeli and Palestinian leaders were “prepared to make the kind of compromises needed to engage in a meaningful conversation.” He did not say what compromises the Palestinians should make. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added that efforts to revive peace talks would continue but stressed that “the next step will be up to Israelis and Palestinians.” In other words, let the occupied bargain with the occupiers.

In a speech to the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Qatar in mid-February, Clinton called on the Arab nations to give up “stereotypes and outdated views” and take more responsibility for restarting peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis. She could have been reminded that the Arab peace proposal of 2002, which was based on U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 and endorsed by every Arab nation, was ignored by Israel and the U.S. At a meeting afterwards with Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir asked that the U.S. do more to help the people of Gaza. Clinton’s reply was that Qatar should reopen Israel’s trade office in Doha, which the emirate had closed during Israel’s assault on Gaza last winter.

Faced with a U.S. administration unwilling to help, the Palestinians are revitalizing their struggle. Hamas and Fatah resumed talks in Gaza in early February aimed at ending their differences and possibly reuniting. Meanwhile West Bank Palestinians are conducting a different kind of intifada, using nonviolent resistance. The weekly vigils against the separation wall that began in the villages of Bil’in and Nil’in five years ago continue to grow and attract participants from all over the world. Similar protests recently began in Nabi Saleh, a village near Ramallah where settlers took over a natural spring on village land. When villagers tried to reclaim their spring Israeli soldiers met them with tear gas and stun grenades.

The demonstrations have some distinguished supporters. Dr. Mustafa Bargouthi, a leader of the nonviolent movement, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Mairead Maguire, a 1976 Nobel laureate who was shot in the leg with a rubber bullet in 2007 while attending a vigil at the wall in Bil’in. Former Peace Prize winners Bishop Desmond Tutu and President Jimmy Carter have visited Bil’in and praised the protesters as following in the footsteps of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. The Popular Struggle Coordination Committee that organizes the demonstrations is even receiving aid from the Spanish government.

Palestinians won a partial victory when the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the army to reroute the wall so as to return some 170 acres of land to the village, but the barrier and nearby settlements still occupy 400 acres of village land and the protests are continuing.Those who take part pay a high price. Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem and Yesh Din report that police are firing rubber bullets, 22-caliber bullets, and tear gas canisters into the crowds at close range.

At least 19 Palestinians, including several children, have been killed during the protests and many more have been injured, including Tristan Anderson, an American who was severely brain damaged when he was struck by a high-velocity canister. As usual, an army investigation exonerated the soldier who did it. Instead it was Palestinians who were punished. Aqel Srur, who testified against the soldier, was killed by a 22-caliber bullet last June. Another witness, Salah Muhammed Khawajeh, was warned that the same thing could happen to him, and in January his 9-year old son was shot in the back by a rubber bullet.

The Israelis clearly regard the nonviolent protest as more dangerous than rockets and suicide bombings, which create sympathy for Israel and provide an excuse for retaliation. Israeli forces are conducting nightly raids on the homes of organizers of and participants in nonviolent actions, and making a mounting number of arrests. In the first 10 days of February, the army arrested 51 Palestinians, including Montaha Taweel, wife of the mayor of Al-Bireh and an activist on behalf of Palestinian prisoners.

Mohanad Abu Awad, the 20-year old son of the manager of Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Parents for Peace and a peace activist himself, was brutally arrested on Jan. 23 when Israeli soldiers surrounded his family’s house at 3 a.m and threatened to blow it up if the inhabitants, including several sleeping children, didn’t leave at once. After the family left, the soldiers ransacked the house, forced Mohanad to drop his pants, and took him away shackled and blindfolded. They gave no reason for the search or the arrest.

More and more Israeli Jews also are being jailed for joining in nonviolent Palestinian actions. At a Jan. 15 demonstration against the eviction of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, 17 Israelis were arrested, including the head of the Association for Civil Rights, Hagain Elad. Unlike Palestinian demonstrators who are held for weeks and even months, they were released 36 hours later, but a Jerusalem court nevertheless declared their demonstration to be illegal.

Elad said the arrests represented “a dramatic increase in attempts to silence dissent” on Israel’s part, a statement borne out by the well-financed campaign to smear the New Israel Fund by accusing it of providing damaging information to the Goldstone Commission report on Gaza. Prof. Naomi Chazan, president of the moderate human rights organization and a former Knesset member, recently was fired as a columnist for the Jerusalem Post. Jared Maslin, the Jewish American editor of a Palestinian news agency in Bethlehem, was expelled from Israel on Jan. 20 because of his “anti-Israel views. “

Israel’s crushing blockade of Gaza and continued settlement construction in East Jerusalem have not only tarnished its image throughout the world but delayed its acceptance into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an association of market-oriented democracies that promotes free trade. Membership in the OECD is prestigious as well as profitable, and Israel has long sought entry.

A Tarnished Image

Israel’s image was further tarred when the Israeli military investigated the shelling of a U.N. compound where 700 civilians had taken shelter during the Gaza war, and accused the two senior officers who were responsible only of “exceeding their authority.” The officers were let off with a reprimand. The report did not mention that the army fired at least seven white phosphorus shells at the compound, weapons that caused terrible burns to the victims, or that during the three-hour attack U.N. officials had repeatedly begged the army to stop.

Osama bin Laden is a mastermind of terrorism, but he was expressing a fact on Jan. 24 when he said, “America will not dream of security unless we have it in reality in Palestine.” The truth of that statement was reflected in Obama’s 2011 $3.8 trillion budget, which calls for a 15 percent increase in homeland and nuclear security and a record $708 billion for the Pentagon. Combatting the threat of terrorism does not come cheap, and what Washington deliberately ignores is that much of the extremism that poses a danger to the U.S. is fueled by its complicity in Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. The U.S. therefore has a strategic interest in securing justice and full political and human rights for the Palestinians.

Israeli economist and peace activist Gershon Baskin believes the possibility of doing so is within reach. In the recent issue of Tikkun he writes that the basics of a Palestinian-Israeli peace are already known and would be accepted by a majority of Israelis and Palestinians if there were international guarantees to assure each side’s compliance. He stresses that “The old formula stating that ‘the parties have to want it more than we do’ is no longer true. The parties no longer have the right to veto peace and allow the conflict to endanger the security of the region and the whole world.”

Baskin calls for action by the quartet composed of the U.S., the U.N., Russia and the European Union that backed Bush’s “roadmap to peace.” But that group has been passive and will remain so unless Obama leads the way by insisting that Israel abide by international law and either withdraw entirely from the occupied territories or grant equal rights to the Palestinians. Simply calling for negotiations is to abdicate responsibility. Israel will listen only when the U.S. threatens to cut off all aid to Israel and support stiff international sanctions.

Taking such action might assure that Obama is a one-term president, but if it results in progress toward a lasting peace agreement the risk will surely be worth it–”to the U.S. and Israel as well as the rest of the region. The Israelis will never be secure as long as their security depends on the repression of another people. The U.S., with an ailing economy, can’t afford to spend its resources maintaining a garrison state while bridges and roads deteriorate and schools are starved of funds. The only way to reduce the hostility that both countries face is to end the injustices that foster it.

Ending U.S. Intervention

Reducing anti-U.S. hostility also requires an end to U.S. military intervention in Muslim countries. In Iraq, the elections scheduled for March 7 that were to be a milestone on the road to democracy and lead to a U.S. withdrawal, have instead intensified sectarian conflict and raised the question of whether a fair election can even be held.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his ruling Shi’i coalition set off a storm of controversy in January with their attempt to weaken two rival secular coalitions by using fear of a return of Saddam Hussain’s Ba’ath party as an excuse to disqualify hundreds of opposition candidates, including Iraq’s current defense minister and the mayor of Mosul, a Sunni who had worked closely with the U.S. military. Several opposition candidates have been arrested, one of them for criticizing Maliki’s security forces.

On Feb. 3 an Iraqi appeals court reversed the disqualifications, then quickly backtracked under pressure from political leaders and disqualified all but 26 candidates. Ten days later the election commission announced that 515 candidates would remain off the ballot, including the top candidates of the coalition opposing al-Maliki. “It has become clear to Iraqis that this political campaign is a fake,” said Saleh al-Mutlaq, one of the barred candidates.

It is no coincidence that Ali Faisal al-Lami, head of the Accountability and Justice Commission that disqualified the candidates, is one of Maliki’s closest allies. He is also a candidate for parliament on a slate led by Ahmad Chalabi, the slippery Bush administration protégé who was paid handsomely to lie about Saddam’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. One of the first acts of another Bush protégé, L. Paul Bremer, as the first U.S. administrator of the occupation, was to outlaw the Ba’ath party and establish the disqualification commission. Mahmoud Ahmed, a member of one of the opposition parties commented wryly, “This is the democracy the Americans brought.”

In Afghanistan, U.S., NATO and Afghan forces launched a new offensive in early February aimed at driving the Taliban out of a city in Helmand province. As usual, they faced the risk that too many civilians would be killed or made homeless while the Taliban faded away to fight again. Meanwhile the administration has continued talking about negotiating with the Taliban, but insists that the Taliban lay down its arms before talks can take place. The Taliban says it will not negotiate while foreign troops occupy the country.

Hope of ending the impasse may lie with the Pakistanis, who are offering to play a central role in peace talks and who have close ties with Taliban leaders such as Jalaluddin and Siraj Haqqani, who control much of southern Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai is also eager to bring the war to an end, although his lack of credibility within his own government makes him virtually powerless to act. According to Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations, “The United States is pretty worried about seeing a deal emerge that suits everyone but us.”

If so, those worries should be overcome. Obama must either find a way to withdraw our troops safely and soon, or, like Israel, be prepared to fight a perpetual war against ever increasing enemies.