Friends of Israel must demand withdrawal

Such is the nature of American intellectual culture that I must begin this column with the following statement: The suicide bombings that have mercilessly killed dozens of Israeli women, men and children during the past few weeks are heinous, morally indefensible outrages.

It seems absurd to have to state what should be starkly evident to most sensible human beings. (Note that Washington demands Yasser Arafat unequivocally condemn Palestinian terror while making no such demand of the Israeli leadership for Israeli terror in the occupied territories.)

But since I am about to denounce Israeli aggression (there really is no milder word with which to describe Israel’s continuing atrocities against a relatively defenseless civilian population) and place the blame for much of the terror afflicting ordinary Israelis squarely on officials in Jerusalem and Washington, D.C., it is unfortunately necessary to initially state the obvious.

So, both because I believe this and because such public displays of “balance” have, tellingly, become necessary in discussing a largely unbalanced conflict, I repeat: There can be no excuse for the horrific slaughter of Israeli civilians by Palestinian suicide bombers.

That said, it would be difficult not to conclude the Israeli government deserves a considerable share of the blame for these tragic deaths. Approximately eight months ago, Simona Sharoni, executive director of the Consortium on Peace Research, Education, and Development and an Israeli Jew living in the United States, claimed, like a number of other knowledgeable analysts of the Middle East, that Israel’s “targeted assassinations campaign against Palestinian leaders is likely to provoke a violent response. In fact, one wonders if Israel is using these illegal attacks to provoke such a response and then use that as a pretext to reoccupy the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip.”

Whatever one suspects Israel’s ultimate objectives might be with respect to its present incursions, judging from the historical record Sharoni’s caution was not without merit. Twenty years ago, Israel began initiating attacks against Palestinian targets in Lebanon – Palestine Liberation Organization centers, refugee camps, a hospital – precisely in order to generate a violent Palestinian response.

The goal for Israel was to create a Palestinian “provocation,” thereby justifying a long-planned Israeli invasion of its northern neighbor. The problem then for Israeli officials wishing to sustain their military occupation of the Palestinian territories, according to Israeli scholar Yehoshua Porath, was that the PLO’s adherence to a cease-fire with Israel had become “a veritable catastrophe in the eyes of the Israeli government.”

What is so catastrophic about a cessation of hostilities, one might ask? In this case, the increasing international respect for the PLO stimulated by its “peace offensive” threatened the possibility of a just political settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which for years Israel had (and has) desperately sought to avoid. Thus occurred the Israeli attacks, finally followed by a PLO response, and then Israel’s full invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

At that time, Ariel Sharon was the Israeli defense minister and one of the major architects of the Israeli invasion. It was during that military campaign he oversaw the indiscriminate massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians – women, men and children – by Lebanese Phalangists in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, actions for which he might be indicted for war crimes by the Belgian courts.

Twenty years later, it is highly plausible – indeed probable – Sharon pursued a similar strategy of provocation through the assassination of Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories, this time as the country’s prime minister. The reason, again, was quite simple: The Israeli leadership has no desire to achieve a just settlement to its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. That is, the Israeli government does not wish to recognize the legal and moral right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes from which they were expelled or from which they fled; this is a right guaranteed under international law.

The Israeli government does not wish to dismantle many of its illegal settlements in the occupied territories; for years, it has cynically referred to these colonial outposts as “facts on the ground.” The Israeli government does not wish to withdraw from East Jerusalem, which it illegally annexed in an action unrecognized by the United Nations and its state membership.

The Israeli government does not wish to abandon strategic areas of the territories that now provide it with crucial water resources; this is perhaps the most overlooked element of the conflict. Of course, it is hard to generate much sympathy for these colonialist ambitions, so in the United States, we are instead treated to stories about Israel’s “defense” against terrorism or its efforts to “uproot” the “terrorist infrastructure.”

It is a testament to the complexity of this issue – not simply a story of Israeli Jews against Palestinian Arabs – that countless Israelis don’t believe this rubbish about their government’s “war against terrorism,” including the over 400 reservist soldiers who have announced their refusal to serve in the occupied territories, dozens of them having already been sent to prison.

The publicly issued statement of the reservists raises notions virtually unthinkable in polite circles in this country: “We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve, and humiliate an entire people. We hereby declare that we shall continue serving in the Israel Defense Forces in any mission that serves Israel’s defense. The missions of occupation and oppression do not serve this purpose – and we shall take no part in them.”

What is it these reservists know that most Americans do not? For one, they recognize that during the cycle of violence Israel’s military occupation has spawned, the greatest number of victims have been, as usual, the innocent: women, men and children – Israeli and, especially, Palestinian.

Compare this to the rhetoric emanating in recent months from persons or groups bizarrely referring to themselves as “Friends of Israel” or “supporters” of Israel. But what kind of “friends” defend the actions of a government that, with each passing day, only further threatens the long-term security of those they purport to have befriended? The issue most of these so-called “friends” scrupulously avoid – which is absolutely central to the entire conflict – is the illegal military occupation by a nuclear-equipped state of the lands belonging to a largely unarmed civilian population.

As a report last week in The New York Times accurately noted, one effect of Israel’s brutal military offensive appears to be that it is “radicalizing moderate Palestinians.” In other words, with each incursion and each new Israeli atrocity – of which there have been several hundred – more and more people living under siege might be disbelieving in the possibility of the peaceful coexistence for which countless ordinary Arabs and Israelis have striven for years.

For decades, Washington has armed, financed and otherwise supported the state perpetrating this occupation in contravention of numerous U.N. resolutions and international humanitarian law, particularly the Fourth Geneva Convention. Much of the weaponry killing Palestinian civilians originated in the United States – among the armaments are F-16s and Apache helicopters.

Billions of dollars given to Israel by Washington every year allows for Israeli settlement expansion and the suppression of Palestinian resistance. And the repeated U.S. exercise of its Security Council veto – including the promise of a veto last Tuesday – has successfully prevented the United Nations from more forcefully demanding a negotiated and just solution to the conflict.

After nearly a decade of largely uncritical media praise for negotiations between Israelis seeking a bantustan-style settlement and an often corrupt and authoritarian Palestinian leadership, it is time for Americans to recognize that what has been designated the “peace process” in recent years has in fact been a cynical charade.

As numerous analysts have demonstrated, both the Oslo agreement and the Camp David proposal had almost nothing to do with a just peace and nearly everything to do with continued de facto Israeli domination of much of the Palestinian territories. Indeed, one of the more troubling myths of the past two years – often recycled in recent weeks – is that in 2000 Israel made an unprecedented “generous offer” at Camp David that was abruptly rejected by a Palestinian leadership presumably hell-bent on avoiding “peace.”

Israel must now not only pull out of the Palestinian cities and towns it has terrorized in the last couple of weeks, but it must also end, once and for all, its illegal and immoral occupation that continues to humiliate a people and irreparably alter and destroy their lives. Only then can Israel hope for the security its government claims to be seeking. Those who are truly “friends” of Israel should be demanding nothing less.

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