When the history of the Arab Spring comes to be written, the Palestinians’ current uprising against the Israeli occupation will surely take its place alongside the heroic efforts by Egyptians and Tunisians to oust their own oppressive rulers. Forty years of one-sided U.S. Middle East policy, and President Barack Obama’s total abandonment of their cause, left the Palestinians with no alternative but to take action on their own. They are doing so with what some are calling a third intifada, a nonviolent effort to secure long-delayed justice.
The resolution endorsing Palestinian statehood that will be introduced at the U.N. by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in September may or may not prove successful when it comes up for a vote. Obama has promised that the U.S. will vote against it, but a favorable vote by Britain, France and Germany would indicate once again that Washington stands alone among the major powers in supporting an illegal occupation.
The Palestinians’ decision to go to the U.N. has already exposed the hoax that Israel is willing to accept a two-state solution. Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad for eight years, resigned in early June with a speech bitterly criticizing Israeli leaders for "foolishly ignoring" Arab peace proposals that offered full diplomatic relations in exchange for Israel’s return to its 1967 borders. Another former Mossad official, Gad Shimon, suggested Israel might take rash action to prevent a U.N. statehood resolution. "The leadership makes fiery statements," he said on Israeli radio, "and we don’t know what will happen."
Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on May 24 confirmed the warnings by the two former officials that Israel’s current leadership might stop at nothing to prevent international recognition of a Palestinian state. To a chorus of nonstop cheering by Democratic and Republican legislators, the Israeli leader delivered an absolutist message, declaring there would be no return of Palestinian refugees, no negotiations with a Palestinian Authority that included Hamas, no return to Israel’s 1967 borders, and no withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Jordan Valley. He again insisted that an undivided Jerusalem remain permanently part of Israel, and that Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state."
Obama’s response to Netanyahu’s jettisoning of the peace process was to reaffirm his administration’s "unshakable commitment to Israel’s security." He promised that the U.S. would oppose "symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the U.N. in September." Obama in fact considered it so important to forestall the Palestinian effort that he sent his Middle East adviser Dennis B. Ross to the region in mid-June to find a way to restart long-suspended peace talks. The mission had little chance of success, however. The Palestinians are well aware that Ross is a devoted supporter of Israel, and Fayyad, the Palestinian official Ross spoke with in Ramallah, is not trusted by Hamas, which recently rejected him as the possible prime minister of a future unity government.
Obama has also joined his predecessor George W. Bush in leaving the Palestinians to the mercy of an intransigent Israeli government. He proposed that "The parties themselves will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967, to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years." But Obama’s continued refusal to threaten Israel with a withdrawal of U.S. support leaves Israel with all of the bargaining chips and nothing to lose. American tax dollars will continue to flow regardless of what Israel does.
As far as the president is concerned, Israel is also free to continue violating international law. The "changes" that he said must be taken into account are the large settlement blocs that now stretch almost to the Jordan Valley. They are in clear violation of the Geneva Convention of 1949 forbidding settlements in occupied territory, and have been repeatedly condemned by the U.N. as illegal.
Obama’s original proposal that the two sides negotiate land swaps to compensate for Israel’s annexation of the settlements is no solution, according to Mustafa Barghouti, the respected Palestinian peace activist and physician. In the June 1 issue of the Atlanta Journal Constitution he pointed out that land swaps would leave Israel with the West Bank’s most arable land and in possession of the West Bank’s major acquifers. Israelis would continue to control 80 percent of West Bank water.
Israelis currently are allocated 48 times more water per capita than the Palestinians. Consequently, Dr. Barghouti wrote, the land and water Palestinians desperately need to feed a growing population are now devoted to settler housing, swimming pools and golf courses. If Israel continues to control the Jordan Valley, Palestinians would be left with even less arable land and only 60 percent of West Bank territory.
In a May 17 op-ed for The New York Times, Abbas reminded readers that during the 20 years the Palestinians have been negotiating with the Israelis, the Israelis have colonized more and more of the West Bank."We go to the United Nations now," he wrote, "to secure the right to live free in the remaining 22 percent of our historic homeland"–”a right, he pointed out, that has been repeatedly recognized by the United Nations, as well as by the International Court of Justice in 2004." Abbas’ statement made it clear that by giving unconditional support to Israel the U.S. is on the wrong side of the law.
Obama’s recent insistence that Arabs "recognize Israel as a Jewish state" passed almost unnoticed, even though it ignores the fact that the Palestinians have repeatedly agreed to recognize the state of Israel but refuse to accept the predominance of one religion over others.
Washington’s warnings to Palestinians to refrain from violence sound especially hollow when Israeli troops routinely shoot Gaza farmers and fisherman who come too close to border zones, and fire live bullets at nonviolent demonstrators. Israeli troops killed 12 unarmed Palestinians on May 15 as they tried to re-enter the land their parents and grandparents had been driven from in 1948. On June 5 Israeli snipers killed another 23 Palestinians, and wounded dozens, as they tried to cross from Syria into Israel to commemorate the expulsion of 250,000 Palestinians in 1967.
Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev accused the demonstrators of wanting "to destroy the Jewish state," and State Department spokesman Mark Toner declared, "Israel, like any other sovereign state, has a right to defend itself." Considering that the protestors carried no weapons, and that Israel’s survival was hardly at stake, such statements served only to perpetuate the myth that the Palestinians’ ultimate goal is to destroy Israel.
It is a myth that has survived the Palestinian Authority’s long recognition of Israel and Hamas’ repeated offers to recognize Israel once it withdraws to the 1967 borders. Obama justified Israel’s refusal to meet with Hamas by asking, "How can one negotiate with a party that [is] unwilling to recognize your right to exist?" Yet no Israeli government has been willing to recognize the Palestinians’ right to an independent nation.
Israel’s Labor governments have expanded West Bank settlements–”"facts on the ground"–”as rapidly as Likud. They have offered the Palestinians a "state," but only in portions of the West Bank, and with Israel continuing to control the borders. The ruling Likud party is more candid in its platform, which reads: "The Palestinians can run their lives freely in the framework of self-rule, but not as an independent and sovereign state." Other provisions assert Israel’s right to all of Jerusalem, and declare that "The Jordan Valley and the territories that dominate it shall be under Israeli sovereignty."
Likud makes no secret of its claim to all of Palestine. As Henry Siegman writes in the June 13 issue of The Nation, the largest caucus in the Knesset, the 39-member Land of Israel Caucus, has as its official goal to strengthen "Israel’s grasp on the entire Land of Israel." Thousands of right-wing Israelis, guarded by Israeli troops, celebrated the anniversary of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem on June 3 with a march through the city chanting "Butcher the Arabs." On the West Bank, roving mobs of settlers celebrated by setting fire to mosques–”an increasingly common act of settler vandalism.
Administration officials rarely mention such incidents. More typical was Obama’s expression of sympathy for Israelis who experience "the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them." The truth is that Palestinian children need no special teaching; they have simply to watch Israeli soldiers humiliate their parents at checkpoints, or drag their neighbors off to prison, or come with bulldozers to destroy their homes. More than 1,100 Palestinians, most of them children, were displaced from their homes in the first six months of 2011.
The most effective lessons in hatred are delivered to children directly. Those who take part in nonviolent demonstrations, or simply witness them, are tear gassed, beaten, arrested, and even shot along with adults. Hundreds of Palestinian children are in prison. British Lord Alf Dubs, a Jewish member of the House of Lords, reported after a visit to Israel that he saw 14- and 15-year-olds in chains and shackles. A year ago, 16-year old Mohammed Okel was sentenced to 20 months in jail for throwing stones. Soldiers who arrested him clubbed him with their rifles, broke his skull and knocked out several teeth. He has since lost 70 percent of his vision.
Children of Palestinian activists often serve as hostages to force confessions from their parents when torture, or what the Israelis call "moderate physical pressure," fails to produce results. In the West Bank, where villagers hold weekly protests to protest the seizure of their land, child arrests are also a way to intimidate the demonstrators. Such arrests have increased in the Silwan neighborhood of Jerusalem, where protests are taking place against the displacement of the Arab population to make way for Jewish settlers (see story p. 12). On June 1, five children between the ages of 7 and 11 were rounded up as they were playing in a quiet area of Silwan. Another 10-year-old was arrested that evening, and seven more children a week later, including a boy under 6.
To those aware of such actions, the demand that Hamas–”but not Israel–”renounce violence before it can take part in negotiations is a way to avoid serious peace talks. Fortunately, many Israelis, as well as Jews from around the world, see more clearly than Israel’s self-proclaimed supporters that only a united Palestinian people can negotiate, and guarantee a lasting peace agreement.
On June 5 between 10,000 and 20,000 Israelis marched through Tel Aviv to demonstrate their support of an independent Palestinian state. Marchers carried signs saying "Bibi said No–”We say Yes to a Palestinian State," "Borders of 1967–”Permanent Borders of Peace," and even, "Netanyahu, Are You Crazy?"
When the international peace flotilla set sail for Gaza in June, a quarter of the passengers in the American boat were Jewish, including a former captain in the Israeli Air Force. One of the passengers was Hedy Epstein, an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor, who said before she sailed, "The American Jewish community and Israel both say they speak for all Jews. They don’t speak for the Jews who are going to be on this boat, and the many others standing behind us."
Members of the flotilla were carrying messages of hope and support to the people of Gaza. Their willingness to stand up to Israeli gunboats with a nonviolent challenge to an oppressive blockade sends a message of hope as well to people throughout the world who are struggling for justice.