The Israelis were not happy last June when President Obama in his Cairo speech referred to “the tensions fueled by colonialism” and promised a new beginning to relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world. The president’s popularity in Israel plummeted further when, a few months later, he called for a complete halt to Israeli settlement construction.
The heretofore close relationship between the U.S. and Israel seemed destined to chill permanently when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu adamantly rejected Obama’s demand and the Israelis began construction of 3,000 new apartments in the West Bank and 1,500 apartments for Jews only in Arab East Jerusalem. More than 800 Palestinian homes were scheduled to be destroyed.
Although he criticized Israel’s expansion into territory the Palestinians regard as a future capital, Obama assured the Israelis that “The U.S. will maintain your QME” (qualitative military edge), and the flow of American military technology and financial aid to Israel has continued uninterrupted. Relations warmed considerably last November when Netanyahu made a show of luring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table by imposing a partial 10-month freeze on settlement construction and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed his move as “unprecedented.”
Clinton moved further to accommodate Israel when she said on Nov. 25 that a peace agreement should be based on the borders that existed on June 4, 1967 but include agreed-upon changes that “reflect subsequent developments and meet Israel’s security needs.” “Subsequent developments” include the large settlement blocs located on the West Bank’s major water aquifers and most valuable agricultural land, which presumably would be annexed to Israel.
Hopes of an even-handed U.S. approach to Israel and the Palestinians died once and for all when the administration dismissed as “one-sided and basically unacceptable” a report by the U.N. Human Rights Council, headed by Judge Richard Goldstone, detailing human rights violations by Israeli forces during last year’s invasion of Gaza. The invasion shocked much of the world with its indiscriminate use of firepower against a civilian population, but drew no official criticism from Washington.
A year after the invasion Israel’s three-year blockade of Gaza is tighter than ever, with the result that Gaza’s crippled infrastructure has not been rebuilt and thousands of Gazans remain homeless in the midst of another winter. Because Israeli bombs destroyed the sanitary system, many Gazans are not only cold and hungry, but forced to drink contaminated water. Amnesty International’s British director Kate Allen said of the current situation, “The wretched reality endured by 1.5 million people in Gaza should appall anybody with an ounce of humanity. Sick, traumatized and impoverished people are being collectively punished by a cruel policy imposed by the Israeli authorities.”
International opinion was reflected in the coalition of groups from 42 countries that scheduled a march into Gaza on Dec. 31 to commemorate the anniversary of Israel’s attack and demand that Israel lift its blockade. Egyptian officials at first said 1,300 people would be allowed to cross into Gaza, but as more than a thousand volunteers gathered in Cairo during the last week of December, the government suddenly changed its mind and said only 100 would be allowed to cross.
In response to the decision, several of the protesters held hunger strikes in front of their embassies, including 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, who urged that the world “not be afraid to reprimand Israel for its violent policies vis-Ã – vis the Palestinians.” Her plea left the Obama administration unmoved. Medea Benjamin, leader of Code Pink, said that when she appealed to the State Department for help a spokesman turned her down, saying the demonstrators were only giving good publicity to Hamas, which the official described as a “repressive” and “violent” organization.
In the end only 85 volunteers entered Gaza, chanting “Free Palestine!” and “No to the Siege!” At the same time about 1,000 Israeli Arabs and Jews gathered at Israel’s Erez crossing to protest the blockade. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak meanwhile was entertaining Netanyahu at the presidential palace and thanking him for his “contribution to peace.”
Egypt is also building an underground steel wall to seal off the tunnels through which such essential goods as cooking oil and detergent have been smuggled into Gaza (see p. 11). A march by Gazans to Egypt’s border on Jan. 6 to protest what Palestinians call the “death wall” erupted into an exchange of gunfire between Egyptian border guards and Hamas police in which an Egyptian soldier was killed and seven Palestinians wounded.
The Obama administration, which continues to remain silent on Gaza, has also refrained from criticizing Israel’s human rights abuses in the West Bank, where the army has intensified its crackdown on leaders of the nonviolent Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign, and armed Jewish settlers are terrorizing Palestinian villagers.
There are those who ask, “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?” The answer is, in prison. In a series of pre-dawn raids in late December Israeli forces arrested dozens of Palestinians who had taken part in peaceful protests against the separation wall, including internationally known human rights activists Jamal Juma’, Mohammed Othmann, and Abdallah Abu Rahmeh. They can be detained indefinitely without charges.
Right-wing settlers responded to Netanyahu’s announcement of a temporary halt to settlements by establishing new outposts and battling Israeli soldiers who attempt to dismantle them. They take revenge against the Palestinians by invading villages in the middle of the night, threatening the inhabitants, and burning vehicles. Israeli peace advocate Adam Keller noted in The Other Israel that, historically, when Europeans were angry at a king’s decree they took it out on the Jews. This was called a “pogrom.”
The reference to pogroms became even more relevant on Dec. 11, when Jewish extremists set fire to the central mosque in the village of Yasuf after pouring gasoline on prayer books and carpets. As they left they wrote on the front stoop in Hebrew, “Price tag–”Greetings from Effi.” Effi is the nickname of a rightist settler group, and “Price tag” is the name of a policy developed by nationalist settlers calling for attacks on Palestinian property whenever the army makes a move against an unauthorized outpost.
Several Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, condemned the attack, and Israel’s chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, said it had brought back memories of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the growth of the right-wing settler population would not have been possible without the support of the Israeli government and tax-free contributions from the U.S.
The resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians is still the stated goal of Obama’s Middle East policy, even as that goal becomes increasingly remote. Netanyahu has assured Israelis that the settlement freeze will not be permanent. In a speech on Dec. 3 he told defiant settlers that, “There are nine months and three weeks left. Once the so-called suspension has expired we will start to build.” It was an unequivocal statement of Israel’s intent to take over more West Bank territory, and one calculated to kill any chance of peace talks.
The other factor that stands in the way of negotiations is the refusal by Israel and the U.S. to talk to Hamas. The three-year blockade of Gaza and last year’s Israeli attack were intended to weaken Hamas by turning Palestinians against them, but the failure of that objective was demonstrated on Dec. 26, when hundreds of thousands of Gazans gathered to express their support. Instead of weakening Hamas, “Operation Cast Lead” and the blockade of Gaza reinforced Israel’s widespread image as a pariah nation.
Paying a High Price
The price America pays for its alliance with Israel became evident yet again when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian Muslim, tried to set off a bomb on a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit on Christmas Day. Washington officials and the media immediately engaged in handwringing over the failure of the elaborate U.S. intelligence network to stop Abdulmutallab from boarding a plane while armed with a bomb. Editorials and commentators discussed at length the usefulness of various screening devices. No one asked why young Muslims become angry enough to commit mass homicide. Or why the United States, but not Canada or Sweden, is a target of terrorism.
The answers have been evident ever since 9/11, when Middle East experts–”not to mention Osama bin Laden–”pointed to America’s past interventions in Iran and Lebanon, its backing of authoritarian regimes in oil-rich Arab states, and its support for Israel’s oppressive treatment of the Palestinians as the cause of widespread resentment throughout the Muslim world. They warned that reliance on military power would not end terrorism, but exacerbate existing grievances and serve to recruit more militants.
George W. Bush ignored that advice by invading Afghanistan and Iraq, and as a result U.S. forces are now at war in two Muslim countries, and at least 5,000 young Americans have died in combat. Many of them have been killed by “improvised explosive devices” (IEDs), a highly effective weapon when used by an elusive enemy, and one that had not been thought of before 2003. Suicide bombings that were rare in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan before the Iraq invasion are now almost daily occurrences in those countries.
Instead of eliminating terrorism, the U.S. response to 9/11 has led to the increase of militant extremists who are able to move from place to place, country to country. As a result, an offshoot of al-Qaeda has established bases in Yemen, where the shaky government is already fighting rebellious tribesmen. Al-Qaeda recently was joined by units of the Shebab, an Islamic resistance group in Somalia that gained strength after the U.S.-backed invasion by Ethiopia in 2006.
A cruise missile attack by the U.S. on Dec. 21 against “suspected al-Qaeda sites” in Yemen killed 49 civilians, including children, but failed to kill the intended target. A few days later, The New York Times reported that American Special Operations forces and Green Berets, along with the CIA, have been carrying out covert paramilitary operations for some time in Yemen–”operations that include what Gen. David Petraeus calls killing “bad guys that are not reconcilable.” The growing U.S. involvement has angered many Yemenis. “There is no doubt that it has an effect on the common man,” a high-ranking Yemeni official said. “He sympathizes with al-Qaeda.” At least one large protest demonstration has already taken place.
The importance of Yemen to U.S. security agencies increased dramatically when it was revealed that Abdulmutallab was trained and equipped by al-Qaeda in Yemen. But there has been little if any discussion of the likely connection between the attempted bombing of an American plane and the desire to avenge the U.S. air strikes and assassinations that have taken place in Yemen, or the mistreatment of Yemenis imprisoned at Guantanamo. The deputy head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Said Ali Shihri, said the six years he spent at Guantanamo had strengthened his conviction.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban now control 160 of the country’s 364 districts and, according to Adm. Mike Mullin, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “The message to [Taliban recruits] keeps getting better and better, and more keep coming.” The message became better yet on Dec. 30, when Hamam Khalil Abu al-Balawi, a trusted informer for Jordanian intelligence and the CIA, entered a U.S. base in southeastern Afghanistan and blew up himself and his seven CIA and Jordanian handlers. Al-Balawi was a doctor who had been jailed in Jordan for volunteering to help wounded Palestinians in Gaza, and pressured by Jordanian intelligence into becoming a spy.
Civilian casualties in Afghanistan increased by more than 10 percent in 2009, and although at least half were caused by militants, the Afghans’ anger is directed against foreign forces and their own government, which they see as corrupt and incompetent. Parliament reflected their mistrust on Jan. 2 when it rejected 17 of President Hamid Karzai’s 24 Cabinet appointees, including several who had helped him win last August’s fraud-ridden election.
In Pakistan, more than 500 civilians were killed in suicide bombings during the last three months of 2009, and nearly 100 more died in a suicide bombing in South Waziristan on Jan. 1. Many Pakistanis blamed the Americans even for these deaths. “Everybody knows the presence of the American Army in this region is the root cause of the problems,” a local official told an interviewer with the newspaper Dawn. “People are dying in Afghanistan, Pakistan and in Iraq because of Obama’s policies.” Pakistanis also fear the U.S. Embassy, with more than 800 employees, is flooding the country with spies.
Another complicating factor Washington faces is that the Pakistanis consider India to be at least as great a threat to its security as the Taliban, because of its iron grip on Kashmir and perceived support for secessionist forces in Baluchistan. The Pakistanis are especially worried by India’s growing presence in Afghanistan and the U.S. buildup of India as a strategic ally.
Such complexities point to the difficulty of fighting wars in countries with strategic interests that differ from America’s. When Obama announced he was sending 30,000 more combat troops to Afghanistan he said he had “no interest in an endless war.” If so, there will sooner or later have to be a political solution that involves the participation of all major Afghan groups, including the Taliban and other Islamists, as well as India and Iran. Escalating the fighting will only postpone the day when those negotiations can begin.
It seems certain that neither far-flung wars nor improved body searches will keep Americans safe as long as the U.S. policies in the Middle East continue to arouse popular outrage. The time bomb Americans have to fear most are the pictures of grieving families and bomb-shattered buildings caused by U.S. firepower–”scenes that evoke the same horror whether they take place in Kunar province or in Gaza.