Archived Comment

How Obama Can Earn his Nobel Prize

[originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 18 October 2009]

Many people, including the president himself, were surprised this month when the Nobel committee awarded the peace prize to Barack Obama. His critics — as well as some supporters — questioned whether he deserved it. It was too soon, they said; he’d done too little. We posed a question to a variety of experts: What should the president do to earn the prize?


Ariel Dorfman: Focus on Latin America
Yossi Klein Halevi: Stop Iran
Jonathan Turley: Appoint a prosecutor for war crimes
Saree Makdisi: Change our useless Mideast policies
Michael Scheuer: Refuse the prize
Kennette Benedict: He’s already done so much

Change Washington’s useless Mideast policies

Saree Makdisi

President Obama would deserve the Nobel Peace Prize if he made a serious effort to help bring peace to the Middle East. He could begin by changing U.S. policies that uselessly embitter people and offer zero benefit to the United States.

In my grandparents’ time, people throughout the Arab and Muslim world looked to America as a beacon of light and hope: the great antithesis of the European empire builders. That attitude changed only when it became clear, after the destruction of Palestine in 1948, that America’s values are one thing and its policies quite another.

All Obama has to do is bring America’s policies in the greater Middle East into alignment with our values.

In Pakistan, he should end the catastrophic population displacements and immense human degradation and suffering that are a direct result of these policies, which are not President George W. Bush’s but his own.

In Afghanistan, he should end the war now — beginning with the absurd missile attacks and air raids that have killed hundreds of innocent men, women and children since he came to office — and contribute as much to help rebuild the country as he had been planning to spend on expanding the carnage.

And in Palestine and Israel — the source of much of the region’s unrest — he should end the shell game of trying to split a tiny piece of land into ethnic islands and instead bring about the creation of a single democratic and secular state for both Palestinians and Israelis that treats all of its citizens equally: the greatest of all American values.

The Last Crisis at the University of California?

[originally published on Huffington Post, 15 July 2009]

About to declare a financial emergency, the University of California is entering what could turn out to be its last crisis, the outcome of which may determine the fate not only of the greatest public university system in the nation, but of California as well.

For ultimately there are only two ways out of the present crisis, one of which will define the contours of California’s future.

Either the price of a UC education will leap far beyond the reach of most Californians, which, combined with the cuts that are simultaneously devastating the California State University system (barring tens of thousands of eligible students from places there next year), will mean that a declining percentage of the state’s workforce will receive the university education that is vital to the knowledge economy of the 21st century. That would condemn California–and with it America–to irreversible decline.

Or (and this will take considerable pressure from businesses, institutions, and voters) the governor and the legislature will do what it takes to enable UC and Cal State to carry out their missions, which will ensure that the state’s higher education system continues to make California a place of innovation, invention and progress, and the engine of the national economy.

And what it takes is not all that much, in the scheme of things.

In the glory days of the 1970s, the UC system claimed a mere third of a percent of the state’s personal income, or in other words 33 cents or so for every $100 earned. That’s not much of a sacrifice compared to the benefits that a readily affordable and world-class university system returned to the state, enabling the development of its high tech economy through the 1980s.

A return to that level of public investment from the present outlay (a difference of less than one percent of the state budget) would allow the university both to safeguard its mission and to bring tuition back down close to what it was in 2000 (less than half what it is today).

But if the opposite path is taken, further cuts in state support will inevitably be made up for by ever increasing tuition hikes. UC would go the way of other state universities, like Michigan’s–which charges twice what UCLA and Berkeley do.

A series of budget cuts since 1990 have sapped UC’s vitality. State support once covered about 75 percent of the university’s core spending: the money that is spent on its everyday educational mission. Today, it covers less than half, and it is set to decline even further.

Tuition is the only source of funding that can compensate for such losses, which is why it has been increasing.

The only other alternative is to cut spending, but reckless cuts cost far more in the long run than what they save in the short term.

For example, UC faces a cut in state support of $637 million for the current academic year. It plans to compensate for this with a combination of devastating layoffs and furloughs for faculty and staff, tuition hikes, and enormous slashes to academic programs.

Such cuts will have both immediate and lasting consequences for how the university functions. They are unsustainable.

Research and teaching are the two inseparable missions of UC. Faculty members teach what we discover, and we train our students not merely what we know but how to make discoveries of their own. Not only is what (and how) I teach in my classes today not what was taught five or ten years ago, but even my freshman students have immediate access to the product of my research as I move between my two roles of research and teaching. If I did not have time and resources to conduct my research, I would only be able to teach what I already know. Knowledge would stand still; or, rather, it would be developed by–and for–others, primarily at private institutions whose gates are barred to all but a lucky few.

The whole point of UC, in fact, is that it makes a research faculty equal to that of Harvard, Princeton and Chicago (UC has more Nobel Prize winners than any of those institutions) directly accessible to far more students, for a fraction of the tuition.

If the people of California want to preserve that access for their children, they must act now.

Reducing the size of the faculty while increasing the number of students per instructor–making classes larger and fewer–would diminish both the quantity and quality of instructional contact. Small seminars on specialized topics would go. Large anonymous lecture classes on general topics would prevail. Eliminating classes and majors would thin the academic offerings available to students and impoverish them. Professors would not get to know their students, to mentor and guide them, to write the highly personalized letters of recommendation that students depend on to get into graduate, medical or law schools. Students would pay far more and get far less than what was available to previous generations.

It does not have to be this way.

Now is the time to change course, by demanding that the state government do what is right for all Californians and save our higher education system from the devastation that otherwise might lie in store.

Netanyahu’s Two State Goal?

[originally published on Huffington Post, 8 July 2009]

To judge by the next day’s headlines, Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy speech last month was a great success. “Israeli Premier Backs State for Palestinians,” declared the New York Times. “Israel Endorses Two-State Goal,” said the Washington Post. “Netanyahu Backs Palestinian State,” announced The Guardian.

He did no such thing, of course, unless by “state” one understands an amorphous entity lacking a definite territory, not allowed to control its own borders or airspace, shorn of any vestige of sovereignty (other than a flag and perhaps a national anthem), not allowed to enter into treaties with other states–and permanently disarmed and hence at the mercy of Israel. It would make about as much sense to call an apple an orange or a piano a speedboat as to call such a construct a state, and yet those are the conditions that Netanyahu imposed on the creation of such an entity for the Palestinians (if they get that far in the first place).

The strange thing is that Netanyahu’s speech marked both the definitive end and a symbolic return to the beginning of the two-state solution as that hapless notion has been peddled since the Oslo Accords of 1993-95. For what he said the Palestinians might–perhaps–be entitled to is pretty much what Oslo had said they might be entitled to fifteen years ago: a “self-government authority” not allowed to control its own borders or airspace, shorn of any vestige of sovereignty, etc. And on top of that they can also forget about Jerusalem–that is and will forever remain the eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish people.

If it sounds so drearily familiar, that’s because it is: we have come full circle. First time as tragedy, second time as farce.

Oslo actually never mentioned the apparently magic words “Palestinian state,” so Netanyahu actually outdid Rabin and Peres in terms of rhetorical magnanimity. But, rhetoric aside, by bringing the situation full circle back to what they “offered” Arafat back in the mid-nineties, Netanyahu also revealed to those last few Palestinians who might have believed otherwise that the only kind of Palestinian “state” any Israeli government has ever countenanced (or will ever countenance) will look like what was on offer at Oslo. Netanyahu is offering the same thing all over again because that’s the only

Palestinian “state” that Israel will accept. Take it or leave it.

The Palestinians who still cling to the idea of a Palestinian state to be achieved through negotiations (from a position of weakness) with Israel had better absorb this once and for all and move on to other objectives–and other strategies to succeed.

That’s why the return to the beginning also signals the coming of the end. For after all the agony of the past fifteen years no Palestinian in her right mind would want to go back to Oslo all over again. Those agreements led to three things: the permanent institutionalization of the Israeli occupation of Palestine; the permanent separation of the occupied territories into shards of land cut off from one another and the outside world (and hence what Sara Roy calls–and the World Bank implicitly acknowledges as–the de-development of the Palestinian economy); and the doubling of the population of Jewish settlers illegally colonizing the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem.

There were just over 100,000 Jewish colonists in the West Bank in 1993; there are around 300,000 there today, and a further 200,000 or so in occupied East Jerusalem. According to the UN, their population is increasing at a rate three times greater than that of Israel itself, and will double again to about a million within a decade.

This phenomenal expansion is what is referred to as the “natural growth” of the colonies, which in his speech Netanyahu–brazenly defying President Obama–said he would protect. A few more years of this kind of growth and the territory that might once (maybe, long ago) have been considered as the basis for a Palestinian state will be all but eaten up by the sprawling colonies.

There’s hardly anything left of that territory anyway. The UN said two years ago that some 40 percent of the West Bank is already taken up by Israeli infrastructure off limits to Palestinians; the 60 percent that remains is broken up into an archipelago of islands so cut off and isolated from each other that a brilliant satirical map has been circulating on the internet representing the West Bank as a kind of Pacific island paradise, with dotted lines showing imaginary ferry routes from Ramallah to Nablus and Bethlehem to Hebron. It would be funny if it were not so sad. And even in most of that 60 percent, Israel retains security control (that’s according to Oslo; today its army conducts raids wherever it likes–and it does so virtually every day).

What Netanyahu was saying to any Palestinians foolish enough to accept his terms is that if they want to stick a flag in their archipelago of little impoverished islands of territory and call it a state, they can go right ahead.

But for them to get even that far, they must first, he now says, recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This is a new Israeli demand (it first came up during the buildup to the doomed Annapolis summit in November 2007), the latest in a sequence of such demands going back to the 1970s. First the Palestinians had to renounce terrorism; then they had to recognize Israel; then they had to rewrite their national charter; then they had to tear the charter up; then they had to say–again, louder–that they recognize Israel’s right to exist; then they had to end all resistance to four decades of brutal military occupation. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s previous foreign minister, even said that the Palestinians had to learn to purge the word “nakba” (referring to the catastrophe of 1948) from their vocabulary if they wanted to have a state. The one thing that Palestinians have not formally been asked to do is to say that they are terribly sorry for having dared to resist the occupation in the first place–and no doubt that demand is on the way as well.

In return, Israel has had to commit to nothing other than a few vague and craftily-worded–and endlessly deferrable–promises. And it has carried out (at its own pace and according to its own terms) a few tactical redeployments of troops and colonists (from a grand total of 18 percent of the West Bank, at the very peak of Oslo). Some of those redeployments have actually, as in Gaza, made the process of dominating and controlling the Palestinians that much easier (Israel could never have subjected the people of Gaza to the indiscriminate violence it rained on them day and night in late 2008 and early 2009 had the Jewish colonists there remained in place).

The Israelis have always been able to find some Palestinian leader or other to go along with their endless demands, to jump ignominiously through one hoop after another, more like a third-rate court jester than the leader of an unvanquished and defiant people. When one leader finally said enough was enough (as Arafat did at Camp David), he was dismissed and another more pliant one (the hopelessly compromised and unimaginative Mahmoud Abbas) was found to take his place, from among the dwindling ranks of those candidates the Israelis deemed not worth assassinating or imprisoning in a campaign of violence going back to the 1970s. (Indeed, it bears repeating that Abbas and his hangers-on survived to this day only as the result of Israel’s anti-Darwinian process of unnatural selection of potential Palestinian leaders, in which the fittest were eliminated and the most inept were allowed to reproduce).

But this latest demand is too much for any Palestinian leader–even one as endlessly obsequious as Abbas–to accept.

For to recognize Israel as a Jewish state would be not only to renounce (which no leader and indeed no individual Palestinian has the authority to do) the right of return of those Palestinians ethnically cleansed from their homes during the creation of Israel in 1948. It would also be to abandon to their fate the remaining million or so Palestinians (including their descendants) who survived the nakba and have been living as second class citizens of Israel, and perhaps even to give Israel license to expel them all and complete the “job” (as Benny Morris puts it) of 1948.

Israel today is no more Jewish than America is white or Christian. The big difference, though, is that, whereas America (for the most part) embraces its own multiculturalism, Israel still desperately wants to be Jewish. Its absurd demand to be recognized as such (no other state goes around impetuously demanding that others accept its own sense of its national character) is an expression of its own profound insecurity: not its military insecurity–the only serious military threat Israel faces on its own territory is imaginary–but rather its anxious awareness of its status as a botched, and hence forever incomplete, settler-colonial enterprise. Unlike Australia, there were too many aboriginals left standing when the smoke cleared over the ruins of Palestine in 1948. And to this day the Palestinians have refused to simply give up, go away or somehow annul themselves.

That fact–and its attendant anxiety among Zionists–poses a real problem for the million Palestinians inside Israel, whose fate is far from settled.

Western liberals consider Avigdor Lieberman to be right wing because he says openly that he wants the indigenous Palestinians removed from what he considers to be the Jewish land of Israel (to which he came as a Russian-speaking immigrant). What they fail to acknowledge is that Tzipi Livni, who ran in the recent Israeli elections as the voice of peace and moderation–the darling of Western liberals–hinted at exactly the same dark fate (“Once a Palestinian state is established, I can come to the Palestinian citizens, whom we call Israeli Arabs, and say to them “you are citizens with equal rights, but the national solution for you is elsewhere,'” she said during the electoral campaign–i.e., you are equal, but not really, and ultimately you must look elsewhere for a sense of home). And Netanyahu has long espoused a similar position.

How could he not? This is not rocket science or linear algebra: it is what it means for a state to insist on having a single cultural identity irrespective of who happens to actually be living on the territory it considers its own. It is all too rarely thought of in the same terms, but the violent insistence on monoculture is just as ugly in Israel as it is in Iran, Saudi Arabia, among the cadres of the British National Party, the followers of Jean-Marie le Pen, the hoodlums of Aryan Nation or the hooded posses of the KKK. The drive to obliterate or expunge cultural difference from a homeland conceived of as an exclusive space will always be inherently ugly.

And the fact of the matter is that the expulsion or “transfer” of Palestinians has been a core feature of Zionism as it has been practiced since 1948. It is inherent in Zionism as a political program–from right to left–because, if the idea behind Zionism is to establish an exclusively Jewish state (which it is), the only way for a would-be Jewish state to have been established on land that began the twentieth century with a population that was overwhelmingly (93 percent) non-Jewish was through the removal of the land’s non-Jewish population. The sense that there is an inherently Jewish land inconveniently cluttered up with a non-Jewish population that needs to be dealt with somehow or other drove Zionist planning all through the 1930s (the “transfer” of the Palestinians was planned more than a decade before the 1948 war). And, as grotesque as ever, it was on full view in Netanyahu’s speech.

The key moment in the speech came when he said that “the truth is that in the area of our homeland, in the heart of our Jewish Homeland, now lives a large population of Palestinians.” This attitude comes straight out of the primitive racialism and imaginary civilizational hierarchies of the nineteenth century. The Jews are a people with a homeland and hence they have a right to a state; the Palestinians are not a people at all, or certainly not one of the same order. They are merely a collection of vagabonds and trespassers intruding on the Jewish Homeland. They have no rights, let alone a centuries-old competing narrative of home attached to the same land, a narrative worthy of recognition by Israel.

On the contrary: the Palestinians must accept that Israel is the state of the Jewish people, and they must do so on the understanding that they are not entitled to the same rights. “We” are a people, Netanyahu was saying; “they” are merely a “population.” “We” have a right to a state–a real state. “They” do not. “They” have to recognize “our” rights; “we” owe “them” nothing in return, except, possibly, a curt nod of dismissal from “our” view into the walled-off ghettoes and cantons which we might (perhaps, if “they” behave well) be persuaded to build for “them” on “our” land–and “they” had better be grateful even for that.

This racialized sense of inherent entitlement and unique superiority–fueled (in just the way that a child is spoiled by over-indulgent parents) by over $100 billion of our tax dollars, the endless deference of our elected representatives, the open-ended diplomatic cover provided on demand by all our presidents after Eisenhower–is what allows Israelis like Netanyahu (and Lieberman, and Livni, and Olmert, and Sharon, and Rabin, etc.) to threaten, bellow at and admonish the Palestinians. It is also what allows Israel to occupy Palestinian land, demolish Palestinian homes, starve Palestinian children, imprison and shoot Palestinian youths, tear up Palestinian olive trees, crush Palestinian aspirations, while believing–really sincerely believing–that Israel is the real victim of everything that has happened. And, unbelievable as it is, that idea too (that Israel is the real victim of Palestinian aggression) was repeatedly expressed in Netanyahu’s speech. Make no mistake that he really believes it; it’s astonishing to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history, but most Israelis, and most of their supporters in this country, really do believe in this totally inverted–and perverted–view of history.

Such attitudes, such views, are the inevitable products of endless indulgence.

No matter what the best way forward is–two states or one–it is absolutely vital for the American people to call their leaders to account and to demand that this indulgence must end, for the sake of everyone involved. And until our politicians learn (or are persuaded) to do the right thing, it falls on each of us to do what we can to end the indulgence and to bring pressure to bear on Israel. Heeding the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions is the obvious place to begin.

The Language that Absolves Israel

[Originally published in the Los Angeles Times, 19 June 2009]

On Sunday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech that — by categorically ruling out the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state — ought to have been seen as a mortal blow to the quest for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Monday morning, however, newspaper headlines across the United States announced that Netanyahu had endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state, and the White House welcomed the speech as “an important step forward.”

Reality can be so easily stood on its head when it comes to Israel because the misreading of Israeli declarations is a long-established practice among commentators and journalists in the United States.

In fact, a special vocabulary has been developed for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the United States. It filters and structures the way in which developing stories are misread here, making it difficult for readers to fully grasp the nature of those stories — and maybe even for journalists to think critically about what they write.

The ultimate effect of this special vocabulary is to make it possible for Americans to accept and even endorse in Israel what they would reject out of hand in any other country.

Let me give a classic example.

In the U.S., discussion of Palestinian politicians and political movements often relies on a spectrum running from “extreme” to “moderate.” The latter sounds appealing; the former clearly applies to those who must be — must they not? — beyond the pale. But hardly anyone relying on such terms pauses to ask what they mean. According to whose standard are these manifestly subjective labels assigned?

Meanwhile, Israeli politicians are labeled according to an altogether different standard: They are “doves” or “hawks.” Unlike the terms reserved for Palestinians, there’s nothing inherently negative about either of those avian terms.

So why is no Palestinian leader referred to here as a “hawk”? Why are Israeli politicians rarely labeled “extremists”? Or, for that matter, “militants”?

There are countless other examples of these linguistic double standards. American media outlets routinely use the deracinating and deliberately obfuscating term “Israeli Arabs” to refer to the Palestinian citizens of Israel, despite the fact that they call themselves — and are — Palestinian.

Similarly, Israeli housing units built in the occupied territories in contravention of international law are always called “settlements” or even “neighborhoods” rather than what they are: “colonies.” That word may be harsh on the ears, but it’s far more accurate (“a body of people who settle in a new locality, forming a community subject to or connected with their parent state”).

These subtle distinctions make a huge difference. Unconsciously absorbed, such terms frame the way people and events are viewed. When it comes to Israel, we seem to reach for a dictionary that applies to no one else, to give a pass to actions or statements that would be condemned in any other quarter.

That’s what allowed Netanyahu to be congratulated for endorsing a Palestinian “state,” even though the kind of entity he said Palestinians might — possibly — be allowed to have would be nothing of the kind.

Look up the word “state” in the dictionary. You’ll probably see references to territorial integrity, power and sovereignty. The entity that Netanyahu was talking about on Sunday would lack all of those constitutive features. A “state” without a defined territory that is not allowed to control its own borders or airspace and cannot enter into treaties with other states is not a state, any more than an apple is an orange or a car an airplane. So how can leading American newspapers say “Israeli Premier Backs State for Palestinians,” as the New York Times had it? Or “Netanyahu relents on goal of two states,” as this paper put it?

Because a different vocabulary applies.

Which is also what kept Netanyahu’s most extraordinary demand in Sunday night’s speech from raising eyebrows here.

“The truth,” he said, “is that in the area of our homeland, in the heart of our Jewish homeland, now lives a large population of Palestinians.”

In other words, as Netanyahu repeatedly said, there is a Jewish people; it has a homeland and hence a state. As for the Palestinians, they are a collection — not even a group — of trespassers on Jewish land. Netanyahu, of course, dismisses the fact that they have a centuries-old competing narrative of home attached to the same land, a narrative worthy of recognition by Israel.

On the contrary: The Palestinians must, he said, accept that Israel is the state of the Jewish people (this is a relatively new Israeli demand, incidentally), and they must do so on the understanding that they are not entitled to the same rights. “We” are a people, Netanyahu was saying; “they” are merely a “population.” “We” have a right to a state — a real state. “They” do not.

And the spokesman for our African American president calls this “an important step forward”?

In any other situation — including our own country — such a brutally naked contrast between those who are taken to have inherent rights and those who do not would immediately be labeled as racist. Netanyahu, though, is given a pass, not because most Americans would knowingly endorse racism but because, in this case, a special political vocabulary kicks in that prevents them from being able to recognize it for exactly what it is.

California Cuts Education Budget at its Own Peril

[Originally published in The Los Angeles Times on November 17, 2008]

With California’s budget now facing an $11-billion shortfall, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed billions of dollars in spending cuts, most of them aimed at the state’s already beleaguered schools, colleges and universities.

The governor’s proposal is now on the table of the special legislative session that he called to address the budget crisis, so this is the time to draw a line to defend our public education system, before any further damage is added to the toll already taken by years of budget cuts on the educational — and hence life — prospects of a whole generation of Californian students.

Most of the prospective cuts — more than $2 billion — would be to California’s public elementary, middle and high schools, on top of the $3-billion cut from K-12 funding in the current budget.

According to the Census Bureau, California is already spending far less than the national average for each of its students, and about half what states such as New York and New Jersey and even the District of Columbia spend per student.

There is nothing left to pare. “From Siskiyou County to San Diego, districts have spent reserves, reduced staff, eliminated transportation or increased class sizes over the past difficult year,” warned Jack O’Connell, state superintendent of public instruction. “The governor’s proposed additional $2 billion in cuts to K-12 education would not only create catastrophic disruption in our schools and harm to our students in the middle of the school year, they would damage our future economy.”

The governor is also proposing to slash $330 million from community college budgets, $66 million from the Cal State system and $66 million from the University of California — all, again, on top of cuts that have already been made. In schools and colleges alike, spending cuts have immediate implications for the classroom (fewer instructors, fewer classes, more students per instructor, etc.).

But universities don’t just teach, they produce knowledge. In fact, what makes a great university great is that its students are taught by those engaged in state-of-the-art research. And cuts in spending on research can far outlast the transitory budget crises that produced them. A library that is forced to stop buying books may never recover, even if its budget is eventually restored. A lab that can’t purchase needed equipment will fall behind. Faculty members whose research stalls can lose touch with their fields and spend years playing catch-up. Many will leave, and schools that develop reputations as underfunded second- and third-tier institutions will find it difficult to replace them. Merely restoring a budget sometime in the future will not instantly undo those kinds of losses.

We live in a global-knowledge economy in which California developed a leading role in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s precisely because of the strength of its education system. Cal State and UC produced many of the highly skilled professionals working in science, computing, gaming, animation, writing and film production that together drive the state’s economy. To under-fund our educational system is to jeopardize our position in the global economy.

The problem is not simply a lack of money. We also have some of our spending priorities back to front. Even before the budget cuts, the state planned to spend $5,900 a student in California’s higher-education system this year (including community college students) but almost 10 times that amount ($58,000) per inmate in our bloated prison system, which absorbs as much money from the state budget as Cal State and UC combined.

Not only can we afford to spend more on education, but we Californians have repeatedly shown our willingness to tax ourselves for public projects we believe in: Witness the recent votes in favor of Proposition 1A and Measure R to raise transportation funds, and the passage of all 23 school bond measures on the L.A. County ballot, including the $7-billion Measure Q.

No one likes to pay higher taxes, of course, especially in difficult economic circumstances. And the current crisis will force us to make some tough choices. But if we choose not to collectively finance the state’s education budget at the required levels, more of a burden will fall on individual students and their families, many of whom simply won’t be able to afford it. Cal State and UC both warn of fee increases next year of up to 10% if state cuts go through, and they may also have to deny admission to thousands of qualified students. Community colleges may have to turn away more than 250,000 current students.

Not paying for the education system that made California an economic powerhouse is not an option: We can pay now, or we can pay much more later in lost opportunities carrying dollar price tags just as real as those of tax increases, not to mention the social cost of having a higher-education system beyond the reach of more and more Californians.

California has a $2-trillion economy, the eighth-largest in the world, ahead of Canada, Russia, India and Brazil, among others. Not only can we afford to offer our children a first-rate public education from kindergarten through college, but we are cheating them, and ourselves, if we don’t.

But our ability to raise the necessary revenue is currently being blocked by conservatives in the state Legislature who have categorically refused to countenance new taxes — and hence left the state no option but to cut. By starving our educational system of the funds it needs, they have chosen to protect the narrow interests of those who can afford to send their kids to private schools and universities, rather than the much broader public that voted them into office in the first place. That’s a choice they may come to regret at election time.

End of the two-state solution

[originally published in The Guardian, 28 July 2008]

In order to try to create an exclusively Jewish state in what had been the culturally diverse land of Palestine, Israel’s founders expelled or drove into flight half of Palestine’s Muslim and Christian population and seized their land, their houses, and their property (furniture, clothing, books, personal effects, family heirlooms), in what Palestinians call the nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948.

Even while demanding – rightly – that no one should forget the Jewish people’s history of suffering, and above all the Holocaust, Israel has insisted ever since 1948 not merely that the Palestinians must forget their own history, but that what it calls peace must be premised on that forgetting, and hence on the Palestinians’ renunciation of their rights. As Israel’s foreign minister has said, if the Palestinians want peace, they must learn to strike the word “nakba” from their lexicon.

Some must never forget, while others, clearly, must not be allowed to remember. Far from mere hypocrisy, this attitude perfectly expresses the Israeli people’s mistaken belief that they can find the security they need at the expense of the Palestinians, or that one people’s right can be secured at the cost of another’s.

Little wonder such an approach has not delivered peace. The only way to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to end the denial of rights that fuels it, and to ensure that both peoples’ rights are equally protected.

For some years it was thought that peace could be obtained by sidestepping the central fact of the nakba, and creating a Palestinian statelet in what remained of Palestine after 1948, namely, the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in 1967.

But such a two-state solution is no longer possible. The inescapable fact is that one state controls all of the land, and it has done so for over 40 years, affirming one people’s right to live, marry, work and settle by negating another people’s right to do the same, on land that two peoples – not just one – call home.

The only question now is how much longer this negation can go on, and how long it will be before a state premised on it is superseded by its opposite, an affirmative, genuinely democratic, secular and multi-cultural state, the only kind that can offer Jewish Israelis and Muslim and Christian Palestinians alike a future free of discrimination, occupation, fear and violence.

The question, in other words, is not whether there will be a one-state solution, but when; and how much needless suffering there will be in the meantime, until those who are committed to the project of creating and maintaining a religiously exclusivist state in what was historically a culturally and religiously heterogeneous land finally relent and accept the inevitable: that they have failed.

This last point is especially important, because the conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians is – and has always been –– driven by the notion that hundreds of years of cultural heterogeneity and plurality could be negated overnight by the creation of a state with a single cultural and religious identity.

It hardly matters that that identity was never as homogeneous as Zionists like to claim: witness Israel’s methodical de-Arabisation of its Mizrahi (Arab-Jewish) population in the 1950s and 1960s, or the perennial debate over “who is a Jew” – an unseemly question that in Israel is not merely a matter of arcane theological exegesis but tied directly to matters of citizenship, nationality, and law.

Israel’s claim to an exclusive Jewish identity – as symbolised by its flag – has been sustained ever since 1948 by denying the moral and legal right of return of those Palestinians expelled during the nakba, by forms of legalised discrimination inside the state, and by the maintenance of a much more violent system of apartheid in the territories Israel has militarily occupied since 1967.

Palestinian citizens of Israel – officially referred to by the state as deracinated “Arabs” because it cannot bring itself to acknowledge the fact that they are Palestinian – face institutionalised forms of discrimination far worse than those once encountered by African Americans. For example, while Jewish Israelis who marry non-citizens (or residents of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories) are entitled to have their spouses come live with them, Israeli law explicitly denies that right to Palestinian citizens who marry Palestinians from the occupied territories. Palestinian citizens are also denied various other privileges, including access to state lands, reserved exclusively for Jews.

Meanwhile, Israel maintains two separate infrastructures in the occupied territories, and it subjects the two populations there to two distinct legal and administrative systems. Indigenous Palestinians are subject to a harsh form of military rule, whereas Jewish settlers enjoy the protections of Israeli civil law, even though they have been transplanted -– in violation of international law – beyond the borders of their state.

Indeed, Israel’s intensive settlement of the occupied territories is the primary reason for the demise of the two-state solution. Not only is the settler population increasing at a rate three times greater than that of Israel itself, but, according to a UN report published last summer, almost 40% of the West Bank is now taken up with Israeli infrastructure to which Palestinians are denied access. The remainder of the territory has been broken up into an archipelago, each little “island” of territory in effect a small-scale Gaza, cut off from the outside and completely vulnerable to Israel’s whims. Under such circumstances, an independent Palestinian state is inconceivable.

Even if it were conceivable, the creation of a Palestinian statelet in the occupied territories would do nothing to safeguard the rights of the 20% of Israel’s citizens who are Palestinian; on the contrary, its existence would further empower the likes of former deputy prime minister Avigdor Lieberman, who wants all Palestinians removed to make room for Jewish immigrants (like himself). Nor would it address the right of return of the Palestinians who were deliberately expelled to make room for a Jewish state in 1948, who have been kept out and living in limbo – or in the prison that is Gaza – solely in order to preserve Israel’s tenuous claim to Jewishness.

Negation, denial and imprisonment have run their course. The future should be built on affirmation, cooperation, and the constitution of a democratic and secular state that guarantees the rights of Israelis and Palestinians, of Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike.

Occupation by Bureaucracy

[Originally published in the International Herald Tribune, 24 June 2008]

A cease-fire went into effect in Gaza last week, offering some respite from the violence that has killed hundreds of Palestinians and five Israelis in recent months. It will do nothing, however, to address the underlying cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Intermittent spectacular violence may draw the world’s attention to the occupied Palestinian territories, but our obsession with violence actually distracts us from the real nature of Israel’s occupation, which is its smothering bureaucratic control of everyday Palestinian life.

This is an occupation ultimately enforced by tanks and bombs, and through the omnipresent threat, if not application, of violence. But its primary instruments are application forms, residency permits, population registries and title deeds. On its own, no cease-fire will relieve the beleaguered Palestinians.

Gaza is virtually cut off from the outside world by Israeli power. Elsewhere, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the ongoing Israeli occupation comprehensively infuses all the normally banal activities of Palestinians’ everyday lives: applying for permission to access one’s own land; applying for what Israel regards as the privilege – rather than the right – of living with one’s spouse and children; applying for permission to drive one’s car; to dig a well; to visit relatives in the next town; to visit Jerusalem; to go to work; to school; to university; to hospital. There is hardly any dimension of everyday life in Palestine that is not minutely managed by Israeli military or bureaucratic personnel.

Partly, this occupation of everyday life enables the Israelis to maintain their vigilant control over the Palestinian population. But it also serves the purpose of slowly, gradually removing Palestinians from their land, forcing them to make way for Jewish settlers.

Just in 2006, for example, Israel stripped 1,363 Jerusalem Palestinians of the right to live in the city in which many of them were born. It did this not by dramatically forcing dozens of people at a time onto trucks and dumping them at the city limits, but rather by quietly stripping them, one by one, of their Jerusalem residency papers.

This in turn was enabled by a series of bureaucratic procedures. While Israel continues to violate international law by building exclusively Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, it rarely grants building permits to Palestinian residents of the same city. Since 1967, the third of Jerusalem’s population that is Palestinian has been granted just 9 percent of the city’s official housing permits. The result is a growing abundance of housing for Jews and a severe shortage of housing for non-Jews – i.e., Palestinians.

In fact, 90 percent of the Palestinian territory Israel claimed to have annexed to Jerusalem after 1967 is today off-limits to Palestinian development because the land is either already built on by exclusively Jewish settlements or being reserved for their future expansion.

Denied permits, many Palestinians in Jerusalem build without them, but at considerable risk: Israel routinely demolishes Palestinian homes built without a permit. This includes over 300 homes in East Jerusalem demolished between 2004 and 2007 and 18,000 Palestinian homes in the occupied territories demolished since 1967.

One alternative has been to move to the West Bank suburbs and commute to Jerusalem. The wall cutting off East Jerusalem from the West Bank and thereby separating tens of thousands of Jerusalem Palestinians from the city of their birth has made that much more difficult.

And it too has its risks: Palestinians who cannot prove to Israel’s satisfaction that Jerusalem has continuously been their “center of life” have been stripped of their Jerusalem residency papers. Without those papers, they will be expelled from Jerusalem, and confined to one of the walled-in reservoirs – of which Gaza is merely the largest example – that Israel has allocated as holding pens for the non-Jewish population of the holy land.

The expulsion of half of Palestine’s Muslim and Christian population in what Palestinians call the nakba (catastrophe) of 1948 was undertaken by Israel’s founders in order to clear space in which to create a Jewish state.

The nakba did not end 60 years ago, however: It continues to this very day, albeit on a smaller scale. Yet even ones and twos eventually add up. Virtually every day, another Palestinian joins the ranks of the millions removed from their native land and denied the right of return.

Their long wait will end – and this conflict will come to a lasting resolution – only when the futile attempt to maintain an exclusively Jewish state in what had previously been a vibrantly multi-religious land is abandoned.

Separation will always require threats or actual violence; a genuine peace will come not with more separation, but with the right to return to a land in which all can live as equals. Only a single democratic, secular and multicultural state offers that hope to Israelis and Palestinians, to Muslims, Jews and Christians alike.

Banned in the USA (Almost)

[A shorter version of this piece was originally published 8 June 2008 in The Washington Post]

I didn’t think America was a place where bookstores barred people for their viewpoints, until it happened to me last month, right here in Washington, D.C., the city of my birth.

I had been scheduled to appear at Politics & Prose, one of the city’s best known bookstores, to talk about my latest book, Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation.

Then, at the last minute, the bookstore owners realized that my book questions the viability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (mostly because, after 40 years of intensive Israeli settlement, there’s no land left for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, almost half of which is now taken up by Israeli infrastructure)—and that it concludes with an argument in favor of a single democratic, secular and multicultural state in which Israelis and Palestinians could live peacefully as citizens with equal rights.

My appearance at the bookstore was immediately cancelled.

“I do not believe that your book will further constructive debate in the United States,” one of the owners wrote, seeking to justify the sudden cancellation. “A single state is not a solution.”

Needless to say, I was dismayed to have had my invitation to speak on an urgent issue abruptly rescinded just because I express a different point of view from the one sanctioned not just by the White House and State Department but also, apparently, by a supposedly independent bookstore.

My own cancellation fits into a larger pattern, however.

The Irish poet Tom Paulin, of Oxford University, had been invited to speak at Harvard University a few years ago; apparently with the blessings of Harvard’s president, his appearance was cancelled because of his views about Israel/Palestine.

Professor Joel Beinin of Stanford University had been invited to speak about Israel/Palestine at a school in the Silicon Valley early last year; his appearance was cancelled when the school came under outside pressure.

Professor Tony Judt of NYU had been invited to speak about Israel/Palestine at the Polish Consulate in New York the previous fall; his talk was cancelled after the consulate came under pressure from the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.

Both Judt and Beinin are Jewish, incidentally; but both believe that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as Israelis. Apparently that point of view has no place in American discussions of the conflict.

Neither, it seems, does President Carter’s assertion that—by creating two different road networks, maintaining two different legal systems, and granting rights to one population that it forcibly denies to another living in the same territory—Israel is practicing a kind of Apartheid.

Nor does the assertion, by Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, that a powerful but informal lobby stifles the free discussion of Israel and Palestine in the United States: Mearsheimer too has had at least one long-standing invitation to speak abruptly rescinded—ironically confirming his and Walt’s argument for them.

The fact that senior scholars from the nation’s major universities (and even elder statesmen) are prevented from speaking—or are drowned out by emotional invective—simply because they do not toe an official line suggests that the civic culture on which our country was founded has broken down, at least when it comes to the question of Palestine and Israel.

However, the fact that more and more people are encountering silence, intimidation or censorship when they question the conventional wisdom, or official policy, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is a sign that more and more people are starting to ask questions in the first place. So the attempt to deny alternative points of view a forum (or to angrily shout them down if they succeed in reaching a public) is a sign not of the strength but of the weakness of those who adhere to the official line. As the great English poet John Milton pointed out three centuries ago, only those who worry that their own position is faulty have something to fear from letting other points of view be heard.

Today that fear has reached new levels.

But can we as a nation really afford not to hear each other out as we evaluate our policies in the Middle East?

And should Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular not be allowed to speak? Or should they be allowed to speak only if their erstwhile audience gets to tell them what they should say? What then is the point of a conversation? What is the alternative to conversation? Does foreclosing conversation not simply empower those who say that it’s a waste of time?

Anyway, what is so unspeakably wrong with saying that justice, secularism, tolerance and equality of citizens—rather than privileges granted on the basis of religion—should be among the founding values of a state?

And what does it mean that one can be barred from expressing such a sentiment at a liberal bookstore in the capital city of the United States of America?

[Postscript: After receiving letters of protest and eloquent entreaties by bloggers, Politics & Prose decided to reissue my invitation.]

Debate on Democracy Now!

As Israelis Celebrate Independence and Palestinians Mark the “Nakba,” a Debate with Benny Morris, Saree Makdisi and Norman Finkelstein

Originally aired on Democracy Now!!, 16 May 2008

Sixty years since the creation of Israel and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, we host a debate on the legacy of 1948 and the possibility of a just future for both Israelis and Palestinians with three guests: Benny Morris, seen as one of the most important Israeli historians of the 1948 war and after; Saree Makdisi, UCLA professor and author of Palestine Inside Out; and Norman Finkelstein, author of several books, including Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict and Beyond Chutzpah.

Guests:

Benny Morris, Israeli historian of 1948. His latest book is 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War.

Saree Makdisi, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCLA and the author of Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation.

Norman Finkelstein, Author of several books, including The Holocaust Industry, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict and Beyond Chutzpah.

Rush Transcript

AMY GOODMAN: We continue today on the sixtieth anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel. Today, a debate around the legacy of 1948 and a possibility of a just future for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Benny Morris is seen as one of the most important Israeli historians of the 1948 war. From his first book twenty years ago, Morris has documented Israeli atrocities and the expulsion of Palestinians, considered part of a group of so-called “revisionist” historians who challenged conventional Israeli thinking about 1948. However, unlike his critics to the left, Morris did not consider the expulsions to be part of a systematic Israeli policy of transfer. His latest book, published in March by Yale University Press, is called 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War. He joins us here in our firehouse studio.

We’re also joined in California by Saree Makdisi. He’s in Los Angeles, professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA. His latest book is Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation, just out this month. His most recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times is titled “Forget the Two-State Solution: Israelis and Palestinians Must Share the Land Equally.”

We are also joined on the telephone from Brussels by Norman Finkelstein, author of four books, including The Holocaust Industry, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict and Beyond Chutzpah. He was in Brussels addressing a group of parliamentarians around the issue of Palestinians.

And our guest remains on the line, Tikva Honig-Parnass, who fought in the 1948 war, now is a progressive writer in Israel and critical of what happened in 1948.

Benny Morris, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain, from your perspective, from your research, what happened in 1948.

BENNY MORRIS: Well, based on a large amount of documentation, which I’ve gone through over the years, several decades, in fact, the international community in the wake of the Holocaust voted to establish two states in Palestine, to divide the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jewish side, the Zionist movement, the Jewish Agency Executive accepted the international decision and went about establishing their state.

The Palestinian Arabs, backed by the Arab world, rejected the decision and went to war against the Jewish community in Palestine and subsequently against the state which was established half a year later. As a result of this war, some 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes, not really turned into refugees, most of them, because they were moved or moved from one place in Palestine to another. About one-third moved out of Palestine and were genuine refugees.

AMY GOODMAN: And on what do you base all of this?

BENNY MORRIS: Oh, on masses and masses of Israeli, American, United Nations, British documentation. The Arab documentation isn’t available. The Arab states, all of them being dictatorships, do not open their archives. But all Western archives, especially the Israeli archives, give a very good picture of what actually happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of your finding within the state of Israel—you’re basing much of this on Israeli documents—how you broke with convention in Israel?

BENNY MORRIS: Yeah. The traditional Zionist narrative about what had happened in ’48, especially relating to the refugee problem, was that the refugees had been ordered, instructed, advised by their leaders, by Palestinian leaders or Arab leaders outside the country, to flee, and that is why 700,000 left their homes. The documentation gives us a much, much broader and a more nuanced picture of what happened. Most of the people who were displaced fled their homes. A small number were expelled. Most fled their homes as a result of the war, the fear of battle, the fear of being attacked, the fear of dying. A small number also left because of the economic conditions. And a small number were advised or instructed by their leadership, as in Haifa in April 1948, to leave the country. But it’s a mixed bag, with the war itself, the hostilities themselves and fear of being hurt being the main precipitant to flight.

AMY GOODMAN: You have written that the humiliation of the Arabs going back to 1949 is what underlies so much of the hostility today. Lay out what you see as the humiliations.

BENNY MORRIS: It’s a historic humiliation. It’s not a private, personal humiliation. I think the Arab world was brought up—the Islamic Arab world was brought up on tales of power and conquest dating back to the seventh century and the expansion of Islam and the Arabs out of the Arabian Peninsula and the conquest of the Mediterranean Basin, parts of Europe, and so on. And they had a self-image of a powerful people.

And what happened in the—after the Turkish Ottoman conquests in the fifteenth century and subsequently belittled the Arab world, disempowered it. And then came the European imperial incursions, sometimes conquests in the nineteenth century. And topping all that came the Zionist influx and the unsuccessful Arab war against it in 1947-48. And this was a humiliation the Arab world could not take. 630,000 Jews had bested a 1.2 million Palestinians and 40 million Arabs surrounding that 630,000-strong community. And this humiliation is something which they have never been able to erase and still, I think, motivates them in large measure in their desire to erase the state of Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: How was it that for so many years the Zionist narrative was that there were either no Palestinians—it was an empty land—or the Palestinians left of their own accord?

BENNY MORRIS: These are different subjects, but I think the Zionists preferred not to see the 500,000-or-so natives who were there, as they regarded them at the end of the nineteenth century, because if they had sort of looked at them and they’d have seen the problem of what do you do with 500,000 people who don’t want you to arrive and settle in your—in what they regarded as their land, this would have knocked out the confidence from the Zionists and undermined their enterprise. It was better to see that the—to believe that the land was in some way empty. But if you look at the actual Zionist documentation, they did see the Arabs, and they knew there was a problem almost from the start.

When it comes to the Palestinian so-called—most of them so-called refugees or the displaced of ’48—look, political movements, peoples like to feel good about themselves and to feel that their cause is just. My belief is the cause, the Zionist cause, was just, and they had good reasons to believe—to see themselves as good. But every war has its dark side, especially civil wars, which are notably vicious. And ’48 also had a dark side, which involved the displacement of 700,000 people and the decision by the Israeli government—and this is the crucial decision—there was never a decision to expel, but there was a decision not to allow back the refugees. And this, in some ways, is a dark side to the ’48 war, which was a glorious war of the creation of the state of Israel; the defeat of larger armies, ultimately larger countries, by a small and weak community. But they preferred not to look at the dark side.

AMY GOODMAN: Saree Makdisi, I wanted to bring you in, a professor at UCLA joining us from Los Angeles. Your response to Benny Morris?

SAREE MAKDISI: Well, I mean, I think the most interesting thing is the way in which Dr. Morris talks about there being a problem way before 1948, and he’s entirely right. When the Zionist movement decided to create a Jewish homeland or a Jewish state in a land that had a largely non-Jewish population at the beginning of the twentieth century, there was in fact a problem. He’s totally right. So the question is, as he puts it in his own work, what do you do with this big population that doesn’t want there to be a state that displaces them or ignores them or sidesteps them or overshadows them or whatever? And as his own research shows and as the research of other historians shows, from the—at least the mid-1930s on, there’s talk of removing the population.

And that goes on to this very day in different forms. I mean, for example, there are people in Israel itself in Israeli politics to this very day, both within Israel proper and in the Occupied Territories, who talk about completing the process of transfer, of removal, of 1948.

And as he also says, the other thing is that, irrespective of what language one uses—and notice how candy one can be with the use of language: are they “refugees”? Are they “displaced persons”? It doesn’t really matter what language one uses; the people who were removed from their homes, that’s what matters. And as he says himself in what he just said now, what matters isn’t so much that they were removed from their homes, it’s that they were never allowed back to their homes. So whatever the circumstances of the removals and expulsions of 1948, the more important fact is, that was seen as something—as an issue forty years previously, if not longer before that, and as an issue to be blocked when they decided—when they wanted to go back to their homes after the fighting stopped. And they’ve never been allowed to go back, as you know, despite their moral and legal right to do so. That’s what this is all about.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Finkelstein, let me bring you into this conversation, author of a number of books on Israel-Palestine—his latest is Beyond Chutzpah—speaking to us from Brussels.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, as it happens, on the plane ride over here, I read Benny Morris’s new book, and what was most surprising to me is that although the documentation remains pretty much the same as the past several books—he’s added some new material, but it’s pretty much the same as several previous books he’s written on the topic—the conclusions and the political framework has been radically changed.

Now, it’s no problem for people to change their opinions on the basis of new evidence, but what happens in Morris’s new book, 1948, is he radically changes his opinions by subtracting evidence. So let’s take just briefly, because we’re a radio program, some examples. In his previous book, he says transfer was inevitable and inbuilt into Zionism, and this aim automatically produced resistance among the Arabs. And he goes on to say in another book that it was the fear of territorial dispossession and displacement that was to be the chief motor of Arab antagonism to Zionism. So we have two basis facts: number one, Zionism, inbuilt into it was the expulsion of the indigenous population; and number two, the Palestinians or Arabs opposed Zionism, because they were fearful of losing their homes and losing their country.

But now, when you open up his new book, cause and effect have been reversed. It becomes now the Palestinians who are the “expulsionists,” to use his words, and it’s the Zionist movement which is reacting to the Palestinians, which causes them to be occasionally expulsionists. It’s as if to say the Native American population of the United States was expulsionist, because it refused to acquiesce in the European settlers taking over their homes.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Morris?

BENNY MORRIS: I think Finkelstein has a blinkered view, and he sees only certain documents. What I try to do is look at actually the breadth of the documentation and derive conclusions about the past.

The Palestinian National Movement, led by Haj Amin al-Husseini in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, wanted to expel the Jews. The Jews felt they had a moral right to live in the country and to reestablish their sovereignty in the country, at least in part of it. And the Palestinians thought not. They didn’t care about Jewish history. They cared nothing about Jewish tragedy or persecution over the 2,000 years and wanted to expel them from the country. They didn’t get the chance, because they lost the war. So the war—something like the reverse had happened.

But the fact is—and this is something most Arab commentators ignore or don’t tell us—the Palestinians rejected the UN partition resolution; the Jews accepted it. They accepted the possibility of dividing the country into two states, with one Arab state and a Jewish state. And the Jewish state, which was to come into being in 1947-48, according to the United Nations, was to have had an Arab population of 400,000 to 500,000 and a Jewish population of slightly more than 500,000. That was what was supposed to come into being, and that is what the Zionist movement accepted. When the Arabs rejected it and went to war against the Jewish community, it left the Jewish community no choice. It could either lose the war and be pushed into the sea, or ultimately push out the Arab minority in their midst who wanted to kill them. It’s an act of self-defense, and that’s what happened.

My facts in any—in all my books have not changed at all. They’re all there. But one has to look at also the context in which things happened, and this was the context: an expulsionist mentality, an expulsionist onslaught on the Jewish community in Palestine by Palestine’s Arabs and by the invading Arab armies, and a Jewish self-defense, which involved also pushing out large numbers of Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Saree Makdisi, this issue of the acceptance of the partition, can you take it from there?

SAREE MAKDISI: Yeah. I mean, there are several things about it. For one thing, as Dr. Morris points out, it’s true that the mainstream Zionist movement accepted the partition plan. But on the other hand, as his own historical record shows, Ben-Gurion and others were very frank that the acceptance was meant to be tactical rather than sort of, you know, whole-hearted. So the idea was to accept and then go from there, not just to accept and then really settle down into the two states as envisaged by the UN partition plan.

Meanwhile, the Arab rejection of the plan had to do with the fact that basically they were-–the Palestinians and Arabs were being told that they should become a minority in their own land. That’s what this is fundamentally all about, as well. So, the question is, which viewers have to contemplate is, what would they do if somebody came and told them that they should either become a minority in their own homeland—that is, second-class citizens—or be removed from their homeland? And I think almost anybody would say this is an unreasonable proposition. So, again, it comes back to the question of, what would you do in this situation?

But more than that, I think what’s important to ask Dr. Morris, as long as we have him with us, is: when you talk about—Dr. Morris, when you talk about the events of 1948 in that famous interview with Haaretz in 2004, you say quite clearly that ethnic cleansing is justified and that the main problem, as far as you see it—then, anyway—was that Ben-Gurion didn’t go far enough in completing the ethnic cleansing, that he should have removed as much as possible of the non-Jewish population all the way to the Jordan River. So my question to you is, is this still a position that you hold? Do you still think it was justified? Do you still think that Ben-Gurion should have finished the job? And do you think still that in some ways that is the origin of the conflict as it persists to this day?

BENNY MORRIS: My point in the Haaretz interview, and I repeat it since then, is that a Jewish state could not have arisen with a vast Arab minority—40, almost 50, percent of its population being Arabs—which opposed the existence of that Jewish state and opposed their being a large minority in that state. And they went and they showed that by going to war against the Jewish state, which left the Jews in an intolerable position: either they give in and don’t get a state, or they fight back and in fighting back end up pushing out Arabs.

My point also was that had—and this is really the point, and I think you would agree with it and understand it perhaps on the logical plane, if not on the emotional plane—had the war ended, the 1948 war ended with all the Palestinian population being moved—moving, it doesn’t matter how—across the Jordan River and there establishing their state in Jordan, across the river, a Palestinian Arab state, and had the Jews had their state without or without a large Arab minority on the west bank of the Jordan River, between the river and the Mediterranean Sea, the history of the Middle East, the history of Israel-Palestine, the history of the Palestinians and of the Jews, would have been much better over the past sixty years. Since ’48, all we’ve had is terrorism, clashes, wars, and so on, all of which have caused vast suffering to both peoples. And had this separation of populations occurred in 1948, I’m sure the Middle East would have enjoyed, and both peoples would have enjoyed, a much better future since 1948.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break. Then we’re going to come back to this discussion. Our guests are Benny Morris, a professor, historian at Ben-Gurion University in Tel Aviv. We’re also joined from UCLA by Saree Makdisi, who is the author of the book Palestine Inside Out. On the phone with us from Brussels is Norman Finkelstein, among his books, The Holocaust Industry and Beyond Chutzpah. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue this discussion, I wanted turned, though, to an excerpt of an interview I did with former US President Jimmy Carter. This is President Carter talking about his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid and why he describes the situation in Palestine as one of apartheid.

  • JIMMY CARTER: Well, the message is very clear. It deals with Palestine, not inside Israel itself, just the Palestinian Occupied Territories. […] And the word “apartheid” is exactly accurate. You know, this is an area that’s occupied by two powers. They are now completely separated. Palestinians can’t even ride on the same roads that the Israelis have created or built in Palestinian territory. The Israelis never see a Palestinian, except the Israeli soldiers. The Palestinians never see an Israeli, except at a distance, except the Israeli soldiers. So within Palestinian territory, they are absolutely and totally separated, much worse than they were in South Africa, by the way.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Morris, your response?

BENNY MORRIS: I think the image of apartheid is problematic and inaccurate. I think there are—there is a separation of the settlers—between the settlers and the local Arab population in the territories, between the soldiers, the Israeli soldiers, and the Arab population, but it all stems from a vast problem of security: Arab terrorism, Arab warfare by neighboring states who support the Palestinians. And the whole thing is simply a mechanism of self-defense, which has—which has obviously unpleasant and anti-humanitarian offshoots.

But you have to remember—and this is something people also forget when they talk about history—in 1967, Israel was assaulted by Jordan in the West Bank. It didn’t go into the West Bank and East Jerusalem out of free will. The Jordanians opened up with cannon and machine guns against West Jerusalem and against the environs of Tel Aviv. And Israelis reluctantly went into the West Bank and started this occupation. It wasn’t something generated or initiated by Israel. It was defending themselves against Jordanian attack. I’m not talking now about the southern front, but the central front. The Jordanians were told twice on the morning of the 5th of June, ’67, “Do not shoot. We will not touch you.” And after they started shooting, King Hussein of Jordan was told by the Israelis through American and UN intermediaries, “Stop shooting, and we will not touch East Jerusalem or the West Bank.” He continued shooting and forced Israel’s hand. Unfortunately, Israel stayed there after ’67, until, in some ways, this very day. And this is a large part of the problem. But it’s worth looking at the root of the problem, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Finkelstein?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, first of all, the comparison with apartheid at this point has become almost a cliche. If you opened up Haaretz, Israel’s most influential newspaper, just two weeks ago, it had an editorial, which read, “Our Debt to Jimmy Carter,” and it says that although Israelis feel uncomfortable with the apartheid analogy, they go on to say, quote, “the situation begs for the comparison.” So I don’t think it’s really controversial, what Carter said, in the real world.

Number two, I think Dr. Morris is probably the only one on earth who still believes all of Israel’s actions in the Occupied Territories bear strictly on security. Does he really believe that all 460,000 settlers in the Occupied Territories, the settlements, the Jewish bypass roads, or Jews-only bypass roads—can he possibly believe still that these are there only for security and not because Israel wants to annex the territory? This is not very serious.

Furthermore, Mr. Morris engages in all sorts of fantasies about what happened in 1967. Now is not the time to go through it. But if you read Tom Segev’s book, you’ll find, already in the third week of May, the Israeli officer corps was stating clearly that “Come what may, we’ll use the opportunity of the next war to occupy or to annex or to attack the West Bank.”

BENNY MORRIS: OK, can I—can I—

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: It’s true—it’s true—it’s true that Mr. Hussein, keeping to his peace treaty with—or I should say his treaty with Egypt, joined in the attack after Israel launched its attack on Egypt. But this notion that the West Bank just by chance came to be occupied, just like Mr. Morris’s fantasy that 700,000 Palestinians just by chance came to find themselves outside their homes in 1948, is just not serious.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Morris?

BENNY MORRIS: I don’t know why Norman Finkelstein calls what I write “fantasies.” Most of his work on the Middle East and on the Israeli-Arab problem is based on my work. Look at his footnotes. But that’s a separate issue.

There is no fantasy at all in understanding that in ’67 Israel was under mortal—in mortal peril, under Arab threat and attacked by the Jordanians and by the Syrians. The business of the south and the Egyptians is more complex, but he also knows that the Egyptians closed the Straits—

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: One second, Egypt attacked Israel in 1967?

BENNY MORRIS: No, do not—I didn’t—I didn’t bother you. I didn’t bother you. I didn’t interfere with you. Please let me finish.

The Egyptians closed the Straits of Tiran, expelled the United Nations peacekeeping force and threatened Israel with destruction in May 1967, and this is what led to the crisis. You are right that there were expansionist urges among some parts of the Israeli population, including part of the officer corps, not the officer corps, but that isn’t what motivated the Israeli government to strike at Egypt on the 5th of June. What motivated the Israeli government—and it doesn’t matter what Tom Segev writes or doesn’t write in his book, which is a pretty bad book, but that’s not the point—the key thing was security in ’67. I think you even understand that.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Security is always the key thing, Mr. Morris.

BENNY MORRIS: It’s not always—it is the key. It’s true. Since Israel—

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: You can justify taking over a whole continent in the name of security.

BENNY MORRIS: Since Israel—since Israel was invaded—since Israel—

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: That’s what Hitler did.

BENNY MORRIS: Since Israel is—the comparison of Israel with Hitler is ridiculous—

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, but the—no, the notion of security—

BENNY MORRIS: —the same as your book on the Holocaust is ridiculous.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: —to constantly justify expansion.

BENNY MORRIS: No, security is a fact of Israel—

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Every state does that, Mr. Morris.

BENNY MORRIS: The problem of—

AMY GOODMAN: One at a time.

BENNY MORRIS: The problem—no, he’s interfering with what I’m saying.

AMY GOODMAN: Right.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: That’s how we went from the East Coast to the West Coast. We called it “security.”

BENNY MORRIS: The problem of security has reigned, dominated over Israeli life since ’48 quite justifiably. Israel was attacked by the Palestinian Arabs. It was invaded by Arab states. It was threatened for decades with extinction by its Arab neighbors and is currently being threatened with extinction by the Hamas, by the Hezbollah and by the Iranian patrons who are trying to get atomic weapons. So don’t dismiss the problem of security in Israeli minds or objectively.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Makdisi, I want to bring you into this discussion. Your response?

SAREE MAKDISI: OK. Well, I mean, there are several things to be said. The first of all is the business of security. And, you know, actually, I am convinced that Dr. Morris is speaking the truth, I mean that he’s being honest when he says that this is a question of security. In other words, I think that the Israelis really do think that security is what matters and that it justifies all of their actions.

The question is, what kind of collective neurosis does it take when the fact that what they’re doing in the Occupied Territories isn’t just holding territory to defend their very existence, as he’s putting it, but actively settling, colonizing—illegally colonizing—the Occupied Territories? As he knows, or as he ought to know, to this very day, the Jewish settler population in the Occupied Territories is increasing at a rate three times greater than that of the rate of population increase of Israel itself. So there is a will here to settle the land. Now, are you going to tell me that the process of putting in civilians into militarily occupied territory is done on the basis of security? Whose security is safeguarded by—

BENNY MORRIS: Let me just add something.

SAREE MAKDISI: —actively—can I finish my sentence? Whose security is safeguarded by putting civilians into a war zone? That just doesn’t make any sense at all as an argument. That doesn’t mean that the Israelis don’t also think there’s a question of security.

But the question is, when the Israelis look at these things, one has to understand a kind of collective neurosis is taking place, and I think that’s part of why we’re at loggerheads here, because they are convinced that everything—look at the way he’s talking. Before the break, what he was saying was, the conflict wouldn’t now have the shape that it does if the ethnic cleansing of 1948 had been completed all the way to the Jordan River. Another way of saying the same thing would—to go back to what he’s saying, which is why it’s justified, as far as he’s concerned—is if the Palestinian people had been literally annihilated in 1948, there also wouldn’t be much of a conflict now, because the other people wouldn’t be there. Now, is that justified? And how can one talk about the process of either mass expulsion or genocide, virtual or literal or whatever, in terms of security? So, and then also, how can one talk about—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s put the question to Professor Morris.

BENNY MORRIS: Amy, please.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you for the completion of the expulsion of Palestinians?

BENNY MORRIS: No, I’ve always said that I’m opposed, both morally and on practical grounds, to expulsion in present circumstance—

SAREE MAKDISI: That’s not what you said in that interview.

BENNY MORRIS: —in present—that’s what I said in the interview, as well—in present circumstances. But projecting back on ’48, I said both peoples would have had a much pleasanter, a more pacific existence since ’48, if what had happened between Turkey and Greece in the 1920s had happened also in Palestine. But that’s the secondary subject here at the moment.

You raised the subject of settlements, and I think we’re in partial or even more than partial agreement on the problem of settlements. I have always opposed Israel’s settlement venture in the territories, realizing that the establishment of settlements represented an obstacle to peace. But this doesn’t undermine the argument that some of the settlement was undertaken with security in mind. It’s true that other factors entered into it, such as a desire to return to historic homelands. Religious convictions and so on went into the settlement venture, as well. But there was always, underlying the settlement venture, especially along the Jordan River in certain places on the high ground of Judea and Samaria, there were security considerations in establishing settlements.

These should have been overtaken by a desire for peace and a peace agreement by both peoples. Unfortunately, this desire for peace, I don’t think exists on the side of the Palestinians and on the part of some of their patrons like Iran, Hezbollah, and so on. I think, incidentally, if you look at any poll of Israel’s Jewish population, it will tell you that the Israelis, by and large, 70 percent, 80 percent, want to get out of the West Bank and to end the settlement venture. But Hamas and Hezbollah and Iran and others have not enabled them to leave, because they haven’t enabled or haven’t persuaded the Palestinians that peace is the right option and a two-state solution is the only possible settlement.

AMY GOODMAN: We have about forty-five seconds for each of you to talk about what has to happen right now. I want to begin with you, Norman Finkelstein. At this point, what needs to happen?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: What has to happen is, Israel has to join the international community and accept the principles for resolving the conflict that the entire world has accepted. You look at the last UN General Assembly resolution passed 161-to-7, the seven dissenting states being the United States, Israel, Nauru, Palau, Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Australia. 161 countries said a full Israeli withdrawal to the June ’67 borders and a just resolution of the refugee question. That’s what the whole accepts, and that’s what Israel rejected.

AMY GOODMAN: Benny Morris, what has to happen?

BENNY MORRIS: There has to be a change of mindset on the Palestinian side and acceptance of the two-state formula as the only necessary formula for a solution. Without the acceptance of two states, there will never be peace in Palestine.

AMY GOODMAN: Saree Makdisi?

SAREE MAKDISI: At this point, precisely because of the kind of aggressive colonization of the Occupied Territories, it’s no longer possible to separate the two populations, if it ever was. I’m not sure that it ever was, but certainly at this point it isn’t possible to do so. So the only way out at this point is for the two peoples to share the land equally and to realize that each—for each side to realize the other is not going to go away and that fantasizing about completing the process of 1948, as Benny Morris has done, is not going to lead to peace and that the only way out is peaceful, just coexistence.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you have hope that there will be peace, Saree?

SAREE MAKDISI: Yes, I do have hope, because, in fact, the situation we’re in now is a situation where there’s a country that rules over more or less equal populations of Jews and non-Jews, and it privileges Jews over non-Jews, it gives rights to Jews over non-Jews—

BENNY MORRIS: A one-state—

AMY GOODMAN: Benny Morris, do you have hope?

BENNY MORRIS: A one-state solution will end in anarchy and bloodshed. It will not exist for very long.

SAREE MAKDISI: Why? What’s wrong with the people in mixed populations?

BENNY MORRIS: Because Jews and Arabs are so different and have been in enmity for 120 years. Those are Muslims, and those are Jews. Those have Allah, and those have God, or at least they’re mostly secular, they cannot live together in one polity. They’re too different types of peoples.

SAREE MAKDISI: You know as well as I do, Professor Morris, that the great moments of Sicily and Spain, and so forth, and Baghdad, etc., were always moments where Jews and Arabs lived together and worked together—

BENNY MORRIS: Totally different circumstances.

SAREE MAKDISI: Well, circumstances change. It’s not one—

BENNY MORRIS: Totally different circumstances. [inaudible]

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we will certainly continue to discuss this. We urge you, folks, to write in; you can write to us at mail@democracynow.org. Saree Makdisi, Benny Morris, Norman Finkelstein in Brussels, we thank you all for being with us.

Forget the Two State Solution

[originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 11 May 2008]

There is no longer a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Forget the endless arguments about who offered what and who spurned whom and whether the Oslo peace process died when Yasser Arafat walked away from the bargaining table or whether it was Ariel Sharon’s stroll through the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem that did it in.

All that matters are the facts on the ground, of which the most important is that — after four decades of intensive Jewish settlement in the Palestinian territories it occupied during the 1967 war — Israel has irreversibly cemented its grip on the land on which a Palestinian state might have been created.

Sixty years after Israel was created and Palestine was destroyed, then, we are back to where we started: Two populations inhabiting one piece of land. And if the land cannot be divided, it must be shared. Equally.

This is a position, I realize, which may take many Americans by surprise. After years of pursuing a two-state solution, and feeling perhaps that the conflict had nearly been solved, it’s hard to give up the idea as unworkable.

But unworkable it is. A report published last summer by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs found that almost 40% of the West Bank is now taken up by Israeli infrastructure — roads, settlements, military bases and so on — largely off-limits to Palestinians. Israel has methodically broken the remainder of the territory into dozens of enclaves separated from each other and the outside world by zones that it alone controls (including, at last count, 612 checkpoints and roadblocks).

Moreover, according to the report, the Jewish settler population in the occupied territories, already approaching half a million, not only continues to grow but is growing at a rate three times greater than the rate of Israel’s population increase. If the current rate continues, the settler population will double to almost 1 million people in just 12 years. Many are heavily armed and ideologically driven, unlikely to walk away voluntarily from the land they have declared to be their God-given home.

These facts alone render the status of the peace process academic.

At no time since the negotiations began in the early 1990s has Israel significantly suspended the settlement process in the occupied Palestinian territories, in stark violation of international law. It preceded last November’s Annapolis summit by announcing the fresh expropriation of Palestinian property in the West Bank; it followed the summit by announcing the expansion of its Har Homa settlement by an additional 307 housing units; and it has announced plans for hundreds more in other settlements since then.

The Israelis are not settling the occupied territories because they lack space in Israel itself. They are settling the land because of a long-standing belief that Jews are entitled to it simply by virtue of being Jewish. “The land of Israel belongs to the nation of Israel and only to the nation of Israel,” declares Moledet, one of the parties in the National Union bloc, which has a significant presence in the Israeli parliament.

Moledet’s position is not as far removed from that of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as some Israelis claim. Although Olmert says he believes in theory that Israel should give up those parts of the West Bank and Gaza densely inhabited by Palestinians, he also said in 2006 that “every hill in Samaria and every valley in Judea is part of our historic homeland” and that “we firmly stand by the historic right of the people of Israel to the entire land of Israel.”

Judea and Samaria: These ancient biblical terms are still used by Israeli officials to refer to the West Bank. More than 10 years after the initiation of the Oslo peace process, which was supposed to lead to a two-state solution, maps in Israeli textbooks continued to show not the West Bank but Judea and Samaria — and not as occupied territories but as integral parts of Israel.

What room is there for the Palestinians in this vision of Jewish entitlement to the land? None. They are regarded, at best, as a demographic “problem.”

The idea of Palestinians as a “problem” is hardly new. Israel was created as a Jewish state in 1948 only by the premeditated and forcible removal of as much of the indigenous Palestinian population as possible, in what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe, which they commemorate this week.

A Jewish state, says Israeli historian Benny Morris, “would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. … There was no choice but to expel that population.” For Morris, this was one of those “circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing.”

Thinking of Palestinians as a “problem” to be removed predates 1948. It was there from the moment the Zionist movement set into motion the project to make a Jewish state in a land that, in 1917 — when the British empire officially endorsed Zionism — had an overwhelmingly non-Jewish population. The only Jewish member of the British government at the time, Edwin Montagu, vehemently opposed the Zionist project as unjust. Henry King and Charles Crane, dispatched on a fact-finding mission to Palestine by President Wilson, concurred: Such a project would require enormous violence, they warned: “Decisions, requiring armies to carry out, are sometimes necessary, but they are surely not gratuitously to be taken in the interests of a serious injustice.”

But they were. This is a conflict driven from its origins by Zionism’s exclusive sense of entitlement to the land. Has there been Palestinian violence as well? Yes. Is it always justified? No. But what would you do if someone told you that there was no room for you on your own land, that your very existence is a “problem”? No people in history has ever gone away just because another people wanted them to, and the sentiments of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull live on among Palestinians to this day.

The violence will end, and a just peace will come, only when each side realizes that the other is there to stay. Many Palestinians have accepted this premise, and an increasing number are willing to give up on the idea of an independent Palestinian state and embrace instead the concept of a single democratic, secular and multicultural state, which they would share equally with Israeli Jews.

Most Israelis are not yet reconciled this position. Some, no doubt, are reluctant to give up on the idea of a “Jewish state,” to acknowledge the reality that Israel has never been exclusively Jewish, and that, from the start, the idea of privileging members of one group over all other citizens has been fundamentally undemocratic and unfair.

Yet that is exactly what Israel does. Even among its citizens, Israeli law grants rights to Jews that it denies to non-Jews. By no stretch of the imagination is Israel a genuine democracy: It is an ethno-religiously exclusive state that has tried to defy the multicultural history of the land on which it was founded.

To resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, Israeli Jews will have to relinquish their exclusive privileges and acknowledge the right of return of Palestinians expelled from their homes. What they would get in return is the ability to live securely and to prosper with — rather than continuing to battle against — the Palestinians.

They may not have a choice. As Olmert himself warned recently, more Palestinians are shifting their struggle from one for an independent state to a South African-style struggle that demands equal rights for all citizens, irrespective of religion, in a single state. “That is, of course,” he noted, “a much cleaner struggle, a much more popular struggle — and ultimately a much more powerful one.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Interview in Boston Globe

The Interview | With Saree Makdisi

Language and conflict

By Anna Mundow

May 4, 2008

Saree Makdisi, professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA, is the author of “Romantic Imperialism” and “William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s.” His latest book, “Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation” (Norton, $24.95), is a lucid, invaluable chronicle of Palestinian daily life in the occupied territories. Makdisi, who alternates firsthand accounts with reports and interviews involving the United Nations, the World Bank, and Israeli and international human rights organizations, observes that “if the Palestinians will never recuperate Palestine as it was before the arrival of Zionism, and Israelis will never realize a purely Jewish state . . . they can at least put their two impossible ideals aside for the sake of a common future.”

The son of a Lebanese father and Palestinian mother, Makdisi was born in Washington, D.C., raised in Beirut, and educated in the United States. He spoke from his home in California.

Q. What is the link between your literary and your political writing?

A. I’m primarily interested in the work of Romantic-era writers like Blake and [Percy Bysshe] Shelley who lived in times of tremendous upheaval and spoke out against the prevailing point of view, who questioned the orthodoxy. That’s an inspiration for me.

Q. Which orthodoxy are you challenging here?

A. The prevailing orthodoxy that in general Israel is the aggrieved party and the Palestinians are the aggressors, whereas it seems to me that the situation is exactly the opposite. Half of Palestine’s people were forced from their homes during the creation of Israel, in 1948; they have never been allowed to return although they have the legal and moral right to do so. Instead we see the continuing existence of a system that keeps people displaced and unable to exercise their full human rights.

Q. And you insist that language is central in this?

A. Think of the way language is used to describe this conflict. For example, technically, legally, and morally, there’s a distinction between “colony” and “settlement.” You settle your own territory, you colonize somebody else’s. What the Israelis are doing in the occupied territories is colonizing. So why is an activity that the dictionary defines as colonization portrayed as settlement? Yet even I use the term “settlement” in this book.

Q. Because you don’t want to confuse the reader?

A. And be marked as an extremist. What does it mean when someone who uses language accurately can be dismissed as an extremist?

Q. But this conflict is hardly about language . . . .

A. No, it’s about land. From the late 19th and early 20th century on, the project was to establish a Jewish homeland or state – they’re not the same thing, by the way – . . . on land that had an overwhelmingly non-Jewish population. If you think about it, such a project will always require violence.

Certainly from the early 1930s on, leading figures like [David] Ben-Gurion were clear that their project entailed the removal of as much of the Palestinian population as possible. That process continues to this day in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with incredible pressure brought to bear on the indigenous Palestinian population.

Q. Why do you concentrate on everyday life?

A. It’s the least-known aspect of the occupation. So much of the conflict is portrayed in the mainstream US media in slogans or clichés. But when you hear from the guy who can’t get to his cucumber farm or the woman who can’t get to the hospital to give birth, it’s very hard to argue with those things.

Q. Have the Palestinians brought this on themselves?

A. I don’t think it’s helpful to blame the victims. A better question is what does Israel get to do in order to assert its own security? According to international law, there are things you can and cannot do as an occupying power. If you don’t like those constraints, don’t be an occupying power. If the Israelis are unhappy with the results of their occupation, with what it has led people to do, let them end it. They will be much more secure if they do.

Q. You say that “the rights of Palestinians are inseparable from the rights of Israelis”? Explain.

A. For all the talk of a two-state solution, only one state controls the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. In that state, the Jewish half of the population has full rights, the non-Jewish half doesn’t. That is unjust. But neither side is going to go away. I favor a situation in which both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians Arabs live in equality in a single, democratic, secular, and multicultural state that does not discriminate on the basis of religion as Israel does. . . .

Q. Is that seen as a possibility?

A. It is among Palestinians. I talked to everybody from politicians to ambulance drivers, and they all said it’s one piece of land, the two populations are mixed, the only way is to live together. They want to get on with their lives. Among Israelis, only a small number thinks this way, because there’s no pressure to do so. No sanctions, no boycott, no peaceful pressure from the outside, which is what I advocate – I’m against violence directed against civilians in any circumstances. . . . Historically speaking, no privileged group has voluntarily relinquished its privileges. That happens only when pressure is brought to bear. Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert himself has said that as soon as Palestinians adopt the South African paradigm and set of demands – one person, one vote – the world will take the Palestinian side. I wish the Palestinian leadership would get that message.

The Strangulation of Gaza

[Originally published in The Nation, February 1, 2008]

The people of Gaza were able to enjoy a few days of freedom last week, after demolition charges brought down the iron wall separating the impoverished Palestinian territory from Egypt, allowing hundreds of thousands to burst out of the virtual prison into which Gaza has been transformed over the past few years–the terminal stage of four decades of Israeli occupation–and to shop for desperately needed supplies in Egyptian border towns.

Gaza’s doors are slowly closing again, however. Under mounting pressure from the United States and Israel, Egypt has dispatched additional border guards armed with water cannons and electric cattle prods to try to regain control. It has already cut off the flow of supplies crossing the Suez Canal to its own border towns. For now, in effect, Suez is the new border: even if Palestinians could get out of Gaza in search of new supplies, they would have to cross the desolate expanses of the Sinai Desert and cross the canal, on the other side of which they would find the regular Egyptian army (barred from most of Sinai as a condition of the 1979 Camp David treaty with Israel) waiting for them.

Now that Gaza’s fleeting taste of freedom is beginning to fade, the grim reality facing the territory’s 1.5 million people is once again looming large. “After feeling imprisoned for so long, it has been a psychological relief for Gazans to know that there is a way out,” said John Ging, the local director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). “But it does not resolve their crisis by any stretch of the imagination.”

Indeed, all the frenzied shopping in Egyptian border towns brought into Gaza a mere fraction of the food that UN and other relief agencies have been blocked by Israel from delivering to the people who depend on them for their very survival. As long as the border with Egypt is even partially open, Israel refuses to open its own borders with Gaza to anything other than the bare minimum of industrial fuel to keep the territory’s one power plant operating at a subsistence level, and a few trucks of other supplies a day.

UNRWA has almost depleted the stocks of emergency food aid it had previously built up in Gaza. Only thirty-two truckloads of goods have been allowed to enter Gaza since Israel imposed its total closure on January 18; 250 trucks were entering every day before last June, and even that was insufficient to meet the population’s needs.

On January 30 UNRWA warned that unless something changes, the daily ration that it will distribute on the 31st to 860,000 destitute refugees in Gaza will lack a protein component: the canned meat that is the only source of protein in the food parcels–which even under the best of circumstances contributes less than two-thirds of minimum daily nourishment–is being held up by Israel, and the stock of those cans inside Gaza has been exhausted. The World Food Program, which feeds another 340,000 people in Gaza, has brought in nine trucks of food aid in the past two weeks; in the seven months before that, it had been bringing in fifteen trucks a day.

Gazans have been ground into poverty by years of methodical Israeli restrictions and closures; 80 percent of the population now depends on food aid for day-to-day subsistence. With the aid, they were receiving “enough to survive, not to live,” as the International Red Cross put it. Without it, they will die.

All this is supposed to be in response to Palestinian militant groups’ firing of crude homemade rockets into Israel, which rarely cause any actual damage. There can be no excuse for firing rockets at civilian targets, but Israel was squeezing Gaza long before the first of those primitive projectiles was cobbled together. The first fatal rocket attack took place four years ago; Israel has been occupying Gaza for four decades.

The current squeeze on Gaza began in 1991. It was tightened with the institutionalization of the Israeli occupation enabled by the Oslo Accords of 1993. It was tightened further with the intensification of the occupation in response to the second intifada in 2000. It was tightened further still when Israel redeployed its settlers and troops from inside Gaza in 2005 and transformed the territory into what John Dugard, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories, referred to as a prison, the key to which, Dugard said, Israel had “thrown away.” It was tightened to the point of strangulation following the Hamas electoral victory in 2006, when Israel began restricting supplies of food and other resources into Gaza. It was tightened beyond the point of strangulation following the deposition of the Hamas-led government in June 2007. And now this.

When Israel limited commercial shipments of food–but not humanitarian relief–into Gaza in 2006, a senior government adviser, Dov Weisglass, explained that “the idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet but not to make them die of hunger.”

Israel’s “diet” was taking its toll even before last week. The World Food Program warned last November that less than half of Gaza’s food-import needs were being met. Basics including wheat grain, vegetable oil, dairy products and baby milk were in short supply. Few families can afford meat. Anemia rates rocketed to almost 80 percent. UNRWA noted at about the same time that “we are seeing evidence of the stunting of children, their growth is slowing, because our ration is only 61 percent of what people should have and that has to be supplemented.”

By further restricting the supply of food to an already malnourished population, Israel has clearly decided to take its “diet” a step further. If the people of Gaza remain cut off from the food aid on which their survival now depends, they will face starvation.

They are now essentially out of food; the water system is faltering (almost half the population now lacks access to safe water supplies); the sewage system has broken down and is discharging raw waste into streets and the sea; the power supply is intermittent at best; hospitals lack heat and spare parts for diagnostic machines, ventilators, incubators; dozens of lifesaving medicines are no longer available. Slowly but surely, Gaza is dying.

Patients are dying unnecessarily: cancer patients cut off from chemotherapy regimens, kidney patients cut off from dialysis treatments, premature babies cut off from blood-clotting medications. In the past few weeks, many more Palestinian parents have watched the lives of their sick children ebb slowly, quietly and (as far as the global media are concerned) invisibly away in Gaza’s besieged hospitals than Israelis have been hurt–let alone actually killed–by the erratic firing of primitive homemade rockets from Gaza, about which we have heard so much. (According to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, these rockets have killed thirteen Israelis in the past four years, while Israeli forces have killed more than 1,000 Palestinians in the occupied territories in the past two years alone, almost half of them civilians, including some 200 children.)

Israel’s squeeze is expressly intended to punish the entire population for the firing of those rockets by militants, which ordinary civilians are powerless to stop. “We will not allow them to lead a pleasant life,” said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when Israel cut off fuel supplies on January 18, thereby plunging Gaza into darkness. “As far as I am concerned, all of Gaza’s residents can walk and have no fuel for their cars.”

Olmert’s views and, more important, his policies were reaffirmed and given the legal sanction of Israel’s High Court. In what human rights organizations referred to as a “devastating” decision, on January 30 the court ruled in favor of the government’s plan to further restrict supplies of fuel and electricity to Gaza. “The decision means that Israel may deliberately deprive civilians in Gaza of fuel and electricity supplies,” pointed out Sari Bashi, of the Gisha human rights organization in Israel. “During wartime, the civilian population is the first and central victim of the fighting, even when efforts are made to minimize the damage,” the court said. In other words, harm to the civilian population is an inevitable effect of war and therefore legally permissible.

That may be the view of Israel’s highest legal authority, but it is not how the matter is viewed by international law, which strictly regulates the way civilian populations are to be treated in time of war. “The parties to a conflict must at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants in order to spare the civilian population and civilian property,” the International Red Cross points out, invoking the Geneva Conventions and other founding documents of international humanitarian law. “Neither the civilian population as a whole nor individual civilians may be attacked.”

Moreover, no matter what Israel’s High Court says, what is happening in Gaza is not a war in the conventional sense: Gaza is not a state at war with the state of Israel. It is a territory militarily occupied by Israel. Even after its 2005 redeployment, Israel did not release its hold on Gaza; it continues to control all access to the territory, as well as its airspace, territorial waters and even its population registry. Over and above all the routine prohibitions on attacks on the civilian population and other forms of collective punishment that hold true in case of war, in other words, international law also holds Israel responsible for the welfare of the Gaza population. Article 55 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) specifically demands, for example, that, “to the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population; it should, in particular, bring in the necessary foodstuffs, medical stores and other articles if the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate.”

Israel’s methodical actions make it clear that it is systematically grinding down and now actually starving people for whose welfare it is legally accountable simply because it regards Gaza’s 1.5 million men, women and children as a surplus population it would, quite simply, like to get rid of one way or the other: a sentiment made quite clear when Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi proposed, shortly after the current crisis began, that the entire Palestinian population of Gaza should just be removed and transferred to the Egyptian desert. “They will have a nice country, and we shall have our country and we shall live in peace,” he said, without eliciting even a murmur of protest in Israel.

The overwhelming majority of Gazans are refugees or the descendants of refugees who were expelled from their homes when Palestine was destroyed and Israel was created in 1948. Like all Palestinian refugees, those of Gaza have a moral and legal right to return to the homeland from which they were expelled. Israel blocks their return for the same reason it expelled them in the first place, because their presence would undermine its already tenuous claim to Jewishness (this is the nature of the so-called “demographic problem” about which Israeli politicians openly complain). As long as the refugees live, what Israel regards as the mortal threat of their right of return lives on. But if they would somehow just go away…

“Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the knowledge, acquiescence and–some would say–encouragement of the international community,” the commissioner-general of UNRWA warned recently.

The question now is whether the world will simply sit and watch, now that this unprecedented threshold is actually being crossed.

Having taken matters into their hands and destroyed the wall cutting them off from the outside world, it is most unlikely that the people of Gaza will simply submit to that fate. A hermetic closure ultimately depends not merely on Israel’s whims but on Egypt’s willingness–or ability–to cut off the Palestinians of Gaza and watch them starve. For all the US and Israeli pressure on Egypt, and for all the steps Egypt is now taking, it seems most unlikely that it would let things go that far. Not intervening to save fellow Arabs from the Israeli occupation is one thing; actually participating in their repression is quite another. The Egyptian government would have to answer not only to the people of Palestine but to its own people, and indeed to all Arabs.

Working together, Hamas and the people of Gaza have forced Egypt’s hand and made much more visible than ever before the role it had been playing all along in the Israeli occupation and strangulation of Gaza; now that its role in assisting Israel has been revealed, it will be difficult for Egypt to go back to the status quo. Gazans have thrown Israel’s plans into disarray, because Israel’s leaders could do little more than watch with pursed lips as the people of Gaza burst out of their prison. And they have placed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the government of Ramallah in a corner: they will have to choose between defending their people’s rights and needs or confirming once and for all–as indeed they are doing–that the PA is there to serve Israel’s interests, not those of the Palestinians. In which case they too will one day be called to account.

The War on Gaza’s Children

[Originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 22 September 2007]

An entire generation of Palestinians in Gaza is growing up stunted: physically and nutritionally stunted because they are not getting enough to eat; emotionally stunted because of the pressures of living in a virtual prison and facing the constant threat of destruction and displacement; intellectually and academically stunted because they cannot concentrate — or, even if they can, because they are trying to study and learn in circumstances that no child should have to endure.

Even before Israel this week declared Gaza “hostile territory” — apparently in preparation for cutting off the last remaining supplies of fuel and electricity to 1.5 million men, women and children — the situation was dire.

As a result of Israel’s blockade on most imports and exports and other policies designed to punish the populace, about 70% of Gaza’s workforce is now unemployed or without pay, according to the United Nations, and about 80% of its residents live in grinding poverty. About 1.2 million of them are now dependent for their day-to-day survival on food handouts from U.N. or international agencies, without which, as the World Food Program’s Kirstie Campbell put it, “they are liable to starve.”

An increasing number of Palestinian families in Gaza are unable to offer their children more than one meager meal a day, often little more than rice and boiled lentils. Fresh fruit and vegetables are beyond the reach of many families. Meat and chicken are impossibly expensive. Gaza faces the rich waters of the Mediterranean, but fish is unavailable in its markets because the Israeli navy has curtailed the movements of Gaza’s fishermen.

Los Angeles parents who have spent the last few weeks running from one back-to-school sale to another could do worse than to spare a few minutes to think about their counterparts in the Gaza Strip. As a result of the siege, Gaza is not only short of raw textiles and other key goods but also paper, ink and vital school supplies. One-third of Gaza’s children started the school year missing necessary textbooks. John Ging, the Gaza director of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, whose schools take care of 200,000 children in Gaza, has warned that children come to school “hungry and unable to concentrate.”

Israel says that its policies in Gaza are designed to put pressure on the Palestinian population to in turn put pressure on those who fire crude home-made rockets from Gaza into the Israeli town of Sderot. Those rocket attacks are wrong. But it is also wrong to punish an entire population for the actions of a few — actions that the schoolchildren of Gaza and their beleaguered parents are in any case powerless to stop.

It is a violation of international law to collectively punish more than a million people for something they did not do. According to the Geneva Convention, to which it is a signatory, Israel actually has the obligation to ensure the well-being of the people on whom it has chosen to impose a military occupation for more than four decades.

Instead, it has shrugged off the law. It has ignored the repeated demands of the U.N. Security Council. It has dismissed the International Court of Justice in the Hague. What John Dugard, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories, refers to as the “carefully managed” strangulation of Gaza — in full view of an uncaring world — is explicitly part of its strategy. “The idea,” said Dov Weisglass, an Israeli government advisor,” is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not make them die of hunger.”

Academic Freedom is at Risk

[Originally published in Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 17 October 2007]

“Academic colleagues, get used to it,” warned the pro-Israel activist Martin Kramer in March 2004. “Yes, you are being watched. Those obscure articles in campus newspapers are now available on the Internet, and they will be harvested. Your syllabi, which you’ve also posted, will be scrutinized. Your Web sites will be visited late at night.”

Kramer’s warning inaugurated an attack on intellectual freedom in the U.S. that has grown more aggressive in recent months.

This attack, intended to shield Israel from criticism, not only threatens academic privileges on college campuses, it jeopardizes our capacity to evaluate our foreign policy. With a potentially catastrophic clash with Iran on the horizon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict spiraling out of control, Americans urgently need to be able to think clearly about our commitments and intentions in the Middle East. And yet we are being prevented from doing so by a longstanding campaign of intimidation that has terminated careers, stymied debate and shut down dialogue.

Over the past few years, Israel’s U.S. defenders have stepped up their campaign by establishing a network of institutions (such as Campus Watch, Stand With Us, the David Project, the Israel on Campus Coalition, and the disingenuously named Scholars for Peace in the Middle East) dedicated to the task of monitoring our campuses and bringing pressure to bear on those critical of Israeli policies. By orchestrating letter-writing and petitioning campaigns, falsely raising fears of anti-Semitism, mobilizing often grossly distorted media coverage and recruiting local and national politicians to their cause, they have severely disrupted academic processes, the free function of which once made American universities the envy of the world.

Outside interference by Israel’s supporters has plunged one U.S. campus after another into crisis. They have introduced crudely political — rather than strictly academic or scholarly — criteria into hiring, promotion and other decisions at a number of universities, including Columbia, Yale, Wayne State, Barnard and DePaul, which recently denied tenure to the Jewish American scholar Norman Finkelstein following an especially ugly campaign spearheaded by Alan Dershowitz, one of Israel’s most ardent American defenders.

Our campuses are being poisoned by an atmosphere of surveillance and harassment. However, the disruption of academic freedom has grave implications beyond campus walls.

When professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer drafted an essay critical of the effect of Israel’s lobbying organizations on U.S. foreign policy, they had to publish it in the London Review of Books because their original American publisher declined to take it on. With the original article expanded into a book that has now been released, their invitation to speak at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs was retracted because of outside pressure. “This one is so hot,” they were told. So although Michael Oren, an officer in the Israeli army, was recently allowed to lecture the council about U.S. policy in the Middle East, two distinguished American academics were denied the same privilege.

When President Carter published “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid” last year, he was attacked for having dared to use the word “apartheid” to describe Israel’s manifestly discriminatory policies in the West Bank.

As that case made especially clear, the point of most of these attacks is to personally discredit anyone who would criticize Israel — and to taint them with the smear of “controversy” — rather than to engage them in a genuine debate. None of Carter’s critics provided a convincing refutation of his main argument based on facts and evidence. Presumably that’s because, for all the venom directed against the former president, he was right. For example, Israel maintains two different road networks, and even two entirely different legal systems, in the West Bank, one for Jewish settlers and the other for indigenous Palestinians. Those basic facts were studiously ignored by those who denounced Carter and angrily accused him of a “blood libel” against the Jewish people.

That Israel’s American supporters so often resort to angry outbursts rather than principled arguments — and seem to find emotional blackmail more effective than genuine debate — is ultimately a sign of their weakness rather than their strength. For all the damage it can do in the short term, in the long run such a position is untenable, too dependent on emotion and cliché rather than hard facts. The phenomenal success of Carter’s book suggests that more and more Americans are learning to ignore the scare tactics that are the only tools available to Israel’s supporters.

But we need to be able to have an open debate about our Middle East policy now — before we needlessly shed more blood and further erode our reputation among people who used to regard us as the champions of freedom, and now worry that we have come to stand for its very opposite.

Palestinians Think Otherwise…

[Originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 20 June 2007]

IN THE WEST, there’s a huge sense of relief. The Hamas-led government that has been causing everyone so much trouble has been isolated in Gaza, and a new government has been appointed in the West Bank by the “moderate,” peace-loving Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

So why then do Palestinians not share in the relief? Well, for one thing, the old government had been democratically elected; now it has been dismissed out of hand by presidential fiat. There’s also the fact that the new prime minister appointed by Abbas — Salam Fayyad — has the support of the West, but his election list won only 2% of the votes in the same election that swept Hamas to victory. Fayyad and Abbas have the support of Israel, but it is no secret that they lack the backing of their own people.

There is a reason the people threw out Abbas’ Fatah party in last year’s election. Palestinians see the leading Fatah politicians as unimaginative, self-serving and corrupt, satisfied with the emoluments of power.

Worse yet, Palestinians came to realize that the so-called peace process championed by Abbas (and by Yasser Arafat before him) had led to the permanent institutionalization — rather than the termination — of Israel’s 4-decade-old military occupation of their land. Why should they feel otherwise? There are today twice as many settlers in the occupied territories as there were when Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat first shook hands in the White House Rose Garden. Israel has divided the West Bank into besieged cantons, worked diligently to increase the number of Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem (while stripping Palestinian Jerusalemites of their residency rights in the city) and turned Gaza into a virtual prison.

People voted for Hamas last year not because they approved of the party’s sloganeering, not because they wanted to live in an Islamic state, not because they support attacks on Israeli civilians, but because Hamas was untainted by Fatah’s complacency and corruption, untainted by its willingness to continue pandering to Israel. Fatah leaders were viewed as mere policemen of the perpetual occupation, and the Palestinian Authority had willingly taken on the role of administering the population on behalf of the Israelis. Hamas offered an alternative.

Here in the U.S., Hamas is routinely demonized, known primarily for its attacks on civilians. Depictions of Hamas portray its “rejectionism” as an end in itself rather than as a refusal to go along with a political process that has proved catastrophic for Palestinians on the ground.

Has Hamas done unspeakable things? Yes, but so has Fatah, and so too has Israel (on a much larger scale). There are no saints in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinians, frankly, see a lot of hypocrisy in the West’s anti-Hamas stance. Since last year’s election, for example, the West has denied aid to the Hamas government, arguing, among other things, that Hamas refuses to recognize Israel. But that’s absurd; after all, Israel does not recognize Palestine either. Hamas is accused of not abiding by previous agreements. But Israel’s suspension of tax revenue transfers to the Palestinian Authority, and its refusal to implement a Gaza-West Bank road link agreement brokered by the U.S. in November 2005, are practical, rather than merely rhetorical, violations of previous agreements, causing infinitely more damage to ordinary people. Hamas is accused of mixing religion and politics, but no one has explained why its version of that mixture is any worse than Israel’s — or why a Jewish state is acceptable but a Muslim one is not.

I am a secular humanist, and I personally find religiously identified political movements — and states — unappealing, to say the least.

But let’s be honest. Hamas did not run into Western opposition because of its Islamic ideology but because of its opposition to (and resistance to) the Israeli occupation.

A genuine peace based on the two-state solution would require an end to the Israeli occupation and the creation of a territorially contiguous, truly independent Palestinian state.

But that is not happening. Fatah seems to have given up, its leaders preferring to rest comfortably with the power they already have. Ironically, it is Hamas that is taking the stands that would be prerequisites for a true two-state peace plan: refusing to go along with the permanent breakup of Palestine and not accepting the sacrifice of control over borders, airspace, water, taxes and even the population registry to Israel.

Embracing the “moderation” of Abbas allows the Palestinian Authority to resume servicing the occupation on Israel’s behalf, for now. In the long run, though, the two-state solution is finished because Fatah is either unable or unwilling to stop the ongoing dismemberment of the territory once intended for a Palestinian state.

The only realistic choice remaining will be the one between a single democratic, secular state offering equal rights for both Israelis and Palestinians — or permanent apartheid.

For a Secular Democratic State

[Originally published in The Nation, 18 June 2007]

This month marks the fortieth anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Four decades of control established and maintained by force of arms–in defiance of international law, countless UN Security Council resolutions and, most recently, the 2004 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice in The Hague–have enabled Israel to impose its will on the occupied territories and, in effect, to remake them in its own image.

The result is a continuous political space now encompassing all of historic Palestine, albeit a space as sharply divided as the colonial world (“a world cut in two”) famously described by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. Indeed, Fanon’s 1961 classic still enables an analysis of Israel and the occupied territories as fresh, insightful and relevant in 2007 as the readings of Cape Town or Algiers that it made available when it was first published.

Israel maintains two separate road systems in the West Bank, for example: one for the territory’s immigrant population of Jewish settlers, one for its indigenous non-Jewish (i.e., Palestinian) population.

The roads designated for the Jewish settlers are well maintained, well lit, continuous and uninterrupted; they tie the network of Jewish “neighborhoods” and “settlements”–all of them in reality colonies forbidden by international law–to each other and to Israel. The roads for the West Bank’s native population, by contrast, are poorly maintained, when they are maintained at all (they often consist of little more than shepherds’ trails); they are continuously blockaded and interrupted. A grid of checkpoints and roadblocks (546 at last count) strangles the circulation of the West Bank’s indigenous population, but it is designed to facilitate the free movement of Jewish settlers–who are, moreover, allowed to drive their own cars on the roads set aside for them, whereas Palestinians are not allowed to drive their cars beyond their own towns and villages (the entrances to which are all blockaded by the Israeli army).

The wall that Israel has been constructing in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 2002 makes visible in concrete and barbed wire the outlines of the discriminatory regime that structures and defines everyday life in the occupied territories, separating Palestinian farmers from crops, patients from hospitals, students and teachers from schools and, increasingly, even parents from children (it has, for example, separated one parent or another from spouses and children in 21 percent of Palestinian families living on either side of the wall near Jerusalem)–while at the same time enabling the seamless incorporation of the Judaized spaces of the occupied territories into Israel itself. And a regime of curfews and closures, enforced by the Israeli army, has smothered the Palestinian economy, though none of its provisions apply to Jewish settlers in the occupied territories.

There are, in short, two separate legal and administrative systems, maintained by the regular use of military force, for two populations–settlers and natives–unequally inhabiting the same piece of land: exactly as was the case in the colonial countries described by Fanon, or in South Africa under apartheid.

All this has enabled Israel to transplant almost half a million of its own citizens into the occupied territories, at the expense of their Palestinian population, whose land is confiscated, whose homes are demolished, whose orchards and olive groves are razed or burned down, and whose social, economic, educational and family lives have been, in effect, all but suspended, precisely in order that their land may be made available for the use of another people.

The result has been catastrophic for the Palestinians, as a World Bank report published in May makes clear. While the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem enjoy growth rates exceeding those of Israel itself, Palestinian towns and villages are slowly being strangled. While Jewish settlers move with total freedom, the combination of physical obstacles and the bureaucratic pass system imposed by the Israeli army on the Palestinian population has not only permanently separated the Palestinians of the West Bank from those of Gaza, East Jerusalem and Israel (movement among which is forbidden for all but a tiny minority) but has also broken up the West Bank into three distinct sections and ten enclaves. Half of the West Bank is altogether off-limits to most Palestinians; to move from one part of the rest of the territory to another, Palestinians must apply for a permit from the Israelis. Frequent bans are imposed on movement into or out of particular enclaves (the city of Nablus, for example, has been under siege for five years), or on whole segments of the population (e.g., unmarried men under the age of 45). And all permits are summarily invalidated when Israel declares one of its “comprehensive closures” of the West Bank–there were seventy-eight such days in 2006–at which point the entire Palestinian population stays home.

The lucky few who are able to obtain passes from the Israelis are channeled from one section or enclave to another through a series of army checkpoints, where they may be searched, questioned, hassled, detained for hours or simply turned back. “The practical effect of this shattered economic space,” the World Bank report points out, “is that on any given day the ability to reach work, school, shopping, healthcare facilities and agricultural land is highly uncertain and subject to arbitrary restriction and delay.” Given the circumstances, it is hardly any wonder that two-thirds of the Palestinian population has been reduced to absolute poverty (less than $2 a day), and that hundreds of thousands are now dependent for day-to-day survival on food handouts provided by international relief organizations. Not only has the international community refused to intervene; it has actively participated in the repression, imposing–for the first time in history–sanctions on a people living under military occupation, while the occupying and colonizing power goes on violating the international community’s own laws with total impunity.

To all of these charges, Israel and its supporters have but one response: “security.” But as the World Bank report argues, it is “often difficult to reconcile the use of movement and access restrictions for security purposes from their use to expand and protect settlement activity.” Moreover, the Bank notes, it seems obvious that Israeli security ought to be tied to Palestinian prosperity: By disrupting the Palestinian economy and immiserating an entire population–pushing almost 4 million people to the edge–the Israelis are hardly enhancing their own security.

Such arguments miss the point, however. No matter how fiercely it is contested inside Israel, there remains a very strong sense that the country is entitled to retain the land to which it has now stubbornly clung for four decades. Even while announcing his scheme to relinquish nominal control over a few bits and pieces of the West Bank with heavy concentrations of Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisted on his country’s inherent right to the territory, irrespective of the demands of international law, let alone the rights and claims of the Palestinians themselves. (“Every hill in Samaria and every valley in Judea is part of our historic homeland,” he said last year, using Israel’s official, biblical terminology for the West Bank.)

Although some people claim there are fundamental differences between the disposition of the territories Israel captured in 1967 and the territories it captured during its creation in 1948–or even that there are important moral and political differences between Israel pre- and post-1967–such sentiments of entitlement, and the use of force that necessarily accompanies them, reveal the seamless continuity of the Zionist project in Palestine from 1948 to our own time. “There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing,” argues Israeli historian Benny Morris, with reference to the creation of Israel. “A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were fired on.”

Israel’s post-1967 occupation policies are demonstrably driven by the same dispossessive logic. If hundreds of thousands have not literally been forced into flight, their existence has been reduced to penury. Just as Israel could have come into being in 1948 only by sweeping aside hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, Israel’s ongoing colonization of Palestinian territory–its imposition of itself and its desires on the land’s indigenous population–requires, and will always require, the use of force and the continual brutalization of an entire people.

Indeed, the discriminatory practices in the occupied territories replicate, albeit in a harsher and more direct form, those inside Israel, where the remnant of the Palestinian population that was not driven into flight in 1948–today more than a million people–continues to endure the systematic inequalities built into the laws and institutions of a country that explicitly claims to be the state of the Jewish people rather than that of its own actual citizens, about a fifth of whom are not Jewish. Recognizing the contradiction inherent in such a formulation, various Israeli politicians, including Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman, have explicitly called for the territorial transfer–if not the outright expulsion–of as much as possible of Israel’s non-Jewish (that is, Palestinian) minority. Although it would be intended to mark the ultimate triumph of the dispossessing settler over the dispossessed native (Lieberman is an immigrant from Moldova who enjoys rights denied to indigenous Palestinians simply because he happens to be Jewish), such a gesture would actually amount to a last-ditch measure, an attempt to forestall what has become the most likely conclusion to the conflict.

For, having unified all of what used to be Palestine (albeit into one profoundly divided space) without having overcome the Palestinian people’s will to resist, Zionism has run its course. And in so doing, it has terminated any possibility of a two-state solution. There remains but one possibility for peace with justice: truth, reconciliation–and a single democratic and secular state, a state in which there will be no “natives” and “settlers” and all will be equal; a state for all its citizens irrespective of their religious affiliation. Such a state has always, by definition, been anathema for Zionism. But for the people of Israel and Palestine, it is the only way out.

War of Words

[Originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 11 March 2007]

‘AS SOON AS certain topics are raised,” George Orwell once wrote, “the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: Prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.” Such a combination of vagueness and sheer incompetence in language, Orwell warned, leads to political conformity.

No issue better illustrates Orwell’s point than coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the United States. Consider, for example, the editorial in The Times on Feb. 9 demanding that the Palestinians “recognize Israel” and its “right to exist.” This is a common enough sentiment — even a cliche. Yet many observers (most recently the international lawyer John Whitbeck) have pointed out that this proposition, assiduously propagated by Israel’s advocates and uncritically reiterated by American politicians and journalists, is — at best — utterly nonsensical.

First, the formal diplomatic language of “recognition” is traditionally used by one state with respect to another state. It is literally meaningless for a non-state to “recognize” a state. Moreover, in diplomacy, such recognition is supposed to be mutual. In order to earn its own recognition, Israel would have to simultaneously recognize the state of Palestine. This it steadfastly refuses to do (and for some reason, there are no high-minded newspaper editorials demanding that it do so).

Second, which Israel, precisely, are the Palestinians being asked to “recognize?” Israel has stubbornly refused to declare its own borders. So, territorially speaking, “Israel” is an open-ended concept. Are the Palestinians to recognize the Israel that ends at the lines proposed by the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan? Or the one that extends to the 1949 Armistice Line (the de facto border that resulted from the 1948 war)? Or does Israel include the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which it has occupied in violation of international law for 40 years — and which maps in its school textbooks show as part of “Israel”?

For that matter, why should the Palestinians recognize an Israel that refuses to accept international law, submit to U.N. resolutions or readmit the Palestinians wrongfully expelled from their homes in 1948 and barred from returning ever since?

If none of these questions are easy to answer, why are such demands being made of the Palestinians? And why is nothing demanded of Israel in turn?

Orwell was right. It is much easier to recycle meaningless phrases than to ask — let alone to answer — difficult questions. But recycling these empty phrases serves a purpose. Endlessly repeating the mantra that the Palestinians don’t recognize Israel helps paint Israel as an innocent victim, politely asking to be recognized but being rebuffed by its cruel enemies.

Actually, it asks even more. Israel wants the Palestinians, half of whom were driven from their homeland so that a Jewish state could be created in 1948, to recognize not merely that it exists (which is undeniable) but that it is “right” that it exists — that it was right for them to have been dispossessed of their homes, their property and their livelihoods so that a Jewish state could be created on their land. The Palestinians are not the world’s first dispossessed people, but they are the first to be asked to legitimize what happened to them.

A just peace will require Israelis and Palestinians to reconcile and recognize each other’s rights. It will not require that Palestinians give their moral seal of approval to the catastrophe that befell them. Meaningless at best, cynical and manipulative at worst, such a demand may suit Israel’s purposes, but it does not serve The Times or its readers.

And yet The Times consistently adopts Israel’s language and, hence, its point of view. For example, a recent article on Israel’s Palestinian minority referred to that minority not as “Palestinian” but as generically “Arab,” Israel’s official term for a population whose full political and human rights it refuses to recognize. To fail to acknowledge the living Palestinian presence inside Israel (and its enduring continuity with the rest of the Palestinian people) is to elide the history at the heart of the conflict — and to deny the legitimacy of Palestinian claims and rights.

This is exactly what Israel wants. Indeed, its demand that its “right to exist” be recognized reflects its own anxiety, not about its existence but about its failure to successfully eliminate the Palestinians’ presence inside their homeland — a failure for which verbal recognition would serve merely a palliative and therapeutic function.

In uncritically adopting Israel’s own fraught terminology — a form of verbal erasure designed to extend the physical destruction of Palestine — The Times is taking sides.

If the paper wants its readers to understand the nature of this conflict, however, it should not go on acting as though only one side has a story to tell.

Jimmy Carter, Israel and Apartheid

[Originally published in The San Francisco Chronicle, 20 December 2006]

Former President Jimmy Carter has come under sustained attack for having dared to use the term “apartheid” to describe Israel’s policies in the West Bank. However, not one of Carter’s critics has offered a convincing argument to justify the vehemence of the outcry, much less to refute his central claim that Israel bestows rights on Jewish residents settling illegally on Palestinian land, while denying the same rights to the indigenous Palestinians. Little wonder, for they are attempting to defy reality itself.

Israel maintains two separate road networks in the West Bank: one for the exclusive use of Jewish settlers, and one for Palestinian natives. Is that not apartheid?

Palestinians are not allowed to drive their own cars in much of the West Bank; their public transportation is frequently interrupted or blocked altogether by a grid of Israeli army checkpoints — but Jewish settlers come and go freely in their own cars, without even pausing at the roadblocks that hold up the natives. Is that not apartheid?

A system of closures and curfews has strangled the Palestinian economy in the West Bank — but none of its provisions apply to the Jewish settlements there. Is that not apartheid?

Whole sectors of the West Bank, classified as “closed military areas” by the Israeli army, are off limits to Palestinians, including Palestinians who own land there — but foreigners to whom Israel’s Law of Return applies (that is, anyone Jewish, from anywhere in the world) can access them without hindrance. Is that not apartheid?

Persons of Palestinian origin are routinely barred from entering or residing in the West Bank — but Israeli and non-Israeli Jews can come and go, and even live on, occupied Palestinian territory. Is that not apartheid?

Israel maintains two sets of rules and regulations in the West Bank: one for Jews, one for non-Jews. The only thing wrong with using the word “apartheid” to describe such a repugnant system is that the South African version of institutionalized discrimination was never as elaborate as its Israeli counterpart — nor did it have such a vocal chorus of defenders among otherwise liberal Americans.

The glaring error in Carter’s book, however, is his insistence that the term “apartheid” does not apply to Israel itself, where, he says, Jewish and non-Jewish citizens are given the same treatment under the law. That is simply not true.

Israeli law affords differences in privileges for Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of the state — in matters of access to land, family unification and acquisition of citizenship. Israel’s amended nationality law, for example, prevents Palestinian citizens of Israel who are married to Palestinians from the occupied territories from living together in Israel. A similar law, passed at the peak of apartheid in South Africa, was overturned by that country’s supreme court as a violation of the right to a family. Israel’s high court upheld its law just this year.

Israel loudly proclaims itself to be the state of the Jewish people, rather than the state of its actual citizens (one-fifth of whom are Palestinian Arabs). In fact, in registering citizens, the Israeli Ministry of the Interior assigns them a whole range of nationalities other than “Israeli.” In the official registry, the nationality line for a Jewish citizen of Israel reads “Jew.” For a Palestinian citizen, the same line reads “Arab.” When this glaring inequity was protested all the way to Israel’s high court, the justices upheld it: “There is no Israeli nation separate from the Jewish people.” Obviously this leaves non-Jewish citizens of Israel in, at best, a somewhat ambiguous situation. Little wonder, then, that a solid majority of Israeli Jews regard their Arab fellow-citizens as what they call “a demographic threat,” which many — including the deputy prime minister — would like to see eliminated altogether. What is all this, if not racism?

Many of the very individuals and institutions that are so vociferously denouncing President Jimmy Carter would not for one moment tolerate such glaring injustice in the United States. Why do they condone the naked racism that Israel practices? Why do they heap criticism on our former president for speaking his conscience about such a truly unconscionable system of ethnic segregation?

Perhaps it is because they themselves are all too aware that they are defending the indefensible; because they are all too aware that the emperor they keep trying to cover up really has no clothes. There is a limit to how long such a cover up can go on. And the main lesson of Carter’s book is that we have finally reached that limit.

Lebanon’s War with Cluster Bombs

[Originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 21 October 2006]

OF ALL THE statistics to emerge from Israel’s recent war on Lebanon, the most shocking concerns the number of cluster bombs that Israel dropped on or fired into Lebanon.

A cluster bomb is made up of a canister that opens and releases hundreds of individual bomblets, which are dispersed and explode over a wide area, showering it with molten metal and lethal fragments.

About 40% of the bomblets dropped by Israel (many of which were American-made) did not explode in the air or on impact with the ground. They now detonate when someone disturbs them — a soldier, a farmer, a shepherd, a child attracted by the lure of a shiny metal object.

Cluster bombs are, by definition, inaccurate weapons that are designed to affect a very wide area unpredictably. If they do not discriminate between civilian and military targets when they are dropped, they certainly do not discriminate in the months and years after the end of hostilities, when they go on killing and maiming anyone who happens upon them.

When the count of unexploded cluster bomblets passed 100,000, the United Nation’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, expressed his disbelief at the scale of the problem.

“What’s shocking and, I would say to me, completely immoral,” he said, “is that 90% of the cluster-bomb strikes occurred in the last 72 hours of the conflict, when we knew there would be a resolution, when we really knew there would be an end of this.”

That was on Aug. 30, by which time U.N. teams had identified 359 separate cluster-bomb sites.

Since then, the true dimensions of the problem have become even clearer: 770 cluster-bomb sites have now been identified. And the current U.N. estimate is that Israel dropped between 2 million and 3 million bomblets on Lebanon, of which up to a million have yet to explode.

In fact, it is estimated that there are more unexploded bomblets in southern Lebanon than there are people. They lurk in tobacco fields, olive groves, on rooftops, in farms, mixed in with rubble. They are injuring two or three people every day, according to the United Nations, and have killed 20 people since the cease-fire in August.

“What we did was insane and monstrous,” one Israeli commander admitted to the newspaper Haaretz. “We covered entire towns in cluster bombs.”

As Egeland noted, the majority of these bombs were dropped in the last three days of the war — a time when the U.N. resolution to end the fighting had been agreed on, when the war was virtually over, when it was clear that Israel had failed to accomplish its declared objectives in launching this campaign.

Dropped so late in the war, it’s hard to imagine what specific military objective these bombs could possibly have been meant to accomplish. Instead, they seem to have been dropped as a final, gratuitous act of violence in a war waged against an entire population. The vast majority of the 1,200 Lebanese killed by Israeli bombardments were civilians; one in three was a child.

With 100,000 innocent people trapped in the south because they could not, or dared not, flee on roads that Israel was indiscriminately bombing every day, Israel’s justice minister declared that they were all — men, women and children — “terrorists who are related in some way to Hezbollah.”

Nor was this his view alone. The Israelis dropped leaflets warning that “any vehicle of any kind traveling south of the Litani River will be bombed, on suspicion of transporting rockets, military equipment and terrorists.” The Israeli chief of staff was especially clear. “Nothing is safe” in Lebanon, he said. “As simple as that.”

Israel carried out 7,000 air raids and fired 160,000 artillery projectiles into Lebanon, a tiny country. That’s about two air raids and 40 projectiles per square mile.

But the punishment was not evenly distributed. Israel’s war was aimed specifically at Lebanon’s Shiite population. Shiite neighborhoods in Beirut were destroyed, but other neighborhoods remained untouched. Shiite villages in the south were obliterated — literally wiped from the surface of the Earth — while nearby Christian villages escaped unscathed, mercifully able to shelter their Shiite neighbors.

Israeli officials said this was a war against Hezbollah, that Hezbollah was hiding in the midst of the population. But this wasn’t a war against Hezbollah. It was a war to punish the entire population for its support of the guerrillas.

Not only was Hezbollah not hiding behind civilians, it ought to be obvious that the violence was directed in the first instance at the civilians themselves. To direct such violence at one community, one religious group, one minority — and to deny them the ability to return safely home — was what this war was all about.

To drop two or three bomblets for every man, woman and child in southern Lebanon — after having wiped out their homes, smashed their communities, destroyed their livelihoods — is to wage war against them all.

And we supplied the weapons.

Lessons Learned

[Originally published in The Nation, 20 August 2006]

Hours before the UN ceasefire went into effect, Israel quietly announced that it would, after all, be willing to negotiate a prisoner exchange with Hezbollah to secure the return of the two soldiers whose capture sparked the recent war.

Had Israel accepted Hezbollah’s offer of a negotiated exchange five weeks ago, more than 1,000 people–the vast majority Lebanese civilians–would still be alive. In addition, more than a million people would not have been displaced from their homes; entire neighborhoods in Beirut and whole villages in the south of Lebanon would still be intact; and the Israeli army would not have reduced Lebanon to an environmentally devastated wasteland.

Rather than negotiating an exchange (as they have in the past), the Israelis launched a wave of air and artillery attacks on civilian targets in Lebanon.

When Hezbollah retaliated with several salvos of rockets, Israel angrily announced that no country–other than Lebanon, presumably–can tolerate such attacks, and it stepped up its bombardment of Lebanon, striking the international airport in Beirut as well as other civilian targets, and threatening to set the entire country back twenty years.

Far too many people in the US accepted Israel’s claims at face value.

Hardly anyone bothered to put the capture of the Israeli soldiers (which was referred to as a “kidnapping,” not a term normally used with reference to soldiers in wartime) in historical context. It was depicted as having come out of the blue, rather than being understood as one event in a continuous series originating with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982-in whose aftermath Hezbollah was born. When the rockets started flying, no one seemed to notice that Israel had brought punishment on its own civilians by having chosen to respond disproportionately to a minor border skirmish, and to an attack on its army by bombing defenseless civilians.

Overnight, as the captured soldiers faded into the background, a consensus seemed to emerge in the US, according to which the bombing of Lebanon was really about Israel’s need to protect its northern border from Hezbollah rocket attacks.

We were saturated with the message that Hezbollah is a shadowy terrorist organization that has spent years showering northern Israel with rockets–and that Israel had both the right and the duty to protect itself from such attacks once and for all. Thus was history instantaneously rewritten to Israel’s own specifications.

In fact, from the moment that Israel ended its last military occupation of Lebanon in 2000 until the explosion of the current war on July 12, UN observers report that there was not a single casualty as a result of a confirmed rocket attack by Hezbollah on civilian targets in northern Israel.

A number of alternative explanations for Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon have been proposed, most of them involving the Bush administration’s regional ambitions. It may have been another attempt to create “a new Middle East,” or, as Seymour Hersh suggests, it may have been a dress rehearsal for a future US war on Iran.

Whatever its real motivations, however, Israel failed. For all the damage it inflicted on innocent civilians, Israel’s lumbering army was resolutely beaten back by Hezbollah.

We may never know the real reasons for Israel’s attack, but there are lessons to be learned from the past few weeks of violence.

First, we should learn never to accept at face value any government’s justifications for its own actions. Government claims need to be viewed skeptically, placed in context, read against the grain.

Second, we need to learn not to assess Israel’s actions using Israel’s own discourse. Not only, for example, do hundreds of millions of people not see Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, but to accept the Israeli designation is to ignore the material fact that Hezbollah is a massive social movement that gained prominence by resisting what would have been recognized in any other context as a brutal and illegal military occupation.

Third, it is essential for us to disentangle American interests from Israeli ones. Our government supported Israel’s war on Lebanon. We financed and supplied it; our Congress affirmed it; our representatives repeatedly blocked international appeals for a ceasefire that would have saved hundreds of lives. It is childish for us to imagine that we will not have further prices to pay for our blind support for Israel. We should demand from our government an explanation of what we receive in turn–especially if that is nothing.

Finally, we must learn to see Israel for what it is. A state that punishes an entire population, flouts international law, commits war crimes, refuses to allow aid to reach beleaguered civilians, destroys ambulances, attacks civilians, and orders terrified people from their homes only to bomb them as they flee, is a rogue state. We need to ask ourselves what we gain by associating ourselves with it.

Israel Should Call it Quits

[Originally published on Counterpunch, 3 August 2006]

Israeli commandos staged a daring raid the other night on the ancient Lebanese town of Baalbeck, catching Hassan Nasrallah asleep, bundling him into a waiting helicopter, and spiriting him back to Israel.

But as the dust settled and reports from the ground began to emerge, it turned out that the Hassan Nasrallah that Israel’s most elite military unit had captured-with the assistance of the formidable intelligence capabilities of the legendary Mossad-was apparently not Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizballah, but rather Hassan Nasrallah, the owner of a small toyshop on the dusty outskirts of Baalbeck. They also nabbed his son, another relative, and a neighbor for good measure. Israel claims that the men are members of Hizballah, albeit not the ones they were hoping for. Their relatives and neighbors, and Hizballah itself, deny this.

The raid was focused on the Dar al Hikma hospital, which was heavily damaged by the Israeli raiders and supporting fire from aircraft. The hospital, however, was found to be empty. The kidnapped men were, according to local sources, taken from their homes.

To provide cover before and during the raid on the hospital, Israeli aircraft subjected residential neighborhoods of Baalbeck and neighboring towns to a withering bombardment, in which seventeen people, almost all of them civilians, were killed. The dead included the son of the mayor of al Jamaliyeh, his brother, and five other relatives. The mayor of al Jamaliyeh, incidentally, held a distinctly anti-Hizballah position in local politics.

Israel’s aerial torment of a population entirely lacking in air defenses and even proper air raid shelters has now killed some 900 people, the overwhelming majority of them civilians, and about a third of them children. It has displaced almost a million people from their homes. It has devastated Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure. It has reduced entire towns in the south-including Bint Jbeil, once home to 30,000 people-to rubble. And it has left block after block after block of Beirut in total ruins. (All this while Israel is at the same time holding the 1.4 million destitute people of the Gaza Strip in the world’s largest prison, bombarding them day and night, and sadistically depriving them of sleep at night by repeatedly breaking the sound barrier at low altitude).

After three weeks of devastating bombardment, Israel’s much vaunted army finds itself unable to fight its way more than a few kilometers into Lebanon. The heavy resistance they have encountered on the ground is the most obvious explanation for why the Israelis prefer on the whole to go on dropping bombs on children from a safe distance: not only is it less dangerous, it also involves much less effort.

The “deep penetration” raid on Baalbeck was meant to show off the capabilities of Israel’s armed forces, to make up for their humiliating performance on the ground and their repeated massacres of civilians from the air, including the refugees sheltering in Qana (an event whose cover story has gone through at least three variations, none of them convincing to anyone other than the Israelis themselves).

Instead, it left a hospital in ruins, more than a dozen civilians dead, and elite forces in possession of an unfortunate middle-aged shopkeeper and an assortment of his friends and relatives.

Surely this would be the right moment for Israel to give up and call it quits

US Should not Abet Violence in Lebanon

[Originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, 22 July 2006]

Never has the gulf between U.S. and Israeli interests been clearer than during the present crisis. And not since the shameful coverup of the 1967 Israeli bombing of the USS Liberty – in which 34 Navy crewmen were killed – have our politicians done so much to protect Israel’s interests at the expense of our own.

We have not been standing idly by as Israel destroys Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure, obliterates entire neighborhoods and kills dozens of innocent people.

Not only has our government provided Israel with the weapons with which it is now bombarding Lebanon, it also has provided virtually unlimited financial, military, political and diplomatic support to enable – even encourage – Israel to continue.

Our government intervened to remove criticism of Israel from the G-8 Summit statement on the crisis. It stymied European efforts to call for a cease-fire to protect civilian life. It vetoed a U.N. resolution calling on Israel to stop its attack on Gaza’s civilians. It rushed an additional $210 million of aviation fuel to Israel to help it “keep peace and security in the region.” And it even granted Israel an additional week to continue its unrestrained pounding of Lebanon, according to diplomatic reports.

Lebanon is facing a humanitarian catastrophe; 335 people have been killed. The United Nations estimates that up to half a million people have been displaced from their homes. With Israel having reduced Lebanon to a large-scale version of Gaza – cut off from the outside world, denied water and electricity, unable to import essential supplies of food and medicine – the country is on its knees. Four million people are now not merely terrified, but increasingly hungry and thirsty.

It is absurd to consider this level of violence a legitimate act of self-defense. During its war with the IRA, Britain could have used the same argument to destroy Ireland’s roads, bridges, ports and airports on the pretext that they were being used by the IRA to move weapons and supplies; it could have used it to launch massive bombardments of Catholic neighborhoods both in the Republic and in Northern Ireland.

The absurdity of the justification aside, Israel has bombed targets in Lebanon that have no possible connection to Hezbollah. It has killed sleeping Lebanese army soldiers in the north of the country, even though the Lebanese army is not involved in the conflict and is, moreover, supposed to be the key to the solution, according to Israel itself. It has bombed milk factories, cutting off the supply of a vital nutrient to Lebanon’s babies and children. It has bombed a desperately needed aid convoy heading toward Beirut from the United Arab Emirates. It has bombed hospitals, schools and ambulances. All of this, of course, is in blatant violation of the U.S. Arms Export Control Act, under which our weapons are provided to Israel.

Why is our country supporting Israel’s unlimited violence not only against an entire population, but a population that has historically been the most friendly to the United States in the entire Arab world? For decades, America has been a beacon of hope and liberty to the people of Lebanon. Its foremost university is an American institution. Its people have emigrated in tens of thousands to America (the majority of Arab-Americans are Lebanese), tying our two nations together.

Justice aside, what do we gain from the bombing of these people?

Are we really to believe that this attack will destroy Hezbollah? Israel enforced a draconian military occupation of Lebanon for over two decades; just as it failed to destroy Hezbollah then, it will fail again now.

Are we then to believe that this attack constitutes a slap in the face for Iran and Syria? The destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure hurts neither of them. On the contrary, it will provide them another chance to give generously during reconstruction.

This attack has nothing to do with Israel’s self defense. Preparing for eventual negotiations, it is showing how it deals with those who dare question it: It reduces their country to rubble. In the name of combating one form of extremism, we are backing another – Israel’s.

We gain nothing in the process. But we will pay a price.

Three hundred million Arabs and 1 billion Muslims are watching as one rational and peaceful and moral argument after another to restore peace is either denied or deflected or contemptuously spurned by our leaders in order to allow Israel to continue its bombardment. The next time one or three or 10 of them take it in their heads to launch a horrific attack on the United States – which they will regard as justified retribution – no one need bother to ask why they hate us. We will all know the answer.

Israel’s Outrageous Attacks

[Originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 19 July 2006]

APPARENTLY suffering from amnesia, Israel now says that its extraordinary collective punishment of the entire Lebanese population is intended to stop rocket attacks across its northern border.

However, Israel’s blanket bombardment of Lebanon was sparked not by rockets (which came in retaliation) but by a guerrilla operation against a military target, the aim of which was to capture soldiers as leverage for the release of some of the Lebanese prisoners Israel stubbornly refuses to free. Israel itself has repeatedly crossed into Lebanon to capture prisoners — including civilians — for use as bargaining chips.

Indeed, although captures, negotiations and exchanges have long been part of Israel’s relationship with Hezbollah, this time it categorically refused to negotiate the release of its soldiers — preferring instead to pummel hundreds of thousands of defenseless people on a scale out of all proportion to what it regards as the initial provocation.

So far, Israel has killed more than 230 people — all but a handful of whom were civilians — including whole families. With its customary arrogance, it has issued peremptory warnings to entire communities to get out of its way or face the consequences: terrorism in the true sense of the word. It gave the residents of the town of Marwaheen in southern Lebanon, for example, a few hours to leave their homes. The terrified residents came under Israeli fire as they fled. More than 15 people, most of them children, were killed.

Israel later warned the entire population of southern Lebanon to leave. No Arab can forget that terrorizing an entire population from its homes is the tactic that was used to seize possession of Palestine in the spring and summer of 1948. Not everyone will leave. Many will reject Israel’s imperious warnings — what right, they will ask, does Israel have to terrify us into flight from our homes? In any case, most of them have nowhere to flee to — and even if they did, Israel has destroyed the bridges and is bombing the roads out of the south.

In a week of vindictive bombardment, Israel has destroyed the infrastructure that Lebanon spent a decade building. Under the cover of misleading headlines, such as one that read “Israel Pounds Hezbollah Strongholds,” Israel has in fact bombed towns and villages, provincial centers and Beirut.

Israel has killed Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, old and young, men and women, from the great Phoenician cities of Sidon and Tyre to more humble towns — Chtoura and Juniyah, Damour and Naame, Jiye and Baalbek, Khiam and Batrun.

It has wrecked roads, bridges, a lighthouse, ports, tunnels, electrical pylons, water mains, fuel depots, gas stations, power plants, houses, shops, schools — and even a milk factory. It has repeatedly blasted the international airport that was the symbol of Lebanon’s rebirth from 15 years of war.

Where, when or if Lebanon will ever get the funding to rebuild what Israel has smashed remain open questions. When Israel finally relents, it will leave Lebanon without a functioning infrastructure — and the lives of nearly 4 million people altered beyond recognition.

That, of course, is explicitly the point of this outrage. Israel’s army chief bragged that he would set Lebanon back “20 years.” That is what is happening — as a silent world watches.

No Peace for Israel without Justice for Palestinians

[Originally published in the Houston Chronicle, 14 July 2006]

The civilian infrastructure — notably Beirut International Airport — was the first target of the attack that Israel unleashed on Lebanon in response to the capture of two Israeli soldiers this week.

This mimicks Israel’s earlier assaults on the essentially defenseless population of the Gaza Strip. Israeli missiles destroyed Gaza’s only power plant, depriving half the population of electricity for the hot summer months (no fans, no fridges, no light after sunset). Israeli interdictions severely disrupted supplies of food, fuel, medicines and water. Midnight air raids, artillery bombardments, and sleep deprivation are taking a psychological toll, particularly on young children.

Israel is, in short, now punishing more than a million men, women and children in Gaza for a Palestinian guerrilla attack on an Israeli army post (an obviously military target), and the entire population of Lebanon for a Hezbollah attack on Israeli troops on its northern border.

As Israel lashes out indiscriminately, mocking international law, U.S. government officials and prominent pundits have expressed sympathy — not for the victims of these attacks, but for their perpetrators. Moreover, much of the arsenal that Israel uses against Lebanese and Palestinians is American, including the armored bulldozers it uses to crush homes, the missiles recklessly fired into crowded neighborhoods and the gunships that launch them.

Such support tarnishes U.S. standing in a strategically vital region of the world. More and more Americans realize that we pay a price for Israel’s abuses — and receive nothing in return.

What we most urgently need to know is that the tragedy now unfolding in Gaza is not merely one more episode in a supposed “cycle of violence” (which implies proportionality), let alone a genuine military contest (for only one side has an army).

But if the current Israeli attacks are utterly disproportionate to their alleged provocations, that is because far more is at stake than Palestinian pinpricks. What is happening in Gaza is an expression of Israel’s political vision.

Israeli politicians speak openly of that vision (indeed, the current Israeli government won recent elections with a pledge to fulfill it): the consolidation of a state with a Jewish majority in a land in which barely half the population is actually Jewish.

There is no way to implement such a program without violence. That was the case in 1948, when half of Palestine’s non-Jewish population was driven into flight — never to be allowed to return — in order for a Jewish state to be created on what had been Palestinians’ land. And it is the case today, as Israel seeks to forcibly isolate the land’s remaining non-Jewish population into barren islands cut off from each other and the rest of the world.

Gaza is only one of these islands. The others are in the West Bank which, with Gaza and east Jerusalem, are what remained of Palestine after it was dismembered in 1948 — only to be captured by Israel in 1967.

Jerusalem is already off limits to most Palestinians. Israel has broken the West Bank into three separate cantons. A grid of roadblocks further fragments each canton internally. Israel’s separation barrier only adds to the fragmentation, as do a road network barred to Palestinians — and a sprawling array of illegal Jewish settlements — whose annexation to Israel, while bypassing areas of indigenous, non-Jewish population, is Israel’s objective.

Israel claims to hold the Palestinian “government” accountable for the raid on its Gaza outpost. But this archipelago of besieged territories does not — and it will never — amount to a “state.” It is designed to be a collection of open-air holding cells for the land’s non-Jewish population: spaces to detain them, isolate them from health-care, educational and infrastructural services, deny them access to land, resources and markets, until they either die or simply give up and go away. Gaza’s suffocation over the past year illustrates this perfectly.

Each departing Palestinian will be triumphantly checked off the tally by Israeli demographers like Arnon Sofer who, anxiously monitoring what they unabashedly call the “demographic threat” to their country, obsessively calculate ratios of Jews to non-Jews.

Lacking an army, Palestinians do not pose a material challenge to Israel. They pose an ideological challenge. Raids like the one on the Gaza outpost remind Israelis that the Palestinians will not go away; this is why Israel cannot tolerate them.

Israel’s announcement that it now intends to create by force a depopulated “security zone” in northern Gaza is eerily reminiscent of its futile attempt to enforce such a zone in southern Lebanon. Israel’s northern border fell silent — not when it had finally used enough violence against Lebanon — but when it decided to end its illegal military occupation of Lebanese territory. That lesson has apparently been forgotten already, as Israel again holds an entire country hostage.

The same principle applies to Gaza. Israel’s use of overwhelming force against civilian targets shows that it still fails to understand that occupation begets resistance — and that peace for Israelis is inseparable from justice for Palestinians.

These are lessons that Americans should learn as well.

The Real Winner in Israel

[Originally published in The San Francisco Chronicle, 31 March 2006]

Everyone is talking about the successful — albeit lackluster — performance of Ehud Olmert’s Kadima Party in Tuesday’s Israeli elections. Kadima won a marginal victory, gaining 28 seats in the Knesset, and giving Olmert the opportunity to form a government.

But, in a sense, the real winner of the elections was Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, which pushed past Likud to become one of Israel’s major political parties — turning Lieberman into a potential kingmaker. This is a remarkable development because Lieberman’s party stands for one thing: an Israel finally cleansed of the remainder of the indigenous Palestinian population.

Lieberman was born in Moldova in 1958. In 1978, he moved to Israel. Because he is Jewish, he was eligible for instant citizenship under Israel’s law of return.

It was evidently not enough for Lieberman that, as a Russian-speaking immigrant fresh off the plane, he was instantaneously granted rights and privileges denied to Palestinians born in the very country to which he had just moved (not to mention those expelled during the creation of Israel in 1948). The very presence of an indigenous non-Jewish population in Israel was, in effect, unacceptable to him. In 1999, he formed a party called Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel our Home”), made up largely of other Russian immigrants for whom the presence of Palestinians is also unacceptable. Lieberman’s party believes what all Israelis believe: that Israel is a Jewish state. Unlike the more respectable Israeli parties, however, Lieberman’s party is willing to add that because Israel is a Jewish state, non-Jews are not welcome. Even if they were born there.

Because Israel has — somewhat conveniently — never declared its own borders, Lieberman proposes that the state’s borders be drawn in such a way that Jews are placed on one side of it, and as many Arabs as possible on the other. Ethnic purity is the operative ideal. The mainstream Israeli parties, and even right-wing politicians such as Moshe Arens, denounce what they regard as Lieberman’s racism.

The difference between Lieberman and mainstream Israeli politicians, however, is not that they believe in cultural heterogeneity and he does not: for they are as committed to Israel’s Jewishness as he is.

The difference, rather, is one of degree. Mainstream Israeli politicians agree that a line of concrete and steel ought to be drawn with Jews on one side of it and as many Arabs as possible on the other. But they argue that it is OK to have a few Arabs on the inside, as long as they behave themselves, and don’t contribute too heavily to what Israelis refer to ominously as “the demographic problem.” Contenting themselves with the platitude that Israel is a democracy, mainstream Israeli politicians ignore the fact that, in matters of access to land, questions of marriage and family unification, and many of the other normal rights and duties associated with citizenship, Israel’s Palestinian minority faces forms of discrimination not faced by Jewish citizens of the state. This is hardly surprising.

As the state of the Jewish people, Israel is, after all, the only country in the world that expressly claims not to be the state of its actual citizens (one-fifth of whom are non-Jews), let alone that of the people whom it governs (half of whom are Palestinian). Non-Jews have always been, at best, an impediment to Israel’s Jewishness. The only question has been what to do about them.

The point, however, is that — as the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy points out — Zeevi and Lieberman are no more racist than mainstream politicians such as Ehud Olmert. The difference is simply one of modalities. “Lieberman wants to distance [Palestinians] from our borders,” writes Levy; “Olmert and his ilk want to distance them from our consciousness.” Racism, Levy concludes, is the real winner of the 2006 elections.

The question is whether this represents some new development, or merely a sign that Israeli politics are becoming truer to the nature of Israel itself — a reminder that the quest for ethnic purity, no matter how it’s dressed up, is inherently ugly.

Speaking Falsehoods to Power

[Originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 10 March 2006]

RICHARD ROGERS, the noted British architect, was recently summoned to the offices of the Empire State Development Corp. to explain his connection to a group called Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine. Empire State is overseeing the redesign of New York’s $1.7-billion Javits Convention Center, and Rogers is the architect on the job.

According to media reports, Rogers has sparked the anger of various New York politicians and Jewish organizations for what he now claims was only a fleeting association with Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine. The group has taken the “outrageous” position that Israel’s West Bank barrier (sometimes referred to euphemistically as a “security fence”) is, well, problematic — because most of it is built not on Israel’s 1967 border but within the West Bank; because it violates international law; because it separates farmers from their land, one town from another, people from their doctors, children from their schools; and because it generally wreaks havoc on Palestinian life.

Members of the group have proposed a boycott of Israeli architects and construction companies working on the barrier, saying their involvement in such a project makes them “complicit in social, political and economic oppression” and is “in violation of their professional code of ethics.”

Apparently anyone associated with such a position — in other words, anyone taking a principled stand in favor of human rights and international law — may have to count himself out of a contract for the Javits Center.

This is only the most recent example of Israel’s American defenders — who will not tolerate any criticism of Israel — using their political clout to punish or silence dissident voices. Last month, the New York premiere of a play based on the words of Rachel Corrie, a young American who was crushed by an Israeli Army bulldozer while protesting the demolition of a Palestinian home, was indefinitely postponed for fear that some might find her words “offensive.”

Naturally, Rogers has been desperately trying to distance himself from anything that might stand in the way of his retaining the Javits project, including severing his ties with the group and stating that he does not back a boycott.

Israel’s barrier is fine, Rogers now says. In fact, he’s now in favor of it. Further, “Hamas must renounce terrorism,” he told the New York Post. “Hamas must recognize Israel’s right to exist. Just making a statement is not enough. They have to back it up.”

Alas for Rogers, such effusion may not be enough to save his contract.

“His position on Hamas is not relevant,” said Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. “The relevant issue is a group that is convened for the purpose of activities detrimental to a democratic state…. [The Javits Center] carries the name of someone whose legacy is exactly contrary to such views. It certainly would be offensive to his legacy, and it would be an offense to the people of New York, who reject what that group stands for.”

What that means, presumably, is that Sen. Jacob Javits and the people of New York do not stand for justice, peace, humanity and the law but injustice, war, inhumanity and illegality — for what else could “exactly contrary” signify?

Unless brave New Yorkers — including members of the organizations in whose name this position is being taken — stand up and refute it, this is how the record will remain.

Yet all I hear, unfortunately, is deafening silence. Or maybe what I hear is what Wordsworth once called “the still sad music of humanity.”

PS: It was reported today that New York politicians and Jewish leaders have given their approval for Rogers to retain the Javits project. That did not prevent Rogers from making a few final and gratuitous genuflections: “There were misunderstandings on both sides— certainly there were misunderstandings on my side,” he said. Of Israel, he said: “I have always been a strong believer in that state . . . . I do believe there’s a great future for Israel, and I’m a friend of that country.”

Don’t Blame the Victims

[Originally published in the Chicago Tribune, 24 February 2006]

Sanctions and the peace process: Don’t blame only the Palestinians

Last weekend Israel and the U.S. took the first steps toward imposing sanctions on the Palestinians following Hamas’ recent electoral victory.

As Israel tightened the flow of money–beginning with tax funds that it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, who don’t control their own territory, much less their own water, airspace or borders–it continued to insist that it will not negotiate with a Hamas-dominated Palestinian leadership.

The imposition of sanctions will certainly hurt the Palestinian population; but the suspension of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is almost completely irrelevant, because there’s hardly anything left to negotiate anyway.

Long before the Palestinian elections–by about a year ago, in fact–Israel had effectively annexed the Jordan Valley, an area comprising about a third of the West Bank. And for almost two years now, Israel has repeatedly announced its intention to annex much of the rest of the territory, as well as all of East Jerusalem, a position reiterated by the interim Israeli prime minister only a few days ago.

In fact, Israel’s unilateralism predates the Hamas victory by decades, not just years.

Israel first expressed its intention to permanently retain control of most of the West Bank and all of Jerusalem in a plan formulated shortly after its conquest of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in 1967 by former Foreign Minister Yigal Allon. A single glance at the map of the Allon plan shows that what Israel is talking about today is more or less what it was talking about almost 40 years ago.

Other than in terms of window dressing, hardly anything has made much of a difference in Israel’s execution of its ambitions. What is needed now is not further peace-process negotiations but, finally, a genuine, peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

If it is to be just and lasting, such a resolution must involve not merely an end to the horrifying and morally unacceptable Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, and not just a halt to Israel’s equally unacceptable–albeit much more devastating–provocations and escalations, but also something much more substantial.

For what all the hullabaloo following the Hamas electoral victory has covered up is the essential fact that it is not the Palestinians who are occupying Israeli land, bulldozing Israeli homes, uprooting Israeli olive groves, rounding up Israeli teenagers, imposing curfews on Israeli cities, assassinating Israeli activists, building barriers on Israeli land, demanding Israelis’ papers every time they step outside their houses, stifling the Israeli economy, expropriating Israeli property, and illegally settling Israeli territory.

It’s the other way around.

The simple fact of the matter is that Israel continues to occupy Palestinian territory, in violation of international law, in violation of the principles of the UN Charter, in violation of the Geneva Conventions, and in violation of the most basic codes of decent human behavior.

The most effective way to address this reality is not to threaten sanctions against the victims of this illegal military occupation (who, after all, never chose to be thus occupied), but instead to impose such sanctions–immediately–on the perpetrators themselves. Until the Israelis learn, the hard way, that the occupation that they have chosen to impose on another people for four decades is not worth the cost to themselves, hardly anything else matters.

Politics, Language and the Palestinians

[Originally published in Counterpunch]

The widely circulated article by Khaled Meshaal, which first appeared in English in The Guardian and was reprinted in The Los Angeles Times, reminded all those who are involved in one way or another with the Palestinian struggle of the importance of language in framing that struggle, and—whether or not one agrees with Hamas—of redefining both the struggle and the language used to shape it in the difficult years ahead.

For most Palestinians, what was refreshing about Meshaal’s piece was his use of a defiant language of struggle—one appropriate to their desperate circumstances—rather than the meaningless, empty, bankrupt language all but handed to current and previous Palestinian leaders by a team of American and Israeli script-writers.

Amazingly, there are still some people out there who don’t understand that language and politics are inseparable from one another—that there is no way to understand politics without understanding language, simply because politics exist not merely in cold hard facts, but in language itself.

This isn’t a complicated literary-theoretical trick: it’s common sense.

It’s impossible to think about politics without using language for the simple reason that it’s impossible to think about anything without using language.

The kind of language you use helps define how you think. You can’t just hold a certain political position, then come up with the words to express that position afterwards; the words have to be there first.

Even if you are particularly clever, the words you draw on—and the concepts and narratives with which those words are framed—almost always pre-exist you and the political positions you want to express. And the more conventional your point of view, the more readily you’ll find words, concepts and narratives ready to suit your purposes.

It’s not very surprising, actually.

This is why the careless use of certain words—“terrorism” is a perfect example—almost automatically leads to the adoption of certain political positions, because the words are doing the thinking for you. Such words are not only pre-cooked, they’re pre-digested: they are just passing through you.

Drawing on ready-to-use political language is unlikely to yield anything other than pre-formed, off-the-shelf, conventional thinking, because that’s precisely the kind of thinking that ready-to-use political language is designed for.

So, in general, people who uncritically use the political language that is available to them are not likely to come up with fresh new approaches to apparently intractable problems. They are, on the contrary, far more likely to go on thinking the way others want them to think.

This is why if you find yourself using the language, concepts and narratives—the “truth-entangling lines,” Shelley once called them—that are used by those who exercise political or military power, you are not very likely to think very differently from the way they want you to think.

On the other hand, if you insist on developing alternative approaches to various political situations—if you insist on thinking for yourself—you have to spend a lot more time thinking about the political language you’re using, the concepts you’re drawing on, the narratives and discourses you’re otherwise in danger of unconsciously buying into.

In no situation is a critical attitude to political language more important than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, where political language has worked miracles that not only defy, but breathtakingly fly in the face of, the cold hard facts.

There is, quite simply, no other way to explain how it could be that the victims of four decades of relentless military occupation are so often made out to be the real villains, while those who willfully entered into—and have perpetuated and extended—that occupation are so often made out to be the victims; or how it could be that a state that was founded on an act of violent dispossession and ethnic cleansing could be a member in good standing of the international community, while those whom it dispossessed and banished from their land and homes are the ones who are treated as outcasts, murderers, outlaws, constantly being asked to apologize, to atone, to renounce this or that scrap of writing or ineffective gesture of defiance. Rarely have language and reality been separated by a greater gulf.

In fact, it could be argued that the worst thing about the process set in motion during those secret talks at Oslo in 1993 was the way in which it so systematically separated language and reality. On the one hand, there was a whole vocabulary and even a grammar of “negotiations” which came to called “the peace process”—“Area A,” “Area B,” “interim status,” “final status,” etc. And on the other hand there was an actual set of material circumstances, whereby, notwithstanding all the talk, Israel went right on expropriating more Palestinian land, uprooting more Palestinian trees, destroying more Palestinian homes, building more settlements.

How many times does one have to point out that the population of Jewish settlers illegally living in the occupied territories whose future status was supposedly being negotiated actually doubled as those negotiations were taking place, before one is granted the concession that in fact the whole thing was a farce? It’s not just that the language of the so-called peace process and what was actually happening were fundamentally at odds; it’s that language was systematically used to mask reality—or, as Harold Pinter put it during his remarks on a similar set of circumstances during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, language was actually “employed to keep thought at bay.”

This is why it was so demoralizing for Palestinians to see their political leadership not merely cave in to all the concessions extracted from them with such ease at Oslo, but also buy into the whole linguistic scheme—the language game—that was being used to mask the underlying intensification of the occupation which is what Oslo was really all about. For ordinary Palestinians, it was obvious that language and reality had been separated, and it grew increasingly objectionable for them to see their leaders use the set of terms that had been handed to them, which had no bearing on the reality they were experiencing, rather than trying to adapt language to actual political and material circumstances.

And this is why it was so demoralizing to for Palestinians to hear, often under appalling circumstances, Ahmad Qureia or Mahmoud Abbas helplessly pleading for a return to “interim status talks” or “the Road Map,” rather than shouting out in much plainer language, “stop what you are doing to my people!”

This is why the words of Khaled Meshaal offered such relief to so many Palestinians (and not just those who support Hamas): because, rather than wallowing in a vocabulary invented to suit the purposes of American and Israeli planners and technocrats, he was describing the world as it actually exists for the Palestinians themselves, in a language actually suited to the occasion.

Illusion of Democracy: The Palestinian Elections

[Originally published in The San Francisco Chronicle, 22 January 2006]

With about 80 percent of eligible voters registered, and more than 700 candidates running in a hotly contested campaign for 132 seats on the Palestinian Legislative Council, the stage is set for what is being packaged as an impressive exercise in democracy when Palestinians in the occupied territories go to the polls on Wednesday.

There are, however, some problems with this rosy picture.

For one thing, candidates representing the Islamic Hamas movement seem positioned for a significant victory over their rivals in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ ruling Fatah party. The United States and the European Union have threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas is granted a presence in the Palestinian Cabinet, which would be the natural result of it taking a significant share of the popular vote. And Israel says it will refuse to negotiate with a government that includes Hamas.

Hamas has gained electoral support not because so many Palestinians support its ideology and violence, but because they are fed up with spending a 39th year under Israeli military occupation, with a Fatah-dominated leadership that has failed to deliver on any of the promises of peace and prosperity that have been made since the 1993 Oslo accords.

Even at the height of the peace process, less than 18 percent of the West Bank was ever actually returned to Palestinian control — and even that was divided into dozens of disconnected fragments of territory. That is not the fault of Fatah, but rather of the Israelis, who continue to refuse to dismantle their occupation and abide by treaty obligations and the principles of international law.

But as long as Fatah leaders like Abbas refuse to countenance any alternative to participation in a process that has led to nothing but further paralysis and misery for the Palestinian population, a vote for Hamas is in reality a vote against Fatah.

This is political cynicism born of despair.

When Palestinians are asked which of their leaders they most trust, twice as many choose “none of the above” as Abbas — and he is the least distrusted leader. Polls show that fewer than 3 percent of the Palestinians living in the occupied territories actually back Hamas’ objective of creating an Islamic state in historic Palestine. Three-quarters support either a one- or two-state peaceful resolution of the conflict with Israel.

All the talk of elections is part of an attempt to impose a sense of normalcy on a highly abnormal situation: not just the endless occupation, but the unresolved future of the Palestinian people, two-thirds of whom are excluded from the electoral process because they do not live in the occupied territories but rather in refugee camps or in the diaspora, or as second-class citizens of the state of Israel. And none of this will be changed by the elections.

Leaving aside the question of what it means to hold a “national” election when the majority of the nation doesn’t have the right to vote, even the process of holding elections while living under military occupation is highly problematic for those who are eligible to vote.

The Israeli army denies Palestinians in the occupied territories the right to free movement, so access to campaign rallies and even voting booths can hardly be taken for granted. Right now, for example, 800,000 Palestinians living in the northern West Bank are banned from traveling outside of their home districts, and a large strand of Route 60, the main West Bank artery, has been off limits to Palestinian traffic since August.

Campaigning candidates have to run not only the regular gauntlet of Israeli checkpoints, patrols and roadblocks, but also must navigate politically motivated interference of the kind that in last year’s presidential elections guaranteed that only Abbas — Israel’s chosen candidate — was allowed free movement. Other candidates were often detained and sometimes physically abused at Israeli checkpoints.

Israel recently gave permission for east Jerusalem Palestinians to vote, but it has banned Hamas candidates from campaigning there or having their names printed on ballots.

Of course, according to international law, east Jerusalem is considered occupied territory, so it’s not really up to Israel to allow or prevent Palestinians there from participating in the political process.

In all, these can hardly be considered genuinely democratic elections, not because the Palestinians don’t want them to be, but rather because of the larger circumstances, the indelible reality that it is impossible for a nation to hold genuine elections while one-third is living under military occupation and two-thirds are denied the right to vote.

This is not to say that there is no purpose in holding elections for a government that will find itself without a state to govern. The point of the elections is to maintain the illusion that there still is a political process that will eventually lead to Palestinian “statehood.” The elections fit into a wider narrative of Palestinian statehood-without-a-state that has been pushed by the United States and Israel, with the Palestinian Authority’s acquiescence — since Oslo.

Not only do Wednesday’s elections maintain this deception, they also reinforce the sense that they are part of a wider process of Palestinian “reform” and “democratization,” which are keys to the future of the so-called peace process.

After all, the United States has decreed that all progress toward peace depends on the behavior of the Palestinians, rather than on the Israelis. Placing that burden on those who never chose to live under military occupation — while exempting the occupiers — is hardly likely to yield real results.

But it’s not meant to. This is why Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s senior adviser Dov Weisglass describes the situation as “a bottle of formaldehyde.” According to Weisglass, maintaining the illusion of a political process guarantees that there will be no resolution of the conflict “until the Palestinians turn into Finns.” And that, of course, suits Israel just fine, because as long as the illusion is maintained, it doesn’t have to do anything but hang on to the territories it took by force in 1967.

Witch Hunt at UCLA

[Originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 22 January 2006]

‘UCLA STUDENTS: Do you have a professor who just can’t stop talking about President Bush, about the war in Iraq, about the Republican Party, or any other ideological issue that has nothing to do with the class subject matter? It doesn’t matter whether this is a past class, or your class from this coming winter quarter. If you help expose the professor, we’ll pay you for your work.”

This grotesque offer appeared last week on a new website taking aim at members of the UCLA faculty. The site, created by the Bruin Alumni Assn., a group founded by 2003 UCLA graduate Andrew Jones, offers differing bounties for class notes, handouts and illicit recordings of lectures ($100 for all three).

A glance at the profiles of the “targeted professors,” however, reveals that they have been singled out, in most cases, not for what goes on in their courses, but for the positions they have taken outside the classroom — and outside the university.

I earned my own inaccurate and defamatory “profile,” for example, not for what I have said in my classes on English poets such as Wordsworth and Blake — my academic specialty, which the website pointedly avoids mentioning — but rather for what I have written in newspapers about Middle Eastern politics.

My colleagues and I are being targeted for speaking out on the kinds of urgent social matters and universal principles that it has always — in every society and every age — been the task of intellectuals to address.

The website assumes that any professor who speaks out in a public forum must at the same time be indulging in ideological abuse of his or her students — proselytizing them, indoctrinating them. And it’s actually not just any professor; it’s only the supposedly “liberal” ones, since “conservative” faculty are not targeted on the website.

Naturally, a professor who speaks out in public expects to receive criticism in public. Criticism is one thing; a farrago of misquotations, misrepresentations and utter falsehoods, dragging in one’s family and stretching back to one’s high school days, is something else entirely. This is no way to assess someone’s classroom conduct.

Ultimately, of course, this has nothing to do with me or my colleagues, or our teaching. A method for assessing how professors treat their students is already built into how universities work. Every course at UCLA gives students the opportunity to anonymously evaluate their professors, and those evaluations are used in hiring, promotion and tenure decisions; abusive professors don’t get very far in their careers.

So the point of the website is not really to produce genuine “evaluations” of classroom dynamics — a cause that would hardly be well-served by a tiny group of politically motivated zealots accountable to no one and trying to use the cash nexus to break the sacrosanct bond between teacher and student. The point, rather, is to silence voices that go against the zealots’ right-wing orthodoxy, and to subject the classroom to outside political surveillance, not simply by vigilante groups like this one, but ultimately by the state itself.

Jones, who created the website, is a former leader of UCLA’s campus Republican organization. He explicitly aligns himself with the “student academic freedom movement” begun by conservative activist David Horowitz (although Horowitz last week criticized Jones, whom he said he’d once fired for pressuring students to file false reports about their professors).

The two distinguishing features of the academic freedom movement are the total absence of any significant student involvement and its use of Orwellian language — in which slogans such as “academic freedom” actually mean their opposite.

One member of the website’s advisory board is state Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside), who has introduced a bill creating a “student bill of rights” — written not by students but by their paternalistic “friends” who assume they aren’t up to the task of thinking critically for themselves.

Morrow’s bill, which failed to pass last year but will be reconsidered this year, would wreak havoc. It could impose unprecedented state monitoring of classrooms and compel professors to teach discredited materials. It asserts, for example, that “curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences shall respect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas, and provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints.”

The intention is presumably to force “liberal” faculty to teach “conservative” materials, as though a university education functions according to the same degraded logic as the Bill O’Reilly show. But the bill could also force a professor teaching the Holocaust to teach the views of Holocaust deniers (“dissenting sources”).

Such subtleties don’t keep the conservative crusaders up at night. Irrespective of the damage their campaign inflicts, members of the hard right — who currently control all three branches of government and yet seem irrationally convinced of their own disempowerment — are seeking to impose their worldview on our university system through crude intimidation and “big government” intervention that reactionaries normally grumble about when it’s taking care of the poor, the ill or the elderly.

Their success would almost certainly guarantee that what gets taught would be determined not according to scholarly criteria but according to political pressure. I’d hate to be mistaken for a “conservative,” but the barbarians really are at the gates.

The Whitewashing of Ariel Sharon

[Originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 7 January 2006]

AS ARIEL SHARON’S career comes to an end, the whitewashing is already underway. Literally overnight he was being hailed as “a man of courage and peace” who had generated “hopes for a far-reaching accord” with an electoral campaign promising “to end conflict with the Palestinians.”

But even if end-of-career assessments often stretch the truth, and even if far too many people fall for the old saw about the gruff old warrior miraculously turning into a man of peace, the reality is that miracles don’t happen, and only rarely have words and realities been separated by such a yawning abyss.

From the beginning to the end of his career, Sharon was a man of ruthless and often gratuitous violence. The waypoints of his career are all drenched in blood, from the massacre he directed at the village of Qibya in 1953, in which his men destroyed whole houses with their occupants — men, women and children — still inside, to the ruinous invasion of Lebanon in 1982, in which his army laid siege to Beirut, cut off water, electricity and food supplies and subjected the city’s hapless residents to weeks of indiscriminate bombardment by land, sea and air.

As a purely gratuitous bonus, Sharon and his army later facilitated the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, and in all about 20,000 people — almost all innocent civilians — were killed during his Lebanon adventure.

Sharon’s approach to peacemaking in recent years wasn’t very different from his approach to war. Extrajudicial assassinations, mass home demolitions, the construction of hideous barriers and walls, population transfers and illegal annexations — these were his stock in trade as “a man of courage and peace.”

Some may take comfort in the myth that Sharon was transformed into a peacemaker, but in fact he never deviated from his own 1998 call to “run and grab as many hilltops” in the occupied territories as possible. His plan for peace with the Palestinians involved grabbing large portions of the West Bank, ultimately annexing them to Israel, and turning over the shattered, encircled, isolated, disconnected and barren fragments of territory left behind to what only a fool would call a Palestinian state.

SHARON’S “painful sacrifices” for peace may have involved Israel keeping less, rather than more, of the territory that it captured violently and has clung to illegally for four decades, but few seem to have noticed that it’s not really a sacrifice to return something that wasn’t yours to begin with.

His much-ballyhooed withdrawal from Gaza left 1.4 million Palestinians in what is essentially the world’s largest prison, cut off from the rest of the world and as subject to Israeli power as before. It also terminated the possibility of a two-state solution to the conflict by condemning Palestinians to whiling away their lives in a series of disconnected Bantustans, ghettos, reservations and strategic hamlets, entirely at the mercy of Israel.

That’s not peace. As Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull would have recognized at a glance, it’s an attempt to pacify an entire people by bludgeoning them into a subhuman irrelevance. Nothing short of actual genocide — for which Sharon’s formula was merely a kind of substitute — would persuade the Palestinian people to quietly accept such an arrangement, or negate themselves in some other way. And no matter which Israeli politician now assumes Sharon’s bloody mantle, such an approach to peace will always fail.

Closed Off, Walled in

[Originally published in the London Review of Books, 1 September 2005]

Palestinians celebrated as Israel began to withdraw its soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip (and from a handful of small and isolated colonies in the northern West Bank). The withdrawal will, it’s true, offer some immediate relief after 38 years of military occupation. At the same time, however, it’s clear that it is designed to serve Israel’s interests, not those of the Palestinians. It will allow the Palestinians of Gaza greater freedom to move about internally, but it will do nothing to resolve their long-term problems; on the contrary, it will leave the territory just as isolated from the outside world – including the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which, with Gaza, were supposed to form the basis of a Palestinian state – and just as much subject to Israeli power.

The Gaza Strip is the unnatural product of the destruction of Palestine in 1948. Most of its inhabitants are descendants of people driven from their homes during the creation of Israel. Most of the Israeli settlers cleared from Gaza will move to the coastal plain south of Jaffa, which is where the refugees of Gaza came from in the first place. Not one Palestinian village there survived the destruction of 1948. The Jewish settlers lived their lives in Gaza in contempt and ignorance of the people at whose expense their fantasy of frontier settlement and biblical prophecy was being played out, and they will be blind to the fact that they will now be living amid the ruins of the homes of their former neighbours.

The Jewish settlers who lived illegally in Gaza will be handsomely compensated (an average family will receive around $350,000, as well as $500 or so as a monthly housing allowance for up to two years). In 1948 Jews took over the homes of some of the 750,000 Palestinians who were driven out of Jaffa, Haifa and Jerusalem, but Palestinians won’t be able to take over the houses in the former settlements in Gaza. Many settlers have destroyed their own homes to stop Palestinians having them, though they will all in any case be reduced to rubble by the army. Palestinians won’t be allowed even to stand on the rubble until a month after the Israelis have rolled up their razor wire and taken their concrete blocks and prefab observation towers to the West Bank, from which they have no intention of withdrawing.

The current withdrawal will, however, end some of the disruptions of life for the Palestinians of Gaza (and for those in the area of Jenin, whose lives were held hostage to the whims of four tiny Jewish settlements in the West Bank that have also been dismantled). For the first time in years, they will be free from constant Israeli supervision and harassment: they will be able to go for an evening stroll; to swim in the sea or to fish (indeed, they will be able to use the beaches for bathing, rather than as secondary roads); or to visit friends without having to run the gauntlet of checkpoints and patrols.

The Jewish settlers of Gaza had access to five times as much water and 700 times more land per capita than the local Palestinians. By the end of the so-called peace process in 2000, 0.5 per cent of the territory’s population controlled about 40 per cent of its surface area. Israeli rule, and the Oslo Accords which cemented the occupation, broke the Gaza Strip into four discontinuous chunks separated by Israeli roads, military installations and settlements. A network of Israeli checkpoints, open at haphazard times, severely limited the movement of Palestinians. A student from Gaza City attending classes in nearby Rafah would have to start walking to school at 3 a.m. in order to have any hope of getting to class on time – and to leave by 4 p.m. to be home by midnight. Ambulances were routinely held up at checkpoints. Since 2000, more than eighty Palestinians have died because they were not allowed through. According to the UN Population Fund, 56 Palestinian babies were born at Israeli checkpoints between late 2000 and summer 2003. Almost half of them died, and 19 women died in childbirth at checkpoints.

Such scenes may now be avoided, but even under optimal circumstances – and it remains to be seen how comprehensive the withdrawal will actually be – there are vast obstacles facing the Palestinians. The most recent World Bank assessment of the Palestinian economy, for example, found that average incomes have declined by more than a third since 2000. Nearly half of all Palestinians live below the poverty line of two dollars a day (and the proportion in Gaza is worse than in the West Bank, at 75 per cent). Recent studies have documented alarming rates of malnutrition in the Occupied Territories, especially among children. ‘The precipitator of this economic crisis,’ according to the World Bank, ‘has been “closure” . . . Closures, including the Separation Barrier, prevent the free flow of Palestinian economic transactions; they raise the cost of doing business and disrupt the predictability needed for orderly economic life.’

Before the Oslo peace process started, it was possible for Palestinians to move between the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and Israel. Israel used the Palestinians as a source of cheap labour and the Occupied Territories as a captive market. A quarter of a million Palestinians – between a third and a half of the workforce – used to support their families by working in Israel. Today, only 15,000 Palestinians are legally allowed to work in Israel. Tens of thousands of Palestinians who were once able to work in the Gulf and send money home have had to move back (250,000 Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait after the first Gulf War). Unemployment in the Occupied Territories is now around 30 per cent, and again, the situation in Gaza is worse than in the West Bank.

The future of Gaza – and the reality of Israel’s ‘disengagement’ – depends on what happens in the city of Rafah, on the Egyptian border. Apart from the two or three crossings that allow access to Israel for the relatively small number of permit-holding Palestinians, Rafah is the only link between the 1.4 million people of Gaza and the outside world. It has also been one of the focal points of Israel’s systematic programme of house demolition. Two thirds of the 2500 houses that the Israeli army has demolished in Gaza since 2000 – leaving 25,000 Palestinians homeless once again, and uncompensated once again – were in Rafah. Some of them were destroyed as collective punishment; many others in order to provide soldiers with clear sight lines or to make space for border patrols.

Until 2000, almost half a million people passed through the Rafah border post each year. That number has dropped by half as Israel has tightened its grip on Gaza. In 2004, the crossing was closed for one stretch of almost three weeks and another of more than a month. Men between the ages of 15 and 35 are routinely denied permission to cross; so, often, are women of the same age. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 480,278 Gazans, a third of the population, are aged between 15 and 35.

One of the key features of disengagement was to have been the handover of the Rafah border post to the Palestinian authorities, who would – according to the terms of an Israeli plan – have been supervised by international inspectors. However, Israel is now insisting on closing the Rafah terminal altogether and opening a new three-way crossing, under its control, where the borders of Israel, Egypt and Gaza meet. If the Egyptians don’t agree to this plan, Israel is threatening to seal off Gaza from the east and make the Karni and Erez crossings into Israel the only ways out. Such behaviour would make clear that Israel has not disengaged from Gaza after all, and should still be regarded as an occupying power there, as in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Gaza would then have to be recognised for what it is: an enormous open-air prison.

The suggestion that the withdrawal from Gaza is a sign of hope for the peace process – or even the beginning of the end of the occupation – is absurd. The Israelis have, for once, been brutally honest about this. ‘The understandings between the US president and me protect Israel’s most essential interests,’ Sharon said in December 2004: ‘first and foremost, not demanding a return to the ’67 borders; allowing Israel to permanently keep large settlement blocs which have high Israeli populations; and the total refusal of allowing Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.’ As the withdrawal from Gaza got underway, Israel’s minister of defence, Shaul Mofaz, announced bluntly that Israel intended to hold on to the core of the settlements in the West Bank – about half the territory. Withdrawal from Gaza will allow Israel to concentrate on fulfilling the Allon Plan of 1967, its original scheme for disposing of the West Bank by annexing most of the land and handing back the leftovers to Jordan or Palestinian self-rule. The Palestinians will now be dispersed between an isolated Gaza, bits and pieces of the West Bank and an isolated east Jerusalem. Oslo and Camp David repackaged this basic idea. Sharon is just less subtle than Rabin, Peres and Barak.

The strategic thinking underlying disengagement has been spelled out by one of Sharon’s advisers, Arnon Soffer of Haifa University. ‘When 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe,’ Soffer told an interviewer from the Jerusalem Post recently. ‘Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.’ Soffer has one worry. ‘The only thing that concerns me,’ he says, ‘is how to ensure that the boys and men who are going to have to do the killing will be able to return home to their families and be normal human beings.’ The ultimate purpose of all this is not merely separation, but what the Israelis call transfer, the completion of the ethnic cleansing project begun in 1948. ‘Unilateral separation doesn’t guarantee “peace”,’ Soffer says. ‘It guarantees a Zionist-Jewish state with an overwhelming majority of Jews; it guarantees the kind of safety that will return tourists to the country; and it guarantees one other important thing. Between 1948 and 1967, the [border] fence was a fence, and 400,000 people left the West Bank voluntarily. This is what will happen after separation. If a Palestinian cannot come into Tel Aviv for work, he will look in Iraq, or Kuwait, or London. I believe that there will be movement out of the area.’ ‘Voluntary transfer?’ the interviewer asked. ‘Yes,’ Soffer replied.

Israel’s so-called disengagement from the Palestinians – whatever its short-term benefits for the people of Gaza – is not designed to bring peace to anyone. It is designed to cement Israel’s grip on the core of the West Bank around an artificially expanded and systematically de-Arabised Jerusalem. Like the scrappy settlements abandoned near Jenin, Gaza is to be given up so that Israel can consolidate its hold over the much more valuable land and aquifers of the West Bank; Palestinians will be confined to walled-in ghettoes. Genuine peace – beginning with a genuine end to the occupation – is a distant prospect.

Israel Leaves, but Gaza is Hardly Free

[Originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 21 August 2005]

PALESTINIANS CELEBRATED as Israel redeployed its soldiers and settlers

from the Gaza Strip last week. The move offers some relief to the

people of Gaza after 38 years of brutal military occupation.

But, given its unilateral disconnection from any framework for a

genuine peace, the withdrawal does nothing to address Palestinian

aspirations. Palestinians will gain greater freedom of movement within

Gaza’s borders, but it seems inevitable that the territory will remain

as isolated from the outside world (not to mention the West Bank and

Jerusalem) and as subject to Israeli domination as before.

Quite apart from the question of Palestinian self-determination —

which hinges on ties between Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem — the

withdrawal also will do nothing to alleviate the social and economic

crisis produced by the Israeli occupation.

A 2004 World Bank study revealed that, since the intensification of

the occupation in 2000, average Palestinian incomes have declined by

more than one-third. Nearly half of all Palestinians live below the

poverty line of $2 a day. The World Bank’s assessment of the cause of

this dramatic deterioration in Palestinian living standards is

unequivocal. “The precipitator of this economic crisis has been

‘closure,’ a multifaceted system of restrictions on the movement of

Palestinian people and goods, which the government of Israel argues is

essential to protect Israelis in Israel and the settlements. Closures,

including the Separation Barrier, prevent the free flow of Palestinian

economic transactions; they raise the cost of doing business and

disrupt the predictability needed for orderly economic life.”

Until the Israeli use of closure as a form of collective punishment

became routine in the 1990s, it was possible for Palestinians living

under Israeli occupation to move among the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem

and Israel. Israeli policy then was to use the Palestinians as a source

of cheap labor and the occupied territories as a captive market.

Between a third and a half of the Palestinian workforce supported their

families by working in Israel.

All this ended with the elaborate calculus of occupation devised at

Oslo between 1993 and 1995, which severely restricted Palestinian

movement. Today, only 15,000 Palestinians from the occupied territories

are allowed to work in Israel. Unemployment in the territories is

between 25% and 30%; some estimates place unemployment in Gaza at about

80%.

Obviously, for Palestinians to have a chance at creating and

sustaining an economy, Gaza must be able to connect freely with the

outside world. Israel, citing the usual security concerns, does not

want that to happen.

Gaza is a narrow strip, bounded by the sea, Egypt and Israel. Even

after the withdrawal, Israel wants to control land access to the

territory; and, by virtue of its military power, it also will control

approaches to Gaza by air and sea.

Now the only crack in the wall that Israel effectively forms around

Gaza is the crossing at Rafah, which straddles the border with Egypt.

Israel long ago asserted its control there by clearing away Palestinian

homes close to the border. Two-thirds of the 2,500 homes wantonly

demolished by the Israeli army in Gaza since 2000 (leaving about 25,000

Palestinians, many already refugees twice over, homeless once again)

were in Rafah. Most were destroyed to clear lines of sight and space

for patrols on either side of the dismal border terminal that allows

passage between Egypt and Gaza.

Because Rafah has no point of contact with Israel, Israeli forces are

supposed to leave it as part of the withdrawal. But Israel now says it

will redeploy its army away from the Egypt-Gaza border — later, not now

— only if it is satisfied with the way that Egypt secures its side of

the border. This is a major loophole in the disengagement plan.

Moreover, shortly before the Gaza withdrawal got underway, the Israeli

government announced that if it does withdraw from Rafah, it ultimately

wants the point of entry there closed so that it can instead open — and

control — a new three-way crossing, where the borders of Egypt, Israel

and Gaza meet. If Egypt doesn’t agree to this plan, and instead decides

to maintain its own border crossing, Israel has threatened to suspend

agreements with Gaza that allow for goods to pass to and through Israel

without fees. That would throttle what remains of Gaza’s economy and

further isolate the territory.

So long as Israel can control all access to Gaza, it cannot be said to

have truly disengaged. It will still be an occupying power there, as in

the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Which means that Gaza must be

recognized for what it is: the world’s largest prison.

Brutality that Boomerangs

[Originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 29 July 2005]

I am angered and sickened by the bombings here in London on July 7, but I am equally angered by the unthinking reactions in the United States and Britain to those disgusting attacks.

The usual self-congratulatory contrast between “our” civilization and “their” barbarism has set the stage for a cycle of moralistic inquiries into the motivations of suicide bombers and the supposed duty of “good” Muslims to restrain “bad” ones.

Few have noticed that suicide bombing is merely a tactic used by those who lack other means of delivering explosives. Fewer still seem to notice that what happened in London is what occurs every time a U.S. or British warplane unloads its bombs on an Iraqi village.

But, you may say, our forces don’t deliberately target civilians. Perhaps not. But they have consistently shown themselves to be indifferent to the civilian casualties produced by their operations.

“Collateral damage” is the inevitable result of choosing to go to war. By making the choice to go to war in Iraq, we made the choice to kill tens of thousands of civilians.

It does not matter to bereaved parents whether their child was killed deliberately, as the result of a utilitarian calculation of “the greater good,” or of the callous indifference of officials from a distant power.

American and British media have devoted hours to wondering what would drive a seemingly normal young Muslim to destroy himself and others. No one has paused to ask what would cause a seemingly normal young Christian or Jew to strap himself into a warplane and drop bombs on a village, knowing full well his bombs will inevitably kill civilians (and, of course, soldiers).

Because “our” way of killing is dressed up in smart uniforms and shiny weapons and cloaked in the language of grand causes, we place it on a different moral plane than “theirs.”

I read an article about a Marine sniper who was given a medal at a California ceremony for having shot dead 32 Iraqis during the battle for Fallouja last year– young men who were defending their city from an invading army. A nod to their deaths was made by the sniper and a chaplain, but these are the sentiments that struck me:

“He didn’t kill 32 people,” said a sergeant major. “He saved numerous lives…. That’s how Marines look at it.” And his mother said, “It’s difficult. You send off your little boy and he comes back a man who has protected everyone.” Clearly, “our” lives are all that matter and “their” lives literally don’t count.

And are we really expected to believe that such brutal indifference to other people’s lives has nothing to do with what happened in London three weeks ago?

“It is by distortedly exalting some men, that others are distortedly debased,” the Anglo American revolutionary Thomas Paine warned two centuries ago. As a result, he added, “a vast mass of humankind are degradedly thrown into the background of the human picture.” His point was that if people are treated inhumanly, they will cease to act humanly.

Our governments dismiss out of hand any connection between the London bombings and the war in Iraq. Such attacks, they say, predate 2003. But Iraq was first invaded in 1991, not 2003. Then a decade of sanctions against that country killed a million Iraqis, including 500,000 children. Over the same period, unwavering support for Israel has resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent Palestinians and the total paralysis of an entire people. Tens of thousands have been slaughtered by U.S. and British forces in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.

At no point has peaceful protest, persuasion, demonstration, negotiation or remonstration made so much as a dent in the single-minded U.S. and British policy. If all legitimate forms of dissent go unheeded, illegitimate forms will be turned to instead. Some will resort to violence, which does not producethe desired result but may, by way of unthinking reaction, give vent to the inhumanity with which they have been treated for so long. Paine was right:

People who are treated brutally will finally turn into brutes.

This is not a war between “civilization” and “barbarism” but a war between one form of zealotry and another, one form of ignorance and another, one form of barbarism and another. More of the same, underwritten by ignorance, will not yield solutions.

The time has come to be human, and — motivated by sympathy, actuated by reason — to think and act as human beings, not unthinking brutes.

Neocons Lay Siege to the Ivory Towers

[Originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 4 May 2005]

In the months ahead, the state Senate Committee on Education will consider a bill that pretends to strike a blow for intellectual honesty, truth and freedom, but in reality poses a profound threat to academic freedom in the United States.

Peddled under the benign name “An Academic Bill of Rights,” SB 5 is in fact part of a wide assault on universities, professors and teaching across the country. Similar bills are pending in more than a dozen state legislatures and at the federal level, all calling for government intrusion into pedagogical matters, such as text assignments and course syllabuses, that neither legislators nor bureaucrats are competent to address.

The language of the California bill — which was blocked in committee last week but will be reconsidered later in the legislative session — is extraordinarily disingenuous, even Orwellian. Declaring that “free inquiry and free speech are indispensable” in “the pursuit of truth,” it argues that “intellectual independence means the protection of students from the imposition of any orthodoxy of a political, religious or ideological nature.” Professors should “not take unfair advantage of their position of power over a student by indoctrinating him or her with the teacher’s own opinions before a student has had an opportunity fairly to examine other opinions upon the matters in question.”

To protect students from what one might (mistakenly) suppose to be an epidemic of indoctrination, the bill mandates that students be graded on the basis of their “reasoned answers” rather than their political beliefs. Reading lists should “respect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge.” Speakers brought to campus should “promote intellectual pluralism,” and faculty should eschew political, religious or “anti-religious” bias.

Notwithstanding its contorted syntax, the bill may sound reasonable. But, in fact, it has nothing to do with balance and everything to do with promoting a neoconservative agenda. For one thing, the proposed “safeguards” to “protect” students from faculty intimidation are already in place at all universities, which have procedures to encourage students’ feedback and evaluate their grievances. Despite a lot of noise from the right about liberal bias on campus, there are simply no meaningful data to suggest that any of these procedures have failed.

The real purpose of the bill, then, is not to provide students with “rights” but to institute state monitoring of universities, to impose specific points of view on instructors — in many cases, points of view that have been intellectually discredited — and ultimately to silence dissenting voices by punishing universities that protect them.

“Why should we, as fairly moderate to conservative legislators, continue to support universities that turn out students who rail against the very policies their parents voted us in for?” asks the Republican sponsor of the Ohio version of the bill.

Backers of the Florida bill would like to empower students to sue professors with whom they disagree on the theory of evolution.

The campaign for academic “rights” actually originated with organizations and individuals committed to defending Israel from criticism, and whose interest in curtailing academic freedom dovetails with those of conservatives.

At the federal level, for example, a confluence of conservative and pro-Israeli forces helped push HR 3077 through the House of Representatives in 2003. That bill, which foundered in a Senate committee (but has been resurrected in the current Congress), called for government monitoring of international studies programs that receive federal funding. The bill was drafted in response to the claim that the federal government was funding programs that criticize American foreign policy. If passed, it would have created a board (including two members from “federal agencies that have national security responsibilities”) to ensure that academic programs “better reflect the national needs related to homeland security.” Its supporters included the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Israel Political Action Committee, the bulwark of Israel’s Washington lobby.

The bill was also backed by pro-Israel agitators Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer, who, via allies such as neoconservative firebrand David Horowitz, are among the proponents of the “bill of rights” legislation at the state level. All the proposed bills before state legislatures are variants of a text written by Horowitz and backed by Students for Academic Freedom, which maintains a website where students can complain about their instructors’ supposed bias.

The problem with all this is that the university is meant to be an insular environment. Those within its walls are supposed to be protected from outside political pressures so that learning can take place.

But the lesson of the recent upheavals at Columbia University — where an individual professor became the object of a concerted campaign of intimidation because of his criticisms of Israel — is that pressure groups targeting an individual professor for his public views are willing to inflict collateral damage on an entire university. What the new legislation offers such groups is the opportunity to inflict damage preemptively on our entire educational system.

Despite its narrow defeat in the California Senate Education Committee last week, SB 5’s supporters clearly will not disappear quietly. If this and similar bills pass, who gets hired and what gets taught could be decided not according to academic and intellectual criteria but by pressure groups, many of whose members are failed academics driven by crassly political motivations. Society would pay the price.

Living with the Wall

[Originally published in the London Review of Books, 3 March 2005]

It was on the way up to Qalandya, on the edge of metropolitan Jerusalem, that I got my first glimpse of the separation barrier. In the neighbourhood of al-Ram, large sections of the wall that Israel began building in 2003 have recently been erected, although gaps still exist towards the northern edge of the district.

As the construction of the wall north of Jerusalem enters its final phase, it has become clear that the 50,000 Palestinians in and near al-Ram will be entirely surrounded, cut off from each other and the outside world. Nearby, the wall will also isolate 70,000 Palestinians in and around Bir Nabala – people who already live between sections of wall in al-Ram to the east and al-Jib to the west, and have the Beit Hanina checkpoint to the south of them and the notorious Qalandya checkpoint to the north.

At one point, to stay on the west side of the wall, we had to drive along a pockmarked strip of road directly beneath it. Other Palestinians, most of them on foot, were picking their way among the potholes, trying to avoid being spattered with mud or hit by passing vehicles.

At the Qalandya checkpoint, there was a massive traffic jam of taxis, cars, buses, minivans and trucks. Some were trying to find a place to park; others to get out of the parking spaces they had been wedged into. Hundreds of people were milling about: women, children, men carrying boxes and suitcases, farmers carrying crates, merchants carrying loads of material, all hoping to find cars or buses or trucks to their final destinations – or, more likely than not, just to the next checkpoint, where they would have to go through the whole thing again. ‘Nablus! Nablus! Nablus!’ some drivers were calling out, offering rides there. ‘Beit Lahem, Beit Lahem,’ over here, for rides to Bethlehem; ‘al-Quds, al-Quds,’ over there, for Jerusalem. Somewhere in the sea of cars and people I found Hani, the driver who had arranged to take me on the next stage of my journey.

As Hani and I set off for Qalqilya, I worried whether the green West Bank licence plates on his car would cause us problems. Jerusalem residents have yellow Israeli plates, and so fare better at roadblocks and avoid routine army searches altogether. ‘These days, it’s not so bad,’ Hani assured me. ‘A few months ago things were terrible; we couldn’t move around at all, but the army’s recently relaxed its grip. That’s what they do: they throttle you so hard that you’re about to die, then they relax so it only hurts: there are still checkpoints and roadblocks, searches and harassment, but because you can kind of get around, it doesn’t feel so bad.’ He told me the road we were on was normally classified as a ‘restricted road’. Until a few months back, we wouldn’t have been allowed on it with West Bank plates. ‘But as long as the “loosening” lasts,’ he explained, ‘we can use this road. Provided we have the appropriate permits and our papers are in order.’

The operating principles of the Oslo Accords have greatly facilitated the Israeli stranglehold on Palestinian life. Oslo split the Palestinians in the West Bank into what the agreement defined as Areas A, B and C. Area A consists of the major Palestinian cities, like Nablus and Ramallah, which reverted to nominal Palestinian control under the agreement – but it amounts to only 18 per cent of the West Bank. Area C, under full Israeli control, amounts to more than 60 per cent, and Area B, which is under Palestinian administration but Israeli security control, to another 22 per cent. All the bits and pieces of Areas A and B are cut off from one another, islands completely surrounded by Area C. Oslo gave Israel a free hand over Area C until final status talks – which were never arrived at – could be successfully concluded. It was partly as a result of this that the Israeli building of colonies and roads continued feverishly throughout the so-called negotiations. In 1995 alone, Israel added 100 kilometres of new roads to the West Bank: 20 per cent of all Israeli road-building in that year. And the more Israel consolidated its hold on Area C, the more the Palestinians were forced to find ways around the roads from which they were excluded – the Israelis call them ‘sterile’ roads. Hani would periodically point out the dusty tracks on the hillsides which Palestinians have to use to get from village to village, since many Palestinian towns aren’t adequately linked to main roads (again, this is neither oversight nor coincidence). There are two semi-independent road networks in this tiny territory: the elaborate, well-paved, well-signed, well-marked and well-lit Israeli one, and the broken, potholed, discontinuous, repeatedly interrupted and regularly blockaded Palestinian one. In order to complete the separation of the Israeli and Palestinian road systems in the West Bank, Israel is planning a system of bridges and tunnels that will link the fragmented Palestinian areas while allowing Israeli traffic to cut through the West Bank on ‘sterile’ roads. The army likes this idea because it will in the future be possible to stop communication between the Palestinian areas simply by opening and closing a few of these bridges and tunnels. The whole thing is designed to look as if it makes life easier for the Palestinians, while actually facilitating the occupation for the Israelis.

In January 2004, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there were 59 permanent Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank, ten partial checkpoints, 479 earth mounds, 75 trenches, 100 roadblocks and 40 road gates, all designed to disrupt or halt the circulation of Palestinian traffic. All Palestinians need permits to travel around the West Bank (which was not the case before Oslo). Getting a permit requires a lengthy administrative procedure, and tens of thousands of requests from Palestinians who for one reason or another are deemed ‘security risks’ are flatly denied. The vast majority of permits issued are for pedestrians or passengers on public transport. Of more than two million Palestinians in the West Bank, only 3000 have permits to drive their own vehicles. Hani’s car belonged to the organisation he worked for. In any case, even Palestinians with permits have to contend with the grid of Israeli checkpoints, and their random opening and closing.

On the way to Qalqilya, we passed Palestinian towns and villages whose access roads had been blocked by the army with piles of earth or boulders. At each one there were parked cars and vans, or people waiting. The Jewish colonies we’d seen were very different. Invariably set on the highest hilltops, with grid layouts, chalet houses, woods and gardens, they presented a radical visual contrast to the parched communities beneath them. The settlements had wide, well-lit and beautifully paved access roads.

Qalqilya has a population of about 60,000 and is itself a major agricultural town, surrounded by fields, orchards, greenhouses and olive groves. Like other large Palestinian towns, it used to serve as a commercial and administrative centre for the towns and villages around it, whose combined population is another forty or fifty thousand. Because Qalqilya also lies beside the so-called Green Line that is supposed to separate the West Bank from Israel – a nominal border which is being made almost meaningless by the construction of the separation barrier, 90 per cent of which runs east of the Green Line, deep into the West Bank – it used to be possible for Palestinians from neighbouring towns inside Israel to go to the market there or meet friends and relatives. Israel’s separation barrier has destroyed a complex of historic, commercial, agricultural, social, cultural and familial relationships. Despite the talk of this being a ‘security fence’, it is obvious that the real aim of the barrier is to absorb as much land, and as few Palestinians, as possible, to acquire pockets of territory that can easily be connected – and are already de facto annexed – to Israel. Nowhere is this clearer than in the well-watered and fertile agricultural region around Qalqilya. North of the city, the barrier absorbs about 6000 acres of rich farmland. Qalqilya is now the westernmost tip of a territorial peninsula created by the barrier.

Qalqilya, and Tulkarem to the north, as well as another twenty or so towns and villages in the same area, now find themselves separated from their agricultural land by the network of walls, electric fences and ditches that make up the separation barrier. What’s worse, another six or seven Palestinian towns are wedged between the separation barrier and the Green Line. These cases are all in the immediate vicinity of Qalqilya, but the same sort of thing is happening all along the barrier.

In October 2003, soon after the erection of the barrier began, the army declared the land between the barrier in the east and the Green Line in the west a ‘closed military area’. The declaration states explicitly that no one can enter the closed area other than Israeli citizens and anyone to whom Israel’s Basic Law of Return applies (that is, anyone of Jewish extraction from anywhere in the world). ‘No one’, in other words, means those Palestinians whose land has been – or is about to be – taken from them. The inhabitants of the villages in the ‘closed area’ have to apply for a ‘permanent resident permit’ from the army. As its name suggests, this is something like a US Green Card, except that in this case the person applying for the permit wants only to be allowed to stay where he has lived all his life. The permits can be withdrawn or cancelled at any time, which means in effect that the people in this area are subject to summary expulsion from their land and homes whenever it suits the state of Israel. In the area around Qalqilya, several thousand Palestinians have permanent resident permits. When the barrier is completed, however, around 100,000 Palestinians will find that they need them. And tens of thousands of others will find themselves cut off from work, schools and healthcare (a third of the West Bank’s villages will have problems in getting access to healthcare once the wall is completed – 26 clinics have already been cut off, and that number will rise to 71 once the wall is finished).

Those Palestinians who live outside the closed area, separated from their farmland and orchards inside it, aren’t much better off. Palestinian farmers from Qalqilya, Jayyus and the surrounding villages who want to cultivate their land on the other side of the barrier must obtain permits from the occupation forces. Israeli military regulations specify up to a dozen different types of permit that Palestinian farmers need to apply for in order to reach and cultivate their land. Of course, in order to get these permits, a complex series of bureaucratic and administrative hurdles needs to be cleared. If there are errors in the original registration of the land, or if the original owner has died or moved overseas, or if there are any questions about inheritance or the reallocation of land among or between families, or any questions about bills of sale or titles – that is, if there are any of the legal problems associated not merely with land ownership in general but, in particular, with ownership of land whose legal documentation has passed through countless municipal offices under four different administrations (the Ottoman Empire, Britain, Jordan, Israel) – then the application for a permit will be suspended.

Much of the land in the West Bank has, in any case, never been formally registered by any of these governing bureaucracies, and is instead held informally, or, rather, in accordance with premodern, customary laws of land ownership and usage (including collective usage, such as grazing). To deal with this problem, the Israelis have dusted off the 1858 Ottoman Land Law and, applying their own highly selective interpretation of it, have declared much of the Palestinian-held land in the West Bank ‘state property’, or classified it, using the Ottoman terminology, as ‘miri land’, the ownership of which is tied to its productive use. According to Israel’s interpretation, miri land that is not actively cultivated for a certain period of time (even if its cultivation is being forcibly prevented) reverts to public ownership – which, as far as the Israelis are concerned, means they can do what they want with it. The only snag is that the Ottoman Empire expired with the Treaty of Sèvres, and so never signed up to the UN Charter or the Geneva Convention – both of which have stipulations regarding occupied territory – and Israel did. In any event, while the various legal issues are contested, much of the land will lie unused, and the clock will start ticking: this is the way the Israelis have used the miri land laws in the past to expropriate Palestinian territory.

So far, about a quarter of the applications for permits to gain access to land in the closed area have been rejected by the occupation authorities. Even those who receive permits do not necessarily manage to get to their land, since this also entails passing through a number of gates that the Israelis have built into the separation barrier, in reluctant response to protests. In the ‘seam area’ between Qalqilya and Tulkarem, for example, there are 12 gates, four of which have never been opened to Palestinian farmers, while a further three have been designated for purposes other than agriculture, and are also off limits to farmers. That leaves five gates. The gates closest to the northern edge of Qalqilya are among the ones that have never been opened or are not to be used by farmers, so any farmer living in Qalqilya whose land lies a little way to the north must leave the city along the road to the east (which is now open, but may be closed again at a moment’s notice), and, running the gauntlet of checkpoints and roadblocks, make his roundabout way to the east and then the north before reaching his land.

Or, rather, before reaching the gate closest to his land. During the months after the permit system came into effect, farmers had to wait for long periods before getting through. At the beginning of the 2003 olive harvest, the gates did not open at all for weeks as a collective punishment for a bombing in the city of Haifa.

Following a number of appeals and petitions to Israel’s high court, most of the gates – or rather, most of the five gates available to farmers – now operate on a more or less fixed schedule, opening three times a day, for half an hour at a time. Even so, plenty of problems remain for Palestinian farmers. They often cannot take their tractors and farm machinery through the gates; at peak times, such as harvest, it’s hard for them to bring through extra labour because the new hands might not have the right permits, and a day or a week or a month going through the nightmare of obtaining permits is a day or a week or a month away from the fields. And assuming that by a concatenation of miracles all goes well for a Palestinian farmer, he must still get his crop to market, which involves finding an open gate, getting his produce through that gate, half an hour at a time, negotiating roadblocks, obtaining transportation permits, waiting at the checkpoints that can hold up perishable produce for hours or days, and organising serial, or ‘back-to-back’, transport to get the goods from checkpoint to checkpoint without actually driving through each one (often prohibited). According to the most recent World Bank assessment of the Palestinian economy, ‘the “back-to-back” system for the transit of non-humanitarian goods’ – which requires unloading and loading the produce at each checkpoint – ‘became routine in 2003.’ But a day or a week or a month of closure or curfew would spell disaster.

Along the western edge of Qalqilya, the separation barrier takes the form of a 24-foot concrete wall. Along the northern side and the southern side, the road that used to take farmers to their fields is now interrupted by the usual mound of earth and concrete cubes, a metal gate, rolls of razor wire about three feet deep, a ten-foot wire grate topped by more razor wire, fifty yards of roadway, more razor wire, an electric fence, more razor wire, another fifty yards of roadway and then, on the other side, more of the same. All this is protected by an immense fortified tower, with the Israeli flag hanging from it. I was told, as I surveyed the Israelis’ efforts here, that I was standing in what had once been an orchard, but the trees had been cut down to maintain a clear line of sight from the tower.

It isn’t just that so much damage has been done to a relatively small area – although a swathe of permanent devastation 200 metres wide by eight kilometres long in a town the size of Qalqilya is already more than a poor community can sustain – but that the expropriation clock is now ticking on the Palestinian land here that isn’t being watered or tended because it can’t be.

The resumption of negotiations between the new Palestinian leadership and the Israeli government has generated a sense of optimism that one hesitates to dismiss out of hand. Yet previous rounds of negotiation, beginning with Oslo, served only to consolidate Israel’s grip on the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, while making life even more difficult for the Palestinians. In the same way, the lull that followed the death of Arafat in November was seen by many as a time of hope, but it was then that the people of Jayyus, near Qalqilya, learned that more of their land would be expropriated in order to make possible the expansion of the Israeli colony of Zufim, in the ‘seam area’ between the Green Line and the barrier. Their olive groves were bulldozed in December. Blind optimism that overlooks these ‘facts on the ground’ is no better than despair.

A Handshake without Meaning

[Originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 11 February 2005]

We all saw the photograph: a handshake between Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon. We heard the happy interviews: Palestinians and Israelis, contemplating peace. But the optimism generated by new Palestinian leadership, the talk of Israeli army redeployments, the summit and even the truce amounts to little more than false hope.

In fact, except for the growing toll of shattered Palestinian communities, bulldozed Palestinian homes, obliterated Palestinian olive groves, expropriated Palestinian land and snuffed out Palestinian (and Israeli) lives, the situation today bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the summer of 1994. That was when Israel began redeploying its army during a similar thaw in relations with the Palestinians, the first implementation of the Oslo “peace” process.

But once the years of optimism and negotiation that followed that redeployment ran their course, Palestinians, enduring their third decade under Israeli military occupation, faced more — not fewer — obstacles to their everyday lives. Their freedom of movement and access to their own towns and cities, including Jerusalem, were severely limited. The population of Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank and Gaza had essentially doubled. And Palestinians had gained a kind of control of only about 18% of the West Bank.

Had the so-called peace process of the 1990s been genuine, Israel would have withdrawn its army and its settlers from the territories it captured by force in 1967. Period. This is the bare minimum required by international law and U.N. Security Council resolutions that Israel has flouted for decades.

No such withdrawal was implemented. And, in hindsight, it ought to be clear that the most significant result of the Oslo negotiations was the consolidation of Israel’s stranglehold on the land it conquered in 1967, little of which it has demonstrated any real interest in ever actually relinquishing.

Sharon’s proposal to dismantle settlements in Gaza has received far more attention than the gains he hopes this seemingly magnanimous sacrifice will buy him in the infinitely more valuable West Bank: the permanent maintenance of large Israeli settlement blocs there; no withdrawal to the 1967 border; the ongoing spread of Israeli-controlled Jerusalem, whose boundaries are expanded by fiat and settlement; and the total rejection of the historic rights of Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes during the violent birth of the state of Israel in 1948.

Having opened negotiations with an eager-to-please but unimaginative Palestinian leader, Sharon is simply proceeding with his original, unilateral “separation” plan. Despite talk of security, the plan’s clear aim is to permanently absorb into Israel as much land — and as few Palestinians — as possible, by appropriating large chunks of occupied territory and calling the indigestible fragments left behind a Palestinian state.

One of the architects of the plan, geographer Arnon Soffer, told the Jerusalem Post that separation “doesn’t guarantee ‘peace’ — it guarantees a Zionist-Jewish state with an overwhelming majority of Jews.” He added that “it guarantees one other important thing.” Between 1948 and 1967, he said, “400,000 people left the West Bank voluntarily. This is what will happen after separation. If a Palestinian cannot come to Tel Aviv for work, he will look in Iraq, or Kuwait or London. I believe there will be movement out of the area.”

Israel’s actions reveal that separation — rather than peace — remains its intention. Ignoring the condemnation of the International Court of Justice, it has pressed forward with the construction of an elaborate concrete, wire and steel separation barrier — not along the 1967 border but intruding into the West Bank, in some places encircling Palestinian communities, in others cutting them off from each other, or turning Palestinians living on their ancestral lands into residents of closed military areas from which they can be summarily expelled.

Last summer, Sharon’s government began quietly using Israel’s notorious 1950 Absentee Property Law to confiscate land within “Greater Jerusalem” that belonged to Palestinians deemed “absent” because their homes were now on the other side of the barrier. Following an outcry, this process was suspended — but other mechanisms for land confiscation remain. In the town of Jayyous, near Kalkilya, Palestinians could only watch in December as Israeli bulldozers began uprooting trees on land newly expropriated from them and given to the expanding Israeli settlement of Zufim. The residents of Jayyous are also on the wrong side of the barrier that Israel has built between them and their land.

Actions like these — rather than photo ops and idle chatter about the prospects for peace — provide the measure according to which Israel’s intentions must be judged. Israel is only too willing to reset a broken clock so it reads 1994 and to resume these tortuous negotiations with any Palestinian fool enough to participate on Sharon’s terms, while it keeps its eye on the real clock, the one that reads 2005, and restlessly creates ever new facts on the ground — extending the barrier, expanding settlements, expropriating more land.

An Iron Wall of Colonization

[Originally published on Counterpunch, 26 January 2005]

The recent election of Mahmoud Abbas as the new President of the Palestinian Authority has renewed speculation that 2005 will bring genuine peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Insofar as it depends on Israel’s own intentions, however, such hope is entirely misplaced.

Israel has made it clear that the first thing it expects of the new Palestinian leader is for him to bring the Palestinian population under control: a mission that, in order to demonstrate his good behavior, he has already zealously taken up by deploying his security forces in order to protect Israel from attack by Palestinians (rather than the other way around). If he is successful in that mission, Abbas will likely be invited to agree to a political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle whose terms will be essentially dictated by Israel. Such an arrangement would allow Palestinians a severely limited form of self-rule in those (disconnected) parts of the territories occupied in 1967 that Israel no longer intends to keep for itself.

The rest of the West Bank would be dominated by Israeli colonies, bypass roads, and military outposts. Even in the unlikely event that the colonies there would actually be dismantled, Gaza would become—even more than it is now—essentially a gigantic open-air prison, as would large areas in the West Bank, which would be encircled and completely cut off by the various layers of Israel’s separation barrier, much as the city of Qalqilya (population 60,000) already is today. The process of Judaizing Jerusalem would continue, and the city itself would be encircled by an iron wall of Jewish colonization extending toward the Dead Sea.

There is nothing new here. Most of the plans proposed since Israel conquered the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in 1967 have been variations on a theme originally devised by Yigal Allon, then Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister. Allon called for Israel to colonize strategically important parts of the West Bank (and east Jerusalem), to maintain control over natural resources, borders and airspace, and to grant a kind of autonomy to densely populated Palestinian areas where colonization would prove difficult. In fact, despite all the talk about a “peace process,” Israel’s basic position (which has been gradually translated into realities on the ground for almost forty years now) has not budged an inch since 1967.

The Oslo agreements of the 1990s reiterated the principle behind Allon’s plan by dividing the occupied territories into Area A (nominal Palestinian control, which at its maximum extent amounted to 18 percent of the West Bank), Area B (Palestinian administration, but Israeli security control, about 22 percent of the West Bank) and Area C (total continued Israeli control, about 60 percent of the West Bank, and more or less the same proportion of Gaza). So did Israel’s proposal at Camp David in 2000, which offered Palestinians “sovereignty” over disjointed territories to be dominated by a reinforced network of Israeli colonies and roads–that is, sovereignty in name only, while Israel continued to control not only most of the territory itself, but also the borders, the airspace and the invaluable water resources. Yasser Arafat was only dismissed as an obstacle to peace when he proved incapable of selling these terms to the Palestinian people. Now Abbas is supposed to continue where Arafat left off.

If, however, the so-called disengagement proposal advanced by Ariel Sharon last year is the most forceful reiteration of the original Allon Plan, that is so because for the first time the Israeli scheme now has US support. Reversing decades of US policy—and dismissing key principles of international law in the process—President Bush last April validated Israel’s territorial ambitions. “The understandings between the US President and me protect Israel’s most essential interests,” Sharon gloated in a speech he made in December 2004. “First and foremost, not demanding a return to the ’67 borders; allowing Israel to permanently keep large settlement blocs which have high Israeli populations; and the total refusal of allowing Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.”

But if Israel’s present policy amounts to a reiteration of an old formula, what’s driving it forward is a form of racism that has been dressed up as merely a kind of demographic paranoia. This racism is, and has always been, at the heart of what Israel stands for as a state, and what Zionism has always represented as a political movement: the idea that an empty land could be found in which an exclusively Jewish state might be established: a land without a people for a people without a land. The problem with this idea is that Zionists were unable to find a suitably empty land. So they took someone else’s land instead. And ever since taking over Palestine and arranging the expulsion of much of its native population in 1948, Israelis have been acting paradoxically–on the one hand, acting as though they really do inhabit a Jewish state, and, on the other hand, panicking about the fact that their state really is not Jewish, that it never has been, and that it is set to become even less Jewish in the years to come.

In fact, the land Israel rules today includes almost equal populations of Jews and Palestinians. Under Israeli rule, however, only Jews enjoy complete rights of citizenship, as well as the ability to circulate in freedom, and, in principle, to live (almost) wherever they like. Palestinians living under Israeli rule in the occupied territories, on the other hand, face extreme difficulties in moving around even in their own territories, and the vast majority of them are barred from entering Israel and even Jerusalem, and are routinely and systematically deprived of their most fundamental human and political rights. Palestinian citizens of Israel proper enjoy certain privileges denied to their compatriots in the occupied territories, but their rights fall far short of those enjoyed by Jewish citizens of the state (for example, in matters of marriage, naturalization, and land use, among others).

Such naked injustice is difficult to defend; when it is noticed, it makes for bad public relations with the rest of the world. It also gives the lie to Israel’s claim of being a Jewish state, which it certainly is not (even leaving aside the occupied territories, Palestinian Arabs constitute a fifth of the population living within Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries).

Mainstream Zionists have never been able to tolerate the possibility of having a significant Palestinian Arab presence inside the borders of what was supposed (by them) to be their Jewish state. Recent work by Israeli historians has revealed the extent to which, long before the UN’s 1947 Partition Plan, Zionists were eagerly preparing for what they called the “transfer” of the indigenous Palestinian population from as much as possible of its native land, an ambition which the outbreak of war in 1947-48 allowed them to accomplish. Benny Morris, one of the Israeli historians who has done much to reveal the realities of what happened in 1948, is unabashed about both the necessity and the desirability of what he frankly admits was a form of ethnic cleansing. “There are circumstances that justify ethnic cleansing,” Morris has claimed since he wrote his famous book on the Palestinian refugee “problem.”

Just as “the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians,” he argues in an interview with Ha’aretz, in 1948 “a Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were being fired on.”

The only problem Morris has with what happened in 1948 is that Israel did not go far enough. Even though Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, “understood the demographic issue and the need to establish a Jewish state without a large Arab minority, he got cold feet during the war. In the end, he faltered.” Perhaps, Morris adds, “if he was already engaged in expulsion, he should have done a complete job.” For “if the end of the story turns out to be a gloomy one for the Jews, it will be because Ben-Gurion did not complete the transfer in 1948. Because he left a large and volatile demographic reserve in the West Bank and Gaza and within Israel itself.”

The existential “threat” that seems to be posed by this “volatile demographic reserve” (that is, a group of people merely trying as best they can to go about their daily lives under the most trying circumstances) is what is driving current Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. Israel has chosen to respond to this “threat” through what it calls a policy of “separation,” or, in other words, by removing as many Palestinians as possible from the land officially under Israeli control. Granting nominal sovereignty to areas with dense Palestinian populations—while absorbing as much other territory as possible into Israel itself—is the easiest way to do this.

With precisely this in mind, the original logic of Yigal Allon has thus been reformulated and repackaged for our own times by Haifa University geographer Arnon Soffer, a prime intellectual force behind Sharon’s policy. Soffer states bluntly that his aim is not peace but power. Separation, he points out, “doesn’t guaranteee ‘peace’–it guarantees a Zionist-Jewish state with an overwhelming majority of Jews,” he argues. “And it guarantees one other important thing. Between 1948 and 1967, the fence was a fence, and 400,000 people left the West Bank voluntarily. This is what will happen after separation. If a Palestinian cannot come to Tel Aviv for work, he will look in Iraq, or Kuwait, or London. I believe there will be movement out of the area.”

The mechanisms prompting such movement are obvious. “When 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe,” Soffer predicts. “Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border is going to be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive , we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.” All this killing, Soffer adds, will force Palestinians to realize that “we’re here and they’re there.”

The declared aim of Sharon’s plan is thus to maintain the fantasy of Israel’s Jewishness—regardless, of course, of the cost to Palestinians. If Abbas refuses these terms, Israel has made it clear that it will proceed without him. And as long as it enjoys unconditional American support, there is little standing in its way.

But, even according to its own logic, Sharon’s plan is flawed. A quarter of the schoolchildren of Israel (excluding the occupied territories) are today Palestinian. Even if Israel rids itself of unwanted Palestinian territories, it still must contend with the fact that within decades its own population will include a Palestinian majority. Separation today, unilateral or otherwise, will be of little use then. If in an age of global multicultural connectedness (and continued Palestinian resistance) it turns out to be difficult for Israel to transform its current apartheid policy from a weapon used against a minority to one used against an eventual majority (which is by no means certain, of course), Israel will at last face two remaining choices.

It must either persist with its violent fantasy of Jewishness and continue the ethnic cleansing initiated in 1947-48 by expelling all the remaining Palestinians living within its borders, or at least enough of them to artificially maintain—according to the same obscene demographic calculus that keeps people like Soffer and Sharon up at night—some kind of Jewish edge, for however long it takes until the process has to be repeated again. Or Israel must abandon fantasy for reality and see what chances might be left to come to a genuine and just peace with a people that it will by then have brutalized for decades on end. Assuming, of course, that that people—the Palestinians—are still interested in peace. But by then it might already be too late.

Will the Two-State Solution Survive?

[Originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 21 November 2004]

Since the death of Yasser Arafat there has been a lot of talk about restarting the Oslo peace process. But in fact, Oslo — which was premised on the ethnic separation of Jews and Arabs into two states — ended up embodying the conflict rather than solving it. What is needed now is not more separation but a step toward the cooperative integration of Israelis and Palestinians in one common state.

Paradoxically, it is Israel’s strategy of separation that has finally terminated any possibility of a two-state solution.

Gaza, after 30 years of Israeli rule, is now the world’s largest prison. No one can enter or leave it without Israeli permission, and that will not change even if Israel dismantles its settlements there as promised. The separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank is more of the same. When it is finished, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians will be trapped in dozens of separate enclaves, each surrounded by concrete slabs three times the height of the Berlin Wall, with all points of access under Israeli control.

Indeed, West Bank residents are already incarcerated. Even without the completed wall, whole communities are trapped in “closed areas” in the West Bank to which only persons of Jewish origin (and visiting tourists) have unrestricted access. A matrix of Israeli checkpoints breaks the rest of the West Bank into disconnected fragments punctuated by Jewish settlements tied to each other and to Israel by what the army calls a sterile road network — sterile because it has been cleansed of Palestinians.

To accomplish all this, vast swaths of farmland, orchards and ancient olive groves — the very basis of an independent Palestinian existence — have been destroyed. The $2-billion wall, which violates international law by running far beyond Israel’s 1967 border, will encroach on almost half the farmland in the impoverished territory, and two-thirds of its water. If these are to be the borders of the new Palestinian “state” the Israelis would like to see — and who can doubt that they are? — then a two-state solution cannot possibly work.

But the objections to a two-state solution are not merely pragmatic. Dividing historic Palestine — from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean — into two states would leave the Arab Palestinian population of Israel (a fifth of the total and growing, most of them unlikely to leave) in political limbo in their ancestral homeland. For Israel is no more Jewish than the U.S. is white or Protestant. Palestinian residents of Israel have been granted restricted citizenship (with limited access to land, for example), but they hardly enjoy equal access to democratic privileges in a state whose claim to Jewishness is fundamental to its identity.

When Israel was founded in 1948 in what had been Palestine, nearly all the indigenous population was non-Jewish, and half of them were forced from their homes to make room for Jewish immigrants and colonists pouring in from Europe. Some Palestinians ended up in the West Bank and Gaza — the 20% of Palestine not captured by Israel in 1948 — only to fall under Israeli rule once again in 1967. Others remain in refugee camps or the diaspora.

The Oslo negotiations neglected to address such problems and instead extended Israeli control over the occupied territories. Israeli settlement on (and expropriations of) the very land under negotiation continued briskly, and the settler population doubled by the year 2000. At Camp David, the peace process offered nominal Palestinian sovereignty over territory still to be dominated by Israeli settlements, roads and army outposts: a discontinuous “statelet” without control over its own airspace, borders and natural resources, lacking an independent currency or financial system and any of the other attributes of genuine sovereignty.

The question now is not how long Israel’s anachronistic system of ethnic separation — its regime of walls and ghettos — can endure in our global, multicultural world, but rather how desirable it is to think in terms of ethnic separation in the first place. Among developed countries, only in Israel is ethnicity deemed an acceptable foundation for politics. And while Israel’s American supporters are quick to denounce religious or racial intolerance in the U.S., they continue to turn a blind eye to such practices there.

There is an alternative. Israel and the occupied territories already constitute a single geopolitical entity, even if it’s not labeled that way. Palestinians such as Azmi Bishara and Edward Said (when he was alive) have joined with Israelis including Ilan Pappé and Meron Benvenisti to call for a peace founded on that reality, rather than false compromises and ethnic separation. That state would join two peoples whom history has thrust together into one democratic, secular and self-governing community of truly equal citizens.

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