There hadn’t been much talk of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Nor had there been serious attempts at diplomacy, of Washington brokering a settlement. The reasons were manifold: part apathy, part outrage-exhaustion, part Donald Trump’s intentionally ditching the illusion of America-the-honest-broker and decisively swinging support to one side (Israel), and part Joe Biden’s desire to avoid the controversy of getting embroiled in seemingly hopeless Mideast conflict third-rails. Yet despite increasingly right-wing Israeli intransigence, and American apathy or antagonism, the Palestinian people – not their divided and corrupt Fatah or Hamas "leaders" – refused to be silenced. Few Western commentators counted on that. They should have.
These are resilient people, the Palestinians, and they’ve never gone gently into that good erasure or apartheid night. Just as their youths surprised Israel, the world, and their own exiled leaders, and rose in response to decades of structural disenfranchisement and security force-brutality – in the First Intifada ("Shaking Off") of 1987 – today a new generation of stateless, open air prisoners are again willing their way into the global spotlight.
On (and Off ) Script
The current uprising – and cruelly disproportionate Israeli military response – has both followed and strayed from the standard script of modern Holy Land conflict. It began with heavy-handed police suppression – including a violent raid on the Al Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan – of Palestinians protesting far-right Israeli extremist provocations and (illegal) government-backed eviction efforts spearheaded by (illegal) Israeli settlers in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of (illegally) occupied East Jerusalem.
Hamas threatened a response, gave an ultimatum to the Israeli government to cease its actions, then launched a barrage of (mostly) inaccurate, though occasionally lethal (10 Israelis killed, including two children, as of Sunday night), rockets over the border from their Gaza Strip power base. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) then immediately mobilized and retaliated with Trump-like "fire and fury" on Gaza. The lopsided casualty disparity spoke for itself: 10 Israeli deaths versus 207 Palestinian fatalities – including 92 women and children – in the West Bank and Gaza, a 20-to-1 ratio. That much was grotesquely standard.
Only this time around there’ve been curveballs, both promising and tragic. The first, is a limited – but significant – sea change in American public opinion and progressive Democrat’s political positions on Israel-Palestine. The second is the widespread outbreak of communal violence – which is approaching a potential civil war – among civilians in mixed Arab-Jewish cities throughout the country (More on this in a follow-up column). The former is favorable, the latter – frightening.
Still, despite rumblings of change in U.S. political and public opinion, most American policymaker statements, and media reports, have hewed to a criminally misleading myth, whereby what’s happening in occupied Palestine is an ancient and insoluble clash between military and moral equals. In other words, American journalists are again trapped in the old objectivity delusion. We’ve seen it before.
During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), as Washington stood on the sidelines, even imposing an unprecedented arms embargo on a duly elected republican government fighting for its life against Nazi German-backed fascist military usurpers – and looked the other way as Texaco illegally shipped vital oil to the right-wing insurgents – mainstream American newspapermen played the same disingenuous "balance" game. Some papers, like the New York Times even had dueling reporters – and apparent sympathizers – assigned on the opposing sides. But not all journalists bought in to the impartiality illusion. The 28-year old Martha Gellhorn (later married to Ernest Hemingway), who crossed over the French border alone carrying only a knapsack to report for Collier’s Magazine, would have none of such false moral equivalency – "all that objectivity shit," as she called it. One needn’t wonder what Ms. Gellhorn would make of media analysis of today’s militarily and legally lopsided maelstrom in Israel-Palestine.
One side, Israel, possesses the military, financial, and power-capacity to do exponentially more harm, impose far more of its will, and also – if it so chose – more capably mitigate the political and economic conditions of the other, the Palestinian, side. Only the latter option isn’t even on the Israeli government’s radar. Forged, and long living, by the sword, the increasingly off-the-rails chauvinist Israeli politico-military machine seems to know no other response than increasingly brutal force in the – proven to be hopeless – pursuit of absolute victory.
That means a near-erasure of even the possibility of Palestinian’s grievances, rights, or – in some cases – their very existence as a people. In such a situation, any resistance against Israeli hegemony is proscribed and punished in the cruelest of manners – "Gaza will burn,” per the ostensibly moderate Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Only matters are worse still, since Israeli policy – bolstered by top-of-the-pops USmilitary aid, plus diplomatic and media top cover – has all but eliminated any permissible outlets for Palestinian resistance.
How Should Palestinians Resist?
Apparently, the Palestinians – almost alone among this planet’s peoples – are expected to show a monk-like stoicism in the face of nearly a century of suffering and suppression. When militants among them desperately fire rockets, or set off bombs – which is also an unacceptable war crime when civilians are deliberately targeted – they are branded as the very worst of terrorists. In fact, their very ethnic identity has become associated with aerial hijacking, suicide bombing, and rocket-launching, even though only a small minority take such actions. Far more deadly Israeli state terror – even when it kills almost boundless babies – is rarely questioned with the same intensity. Not by a long shot. In fact, Israeli war crimes are rewarded with more American military aid annually than any other country on the planet.
That’d be obscene enough, if almost every other form of Palestinian resistance besides bombardment with cheap rockets hadn’t been systematically circumscribed. Protesters are jailed wholesale. Human rights, activist, and even cultural institutions have been shuttered, and now even social media is being widely censored. Facebook is at the center of that latest controversy, as it’s apparently implemented a policy that treats the term "Zionist" as a proxy for "Jew" when deciding whether a post should be removed as "hate speech." The same rules apply across its subsidiary apps like Instagram. Recently, as a younger Palestinian generation took to using the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah to highlight evictions and settler violence, activists reported that their posts were removed – and accounts suspended en masse – when the hashtag began trending.
So what, precisely, are occupied, attacked, segregated, suppressed, and stateless Palestinians supposed to do after 70-plus years of the same? Recently, in justifying the brutal bombing of Gaza, Prime Minister Netanyahu pronounced that Hamas had crossed a "red line" by flinging rockets at Israeli cities (which I oppose, it must be said). Still, King Bibi seems unable to consider that Palestinians might have red lines as well – that they can only be pushed so far by state-directed disenfranchisement and state-terror attacks from the land, sea, and air.
After the Israeli raid on the Al Aqsa mosque, Netanyahu defended the police, and framed their response as "a battle between tolerance and intolerance, between lawless violence and order." Strange, isn’t that precisely the language long used by arch segregationists throughout the American South – and later by Richard Nixon and, well, Donald Trump – to justify suppressing civil rights protests by African Americans and their supporters? Well, they have a lot in common, the segregationists and ole Bibi: both start from a goal of separation, discrimination, and supremacy – then find the words and bureaucratic mechanisms to rationalize and implement them. And that’s the story of the Sheikh Jarrah and East Jerusalem catalysts for the recent resistance, death, and destruction.
Unbearable by Design: Palestinian Life (And Death) in Jerusalem
The official – that’s right, official – Israeli term for its policy in occupied spaces like the Sheikh Jarrah section of East Jerusalem, is "Judaization." And it is this gradual and systematic attempt to ensure a dominant and irreversible Jewish supermajority from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea – including the (illegally) occupied Palestinian territories – that kicked-off the latest resistance-retaliation cycle. That illegality bit is important, by the way, since it’s absolutely crucial – but somehow hardly ever mentioned – that Israeli soldiers, police, administrators, and settlers shouldn’t even be in East Jerusalem, let alone making the rules as they go and expecting Palestinians to prostrate themselves before their almighty authority.
In fact, according to the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which proposed partitioning Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab States, Jerusalem (and Bethlehem) was to be designated an international city under neither of the new states’ sovereignty. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and forced eviction, or fearful fleeing, of some 750,000 Palestinians from their homes – never to be allowed to return – Jordan took control of East Jerusalem. That is until Israel conquered it in the 1967 Six Day War, then subsequently (and illegally) annexed the area in 1980, with the passage of the Jerusalem Act. This bit of bureaucratic nastiness denied the city’s Palestinians Israeli citizenship, granting only "permanent residency" status, and thus denying them the right to vote but still forcing them to pay taxes. Funny, one would think such a managerial maneuver might garner more sympathy for Palestinians from the cross-Atlantic descendants of Patrick Henry – what with his "No taxation without representation" revolutionary rallying call!
Furthermore, not unlike cities and counties in both the Jim Crow South and urban north, the Israeli government spent the next half century using urban planning tricks to explicitly maintain a Jewish majority in the city. Such sleights of hand include: limiting Palestinians to certain neighborhoods, denying building permits, demolishing homes, providing substandard services, constructing a separation wall – which runs through, and slices away sections of, the entire occupied West Bank – that cuts off once contiguous Palestinian neighborhoods and severs much of East Jerusalem from the West Bank entirely.
All of this is meant to make life unbearable for Palestinians in Jerusalem. The hope is they’ll leave a place where they’re not wanted anyway. Still, they haven’t. Instead, Palestinians protested, resisted, and may revolt.
What’s crazy is how high-level Israeli leaders hardly hide these intentions. In fact, they sometimes brag about them. Take deputy mayor of Jerusalem Aryeh King’s recent statement that the Sheikh Jarrah evictions were "of course" part of Israel’s plan to place "layers of Jews" throughout East Jerusalem, to "secure the future of Jerusalem as a Jewish capital for the Jewish people." King, along with an Israeli Knesset (Parliament) member, was also caught on camera taunting a Palestinian protester shot in the leg,lamenting that he wasn’t shot in the head instead.
Then, as a real thumb of his nose at international law, and amidst the early violence just a week ago, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue building – including (illegal) settlements – in "all of Jerusalem," as a "natural right in sovereign state," and "just like any other nation building and developing its capital." Only the thing is, Israel is not like any other state. It is a two-tier society that disenfranchises an enormous portion of its citizenship-denied, militarily-conquered, and (illegally) occupied residents – a veritable apartheid state according to lengthy recent reports from organizations like Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.
Yet the Israeli government, and its backers, vehemently reject such conclusions as inherently anti-Semitic, and ignore substantiated allegations of widespread systemic discrimination or legal violations. That also applies to the East Jerusalem microcosm as well, and – like the broader two-tier segregationist system in place – is blessed off and buttressed by big brother Uncle Sam. For example, Israel’s (illegal) unilateral declaration of a "United Jerusalem" as the sole capital of Israel was no doubt legitimized by Trump’s precedent-breaking official recognition of that Israeli status and linguistic legal violation, and his May 2018 move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
When such favoritism and discrimination is a stated and long-executed government policy, the disturbing actions of thereby encouraged extremists in Sheikh Jarrah make more sense. Three weeks ago, bands of them marched through Palestinian portions of East Jerusalem, chanting "Death to Arabs," attacked bystanders, and damaged property and homes. Cell phone footage of a Palestinian woman arguing with a Jewish settler outside her home went viral. In it, the man tells her "If I don’t steal it, someone else is going to steal it." And, in a sense, he wasn’t wrong.
Of course, all this indecency flows from the legal logic solidified in the recent 2018 nation state law establishing "Jewish settlement as a national value," and, implying the inverse – that Palestinians have no inherent self-determination or national rights in their own ancestral homeland. A law so overtly exclusionary and with such obvious religious-favoritism, decisively shifted Israel squarely into ethnocracy – rather than democracy – territory. And make no mistake: in just such socio-political situations are horrifying ethno-religious civil wars made. And so, by the looks of things – God forbid – it could be in Israel-Palestine.
The Cast of Characters
The rightist of right-wings is now ascendant in Israeli politics, particularly among Israeli security officials. It would therefore by preposterous to expect restraint or de-escalation, let alone real long-term peace overtures, from Benjamin Netanyahu and his cronies running this latest war [crime]. Just a cursory look at some of the players, and their callous comments about the unfolding combat – plus the broader status of Palestinians writ-large – ought to close that case.
Take just one instructive individual example: National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat is the son of Moroccan Jewish immigrants, a community that’s traditionally right-wing, and currently quite prominent in Israel’s political landscape – constituting about one-third of the government’s May 2020 cabinet. Before entering politics, Ben-Shabbat spent many years in the clandestine service of the Israeli Security Agency (ISA or SHABAK) – "a state-run organization responsible for safeguarding state security." There he eventually headed up the Agency’s southern sector, adjacent to the Gaza Strip, where he conducted the ISA’s activities during Israel’s earlier brutal bombardment – in Operation Cast Lead (2008-09) – which killed at least 500-700 Palestinian civilians, including 100-300 children. By a conservative estimate, that’s at least 150 times the number of Israeli (all adult) civilians (four) killed by Hamas’s rocket attacks.
As a political leader, Ben-Shabbat also played a key role in establishing recent ties between Israel and both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain as part of the U.S.-brokered, Palestinian-abandoning, Abraham Accords. Yet, in the present situation, Ben-Shabbat prefers his American big brother butt out and let the IDF handle its Palestinian "problem" in-house. For example, when his US national security advising counterpart Jake Sullivan expressed concern over recent violent clashes in Jerusalem, Ben-Shabbat reportedly pushed back during their phone call, arguing that any international intervention would only reward those inciting the unrest – "a prize for the rioters and those sending them who hoped to put pressure on Israel." These ostensible inciters, naturally, are predictably Palestinian-only in his mind.
Moreover, it’s hard to imagine a more obtuse, inaccurate, and hypocritical assertion than his May 10th claim that Israel is handling events "out of a position of sovereignty, responsibly, and with common sense despite the provocations." Why, one might ask Ben-Shabbat, does Palestinian sovereignty not figure at all in his or the Netanyahu government’s calculations? Perhaps because he and rest of the cast of key national security characters have never truly accepted the existence of any rights for – or sometimes even the political, cultural, or ethnic actuality of – Palestinians at all.
Here, some relevant statements from a few of these crucial figures should be instructive:
- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, comments on Instagram, March 2019: "Israel is not a state of all its citizens…According to the basic nationality law we passed, Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people – and only it."
- Netanyahu, remarks at a press conference during the 2014 war in Gaza: "I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan." To translate: Bibi means there’s to be no fully sovereign Palestinian entity, let alone a real state, in the (illegally) occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
- Netanyahu, again, on his vision for the future status of Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley "enclave" after Israel annexes the territory, May 2020: "You don’t need to apply sovereignty over them. They will remain Palestinian subjects, if you will." Well, the term "subjects" does have a fitting ring to it, when delivered by the subject of an award-winning 2018 documentary titled "King Bibi."
- Defense Minister Benny Gantz – who commanded the IDF during the 2012 (Operation Pillar of Defense: 100 Palestinian civilian vs. four Israeli civilian deaths) and 2014 (Operation Protective Edge: 1400 vs. six civilians killed, respectively) Gaza Wars – in the first major speech launching his political career, January 2019: "We will strengthen the settlement blocs and the Golan Heights, from which we will never retreat. The Jordan Valley will remain our eastern security border. We will maintain security in the entire Land of Israel…United Jerusalem will be built, will grow – and will remain forever the capital of the Jewish people and the capital of the State of Israel." To translate: he’s referring to the (illegal) "settlement blocs," (illegally) occupied "Golan Heights," and (illegal) unilateral designation – officially blessed-off on by the Trump administration – of (illegally) occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem as part of a "United Jerusalem." Recall, by the way, that ole Benny is supposed to be a "moderate" alternative to his oft-electoral opponent, Bibi.
- Sometimes, and somehow cruelly fitting, the erasure of Palestinians is demonstrated by what Israeli security officials don’t say. For example, when National Security Council chief Ben-Shabbat flew to the Abu Dhabi on a joint U.S.-delegation to normalize UAE-Israeli relations back in August 2020, not once in his 490 word-remarks did he utter the word "Palestinian."
Well, if you’ll forgive the topical cliché: "Palestinian Lives Don’t Matter" to these folks.
There are issues, and moments, in life that define an individual’s or a collective’s character. Equal justice in the Holy Land is one of them. Yet where, once again, does the US government fall on that crucial conflict today? Well, despite real rumblings of change – and Palestinian sympathies – among progressive Democrats, certain libertarian Republicans, and American public opinion, the Biden administration and the still dominant bipartisan establishment, have predictably hedged, dissembled, and fumbled the official American response.
Per the repetitive emphasis of Biden’s statements, the far more powerful and less vulnerable party (Israel) still apparently has more of a "right to defend itself" than the Palestinians. This is the crux of an American hypocrisy that global populace shan’t forget, and presumptive competitors like China won’t cease to point out.
Unless something significant changes in the next few days or weeks, the violence of 2021 will go down as just the latest round in 70 years worth of America’s criminally uneven application of its supposed commitment to popular sovereignty and self-determination. The hypocrisy, though, isn’t an academic one – it affects outcomes for real peoples, for nations that do or do not get to exist. South Sudanese, Bosnians, and even breakaway Kosovaars, apparently deserve a state of their own, and U.S. support (sometimes decisive military intervention) in achieving that goal.
Why not the Palestinians? Is it their race, their religion, or just the geographic bad luck of living in a region where their oppressors are ostensible US allies in geostrategic "Great Games?" Maybe it’s some of these; maybe all; maybe other reasons still.
Either way, the outcome – for living, breathing, feeling, loving, and loved, human beings – is American complicity in a historic injustice. One that’s abetted in all of our names.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and director of the new Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, Scheer Post and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen