Nearly everyone, with the possible exception of Dick Cheney, would agree that eight years of President George W. Bush did major damage to the good name and reputation of the United States. President Barack Obama, citing the sharp decline in favorable opinions of the U.S., repeatedly asserted that he would give top priority to restoring the country’s reputation in the eyes of the world. On a practical level, he has understood that a nation’s good name is a major component of an effective foreign policy, a highly desirable element that costs no money or lives but which can be more effective than any aid program.
That Obama gave his first interview with a foreign broadcaster to al-Arabiya, a Saudi Arabian-owned satellite service, is significant. It demonstrates that the president truly understands how low the U.S. has fallen in the view of the rest of the world. The Bush campaign against "Islamofascism" did far more damage than good, unnecessarily alienating more than a billion people who practice Islam. Obama followed up his al-Arabiya debut with an address that was aired in Iran, challenging the Iranian people and government to enter into dialogue to improve relations. Critics note that Obama has not deviated from key U.S. demands against Iran, demands that were crafted by George Bush, which include renouncing its nuclear program and its support of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. But to be fair to Obama, if he moves too fast on the Iran issue, he will lose any backing from Congress, which will respond in Pavlovian fashion if the pro-Israel lobby indicates that it has been affronted. The Iranians, for their part, are demanding deeds, not words, from the new administration.
It would convince much of the world that change and sanity have finally arrived in Washington if Obama were to look seriously at the issue of U.S. weapons sales to Israel. This would not be to pick on Israel but rather to make it a country like any other. Israel has long enjoyed a special status, committing war crimes as a matter of policy and, uniquely, still being able to buy weapons on the international market. Stopping the sale of weapons to Israel is a proportionate response, because Israel is not militarily threatened by any or even all of its neighbors acting together. A ban on weapons sales would send a strong message while not detracting from Israel’s ability to defend itself. Israel also has its own sophisticated arms industry, which is more than capable of manufacturing the basic weapons that it needs.
U.S.-made weapons have been used to commit war crimes by the Israelis in 1982, 2006, and, most recently in Gaza in January. In 1982, the United States did suspend the sale of cluster weapons to Israel when it was determined that they had been used against Lebanese and Palestinian civilians in violation of the conditions of sale. In 2006 and 2009, the United States not only looked the other way when cluster and white phosphorus weapons were used, it also empowered the Israelis by permitting the fighting to continue and providing political cover for the crimes that were being committed. After the fact, Washington intervened at the UN to stop any condemnation of Israeli crimes, and it has refused to consider any reports by investigative bodies that have attempted to document the Israeli actions. Most recently, the U.S. has described a UN report on atrocities committed in Gaza "biased."
To be sure, many countries have engaged in war crimes in the past 50 years, but Israel has done so repeatedly as a policy of intimidation, using American weapons and political cover to carry out the crimes. Israel’s war crimes have damaged America’s reputation all around the world. When Israel acts badly, the rest of the world sees Washington behind it, sometimes obscenely so, as when then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice described the "birth pangs of a new Middle East" after Israel devastated Lebanon in July 2006. It is the Muslim world’s perception that Israel can do anything to Arabs and never be rebuked by the U.S.
Washington’s connivance in Israeli war crimes does grave damage to America’s interests both overseas and at home. Osama bin Laden has repeatedly cited America’s blind support of Israel as one of his justifications for terrorist attacks against the American people. Opinion polls suggest that foreigners who dislike the United States frequently do so because of Washington’s support of Israel. Scenes of Israeli abuse of the Palestinians are a staple of nightly television throughout the Muslim world, where America is seen as Tel Aviv’s enabler. If Obama truly wants to do what is right for the American people, then he can take no more significant step than cutting off arms sales to Israel.
Israel has been engaging in war crimes since the country’s founding, when it deliberately terrorized Palestinian civilians to make them flee their homes. In 1967, Israel attacked the USS Liberty in international waters, killing 34 American sailors and Marines, apparently because it believed that the Liberty had intercepted orders by the Israeli government to execute thousands of Egyptian prisoners captured in Sinai. In 1982, Israel used cluster weapons on Lebanese and Palestinian civilians and its army officers stood by while its Phalangist allies killed thousands of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
In its 2006 invasion of Lebanon, Israel used phosphorus shells and cluster bombs against civilians. Israeli forces targeted and killed United Nations peacekeepers because they were independent observers of crimes against the civilian population. Israel devastated Lebanon’s infrastructure, causing $7 billion in damage. The U.S. provided Israel with new weapons while the fighting was going on and stalled proceedings at the UN to enable Tel Aviv to finish the job. In the last four days of the conflict, while a cease-fire was being negotiated, Israel tried to create an uninhabitable zone along the border by saturating the south of Lebanon with 1,800 cluster bombs containing over 1.2 million bomblets. Many did not explode, converting more than one quarter of south Lebanon’s cultivable land into minefields that still take a toll when farmers attempt to plant their crops.
Most recently, in January’s fighting in Gaza, the tally of Israeli war crimes seems almost too incredible to believe. The violations have been carefully documented by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the United Nations, Israel’s Physicians for Human Rights, and the International Red Cross. The UN rapporteur for Gaza, Richard Falk, called the Israeli offensive, in which nearly 300 children and 121 women died, "a war crime of the greatest magnitude under international law." The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) used phosphorus artillery shells against a United Nations compound where more than 700 people were sheltering, killing 42. The UN had called the Israelis repeatedly to tell them there were hundreds of civilians seeking shelter in the building. A UN school sheltering 1,600 civilians was hit two days later. The spent phosphorus shell casings left in Gaza revealed that they had been made by Thiokol Aerospace and the Pine Bluff Arsenal in the United States.
Journalists and the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz have provided other accounts of crimes against civilians, including the refusal to allow ambulances to pass checkpoints to assist the wounded, the killing of 16 ambulance workers and doctors trying to help the injured, the shelling of hospitals and clinics, and the use of Palestinian children as human shields. All such actions are violations of the Geneva Conventions. Israel also used drones to target and kill civilians and shot down women and children advancing under cover of a white flag. A tank fired into an apartment building, killing the three daughters of a Palestinian physician, with an IDF board of inquiry subsequently finding the deaths "reasonable."
Israeli soldiers have provided separate accounts of a sniper who shot a mother and her two children and another who killed an old woman. One soldier said the rules of engagement had changed, that if they saw an Arab walking down the road, they could "just shoot him." Another squad leader said his soldiers understood that "we should kill everyone there. Everyone there is a terrorist." Another soldier said that anyone who had not fled was considered a viable target, ignoring the fact that there was nowhere to flee to. The Israeli media has reported that extremist rabbis told soldiers heading into Gaza that they were fighting a holy war and should be prepared to expel all non-Jews. One brigadier general rabbi issued "a rabbinical edict against showing the enemy mercy." Some army units raised among settlers on the West Bank are reported to be made up of extremists and led by hard-line rabbis who call for the establishment of a Greater Israel by getting rid of all the Arabs.
In both south Lebanon and Gaza, Israel clearly was waging war against an entire people, belying its repeated claims that its military responses were proportionate and "moral." This mindset, that Israel has carte blanche to annihilate its "enemies," loosely defined, surfaces again and again in Israel’s all-too-frequent conflicts with its neighbors. Whether it derives from a desire to terrorize or is a reflection of a religious or cultural belief that an Arab life is worthless compared to a Jewish one would almost seem to be beside the point. But the fact is that Israel has never hesitated to use any weapon in its arsenal and to create fear through overwhelming punishment of the civilian population in every conflict that it has been involved in.
Israel’s largely reservist and often poorly trained army might also be partly to blame for the contempt for Palestinian lives, turning heavily armed and racially indoctrinated adolescents with little adult supervision loose on a defenseless civilian population. Col. Pat Lang, who served as the U.S. Army liaison to the IDF while in uniform and later in a similar capacity with the Defense Intelligence Agency as a civilian, observed Israeli soldiers using a tank’s machine gun to shoot at Palestinian Christian women who were hanging up their laundry, "just for the fun of it." He once was caught up in an Arab street demonstration and was told by an Israeli officer afterward that he would have been shot dead but for the fact that he did not look Palestinian and to kill a foreigner would have caused trouble. Israeli snipers finishing their training courses order T-shirts with distinctive artwork. One recent shirt featured a pregnant Arab woman with a bull’s-eye centered on her and the English slogan "1 shot, 2 kills" underneath.
The Israelis also devastated Gaza as they withdrew, wrecking buildings, dumping furniture and other possessions into the street, tearing up shops and farm buildings, destroying equipment and food supplies, and bombing water purification and electricity generating plants. One can only assume that they were trying to make it uninhabitable so the Arabs would just leave, much as was done to south Lebanon in 2006. Overall, the IDF’s record is not one to be proud of, and any American president should be ashamed to be associated with it, particularly as Washington is frequently called on to defend Israel against charges of war crimes. President Obama has pledged to change things. He could start by telling Tel Aviv that the sale of additional weapons to the IDF has been suspended and is under review. It would be a message that even Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman would be able to understand.