- On May 19, the United States representative, James Cunningham,
abstained from voting on a UN Security Council resolution that demanded
the Israelis halt demolitions of Palestinian homes, mainly in the Rafah
refugee camp in Gaza. Although the Israelis have destroyed more than 200
homes and rendered more than two thousand people homeless, in the process
infuriating most of the world community, the US vote was typically at odds
with world opinion, but it was sort of progress. For the second time in
less than two years, the US representative abstained on a resolution critical
of Israel and that permitted the resolutions, in both instances, to go
into effect. Had the US used its veto, which it has done 38 times since
1972 regarding UN actions critical of Israel, the resolutions would have
- If it were to last, this US position in the Security
Council would be significant, because the United States appears to have
moved, at least for now, from refusing to allow UN criticism of Israel
to refusing to block UN criticism of Israel. However, the US delegation
to the UN has yet to take a flat out stand against anything the Israelis
do, even though the US is often critical of the Palestinians.
- The United States stand on events in Palestine has always
been pro-Israel. The US has refused to go along with any UN resolution
that does not criticize, as USUN Ambassador Negroponte has put it, does
not include "robust" condemnation of Palestinian terrorism, regardless
of the behavior of the Israelis. In 2002, the US refused to vote for a
UN Security Council resolution calling for Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian
cities, but it agreed to abstain once the text demanded that the Palestinians
bring terrorists to justice. The May 19 vote is interesting, because there
is no clear-cut demand of the Palestinians beyond getting on with the peace
process. For close watchers of UN language, the implied US disapproval
of Israeli actions in Gaza, backhanded though it appears, may therefore
be quite strong.
- US verbal slight of hand around Palestine includes very
slippery definitions. T he Palestinians who fight back against Israeli
attacks, whether in Israel or in the West Bank and Gaza are categorically
labeled "terrorists." When twelve Israel Defense Force soldiers
were killed last week, their deaths were labeled acts of terrorism, while
both the Bush administration and the Sharon government ignored the fact
that those soldiers, in two groups, were carrying massive amounts of explosives
in their armored vehicles into Gaza to blow up homes and businesses along
the Egyptian border.
- In reality the IDF soldiers were about to carry out large-scale
acts of terrorism against the Palestinians. These two IDF teams were
going to blow up houses allegedly with entrances to tunnels leading into
Egypt. But Israeli intelligence on tunnels was apparently as poor as it
was on WMDs in Iraq, since Israeli authorities admit that so far only one
tunnel has been found. However, hundreds of Palestinian homes and buildings
have been destroyed, Rafah has been pushed back toward its tent-city history
of fifty years ago, and the IDF appears under instructions to destroy more.
Sharon says the operation is not finished. That means the Palestinians
are in for more terrorism, IDF style.
- Another abused term is "militant." In Israeli
language, implicitly accepted by the Bush team, "militant" is
generic for the bad guys. In this lexicon, anybody who refuses to lie down
and take persecution, expulsion from their homes, destruction of their
property, and assassination of their leaders, is a "militant"
and a "terrorist" if he or she fights back. In war, it has often
been said, the winners write the history. In modern terrorism, the strong
or even the stubborn states decide who is a terrorist and what is an act
of terrorism. All actions and personnel of the strong states are excluded
from these definitions. The asymmetry of this struggle, as summed up by
the Sharon government and largely acquiesced in by the Bush team is: everything
we do is appropriate (no matter how horrible), because "we have the
right to defend ourselves." Everything the Palestinians do is bad
(no matter how justified in terms of their self-defense or efforts to protect
their interests), because the Palestinian militants are committing acts
- The policy applies a perverse "even handedness"
toward the two sides in the Middle East conflict. No matter what the Israelis
do in the conflict, the US permits no criticism without having it paired
with a criticism or an injunction to the Palestinians. That is the extent
of the even-handedness. But that pairing of any critique puts the Middle
East conflict into a moral, ethical and legal no mans land. It simply preempts
any detached judgment on the legal or humanitarian rightness or wrongness
of any action by imposing the tit-for-tat logic of a child's game.
- In that judgmental zone the typical US official reaction
turns the landscape into a free-fire zone for the Israelis. The Palestinians
are in a position where anything they do to attack the Israelis will be
condemned, while any attack of the Israelis on the Palestinians is likely
to be glossed over. In the event of even the most egregious actions, such
as the destruction of Jenin or recent destruction in Rafah, the White House
spokesman, or the President himself is likely to repeat the usual litany
of " the Israelis have a right to defend themselves," or in the
case of Rafah, "We are asking for clarification."
- The Israelis take such refusals to criticize as a US
license to proceed, including the assassination of any Palestinian of choice.
In that vein, the US has refused to join in UN condemnations of either
Israeli threats to remove or assassinate Arafat, or the actual Israeli
assassination of the last two leaders of Hamas.
- To be sure, over the years there have been numerous behind
the scenes diplomatic approaches to the Israelis to stop or moderate behavior
in specific cases, usually when Israeli actions are particularly absurd.
But the problem with this so-called "quiet diplomacy" is that
it holds up no public standard of behavior for the Israelis to follow.
They know this too well and they act accordingly.
- The broad public policy prevents the United States from
ever looking squarely at where the most crucial faults lie in the Middle
East problem. It is a bit like juggling balloons in an air duct. No room
is allowed for critical judgment, because US use of the phony even-handedness
argument is always weighted against the Palestinians. US officials say
basically they are not prepared to exert pressure on the Israelis until
the Palestinians stop fighting back. There is no map yet drawn that will
take one around this roadblock toward any reasonable solution. And the
Road Map that now exists is defective because it views the problem and
its solution through the optic of that official US evenhandedness which
means no matter what the Israelis do the US always insists on holding the
- The effect of this policy is to make any and all Palestinians
pay for the acts of any Palestinian who fights back against Israeli oppression.
Last week Mr. John Dugard, the Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission
on Human Rights, summed up the problem by saying that Israeli treatment
of the Palestinians in Gaza constitutes a "collective punishment"
and amounts to war crimes under the Geneva Conventions. According to a
report of journalist, Mike Furner, US forces are using the same tactics
on the populations of villages such as Abu Siffa in Iraq. A number of critics
have said this is no coincidence, since US forces have been borrowing from
the Israeli book, as evidenced graphically in treatment of Iraqi prisoners
at Abu Ghraib and other prisons.
- Mr. Dugard went further to say that the UN Security Council
ought to take action to stop the violence including possible "imposition
of a mandatory arms embargo on Israel" such as occurred in the case
of South Africa in 1977. Several critics have pointed out that the United
States violates its own laws by supplying weapons to the Israelis that
they use to repress the Palestinians. Mr. Dugard said "it is impossible
to accept the Israeli argument that these actions are justified by military
- This is the strongest UN statement to date on the Israeli
dehumanization of the Palestinian people, but an important part of the
statement is Dugard's conclusion that the Israelis have crossed the Rubicon
on abuse of the Palestinians and stand in violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Unfortunately, the bad practices antedate the Geneva Conventions because
the pattern was actually set in 1948 with the massacre and expulsion of
Palestinian villagers that resulted in creation of the Rafah refugee camp.
- Underlying the problem is a ratcheting process of Israeli
actions that slowly tighten their hold on Palestinian territory. Because
of settlements, established and temporary, the map of the West Bank and
Gaza looks like a piece of Swiss cheese, and despite promises to remove
settlements, the area embodied in Israeli settlements grows by accretion.
That ratcheting process is a constant source of fear and frustration to
the Palestinian people, and some of them fight back.
- While the US asked for "clarification" in the
Rafah case, no amount of "clarification" will make this kind
of wanton destruction acceptable? In truth no clarification will ever occur.
The interplay between the Bush team and earlier administrations with the
Israeli leadership is a repetitive strategy, and it works. Because it works
so well in the United States, this game gets played over and over, and
because the Israelis have well-honed media support in the United States,
they never get blamed. People ignore how much the Israelis provoke and
offend the Palestinians and just focus on what the Palestinians do about
it. The only time the Israelis even get politely called on something is
when it gets obviously out of hand, as clearly occurred in the gross destruction
of Jenin and the bulldozer attacks that are now rendering thousands homeless
- This cumulative pattern of abuse, expulsion from their
homes, harassment in their communities, imprisonment, and recognition that
there is no intent on the part of Israel ever to make any of it right,
this is what the Palestinians fight back against. But we use the label
terrorism only what the Palestinians do to fight back.
- A double standard applies as well to outside support.
The Israelis, and US supporters of Israel object regularly to support
of the Palestinians from Saudi Arabia, Iraq while it was under Saddam Hussein,
and other Arab countries. That support for people who are in an obvious
state of siege, who are being torn from their homes and stripped of their
possessions, is treated as if it is morally reprehensible. But the massive
aid from the United States that makes the Israeli IDF terror and destruction
operations possible is all considered quite proper. We the United States
are supporting a country that is systematically raping a society, and we
pretend that is ok, that the Israelis are only defending themselves against
terrorists. Put this starkly, the US position on Rafah is easily as reprehensible
as that ascribed by Mr. Dugard to the Israelis.
- The posture of the Bush team toward world terrorism is
a creeping version of this concept of collective guilt and intent to punish
that is directed loosely at the whole Muslim world. Attorney General Ashcroft
gave a press briefing last week about a reported al Qaida threat against
the United States, a threat statement that it appears was based on little
hard information. Moreover, he spoke only of Islamic terrorists and he
conveyed the view that all Muslims terrorists are affiliated with and guided
by al Qaida, which is simply not true. But he also ignored the larger
terrorism universe in which the majority of terrorists are not even Muslims.
Nor are they affiliated with al Qaida. In addition, he and other Bush
team spokespeople tend to use the terms Islamic terrorist, Islamic fundamentalist
and al Qaida interchangeably.
- Such statements about world terrorism thrust a collective
guilt on Islam. They purvey a guilt-free versus guilt-ridden distinction
between us and Islam that at root is racist. The moral trick of this is
deceptive, but it is a deliberate way to dehumanize an intended enemy.
While that may not be the US intent, it is a widespread impression of US
intent. In the alliances the US has created with other governments for
the war on terrorism, the same concept of collective guilt is being applied
against the minorities whose members become militants, dissidents or terrorists.
This is a harsh implication of the Bush team assertion: "You are
either with us or against us."
- The sum of this thinking is powerfully destructive.
It provides a constantly repeated cover for Israeli abuse of the Palestinians
and their rights. It is now providing a destructive policy framework for
US troops in Iraq who are trying to stay on top of a failing occupation.
It provides the principal justification for the Bush team war on terrorism.
It feeds a temperament in Western thought that we not only are better
than others but we are also free to impose our rules on others.
- The perceptions of collective guilt along with Israeli-style
collective punishment are powerful generators of resentment, of sympathy
for terrorists, and of recruitment for local terrorist groups as well as
for al Qaida. Those perceptions are widely paired with the realization
that actually very little is being done worldwide to combat the causes
of terrorism. Meanwhile, the US policy of even-handedness shelters the
persistent abuses of the Palestinians by the Israelis. To borrow the warlike
language of the Bush administration, these perceptions bound the central
front on which we can never win the War on Terrorism.
- There is a growing worry about where all this leads.
In many visible respects the US has adopted a strategy for Iraq that the
Israelis have used for fifty years without success. A weird game has developed
around which way the road runs between Baghdad and Jerusalem. As Zbigniew
Brzezinski sees it in a recent article, "The US occupation of Iraq
is now seen by most Arabs as a mirror image of Israel's repression of the
Palestinians. The tragic flaw, however, is not merely in the game plan.
That flaw is in the attitudes of the key players toward the people they
are allegedly trying to help. There are no superior beings in this picture,
only superior egos. That, unfortunately, is what drives the even-handedness
policy into the ground in Palestine.
- The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer
of the US Department of State. He will welcome comments at firstname.lastname@example.org