The Fallacy Of

By Terrell E. Arnold
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 failed.
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 of terrorism.
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 Palestinians accountable.
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 necessity. "
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 in Rafah.
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



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