What we have witnessed in recent days in the Middle East is not a law-abiding nation defending itself against terror, but rather "asymmetric warfare" between a nation, Israel, armed with the most modern weapons and a people, the Palestinians, armed with their willingness to die while taking others with them.
Although Americans have seen extensive press coverage of the violence, few readers grasp its actual character. In the last week, the Israeli military dragged people from their homes and indiscriminately shot them in the streets. Able-bodied men and boys were rounded up, arbitrarily incarcerated and physically abused. Snipers stationed in Ramallah killed anyone attempting to leave their homes to resist the march of Israeli tanks.
There are, in short, deeply disturbing similarities between what Israel is doing to the Palestinians at this very moment and what was roundly condemned only a few years ago as "ethnic cleansing" in Serbia.
This historical lack of context makes it difficult for Americans to understand why Israel has so enraged Arabs and Muslims both. Few Americans appreciate, for example, that non-Jews within the state of Israel are not accorded the same rights under the law as Jews. It is an openly discriminatory state, and in this sense shares features with what we used to call "apartheid" in South Africa.
The highly publicized and lurid aspects of the conflict, however, typically conceal an equally violent one that is much less well known the Israeli policy of displacement, banishment and settling the occupied territories.
Any glance at a map of the region shows you immediately what Israel has been trying to do. They are building Jewish settlements (often the settlers are recent arrivals from Russia or Brooklyn) throughout Palestinian land at the same time that they are destroying Palestinian homes, olive orchards and schools with bulldozers. There are something like 140 Israeli settlements involving as many as 400,000 people.
Historical Palestine is being erased, continuing a process begun in 1947. Once reduced to rubble, its towns are given Hebrew names as buildings are erected in their place.
The heralded Oslo accords led to a doubling of the Israeli settler population on the West Bank in the 1990s. That fact led directly, and quite logically, to the present Palestinian disillusionment with "negotiations."
What can Americans do? The United States which pays an estimated $5 billion dollars to Israel annually is a contractual member of both the Nuremberg Charter and the Genocide Convention, as well as the U.N. Charter. There is both legal and moral leverage to force our government to withdraw support immediately from the state of Israel.
We can, in this spirit, also call for a humanitarian intervention against Israel in order to physically protect the Palestinian people from the Israeli army. Actions in the international legal arena, moreover, need not preclude a campaign of economic disinvestment from Israel as took place in the movements against the apartheid regime of South Africa.
We hear much about how Yasser Arafat is supposedly an "obstacle to peace" and must be replaced with more tractable Palestinian leadership. It is time for Israelis, and Americans, to recognize that their governments' long-standing policies form entrenched obstacles to a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.
Either those governments must change their policies, or our two peoples must muster the will to change our governments, if any real progress is to be made.
Brennan (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of English at the University of Minnesota; Rossinow (e-mail: Doug.Rossinow@metrostate.edu) is chair of the history department at Metropolitan State University. With others they have organized a teach-in on events in the Middle East from noon to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Minneapolis (East Bank) campus of the University of Minnesota, in the 1701 University Building, Room 143.