(Photo: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)
In Gaza We Are Witnessing the 21st Century Version of How the West Was Won
In a terrible historical irony, Israel has been caught and is paying the price for holding the European colonial bag.
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In a terrible historical irony, Israel has been caught and is paying the price for holding the European colonial bag.
At least 25,000 Gazans, the vast majority children and women, have been killed or wounded. Twenty-five thousand is one-in-a-hundred Gazans and just over 20 times the number of Israelis killed in October. If we translate that proportionately into U.S. numbers, it’s the equivalent of more than 3 million U.S. people. Three percent of all Gazans have been either killed or wounded, and no end is in sight.
Nowhere is safe from Israeli bombs and shelling: 70% of all homes in Gaza have been destroyed. The United Nations humanitarian chief describes Gaza as uninhabitable with water, food, and fuel still in desperately short supply. UNRWA, the U.N. relief and aid agency in Gaza, reports that 570,000 people face “catastrophic hunger.” Hundreds of thousands, it reports, face death from famine, thirst, disease, and lack of medical care.
Under pressure from the Biden administration and world public opinion, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to pursue Hamas with more surgical strikes, but the devastating and indiscriminate bombings go on and the daily death toll mounts.
Deep and profound Zionist racism lies at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and today’s genocidal war in Gaza.
How can we understand the reality that descendants of a people who suffered genocide can inflict it—albeit in a different form—on another people? Was it inevitable? What besides an immediate cease-fire, which is an urgent necessity, is the alternative?
The answers are not complicated: First, we need to recognize that brutalizing people does not necessarily ennoble them, though many do transcend their suffering and become powerful agents for justice. Trauma, as Palestinians certainly know, reverberates through generations.
As a Jew, it is also painful to recognize, as I have for many years, that deep and profound Zionist racism lies at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and today’s genocidal war in Gaza.
Many who escaped European pogroms, survived the Holocaust and Soviet antisemitism, and the banalities of American life carried Euro-American racism and colonial values with them to Israel and to the lands and people conquered in 1967. Years ago, I participated in interviews with Israel’s esteemed former Foreign Minister Abba Eban, with Jerusalem Mayor (later Prime Minister) Ehud Olmert, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and others. The racism of three Israeli leaders was shocking, although Eban’s was more elegantly expressed. In another interview. Sharon’s water minister Meir Meir pledged that Palestinians in the Occupied Territories would have “enough water… to drink.” Six weeks after leaving California, one West Bank settler explained that with every war God had liberated the land for Jews, and that it is their responsibility to settle and hold it.
God has been on the side of conquering imperialists from time immemorial.
In 1981 Beirut, months before Ariel Sharon’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon, during an unimpressive interview with U.S. peace advocates, Yasser Arafat nailed it, saying “It’s cowboys and Indians all over again.” In Gaza today we are witnessing the 21st century version of how the West was won.
I am Jewish, born in 1946 in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. My father fought in that war and satisfied his ambition of pissing in the Rhine. When visiting one of my best friends, I would often see the Auschwitz numbers tattooed on his grandmother’s arm. Eichmann’s capture in Argentina generated a flood tide of paperback Holocaust literature, and as a young teenager I shoplifted books from the local drug store and read about people like me being transformed into lampshades or reduced to the ashes that lined concentration camp paths. I was taught three fundamental lessons from the Judeocide: Never again to anyone. Never turn your head away from witnessing and responding to injustice. That there is a correlation between truth and who lives or dies and how.
Thus, I found my way into the civil rights movement and, beginning in the 1970s, to the Middle East. Back then, there was little or no substantive literature about the Middle East in the United States. You could find Israeli propaganda and a few tomes about King Tut’s tomb. But landing in London in 1973 after the Paris Peace Accords were signed, which we mistakenly thought had ended the Indochina War, and eager to learn what was being done in my name in the Middle East, the legacy of British colonialism meant that histories and analyses there were readily available. I made a feast of them. I also had the unique privilege of working with and learning from Israeli pacifists on the War Resisters International Council and Said Hammami, then the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) representative in London.
There was much to learn. Stereotypes and mythologies were shattered. Once during a four person conference working group with Hammami, the Algerian ambassador and his assistant amazingly echoed the words of Golda Meir: “The Palestinian people don’t exist.” The ambassador had fully embraced the Arab nations’ lesson from their catastrophic 1967 defeat and humiliation. No more sacrifices for Palestinians.
Israel has self-defeatingly transformed itself into a pariah nation.
I first traveled to the Middle East in 1975 as part of a Breira (precursor to Jewish Voices for Peace) and National Council of Churches fact-finding delegation. We arrived in Beirut 15 minutes before the civil war started, and it was surprising how quickly a war-resisting pacifist could become accustomed to gunfire. Most memorable in Beirut was our recorded interview with PLO adviser Sabri Jiryis, who that year met with U.S. leaders in Washington, D.C. and was deported on Henry Kissinger’s orders. With us, Jiryis put forward the case for a two-state solution in an interview that was cut short when gunfire moved from four blocks away, to three, to two, and then surrounded us.
We arrived in Jerusalem following a Palestinian bombing in Zion Square. Most of the dead were Israelis, but three Palestinians were also killed—women shopping for a wedding dress. In the wee hours of the following morning, I was awakened by the haunting sounds of Palestinian women ululating in the cemetery behind my hotel.
There was also cognitive dissonance at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum. The first exhibit rightly documented Nazi marginalization of Jews and the confiscation of Jewish properties. But Yad Vashem was built on seized Palestinian land and is a little more that a stone’s throw from the site of the 1948 Deir Yasin massacre of Palestinians.
Years later in Gaza, I endured what may have been the worst night of my life. The territory was under curfew, and we were being briefed by an UNRWA official when we were called to come out to witness young Yusef’s dead body laid out in a stone shed. With his buddies, he’d been violating the curfew and castigating patrolling IDF troops. One soldier couldn’t take it, knelt on the ground for greater stability, and, from 50 yards, shot Yusef twice between the eyes. The rest of the night was a struggle over who would get Yusef’s body, the IDF or his family,
And on another occasion, with colleagues, I was almost kidnapped in Gaza.
Beginning in 1976, after returning to the U.S., I was privileged to work with some of Israel’s founders, men who had created the Israeli Council for Israel-Palestine Peace (ICIPP). They had issued a manifesto describing what they could accept as a foundation for Israeli-PLO negotiations. Their manifesto was published in 14 languages to ensure that Palestinian leaders wouldn’t miss it. Arafat sent signals indicating an openness to exploring possibilities on the basis of the manifesto. What were initially secret negotiations ensued and eventually became what we know as the “Peace Process.” Uri Avnery, who in his youth fought in the Irgun. was a leading figure in those negotiations and later described them in his compelling book: My Enemy, My Friend. It was anything but a smooth process. In 1978, Hammami was murdered in London by Syrian intelligence. Issam Sartawi, the leading Palestinian figure in secret negotiations, was killed by an Abu Nidal assassin..
The Hamas massacre of October 7 was unconscionable, certainly illegal, and at the far end of immoral brutality. Even if it is seen as a “jail break” from the “open air prison” of the 16-year Gaza blockade, with all of the suffering that has entailed, the massacre was unconscionable, to be condemned, self-defeating (witness 25,000 dead and counting), and never repeated.
That said, as Thomas Friedman has repeatedly written in TheNew York Times these last three months, there were other alternative responses that would have reinforced Israeli security and allowed it to retain the moral high ground. Instead, Netanyahu and the most right-wing and racist government in Israel’s history opted to destroy Palestinian Gaza. Israeli General and War Cabinet member Yoav Gallant’s description of Palestinians as “human animals” announced the IDF’s racist, genocidal campaign. And as the South Africans documented in the Hague, similar expressions of racism and commitments to elimination have flowed from the mouths of Israeli President Isaac Herzog, other cabinet members, military leaders, and military units, as well as in the Israeli press.
Daily images testify to the reality that Netanyahu’s and his government’s attacks have been targeted against the people of Gaza more than Hamas.
Beyond tragedy, compounding its history of what Jimmy Carter termed apartheid not long after his presidency, Israel has self-defeatingly transformed itself into a pariah nation. As Friedman explains, beyond the consequences of international isolation, with increasing numbers of Israelis already leaving for the West, the Zionist experiment itself may be at risk. Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority reports that half a million Israelis have left the country since October 7.
Another tragic but predictable consequence of the genocide is something that the refugee Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt predicted in 1948. Just or not (and it is not), the world’s Jews would be judged by how Israel related to its Arab neighbors. Israel’s indiscriminate murder of thousands of civilians will fuel antisemitism for decades to come. That said, and to be appreciated, are the words of Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, the nonviolent Palestinian leader in Ramallah who cited and appreciated cease-fire demonstrations by U.S. rabbis and Jewish Voice for Peace.
Daily images testify to the reality that Netanyahu’s and his government’s attacks have been targeted against the people of Gaza more than Hamas. The goal goes far beyond destroying Hamas. Rather, as we witness Gazans being driven to the border with Egypt and read Israeli cabinet members’ appeals and plans for “thinning” the Palestinian population in Gaza, the ultimate goal is a second and greater Nakba. But, unlike 1948, Egypt is not cooperating as Jordan did 75 years ago.
The roots of today’s crimes trace to centuries of European antisemitism and the Balfour Doctrine which was designed to reinforce British (and since 1948/56) U.S. hegemony in the oil-rich Arab world. Theodor Herzel’s Zionism sought “a land without people for a people without a land.” But as with all other colonial settler initiatives (think the U.S. South Africa, Australia) there were people on the land. Worth noting is that the Nuseibeh (Muslim) family, which traces its presence in Jerusalem to the 4th century C.E., has long held the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. In a terrible historical irony, Israel has been caught and is paying the price for holding the European colonial bag. Indeed, it is cowboys and Indians all over again. But the 21st century is not the 18th or 19th centuries. Genocides are witnessed in real time and rightly generate global outrage.
Mattityahu Peled was Israel’s third ranking general in 1967. He was later a principal figure in the secret negotiations with the PLO and an uncompromising peace advocate in the Israeli Knesset.. During a speaking tour in the United States, he described how the Israeli military pressed Prime Minister Levi Eshkol not to accept President Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to mediate the crisis initiated by Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Israeli army knew what it could do. And with Eshkol’s green light they it did it: destroying the Egyptian Air Force in the first hour of the war and then conquering the Golan Heights, the West Bank including East Jerusalem. and Gaza all within six days.
Peled once described an exchange he once had with Ezer Weizman, formerly the commander of the Israeli Air Force and later the IDF’s chief of staff, within days of Israel’s conquests. The exchange illuminates the essence of the totally unnecessary Israeli-Palestinian tragedy. Walking in East Jerusalem, Peled turned to Weizman and said, “Now we can create the Palestinian state on our own terms and be done with the Palestinian problem.” Weizman responded, “What? Are you crazy?” And from there followed the commitment and campaign for colonial settlements at enormous human cost and in violation of international law in the pursuit of creating Greater Israel from the Jordan River to the sea..
Recall, that even David Ben-Gurion, long honored as the father of his nation, refused to declare what Israel’s borders would be. No Israeli leader has done so since. The goal has always been a Greater Israel, just as settler colonialists here in the United States expanded the country from the Atlantic coast, across the continent to the Pacific Ocean with genocidal campaigns, conquests, and settlements.
Would that the plug could be pulled on the Netanyahu government today. Even as we properly condemn the Biden administration’s complicity in Israel’s genocide and write in “Cease-fire” in presidential primaries, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been playing with the plug. While in Jerusalem, he has been meeting with members of Israel’s increasingly divided war cabinet and with at least one opposition leader in what appears to be some drilling at work in the wall of Israeli solidarity.
Extending the war means extending Netanyahu’s time in office and delaying his hoped-for ouster and imprisonment for corruption. Having launched a poorly conceived war of revenge and conquest, the Israeli prime minister has placed himself and Israel in an impossible situation: Even General Gadi Eisenkot of the war cabinet concedes that the IDF cannot achieve its announced goal of totally destroying Hamas. Netanyahu thus finds himself in an impossible position: fighting a war that cannot be won and which politically he cannot afford to lose.
There is of course a way out: Biden could and should declare, “Enough!”, cease providing diplomatic cover in the United Nations and elsewhere for the IDF’s genocide, and end the deluge of weapons flowing to the IDF that makes the Gaza massacre possible.
One possible Netanyahu escape hatch is to widen the war in order to bring the U.S. more deeply into it on Israel’s behalf. This helps us to explain the drone assassination of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards intelligence chief in Damascus and the ultimatum Israel has delivered to the Lebanese government to contain Hezbollah in Lebanon, or else.
Would that it was otherwise. President Joe Biden appears to be falling toward Netanyahu’s trap as our president widens the conflict with an unwinnable war against the Houthis in Yemen.
There is of course a way out: Biden could and should declare, “Enough!”, cease providing diplomatic cover in the United Nations and elsewhere for the IDF’s genocide, and end the deluge of weapons flowing to the IDF that makes the Gaza massacre possible. These and the firm resolve that constructive U.S.-Israel relations depend on an Israeli commitment to engage in credible diplomacy for either a two-state solution or another political framework that guarantees Palestinians national self-determination and the full exercise of their human rights.
It is worth noting that in the midst the war and genocide, the Saudis have reiterated their peace plan, which includes normalization of relations with Israel..
Noam Chomsky once remarked that there are rational solutions to the existential threats that confront humanity. The question, he concluded, is whether we have the will to implement them.
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