Senator Chuck Schumer and the "Economic Strangulation" of Gaza

The remarks were not made in anger or haste, as were the now
infamous, flippant and ill-conceived comments that cost White House
reporter Helen Thomas her job, if not her legacy. Instead, they were
made quite deliberately, with an air of thoughtfulness, while leaning
over a lectern, as if lecturing to a class.

Thomas was forced into retirement for declaring that Jews "should get
the hell out of Palestine," but New York Senator Chuck Schumer, one of
the most powerful politicians in the US, has avoided any criticism or
even major press coverage for remarks he made only days later that
supported the continued "economic strangulation" of Gaza; in part,
because, he essentially argues, the inhabitants of the benighted Strip
are not Jewish.

Schumer made his remarks during a brief talk to the Orthodox Union, a
well-known politically conservative Jewish educational, outreach and
social service organization.

The talk covered several foreign
policy issues, including Iran and Israel/Palestine. When the topic
turned to the Israeli attack on the Gaza aid flotilla Schumer began by
explaining that the "Palestinian people still don't believe in the
Jewish state, in a two-state solution". But that is not all, he
continued: "They don't believe in the Torah, in David."

Because of this, and because they chose to elect Hamas, Schumer went
on to argue, Israel is right - and the US should support its desire -
"to strangle them economically until they see that's not the way to go".

whether deliberately or because he does not understand the nature of
Israeli policies vis-a-vis Gaza, Schumer did not actually use the word
"blockade;" instead describing Israeli actions as a "boycott".

Only when Palestinians see the light, "when there's some moderation
and cooperation, can [they] have an economic advancement".

Opinions that matter

White House reporter Helen Thomas
resigned after her now infamous comments [AP]

With all due respect to Helen Thomas and her illustrious career, she
was merely a columnist, with no political power and a relatively small
readership. When she adopted opinions or arguments that contradicted the
facts or were morally problematic, they were easily rebutted in the
public sphere.

Charles Schumer, however, is an extremely powerful
senator who serves on some of that body's most powerful committees,
such as banking and judiciary.

Moreover, through his
representation of New York, the state with the largest Jewish population
in the US, he is a leading pro-Israel voice in congress who has the
ability directly to impact the nature of US policy towards Israel and
the Middle East more broadly.

In other words, what Senator Schumer says actually can cost people -
Palestinians, Israelis, Americans - their livelihoods and even their
lives, not to mention help prolong or alleviate one of the world's most
intractable conflicts. And yet no one in official Washington even

To consider the implications of these comments, it is
worth considering what would happen if any Arab or Muslim, never mind a
US senator, explained that because Israelis do not support a two-state
solution, and do not believe in the Quran - that is, have not converted
to Islam - and have voted in one of the most right-wing governments in
their country's history, the US, or the world more broadly, is justified
in trying to "strangle Israel economically" until it moderates its

Imagine the uproar. Consider what would happen to the person - a
columnist or congressman - who made such a comment. Yet hardly anyone
has even noticed, never mind considered the implications of Schumer's
remarks, which on YouTube have garnered about 1,500 views. Not a single
major US newspaper has even written, let alone editorialized, about
them, in contrast to the plethora of editorials and op-eds in response
to Thomas' remarks, one clip of which has been viewed well over 1.6
million times.

It is hard to know what to call Schumer's argument that, because
Palestinians "don't believe in the Torah, in David," they can be

He specifically says "there should be humanitarian aid
and people not starving to death," but he does not quite explain how
"strangling" an economy that has already been nearly destroyed during 40
years of occupation can do anything but cause immense suffering to the
people living in it, as numerous reports by the UN, Israeli, Palestinian
and international aid organizations have documented in great detail.

to "strangle" an entire people economically can only mean to try to
destroy their ability to survive as a national group, which is a crime
against humanity.

Official bigotry unchallenged

These are among the most ethnically and religiously bigoted and even
inciteful public remarks by a senior American politician I have heard in
a long time.

And the fact Schumer could make them without a hint
of anger, as if he was merely stating the obvious, and feel no need to
recant them after video of the talk was circulated on the internet
(several calls to Schumer's press secretary asking for clarification
were not answered), is as telling as it is worrisome.

It is also worth noting that besides the moral problems associated
with his positions, almost every one of his arguments are factually
inaccurate. The strong majority of Palestinians continue to support a
two-state solution (74 per cent in an April 2009 poll), even thought the
process meant to achieve it has delivered little but misery for them
for almost two decades. They moderated their ideology and behavior as
part of Oslo and were met with an ever more intensive occupation in

Israel has, in fact, been strangling the Palestinian
economy since the inception of the occupation, "de-developing" not just
Gaza but the West Bank until Oslo, and then closing off the Territories
physically while ensuring that they could not develop an autonomous
economy as the central component of Oslo's economic protocols.

Indeed, it is precisely the intensification of the occupation that
led to the breakdown of negotiations, the outbreak of the al-Aqsa
intifada, the massive violence of Israel's response, and the election of
Hamas in response to these dynamics. Even senior Israeli generals have
admitted that their harsh actions have only strengthened Hamas.


The 'economic strangulation' of Gaza
amounts to collective punishment [Getty Images]

Schumer also fails to realize that by advocating the "economic
strangulation" of Gaza he is calling for collective punishment of a
civilian population in order to change its political beliefs or views.

a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he should know that this is
essentially the definition of terrorism used by the US government,
which in several federal statutes, including the Patriot Act, define
terrorism as involving acts that "appear to be intended ... to
intimidate or coerce a civilian population ... to influence the policy
of a government by intimidation or coercion [or] affect the conduct of a
government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping ..." (USA
Patriot Act, Title VIII, Sec. 802).

Israel's policies of economic strangulation have clearly - and
admittedly - been intended to force a change in behavior, and are
inseparable from its policies of assassination and kidnappings which
have also been practiced by the US under the guise of drone strikes and
renditions (it is also likely not coincidental that Senator Schumer also
supported the use of torture by the Bush administration in 2004).

How does Senator Schumer think advocating economic strangulation will
actually improve Israel's security, help moderate Palestinians, or, as
should be a major concern for a US senator, improve the US' position in
the eyes of the Muslims world as his party's president, Barack Obama,
has been trying to do since taking office?

Moreover, his
comments suggest that if Israel manages to choke Palestinians into
compliance, the most he is willing to support is the sort of "economic
peace" or development promised by Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime
minister, as an alternative to actual sovereignty and independence. If
so, that would put him in direct confrontation with Obama's
strongly-stated support for Palestinian statehood.

Finally, it might serve Senator Schumer to know that within Islam
there is in fact an acceptance of the Torah and David, as the Torah (tawrat
in Arabic) is considered one of the Holy Books of God, whose corruption
by humans led to subsequent revelations until the final, according to
Islamic theology, uncorrupted revelation, that comprised the Quran.
Moreover, David is considered a prophet and another set of books, the
Zabur, or songs/psalms, is attributed to him.

Perhaps if Schumer understood this basic theological relationship
between Judaism and Islam, he might be less predisposed to imagining
that Israelis and Palestinians are inevitably at odds, and that the
latter will act irrationally and with malice against Israel no matter
what Israel does and therefore the safest policy from Israel's
perspective is, if not actual strangulation, at least continuous

Obama's challenge

comments have received far less media attention than Thomas' [Getty

If Schumer thinks this way, many if not most of his colleagues, and
the majority of the American media and political spheres, do as well.

this is what he is up against, no wonder Obama is finding it so hard to
change US policy towards the conflict.

It would be one thing if Schumer's views impacted only the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But his remarks to the Orthodox Union also
touched upon Iran, and did so in a way that provide some alarming
insight into what is likely the consensus of the senate about the goal
of US policies towards the Islamic Republic.

Schumer described a bill presently in reconciliation between the house
and senate that would prevent any company that sold gasoline directly or
indirectly to Iran from selling oil products in the US. If passed, such
a bill would significantly impact Iran because while it is a major
petroleum exporter, Iran in fact imports a larger share of the gasoline
it uses for domestic consumption.

After describing the bill and its potential impact, Schumer added
off-handedly, as if it was too obvious really to need mentioning, that
"the whole idea is to bring the Iranian regime down".

He added:
"There is a lot of discontent ... the people of Iran want economic
advancement above all ... If we can stop that economic advancement we
can hurt the country economically. That might be the spark that brings
the people ... that brings the regime, which is fundamentally not
popular and works by fear, down."

It seems that to Schumer what is good for Israel in Gaza is good for
the US in Iran; engage in blatant attempts at regime change, even if
doing so is a violation of international law; hurt or strangle a country
economically in order to cause the people to suffer enough that they
rise up against the government to whose existence you are opposed; and
if none of that works, keep applying more pressure, until, presumably,
there is no choice but to take military action.

Senator Schumer's words seem to represent the mainstream of opinion
inside the Washington political establishment. They would seem, thus
far, not to be the official policies of the Obama administration, but if
the president does not articulate a clear agenda that includes bold
action to break the logjams in negotiations between Israelis and
Palestinians, and between Iran and the Western powers, Schumer's views
will likely become the de facto fall-back strategy of whatever
administration is in power in two years' time.

And this will most
likely mean a lot more suffering for Palestinians and Iranians, and
ultimately, for Israelis and Americans as well.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and
senior visiting researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at
Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam
(Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed

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