The U.S. Role in the Gaza Tragedy

There is much blame to go around regarding the tragic turn of events in the Gaza Strip. While Hamas is the most immediate culprit, responsibility also rests with Fatah, Israel – and the United States.

The seizure of power in the tiny coastal territory by Hamas militants after bitter factional fighting with Fatah militiamen has only encouraged anti-Palestinian hardliners in Israel and the United States who claim that the Palestinians are unworthy of statehood and that Israel should continue its occupation and colonization of major segments of Palestinian territory seized by the Israeli armed forces in June 1967. The scenes of the bloody infighting among Palestinians have seemingly reinforced racist notions common in the United States and Israel, as exemplified by the statement by former Israeli Prime Minister and recently re-elected Labor Party leader Ehud Barak’s that Israel was “a villa in the jungle.”

The vast majority of ordinary Palestinians, meanwhile, are disgusted at the behavior of both Hamas and Fatah, who see it as little better than gang warfare and a tragic setback in their struggle for freedom against foreign military occupation. Whether the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip or the newly established parallel government in Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank will be recognized as legitimate by the Palestinians themselves remains to be seen.

As much responsibility as the Palestinian leadership itself must bear for the current situation, none of this would have happened if the U.S. government had lived up to its responsibilities as guarantor of the Oslo Accords and self-proclaimed chief mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. U.S. refusal to force Israel to live up to its legal obligations to end its colonization drive in the West Bank and withdraw from the occupied territories in return for security guarantees has led much of the Palestinian population to give up on the peace process and embrace groups like Hamas, which demand control of all of historic Palestine.

A Siege, Not a Withdrawal

The myth perpetuated by both the Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties was that Israel’s 2005 dismantling of its illegal settlements in the Gaza Strip and the withdrawal of military units that supported them constituted effective freedom for the Palestinians of the territory. American political leaders from President George W. Bush to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have repeatedly praised Israel for its belated compliance with a series of UN Security Council resolutions calling for their withdrawal of these illegal settlements (despite Israel’s ongoing violations of these same resolutions by maintaining and expanding their illegal settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights). Pelosi, for example, called Israel’s pullout a “courageous” and “gut-wrenching” decision that constituted “a decisive milestone on the road to peace” toward which the Palestinians have responded by violence, proving that the “conflict is not over occupation…it is over the fundamental right of Israel to exist.”

In reality, however, the Gaza Strip has remained effectively under siege. Even prior to the Hamas victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections last year, the Israeli government not only severely restricted – as is its right – entry from the Gaza Strip into Israel, but also controlled passage through the border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt as well. Israel also refused to allow the Palestinians to open their airport or seaport. This not only led to periodic shortages of basic necessities imported through Egypt but resulted in the widespread wasting of perishable exports – such as fruits, vegetables and cut flowers – vital to the territory’s economy. Furthermore, Gaza residents were cut off from family members and compatriots in the West Bank and elsewhere in what many have referred to as the world’s largest open-air prison.

Since the election of a Hamas majority in Palestinian parliamentary elections last year, international sanctions led to a reduction in government spending by the Palestinian Authority by more than half, severely reducing available health care, education and other basic services and dramatically increasing unemployment and malnutrition.

In addition, Israeli bombing, shelling, and periodic incursions in civilian areas in the Gaza Strip during the past year have killed over 200 civilians, including scores of children. Bush administration officials, echoed by Pelosi and other Democratic leaders, have justifiably condemned rocket attacks by some Hamas-allied units into civilian areas of Israel (which have resulted in scores of injuries but only one death), but have defended Israel’s far more devastating attacks against civilian targets in the Gaza Strip.

The Gaza Strip’s population consists primarily of refugees from Israel’s ethnic cleansing of most of Palestine almost 60 years ago and their descendents, most of whom have had no gainful employment since Israel sealed the border from most day laborers in the late 1980s. Crowded into only 140 square miles and subjected to extreme violence and poverty, it is not surprising that many would become susceptible to extremist politics, such as those of the Islamist Hamas movement. Nor is it surprising that under such conditions, people with guns would turn on each other.

Undermining the Unity Government

When factional fighting between armed Fatah and Hamas groups broke out this spring, Saudi officials negotiated a power-sharing agreement between the two leading Palestinian political movements. U.S. officials, however, unsuccessfully encouraged Abbas to renounce the agreement and dismiss the entire government. Indeed, ever since the election of a Hamas parliamentary majority last year, the Bush administration had been pressuring Abbas and Fatah to stage a coup and abolish parliament.

The national unity government put key ministries in the hands of Fatah members and independent technocrats and removed some of the more hard-line Hamas leaders and, while falling well short of Western demands, Hamas did indicate an unprecedented willingness to engage with Israel, accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and negotiate a long-term cease fire with Israel. For the first time, this could have allowed Israel and the United States the opportunity to bring into peace talks a national unity government representing virtually all the factions and parties active in Palestinian politics on the basis of the Arab League peace initiative for a two-state solution and UN Security Council resolution 242. However, both the Israeli and American governments refused.

Instead, the Bush administration decided to escalate the conflict by ordering Israel to ship large quantities or weapons to armed Fatah groups to enable them to fight Hamas. Israeli military leaders initially resisted the idea, fearing that much of these arms would end up in the hands of Hamas, but – as Israeli journalist Uri Avnery put it – “our government obeyed American orders, as usual.” That Fatah was being supplied with weapons from Israel while Hamas was fighting the Israelis led many Palestinians – even those who don’t share Hamas’ extremist Islamist ideology – to see Fatah as collaborators and Hamas as liberation fighters. This was a major factor leading Hamas to launch what it saw as a preventive war or a counter-coup by overrunning the offices of the Fatah militias and, just as the Israelis feared, many of these newly-supplied weapons have indeed ended up in the hands of Hamas militants.

The United States also threw its support to Mohammed Dahlan, the notorious Fatah security chief in Gaza, who – despite being labeled by American officials as “moderate” and “pragmatic” – oversaw the detention, torture, and execution of Hamas activists and others, leading to widespread popular outrage against Fatah and its supporters.

Alvaro de Soto, who recently stepped down from his term as the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, stated in his confidential final report leaked to the press a few weeks before the Hamas takeover that “the Americans clearly encouraged a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas” and “worked to isolate and damage Hamas and build up Fatah with recognition and weaponry.” De Soto also recalled how in the midst of Egyptian efforts to arrange a cease fire following a flare-up in factional fighting earlier this year, a U.S. official told him that “I like this violence…it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas.”

Weakening Palestinian Moderates

For moderate forces to overcome extremist forces, the moderates must be able to provide their population with what they most need: in this case, the end of Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip and its occupation and colonizing of the remaining Palestinian territories. However, Israeli policies – backed by the Bush administration and Congress – seem calculated to make this impossible. The noted Israeli policy analyst Gershon Baskin observed, in an article in the Jerusalem Post just prior to Hamas’ electoral victory, how “Israel ‘s unilateralism and determination not to negotiate and engage President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority has strengthened the claims of Hamas and weakened Abbas and his authority which was already severely crippled by … Israeli actions that demolished the infrastructures of Palestinian Authority governing bodies and institutions.”

Bush and an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the U.S. Congress have also thrown their support to the Israeli government’s unilateral disengagement policy that, while withdrawing Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip, has expanded them in the occupied West Bank as part of an effort to illegally annex large swathes of Palestinian territory. In addition, neither Congress nor the Bush administration has pushed the Israelis to engage in serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians, which have been suspended for over six years, despite calls by Abbas and the international community that they resume. Given that Fatah’s emphasis on negotiations has failed to stop Israel’s occupation and colonization of large parts of the West Bank, it’s not surprising that Hamas’ claim that the U.S.-managed peace process is working against Palestinian interests has resonance, even among Palestinians who recognize that terrorism by Hamas’ armed wing is both morally reprehensible and has hurt the nationalist cause.

Following Hamas’ armed takeover of Gaza, the highly respected Israeli journalist Roni Shaked, writing in the June 15 issue of Yediot Ahronoth, noted that “The U.S. and Israel had a decisive contribution to this failure.” Despite claims by Israel and the United States that they wanted to strengthen Abbas, “in practice, zero was done for this to happen. The meetings with him turned into an Israeli political tool, and Olmert’s kisses and backslapping turned Abbas into a collaborator and a source of jokes on the Palestinian street.”

James Zogby, director of the Arab-American Institute in Washington, observed correctly that “at every turn in the last seven years, the Bush administration has turned a blind eye to Israel’s aggressive expansion in the West Bank and its systematic humiliation of the people there, and its assault on Gaza. In this context, it was plainly stupid for the administration” to reject the outcome of the Palestinian parliamentary elections and “frustrate Saudi efforts to reconcile that outcome with the demands of the international community.”
Only Sticks

M.J. Rosenberg of the Israeli Policy Forum, a liberal pro-Israel think tank based in Washington, noted how the United States “offered no carrots, only sticks. And we didn’t even make much of an effort to strengthen Hamas’s arch-enemy, President Mahmoud Abbas, with Congress hastening to impose redundant and insulting conditions even on aid that was intended for him.”

De Soto’s report to the UN Secretary General, in which he referred to Hamas’ stance toward Israel as “abominable,” also noted that “Israeli policies seemed perversely designed to encourage the continued action by Palestinian militants.” Regarding the U.S.-instigated international sanctions against the Palestine Authority, the former Peruvian diplomat also observed that “the steps taken by the international community with the presumed purpose of bringing about a Palestinian entity that will live in peace with its neighbor Israel have had precisely the opposite effect.”

Some Israeli commentators see this strategy as deliberate. Avnery noted, “Our government has worked for year to destroy Fatah, in order to avoid the need to negotiate an agreement that would inevitably lead to the withdrawal form the occupied territories and the settlements there.” Similarly, Rosenberg observed, “the fact is that Israeli (and American) right-wingers are rooting for the Palestinian extremists” since “supplanting… Fatah with Islamic fundamentalists would prevent a situation under which Israel would be forced to negotiate with moderates.”

The problem, according to Avnery, is that “now, when it seems that this aim has been achieved, they have no idea what to do about the Hamas victory.”

Among the few American elected officials to recognize the folly of U.S. policy has been Ohio Congressman and Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, who noted that “the chaos and factional violence in Gaza that ultimately led to the Hamas military takeover…demonstrates a failure of President Bush’s strategy.” This and similar statements which have allied Kucinich with Israeli and Palestinian moderates have resulted in strong rebukes from most of his rivals for the 2008 presidential nomination.

Last year, former President Jimmy Carter presciently warned that in trying to “punish Hamas, we’ll actually going to be punishing the Palestinian people who are already living in deprivation. And it’s going to turn the Palestinian people even more against the West and against Israel and make Hamas seem to be… their only friend.” As with Kucinich, in response to such calls for moderation, Carter has been harshly criticized by Pelosi and other Democratic leaders.

Current U.S. Policy

Since their humiliating defeat in the Gaza Strip, Fatah militia have been engaging in a wave of arrests and kidnappings of Hamas activists in the West Bank. This has led to fears of a popular backlash if the repression goes too far. Furthermore, while Hamas’ popular support has traditionally been less in the West Bank than in the Gaza Strip, where the majority of its residents live in impoverished refugee camps, the Islamist group’s support is still quite strong in the West Bank as well. Indeed, the weakness of Fatah’s resistance to the Hamas uprising in the Gaza Strip – despite having a larger number and better-armed fighters than Hamas – is indicative of their continued weak political standing.

Despite its dubious constitutionality, President Abbas announced a new emergency cabinet without any Hamas participation within days of Fatah’s ouster from the Gaza Strip, and included some prominent technocrats, reformers and independents. His new prime minister, Salam Fayyad, is a highly intelligent economist and former World Bank official who lived for most of his adult life in the United States. He served as the representative for the International Monetary Fund to the Palestine Authority before briefly becoming its Finance Minister in 2005 in a belated effort by Abbas to clean up the Fatah government’s chronic corruption. Fayyad then formed a small centrist party with scholar and human rights activist Hanan Ashrawi to challenge both Fatah and Hamas in last year’s parliamentary election, but their slate received only 2.4% of the vote. Though a sincere nationalist and reformer, Fayyad’s close ties to the United States and international financial institutions, coupled with his poor electoral performance, raises questions regarding his legitimacy in the eyes of most Palestinians.

The makeup of his new government is not Abbas’ biggest problem, however. The Palestinians recognize that the United States has defended repeated Israeli attacks against Palestinian population centers, supported the Israeli seizure of the Gaza Strip and vetoed a series of UN Security Council resolutions and blocked enforcement of a series of others calling on Israel to abide by international humanitarian law. They are aware that the Bush administration and Congress have endorsed Israel’s annexation of Arab East Jerusalem and surrounding areas, funded Israel’s occupation and colonization of the West Bank and defended Israel’s construction of an illegal separation barrier deep inside occupied Palestinian territory.

They also know how the United States has rejected Palestinian proposals for a permanent peace with Israel in return for a full Israeli withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territory while backing Israeli plans to annex much of the West Bank, confining the Palestinians into tiny cantons surrounded by Israel. As a result, the strong U.S. backing shown so far by Washington for Abbas’ new government may not help its credibility among the Palestinian population. Indeed, it is already been widely labeled as a collaborationist regime due to its strong backing from Israel and the United States.

Israel has announced it will unfreeze funds seized from the export of Palestinian goods to Abbas’ new government. The government’s hope is that by improving the quality of life for Palestinians, it will show how much better things are under Fatah than under Hamas and weaken support for the Islamists.

Concrete Political Initiatives

However, unless there are concrete political initiatives as well, this will not be enough.

Abbas has called for peace with strict security guarantees for Israel, including the dismantling of Hamas’ militias, in return for an independent state on the 22% of Palestine occupied by Israel since 1967, and has even expressed his willingness to accept minor and reciprocal border adjustments. Polls show that a majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would accept such an agreement.

Israel has refused that offer, however, insisting on its right to annex large swaths of West Bank territory, including Arab East Jerusalem, in such a way that would make a contiguous and viable Palestinian state impossible. Under this Israeli plan – endorsed by the Bush administration and a broad bipartisan majority of Congress – Israel would be able to control Palestinian air space, Palestinian water resources, and movement in and out of the Palestinian entity and between its separated territories. These non-contiguous Palestinian cantons, therefore, would more closely resemble the infamous Bantustans of apartheid South Africa than a viable independent state. And, unless the Palestinians have strong prospects that a viable independent state will eventually emerge, the credibility of Abbas’ government will erode and the appeal by the radicals of Hamas will grow.

The Israeli government, with no apparent objection from the United States, has thus far refused to even put a freeze on the growth of Israeli settlements on the West Bank that are eating up ever more Palestinian land needed to make a Palestinian state viable. Furthermore, Israeli occupation forces have yet to lift the scores of checkpoints paralyzing economic life in the West Bank. Israel also continues to refuse to release Palestinian prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti, the charismatic Fatah reformer who would be the most likely Palestinian leader to unite the country in accepting a two-state solution with Israel. Such confidence-building measures are critical in the period prior to a resolution of the important final status issues if talks are to move forward and extremists are to be marginalized.

However, as a result of the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, according to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, “the Prime Minister’s advisers [declared] the Palestinian Authority dead, [saying] there is no one to talk to…and that the Bush administration will not put pressure on Olmert at this stage to come up with ideas for renewing the negotiations with Abbas and promoting a diplomatic solution.”

As Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa program director for the International Crisis Group and former and former National Security Council member and special assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs under President Bill Clinton, has noted how “Almost every decision the United States has made to interfere with Palestinian politics has boomeranged.”

Hamas’ armed takeover of the Gaza Strip has shown this to be all too true, and the U.S. embrace of Abbas’ new government without concomitant pressure on Israel may prove to have similar results.

The Peace Movement Addresses Israel-Palestine (Finally)

In my Inbox last Friday was an email from Peace Action, the country’s largest peace group, encouraging its members to join the thousands of peace and human rights activists from across the country in the June 10 march in Washington against the Israeli occupation. This otherwise unremarkable letter served as an important reminder that U.S. support for the Israeli occupation is finally becoming an issue for the mainstream of the peace movement.

This was not always the case. Peace Action is the successor organization of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (better known as SANE) – founded fifty years ago by Norman Cousins and other prominent intellectuals concerned with the nuclear arms race – and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, which emerged in the early 1980s under the leadership of Randall Forsberg and others. These two leading peace organizations merged in 1987 to form SANE/Freeze, which changed its name to Peace Action six years later. Yet even the merged organization, with its broader mandate, initially avoided seriously dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Peace Action was certainly not alone, however. The peace movement has largely ignored the Israel-Palestine issue. This has not only hurt the cause of peace in the Middle East, it has harmed the movement as well.

The Israel Exception

During the 1980s, the Coalition for a New Foreign Policy – the lobbying arm of a broad coalition of peace and human rights organizations – took the position that while they supported the “sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence” of Middle Eastern states, they also insisted that such a principle “does not necessarily apply” to lands seized by Israel in the 1967 war. The Coalition also made an explicit exception for Israel in its otherwise strict standard of opposing unconditional U.S. military aid to countries that engaged in gross and systematic human rights abuses or developed nuclear weapons programs.

Similarly, National Impact, another Capitol Hill lobbying group that, during the latter part of that decade, claimed to provide “leadership on peace and justice issues” on Capitol Hill declared that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was “off-limits.” And, during the 1990s, Demilitarization for Democracy, the advocacy center that promoted the code of conduct for recipients of U.S. arms exports overseas, also made an exception for Israel.

In June 1982, during the U.S.-backed Israeli invasion of Lebanon, there was absolutely no mention of the devastating war by any of the scores of speakers at the huge peace rally in New York’s Central Park. Even as hundreds of thousands of Israeli peace activists demonstrated in Tel Aviv against their government’s act of aggression, some leading American peace activists – such as Tom Hayden and his then-wife Jane Fonda – publicly praised the Israeli government’s massive air and ground assault, which led to the deaths of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. Even though American ordinance and delivery systems killed more civilians in Lebanon during those three months that summer than had been killed by American ordinance and delivery systems in El Salvador during the previous three years – the height of the repression in that Central American nation – the U.S. peace movement did not seem to care.

In 1991, some of the best fundraisers and organizers in the Freeze movement joined the presidential campaign of Tom Harkin, who – of all six major candidates for the 1992 Democratic nomination – was the most outspoken supporter of the government of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The Iowa senator opposed Palestinian statehood, opposed negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, defended and covered up for Israeli war crimes, supported illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and attacked the United Nations and human rights groups for raising concerns about Israeli violations of international humanitarian law. He criticized President George H.W. Bush from the right for conditioning a $10 billion loan guarantee to Israel on a freeze on the construction of additional illegal Israeli settlements. The veterans of the Freeze campaign who signed up for his campaign did not seem concerned, however. (Not surprisingly, Harkin voted in 2002 to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq and has backed unconditional funding for the war ever since.)

Similarly, prominent Freeze supporters endorsed California senator Alan Cranston’s 1984 presidential bid and Illinois senator Paul Simon’s 1988 presidential campaign, even though they were the most virulently anti-Palestinian candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination during those primary campaigns. Repeatedly, the peace movement made clear that while defending the human rights of Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, South Africans, and East Timorese was a litmus test for national office, a candidate could support the denial of the most basic human rights of Palestinians and Lebanese and still be guaranteed unconditional support from the peace movement. When I raised concerns regarding the movement’s apparent racism during a plenary speech at the 1991 annual meeting of SANE/Freeze in Chicago, I was strongly rebuked by some of the organization’s leaders for raising such a “divisive issue.”

Sea Change

In more recent years, however, Peace Action and other peace groups have finally acknowledged that U.S. support for the Israeli occupation and other Israeli policies that violate human rights and international law is a peace issue, every bit as much as U.S. support for repressive governments in Central America, Southern Africa, or Southeast Asia was a peace issue in previous years.

Indeed, the list of multi-issue peace groups endorsing the June 10 march was a long one: Code Pink, Nonviolence International, Global Exchange, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Pax Christi, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the American Friends Service Committee, as well as United for Peace and Justice, itself a coalition of more than 1300 local and national organizations opposing the Iraq War and related Bush administration foreign policy.

Because the mainstream peace movement has been so late in addressing Israel and Palestine as a peace issue, other groups that do not take a universal position on human rights and international law have often filled the vacuum. Such groups, often motivated by an ideological bias against Israel itself, have harmed the credibility of the movement to end the occupation as a whole. And while claims by right-wing supporters of Bush administration policy that opponents of the occupation are motivated by an “anti-Israel” or even “anti-Semitic” agenda are groundless in the vast majority of cases, such charges are unfortunately not unfounded in regard to a number of groups and individuals.

This is why it is so important for the peace movement to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not from a “pro-Palestinian” or “anti-Zionist” perspective but out of basic principles of justice that should apply to any nation or any conflict. As Peace Action director Kevin Martin, in his June 8 letter to the group’s e-mail list, succinctly put it, “Peace Action stands against military occupation anywhere.” Indeed, the peace movement should oppose U.S. support for the Israeli occupation for the same reasons it opposed U.S. support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor during the 1990s and as it should oppose U.S. support for Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara today.

The problem with U.S. policy toward Israel and its neighbors is not that it is “too pro-Israel.” Supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territories is no more in Israel’s long-term security interests than supporting the U.S. occupation of Iraq is in America’s long-term security interests. The debate is not about Israel versus Palestine. Israeli security and Palestinian rights are not mutually exclusive but mutually dependent on each other. The debate is about international law, human rights, the right of self-determination, and reliance on diplomacy rather than on violence. The Bush administration, with the support of a broad bipartisan majority in Congress, opposes these principles and must therefore be held accountable.

Raising the Stakes

Kevin Martin concluded his email by invoking Martin Luther King Jr.’s dictum that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” More is at stake than the Palestinian people suffering under foreign military occupation and the Israeli people’s long-term security. As long as the Israeli government can get away with its violations of universally recognized norms regarding international law, human rights and non-proliferation, it will be difficult to enforce these norms anywhere.

Israel will not end its occupation, colonization, and repression in the Palestinian territories as long as the Israeli government continues to receive unconditional military, financial and diplomatic support from the Bush administration. The Bush administration will not end its military, financial, and diplomatic support for the Israeli government as long as the Democratic-controlled Congress continues to support the Bush administration’s policies toward the conflict. And the Democrats will not end their support for the Bush administration’s policies until the peace movement refuses to support any candidate who does.

Unfortunately, the political action committees affiliated with Peace Action, MoveOn, Act for Change, Council for a Livable World, and other otherwise progressive organizations have yet to make that commitment. Endorsing demonstrations and passing policy statements opposing the occupation are good and important. But lawmakers will ignore such statements and demonstrations until they recognize that there will be political consequences for their pro-occupation votes and public statements.

The perceived clout of the pro-occupation lobby on Capitol Hill may be less a result of the actual strength of the American Israel Public Action Committee and other right-wing groups as it is the relative weakness of the anti-occupation lobby. Similarly, the perceived influence of pro-occupation contributors and voters in election campaigns is less a reflection of their overall support as it is the unwillingness of progressive contributors and voters to make opposition to U.S. support for the Israeli occupation a decisive factor in determining whether to contribute to a campaign or to vote for a candidate.

Fortunately, this is beginning to change, as the U.S. Campaign against the Israeli Occupation and other groups have emerged in recent years to put pressure on members of Congress and multi-issue peace and human rights groups are beginning to become bolder in addressing this issue as well.

As the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination heats up, it is critically important that those in the peace movement make clear to the contenders that we will refuse to back anyone who fails to challenge the Bush administration’s support for the Israeli occupation. We must also make clear to progressive organizations that endorse candidates for national office based upon their foreign policy positions that they must either refuse to back any candidate who supports the occupation or lose our support of their organization. This is not a single-issue approach. Rather, it is a matter of consistency, of applying progressive principles of human rights and international law to U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine just as the peace movement applied them to U.S. policy toward Nicaragua, El Salvador, South Africa, and East Timor.

Jerusalem: Endorsing the Right of Conquest

In a flagrant attack on the longstanding international legal principle that it is illegitimate for any country to expand its territory by military means, the U.S. House of Representatives, by an overwhelming bipartisan majority, passed House Concurrent Resolution 152 congratulating Israel for its forcible “reunification of Jerusalem” and its victory in the June 1967 war.

The resolution, passed by a voice vote on June 5 — the 40th anniversary of the Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem and other Arab territories — states that U.S. policy should recognize that Jerusalem is “the undivided capital of Israel.” There is no mention that Jerusalem — which has the largest Palestinian population of any city and which for centuries served as the commercial, cultural, education and religious center for Palestinian life — should also be recognized as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The resolution was sponsored by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Lantos (D-CA), widely recognized as the Democratic Party’s chief foreign policy spokesman, and co-sponsored by such Democratic Party foreign policy leaders as Howard Berman (D-CA), Eliot Engel (D- NY), Robert Wexler (D-FL), Joseph Crowley (D-NY), and Middle East subcommittee chairman Gary Ackerman (D-NY).

Israel has formally annexed East Jerusalem and surrounding lands, unlike the rest of the West Bank, which is either under the control of Israeli military administration or the Palestine Authority. No government outside Israel recognizes this illegal annexation or supports the idea of a Jerusalem united under exclusive Israeli sovereignty. International organizations and leaders of major religious bodies throughout the world have repeatedly stressed the importance of not allowing Israel’s unilateral takeover to remain unchallenged. UN Security Council resolutions 252, 267, 271, 298, 476 and 478 — passed without U.S. objections during both Democratic and Republican administrations — specifically call on Israel to rescind its annexation and other efforts to alter the city’s legal status. Given that Article 5 of resolution 478 specifically calls on all UN member states not to recognize Israel’s annexation efforts, the Democratic-controlled Congress is effectively calling on the Bush administration to put the United States in direct violation of the UN Security Council.

Who Controls Jerusalem?

Jerusalem has been conquered and re-conquered more than 37 times in its 3000-year old history. Yet, with the establishment over the past century of clear international legal principles forbidding such military conquests and of international organizations with enforcement mechanisms, there has been a persistent hope that the fate of Jerusalem could — along with other territories seized by the Israeli armed forces — be resolved peacefully and with deference to international law. UN Security Council resolution 242, long seen as the basis for Arab-Israeli peace, emphasizes the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” Congress appears to think differently, however.

The bipartisan decision to pass a resolution celebrating Israel’s military conquest at a time when there is a growing consensus among Palestinians, Israelis, and the international community that a shared Jerusalem is imperative for a durable peace appears to have been designed to undermine the peace process. As M.J. Rosenberg, director of the Israel Policy Forum’s Washington Policy Center, observed, “Congress has a role to play in the Middle East…but that leadership is not expressed by resolutions celebrating a war but by using its authority to promote security for Israelis and Palestinians.”

Virtually no one would like to see Jerusalem return to its 1948-67 status, when it was divided by sentry posts, barbed wire, and snipers, with neither Israelis nor Palestinians able to cross to the other side. However, there are a number of other options, including making Jerusalem an international city as originally called for by the UN in 1947, creating a joint Israeli-Palestinian administration, or repartitioning the city but with full access by residents and visitors to both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.

For example, the Geneva Initiative — signed by such prominent Israeli officials as former Justice member and Oslo Accord architect Yossi Beilin, former Labor Party Leader Avram Mitzna and former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg (along with equally-prominent Palestinian leaders) — call for Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods and holy sites to be under Israeli control and the Palestinian neighborhoods and Muslim and Christian holy sites to be under Palestinian control, a position that public opinion polls indicate a majority of both Palestinians and Israelis supports.

An overwhelming bipartisan majority of the U.S. House of Representatives, however, in a clear rebuke of such initiatives, insists that the entire city be under exclusive Israeli control.

This led to protests by more moderate voices in the House. As Rep. David Price (D-NC) put it in the floor debate prior to the vote, since “the idea of an undivided Jerusalem under sole Israeli sovereignty has not been part of any serious peace proposal . . . in the last several years,” the resolution thereby “undermines U.S. efforts to secure the trust of all sides in the search for peace.” Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) observed how “it has long been understood that a permanent agreement about the Palestinian areas of Jerusalem will be left to final-status negotiations. . . . I think we tread on dangerous territory when Congress adopts positions that run counter to issues that have yet to be negotiated.” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) was among those noting the irony of the House passing what many would label a pro-Israel resolution that “would place Congress out of step with large parts of the Israeli political spectrum.”

The United States, like all other nations with diplomatic representation in Israel, has its embassy in Tel Aviv pending resolution of the status of Jerusalem. However, the Lantos resolution calls on President Bush to unilaterally move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem prior to a peace settlement, despite the president’s recognition, like that of his predecessors, that doing so would sabotage U.S. diplomatic efforts and needlessly evoke enormous hostility throughout the Islamic world. In the eyes of the Democratic-controlled Congress, there is nothing to negotiate: Israel is the undivided capital of Israel by right of conquest.

Israel’s Occupation

Whatever the position of the U.S. Congress might be, however, the fact remains that the residents of East Jerusalem never voluntarily ceded sovereignty to Israel through a referendum or other methods; their part of the city was seized by military force. By any definition, this constitutes a military occupation.

To this day, Israeli occupation forces patrol the streets and engage in ongoing human rights abuses against residents who oppose Israeli rule continue. The Israeli government has confiscated or destroyed homes and other property belonging to longstanding Muslim and Christian residents of the city. Several UN bodies, along with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other reputable human rights organizations have frequently cited Israel for its ongoing violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention in East Jerusalem and surrounding areas. Despite this, the House resolution commends Israel for having “respected the rights of all religious groups” during its 40-year occupation.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration, like the Clinton administration, has refused to raise any objections to Israeli occupation forces banning access by most Palestinians to the schools, hospitals, businesses, and cultural venues of Palestine’s largest city. This ban has caused enormous suffering to the population. And just as the Jordanians refused to allow Israeli Jews to visit their holy sites in the Old City when the Hashemite Kingdom controlled East Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967, Israel now severely restricts access by Palestinian Muslims and Christians from the Gaza Strip or the rest of the West Bank from visiting their holy sites in the Old City.

Despite the resolution’s claims to the contrary, those of us who have actually been to Jerusalem in recent years recognize that it is hardly a unified city. One hardly ever sees any Israelis other than soldiers and journalists in Palestinian residential neighborhoods or business districts. During one recent visit, my Israeli cab driver from the airport refused to take me to my hotel in the Palestinian half of the city, instead dropping me off at the pre-1967 dividing line and insisting I get an Arab cab for the remaining ten blocks of my trip.

Unlike the U.S. Congress, the Israeli Knesset did not pass a resolution celebrating the 40th anniversary of the conquest. Indeed, Israel’s elected institutions tend not to commemorate their wars except to honor their dead. As with Israel’s war on Lebanon last summer, Congress is willing to offer near-unanimous support for policies for which the Israelis themselves are willing to engage in serious self-criticism.

Indeed, the congressional resolution celebrating the humiliating defeat of Arab armies will likely only increase anti-American sentiment throughout the Arab world. That victory brought hope to many Israelis that, with the leverage made possible by its conquest of Arab lands, and Israeli withdrawal could be exchanged for a permanent peace agreement with its Arab neighbors. Congress, however, has it made clear in a bipartisan fashion that the most important part of the occupied territories is not subject to negotiation.

Given the centrality of Jerusalem to any comprehensive peace settlement, U.S. policy has made it extremely difficult for a lasting peace settlement to be implemented. As Rep. Price observed, “the only thing likely to fully guarantee Jerusalem as the permanent capital of Israel is the official, international recognition of Israel’s neighbors and the entire international community — and this recognition is unlikely so long as Palestinian claims to their own capital and sacred city are denied.”

What the U.S. Public Thinks

Public opinion polls in the United States show that, unlike most of their congressional representatives, a sizable majority of Americans supports a shared Jerusalem. And fortunately, despite the backing of both the Republican and Democratic leadership, there have been signs that this dangerous and reactionary policy initiative is not universally supported within Congress either. Julie Schumacher Cohen of Churches for Middle East Peace observed that the failure of the resolution to get more than fourteen co-sponsors and the avoidance of a roll call vote “may reflect a lack of confidence in the outcome of such a vote and Congressional weariness with resolutions like these that do not help move the peace process forward and undermine U.S. diplomatic efforts.” Similar resolutions regarding Jerusalem passed by Congress in previous years received even greater bipartisan support.

There is more at stake here than Israeli-Palestinian peace. It is very dangerous, in this era of American military dominance, for such a large majority of Congress to go on record challenging the principles enshrined in the UN Charter that international boundaries be recognized on the basis of law, not the force of arms.

The American public must not allow the Democratic Party, given control of Congress by the voters last November, to squander its mandate by supporting resolutions that not only undermine the rights of Palestinians and the long-term security interests of Israel and the United States, but also undermine important and longstanding principles of international law.