Remembering Israel’s West Bank Offensive

Ten years ago this month, following a particularly deadly series of Palestinian terrorist attacks, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched an assault on several Palestinian cities and refugee camps in the West Bank. The Bush administration largely supported the Israeli offensive, even as hundreds of civilians were killed and thousands of young men were detained without charge amid widespread reports of torture.

Both Israeli and international human rights groups condemned the widespread violations of international humanitarian law. According to Amnesty International, which had also strongly condemned attacks against Israeli civilians by Palestinian terrorists,

[T]he IDF acted as though the main aim was to punish all Palestinians. Actions were taken by the IDF which had no clear or obvious military necessity; many of these, such as unlawful killings, destruction of property and arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, violated international human rights and humanitarian law. The IDF instituted a strict curfew and killed and wounded armed Palestinians. But they also killed and targeted medical personnel and journalists, and fired randomly at houses and people in the streets. Mass arbitrary arrests were carried out in a manner designed to degrade those detained.

However, the U.S. House of Representatives categorically rejected Amnesty International’s findings. On May 2 of that year, by a vote of 352-21, the House declared that “Israel’s military operations are an effort to defend itself . . . and are aimed only at dismantling the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian areas.” This was widely interpreted as an attack against the credibility of Amnesty International, winner of the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize. In an apparent retort to growing demands by peace and human rights groups to suspend military aid to Israel, the resolution called for an increase in military aid, which seemed to reward Israel for its repressio

In a 94-2 vote that same day, the Senate passed a similar resolution, again referring to the Israeli assault on Palestinian towns and refugee camps as “necessary steps to provide security to [Israel’s] people by dismantling the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian areas.” Both resolutions stressed their support for Israel’s military offensive in the West Bank.

A joint statement by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY), co-sponsors of an amendment that would block Palestinian officials from entering the United States and otherwise keep the Palestinians out of the peace process, declared that “Israel has done no less – and certainly no more – than what any country would do to defend itself…. Israel’s military operation has been one based on specific intelligence information, with specific military goals – to act directly against terrorists…– and carried out with considerable restraint.” This statement, like the resolutions, came even after journalists’ cameras were finally allowed into the areas targeted by the Israeli assaults. The widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure was apparent even to casual viewers of the evening news.

Meanwhile, then-House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt proclaimed that, in supporting the Israeli government’s offensive, “We will stand for freedom.”

Sending the Wrong Message

For Arabs and Muslims throughout the world, these bipartisan endorsements of Israeli aggression were indicative of the lack of U.S. concern for basic human rights, or even its racism. The majority of liberal Democrats – most of whom were on record in support of human rights in Guatemala, East Timor, Colombia, Tibet, and elsewhere – had decided, in a situation where the victims of human rights abuses were Arabs, to instead throw their support to the perpetrator of the human rights abuses. In fact, one of the two principal sponsors of the House resolution was California Democrat Tom Lantos, the longtime chairman of the so-called “Human Rights Caucus.”

Remarkably, liberal groups like MoveOn and Democracy for America endorsed the reelection of many of the key Democratic supporters of the right-wing Israeli government’s offensive, labeling them “progressive heroes.”

On May 7, the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution condemning Israel for its assaults against Palestinian civilians, and for its refusal to cooperate with a UN fact-finding team. The resolution emphasized the importance of civilian safety and wellbeing throughout the Middle East and condemned all acts of violence and terror resulting in deaths and injuries among both Palestinian and Israeli civilians. The United States was one of only four countries in the 189-member body voting in opposition. (In addition to Israel and the United States, the only others voting “no” were the tiny island states of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, both former U.S. colonies heavily dependent on U.S. aid.)

Meanwhile, the Bush administration supported Israel’s successful effort to block the UN investigation. This came despite a public opinion poll that week that showed that more than three-quarters of the American public believed Israel should allow the United Nations to investigate.

During Israel’s April 2002 offensive, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson reiterated her call for an end of the suicide bombings as well as an end to the occupation. She particularly criticized the Israelis for placing 600,000 Palestinians under a strict curfew for most of the month, for destroying Palestinian medical, religious, and service institutions, and for using Palestinian civilians as human shields. Robinson, a former president of Ireland and now head of the International Commission of Jurists, had been one of the most visible and effective Human Rights commissioners in UN history. In response to her criticisms of America’s most important Middle East ally, however, the United States – which has veto power over the re-appointment of top UN officials – forced her to step down at the end of her first term.

Emboldened by this strong bipartisan support, Israel launched even deadlier assaults against civilian targets in Lebanon in July 2006 and in the Gaza Strip in December 2008. As with the West Bank offensive 10 years ago, Amnesty International and other reputable human rights groups condemned the actions of both Israel and its armed Arab opponents.

In both cases, as with 10 years ago, the Israeli attacks were supported in bipartisan congressional resolutions as legitimate acts of self-defense, in language that directly contradicted findings by Amnesty and other human rights groups. And yet again, prominent Democrats who supported these resolutions were labeled “progressive heroes.”

Until the right-wing Israeli government and its supporters in Congress are held accountable, such large-scale attacks against civilian population centers will continue.

Why One of the World’s Leading Peace Advocates Threatened to Punch Me in the Face

I have rarely ever come face to face – only inches in fact – with such anger. Certainly not at an academic conference. And certainly not from such a prominent figure: chancellor of Australian National University, former attorney-general and foreign minister, former head of the International Crisis Group, and one of the world’s most prominent global thinkers.

Yet here I was with Gareth Evans, cursing at me, ripping my badge off, and threatening to punch me in the face.

What prompted his outburst was my raising the issue of his support for the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia during its savage repression in the occupied island nation of East Timor. Since the March 17 conference at the University of Melbourne – at which I, like Evans, was a plenary speaker – was about the first anniversary of the Arab revolts, the organizers came to his defense by insisting that I had raised an issue that was off-topic. In reality, it was very relevant.

Gareth Evans is perhaps best known internationally as the world’s principal intellectual architect and proponent of the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), which calls for Western military intervention in crisis areas to prevent massacres of civilians. He was particularly outspoken in his support for what he referred to as “the overwhelming moral case” for the controversial NATO military intervention in Libya, which went well beyond the original mandate to protect civilians to effectively become the air force of the rebel coalition. Evans has insisted that his advocacy for the intervention was unrelated to oil or to Gaddafi’s traditional hostility to Western interest, but out of purely humanitarian concern.

At the time Evans began advocating for foreign intervention in Libya, less than 300 civilians had been killed by Gaddafi’s forces. However, as foreign minister, Evans supported close security cooperation with the Indonesian military during its brutal occupation of East Timor, in which over 200,000 civilians died. Furthermore, Evans denied, downplayed and covered up for a number of Indonesian atrocities and, during this time in office, was the only foreign minister in the world to formally recognize Indonesian sovereignty over that illegally occupied territory.

Evans’ blatant hypocrisy is now being used by opponents of R2P – including apologists for Gaddafi, Assad, and other tyrants – to back their contention that R2P is not an example of benign liberal internationalism, but simply an excuse for imperialist intervention.

The Incident

During the opening plenary of the conference when both Evans and I were in the audience, I thought it appropriate to ask an Egyptian speaker – who had expressed his disappointment at continued Western support for the military junta in Egypt – about perceptions in his country of Western double-standards. I prefaced my question by noting how the American and British governments were opposing the repressive regime in Syria while supporting the repressive regime in Bahrain, how Washington had called for greater democracy in Egypt while arming its autocratic military rulers, and how the principal advocate for Western intervention against the Libyan regime to stop repression under the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” had, as foreign minister of Australia, supported far greater repression by the Indonesian regime against the East Timorese.

Before I could get to the actual question, Evans shouted out, “Are you referring to me?” I answered, “Yes, actually.” “That’s crap!” he yelled. I began to explain why I thought it was a valid statement when the conference organizer asked me to proceed with my actual question, which I did.

At the end of the session and as the group in the auditorium exited for a coffee break, Evans rushed over to me and launched into his expletive-filled tirade, demanded to know who I was, ripped off my conference badge, threatened to punch me in the face, and insisted that he had in fact never supported Indonesia’s repression.

In order to diffuse a situation in which I felt physically threatened, I said, “If I misrepresented you, I apologize,” and eventually he stormed off.

In an interview about the incident with the Sydney Morning Herald two days later, he blamed me entirely for the incident, and quoting Clive of India, said, “I stand astonished at my own moderation.”

Evans’ Record

Evans claimed my assertion was “as ignorant as it was offensive.” Similarly, he later told the Sydney Morning Herald that my allegation was ”disgustingly defamatory.”

However, the record shows otherwise.

In early 1991, despite reports by Amnesty International and other human rights groups documenting the contrary, Evans had stated that East Timor’s “human rights situation has, in our judgment, conspicuously improved, particularly under the current military arrangements.” When Indonesian forces massacred 430 civilians at a funeral in the capital of Dili nine months later, Evans falsely described the mass killings as simply “an aberration, not an act of state policy.” In the face of international outrage at an Indonesian “investigation” of the tragedy which blamed the massacres on the nonviolent protesters, Evans claimed there was “no case to be supremely critical” of the regime. He insisted that the Indonesian dictatorship had “responded in a reasonable and credible way” and argued that “essentially punitive responses from the international community are not appropriate” (a very different perspective than he would later take toward non-ally Libya).

Evans was also a strong advocate of close Australian security cooperation with the Indonesian dictatorship despite its widespread mass killings of civilians, even though Evans later admitted that “many of our earlier training efforts helped only to produce more professional human rights abusers.” During the period in which Evans was foreign minister, Australia engaged in more military exercises with Indonesia than with any other country.

Perhaps Evans’ most notorious role as foreign minister was in his signing of the Timor Gap Treaty with his Australian counterpart in 1989, which gave Australia access to oil and gas reserves in the territorial waters of occupied East Timor. This “historically unique” agreement, in Evans’ words, came despite provisions in international law forbidding the exploitation of natural resources in occupied territories which fail to benefit the country’s inhabitants. Rutgers University professor Roger Clark, one of the world’s foremost authorities on international law, referred to the agreement as “the same as acquiring stuff from a thief. The fact is that they have neither historical, nor legal, nor moral claim to East Timor and its resources.”

In order to sign the treaty, Australia became the only country in the world to formally recognize Indonesia’s illegal annexation of the territory, in direct contravention of basic international legal statutes forbidding the expansion of any country’s territory by force and the legal principle than non-self-governing territories be granted the right of self-determination.

Despite no less than three UN Security Council resolutions demanding East Timor’s right to independence and an eventually successful worldwide campaign to end the occupation, Evans insisted that the Indonesian conquest was “irreversible” and declared “the sovereignty issue as effectively closed.” A few years later, when his Labour Party was in opposition, he worked hard to weaken a proposed plank in the party platform supporting an end of the occupation and the right of the East Timorese for self-determination. When Indonesia eventually conceded to international pressure to live up to its international legal obligations and offer independence to East Timor in 1999, Evans referred to it as “a fit of pique.”

Since East Timor finally became independent, much has come to light regarding the extent of the regime’s genocidal campaign against the people of that island nation, which lost one-third of its population in the course of the Australian-backed occupation. Yet Evans insists to this day that “the notion that we had anything to answer for morally or otherwise over the way we handled the Indonesia-East Timor relationship, I absolutely reject.”


Rather than come to my defense following Evans’ public outburst and threats against me, the principal organizer of the conference, Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh, faulted me for provoking Evans, asking “what else could he do?” and prevented me from explaining to the assembly the factual basis of my allegations. Similarly, the brief article in the Sydney Morning Herald regarding the incident appeared to put most of the blame on me.

Australians, then, appear to be as much in denial of their political leaders’ complicity in war crimes as are my fellow Americans. (Indeed, the U.S. role in supporting Indonesia’s occupation is as sordid as that of Australia.) And they appear to be just as contemptuous of those of us who have the temerity to expose them.

The irony is that I deeply respect much of Evans’ work, particularly those addressing peace and disarmament issues. I was so impressed with his book on the United Nations, I assigned it as a required text in some of my courses in the 1990s. However, his failure to come to terms with his shameful role in East Timor will forever be an albatross around his neck.

Evans certainly is not alone regarding his moral culpability for the horror of the Indonesian occupation. Indeed, quite a number of other prominent Australian political leaders – as well as American political leaders, including Henry Kissinger and Richard Holbrooke – have much to answer for as well. However, none have won such widespread accolades, honors, awards, and recognition as a liberal internationalist and peace advocate as Gareth Evans. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, he could get worked up into such a fit at someone publicly challenging such a positive image.

In many ways, Evans’ attack on me is but an extreme example of the contempt that Western governments and their supporters have for scholars, human rights activists, and others who raise critical questions regarding their support for occupying powers that engage in gross violations of international humanitarian law, be they Indonesia, Morocco or Israel. However, we must never succumb to such intimidation by those who seek to undermine the post-WWII international legal order and deny or justify the slaughter of innocents.

It was the tireless efforts of Australian human rights activists – along with their counterparts in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and elsewhere – who eventually shamed their governments into ending their support for Indonesia’s occupation and helped set East Timor free. However, if we do not also hold our politicians accountable for their collusion in such tragedies, there will be little to stop them from doing so again.

Military Intervention in Syria Is a Bad Idea

Although the impulse to try to end the ongoing repression by the Syrian regime against its own people through foreign military intervention is understandable, it would be a very bad idea.

Empirical studies have repeatedly demonstrated that international military interventions in cases of severe repression actually exacerbate violence in the short term and can only reduce violence in the longer term if the intervention is impartial or neutral. Other studies demonstrate that foreign military interventions actually increase the duration of civil wars, making the conflicts longer and bloodier, and the regional consequences more serious, than if there were no intervention. In addition, military intervention would likely trigger a “gloves off” mentality that would dramatically escalate the violence on both sides.

Even putting aside the recent historical record, however, virtually anyone familiar with Syrian politics and history can recognize the fallacy of such foreign support for the armed struggle.

Many nonviolent protesters have tragically been killed, as will many more. However, proportionately a far greater number of armed resisters have been killed and will continue to be killed. The question is not whether thousands will continue to die but what is the best way for the Syrian people to overthrow the hated regime, end the violence and bring democracy and social justice.

Violence vs. Nonviolence

The vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians engaged in the ongoing resistance against the regime are nonviolent. Some support the simultaneous armed struggle; some don’t. However, there is little question that the regime fears their ability to neutralize the power of the state through the power of nonviolent resistance more than it does armed groups that are attacking state power where it is strongest — through the force of arms. This is why the regime has so consistently tried to provoke the pro-democracy forces into violence. It has also claimed that the opposition was composed of terrorists and armed thugs even during the first six months of the struggle when it was almost completely nonviolent, recognizing that the Syrian people are far more likely to support a regime challenged by an armed insurgency than through a largely nonviolent civil insurrection.

Supporting the armed resistance with foreign military power would demoralize and disempower those in the nonviolent resistance who are daily risking their lives for their freedom. In addition, history has shown that those who are quickest to take up arms are least likely to support democracy after the old regime is toppled. Indeed, countries whose dictatorships are overthrown by armed groups — with their vanguard mentality, martial values and strict military hierarchy — are far more likely to turn into new dictatorships, often accompanied by ongoing violence and factionalism, than dictatorships overthrown by primarily nonviolent methods.

Some proponents of Western intervention cite the “success” of Libya as a precedent for Syria. Not only are there still serious questions regarding the necessity of armed struggle and foreign intervention in that case, Libya hardly constitutes a good model of a democratic transformation. Unlike the peaceful and relatively orderly transition to democracy going on in neighboring Tunisia, where largely nonviolent actions toppled the hated Ben Ali dictatorship in January of last year, Libya is struggling with rival-armed militias fighting each other for the spoils when they aren’t tracking down and summarily executing suspected supporters of the old regime.

Even if one wants to count Libya as a “success” for foreign intervention, however, there are important differences between the two countries:

Although Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi during his final years had largely alienated virtually every segment of Libyan society, the Syrian regime still has a strong social base. A fairly large minority of Syrians — consisting of Alawites, Christians and other minority communities, Baath Party loyalists and government employees, and the crony capitalist class that the regime has nurtured — still back the regime. There are certainly dissidents within all of these sectors. But the regime will only solidify its support in the case of foreign intervention.

The Baath Party is organized in virtually every town and neighborhood. No such organization existed under Gaddafi. Unlike Iraq’s Baath Party, which Saddam Hussein ruled with an iron fist in a matter reminiscent of Stalin’s takeover of the Soviet Communist Party, the Baath Party is far more than President Assad. It has ruled Syria for nearly 50 years. And with an ideology rooted in Arab nationalism, socialism and anti-imperialism, it could mobilize its hundreds of thousands of members to resist the foreign invaders. Hundreds have quit the party in protest of the killings of nonviolent protesters, but few defections could be expected if foreigners suddenly attacked the country.

The United States and Syria

The history of U.S. relations with Syria makes the United States a particularly inappropriate advocate for military intervention.

On the one hand, the Syrian regime has at times supported U.S. foreign policy goals in the region, such as suppressing Palestinian and leftist forces in Lebanon in the mid-to-late 1970s, contributing troops to the U.S.-led “Desert Shield” operation in 1990 following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, supporting a coup against a pro-Saddam Lebanese prime minister that same year, providing intelligence and other support against al-Qaeda and other extremists, supporting tough anti-Iraq resolutions while on the UN Security Council, and becoming a destination for “extraordinary rendition” of suspected Islamist radicals captured by the United States.

Overall, however, the U.S.-Syrian relationship has been marked by enormous hostility. The United States has backed the right-wing Israeli government in its illegal occupation and colonization of southwestern Syria, which Israel invaded in June of 1967, despite offers by the Syrian government to recognize Israel and provide security guarantees in return for a full Israeli withdrawal. Indeed, in 2007, the United States effectively blocked Israel from resuming negotiations with Syria.

U.S. Navy jets repeatedly attacked Syrian positions in Lebanon during 1983-84 and U.S. army commandoes attacked a border village in eastern Syria in 2008, killing a number of civilians. The United States imposed draconian sanctions on the country in 2003, refusing to lift them until Syria unilaterally halted development of certain kinds of weapons systems already possessed by such U.S. allies as Israel, Egypt and Turkey. A nearly unanimous bipartisan bill, which passed Congress that same year, made the ludicrous assertion that Syria represented a threat to the national security interests of the United States and that Syria would be “held accountable” for what it referred to as “hostile actions” against Americans. Passage of this bill led the late Senator Robert Byrd to warn that Congress was building a case for military action against Syria.

With this kind of history, U.S. military intervention would simply play into the hands of the regime in Damascus, which has decades of experience manipulating the Syrian people’s strong sense of nationalism to its benefit. The regime can point out that the United States is the world’s primary military supplier to the world’s remaining dictatorships, including the repressive monarchy in Bahrain, which brutally suppressed an overwhelmingly nonviolent pro-democracy struggle last year with few objections from Washington. It would not be difficult for Assad and other Syrian leaders to assert that the United States doesn’t care about democracy in Syria any more than it does about democracy elsewhere in the Middle East but is using the “promotion of democracy” as an excuse to overthrow a government that happens to oppose Washington’s hegemonic designs on the region.

The Power of Nonviolent Action

Recent history has shown that armed struggles are far less likely to be successful than nonviolent struggles, even against dictatorships, since it makes defections by security forces and government officials less likely, reduces the number of active participants in the movement, alienates potential supporters, and gives the regime the excuse to crack down even harder by portraying the opposition as “terrorists.” Indeed, empirical studies note that primarily nonviolent movements against dictatorships are more than twice as likely to succeed as armed struggles. It just doesn’t make sense for the United States or other foreign powers to throw their support to the deadlier and less effective wing of the anti-regime resistance.

The best hope for Syria is that continued protests, strikes and other forms of nonviolent resistance, combined with targeted international sanctions, will cause enough disruption that powerful economic interests and other key sectors currently allied with the Alawite-led government would force the government to negotiate with the opposition for a transfer of power to a democratic majority. Indeed, this is the scenario that eventually forced an end to another notorious minority regime, that of South Africa.

Talk of military intervention can only benefit the regime and weaken the force that is far more likely to end the tragic violence and bring forth a new democratic Syria: that of civil society and the power of nonviolent action.