Defending Israel’s Attacks on Civilians—A Harbinger for Clinton’s Presidency?

A fight is brewing as Democrats prepare to debate U.S. policy on Israel at their national convention in July. Bernie Sanders’ appointees to the platform committee Cornel West and James Zogby plan to challenge the party establishment’s uncritical support for an increasingly aggressive, right wing Israeli government.

While the large-scale civilian casualties inflicted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in military operations in recent years have raised concerns both within Israel and internationally, Hillary Clinton—the almost-certain Democratic nominee for President—has repeatedly gone on record defending the IDF’s conduct. Not only has she failed to even once raise concerns about the thousands of civilian deaths inflicted by Israeli forces, she has been a harsh critic of human rights organizations and international jurists who have.

Going well beyond the normal “pro-Israel” rhetoric expected of American politicians, she has defended Israeli attacks on heavily-populated civilian areas as legitimate self-defense against terrorism, even in cases where the Obama administration and members of Congress—including Sanders—have raised objections.

Her statements raise serious questions as to what kind of rules of engagement she would support for U.S. forces in the “War on Terror.”

As Secretary of State, Clinton took the lead in blocking any action by the United Nations in response to a 2009 report by the UN Human Rights Council which—like previous reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other groups—documented war crimes by both Israel and Hamas.

When Israeli forces attacked a UN school housing refugees in the Gaza Strip in July 2014, killing dozens of civilians, Sanders condemned it as “terribly, terribly wrong” and the U.S. State Department issued a statement saying that it was “appalled” by the “disgraceful” shelling. By contrast, Clinton–when asked about the attack during an interview with The Atlantic–refused to criticize the massacre. She argued that since Hamas had begun the conflict by firing rockets into civilian-populated areas of Israel, the Israeli government was therefore not legally or morally culpable for killing Palestinian civilians, claiming that “the ultimate responsibility” for the deaths at the school “has to rest on Hamas and the decisions it made.”

In reality, however wrong Hamas indeed was, such actions simply do not absolve Israel of its responsibility under international humanitarian law for the far greater civilian deaths its armed forces have inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza. Indeed, it has long been a principle of Western jurisprudence that someone who is the proximate cause of a crime cannot claim innocence simply because of the influence of another party. For example, if someone starts a bar fight and the person he punches ends up shooting him and a group of innocent bystanders, the shooter cannot claim innocence because the other guy initiated the conflict.

Similarly, when asked in an interview about the nearly 1500 civilians killed by Israeli forces during the 2014 war on the Gaza Strip, Clinton insisted, “I think Israel did what it had to do to respond to Hamas rockets,” which were responsible for six civilian deaths. When, during a debate prior to the New York primary, Sanders pushed her to acknowledge that Israel used disproportionate force during that military campaign, she responded “You have a right to defend yourself,” even though Sanders was not disputing that. She insisted the civilian deaths were because of “the way that Hamas places its weapons” and that Hamas “often has its fighters in civilian garb.” However, independent human rights investigators found very few of the Palestinian civilian deaths were a result of such actions. More than 500 of the civilians killed were children and hundreds more were trapped inside buildings nowhere near Hamas military operations.

Following reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other investigators documenting war crimes committed by both Hamas and Israeli forces that summer, Clinton condemned what she referred to as “this enormous international reaction against Israel, and Israel’s right to defend itself, and the way Israel has to defend itself. This reaction is uncalled for and unfair.’”

Such a callous attitude towards civilian deaths is not new or restricted to territories controlled by Hamas. In 2002, during an Israeli military offensive in the West Bank, Amnesty International reported:

“The 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.”

In response, Sen. Clinton introduced a resolution in the Senate saying the IDF’s actions were “necessary steps to provide security to [Israel’s] people by dismantling the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian areas.”

During the 2006 Israeli military offensive in Lebanon, Human Rights Watch criticized the “systematic failure by the IDF to distinguish between combatants and civilians,” noting how “in dozens of attacks, Israeli forces struck an area with no apparent military target. In some cases, the timing and intensity of the attack, the absence of a military target, as well as return strikes on rescuers, suggest that Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians.”

Again, Clinton co-sponsored a Senate resolution unconditionally defending Israel’s conduct during the 35-day conflict, which resulted in the deaths of more than 800 Lebanese civilians. Though Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel did not commence until after Israel began its bombing campaign, Clinton responded to those expressing concerns about civilian casualties by saying, “If extremist terrorists were launching rocket attacks across the Mexican or Canadian border, would we stand by or would we defend America against these attacks from extremists?”

In attempting to justify such illegal conduct, Clinton is not just trying to appear to be “pro-Israel.” Israelis themselves, through such organizations as the human rights groups B’Tselem and the veterans group Breaking the Silence, have also been highly critical of the IDF’s attacks on non-combatants.

Clinton’s posture may be more of a reflection of her lack of respect for international humanitarian law, her apparent belief that attacking civilian-populated areas is legitimate self-defense if done in the name of fighting terrorism, and a perceived need to discredit those who say otherwise. And, since she has frequently linked Israeli and American fights against terrorism, she may be laying the groundwork as president to use the same tactics.

Having called for an escalated U.S. military response to ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Clinton as President might use a similar rationale to order massive U.S. air strikes on Mosul, Raqaa, and other Islamic State-controlled cities, regardless of civilian casualties.

That prospect is far more worrisome than a divisive platform fight over Israel at the Democratic convention in July.

Turkey’s Creeping Authoritarianism: Is the Resistance Enough?

Turkey’s march towards authoritarianism took another dangerous turn this past week with the forced resignation of moderate Islamist Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, apparently at the insistence of President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an.

Though constitutionally the Turkish prime minister wields executive authority and the president is largely a figurehead, Erdo?an—who served as prime minister for eleven years before term limits forced him to step down in 2014—appears to still be in charge.

And he is becoming ever more autocratic.

With his Justice and Development Party (AKP) controlling a sizable majority in parliament, Erdo?an has been steadily increasing his grip on power, with police raids on opposition media, the jailing of independent journalists on trumped-up charges, severe repression in Kurdish-populated areas and arrests of even moderate non-violent Kurdish leaders for alleged terrorist ties, the undermining of the independent judiciary, and the arrests of political opponents.

Though often portrayed as a struggle between autocratic Islamists and democratic secularists, the situation in Turkey is not that simple. The secular nationalist governments which ruled the Turkish Republic for most of its first eight decades were either semi-autocratic center-right plutocracies or rightwing military dictatorships, with those subsequent to World War II maintaining close strategic ties with the United States.

The election of Erdo?an and the AKP in 2003 was initially welcomed by some pro-democracy elements as a means of weakening the military’s overbearing influence, breaking up the old corrupt oligarchic order, and challenging U.S. hegemony. However, the AKP has proved itself to be at least as corrupt, oligarchical, deferential to the wealthy and powerful economic interests as the secular elites they replaced. Erdo?an’s social conservatism and Islamist rhetoric has alarmed both Western nations and educated secular Turks.

In addition, Erdo?an has cultivated a kind of cult of personality not seen in a Turkish leader since the days of founding President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Indeed, rather than resembling Iran of the ayatollahs as some initially feared, it is instead looking increasingly like the Russia of Vladimir Putin.

Just as the United States and European governments tolerated previous military dictatorships on the grounds that Turkey was a valuable NATO ally in the struggle against Communism, however, Western leaders have similarly demonstrated little inclination to challenge Erdo?an’s repression given his perceived role as an ally in the struggle against Islamist extremism.

Not that taking him on would be easy.

Erdo?an remains genuinely popular. In a manner comparable to conservative Republican leaders in the United States, he has taken advantage of the resentment of religious Turks in rural areas and poor working class communities, winning their allegiance by portraying himself as their ally against liberal secular urban elites, despite the fact that the AKP’s economic policies primarily benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor majority.

This cultural divide has been exacerbated by the often-condescending views towards AKP supporters held by educated Europeanized liberals of the country’s western cities. Many of these urbanites express nostalgia for former governments led by long-discredited corrupt secular nationalist politicians or military rulers. This has made the development of an electoral majority that can successfully challenge the AKP’s growing power extremely difficult.

The good news is that this has not stopped the people of Turkey from fighting back.

Civil society movements, stressing democracy and economic justice, are growing and becoming better organized. In 2013, the violent breakup of a nonviolent sit-in in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park protesting a planned urban development project in one of the city’s few remaining downtown green spaces spawned a mass movement demanding greater democracy, government transparency, and economic justice. Over the next several weeks, over three and a half million Turks took to the streets in more than 5,000 demonstrations across the country.

As with the Occupy! movement in the United States, the protesters were unable to sustain their momentum, but it has helped spawn important grassroots initiatives and curtailed the state’s efforts at consolidating power still further. Organized labor, feminists, environmentalists, civil libertarians, and anti-war activists have become increasingly bold in challenging government policies, as have those fighting government corruption, economic injustice, and suppression of Kurdish rights.

And just as Turkey has produced elite autocratic secularists, it has also developed progressive democratic Islamists. A group known as Antikapitalist Müslümanlar (Anti-Capitalist Muslims) has played an important role in the popular opposition, challenging the corruption, arrogance, social conservatism, and crony capitalism of the new Islamic bourgeoisie nurtured by the AKP, and instead stressing Islam’s message of social justice, respect for the environment, and honest governance.

Antikapitalist Müslümanlar have organized a series of campaigns and creative public protests challenging the AKP’s claims of representing religious Turks. During Ramadan, when the ruling party hosted an ostentatious iftar (the evening meal breaking the daylong fast) for the party’s wealthy supporters in Taksim Square, they put together a simple “people’s iftar” for thousands sitting on the pavement in a nearby pedestrian mall.

Whether such mobilizations of pro-democracy forces, both Islamic and secular, can coalesce into a large enough force to prevent Erdo?an from establishing a full-fledged dictatorship remains to be seen. The forces of reaction are gaining strength in Turkey, but so is the democratic resistance.

Berrigan’s witness to nonviolence challenged church and nation

Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan, who died at the end of April, not only challenged the conscience of the Catholic church and the nation on the dangers of militarism and the need to affirm Christ’s teachings of nonviolence, he challenged those who oppose war to engage in direct action to stop it.

He was a devout Catholic amid the largely secular anti-war left. He opposed abortion as a form of violence while most of his colleagues in the peace movement identified as “pro-choice.” He remained a priest while many of his contemporaries, including his brother Philip, left the priesthood for marriage or over doctrinal disputes. Berrigan was guided not by adherence to a particular ideology, but by a deep faith in God through the nonviolent witness of Jesus Christ.

Over the decades, I prayed with him, broke bread with him, was arrested with him, and discussed matters of politics, theology and movement-building. We did not always agree. Yet his warmth, his humor, his faith, his wisdom and his commitment always left me inspired.

His actions led him to become one of the best-known priests of the 20th century. Yet he had no desire for people to follow him. He simply wanted people to follow the Gospel.

Like many Americans, I first learned of the Berrigan brothers in 1968 when they and seven other Catholic activists entered the Selective Service office in Catonsvillle, Md., seized hundreds of draft files and, using homemade napalm similar to what was then being dropped on Vietnamese villages, burned them in the parking lot.

In a statement following the incident, the group which became known as the “Catonsville Nine” declared, “We confront the Roman Catholic church, other Christian bodies, and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crimes. We are convinced that the religious bureaucracy in this country is racist, is an accomplice in this war, and is hostile to the poor.”

Traditionally, pacifists have believed that nonviolent action should eschew damage to property. Dorothy Day, for example, thought that the Berrigans’ advocacy of property destruction and other militant tactics crossed a dangerous theological threshold.

However, the Berrigans firmly believed that some property — such as nuclear warheads and draft files — had no right to exist and it was the responsibility of pacifists to destroy them, as long as people were not harmed. Their actions were intended to shock, as the American people needed to be made aware of the enormous danger from their nation’s militarism.

While most activists of that era sentenced to prison for nonviolent resistance would turn themselves in to authorities, Berrigan and his brother, Philip, were willing to go underground, even showing up unannounced to speak at rallies and church services then disappear before they could be arrested. They became folk heroes, appearing on the cover of Time magazine and becoming the first priests to appear on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.

At the same time, they never wavered from their opposition to violence, particularly as the Weather Underground and other extremist anti-war groups began a campaign of bombing. In The Village Voice, Berrigan wrote, “The death of a single human is too heavy a price to pay for the vindication of any principle, however sacred.”

The first time I met Berrigan was in October 1973 during the Arab-Israeli War, when I was 16 years old, at a talk he gave in Washington, D.C. While many peace activists at that time would avoid the often divisive issue of Israel and Palestine, he decided to address it head on. Unlike many liberals of that era who opposed U.S. militarism but rationalized for Israeli militarism, he could not defend militarism by anybody. His analysis was blunt and he did not try to be “balanced,” but it was basically an accurate and honest assessment. In short, it was typical Dan Berrigan.

He noted how Israel was, like the United States and South Africa, “seeking a biblical justification for crimes against humanity.” He expressed his regret that “in place of Jewish prophetic vision,” Israel had launched “an Orwellian nightmare of double talk, racism, fifth-rate sociological jargon, aimed at proving its racial superiority to the people it has crushed.”

Noting the similarities of Israel’s “military-industrial complex” with that of the United States, he observed how “Israel has not freed the captives, she has expanded the prison system, perfected her espionage, exported on the world market that expensive blood-ridden commodity, the savage triumph of the technologized West, violence and the tools of violence.” He also noted that he “was very depressed by the silence of my own church about Israel.”

As with many of his words and actions, giving such a speech at that time was not very strategic, leading to widespread criticisms and misinterpretation. Similarly, his later arrests, largely focused around trespassing at nuclear weapons facilities, which at times included damaging components of warheads and missiles, led to many months in prison without much publicity or a discernible growth in the movement. However, strategic efficacy did not really matter to him. For Berrigan, it was a moral imperative. Indeed, when a reporter noted he was not getting as much attention as he had previously, he replied, “I don’t think we ever felt our conscience was tied to the other end of a TV cord.”

And yet, while some accused him of acting more out of “Catholic guilt” than on building a movement, Berrigan’s witness indeed had a profound impact. It encouraged the broader anti-war movement, which prior to Catonsville had been primarily focused on street protests, into nonviolent direct action and other forms of active resistance. It brought many young Catholics, who had been alienated by the hierarchy’s support for the Vietnam War and U.S. militarism, back into active involvement in the church. As a middle-aged priest, his actions brought greater credibility to opponents of the Vietnam War, then often portrayed as angry, young, long-haired misfits.

And he undoubtedly played a role in moving the Catholic church to a more active witness for peace and justice. The church eventually came out against the Vietnam War, renounced the legitimacy of nuclear weapons, and challenged the Israeli occupation and repression of Palestinians.

Indeed, just days before he died, the Vatican hosted a landmark meeting raising questions about the just war doctrine and examining nonviolent alternatives. Would this have even been possible were it not for such prophetic voices as Berrigan?