[Prefatory Note: The post below is a stylistically modified version of my conversation with independent journalist Daniel Falcone, which was published online in CounterPunch on July 21, 2023 under the title Collective Forgetting and the Politics of the West Bank. It tries to clarify the focus on Israel’s intensified repression concentrated on the West Bank since the Netanyahu coalition government took control. While the media focus has been focused on ‘the judiciary overhaul’ confrontation between antagonistic Jewish factions as to the ‘democratic’ character of Israel, the unifying themes in apartheid Israel remain the further marginalization of the Palestinians in their own. Homeland and matters of internal and national security. The Biden response is to act as if the only crisis worth addressing is that of Jew against Jew with regard to the contested issue of judicial reform, which if resolved consensually, will permit the U.S. and rightest autocrats to reaffirm ‘shared values’ and ‘common strategic interests.’ A related question not directly covered in our dialogue is to ask is why the UN is so quiet about these disturbing developments, especially ignoring the obvious applicability of the legal norm of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) even as a prolonged Israeli occupation daily defies international law and the UN Charter, subjecting Palestinians to a deprivation of their basic rights in a period that has last for over a half century.]
- With much of the Mideast in terms of current affairs, the reporting on human rights and the plight of Palestinians is usually geared towards a coverage of Gaza, Jerusalem and Israel proper. Could you provide a brief history of the West Bank and the significance of this landlocked occupied territory? In your estimation, is the region overlooked?
You raise an important, indeed a vital question, by wondering why until quite recently the media focus on human rights issues, weak as it has been with respect to Israel overall, has mainly given attention to events involving Gaza and East Jerusalem, while indirectly fostering an impression of virtual normalcy on the West Bank. I think a partial answer has to do with the relationship of these three Palestinian territories occupied since the 1967 War to the policy priorities of the Zionist agenda. In effect, East Jerusalem was extinguished as a separate international political entity shortly after a ceasefire was negotiated in 1967. Israel quickly moved to enlarge the spatial limits of Jerusalem, declared the unified, enlarged city as the eternal capital not only of Israel but of the Jewish people, and has so administered the city ever since. This unilateral move in violation of the ceasefire diplomacy was repudiated in the UN General Assembly and Security Council by large majorities of UN members but was never further challenged at the Security Council (because of the U.S. veto) or the World Court (International Court of Justice). Jerusalem as capital of Israel became the operative reality for the country, but not for most governments in the world, including surprisingly even many NATO .members who continued to believe that peace could be found if Palestinian statehood was agreed upon with East Jerusalem as capital.
When the Trump White House in 2017 broke ranks and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced its intention to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem the GA reacted, condemning the proposed U.S. diplomatic departure from the UN consensus as ‘null and void’ by a. vote of 128-9 (35 abstentions; 21 absences) [GA ES-10/10/29, Dec. 21, 2017; shortly before, the Security Council supported a similar position by 14-1, but the U.S. blocked action by casting its veto]. The embassy was moved and as always, no adverse effects for Israel followed this defiance of International Law and UN authority. When Biden took over the U.S. presidency in 2021 he did nothing to modify or even moderate Trump’s extremely one-sided approach that exceeded prior forms of U.S. pro-Israeli partisanship, including that of Biden’s Democratic Party predecessor, Barack Obama. This Biden behavior is a strong confirmation that bipartisanship persists when it comes to Israel, despite the overall political mood, which is one of polarization. By so acting Biden tends to disregard even the most Trump-supported Israeli disruptive departures from the UN consensus and the requirements of international law. Yet unlike Trump Biden lamely reiterated the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution totally overlooking how much Israel’s dailly actions were making such a politically negotiated outcome almost impossible to imagine, This gave the continuing advocacy of the two-state approach an increasingly zombie-like quality, and. made Biden appear naïve or muddled, and Trump at least forthright and consistent..
The UN as an Organization, never formally accepted, nor did it meaningfully challenge, this outcome of de facto revisions of the Security Council 242 unanimous decision calling for Israeli withdrawal from all Palestinian territories occupied during the war and a just settlement of the refugee controversy, Successive UN Special Rapporteurs on Israeli violations of international law in the OPT continued to treat Israel as an Occupying State in East Jerusalem with full responsibility to uphold international humanitarian law as set forth in the 4th Geneva Convention on Belligerent Occupation. These well-evidenced charges angered Israel to the point of ending any semblance of cooperation with the UN, a move that ran counter to its treaty obligations as a UN Member to cooperate in the discharge of activity authorized by UN procedures. It needs to be recalled that the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) was understood as a temporary interlude, prefiguring the territorial boundaries of an independent Palestine state that was widely, and at first, genuinely believed to be the indispensable and realizable precondition for an Israeli/Palestine durable peace, with East Jerusalem serving as the capital of. Palestine.
With respect to Gaza, although the same OPT designation as used for East Jerusalem and the West Bank was adopted at the UN after the 1967 War, its relationship to Israel and Zionism, or to the UN/US image of a peace process, was quite different than either that of East Jerusalem or the West Bank, which is explained by the fact that under most readings of the. Zionist Project Gaza is not included in standard conceptions of the permanent territorial delimitation of the Jewish supremist state. According to Jewish tradition the biblically specified Jewish entitlement in Palestine did not include Gaza, which was not part of the Jewish imaginary of ‘the promised land.’.
Israel did occupy Gaza for many years after 1967, and even established a number of unlawful settlements in the coastal region of the Strip, Nevertheless, Gaza was never a. territorial priority for Israel, which explains the adoption and relative uncontroversial implementation of Ariel Sharon’s 2005 ‘disengagement plan’ calling for the withdrawal of Israeli troops and the dismantling of the settlements. From a UN/international standpoint, Israel’s plan of disengagement had no legal effect on Israel’s continuing responsibilities of Israel as an Occupying Power regarding the administration of the Gaza Strip, In terms of the modalities of Israeli control, disengagement amounted to little more than a redeployment of IDF occupying troops on the Israeli side of the Gaza borders reinforced by a variety of miliary penetrations ranging from overflights emitting terrifying sonic booms to massive incursions with advanced weaponry.
Until very recently Gaza seemed mainly an economic and security burden for Israel, accentuated as previously mentioned that it was seldom included among Zionist territorial objectives and besides was thought of as a difficult demographic pill for Israel to swallow given its civilian population of 2.1 million, with about two-thirds living as refugees in camps, mainly families descended from those dispossessed by the Nakba in 1948. In addition, Gazans did not endure their fate passively. Gaza has long been a thorn in Israel’s side, being the site of several radical forms of Palestinian resistance, including both the intifadas of 1987 and 2000, militant forms of resistance, The Great March of Return (March 2017-December 2019), and the heartland of Hamas. In 2006 Hamas was partly enticed by Washington to abandon armed struggle and participate in the 2006 Gaza elections, being assured that this was a way of moving toward ‘peace’ or at least ‘peaceful co-existence,’ which Hamas leaders were proposing during this period. Despite this background, the Hamas electoral victory defied Washington’s expectations and came as a shock. It also produced a harsh Israeli response awkwardly supported by the U.S., leading to the imposition of a comprehensive punitive blockade that has remained in force since 2007, periodic large-scale military incursions causing much devastation and serving as a show case for new Israeli weapons and counterinsurgency tactics, the scene of frequent targeted assassinations, and a deterrent warning to Arab neighbors and Iran to avoid provoking Israel or expect punishing military attacks as directed at Syria and Lebanon over the years..
When it comes to Israel proper, the settler colonial discourse is relevant and has been more recently relied upon to explain the. history of the struggle through the optic of the Palestinian narrative, featuring an apartheid regime of ethnic control and repression. Palestinians are effectively marginalized within Israel, currently threatened by the prospect of a single Jewish supremist state that incorporates the entire OPT, plus or minus Gaza, and enjoys legal status in Israel by virtue of the Basic Law adopted in 2018.. The only internal obstacle to carrying out this maximalist version of the Zionist Project seems to be the resistance mounted in the West Bank, typified by the deep attachment of the residents to what they feel and understandably believe to be their homeland. The interplay of. oppressive rule and tragic circumstances, given meaning and dignity by Palestinian sumud or steadfastness, and expressed by the common extreme sayings popular among WB residents: “If we had the chance we would choose death over living under occupation” or “living from lack of death.” This situation is made more acute by the absence of proper Palestinian representation in international and domestic venues, exemplified by the collaborationist Palestinian Authority and the fragmentation of Palestinian unity arising from bitter ongoing tensions between the PA and Hamas.
Given the extremist government in Israel since the beginning of 2023, this shift in attention. to the West Bank seemed inevitable. Netanyahu’s coalition government has given a green light to settler violence and extremist strivings, apparently to bring an end to the conflict through tactics of state-endorsed terror, ethnic cleansing, dispossession, settlement expansion, and total demoralization of West Bank Palestinian communities. It represents the last desperate stage of settler colonialism in which the objective is to totally subdue and marginalize the resisting native population., In some historical instances of settler colonialism the people of the land are virtually eliminated as an oppositional presence (U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand). It is also widely believed by settler communities if they do not win by such a replacement logic, they lose as in South Africa or Algeria.
- 2. How would you gauge and evaluate the international responses to the West Bank and the human rights abuses that take place there in terms of the following two areas: 1) political and legal institutions and 2) the press coverage around the world?
We should not believe that the period before the recent Israeli government took over was free from systemic and severe human rights abuses by Israel in its role as Occupying Power of the West Bank. The issues of excessive force, unlawful settlements, house demolitions, internal mobility restrictions, collective punishments, de facto annexation, separation wall, apartheid were all present ever since the occupation commenced in 1967, and each represented serious violations of international law. At the same time, the extremists in the present Israeli government have scaled up the intensity, overtness, and blunt and defiant racism of preexisting Israel’s repressive policies and practices. To the extent that the Israeli government has responded to international criticism it has either claimed ‘security’ or ‘counterterrorist’ justifications, accompanied by a bright shining green light of hands-off approval to settler violence no matter how vicious and overt, as with the. genocidal burning of the Palestinian Village of Harawa on February 26, 2023. The attack on the Jenin refugee camp for several days in early July was a horror show for the people on the that was given scant international media coverage, given the magnitude and indiscriminate character of the Israeli violence. Such displays of excessive force flagrantly violates the duties of an Occupying Power under international humanitarian law, and has led recent UN Special Rapporteurs to declare Israel’s continued status as an authorized Occupying Power under the 4th Geneva Convention at an end.
In effect, political and legal institutions in Israel have given their approval to these settler outbursts, which can only be seen as an attempt to make the West Bank unlivable for Palestinians, and thus should be interpreted as a campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’ of a people long held captive in their own homeland. The use of the IDF to mount a major military operation, involving death and devastation, against the refugee camp in Jenin was a further indication that Israeli settlers were not lone wolf predators, but part of a public/private campaign to complete the Zionist Project by imposing Israel’s rule over the whole of Occupied Palestine except for Gaza, that is, a single supremist and exclusivist Israel state of the Jewish people, containing as few Palestinians as possible. There is also renewed talk among this new brand of Israeli leadership favoring the reoccupation and resettlement of Gaza, possibly reflecting partly the extension of expansionist goals beyond the promised land and partly the realization that being situated next to Egypt and the scene of recently discovered offshore natural gas fields gives Gaza a previously unappreciated strategic importance.
The main media coverage has focused on the violent events, and in the West given a typically misleading ‘both sides’ treatment of the issue of responsibility, blaming the Palestinians, especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad, for an upsurge of terrorist incidents while mildy criticizing Israel for over-reacting by entrusting the shaping of its security policies to such leading extremist figures as Itamar Ben-Gvir, currently the Minister of National Security. There is very little interpretative assessment to be found on the main media platforms as to why this Israeli intensification of West Bankl violence is currentlly occurring, and thus little public understanding of what underlies this new stage of Israel/Palestine confrontational politics. It requires heeding a Zionist ideologue such as Tom Friedman of the NY Times to give a cynical realist account that makes overt what had long been common knowledge among independent commentators and UN diplomats that Palestinian statehood was never intended to become a reality but was useful only because it served Israel and the U.S. as ‘a shared fiction.’ [July 11, 2023], and amazingly, despite its implausibility, still does. The two-state mantra has served all along as the cynical keynote of the beguiling charade called ‘a peace process’ in which Washington has long helped Israeli leaders manage off-stage, a demeaning story well-documented by Rashid Khalidi in his pre-Trump Brokers of Deceit (2013). In truth, Trump’s value added for Israel was to end the deceitful core of Washington’s ‘honest broker’ posture and bring U.S. policies into the bright sunlight of undisguised partisanship. In a new twist, Friedman proposes an opportunistic revival of two-statism as still the most viable path to a sustainable peace, better for Israel and the U.S. than the present Netanyahu’s push for one-statism. In Friedman’s words, “it is vital that Biden urgently take steps to re-energize the possibility of a two-state solution and give it at least some concrete diplomatic manifestation on the ground.” [NYT, May 25, 2023.]
Put differently, the media coverage gives some attention to the trees (the violence), but seems mindless about the fate of the forest (the underlying scheme). The West Bank strength of Palestinian sumud is an extraordinary display of resolve to remain attached to land and place. It is the background of the mounting Palestinian resistance to Israel’s effort to appropriate the land, olive orchards, and traditions of a rooted people. The present Israeli government conceives of this struggle to achieve supremacy in the West Bank as the overdue last act in a suspenseful political drama that has unnecessarily lasted so long in a wasteful effort to appease world opinion and satisfy allies.
While most of the. world, including the NATO West, is distracted by Ukraine and the challenges of climate change, this Netanyahu government apparently is seizing an opportunity to achieve two hard-right victories (away from constitutional democracy, and crushing Palestinian resistance). In this unfolding situation, the Palestinians rally to stay engaged in a struggle that they remained determined to win eventually, having the flow of anti-colonial history, as well as law and morality on their side. Israel, in contrast, seems caught between a final fulfillment of the Zionist dream and a fear that its house of cards may collapse as happened elsewhere, especially in South Africa. In these circumstances Netanyahu’s Israel is trying to impose an anti-democratic judicial overhaul of the Israel state to remove obstructions to institutionalizing autocratic populism that is pitting Jew against Jew in Israel in a deep struggle of marginal significance to Palestinian aspirations. Yet it keeps American leaders awake because the Jewish veneer of democracy is vanishing before their eyes and with it the credibility of the claim of ‘shared values’ and ‘shared interests,’ used to validate the continued large annual appropriations of U.S. taxpayer funds as well as the official posture of seeing no evil. Although the U.S. Congress seems undaunted and as blindfolded as ever backing a resolution of continuing unconditional support for Israel by a vote of 412-9 on July 18th, that is after weeks of the judiciary overhaul protests and the brutal attack with drones and hundreds of troops on the densely inhabited Jenin refugee camp, cutting electricity and water, and ripping up many of the camp’s roads with bulldozers.
- 3. The US-backed recent attack on the Jenin refugee camp on July 4, 2023 saw thousands fleeing for safety for those lucky enough to survive. One feature of the violence is the profound effect it’s having on women and children in the region and the society. Can you describe how the Israeli policies exist within a framework of sexism and childism as well as classism and racism?
You pose very deep questions about this reality, climaxing recently, at Jenin. From the Israeli point of view, the most vulnerable among the Palestinians have been victimized throughout the prolonged occupation. Partly this reflects the fact that children often were the most visible and innocent of resistors, imprudently throwing their symbolic stones at their high tech Israeli military oppressors, and thus encountering the security apparatus most directly and disturbingly, with a recent World Bank survey finding that as many as 58% of Palestinian children living under occupation are suffering from mental disorders of depression and PYSD.[Haaretz, July 16, 2023] This all takes place in the context of a pervasive repressive social structure that encompasses class, race, religion, and gender hierarchical distinctions, and what amounts to the Orientalist erasure of the Palestinian people. It is notable that in the principal rendition of Friedman’s recalibration of support for Israel, in effect, letting Israel be Israel without liberal softeners, there is not a word of empathy for the Palestinian ordeal or even the now acknowledged fiction of seeking a political compromise that turns out to have been all along a cruel, prolonged instance of ‘fake diplomacy.’ [See Philip Weiss, “’Apartheid’ Says Tom Friedman, Mondoweiss, July 15, 2023]
4) With the reemergence of Elliott Abrams, can you comment on the path forward for the Biden Administration and talk about how the recent attacks move us further away from roadmaps to achieving peace in the West Bank?
It has become clear that when it comes to human rights the Biden presidency is tone deaf, self-righteously condemning rivals for their violations while using its diplomatic leverage to. shield Israel and others from justified criticism, double standards writ large equates with moral hypocrisy. The appointment of Elliott Abrams to the U.S Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy should appall what’s left of the liberal conscience. [See Sarah Jones, Why is the Biden Administration Rewarding Elliott Abrams? Foreign Policy, July 6, 2023] It is well known that Abrams, as Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, knowingly fashioning a partial coverup of the El Mazote 1981 massacre of over 1,000 left civilian opponents of the repressive government, by a U.S. trained death squad in El Salvador. In subsequent roles, Abrams has been unconditional supporter of Israel over the years backing its most controversial behavior and castigating critics. [Detailed critiques of Abrams’ career see Eric Alterman, “Confirmed: Elliott Abrams Defense of Murder Was Based on Lies,” The Nation, June 30, 2020] To select someone with Abrams’ record relative to human rights as a high-profile consultant on diplomatic policy is to drop the veil of liberal innocence altogether. It is, perhaps, a further indication that Friedman’s shift to ‘fake diplomacy’ is part of a broader revisioning of American political identity, although it makes even emptier Biden’s already vapid championship of an alliance of democracies.
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