Ideology or Humanity: Which Should prevail?

Riyad Ishkintna's home was destroyed, five members of his family perished. (Photo: Mahmoud Ajjour, The Palestine Chronicle)

By Jeremy Salt

After the latest onslaught on Gaza here are two of the lessons learned:

For Benny Gantz: we didn’t succeed in killing Muhammad al Deif (the head of Hamas’ military wing) this time but eventually, we will succeed. The lesson learned is that we have to try harder next time.

For Netanyahu: next time we will raise the level of violence even higher. The lesson learned is the same as Gantz’s.

At what level could this latest onslaught be called a ‘victory’ for Israel? The number of residential towers destroyed? The number of civilians killed, including babes in arms? Is this any kind of victory?

Israel’s ‘right’ to defend itself was supported by the governments that created Israel and have armed, financed and given it diplomatic protection from the beginning: the US, the UK, France, Canada, Australia, Austria, Germany and other Washington camp followers. No mention, of course, of the right of the Palestinians to defend themselves.

Children, elderly people, entire extended families and the disabled were obliterated, apartment buildings, schools, hospitals and health clinics destroyed or damaged, yet the Austrian chancellor could still fly the Israeli flag from the chancellory to show his ‘support’ for Israel.

We have heard the language of the EU High Representative to the European Parliament, Joseph Borrell, a thousand times before. “Clashes” at the Haram al-Sharif, not heavily armed Israeli forces breaking into Al Aqsa and firing stun grenades and tear gas canisters at unarmed Palestinian worshippers and demonstrators inside and around the mosque. Mr. Borrell did express his regret at the large number of civilian deaths, “be it as the result of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza or indiscriminate rocket attacks launched from Gaza.”

So Mr. Borrell, were the Israeli airstrikes on residential towers, hospitals and schools discriminate or indiscriminate? Did Israel’s F35s only hit these buildings by accident or did the pilots know exactly what they were doing? Which would be worse, in your view, and on a scale of one to 10, how would you compare Palestinian violence and destruction to Israeli violence and destruction? What percentage of one percent of Palestinian violence would be comparable to what Israel did?

As for the deliberate blurring of the casualties, Israeli missiles killed over 250 Palestinians in Gaza, 69 children among them, with a further 29 shot dead on the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Palestinian missiles killed 12 Israelis, including two children.

Mr. Borrell upholds Israel’s false right to ‘defend’ its theft of someone else’s property but not the genuine right of Palestinians to defend what will remain theirs no matter how long it is occupied. Israel’s “response” should be “proportionate” without Mr. Borrell saying what he had in mind. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? What number of Palestinian eyes and teeth would Mr. Borrell regard as “proportionate”?

The gulf between what the politicians were saying and what people were thinking was on show every day in the massive demonstrations held around the world in support of the Palestinians. Unlike the politicians, the vision of the demonstrators was not clouded by money deals, or fear, or what the US would say, or how we have to make up to the Jews for what we did to them in the past.   What they saw were the dead children.   Children that could have been anyone’s children, could have been theirs, scores of them, their lives ended in their homes by Israeli missiles.

On the other side of the fence, an Israeli child was cut down by the splinter of a rocket that penetrated the glass of an Israeli underground shelter. Not an Israeli child or a Palestinian child, just a child, a five-year-old with a solemn but sweet face, shown in the photo wearing a brown and green sweater with a large ‘Turtles’ logo sewn into the front. His Israeli family and dozens of Palestinian families are currently sunk in the deepest irretrievable grief because their children have been killed. This innocent child lived in the settlement of Sderot, built around the ruins of the village of Najd al Gaza, ethnically cleansed in 1948, so he too is a victim of the occupation.

This particular attack finally pushed Palestinians living in pre-1967 occupied Palestine over the edge. They came out in support of Gaza everywhere. They live in a state which even Human Rights Watch (HRW) has recently denounced as an apartheid state (South Africans who lived under white minority settler rule say Israeli apartheid is much worse). They are not going to go back to where they were before.

HRW is a conservative organization closely aligned with the interests and policies of the US government and it is virtually certain that its long report on Israeli apartheid was read and approved by senior officials in the State Department before being released. This should be taken as an official warning shot fired across the bow of the Israeli ship of state. The message to be read is ‘You’ve gone too far, even for us.’

Another indication of Israel’s loss of standing even in the US is the publication by the New York Times of an article calling for the return of the 1948 Palestinian refugees to their homeland as a precondition for peace.

Only a few years ago the publication of such an article would have been as unthinkable as the publication in 2008 of the Walt-Mearsheimer book on the Israeli lobby would have been a few years earlier.

The fact that their book was published in the American Jewish heartland, New York, by a prestigious mainstream publisher (Farrar, Straus Giroux) added to the significance of this event.

Well-placed (Harvard and University of Chicago) and well-regarded academics, Walt and Mearsheimer were hardly open to being dismissed as the usual wild-eyed radicals. The book was well received by reviewers but instead of responding to their criticism rationally, the lobby showered Walt and Mearsheimer with the usual knee-jerk manufactured outrage and venomous abuse.

The NYT article was written by Peter Beinart, a practicing Jew, a political conservative (former editor of The New Republic and a columnist for the Daily Beast) and a zionist who has drifted away completely from his original moorings. In supporting the right of return of Palestinians, Beinart is doing no more than calling for Palestinian rights in international law to be upheld, surely a conservative point of view from any perspective, but this is still a first in the US mainstream media.

In his opinion piece Beinart begins with the “expulsions” (ethnic cleansing) of the Palestinians 700,000 (or more) in 1948; 300,000 (or so) in 1967; 250,000 blocked from returning to the West Bank and Gaza between 1967 and 1994 because Israel revoked their residency rights (not Israel’s to revoke, it must be said); and all those whose homes in East Jerusalem have been demolished or taken by settlers protected by the state and subsidized by US Zionist organizations.

Beinart is not calling for the end of Israel but, opaquely, for a “different kind of country” in which Jews, Muslim Palestinians and Christians would live as equal citizens. His claim that “not many Jews” live in former Palestinian homes because most Palestinians homes were destroyed needs to be reversed: if most of these homes were destroyed “not many Jews” could live in them.   Of the homes that did remain, many of the best were taken over by prominent figures in the Zionist government.

Returning Palestinians would have a legal claim to the land on which those houses used to stand. They would have the same claim to much of the territory now called Israel, apart from land that was collectively the property of the close to 500 villages that were wiped from the map in 1948/9. How these issues could be possibly resolved Mr. Beinart does not even begin to suggest.

He writes that crimes of the past do not remain in the past. The aphorism might be taken as a rephrasing of Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” but for the fact that the Israelis remember the past very well. If they suppress or deny it is not because they don’t know or can’t remember but precisely because they do know and can remember, but cannot possibly admit truths that strike at the legal and moral roots of their state’s existence?

“The longer Jews deny the Nakba,” writes Mr. Beinart, “the longer our moral exile becomes … by facing it squarely and beginning a process of repair, both Jews and Palestinians, in different ways, can start to come home.”

The New Yorker followed the NYT piece with a profile of Mr. Beinart. Given his long involvement with Middle Eastern politics as a once ardent zionist, it is astonishing to learn that only in the spring of 2020, during the “pandemic stasis,” did Mr. Beinart get around to reading Edward Said and Mahmud Darwish, with Ali Abunimah’s Electronic Intifada guiding him to current events on the ground.

Mr. Beinart’s zionist detractors have accused him of opportunism. He has been turned into a hate figure in their eyes when it would be wiser to regard him as a bellwether. If he is an opportunist, he only jumped on to the crest of a wave already forming and moving closer all the time to dumping Israel.

The slide in its standing even in the US probably started in 1982, when, thanks to cable television, horrified viewers could see Israel warplanes and artillery destroying civilian life in Beirut. The Sabra and Shatila massacres, orchestrated by Ariel Sharon but carried out by Israel’s Lebanese iron guard, sent waves of cognitive dissonance rippling through the ranks of Israel’s supporters. How could the most moral army in the world be committing such atrocities? Between myth and reality, cable television forced viewers to accept what they were seeing every day with their own eyes.

In 1987 came the first intifada, children with stones against tanks, again very bad optics for Israel; in 2000 a second intifada triggered off by Ariel Sharon’s intrusion into the Haram al-Sharif. By 2008 nearly 5000 Palestinians had been killed compared to just over 1000 Israelis. In 1996, 2006, 2008, and 2014, thousands more civilians were killed during Israel’s attacks on Lebanon and Gaza. Hundreds of children were killed in each of these attacks, with the same governments justifying Israel’s recent killings in Gaza declaring their support for its right to defend itself.

Criticism of Israel in the US Congress used to be the kiss of death to a political career but not anymore. Rashida Harb Tlaib, Ilhan Omer and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez frequently make headlines but they are only the tip of a progressive lobby that is no longer frightened to speak out and demand that US aid be used to rein Israel in. Even Elizabeth Warren has joined Bernie Sanders in calling for military aid to be made conditional on its non-use in the territories occupied in the 1967 war.

Naturally, the lobby is fighting back but there are many other signs confirming the steady meltdown of support for Israel. More than 500 former Democrat Party organizers and other staffers have just sent an open letter to Biden demanding that he hold Israel accountable for the crimes committed in Gaza. Amongst evangelical Christians, previously rock-solid in their support of Israel, a recent poll showed that whereas in 2018, 75 percent of young people aged 18-29 supported Israel, only 33 percent do now.

Support for Palestinians has taken off across US campuses, while anti-BDS legislation has now been ruled as unconstitutional in five states (Kansas, Arizona, Texas, Arkansas and Georgia, where action against the legislation was initiated by Abby Martin). Other states will be encouraged to follow on.

Israel is never going to retrieve the ground it has lost. (This has to include, by the way, the ground it has lost after setting up relations with Gulf states. ‘Normalization’ can be regarded as frozen for the time being.) More than ever before, Israel is regarded as a pariah state akin to white minority South Africa, Jewish supremacist rather than white supremacist, and much worse in the violence it has inflicted on Palestinians.

It is up to Jewish Israelis to decide what they really want and to decide what should really come first on their list of priorities: humanity or ideology; respect for international law or endless violations of international law; a safe future for their children and grandchildren or an unsafe future for them; a single Jewish state across all of Palestine in which the Palestinians are second class citizens, or a single state across all of Palestine in which all citizens have equal rights, a state to which Palestinians herded out of their homeland will be able to return. The past is the past, but the future is there to be forged if Jewish Israelis can take it out of the hands of the racist ideologues – secular and religious – who have led them into this blind alley.

The zionist dream is the Palestinian nightmare and as long as the zionists seek to turn the dream into reality the Palestinian nightmare will continue. Both have to end if peace is to take their place but the dream has to come first.  What should be the priority here? Ideology or humanity? Human life or human death? Peace or endless war, until one side or the other ‘wins’ and inherits the ruins that will be left?

– Jeremy Salt taught at the University of Melbourne, at Bosporus University in Istanbul and Bilkent University in Ankara for many years, specializing in the modern history of the Middle East. Among his recent publications is his 2008 book, The Unmaking of the Middle East. A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (University of California Press). He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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