Steve Rosenthal: Israel’s Indefensible Actions

By Steve Rosenthal

I write this letter as a non-Zionist Jew who has been an activist against war and racism for the past 40 years. "Israel’s Quest for Peace," the letter from the Community Relations Council of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater (Free Speech, August 29), is an unfortunate attempt to defend the indefensible: Israel’s assault in Lebanon; Israel’s decades long occupation of Palestinian lands; and the U.S./Israeli aggressive wars launched under the propaganda smokescreen of the "war on terror" to control the Middle East. The letter ignores inconvenient and indisputable facts and repeatedly distorts history. The letter appeals to the same myths and falsehoods that U.S. politicians have used to manipulate us into accepting their invasion of Iraq and the horrific war crimes that have been its inevitable result. Worse still, the letter attempts to exonerate Israeli and U.S. leaders of all war crimes and crimes against humanity by invoking the morally bankrupt argument that Arabs are responsible for "forcing us to kill their children."

Did "the Arabs" force Israel to drop over 100,000 still unexploded cluster bomblets at a minimum of 359 separate sites throughout Lebanon, 90 percent of which were dropped during the last three days of the war, after the U.N. had brokered a cease fire that was about to come into effect (as reported by U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland and the BBC)? Did "the Arabs" force Israel to kill at least 30 Lebanese civilians for every Israeli civilian death (more than 1200 Lebanese and 41 Israeli civilians)? Did "the Arabs" force Israel to target ambulances ferrying wounded civilians, convoys of Lebanese civilian refugees attempting to escape the Israeli destruction of their towns and villages, U.N. observers, water pumping stations, water treatment plants, supermarkets, milk, food, and pharmaceutical factories, 25 agricultural workers loading produce onto trucks, and entire civilian neighborhoods in Beirut and other northern parts of Lebanon too far from the Lebanese/Israeli border to be launching sites for Hezbollah rockets targeting Israel? Did "the Arabs" force Israeli military leaders to declare that anyone remaining in southern Lebanon, whether sick and wheelchair-bound elderly, disabled children, those with no vehicles or no gas, or those too terrified to try to escape on already bombed out roads and bridges were all "Hezbollah terrorists" and legitimate military targets? Did "the Arabs" force Israel to bomb oil storage tanks and spill thousands of gallons of oil into the Mediterranean? Did "the Arabs" force Israel to maintain a naval blockade that prevented for weeks any attempt to clean up the worst environmental disaster ever in the Eastern Mediterranean?

Did "the Arabs" force Israeli children to write messages on missiles that Israeli troops were preparing to fire on Lebanese targets? Did "the Arabs" force well known Israeli poet Ilan Shenfeld to pen these lines exhorting Israeli troops: "March on Lebanon and also on Gaza with ploughs and salt. Destroy them to the last inhabitant … Save your people and make bombs, and rain them on villages and towns and houses till they collapse. Kill them, shed their blood, terrify their lives, lest they try again to destroy us, until we hear from tops of exploding mountains, Ridden down by your heels, sounds of supplication and lamentation. And your pits will cover them. Whoever scorns a day of bloodshed, He should be scorned. Save your people, and make war."

The Israeli armed forces carried out Shenfield’s exhortations. They dropped at least 177,000 bombs over a territory smaller than the state of Rhode Island. The result was that more than 90 percent of the still climbing Lebanese death toll was civilian, while some two thirds of the 116 Israelis killed were soldiers killed fighting in Lebanon.

Was all of this death and destruction mere collateral damage incurred because Hezbollah used the Lebanese population as "human shields?" The CRC letter’s claim that Israel was bombing sites from which Hezbollah fighters were firing rockets at Israel is unsustainable for the vast majority of the targets of Israeli strikes. As Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have pointed out, the human shields argument cannot justify mass terror directed at a civilian population and the infrastructure that sustains their survival in society. To do so is to legitimate genocidal collective punishment.

The CRC letter also makes the false claim that Lebanese Christians staunchly oppose Hezbollah. That was true in the past, but after the Israeli invasion, polls found that a large majority of Christians and every other group in Lebanon supported Hezbollah. That support grew further when Hezbollah energetically began the work of cleanup and reconstruction as soon as the ceasefire went into effect, which prompted writer and cartoonist Ted Rall to observe, tongue in cheek, that we need Hezbollah in New Orleans.

But the CRC letter is making an even more insidious accusation. It is the argument that the enemies Israel and the US face in Lebanon (and Palestine and Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran) are so evil that all methods of "self-defense" are ultimately justifiable. This claim relies upon a combination of virulent anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism and a massive and willful distortion and misrepresentation of historical facts, to which the last two-thirds of the CRC letter are devoted. I will therefore attempt to lay out a more accurate historical record.

I begin with some very recent history. This war did not take place because Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and Hamas kidnapped an Israeli soldier in Gaza. As Seymour Hersh revealed in The New Yorker, Israel had been planning this war for at least a year, had consulted closely with top U.S. officials in these plans, and was merely waiting for a suitable pretext to launch an assault. V.P. Cheney and others encouraged Israel to attack Lebanon, expecting that the anticipated destruction of Hezbollah would pave the way for a U.S. attack on Hezbollah’s supporter Iran. Prior to the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers, Israel had regularly violated Lebanese territory and air space and frequently kidnapped Lebanese citizens. Just prior to the Hamas kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, Israel had killed 20 Palestinian civilians, most of them women and children, during three attempted assassinations of Palestinian leaders in Gaza. During this same period Israel arrested more than one-quarter of the elected Palestinian Parliamentary leaders. Do you show respect for democratic elections by jailing the winners? This summer Israel has killed more than 200 Palestinians, nearly all of them civilians, in Gaza alone.

The CRC letter follows the time worn device of claiming that every Israeli military action is a response to or retaliation for something that Arabs did. According to this propaganda, Arabs always attack and are the aggressor, and Israel is always merely defending itself. It is like the kid on the playground who always declares, "He hit me first!" Mainstream U.S. news media constantly use language that conditions us to view the conflict in the Middle East this way: Israeli is always attempting to defend itself from Arab terrorist attacks. Arabs are never defending themselves from Israeli attacks. If we accept this twisted perspective, then Israel is always the good guy, the wronged party, and, even if they kill 10 or 20 or 30 times as many civilians, we must accept at face value their mantra that they never deliberately target civilians.

Unlike the authors of the CRC letter, I—as a member of Amnesty International—oppose all attacks intended to terrorize civilian populations, whether by Arab or Israeli forces, whether by armed groups such as Hezbollah or by states such as Israel or the U.S. I also oppose all political ideologies that dehumanize and demonize the targets of such attacks, including the anti-Jewish Islamic Arab nationalism of Hezbollah, the anti-Arab Zionist nationalism of the Israeli state, and the Christian American nationalism of the U.S.A. The combination of nationalism and religion is a toxic mix that is used over and over again to manipulate populations into supporting unjust wars.

Going back a few months helps us see the recent Israeli attack on Lebanon more clearly, but going back a century is necessary to see the entire picture. Zionist colonization in Palestine began after World War I, decades before the Holocaust, as the British built an imperial outpost in the recently dismantled Ottoman Empire. Israel, like the U.S., was established as a colonial settler state, created through the violent expulsion of the vast majority of the indigenous population. In 1948 the state of Israel was created on more than three-fourths of the land of Palestine. In 1967, Israel attacked its neighboring countries and seized the remaining part of Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza), as well as the Egyptian Sinai and the Syrian and Lebanese Golan Heights.

U.N. Resolution 242 called upon Israel to return the territories it occupied in 1967 and accept the creation of a Palestinian state in those territories, in exchange for peace with its neighbors. But Israel and the U.S. have rejected U.N. 242 and pursued a path of aggression and expansion since 1967. Since then the U.S. and Israel have slandered the memory of the Holocaust by transforming it into a weapon to brand any criticism of Israel – and any criticism of unconditional U.S. support for Israel – as anti-Semitism. Here is a current example that attests to this practice: The leading Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that the head of Germany’s Jewish community, Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Central Council of German Jews, accused a minister in Angela Merkel’s German government of "anti-Semitism" because the minister, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, had asked for a United Nations probe into Israel’s use of cluster bombs in civilian areas of Lebanon.

The U.S. fully embraced Israel in 1967 as its "cop on the beat," as President Nixon put it. Rushing advanced weapons to Israel during the recent war in Lebanon was nothing new. The U.S. has granted Israel more than one hundred billion dollars of military assistance since 1967. It has pledged to guarantee Israel a decisive military advantage over any combination of neighboring Arab states. The U.S. has looked the other way while Israel developed the fifth largest nuclear arsenal in the world, in defiance of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and U.S. laws which prohibit states receiving U.S. military aid from developing nuclear weapons. The U.S. has provided Israel, a state with six million people, more foreign assistance than all of Africa and Latin America, with nearly one billion people. The U.S. has allowed Israel to construct illegal permanent settlements for over 400,000 Israelis in the occupied West Bank, to monopolize scarce water resources, to demolish Palestinian houses and olive orchards, to build Israeli-only roads slicing up Palestinian areas, and to take over the Jordan River valley, reducing Palestinians to living in what most people around the world compare to Indian reservations or South African apartheid-style Bantustans.

Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, killing an estimated 20,000 Lebanese, cultivating right-wing Maronite Christian allies in order to instigate a devastating sectarian civil war. Under the command of Ariel Sharon, Israel surrounded the perimeter of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps near Beirut and watched as its Lebanese allies massacred nearly two thousand Palestinians. Israel remained as an occupying force in southern Lebanon until it withdrew in 2000. In that same year, at the end of a lengthy "peace process," Israel and the U.S. offered the Palestinians a deal which would have legalized and made permanent these increasingly oppressive and unjust conditions, but Arafat and the Palestinians rejected this so-called "generous" offer.

Since then, Israel has—with full U.S. backing—made the establishment of a viable Palestinian state impossible. It has now undertaken to transform the West Bank and Gaza into walled prisons. It is building a wall inside the West Bank to annex the Israeli settlements as a permanent part of Israel, cutting tens of thousands of Palestinians off from their farms, jobs, schools, health clinics, and family members. It has destroyed the only power plant in Gaza and regularly launches military assaults in both Gaza and the West Bank, with the same result of high civilian casualties as in Lebanon.

Why has the U.S. supported Israeli occupation and repression of Palestinians and aggression against neighboring states? Some have argued that the "Israeli Lobby" has hijacked U.S. policy in the Middle East, but this explanation is false, scapegoats Jews, exonerates U.S. leaders and their imperialistic goals in the Middle East, and overlooks the fact that U.S. policies in the Middle East are scarcely different from U.S. policies throughout the rest of the world. Moreover, the great majority of ardent Zionist supporters in the U.S. are not Jews but right wing Christian fundamentalists, whose religious beliefs are manipulated to gain their support for U.S./Israeli aggression. The Israeli tail does not wag the U.S. dog. Israel carries out tasks that serve the economic, political, and military interests of U.S. corporate and political elites. Israel helps shore up anti-democratic rulers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan who suppress their own people while collaborating with the U.S. Israel provides weapons and training to pariah regimes that the U.S. wants to support, allowing the U.S. to pretend to object to those outlaw governments. Israel’s attack on Hezbollah is just the latest act of aggression that the U.S. out-sourced to willing and eager Israeli leaders.

I stand with Amira Haas and Uri Avnery and thousands of other Israeli Jews who spoke out and marched in Israel against the invasion of Lebanon. I stand with Jews in New York, San Francisco, and other cities who publicly demonstrated against the invasion. I stand with more than 1,000 U.S. Jews who have signed a petition that includes the following insights: "There is no Jewish safety in allowing the history of Jewish persecution to be leveraged in support of U.S. political and economic interests as these entail amassing funding for Israel’s military industry. Finally, there is no Jewish safety, nor Jewish claims to justice, reason, or equity, beyond Jewish commitment to the unconditional safety and liberation of the peoples of Palestine, Lebanon and the other Arab and Muslim countries currently under assault by Israel, the U.S. and its allies."

At this point in history, Israeli Jews and Americans Jews—and all Israelis and all Americans—have something new in common. We both have governments that launched aggressive wars on false pretexts and wasted the lives of thousands of people. We both must speak out or be dragged by our governments into even bigger and more deadly wars, which do not make us more secure and safe. We both must recognize that terrorists will be defeated not by deploying greater terror ourselves, but by embracing policies and values that enable people of all nationalities and religions to live together in equality.

-This article was first published by Port Folio Weekly of Norfolk, VA; reprinted with permission. 

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