Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2006, pages 7-9

Special Report

As Iraq Moves Toward Theocracy, U.S. Squelches Democracy in Palestine

By Rachelle Marshall

Once we had one Saddam and we knew who to be afraid of. Now we have at least 25 to fear.—Iraqi playwright complaining of intimidation by religious factions, quoted in San Francisco Chronicle, April 30, 2006. 

It is like a war, but even worse, because people do not understand why the situation is so bad.—Dr. Anan Masri, describing the effects of U.S. sanctions against Hamas on health care in the West Bank and Gaza, quoted in San Francisco Chronicle, May 7, 2006.

At a May 20 meeting of Iraq’s National Assembly in Baghdad, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad (l) greets Shi’i leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim (r) as Gen. George Casey, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, looks on (AFP Photo/Pool/Ceerwan Aziz).

WITHIN HOURS after the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Israeli leaders declared that Israel and America faced a common enemy and were now partners in the war on terror. The 9/11 hijackers were Islamic militants angry at the United States, but Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lost no time identifying them with Palestinians resisting Israeli occupation. They were all “terrorists.”

President George W. Bush reinforced the partnership with Israel by immediately adding the anti-occupation forces of Hezbollah and Hamas to a list of terrorist groups. Instead of pursuing al-Qaeda, the organization responsible for the 9/11 attack, Bush sent troops to Afghanistan to oust the Taliban government, and followed up by invading Iraq. The Iraqis had no connection to 9/11; Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain was a secularist who regarded militant Muslims as a threat to his rule.

With the world’s attention focused on Iraq, Israel proceeded to take over more Palestinian land and impose crueler restrictions on the Palestinian people. The “war on terrorism” that Sharon and Bush were trumpeting turned out to be a cover for the two leaders to pursue their own long-held goals. For Bush and the neocons around him it was a means of replacing existing Arab regimes with more compliant rulers, and establishing permanent U.S. bases in the oil-rich Gulf region. For Sharon it meant a free hand to crush Palestinian resistance.

The two allies failed to achieve their objectives, but with overwhelming military power and a psychopathic disregard for human suffering, they were able to make life immeasurably worse for millions of Iraqis and Palestinians. Palestinians have been reduced to destitution, their government unable to provide even basic services. No Iraqi today is safe from violence—either from the occupation forces, or from private militias acting as death squads.

Not surprisingly, hostility to America is greater than at any time in history. Political historian Tony Judt commented in The New York Times recently that, “American influence in that part of the world now rests almost exclusively on our power to make war; which means in the end that it is no influence at all.”

Three reporters who have spent considerable time in Iraq, Anne Garrels of National Public Radio, George Packer of The New Yorker, and Dexter Filkins of The New York Times, recently spoke at Stanford University and described the situation in Iraq as chaotic, dangerous, and getting worse. The Times employs a 35-member armed militia to guard its staff, and NPR provides reporters with armored vehicles costing $75,000 apiece—but despite such protection, the correspondents said, it was still too dangerous to cover all the news.

All three speakers referred to the Bush administration’s portrayal of the situation in Iraq as “delusional.” It is a word that accurately describes Condoleezza Rice’s statement to a group of Iraqi reporters when she visited Baghdad in late April. Iraq is now “a tremendous pillar of stability throughout the Middle East,” Rice told the journalists. “Differences are being overcome by politics and compromise, not by violence and not by repression.”

In fact, the Iraq Rice described is no more real than the “mushroom cloud” she warned of before the U.S. invasion. The number of killings in Baghdad has doubled since last year. An internal U.S. Embassy study in early April found that only three provinces in Iraq—all of them Kurdish—can be considered “stable.” At least 15 provinces are without fully functioning governments or economic development, and are “marked by routine violence, assassinations and extremism.” The city of Basra is now a mini-theocracy, according to the report, where militiamen enforce a ban on alcohol and women are required to wear headscarves. In the city of Mosul, inter-ethnic violence between Kurds and Arabs is continuing.

At least 2,500 civilians and 76 U.S. soldiers were killed in April, the highest number in five months. Sectarian violence, U.S. military operations, and fear of uniformed death squads have created large numbers of internal refugees. Iraqi officials estimate that as many as half a million people have been driven from their homes. A poll in late March by the International Republican Institute found that two-thirds of Iraqis believe security is deteriorating. Only 1 percent said they trusted U.S.-led coalition forces for their protection.

On April 22, after three months of prodding by Rice and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the Iraqi parliament finally agreed on a prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, but as of mid-May negotiations were still taking place over the allocation of cabinet posts. The Shi’i alliance that holds the largest number of seats in parliament was due to control most of the ministries, with its leading member, fundamentalist Shi’i cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, certain to have a powerful influence in the new government.

Al-Sadr’s party already controls the health and transportation ministries, and he has asked for the ministries of education, youth, commerce, agriculture and electricity as well. These offices not only would give al-Sadr power over the daily lives and habits of the Iraq people, but provide him with a rich source of patronage. Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army already controls parts of Baghdad, Basra and other cities.

A Glaring Inconsistency

The situation in Iraq shows up the glaring inconsistency of U.S. Middle East policy. In Iraq the United States is helping to prop up a government that is moving toward becoming an Islamic theocracy. Its members squabble among themselves for control of patronage-rich ministries but fail to restore basic services. At the same time, Washington is helping to undermine a democratically elected government in Palestine that has pledged to uphold religious freedom and has a record of providing social services honestly and efficiently.

The Hamas party that won a majority in the Palestinian parliament is being treated as an outlaw because it refuses to recognize the state that is occupying and colonizing Palestinian land. Instead of trying to dominate the Palestinian Authority, Hamas tried to appoint a widely representative cabinet, only to be rebuffed by the opposition party Fatah. Hamas also has agreed to take part with other Palestinian parties in discussions of a national political platform, scheduled to begin in late May. Despite Israel’s continued arrests and assassinations of Hamas leaders, the party has maintained a cease-fire since December 2004 and is offering to extend it indefinitely if Israel withdraws to its 1967 borders.

Instead of respecting the Palestinians’ choice of leaders, the United States and the European Union are punishing them by cutting off all aid to the Palestinian Authority. Israel has used sporadic rocket attacks by Islamic Jihad as an excuse to escalate a war on Gaza that began as soon as the Jewish settlers moved out last September. Israeli cannon, tanks, warships, helicopters and drones fire hundreds of rounds a day into one of the poorest and most densely populated places in the world. By the end of April Israeli attacks had killed at least 175 Palestinians, many of them children, and the carnage was continuing.

By cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority, the Europeans and the United States are collaborating with Israel in a form of genocide. As Bruce Flann pointed out in a letter to this magazine (see May/June Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, p. 6), Article 2 of U.N. Resolution 260 describes as an act of genocide: “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Depriving an entire population of food, medicine, and protection against the spread of disease surely fits this description.

The denial of funds is all the more damaging because of a process that began soon after Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. The Israelis made sure the Palestinian economy would be entirely dependent on Israel by forbidding Palestinians to establish banks or other credit institutions, build factories, or control their own water. Israeli companies sold government-subsidized fruits and vegetables at prices that undercut Palestinian farmers, and Israeli border restrictions and delays caused Palestinian produce to rot before it could be exported. Tens of thousands of Palestinians took jobs in Israel in order to survive.

After the first intifada began in 1987, Israel punished the Palestinians with curfews and border closings that threw thousands of Palestinians out of work. In recent years the borders have been shut down almost entirely, forcing the Palestinian Authority to rely on $1.6 billion in aid from the Europeans each year plus the $55 million a month that Israel collects in taxes from the Palestinians. The Europeans halted their aid in response to Hamas’ election victory, and Israel stopped returning Palestinian revenues. As a result, by mid-May 165,000 nurses, doctors, teachers, civil servants and police had not been paid for three months, and according to the World Bank two-thirds of the population was living below poverty level.

The Bush administration is making sure there will be no relief. Arab nations and Iran stand ready to send at least $70 million to the Palestinians, but a ruling by the U.S. Treasury on April 12 bars all financial transactions with the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. Foreign banks are reluctant to defy the ban because any person or organization that transmits money to Hamas risks prosecution by the United States for aiding terrorists. George Abed, governor of the Palestinian Monetary Authority, explained that banks can’t afford to be cut off from international transactions: “If you are a bank, and you shut yourself out of the United States and Europe, what are you going to do—conduct all your transactions in rupees?”

Hardest hit by the ruling are sick and injured Palestinians. Reports from doctors and health officials in Gaza and the West Bank are almost identical to those coming out of pre-invasion Iraq, where U.N. sanctions caused severe shortages of medical supplies and more than half a million children died of diseases caused by lack of sanitation. Dr. Anan Masri, the Palestinian Authority’s deputy minister of health, said hospital supplies for dialysis treatment and the treatment of other life-threatening illnesses were running so low that many patients who could have been saved were dying. Hospitals are also running out of medicines, sterile dressings, and even anesthetics.

Under pressure from the Europeans, the Bush administration has agreed to allow some funds to go to the Palestinians, but only if the money bypasses the Palestinian government. The United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations issued a foggily worded declaration on May 9 calling for “a temporary international mechanism that is limited in scope and duration, operates with full transparency and accountability and ensures direct delivery of any assistance to the Palestinian people.” None of the aid would go to government salaries.

According to David Shearer, head of the U.N. Office for Humanitarian Affairs, nongovernmental aid organizations are able to provide only temporary and piecemeal help. Efforts to duplicate services of the Palestinian Authority, he said, would be “less effective, less coordinated, and cost more money.” Dr. Maged Abu-Ramadam, mayor of Gaza City, warns that lack of government funding will cause the breakdown of the entire health care system, including garbage collection and sanitation and sewer systems, and raise the threat of cholera and other diseases.

As Palestinians struggle to survive from day to day, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is pursuing his plan to seal them off inside separate bantustans surrounded by a wall twice as high and three times as long as the Berlin Wall. The recently formed governing coalition, which includes Labor, is certain to go along with these plans. Labor party leader Amir Peretz has pledged to improve conditions for the poor and the elderly, but he is expected to back Olmert’s plans for setting Israel’s borders. Peretz’s agreement to serve as minister of defense virtually assures his support.

Peace negotiations are not on the new Israeli government’s agenda. Hamas’ charter calls for a Muslim state in all of Palestine, but Hamas leaders point out that the charter is not the Qur’an, and say they would agree to a de facto peace if Israel withdraws to its 1967 borders. This is a solution Israeli political leaders totally reject. In the recent parliamentary election the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party received more votes than Likud, and is now one of Israel’s major parties. Its head, Russian-born Avigdor Lieberman, favors ridding Israel entirely of Palestinians and has proposed that Arab members of the Knesset who met with Hamas leaders be tried for treason and executed.

Yet compared to many Israelis he is no extremist. UCLA Professor Saree Makdisi maintains that Lieberman is “no more racist than mainstream politicians such as Ehud Olmert.” In a recent column in the San Francisco Chronicle she quoted Israeli journalist Gideon Levy as saying, “Lieberman wants to distance [Palestinians] from our borders, Olmert and his ilk want to distance them from our consciousness.”

From the beginning, Israeli leaders have tried to erase the Palestinians’ national identity. Israel and the United States are now trying to divide them by ostracizing the Hamas government while maintaining contact with President Mahmoud Abbas. This has not worked. Fatah and Hamas security forces clashed several times in Gaza in early May, but now have agreed to work together to end internal violence. Nevertheless, if thousands of government workers continue to go unpaid and Palestinians become more angry and more desperate, there is danger of more conflict.

Starving the Palestinian people and creating the conditions that breed factional conflict will not enhance Israel’s security or serve America’s interests. Like the U.S. war on Iraq, it will only arouse more anger and breed more extremism. The new government represents the choice of the Palestinian people. Americans who believe in democracy should urge Bush to live up to his rhetoric and allow Palestinian leaders to do the job they were elected to do. 

Rachelle Marshall is a free-lance editor living in Stanford, CA. A member of the Jewish International Peace Union, she writes frequently on the Middle East.

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