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A Short-Term Victory With Long-Term Consequences
By Rachelle Marshall
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu received almost all of what he wanted when he visited Washington in early March—cheers from the 14,000 attendees at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's convention, the warm embrace of congressional leaders, and a get together with President Barack Obama that was free of acrimony. He did not get a green light to attack Iran, but he achieved something more important: a meeting with an American president at which Israel's occupation of Palestine was not on the agenda.
Netanyahu, as expected, made a strong argument for attacking Iran, if not sooner then later, and reiterated his demand that Iran end its uranium enrichment program (despite the fact that the program is legal under international law). In his address to AIPAC he waved copies of a 1944 letter from the War Department refusing the appeal of the World Jewish Congress to bomb Auschwitz, suggesting that Israelis would endure the same fate as the Jews of Auschwitz if the U.S. refused to endorse an attack on Iran.
Obama has come under strong pressure from congressional hawks, Republican presidential candidates and right-wing groups such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, the super PAC headed by evangelical Christian leader Gary Bauer and Jewish commentator William Kristol. Obama assured Netanyahu that the U.S. "had Israel's back," but urged him to postpone military action until sanctions and negotiations had a chance to work.
In contrast to those who would relinquish control of U.S. foreign policy to Israel, the Pentagon warned that a war simulation exercise held in early March indicated that a strike on Iran would lead to a wider regional war that would inevitably involve the U.S. Hundreds of Americans would be killed. The report emphasized the "uncontrollable and unpredictable" consequences of an Israeli strike and Iran's response.
Absent from the debate was any mention of the costs to Iranians and the people of neighboring countries of an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. The New York Times pointed out in a March 6 editorial that Iran has multiple nuclear sites, some buried deep underground, so there could not be a "surgical strike" similar to Israel's attacks on Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981 or Syria's unfinished reactor in 2007. A heavy and sustained air attack would be necessary to set back Iran's nuclear program by even a few years.
The use of 5,000-pound bombs to penetrate Iran's underground nuclear sites would release large quantities of radioactive uranium over Iran and Central Asia and cause widespread death, illness and genetic damage. In Iraq, even relatively modest amounts of depleted uranium released by U.S. weaponry have sickened thousands of children and caused thousands of infants to be born with severe birth defects.
The blanket sanctions imposed by the West are already causing severe suffering in Iran. In a March 3 op-ed column for The New York Times, Iranian-American journalist Hooman Majd wrote that the sanctions have become a form of collective punishment designed to pressure the Iranian people into ousting their rulers. They are also useless. Voices demanding change, Majd wrote, "simply cannot be heard at a time when the population is threatened with an economic chokehold or, worse, with being bombed."
Such concerns are not likely to bother Israeli leaders. In fact, it is doubtful they believe their own warnings that Iran poses "an existential threat." Not only is Israel's security guaranteed by the world's greatest superpower, but it possesses the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are more powerful than the armies of all of Israel's neighbors combined. According to U.S. intelligence estimates, there is no evidence that Iran is developing a bomb or even plans to build one. And if it did, the Iranians would be unlikely to risk annihilation by using it. What Israel does fear is the influence a strong Iran would have on Iraq and other countries in the region.
The solution is to crush Iran's economy, and this the fear-mongering of Netanyahu and his U.S. supporters is close to achieving. On March 15, the global communications network known as SWIFT complied with sanctions imposed by the West and expelled Iran's financial institutions, making it virtually impossible for Iran to conduct international business. SWIFT's action came the day after Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron warned Iran to "negotiate in good faith" in upcoming talks on Iran's nuclear program—as if negotiations can be held in good faith while one side is wielding a whip over the other.
Netanyahu's chief accomplishment in raising the alarm over Iran has been to divert attention away from Israel's relentless takeover of the West Bank for Jewish-only settlements, including hundreds of homes that are going up deep inside the occupied territory. The prime minister returned home with the assurance that, during an election year, the U.S. will overlook whatever cruelties Israel inflicts on the Palestinians.
On March 8, International Women's Day, only a few days after Congress and the White House had pledged unshakable support for Israel, a few dozen Palestinian women were holding a peaceful march near Qalandia when soldiers attacked them with tear gas, rubber bullets, "skunk water" and sound bombs. Photographs reminiscent of those taken in Selma, Alabama in 1963 showed unarmed women being slammed to the ground by powerful streams of water aimed at them by Israeli soldiers.
The next day, March 9, Israel followed a familiar formula and ended several months of calm in Gaza by sending an air armada that included Apache helicopters, drones and F-16s to gun down Zuhair al-Qaisi, head of the popular Resistance Committee, and two associates. Israel claimed al-Qaisi had been responsible for the killing of eight Israelis near the Egyptian border last year, an accusation that was later shown to be false. The initial assassinations were followed by continuous air strikes against targets across Gaza, including a school playground. By the end of the first day six more Palestinians were dead.
Israel's initiation of renewed violence had its intended effect when Islamic Jihad responded by firing scores of rockets into Israel, eventually wounding three Israelis. By March 12, when at Hamas' urging Egypt brokered a truce, the Palestinian death toll was 27, including two children, and some 80 wounded. Israeli missiles also destroyed 32 homes, a school, and an office of the Red Crescent Society. Two days after the truce was declared, Israeli missiles again struck Gaza, this time what the army claimed was "a rocket launching site."
Israel may be forced to keep its attacks on Gaza within bounds, however. Thanks to the upheaval in Egypt that resulted in the ousting of Hosni Mubarak and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Israelis are unlikely to launch a repeat of Operation Cast Lead, the three-week assault on Gaza in 2008-09 that left 1,400 Gazans dead, thousands of homes in ruins, and Gaza's infrastructure destroyed. The Brotherhood is actively working to promote reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and supports a peace agreement based on the 1967 borders, so although it has pledged to honor Egypt's 1979 peace agreement with Israel, it is certain to oppose a major Israeli attack on Gaza.
For Palestinians on the West Bank the price of occupation is also rising steadily. Israeli troops have stepped up their night raids and arrests, with most of the detainees suspected of taking part in peaceful demonstrations or even reporting on them. During the month of February, 11 journalists were injured by tear gas or rubber bullets. On Feb. 28 Israeli soldiers shut down two Palestinian television stations in Ramallah, confiscating their equipment and what they said were "suspicious" documents. The Palestinian Authority said the stations were fully licensed and had received no complaints from Israel's Ministry of Communications. One of them was an educational station that broadcast "Sesame Street" and other children's programs.
Nearly 400 Palestinians were arrested in February, including 54 children. Last October Israel released 477 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for an Israeli soldier held by Hamas, but by December, 470 more Palestinians had been arrested.
To someone who follows events in Palestine at a distance, the daily count of Palestinians arrested, made homeless, beaten by settlers, or killed by Israeli forces can too easily become a statistic. When news came of Fadi Quran's beating and arrest by Israeli soldiers, that statistic became shockingly real.
I first encountered Fadi some seven years ago when, as a student at Stanford, he spoke at the launching of a campus divestment campaign. Fadi was a gangly freshman, but his talk was as polished and eloquent as anyone's on the panel. He identified himself as a Palestinian and a fervent believer in nonviolence. Over the next four years he was an active member of the campus movement for a just Middle East peace, steadfastly committed to nonviolent resistance as the way to achieve Palestinian independence.
On Feb. 24 Fadi was taking part in a peaceful protest march in Hebron when the army attacked the group with tear gas, foul smelling liquid, sound bombs and pepper spray. Soldiers knocked him to the ground, sprayed him directly in the eyes, and smashed his head against the side of a truck so that he briefly passed out. They then took him handcuffed, half-conscious, and bleeding to Ofer military prison. Five days later, after more than 2,300 Stanford students, staff and faculty members signed a petition on his behalf, Fadi was released on bail.
As an American citizen Fadi was luckier than most. Since Israel captured the West Bank in 1967 tens of thousands of Palestinians have languished in prison indefinitely without trial, not knowing if or when they will ever be released. That situation was given a human face by Khader Adnan, who fasted for 66 days last winter in protest against his long detention without charges. He ended his fast only after Israel agreed to release him in mid-April, but not before he had drawn the world's attention to the plight of Palestinians existing in limbo in Israeli prisons.
Adnan's message was that Israel's system of indefinitely detaining Palestinians without trial was so intolerable that he was willing to give his life to end it. In conducting his fast he shone light on the 310 Palestinian prisoners who are being similarly denied a right to defend themselves, as well as on the thousands who have endured the same ordeal in the past. "It is like reburying a corpse again and again," said Shawan Jabarin, head of the human rights organization Al Haq, who spent seven years in administrative detention.
According to Mustafa Barghouti, a physician and prominent member of the Palestinian parliament, Adnan's triumph lay in "unifying Palestinians and highlighting the power of nonviolent protest." Adnan's example was followed by Hana Shalabi, who by March 23 had fasted for 36 days, and by some 20 other prisoners. Shalabi was released from prison last October, only to be rearrested again when soldiers stormed into her house at night, seized her family's cell phones and computer, and ripped up a photo of her dead brother. She has since been held in a six-meter-square cell with no windows.
Holding Children Hostage
A revealing article in the Feb. 19 issue of The New York Times described how Israel uses children to justify detaining Palestinians whose sole crime is to take part in peaceful protests against the occupation. Late at night last January, 20 Israeli soldiers burst into the home of Saleh Dar Ayyoub in Nabi Saleh, seized his 14-year-old son Islam, and took the child to a military base blindfolded and handcuffed. There he was left outside in the cold for several hours and only the next day brought in for questioning. The soldiers accused him of throwing stones, then grilled him about the actions of his neighbors, most of whom were part of his extended family.
According to the Times account, a tape recording showed the frightened and exhausted boy willing to say whatever his interrogators wanted, including incriminating his neighbors. He proved willing to agree that Bassem Tamimi, the leader of Nabi Saleh's nonviolent protest against the separation wall, had encouraged the village youths to throw stones and unexploded tear gas canisters at soldiers, charges Tamimi and other witnesses have strongly denied.
"I thought that if I spoke they would release me," Islam said later. They did not. He was held for two and a half months and then released to house arrest. Islam, a 9th grader, had been a good student. Now, his father said, he hates school and stays awake nights watching television, afraid the soldiers will return.
Palestinian children are less deserving of pity than Jewish children, Israeli officials say. When Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, responded to the March 19 murder of three Jewish children in Toulouse, France by expressing sympathy for them and for the world's other child victims, including those in Gaza, Israel's interior minister demanded she resign, and Netanyahu said he was "infuriated." Ashton, he said, had dared to compare the Toulouse killings with "the defensive, surgical actions of the Israeli military [that are] intended to kill terrorists who use children as human shields." Gazans who have seen the bodies of children shot by Israeli soldiers as they played on a roof, or torn apart by Israeli artillery shells, or killed when a missile slams into their home, know better. (For a compilation of all Palestinian and Israeli children killed since Sept. 30, 2000, visit <www.rememberthesechildren.org>.)
A baffling question is why the Israelis seem bent on embittering four million Palestinians and alienating millions more people elsewhere in the world. Equally baffling is the slavishness with which America's elected officials, with few exceptions, express their dedication to the Jewish state. History shows that oppressor nations tend to have limited life spans, often imploding from within.
Israel's continued subjugation of the Palestinians has led to what David Remnick in the March 12 New Yorker called "political corrosion...a profoundly anti-democratic, even racist political culture [that] has become endemic among much of the Jewish population in the West Bank, and jeopardizes Israel proper." The principles of a democratic state have a low priority among the right-wing settlers, the ultra-Orthodox, and ultra-religious nationalists who are the Netanyahu government's indispensable allies.
Equally indispensable to the Israeli government, however, is U.S. support. So far it has been unstinting. Israelis and their allies should ask themselves, however, how long American taxpayers will be willing to subsidize an apartheid state whose government brutalizes children as well as adults, and acts in open defiance of international law.
Rachelle Marshall is a free-lance editor living in Mill Valley, CA. A member of Jewish Voice for Peace, she writes frequently on the Middle East.