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Ongoing Crisis in the Middle East

Posted on: Monday, November 6, 2006

Keywords: Peace Building, Middle East, Palestine, Israel

A MADRE Position Paper

The Crisis

Since September 2000, Palestinians have been waging their second national uprising (Intifada) in a bid to end Israel’s 38-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In response, Israeli forces have shelled Palestinian neighborhoods with US-supplied attack helicopters and destroyed homes, schools, hospitals, roads, and infrastructure for water, sanitation, and electricity. Nearly 3,500 Palestinians, including 650 children, have been killed by Israeli forces. Extensive restrictions on freedom of movement prevent Palestinians from reaching their jobs, schools, health clinics, and places of worship. This “closure” policy has driven poverty rates up 300 percent while threatening people’s access to food, water, and emergency medical care.

Inside Israel, women and their families have endured an era of increased terror attacks at the hands of Palestinian militants. Since 2000, more than 700 Israeli civilians, including more than 100 children, have been killed in random bombings of buses, supermarkets, restaurants, and other public locations.

In the Deheisheh refugee camp, where MADRE works, soldiers have opened fire on children, blockaded families in their homes without food or water for days at a time and prevented ambulances from reaching sick and injured people. Children in the camp show signs of psychological trauma and their rates of malnutrition have nearly tripled. Israeli violations of Palestinians’ most basic rights create particular hardship for Palestinian women, who, as society’s primary caretakers, struggle to provide food, shelter, healthcare, and psychological comfort to families traumatized by military violence, extreme poverty, and constant insecurity.

Is this an Ancient Religious Rivalry?

Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have attempted to mobilize people on the basis of ethnic and religious identity. But the crisis is fundamentally political, resulting from a dispute over who controls and inhabits a territory. Misconceptions about the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sometimes stem from a conflation of Zionism (Israeli nationalism) with Jewish identity. For example, Israeli leaders routinely claim to act “in the name of the Jewish People.” But Zionism is a political ideology, while Judaism is a religion and a cultural practice. Not all Jews are Zionists and not all Zionists are Jews.

The history of the conflict is usually narrated either as a story about the Jewish need for refuge in the wake of the Nazi genocide or as a tale of Israeli aggression and Palestinian displacement. This either/or framework has dominated our understanding of the conflict, implying that to acknowledge one story, we must discount the other. But in order to effectively challenge all ideologies and conditions of oppression, we must be able to account for the particular persecution and displacement of Palestinian Arabs and European Jews, to tell each story on its own terms and learn to articulate a relationship between them.

The US as an Obstacle to Peace

Since World War II, US policy in the Middle East has focused on securing access to the region’s oil reserves — the richest in the world. Even before 9-11, this policy was considered a matter of national security because the US economy and military depend on the flow of cheap oil. In 1967, after proving its military capabilities by going to war against three Arab armies simultaneously, Israel became the designated “watchdog” of US interests in the Middle East. Since then, the US has been the primary backer of Israeli occupation, providing the weapons, funding, and diplomatic support to maintain the policy. Israel receives nearly 40 percent of the entire annual US foreign aid budget ($3 billion). Yet, Israel represents only 0.1 percent of the world’s population. The US has used its veto on the Security Council of the United Nations to block nearly half of all UN resolutions condemning Israel for human rights abuses and violations of international law. During the first administration of George W. Bush alone, the US used its veto seven times.

In fact, George W. Bush has enacted the most extreme pro-Israel policy of any US president. In 2004, Bush endorsed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to annex much of the West Bank, effectively renouncing the UN Charter, which forbids the acquisition of territory by force. Bush also denied Palestinian refugees’ right to return to what is now Israel (enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 194) and condoned Israel’s West Bank settlements, which previous US administrations had characterized as “an obstacle to peace.” Bush’s policy dealt a serious blow to UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which call on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian lands in return for security guarantees from its neighbors. These resolutions have long stood as the best hope for a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

A Path to Peace

Bush’s unconditional support for Israel’s occupation has encouraged Israeli human rights abuses in the name of fighting terrorism. Israel’s government is indeed responsible for protecting its citizens from attacks by Palestinian militants. Many progressive Israelis argue that the best way to improve security for their families is by ending the occupation, which is the major Palestinian grievance. As the US “war on terror” has shown, there is no military solution to terrorism. In fact, Israeli military repression has only produced more grief, rage, and bitterness among Palestinians, generating a climate of despair and hopelessness that in turn gives rise to support for extremism. Likewise, Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians galvanize support in Israel for army assaults against Palestinian families. The violence is self-perpetuating, strengthening the most reactionary forces in each society. In fact, religious fundamentalists and right-wing demagogues, both Israeli and Palestinian, have a vested interest in ongoing conflict. Each new death enhances their capacity to mobilize people on the basis of fear and hatred.

Meanwhile, Palestinian and Israeli progressives face a shared challenge: to demonstrate that people’s basic needs — material, social, and spiritual — are better served by support for human rights and democratic process than by religious fundamentalism or extreme nationalism. They understand that negotiations are the only alternative to violence. But not all negotiations can yield a lasting peace. After the death of long-time Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and the election of Mahmoud Abbas as President of the Palestinian Authority in January 2005 (please see Hamas Takes Over: A MADRE Q & A, for updated information on the Palestinian leadership), the Bush Administration pushed to revive negotiations that, like the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, would pursue US-Israeli priorities at the expense of Palestinians’ basic rights. Only negotiations grounded in international law and human rights principles hold the potential for peace, which entails more than a formal end to the occupation. Genuine peace will encompass justice and security for Palestinian and Israeli women and their families, and will require a reorientation of both societies on the basis of human rights and equality.

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