Obama-Gaza: No Surprise


In the last week of 2008, Palestinian children in Gaza were blown apart by Israeli bombs and missiles. The air machinery used to kill those children – including American-made F-16s and Blackhawk helicopters – was supplied by the United States.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports one Gaza story from shortly before midnight on Sunday, December 28.  That’s when "Israeli warplanes fired one or more missiles at the Imad Aqil mosque in Jabalya, a densely populated refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip. The attack killed five of Anwar Balousha’s daughters who were sleeping in a bedroom of their nearby house: Jawaher, 4; Dina, 8; Samar, 12; Ikram, 14; and Tahrir, 18."

 "We were asleep and we woke to the sound of bombing and the rubble falling on the house and on our heads," Anwar Balousha told Human Rights Watch.

An hour or so after, an Israeli Blackhawk fired two missiles into the Rafah refugee camp. One struck the home of the al-Absi family, killing three brothers – Sedqi, 3, Ahmad, 12, and Muhammad, 13 – and wounding two sisters and the children’s mother.  (HRW, "Israel/Hamas: Civilians Must Not be Targets," December 30, 2008, read at http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/12/30/israelhamas-civilians-must-not-be-targets)

By December 28th, two days into its air assault on Gaza, Israel had killed at least 270 Palestinians and injured more than 1,000, many of them seriously. Untold numbers of people remained buried under the rubble, meaning that the death toll was certain to rise.

It was already Israel’s bloodiest assault on Gaza in two decades – an onslaught that criminally attacked civilian targets


Enjoying a luxurious Hawaiian holiday with his family in a $9 million beach-front vacation home, President Elect Barack Obama had "no comment" on the carnage in Gaza. Still, his media handler and spokesman David Axlerod essentially endorsed the murders of the Balousha and al Absi children on  NBC’s weekly show "Face the Nation." "Well, certainly, the president-elect recognizes the special relationship between United States and Israel," Axelrod told NBC. "It’s an important bond, an important relationship. He’s going to honor it … And obviously, this situation has become even more complicated in the last couple of days and weeks. As Hamas began its shelling, Israel responded." "The president-elect was in Sderot last July," Axelrod continued, "in southern Israel, a town that’s taken the brunt of the Hamas attacks… And he said then that, when bombs are raining down on your citizens, there is an urge to respond and act and try and put an end to that. So, you know, that’s what he said then, and I think that’s what he believes."

In other words, Israel’s criminal bombing of Gaza – preparation for a ground invasion – was legitimate retaliation, not naked aggression, as far as Obama was concerned. That was the Obama team’s take on Israel’s latest outrage – the same exact line as the Bush administration.

This line ignored the grossly disproportionate nature of Israel’s response, which killed hundreds of Palestinians, including many civilians, in two days while just 17 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians rockets over the last seven year. (The "Israel-Palestine conflict" is a very asymmetrical affair.) 

It also deleted the fact that Israel, not Hamas (the militant Muslim organization that holds elected authority in the Gaza ghetto), broke a six-month truce by firing missiles into Gaza on the evening of the U.S. presidential election.


The Obama team’s response to the latest Israeli outrage is depressing but it is not surprising.  Obama’s pronounced reluctance to rock the imperial boat [1] and question the conventional U.S. foreign policy wisdom been sharply evident in his statements and actions relating to the Israel-Palestine issue.

Early in his political career, to be sure, state senator Obama took positions embraced by Israeli peace activists and their supporters. During his failed campaign against South Side Chicago Congressman Bobby Rush (D-IL) in 2000, for example, Obama criticized the Clinton administration’s unconditional support of the occupation and other Israeli policies.  He called for an "even-handed approach" to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and referred to "the cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians" while most Democrats joined Republicans in discussing the conflict purely in terms of Palestinian provocation and Israeli response. Obama claimed to support a Palestinian-Israel peace settlement in accord with the Geneva Initiative and with related proposals by Israeli and Palestinian moderates.

But this approach could not survive presidential aspirations in a political culture where substantive criticism of Israel’s behavior carries grave electoral risks.  As a U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, Obama’s statements on Israel-Palestine were practically identical to those of the Bush administration, which has backed the right-wing Ehud Olmert (Likud) government (January 4, 2006 to present) on nearly every important policy matter. Obama argued that "we should never seek to dictate what is best for the Israelis and their security interests" and claimed that no Israeli prime minister – no matter how unpopular and murderous (e.g. Olmert) – should be "dragged" against his will into negotiations with the Palestinians.

The contradictions Obama embraced and overlooked in his quest to appease Israel and its hard-line American supporters were quite pronounced. As foreign policy analyst Stephen Zunes noted last January:

"Despite Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s refusal to freeze the construction of additional illegal settlements, end the seizure of Palestinian population centers, release Palestinian political prisoners, or enact other confidence-building measures – much less agree to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state – Obama claimed in his AIPAC [American Israeli Public Affairs Council] policy forum speech [in March of 2007] that Olmert is ‘more than willing to negotiate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will result in two states living side by side in peace and security’ [2]. And though, as recently as last March, Obama acknowledged the reality that ‘nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people,’ as a result of the stalled peace process he has since placed the blame for the impasse not on the Israeli occupation but on the Palestinians themselves" (Stephen Zunes, "Barack Obama and the Middle East," Foreign Policy in Focus, January 10, 2008 read at http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/4886)

Obama has consistently rejected the insistence of peace activists that U.S. make military aid to Israel contingent on the Israeli government following international and human rights law.


One of the most revealing moments in Obama’s "antiwar" career came when he stuck with the rest of the bipartisan U.S. political class in refusing to join international opinion in condemning Israel’s mass-murderous air assault on Lebanon. Not content to quietly appease Israel’s massive state violence during the summer of 2006, Obama actually hurried to the Olmert government’s defense.  He co-sponsored a Senate resolution defending the attack. Refusing to give any elementary responsibility to Israel for the deaths of over 800 Lebanese civilians, Obama insisted the anti-occupation Muslim group Hezbollah was the real culprit behind these deaths.  Hezbollah, he claimed, had used "innocent people as shields." Never mind that that the respected human rights groups Amnesty International and HRW both discovered no convincing evidence of such practices – a finding corroborated by later scholarly research. When Zunes  contacted Obama’s press spokesperson for evidence to back Obama’s "human shield" claim, the Obama operative, "sent [Zunes] a link to a poorly-documented report from a hawkish Israeli research institute headed by the former chief of the Mossad-the Israeli intelligence service that itself has engaged in numerous violations of international humanitarian law." The Obama cam ignored "subsequent requests for more credible sources."

"Obama’s rhetoric as a senator," Zunes observed last year, "has betrayed what some might view as a degree of anti-Arab racism. He has routinely condemned attacks against Israeli civilians by Arabs but has never condemned attacks against Arab civilians by Israelis." (Zunes, "Obama and the Middle East").


One chilling example of what some might call anti-Arab racism on Obama’s part came when Israel tightened the screws of its siege of Gaza last January.  As Palestinians struggled to survive a vicious embargo of food, fuel, and medicine, Obama sent the following letter to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations"

"Dear Ambassador Khalilzad,"

"I understand that today the UN Security Council met regarding the situation in Gaza, and that a resolution or statement could be forthcoming from the Council in short order."

"I urge you to ensure that the Security Council issue no statement and pass no resolution on this matter that does not fully condemn the rocket assault Hamas has been conducting on civilians in southern Israel…"

"All of us are concerned about the impact of closed border crossings on Palestinian families. However, we have to understand why Israel is forced to do this… Israel has the right to respond while seeking to minimize any impact on civilians."

"The Security Council should clearly and unequivocally condemn the rocket attacks… If it cannot bring itself to make these common sense points, I urge you to ensure that it does not speak at all."


"Barack Obama

"United States Senator" [3]

This terrible letter pandered to the right wing of Israeli and "pro-Israel" U.S. opinion by ignoring the absurdly disproportionate nature of Israel’s "response" and the suffocating apartheid and poverty conditions that predictably generate violent resistance on the part of some Palestinians.


When Obama toured the Middle East last July, he made the standard obligatory visits to Israel’s Holocaust Memorial and its Western Wall. He met with a broad spectrum of Israeli Jewish political leaders. He traveled to an Israeli town that had experienced frequent Hamas rocket attacks.  He repeatedly proclaimed affectionate support for Israel and expressed outrage at Palestinian violence. He remained silent about Israel’s unremitting colonization of occupied territory. He failed to follow former President Jimmy Carter by agreeing to meet with democratically elected Hamas leaders, with whom Israel had negotiated a ceasefire.

He skipped what American Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah called "the opportunity to visit Palestinian refugee camps, schools and even shopping malls to witness first-hand the devastation caused by the Israeli army and settlers, or to see how Palestinians cope under what many call ‘apartheid.’ This year alone," Abunimah noted last July, "almost 500 Palestinians, including over 70 children, have been killed by the Israeli army — exceeding the total for 2007 and dwarfing the two-dozen Israelis killed in conflict-related violence." (Ali Abunimah, What Obama Missed in the Middle East," The Electronic Intifada, 24 July 2008, read at http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article9708.shtml)

Obama offered no apologies to Palestinians for an earlier comment (to an AIPAC policy forum in June of 2008) calling for an "undivided Jerusalem" [4] – something even George W. Bush had never advocated.

The managers of the 2008 Democratic Convention – where Obama formally received and accepted the presidential nomination – went to the remarkable length of denying a living former Democratic president the right to speak.  The ex-president in question, Carter, was banned from the speakers’ roster because he has committed the unpardonable sin of acknowledging that Israel bears responsibility for the plight of the Palestinians. Obama’s advisory and transition team has been loaded with supporters of Israeli occupation and apartheid policies.  His chief of staff is the militantly "pro-Israel" son of an openly anti-Arab Israeli Zionist.

For this and other reasons, American peace and justice activists should be miffed but not at all surprised that the Obama team seems incapable of seeing Palestinians as real and worthy victims of Israeli oppression.  Since entering the national political stage, Obama has steadfastly refused to complicate his electoral viability by acknowledging Israel’s infliction of massive human suffering in Gaza and the West Bank or the powerful role of the U.S. in funding and equipping Israel’s enforcement of that suffering.  In this as in so many areas, those who want to see truly progressive change under an Obama administration are going to have relentlessly fight from below.  The next president cannot be expected to break from the by-now standard U.S. pattern of supporting Israel’s crimes unless and until popular resistance to that pattern becomes too dangerous to ignore.

Paul Street is a writer and activist in Iowa City, IA.  His most recent book is Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987


1.  See Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradgigm, 2008), Chapter 4, titled "How ‘Antiwar?’ Obama, Iraq, and the Audacity of Empire." 

2. "Prepared Text of Barack Obama’s Speech for the AIPAC Policy Forum," March 2, 2007, read at http://blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/2007/03/obamas_aipac_speech_text_as_pr.html

3.  For copies of this letter and reflections on its authenticity, see http://tzvee.blogspot.com/2008/12/on-january-22-2008-barack-obama-wrote.html and http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/2008/01/24/obama-gaza-siege-forced-on-israel/

4. Agence France-Presse, "Jerusalem Must Remain the Undivided Capital of Israel: Obama," June 4, 2008.

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