A little over a year ago, Richard Falk issued a warning to the international community in an article titled ‘Slouching Toward a Palestinian Holocaust’. Falk, who is presently working for the United Nations Human Rights Council as a Special Rapporteur, focused in particular on the situation in Gaza, and justified his use of strong language to describe Israeli policies: ‘The suggestion that this pattern of conduct is a holocaust-in-the-making represents a rather desperate appeal to the governments of the world and to international public opinion to act urgently to prevent these genocidal tendencies from culminating in a collective tragedy.’ It is a severe disgrace, Falk emphasized, that ‘the international community is watching the ugly spectacle unfold while some of its most influential members actively encourage and assist Israel in its approach to Gaza.’
Notwithstanding the many obvious differences between the situation facing Palestinians and that facing peoples targeted in Nazi-occupied Europe, the ‘genocidal tendencies’ of Israeli policies (especially in Gaza) are nonetheless apparent – as was indeed suggested this March by Israeli deputy defense minister Matan Vilnai, who publicly threatened that Palestinians would ‘bring upon themselves a bigger Shoah,’ using the Hebrew term usually reserved exclusively for reference to Nazi policies towards Jews.
One can reasonably reject the parallel suggested by the warnings of Falk and Vilnai, and one must certainly note major differences between the situations. But one cannot in good conscience ignore the fundamental threat that current Israeli policies – ethnically cleansing Palestinians from sought-after lands, confining them to dense population centers (whether in Gaza or such equally concentrated West Bank enclaves as Qalqilya), and denying them basic political rights – point to still greater dangers in the future. It is difficult to predict how this situation will evolve. But it is clear that key decisions in this regard will be made in the United States and Israel. In both countries, the pending changes in government offer little in the way of reassurance.
In the United States, the Democratic Party has upheld its history of dodging anything but the vaguest pretense of progressive politics. In the case of Israel/Palestine, the Obama-Biden campaign has gone out of its way to vocally reject Palestinian rights to self-representation. Thursday’s vice-presidential debates once again put this approach on open display. Denouncing the Bush administration’s Israel/Palestine policy as ‘an abject failure,’ Senator Joe Biden decided to single out, of all things, the supposedly excessive constraints which the Bush administration has placed on Israeli conduct towards Palestinians! President Bush ‘insisted on elections on the West Bank,’ Biden complains, building upon the Obama-Biden candidacy’s persistent call for the exclusion of Hamas from the Palestinian political process (perhaps along with elections altogether). For Biden, the West Bank is threatened by elections, with Gaza in another category, existing as little more than a haven for the ‘proxies’ of Iran. This dangerous nonsense could scarcely come at a worse time.
In Israel, recent months have witnessed a debacle of a political succession process starring various candidates closely associated with the butcher Ariel Sharon – born again as a ‘man of peace,’ lest we forget, in a process sanctified by credulous Western media shortly before he passed from the political scene. The ‘Mossad dove’ Tzipi Livni has thus gained leadership of Kadima, Israel’s ‘centrist’ party (committed to Sharon-style ‘peace’). Livni is poised either to head up a new coalition government or to face early elections in which the (other) Likud candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu, is presently the favored candidate for prime minister. In either case, domestic Israeli politics are likely to remain fixated on the tug-of-war between expansionist dreams of a ‘Greater Israel’ and widespread Jewish Israeli revulsion at the prospect of sullying Israel by including so many Palestinians under its rule. Until the Palestinians can be gotten rid of (and one needn’t venture far from the centers of Israeli political power to find blunt proposals to this end), the contradiction will continue to play itself out.
Meanwhile, those Palestinians who have not simply been expelled beyond the territories under Israeli control (as hundreds of thousands were in 1948, and again in 1967) face displacement, cantonization and occupation in the West Bank; confinement, economic suffocation and open-air imprisonment in Gaza; and for the remnant within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, a form of citizenship which precludes neither direct killings by Israeli security forces (as in the Galilee in October 2000) or chemical defoliation of crops by government authorities (as has since been faced by Bedouin communities in the Negev). All of this is taking place within an overall framework of fragmenting Palestinians, whether between different territories (the West Bank from Gaza, both from Palestinians within Israel) or within them (hence the fomenting of conflict between Fatah and Hamas, decades-old tactics of dividing Arab citizens along confessional lines, etc.).
The Obama-Biden campaign’s apparent call for the exclusion of Hamas from the Palestinian electoral process needs to be considered in this light. Edward Said, commenting upon the ‘crippling inhibition of any contact at all between representatives of the U.S. and of the Palestinian people’ up until the end of the 1980s, once wrote: ‘One should not mistake the true nature of this inhibition, which in fact was an extension of Israel’s longstanding, increasingly violent official policy of total hostility toward the Palestinian people, as a people, and its representatives.’ Similarly, the effort to exclude Hamas from the Palestinian political process extends above all from the commitment to break up or otherwise prevent the emergence of a Palestinian national movement capable of posing a serious challenge to U.S./Israeli policy.
The representatives to whom Said was referring were primarily grouped around the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). We should recall that for all the hype surrounding the Oslo ‘peace process’, the Israeli transition from refusing to meet with representatives of PLO to working with sections of its leadership through the Palestinian Authority (PA) was not so dramatic as it is sometimes made out to be. The fundamentals of Israeli military occupation, settlement expansion and denial of Palestinian rights to self-determination remained effectively unchanged. And it was not with the election of Hamas in 2006, but already in 2002 that Israel embarked upon its thorough re-invasion of the West Bank and Gaza and began an aggressive attack even on the relatively compliant PA.
The Israeli ‘disengagement’ from Gaza in 2005 – which Israeli officials explicitly justified as a means of symbolically ridding Israel of Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians (mostly refugees from the ethnic cleansing of 1948) while maintaining enduring Israeli control – didn’t mark a transition to a genuine peace process any more than it absolved its architect Sharon of his criminal past, a point punctuated by the murderous air strikes on Gaza which immediately ensued. The electoral victory of Hamas in the Palestinian legislative elections held at the beginning of 2006, far from de-railing a viable process of diplomatic negotiations, instead signaled a widespread Palestinian rejection of those leaders who would allow policies of occupation, dispossession and extra-judicial killings to be packaged in a farcical ‘peace process’. For the U.S. and Israel, the elections results were approached with the familiar aim of further fragmenting and controlling Palestinians.
In a document leaked in 2007, former United Nations Middle East peace process envoy Alvaro De Soto noted the U.S. approach to fragmenting Palestinian national politics amidst conflict regarding the composition of the PA: ‘The US clearly pushed for a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas, so much so that, a week before Mecca [where negotiations took place to form a national unity government], the US envoy declared twice in an envoys meeting in Washington how much "I like this violence," referring to the near-civil war that was erupting in Gaza in which civilians were being regularly killed and injured.’ One may lament the decision by Hamas to consolidate its internal military control of Gaza in June of 2007, the means by which it did so and the impact of these events. However, one cannot reasonably discuss these developments except against the backdrop of aggressive U.S./Israeli efforts to annul the 2006 election results by orchestrating what amounted to a proxy war.
The further fragmentation of the Palestinian people which has resulted is potentially catastrophic. U.S./Israeli efforts to encourage the Palestinian presidency under Mahmoud Abbas – in control, since the summer of 2007, of a de facto West Bank administration politically split from Gaza – to rebuff efforts at cross-factional reconciliation have had an impact. This has been exacerbated by such allied donors as the European Union (alongside less significant donors such as Canada) which have dutifully funneled international funding through the PA presidency and associated bodies while leveraging it to push for effective political compliance (including rebuffing overtures towards national reconciliation from Hamas and others, including within Fatah).
In the West Bank, the PA presidency under Abbas has in large part meshed its efforts to maintain control of PA governance structures with U.S./Israeli efforts to annul the 2006 elections results, arrest Hamas legislators and political activists, and bestow upon Israeli occupation and settlement expansion the legitimacy of a continued ‘peace process’. Within much of Fatah, calls for a halt to negotiations with Israel so long as settlement expansion continues – and for moves towards cross-factional reconciliation – have been growing louder. Gaza, meanwhile, remains suffocated by an Israeli siege effectively backed by important sections of the international community, from North America and Europe to Egypt and Jordan. Hamas, which continues to govern Gaza internally (within an enduring framework of Israeli occupation and control from the perimeter and the skies), has hardly set a model for good governance. Still, Hamas appears genuinely open to negotiations leading to the establishment of a cross-factional Palestinian government which might lay the basis for overcoming the divisions and fragmentation which have been enforced by external powers over recent years.
The Obama-Biden candidacy is sending the worst possible message at the worst possible time. This coming January, the four-year term of PA president Mahmoud Abbas comes to an end. But Abbas, buoyed by Western support, is seeking to extend the term for an additional year. According to longstanding PA regulations, if the president’s term ends without elections being held, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) – in this case, Hamas affiliate Ahmad Bahar (who succeeded Aziz Dweik, one of the more than 40 Hamas legislators jailed by Israel after the elections) – steps in as interim president. A further entrenchment of the dangerous West Bank/Gaza split may be looming.
Clearly, this is the predominant U.S./Israeli hope. U.S.-allied PA forces in the West Bank are being given training and weaponry, with the support of European, Jordanian and Egyptian advisors, under the continued supervision of U.S. Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton. Leading members within these forces have been threatening that ‘if Gaza remains mutinous,’ as one General recently put it, they are prepared ‘to use force against it’. In the event of an extra-constitutional extension of the Abbas presidency (let alone an invasion of Gaza with the support of PA forces based in the West Bank), upheaval in the West Bank – by Hamas supporters and others – would be likely. Today’s Jerusalem Post reports that ‘PA security forces are maintaining the highest possible readiness, and are doing their utmost to prevent such an event from happening through continued arrest and interrogation operations’. All of this as the siege on Gaza continues, with such senior Israeli military sources as Amos Gilad describing Hamas as ‘a cancer’. Hamas having won a majority in the last round of Palestinian legislative elections, the policy prescriptions cut deep, ranging from thoroughgoing assaults on basic social infrastructure in the West Bank to massive violence against Gaza.
Over the past six decades, ‘left’ or ‘progressive’ forces in the West have established a dismal track-record on the question of Palestine. All too often, purportedly progressive politics have been held to be perfectly compatible with a dismissal of the most basic Palestinian rights – political self-representation prominent among them. Within the United States, silence on the Obama-Biden campaign’s extraordinarily dangerous positions on this question threaten to extend this disgrace.
There is no pretending that the Obama-Biden candidacy is generally progressive and has merely slipped on this one question. Having capitalized on anti-war sentiment and energies, the campaign has translated opposition to war into support for an escalation in Afghanistan; even on Iraq, Obama’s complaints – eg., ‘We have lost over 4,000 lives’ – have been almost entirely devoid of moral content, in effect affirming that Iraqi deaths don’t count, that Iraqi life is worthless and merits little attention (witness the candidates’ vile and baffling comparisons between U.S. and Iraqi public finances).
To be clear, the argument that the Obama-Biden candidacy is less fanatical than that of McCain and Palin has some merit. There is good reason to prefer a moderate call for war crimes and collective punishment over the threat of even more catastrophic policies. Still, any efforts by people of conscience to support such a campaign can only avoid political bankruptcy by including preparations to fight these candidates if they follow through on such stated positions, as in important cases they are likely to.
The ‘genocidal tendencies’ of U.S./Israeli policy towards Palestinians, especially in Gaza, may well intensify in the coming years. It is well within the realm of possibility that a substantial intensification could be presided over by Israel’s ‘Mossad dove’ and a Kadima-led government in association with an Obama administration, amidst much pretty rhetoric about peace, moderation and anti-terrorism. That even more fanatical elements exist in their countries do not give these war-criminals-in-waiting a pass.
The prominence within the Obama-Biden campaign of a call for the exclusion of Hamas from the Palestinian political process is not a forgivable concession to domestic political constraints. On this question, they have actively shifted the terms of discussion in a dangerous direction. One can rationalize supporting them against their Republican rivals strategically, while recognizing that they themselves need to be vigorously challenged. But there is little reason to suspect that such a challenge will have more leverage after the campaign than during it. Potentially uncomfortable positions, including a rejection of any Western or Israeli say over which political parties run in Palestinian elections and serve after them, need to be taken and fought for.
To sacrifice such basic democratic principles in the name of strategy is to abandon both. It may well be difficult to shift the terms of U.S. and broader Western discussion of this issue in a more sane and constructive direction. But without giving serious attention and putting serious effort into this problem, we will have ourselves to blame as we continue to watch the ugly spectacle unfold.
Dan Freeman-Maloy is a Toronto-based writer.