Ethnic Cleansing and the “Moral Instinct”


ne of the most dubious clichés
of the humanitarian intervention intellectuals and media editors
and pundits is that human rights have become more important to the
United States and other NATO powers and a major influence on their
foreign policy in recent decades. David Rieff writes that human
rights “has taken hold not just as a rhetorical but as an operating
principle in all the major Western capitals,” and his comrade
in righteous arms Michael Ignatieff claims that our enhanced “moral
instincts” have strengthened “the presumption of intervention
when massacre and deportation become state policy.” This perspective
was built in good part on the basis of the experience—and misreading—of
developments during the dismantling of Yugoslavia in the 1990s where
the propaganda line was that NATO had reluctantly and belatedly
entered that conflict to stop ethnic cleansing and genocide perpetrated
by the Serbs, and had done so successfully. This was allegedly an
intervention rooted in Blair-Clinton-Kohl-Schroeder humanism, supported
and pressed on these leaders by journalists and human rights protagonists. 

There are many things wrong with this explanation and analysis of
recent Balkan history, one of the most important of which is that
NATO intervention was not late. It came quite early and was a primary
cause of the ethnic cleansing that followed. It encouraged a breakup
of Yugoslavia in a manner that left large unprotected minorities
in the newly formed republics, thereby assuring ethnic conflict.
It sabotaged peace agreements within these new states in the years
1992-1994 and it encouraged non-Serb minorities to hope for NATO
military aid in arriving at final settlements, which they finally
did get. NATO powers even actively or passively supported the most
complete ethnic cleansings of the Balkan wars—which was of
Serbs in Croatia’s Krajina area and Serbs in NATO-occupied
Kosovo from June 1999. 

There were other problems with the notion that the NATO intervention
in the Balkans had a humanitarian basis and effect, but it is equally
important to recognize the selectivity in this focus and the political
root of that selectivity. The humanitarian interventionists were
almost completely silent during the 1990s massacres and deportations
by Indonesia in East Timor, the Turkish slaughters and village burnings
in their Kurdish areas, the killings and huge refugee exodus in
Colombia, and the large-scale massacres in the Congo, carried out
in good part by invaders from Rwanda and Uganda. For some reason
the “moral instinct” of the humanitarian politicians didn’t
reach these cases, where the killers were allies of these politicians—and
obtained arms and military aid and training from them. Equally interesting,
the moral instinct of the humanitarian interventionist intellectuals
and journalists failed to override the biased focus of their political
leaders, but instead worked in parallel with those biases. This
helped their political leaders go after the targeted combatants
with greater violence, partly by diverting attention from the approved
villains and the damage they were inflicting on their (implicitly
unworthy) victims. 

The Remarkable Case of Israel 


he most interesting case
of an aborted “moral instinct” is that involving Israel,
where the state has been engaged in a systematic policy of dispossession
and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians on the West Bank and in
East Jerusalem for decades, not only without a meaningful response
on the part of the “free world,” but with steady support
from the United States and spurts of approval and support from its
democratic allies. The ability of the Western political leaders,
media, and humanitarian intellectuals to get enraged at Arafat,
Chavez, and Milosevic, while treating Begin, Netanyahu, and Sharon
as statespeople deserving of economic and military aid and diplomatic
support, is a small miracle of self-deception, advanced double standards,
and moral turpitude.

What makes it a miracle is that the basic premises, as well as the
performance of the Israeli state, fly in the face of the entire
range of enlightenment values that supposedly underlie Western civilization. 

First, it is a racist state as a matter of ideology and law. It
is officially a Jewish state: 90 percent of the land is reserved
for Jews. Palestinians have been barred from leasing or buying state-owned
lands that were seized in 1948 and later and Jews from abroad have
a right to immigrate and become citizens with privileges superior
to those of indigenous non-Jews. This kind of ideology and law was
unacceptable as regards the apartheid state of South Africa, although
it is interesting that Reagan was “constructively engaged”
with that state, Margaret Thatcher found it quite tolerable, and
South African “anti-terror” operations were integrated
with those of the “free world.” But the Israeli analogue
of the Nuremberg laws and its construction of a state built on racial
discrimination is acceptable to the enlightened West. The “chosen
people” replace the “master race.” That is not only
acceptable, but Israel is held up as a model democracy and “light
unto the world” (Anthony Lewis). By implication, Israel’s
creation of a body of humans who are second class citizens by law
(or of a still lesser class in the occupied territories) is also
acceptable. This is a unique system of “privileged racism.” 

Second, the Israeli state has been allowed to ignore numerous Security
Council resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention regarding its
occupation of the West Bank, as well as the International Court
of Justice ruling on its apartheid wall. It has been able to dispossess
Palestinians of a large fraction of their land and water, demolish
thousands of their homes, cut down many thousands of their olive
trees, destroy their infrastructure, and create a modern network
of roads through the occupied West Bank for Jews only while imposing
serious obstacles to Palestinian movement. This systematic ethnic
cleansing has been implemented by an extremely well trained and
well equipped army working over a virtually unarmed indigenous population
to make room for Jewish settlers—in violation of international
law on the proper behavior of an occupying power. This is a unique
system of “privileged ethnic cleansing,” “privileged
law violations,” and “privileged exceptions to Security
Council and International Court rulings.” 

Third, Israel has periodically crossed its borders to make war on
its neighbors—Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon—and has engaged
in supplementary bombing or acts of terrorism against those three
countries plus Tunisia and for many years has maintained a terrorist
proxy army in Lebanon while carrying out numerous terrorist raids
there under its Iron Fist policy, inflicting heavy civilian casualties.
While the 1982 invasion of Lebanon was proclaimed to be in response
to terrorist attacks, in fact it was based on the absence of terrorist
attacks (despite deliberate Israeli provocations) and the fear of
having to negotiate with the Palestinians rather than continue to
ethnically cleanse them. There was no punishment or sanction against
Israel for these actions, as Israel benefits from a “privileged
right to aggression, state terrorism, and sponsorship of terrorism.” 

Fourth, given its right to ethnically cleanse and terrorize in violation
of Security Council resolutions and international law, its victims
have had no right to resist. They may be pushed off their land,
have their homes demolished, olive trees uprooted, and their people
killed by IDF and settler violence, but forcible resistance on their
part is unacceptable “terrorism,” to be “deeply deplored.”
A thousand or so Palestinians were killed by Israelis during their
first and non-violent phase of resistance in the initial Intifada
(1987-1992), but their passive resistance had no effect on the illegal
occupation. The international community did nothing to alleviate
their distress and Israel had a tacit understanding with the United
States that it would be supported in its violent response to the
Intifada until that resistance was broken. The ratio of Palestinians
to Israelis killed in those years was 25 to 1 or higher, but it
was the Palestinians who were labeled as terrorists. 

Fifth, the Israelis were also free to put in charge of the state
the person responsible for a string of terrorist attacks on civilians
and, at Sabra and Shatila, a massacre of somewhere between 800 and
3,000 Palestinian civilians. The Yugoslav Tribunal argued that genocidal
intent could be inferred from an action seeking to kill all the
people of a given group in one area, even if not part of a plan
to kill all of them elsewhere, citing their own earlier decisions,
plus a UN Assembly resolution of 1982 that the slaughter of 800
at Sabra and Shatila was “an act of genocide.” But that
kind of Tribunal judgment was applied only to target Serbs—it
was not applied by the West to Sharon and it didn’t even interfere
with his becoming an honored head of state.

Sixth, with rights to ethnically cleanse and terrorize, such invidious
words were not considered applicable to Israeli actions. They were,
however, applied with great indignation to Serb operations in Kosovo,
which were features of a civil war (stoked from abroad) and were
not, as in the Israeli case, designed to remove and replace an indigenous
population in favor of a different ethnic group. Israel had also
been the beneficiary of the privileged usage of the words “security”
and “violence.” The Palestinians may be far more insecure
than the Israelis and subject to a much higher and more sustained
level of violence, but again it is the Palestinians who must reduce
their resort to violence and the big issue is how Israel can be
made more secure. Palestinian security is not an issue in the West
because their victimization is of no concern and because their insecurity
is a result of their failure to accept the ethnic cleansing process. 

The ethnic cleansing process, which involves wholesale terrorism,
and is the causal force that has elicited a responsive Palestinian
retail terrorism, is actually put forward (along with the wall),
not as a deliberate program to “redeem the land” for the
chosen people, but as necessary to combat “terrorism”—and
the primary terrorists get away with this. 

Seventh, Israel is the only Middle Eastern state that has built
up a stock of nuclear weapons and they have been aided in this not
only by the United States, but also by France and Norway. This has
happened despite the 39 years of ethnic cleansing, record-breaking
violations of Security Council demands and international law, and
periodic invasions of Israel’s neighbors. This privileged right
to nuclear weaponry and exemption from the jurisdiction of the International
Atomic Energy Agency and Non-Proliferation Treaty flows from Israel’s
other privileges noted earlier and ultimately the protection and
cover of U.S. power. 

Eighth, the “free world” has been aghast at the possibility
that Iran might be positioning itself to acquire nuclear weapons
at some future date. Iran has been threatened with “regime
change” and bombing and other attacks by both the United States
and Israel, but because Iran’s actions conflict with the regime
of privilege in which only Israel (and its superpower underwriter)
have a security problem and right of self defense; others, like
Iran, must cope with the threat of attack and sanctions for engaging
in legal actions and possibly seeking nuclear means of self-defense,
without help from a “free world” busily appeasing the
United States and its Middle Eastern client. So Israel not only
has a nuclear privilege, it is privileged to be able to get the
“free world” to help it monopolize that privilege in the
Middle East, which of course gives it greater freedom to ethnically

Ninth, the “free world” has also been upset at the victory
of Hamas in the Palestinian election of January 25, 2006, in which
Hamas won 76 out of a total of 132 seats in Parliament; Fatah won
43. It is widely held that this new legal political power of Hamas
may disturb the “peace process,” and George Bush is not
prepared to negotiate with a group that employs “violence.”
Violence, however, is a Bush and U.S. specialty, with three major
aggressions in the last seven years and an openly announced program
of domination based on military superiority. Israel’s operations
in Palestine are violent beyond anything the Palestinians have been
able to muster, although, in the ludicrously biased West, “suicide
bombing” is horrifying, whereas “targeted assassinations”
are not. 

Hamas has grown in popularity because Fatah and its leaders have
failed to stop the ethnic cleansing process and have been unable
to halt a steady increase in Palestinian misery, with Israel walking
over Fatah’s leaders and making their tenure a complete failure.
Hamas was actually funded by Israel years ago with the objective
of splintering the Palestinians and weakening the secular Fatah.
It succeeded in this, but now that an Islamic group has taken on
power, they and their patron will be able to find another reason
to avoid any final negotiated settlement with the Palestinians who
have voted in a party that does not eschew violence—as Sharon
and Bush have mythically done. Hamas also refuses to disarm and
insists on the right to defend its people against a ruthless ethnic
cleansing occupation, but in the West this is unreasonable, as only
one side has the right to self-defense and a concern over “security.”
There is no right to resistance in this case of shriveled moral

The “peace process” is an ultimate Orwellism, which I
defined years ago in a doublespeak dictionary as, “Whatever
the U.S. government happens to be doing or supporting in an area
of conflict at the moment. It need not result in the termination
of conflict or ongoing pacification operations in the short or long
term.” So the “peace process” in Palestine, steadily
accepted or actively supported by the U.S. government, has been
characterized by intensified ethnic cleansing, the destruction of
the Palestinian infrastructure, the settlement of some 450,000 Jews
in the West Bank, the construction of an apartheid wall, and the
Israeli takeover of much of East Jerusalem—in other words,
the establishment by state terrorism of enough “facts on the
ground” to make any kind of viable Palestinian state unthinkable.
But for the propaganda organs of the “free world,” there
has been a meaningful “peace process” going on that the
election of Hamas might halt. 

How Do We Explain This Hypocrisy? 


his has all come about because
the Israeli leadership has wanted lebensraum for the chosen people,
the indigenous Palestinians have stood in the way and have had to
be removed, and the Israelis have been able to do this, with critical
U.S. military and diplomatic support. This process has fed on itself.
That is, the eventual Palestinian violent resistance, along with
Palestinian relative weakness and vulnerability, have exacerbated
the racist underpinning of the ethnic cleansing project with a resultant
increase in its savagery over the years, helped along by Israel’s
elevation to its recent leadership of a major war criminal. U.S.
aid and protection in the project has been crucial, as that has
prevented any effective international response to policies which
violate basic morality as well as law and which, if carried out
by a target state, would result in bombing and trials for war crimes. 

The U.S. role, and the neutralization of any “moral instinct”
in the United States, results in part from geopolitical considerations
and the role of Israel as a U.S. proxy and enforcer and from the
ability of the pro-Israel lobby and its grassroots and Christian
right supporters to cow the media and political establishment into
tacit or open support of the ethnic cleansing project. The lobby’s
tactics include aggressive exploitation of guilt, with references
to the Holocaust, identification of criticism of Israeli ethnic
cleansing with “anti-Semitism,” along with straightforward
bullying and attempts to stifle criticism and debate. 

These efforts have been aided by 9/11 and the “war against
terror,” which have helped demonize Arabs and make Israeli
policy a part of that supposed war. The lobby and its representatives
in the Bush administration were eager supporters of the attack on
Iraq and they are now fighting energetically for war against Iran—in
fact the lobby is the only sector of society calling for a confrontation
with Iran and it is planning a major campaign on Bush and Congress
to get the United States to take action. The Iraq war provided an
excellent cover for intensified ethnic cleansing in Palestine and
a further war, despite its serious risks, might help in a further
phase of ethnic cleansing and possible “transfer” of a
population that poses a “demographic threat.” 

The performance of the “international community” in the
face of the ethnic cleansing project has been a disgrace. Gung-ho
for war and trials of alleged villains in ex-Yugoslavia, where the
United States was pleased to oppose ethnic cleansing, selectively,
the EU, Japan, Kofi Annan, most of the NGOs, and the Arab states
have been gutless and their “moral instinct” paralyzed
by the U.S. commitment to Israel, the strength of Israel and its
diaspora, the Israeli exploitation of Holocaust guilt, and the racist
EU bias held over from the colonial past and exacerbated by the
flow of propaganda that features “suicide bombers,” not
targeted assassinations, massive and illegal brutalization, and
land theft. 

Palestine is a crisis area par excellence where a virtually helpless
people has been abused, humiliated, and steadily displaced by force
in favor of settlers protected by a huge military machine, supplied
in turn and protected by the United States, and with the tacit agreement,
if not more, of the rest of the “free world.” The big
issue now for the “free world” is, will Hamas behave and
accept ethnic cleansing (still in very active process) and possible
bantustan status at best or will it threaten to resist and to commit

It is very important because several million Palestinians are being
immiserated in a tragic system of violence that could be terminated
easily by the United States and the international community by threatening
an end to aid and possibly sanctions. 

The situation in Palestine is also very important because hundreds
of millions of Arabs and a billion or more people of the Islamic
faith, and billions beyond that, interpret the West’s treatment
of the Palestinians as a reflection of a racist and colonialist
attitude toward Arabs, Islamists, and Third World people more broadly.
It is a producer of anti-Western terrorism, but also, and even more
importantly, a deep anger, hatred, and distrust of the West and
its motives. It is a cancer that bodes ill for the future of the
human condition.

S. Herman is a media analyst, economist, and author of numerous books
and articles.