Monday, November 17, 2008

California Cuts Education Budget at its Own Peril

California is cutting education funding at its own peril

The costs to the state in the long run will be much greater than the expense of supporting our schools now.

[Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times on November 17, 2008]

With California's budget now facing an $11-billion shortfall, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed billions of dollars in spending cuts, most of them aimed at the state's already beleaguered schools, colleges and universities.

The governor's proposal is now on the table of the special legislative session that he called to address the budget crisis, so this is the time to draw a line to defend our public education system, before any further damage is added to the toll already taken by years of budget cuts on the educational -- and hence life -- prospects of a whole generation of Californian students.

Most of the prospective cuts -- more than $2 billion -- would be to California's public elementary, middle and high schools, on top of the $3-billion cut from K-12 funding in the current budget.

According to the Census Bureau, California is already spending far less than the national average for each of its students, and about half what states such as New York and New Jersey and even the District of Columbia spend per student.

There is nothing left to pare. "From Siskiyou County to San Diego, districts have spent reserves, reduced staff, eliminated transportation or increased class sizes over the past difficult year," warned Jack O'Connell, state superintendent of public instruction. "The governor's proposed additional $2 billion in cuts to K-12 education would not only create catastrophic disruption in our schools and harm to our students in the middle of the school year, they would damage our future economy."

The governor is also proposing to slash $330 million from community college budgets, $66 million from the Cal State system and $66 million from the University of California -- all, again, on top of cuts that have already been made. In schools and colleges alike, spending cuts have immediate implications for the classroom (fewer instructors, fewer classes, more students per instructor, etc.).

But universities don't just teach, they produce knowledge. In fact, what makes a great university great is that its students are taught by those engaged in state-of-the-art research. And cuts in spending on research can far outlast the transitory budget crises that produced them. A library that is forced to stop buying books may never recover, even if its budget is eventually restored. A lab that can't purchase needed equipment will fall behind. Faculty members whose research stalls can lose touch with their fields and spend years playing catch-up. Many will leave, and schools that develop reputations as underfunded second- and third-tier institutions will find it difficult to replace them. Merely restoring a budget sometime in the future will not instantly undo those kinds of losses.

We live in a global-knowledge economy in which California developed a leading role in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s precisely because of the strength of its education system. Cal State and UC produced many of the highly skilled professionals working in science, computing, gaming, animation, writing and film production that together drive the state's economy. To under-fund our educational system is to jeopardize our position in the global economy.

The problem is not simply a lack of money. We also have some of our spending priorities back to front. Even before the budget cuts, the state planned to spend $5,900 a student in California's higher-education system this year (including community college students) but almost 10 times that amount ($58,000) per inmate in our bloated prison system, which absorbs as much money from the state budget as Cal State and UC combined.

Not only can we afford to spend more on education, but we Californians have repeatedly shown our willingness to tax ourselves for public projects we believe in: Witness the recent votes in favor of Proposition 1A and Measure R to raise transportation funds, and the passage of all 23 school bond measures on the L.A. County ballot, including the $7-billion Measure Q.

No one likes to pay higher taxes, of course, especially in difficult economic circumstances. And the current crisis will force us to make some tough choices. But if we choose not to collectively finance the state's education budget at the required levels, more of a burden will fall on individual students and their families, many of whom simply won't be able to afford it. Cal State and UC both warn of fee increases next year of up to 10% if state cuts go through, and they may also have to deny admission to thousands of qualified students. Community colleges may have to turn away more than 250,000 current students.

Not paying for the education system that made California an economic powerhouse is not an option: We can pay now, or we can pay much more later in lost opportunities carrying dollar price tags just as real as those of tax increases, not to mention the social cost of having a higher-education system beyond the reach of more and more Californians.

California has a $2-trillion economy, the eighth-largest in the world, ahead of Canada, Russia, India and Brazil, among others. Not only can we afford to offer our children a first-rate public education from kindergarten through college, but we are cheating them, and ourselves, if we don't.

But our ability to raise the necessary revenue is currently being blocked by conservatives in the state Legislature who have categorically refused to countenance new taxes -- and hence left the state no option but to cut. By starving our educational system of the funds it needs, they have chosen to protect the narrow interests of those who can afford to send their kids to private schools and universities, rather than the much broader public that voted them into office in the first place. That's a choice they may come to regret at election time.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Occupation by Bureaucracy

Occupation by bureaucracy

[Originally published in the International Herald Tribune, 24 June 2008]

A cease-fire went into effect in Gaza last week, offering some respite from the violence that has killed hundreds of Palestinians and five Israelis in recent months. It will do nothing, however, to address the underlying cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Intermittent spectacular violence may draw the world's attention to the occupied Palestinian territories, but our obsession with violence actually distracts us from the real nature of Israel's occupation, which is its smothering bureaucratic control of everyday Palestinian life.

This is an occupation ultimately enforced by tanks and bombs, and through the omnipresent threat, if not application, of violence. But its primary instruments are application forms, residency permits, population registries and title deeds. On its own, no cease-fire will relieve the beleaguered Palestinians.

Gaza is virtually cut off from the outside world by Israeli power. Elsewhere, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the ongoing Israeli occupation comprehensively infuses all the normally banal activities of Palestinians' everyday lives: applying for permission to access one's own land; applying for what Israel regards as the privilege - rather than the right - of living with one's spouse and children; applying for permission to drive one's car; to dig a well; to visit relatives in the next town; to visit Jerusalem; to go to work; to school; to university; to hospital. There is hardly any dimension of everyday life in Palestine that is not minutely managed by Israeli military or bureaucratic personnel.

Partly, this occupation of everyday life enables the Israelis to maintain their vigilant control over the Palestinian population. But it also serves the purpose of slowly, gradually removing Palestinians from their land, forcing them to make way for Jewish settlers.

Just in 2006, for example, Israel stripped 1,363 Jerusalem Palestinians of the right to live in the city in which many of them were born. It did this not by dramatically forcing dozens of people at a time onto trucks and dumping them at the city limits, but rather by quietly stripping them, one by one, of their Jerusalem residency papers.

This in turn was enabled by a series of bureaucratic procedures. While Israel continues to violate international law by building exclusively Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, it rarely grants building permits to Palestinian residents of the same city. Since 1967, the third of Jerusalem's population that is Palestinian has been granted just 9 percent of the city's official housing permits. The result is a growing abundance of housing for Jews and a severe shortage of housing for non-Jews - i.e., Palestinians.

In fact, 90 percent of the Palestinian territory Israel claimed to have annexed to Jerusalem after 1967 is today off-limits to Palestinian development because the land is either already built on by exclusively Jewish settlements or being reserved for their future expansion.

Denied permits, many Palestinians in Jerusalem build without them, but at considerable risk: Israel routinely demolishes Palestinian homes built without a permit. This includes over 300 homes in East Jerusalem demolished between 2004 and 2007 and 18,000 Palestinian homes in the occupied territories demolished since 1967.

One alternative has been to move to the West Bank suburbs and commute to Jerusalem. The wall cutting off East Jerusalem from the West Bank and thereby separating tens of thousands of Jerusalem Palestinians from the city of their birth has made that much more difficult.

And it too has its risks: Palestinians who cannot prove to Israel's satisfaction that Jerusalem has continuously been their "center of life" have been stripped of their Jerusalem residency papers. Without those papers, they will be expelled from Jerusalem, and confined to one of the walled-in reservoirs - of which Gaza is merely the largest example - that Israel has allocated as holding pens for the non-Jewish population of the holy land.

The expulsion of half of Palestine's Muslim and Christian population in what Palestinians call the nakba (catastrophe) of 1948 was undertaken by Israel's founders in order to clear space in which to create a Jewish state.

The nakba did not end 60 years ago, however: It continues to this very day, albeit on a smaller scale. Yet even ones and twos eventually add up. Virtually every day, another Palestinian joins the ranks of the millions removed from their native land and denied the right of return.

Their long wait will end - and this conflict will come to a lasting resolution - only when the futile attempt to maintain an exclusively Jewish state in what had previously been a vibrantly multi-religious land is abandoned.

Separation will always require threats or actual violence; a genuine peace will come not with more separation, but with the right to return to a land in which all can live as equals. Only a single democratic, secular and multicultural state offers that hope to Israelis and Palestinians, to Muslims, Jews and Christians alike.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Banned in the USA (Almost)

Banned in the U.S.A. (Almost)

[A shorter version of this piece was originally published 8 June 2008 in The Washington Post]

I didn't think America was a place where bookstores barred people for their viewpoints, until it happened to me last month, right here in Washington, D.C., the city of my birth.

I had been scheduled to appear at Politics & Prose, one of the city's best known bookstores, to talk about my latest book, Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation.

Then, at the last minute, the bookstore owners realized that my book questions the viability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (mostly because, after 40 years of intensive Israeli settlement, there's no land left for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, almost half of which is now taken up by Israeli infrastructure)—and that it concludes with an argument in favor of a single democratic, secular and multicultural state in which Israelis and Palestinians could live peacefully as citizens with equal rights.

My appearance at the bookstore was immediately cancelled.

"I do not believe that your book will further constructive debate in the United States," one of the owners wrote, seeking to justify the sudden cancellation. "A single state is not a solution."

Needless to say, I was dismayed to have had my invitation to speak on an urgent issue abruptly rescinded just because I express a different point of view from the one sanctioned not just by the White House and State Department but also, apparently, by a supposedly independent bookstore.

My own cancellation fits into a larger pattern, however.

The Irish poet Tom Paulin, of Oxford University, had been invited to speak at Harvard University a few years ago; apparently with the blessings of Harvard's president, his appearance was cancelled because of his views about Israel/Palestine.

Professor Joel Beinin of Stanford University had been invited to speak about Israel/Palestine at a school in the Silicon Valley early last year; his appearance was cancelled when the school came under outside pressure.

Professor Tony Judt of NYU had been invited to speak about Israel/Palestine at the Polish Consulate in New York the previous fall; his talk was cancelled after the consulate came under pressure from the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.

Both Judt and Beinin are Jewish, incidentally; but both believe that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as Israelis. Apparently that point of view has no place in American discussions of the conflict.

Neither, it seems, does President Carter's assertion that—by creating two different road networks, maintaining two different legal systems, and granting rights to one population that it forcibly denies to another living in the same territory—Israel is practicing a kind of Apartheid.

Nor does the assertion, by Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, that a powerful but informal lobby stifles the free discussion of Israel and Palestine in the United States: Mearsheimer too has had at least one long-standing invitation to speak abruptly rescinded—ironically confirming his and Walt's argument for them.

The fact that senior scholars from the nation's major universities (and even elder statesmen) are prevented from speaking—or are drowned out by emotional invective—simply because they do not toe an official line suggests that the civic culture on which our country was founded has broken down, at least when it comes to the question of Palestine and Israel.

However, the fact that more and more people are encountering silence, intimidation or censorship when they question the conventional wisdom, or official policy, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is a sign that more and more people are starting to ask questions in the first place. So the attempt to deny alternative points of view a forum (or to angrily shout them down if they succeed in reaching a public) is a sign not of the strength but of the weakness of those who adhere to the official line. As the great English poet John Milton pointed out three centuries ago, only those who worry that their own position is faulty have something to fear from letting other points of view be heard.

Today that fear has reached new levels.

But can we as a nation really afford not to hear each other out as we evaluate our policies in the Middle East?

And should Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular not be allowed to speak? Or should they be allowed to speak only if their erstwhile audience gets to tell them what they should say? What then is the point of a conversation? What is the alternative to conversation? Does foreclosing conversation not simply empower those who say that it's a waste of time?

Anyway, what is so unspeakably wrong with saying that justice, secularism, tolerance and equality of citizens—rather than privileges granted on the basis of religion—should be among the founding values of a state?

And what does it mean that one can be barred from expressing such a sentiment at a liberal bookstore in the capital city of the United States of America?

[Postscript: After receiving letters of protest and eloquent entreaties by bloggers, Politics & Prose decided to reissue my invitation.]

Friday, May 16, 2008

Debate on Democracy Now!

As Israelis Celebrate Independence and Palestinians Mark the “Nakba,” a Debate with Benny Morris, Saree Makdisi and Norman Finkelstein

Originally aired on Democracy Now!!, 16 May 2008

Sixty years since the creation of Israel and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, we host a debate on the legacy of 1948 and the possibility of a just future for both Israelis and Palestinians with three guests: Benny Morris, seen as one of the most important Israeli historians of the 1948 war and after; Saree Makdisi, UCLA professor and author of Palestine Inside Out; and Norman Finkelstein, author of several books, including Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict and Beyond Chutzpah.


Benny Morris, Israeli historian of 1948. His latest book is 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War.

Saree Makdisi, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCLA and the author of Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation.

Norman Finkelstein, Author of several books, including The Holocaust Industry, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict and Beyond Chutzpah.

Rush Transcript

AMY GOODMAN: We continue today on the sixtieth anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel. Today, a debate around the legacy of 1948 and a possibility of a just future for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Benny Morris is seen as one of the most important Israeli historians of the 1948 war. From his first book twenty years ago, Morris has documented Israeli atrocities and the expulsion of Palestinians, considered part of a group of so-called “revisionist” historians who challenged conventional Israeli thinking about 1948. However, unlike his critics to the left, Morris did not consider the expulsions to be part of a systematic Israeli policy of transfer. His latest book, published in March by Yale University Press, is called 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War. He joins us here in our firehouse studio.

We’re also joined in California by Saree Makdisi. He’s in Los Angeles, professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA. His latest book is Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation, just out this month. His most recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times is titled “Forget the Two-State Solution: Israelis and Palestinians Must Share the Land Equally.”

We are also joined on the telephone from Brussels by Norman Finkelstein, author of four books, including The Holocaust Industry, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict and Beyond Chutzpah. He was in Brussels addressing a group of parliamentarians around the issue of Palestinians.

And our guest remains on the line, Tikva Honig-Parnass, who fought in the 1948 war, now is a progressive writer in Israel and critical of what happened in 1948.

Benny Morris, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain, from your perspective, from your research, what happened in 1948.

BENNY MORRIS: Well, based on a large amount of documentation, which I’ve gone through over the years, several decades, in fact, the international community in the wake of the Holocaust voted to establish two states in Palestine, to divide the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jewish side, the Zionist movement, the Jewish Agency Executive accepted the international decision and went about establishing their state.

The Palestinian Arabs, backed by the Arab world, rejected the decision and went to war against the Jewish community in Palestine and subsequently against the state which was established half a year later. As a result of this war, some 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes, not really turned into refugees, most of them, because they were moved or moved from one place in Palestine to another. About one-third moved out of Palestine and were genuine refugees.

AMY GOODMAN: And on what do you base all of this?

BENNY MORRIS: Oh, on masses and masses of Israeli, American, United Nations, British documentation. The Arab documentation isn’t available. The Arab states, all of them being dictatorships, do not open their archives. But all Western archives, especially the Israeli archives, give a very good picture of what actually happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of your finding within the state of Israel—you’re basing much of this on Israeli documents—how you broke with convention in Israel?

BENNY MORRIS: Yeah. The traditional Zionist narrative about what had happened in ’48, especially relating to the refugee problem, was that the refugees had been ordered, instructed, advised by their leaders, by Palestinian leaders or Arab leaders outside the country, to flee, and that is why 700,000 left their homes. The documentation gives us a much, much broader and a more nuanced picture of what happened. Most of the people who were displaced fled their homes. A small number were expelled. Most fled their homes as a result of the war, the fear of battle, the fear of being attacked, the fear of dying. A small number also left because of the economic conditions. And a small number were advised or instructed by their leadership, as in Haifa in April 1948, to leave the country. But it’s a mixed bag, with the war itself, the hostilities themselves and fear of being hurt being the main precipitant to flight.

AMY GOODMAN: You have written that the humiliation of the Arabs going back to 1949 is what underlies so much of the hostility today. Lay out what you see as the humiliations.

BENNY MORRIS: It’s a historic humiliation. It’s not a private, personal humiliation. I think the Arab world was brought up—the Islamic Arab world was brought up on tales of power and conquest dating back to the seventh century and the expansion of Islam and the Arabs out of the Arabian Peninsula and the conquest of the Mediterranean Basin, parts of Europe, and so on. And they had a self-image of a powerful people.

And what happened in the—after the Turkish Ottoman conquests in the fifteenth century and subsequently belittled the Arab world, disempowered it. And then came the European imperial incursions, sometimes conquests in the nineteenth century. And topping all that came the Zionist influx and the unsuccessful Arab war against it in 1947-48. And this was a humiliation the Arab world could not take. 630,000 Jews had bested a 1.2 million Palestinians and 40 million Arabs surrounding that 630,000-strong community. And this humiliation is something which they have never been able to erase and still, I think, motivates them in large measure in their desire to erase the state of Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: How was it that for so many years the Zionist narrative was that there were either no Palestinians—it was an empty land—or the Palestinians left of their own accord?

BENNY MORRIS: These are different subjects, but I think the Zionists preferred not to see the 500,000-or-so natives who were there, as they regarded them at the end of the nineteenth century, because if they had sort of looked at them and they’d have seen the problem of what do you do with 500,000 people who don’t want you to arrive and settle in your—in what they regarded as their land, this would have knocked out the confidence from the Zionists and undermined their enterprise. It was better to see that the—to believe that the land was in some way empty. But if you look at the actual Zionist documentation, they did see the Arabs, and they knew there was a problem almost from the start.

When it comes to the Palestinian so-called—most of them so-called refugees or the displaced of ’48—look, political movements, peoples like to feel good about themselves and to feel that their cause is just. My belief is the cause, the Zionist cause, was just, and they had good reasons to believe—to see themselves as good. But every war has its dark side, especially civil wars, which are notably vicious. And ’48 also had a dark side, which involved the displacement of 700,000 people and the decision by the Israeli government—and this is the crucial decision—there was never a decision to expel, but there was a decision not to allow back the refugees. And this, in some ways, is a dark side to the ’48 war, which was a glorious war of the creation of the state of Israel; the defeat of larger armies, ultimately larger countries, by a small and weak community. But they preferred not to look at the dark side.

AMY GOODMAN: Saree Makdisi, I wanted to bring you in, a professor at UCLA joining us from Los Angeles. Your response to Benny Morris?

SAREE MAKDISI: Well, I mean, I think the most interesting thing is the way in which Dr. Morris talks about there being a problem way before 1948, and he’s entirely right. When the Zionist movement decided to create a Jewish homeland or a Jewish state in a land that had a largely non-Jewish population at the beginning of the twentieth century, there was in fact a problem. He’s totally right. So the question is, as he puts it in his own work, what do you do with this big population that doesn’t want there to be a state that displaces them or ignores them or sidesteps them or overshadows them or whatever? And as his own research shows and as the research of other historians shows, from the—at least the mid-1930s on, there’s talk of removing the population.

And that goes on to this very day in different forms. I mean, for example, there are people in Israel itself in Israeli politics to this very day, both within Israel proper and in the Occupied Territories, who talk about completing the process of transfer, of removal, of 1948.

And as he also says, the other thing is that, irrespective of what language one uses—and notice how candy one can be with the use of language: are they “refugees”? Are they “displaced persons”? It doesn’t really matter what language one uses; the people who were removed from their homes, that’s what matters. And as he says himself in what he just said now, what matters isn’t so much that they were removed from their homes, it’s that they were never allowed back to their homes. So whatever the circumstances of the removals and expulsions of 1948, the more important fact is, that was seen as something—as an issue forty years previously, if not longer before that, and as an issue to be blocked when they decided—when they wanted to go back to their homes after the fighting stopped. And they’ve never been allowed to go back, as you know, despite their moral and legal right to do so. That’s what this is all about.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Finkelstein, let me bring you into this conversation, author of a number of books on Israel-Palestine—his latest is Beyond Chutzpah—speaking to us from Brussels.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, as it happens, on the plane ride over here, I read Benny Morris’s new book, and what was most surprising to me is that although the documentation remains pretty much the same as the past several books—he’s added some new material, but it’s pretty much the same as several previous books he’s written on the topic—the conclusions and the political framework has been radically changed.

Now, it’s no problem for people to change their opinions on the basis of new evidence, but what happens in Morris’s new book, 1948, is he radically changes his opinions by subtracting evidence. So let’s take just briefly, because we’re a radio program, some examples. In his previous book, he says transfer was inevitable and inbuilt into Zionism, and this aim automatically produced resistance among the Arabs. And he goes on to say in another book that it was the fear of territorial dispossession and displacement that was to be the chief motor of Arab antagonism to Zionism. So we have two basis facts: number one, Zionism, inbuilt into it was the expulsion of the indigenous population; and number two, the Palestinians or Arabs opposed Zionism, because they were fearful of losing their homes and losing their country.

But now, when you open up his new book, cause and effect have been reversed. It becomes now the Palestinians who are the “expulsionists,” to use his words, and it’s the Zionist movement which is reacting to the Palestinians, which causes them to be occasionally expulsionists. It’s as if to say the Native American population of the United States was expulsionist, because it refused to acquiesce in the European settlers taking over their homes.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Morris?

BENNY MORRIS: I think Finkelstein has a blinkered view, and he sees only certain documents. What I try to do is look at actually the breadth of the documentation and derive conclusions about the past.

The Palestinian National Movement, led by Haj Amin al-Husseini in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, wanted to expel the Jews. The Jews felt they had a moral right to live in the country and to reestablish their sovereignty in the country, at least in part of it. And the Palestinians thought not. They didn’t care about Jewish history. They cared nothing about Jewish tragedy or persecution over the 2,000 years and wanted to expel them from the country. They didn’t get the chance, because they lost the war. So the war—something like the reverse had happened.

But the fact is—and this is something most Arab commentators ignore or don’t tell us—the Palestinians rejected the UN partition resolution; the Jews accepted it. They accepted the possibility of dividing the country into two states, with one Arab state and a Jewish state. And the Jewish state, which was to come into being in 1947-48, according to the United Nations, was to have had an Arab population of 400,000 to 500,000 and a Jewish population of slightly more than 500,000. That was what was supposed to come into being, and that is what the Zionist movement accepted. When the Arabs rejected it and went to war against the Jewish community, it left the Jewish community no choice. It could either lose the war and be pushed into the sea, or ultimately push out the Arab minority in their midst who wanted to kill them. It’s an act of self-defense, and that’s what happened.

My facts in any—in all my books have not changed at all. They’re all there. But one has to look at also the context in which things happened, and this was the context: an expulsionist mentality, an expulsionist onslaught on the Jewish community in Palestine by Palestine’s Arabs and by the invading Arab armies, and a Jewish self-defense, which involved also pushing out large numbers of Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Saree Makdisi, this issue of the acceptance of the partition, can you take it from there?

SAREE MAKDISI: Yeah. I mean, there are several things about it. For one thing, as Dr. Morris points out, it’s true that the mainstream Zionist movement accepted the partition plan. But on the other hand, as his own historical record shows, Ben-Gurion and others were very frank that the acceptance was meant to be tactical rather than sort of, you know, whole-hearted. So the idea was to accept and then go from there, not just to accept and then really settle down into the two states as envisaged by the UN partition plan.

Meanwhile, the Arab rejection of the plan had to do with the fact that basically they were-–the Palestinians and Arabs were being told that they should become a minority in their own land. That’s what this is fundamentally all about, as well. So, the question is, which viewers have to contemplate is, what would they do if somebody came and told them that they should either become a minority in their own homeland—that is, second-class citizens—or be removed from their homeland? And I think almost anybody would say this is an unreasonable proposition. So, again, it comes back to the question of, what would you do in this situation?

But more than that, I think what’s important to ask Dr. Morris, as long as we have him with us, is: when you talk about—Dr. Morris, when you talk about the events of 1948 in that famous interview with Haaretz in 2004, you say quite clearly that ethnic cleansing is justified and that the main problem, as far as you see it—then, anyway—was that Ben-Gurion didn’t go far enough in completing the ethnic cleansing, that he should have removed as much as possible of the non-Jewish population all the way to the Jordan River. So my question to you is, is this still a position that you hold? Do you still think it was justified? Do you still think that Ben-Gurion should have finished the job? And do you think still that in some ways that is the origin of the conflict as it persists to this day?

BENNY MORRIS: My point in the Haaretz interview, and I repeat it since then, is that a Jewish state could not have arisen with a vast Arab minority—40, almost 50, percent of its population being Arabs—which opposed the existence of that Jewish state and opposed their being a large minority in that state. And they went and they showed that by going to war against the Jewish state, which left the Jews in an intolerable position: either they give in and don’t get a state, or they fight back and in fighting back end up pushing out Arabs.

My point also was that had—and this is really the point, and I think you would agree with it and understand it perhaps on the logical plane, if not on the emotional plane—had the war ended, the 1948 war ended with all the Palestinian population being moved—moving, it doesn’t matter how—across the Jordan River and there establishing their state in Jordan, across the river, a Palestinian Arab state, and had the Jews had their state without or without a large Arab minority on the west bank of the Jordan River, between the river and the Mediterranean Sea, the history of the Middle East, the history of Israel-Palestine, the history of the Palestinians and of the Jews, would have been much better over the past sixty years. Since ’48, all we’ve had is terrorism, clashes, wars, and so on, all of which have caused vast suffering to both peoples. And had this separation of populations occurred in 1948, I’m sure the Middle East would have enjoyed, and both peoples would have enjoyed, a much better future since 1948.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break. Then we’re going to come back to this discussion. Our guests are Benny Morris, a professor, historian at Ben-Gurion University in Tel Aviv. We’re also joined from UCLA by Saree Makdisi, who is the author of the book Palestine Inside Out. On the phone with us from Brussels is Norman Finkelstein, among his books, The Holocaust Industry and Beyond Chutzpah. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: As we continue this discussion, I wanted turned, though, to an excerpt of an interview I did with former US President Jimmy Carter. This is President Carter talking about his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid and why he describes the situation in Palestine as one of apartheid.

    JIMMY CARTER: Well, the message is very clear. It deals with Palestine, not inside Israel itself, just the Palestinian Occupied Territories. […] And the word “apartheid” is exactly accurate. You know, this is an area that’s occupied by two powers. They are now completely separated. Palestinians can’t even ride on the same roads that the Israelis have created or built in Palestinian territory. The Israelis never see a Palestinian, except the Israeli soldiers. The Palestinians never see an Israeli, except at a distance, except the Israeli soldiers. So within Palestinian territory, they are absolutely and totally separated, much worse than they were in South Africa, by the way.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Morris, your response?

BENNY MORRIS: I think the image of apartheid is problematic and inaccurate. I think there are—there is a separation of the settlers—between the settlers and the local Arab population in the territories, between the soldiers, the Israeli soldiers, and the Arab population, but it all stems from a vast problem of security: Arab terrorism, Arab warfare by neighboring states who support the Palestinians. And the whole thing is simply a mechanism of self-defense, which has—which has obviously unpleasant and anti-humanitarian offshoots.

But you have to remember—and this is something people also forget when they talk about history—in 1967, Israel was assaulted by Jordan in the West Bank. It didn’t go into the West Bank and East Jerusalem out of free will. The Jordanians opened up with cannon and machine guns against West Jerusalem and against the environs of Tel Aviv. And Israelis reluctantly went into the West Bank and started this occupation. It wasn’t something generated or initiated by Israel. It was defending themselves against Jordanian attack. I’m not talking now about the southern front, but the central front. The Jordanians were told twice on the morning of the 5th of June, ’67, “Do not shoot. We will not touch you.” And after they started shooting, King Hussein of Jordan was told by the Israelis through American and UN intermediaries, “Stop shooting, and we will not touch East Jerusalem or the West Bank.” He continued shooting and forced Israel’s hand. Unfortunately, Israel stayed there after ’67, until, in some ways, this very day. And this is a large part of the problem. But it’s worth looking at the root of the problem, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Finkelstein?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, first of all, the comparison with apartheid at this point has become almost a cliche. If you opened up Haaretz, Israel’s most influential newspaper, just two weeks ago, it had an editorial, which read, “Our Debt to Jimmy Carter,” and it says that although Israelis feel uncomfortable with the apartheid analogy, they go on to say, quote, “the situation begs for the comparison.” So I don’t think it’s really controversial, what Carter said, in the real world.

Number two, I think Dr. Morris is probably the only one on earth who still believes all of Israel’s actions in the Occupied Territories bear strictly on security. Does he really believe that all 460,000 settlers in the Occupied Territories, the settlements, the Jewish bypass roads, or Jews-only bypass roads—can he possibly believe still that these are there only for security and not because Israel wants to annex the territory? This is not very serious.

Furthermore, Mr. Morris engages in all sorts of fantasies about what happened in 1967. Now is not the time to go through it. But if you read Tom Segev’s book, you’ll find, already in the third week of May, the Israeli officer corps was stating clearly that "Come what may, we’ll use the opportunity of the next war to occupy or to annex or to attack the West Bank.”

BENNY MORRIS: OK, can I—can I—

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: It’s true—it’s true—it’s true that Mr. Hussein, keeping to his peace treaty with—or I should say his treaty with Egypt, joined in the attack after Israel launched its attack on Egypt. But this notion that the West Bank just by chance came to be occupied, just like Mr. Morris’s fantasy that 700,000 Palestinians just by chance came to find themselves outside their homes in 1948, is just not serious.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Morris?

BENNY MORRIS: I don’t know why Norman Finkelstein calls what I write “fantasies.” Most of his work on the Middle East and on the Israeli-Arab problem is based on my work. Look at his footnotes. But that’s a separate issue.

There is no fantasy at all in understanding that in ’67 Israel was under mortal—in mortal peril, under Arab threat and attacked by the Jordanians and by the Syrians. The business of the south and the Egyptians is more complex, but he also knows that the Egyptians closed the Straits—

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: One second, Egypt attacked Israel in 1967?

BENNY MORRIS: No, do not—I didn’t—I didn’t bother you. I didn’t bother you. I didn’t interfere with you. Please let me finish.

The Egyptians closed the Straits of Tiran, expelled the United Nations peacekeeping force and threatened Israel with destruction in May 1967, and this is what led to the crisis. You are right that there were expansionist urges among some parts of the Israeli population, including part of the officer corps, not the officer corps, but that isn’t what motivated the Israeli government to strike at Egypt on the 5th of June. What motivated the Israeli government—and it doesn’t matter what Tom Segev writes or doesn’t write in his book, which is a pretty bad book, but that’s not the point—the key thing was security in ’67. I think you even understand that.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Security is always the key thing, Mr. Morris.

BENNY MORRIS: It’s not always—it is the key. It’s true. Since Israel—

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: You can justify taking over a whole continent in the name of security.

BENNY MORRIS: Since Israel—since Israel was invaded—since Israel—

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: That’s what Hitler did.

BENNY MORRIS: Since Israel is—the comparison of Israel with Hitler is ridiculous—

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, but the—no, the notion of security—

BENNY MORRIS: —the same as your book on the Holocaust is ridiculous.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: —to constantly justify expansion.

BENNY MORRIS: No, security is a fact of Israel—

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Every state does that, Mr. Morris.

BENNY MORRIS: The problem of—

AMY GOODMAN: One at a time.

BENNY MORRIS: The problem—no, he’s interfering with what I’m saying.


NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: That’s how we went from the East Coast to the West Coast. We called it “security.”

BENNY MORRIS: The problem of security has reigned, dominated over Israeli life since ’48 quite justifiably. Israel was attacked by the Palestinian Arabs. It was invaded by Arab states. It was threatened for decades with extinction by its Arab neighbors and is currently being threatened with extinction by the Hamas, by the Hezbollah and by the Iranian patrons who are trying to get atomic weapons. So don’t dismiss the problem of security in Israeli minds or objectively.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Makdisi, I want to bring you into this discussion. Your response?

SAREE MAKDISI: OK. Well, I mean, there are several things to be said. The first of all is the business of security. And, you know, actually, I am convinced that Dr. Morris is speaking the truth, I mean that he’s being honest when he says that this is a question of security. In other words, I think that the Israelis really do think that security is what matters and that it justifies all of their actions.

The question is, what kind of collective neurosis does it take when the fact that what they’re doing in the Occupied Territories isn’t just holding territory to defend their very existence, as he’s putting it, but actively settling, colonizing—illegally colonizing—the Occupied Territories? As he knows, or as he ought to know, to this very day, the Jewish settler population in the Occupied Territories is increasing at a rate three times greater than that of the rate of population increase of Israel itself. So there is a will here to settle the land. Now, are you going to tell me that the process of putting in civilians into militarily occupied territory is done on the basis of security? Whose security is safeguarded by—

BENNY MORRIS: Let me just add something.

SAREE MAKDISI: —actively—can I finish my sentence? Whose security is safeguarded by putting civilians into a war zone? That just doesn’t make any sense at all as an argument. That doesn’t mean that the Israelis don’t also think there’s a question of security.

But the question is, when the Israelis look at these things, one has to understand a kind of collective neurosis is taking place, and I think that’s part of why we’re at loggerheads here, because they are convinced that everything—look at the way he’s talking. Before the break, what he was saying was, the conflict wouldn’t now have the shape that it does if the ethnic cleansing of 1948 had been completed all the way to the Jordan River. Another way of saying the same thing would—to go back to what he’s saying, which is why it’s justified, as far as he’s concerned—is if the Palestinian people had been literally annihilated in 1948, there also wouldn’t be much of a conflict now, because the other people wouldn’t be there. Now, is that justified? And how can one talk about the process of either mass expulsion or genocide, virtual or literal or whatever, in terms of security? So, and then also, how can one talk about—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s put the question to Professor Morris.

BENNY MORRIS: Amy, please.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you for the completion of the expulsion of Palestinians?

BENNY MORRIS: No, I’ve always said that I’m opposed, both morally and on practical grounds, to expulsion in present circumstance—

SAREE MAKDISI: That’s not what you said in that interview.

BENNY MORRIS: —in present—that’s what I said in the interview, as well—in present circumstances. But projecting back on ’48, I said both peoples would have had a much pleasanter, a more pacific existence since ’48, if what had happened between Turkey and Greece in the 1920s had happened also in Palestine. But that’s the secondary subject here at the moment.

You raised the subject of settlements, and I think we’re in partial or even more than partial agreement on the problem of settlements. I have always opposed Israel’s settlement venture in the territories, realizing that the establishment of settlements represented an obstacle to peace. But this doesn’t undermine the argument that some of the settlement was undertaken with security in mind. It’s true that other factors entered into it, such as a desire to return to historic homelands. Religious convictions and so on went into the settlement venture, as well. But there was always, underlying the settlement venture, especially along the Jordan River in certain places on the high ground of Judea and Samaria, there were security considerations in establishing settlements.

These should have been overtaken by a desire for peace and a peace agreement by both peoples. Unfortunately, this desire for peace, I don’t think exists on the side of the Palestinians and on the part of some of their patrons like Iran, Hezbollah, and so on. I think, incidentally, if you look at any poll of Israel’s Jewish population, it will tell you that the Israelis, by and large, 70 percent, 80 percent, want to get out of the West Bank and to end the settlement venture. But Hamas and Hezbollah and Iran and others have not enabled them to leave, because they haven’t enabled or haven’t persuaded the Palestinians that peace is the right option and a two-state solution is the only possible settlement.

AMY GOODMAN: We have about forty-five seconds for each of you to talk about what has to happen right now. I want to begin with you, Norman Finkelstein. At this point, what needs to happen?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: What has to happen is, Israel has to join the international community and accept the principles for resolving the conflict that the entire world has accepted. You look at the last UN General Assembly resolution passed 161-to-7, the seven dissenting states being the United States, Israel, Nauru, Palau, Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Australia. 161 countries said a full Israeli withdrawal to the June ’67 borders and a just resolution of the refugee question. That’s what the whole accepts, and that’s what Israel rejected.

AMY GOODMAN: Benny Morris, what has to happen?

BENNY MORRIS: There has to be a change of mindset on the Palestinian side and acceptance of the two-state formula as the only necessary formula for a solution. Without the acceptance of two states, there will never be peace in Palestine.

AMY GOODMAN: Saree Makdisi?

SAREE MAKDISI: At this point, precisely because of the kind of aggressive colonization of the Occupied Territories, it’s no longer possible to separate the two populations, if it ever was. I’m not sure that it ever was, but certainly at this point it isn’t possible to do so. So the only way out at this point is for the two peoples to share the land equally and to realize that each—for each side to realize the other is not going to go away and that fantasizing about completing the process of 1948, as Benny Morris has done, is not going to lead to peace and that the only way out is peaceful, just coexistence.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you have hope that there will be peace, Saree?

SAREE MAKDISI: Yes, I do have hope, because, in fact, the situation we’re in now is a situation where there’s a country that rules over more or less equal populations of Jews and non-Jews, and it privileges Jews over non-Jews, it gives rights to Jews over non-Jews—

BENNY MORRIS: A one-state—

AMY GOODMAN: Benny Morris, do you have hope?

BENNY MORRIS: A one-state solution will end in anarchy and bloodshed. It will not exist for very long.

SAREE MAKDISI: Why? What’s wrong with the people in mixed populations?

BENNY MORRIS: Because Jews and Arabs are so different and have been in enmity for 120 years. Those are Muslims, and those are Jews. Those have Allah, and those have God, or at least they’re mostly secular, they cannot live together in one polity. They’re too different types of peoples.

SAREE MAKDISI: You know as well as I do, Professor Morris, that the great moments of Sicily and Spain, and so forth, and Baghdad, etc., were always moments where Jews and Arabs lived together and worked together—

BENNY MORRIS: Totally different circumstances.

SAREE MAKDISI: Well, circumstances change. It’s not one—

BENNY MORRIS: Totally different circumstances. [inaudible]

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we will certainly continue to discuss this. We urge you, folks, to write in; you can write to us at Saree Makdisi, Benny Morris, Norman Finkelstein in Brussels, we thank you all for being with us.

Forget the Two State Solution

Forget the two-state solution

Israelis and Palestinians must share the land. Equally.

[originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 11 May 2008]

There is no longer a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Forget the endless arguments about who offered what and who spurned whom and whether the Oslo peace process died when Yasser Arafat walked away from the bargaining table or whether it was Ariel Sharon's stroll through the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem that did it in.

All that matters are the facts on the ground, of which the most important is that -- after four decades of intensive Jewish settlement in the Palestinian territories it occupied during the 1967 war -- Israel has irreversibly cemented its grip on the land on which a Palestinian state might have been created.

Sixty years after Israel was created and Palestine was destroyed, then, we are back to where we started: Two populations inhabiting one piece of land. And if the land cannot be divided, it must be shared. Equally.

This is a position, I realize, which may take many Americans by surprise. After years of pursuing a two-state solution, and feeling perhaps that the conflict had nearly been solved, it's hard to give up the idea as unworkable.

But unworkable it is. A report published last summer by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs found that almost 40% of the West Bank is now taken up by Israeli infrastructure -- roads, settlements, military bases and so on -- largely off-limits to Palestinians. Israel has methodically broken the remainder of the territory into dozens of enclaves separated from each other and the outside world by zones that it alone controls (including, at last count, 612 checkpoints and roadblocks).

Moreover, according to the report, the Jewish settler population in the occupied territories, already approaching half a million, not only continues to grow but is growing at a rate three times greater than the rate of Israel's population increase. If the current rate continues, the settler population will double to almost 1 million people in just 12 years. Many are heavily armed and ideologically driven, unlikely to walk away voluntarily from the land they have declared to be their God-given home.

These facts alone render the status of the peace process academic.

At no time since the negotiations began in the early 1990s has Israel significantly suspended the settlement process in the occupied Palestinian territories, in stark violation of international law. It preceded last November's Annapolis summit by announcing the fresh expropriation of Palestinian property in the West Bank; it followed the summit by announcing the expansion of its Har Homa settlement by an additional 307 housing units; and it has announced plans for hundreds more in other settlements since then.

The Israelis are not settling the occupied territories because they lack space in Israel itself. They are settling the land because of a long-standing belief that Jews are entitled to it simply by virtue of being Jewish. "The land of Israel belongs to the nation of Israel and only to the nation of Israel," declares Moledet, one of the parties in the National Union bloc, which has a significant presence in the Israeli parliament.

Moledet's position is not as far removed from that of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as some Israelis claim. Although Olmert says he believes in theory that Israel should give up those parts of the West Bank and Gaza densely inhabited by Palestinians, he also said in 2006 that "every hill in Samaria and every valley in Judea is part of our historic homeland" and that "we firmly stand by the historic right of the people of Israel to the entire land of Israel."

Judea and Samaria: These ancient biblical terms are still used by Israeli officials to refer to the West Bank. More than 10 years after the initiation of the Oslo peace process, which was supposed to lead to a two-state solution, maps in Israeli textbooks continued to show not the West Bank but Judea and Samaria -- and not as occupied territories but as integral parts of Israel.

What room is there for the Palestinians in this vision of Jewish entitlement to the land? None. They are regarded, at best, as a demographic "problem."

The idea of Palestinians as a "problem" is hardly new. Israel was created as a Jewish state in 1948 only by the premeditated and forcible removal of as much of the indigenous Palestinian population as possible, in what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe, which they commemorate this week.

A Jewish state, says Israeli historian Benny Morris, "would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. ... There was no choice but to expel that population." For Morris, this was one of those "circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing."

Thinking of Palestinians as a "problem" to be removed predates 1948. It was there from the moment the Zionist movement set into motion the project to make a Jewish state in a land that, in 1917 -- when the British empire officially endorsed Zionism -- had an overwhelmingly non-Jewish population. The only Jewish member of the British government at the time, Edwin Montagu, vehemently opposed the Zionist project as unjust. Henry King and Charles Crane, dispatched on a fact-finding mission to Palestine by President Wilson, concurred: Such a project would require enormous violence, they warned: "Decisions, requiring armies to carry out, are sometimes necessary, but they are surely not gratuitously to be taken in the interests of a serious injustice."

But they were. This is a conflict driven from its origins by Zionism's exclusive sense of entitlement to the land. Has there been Palestinian violence as well? Yes. Is it always justified? No. But what would you do if someone told you that there was no room for you on your own land, that your very existence is a "problem"? No people in history has ever gone away just because another people wanted them to, and the sentiments of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull live on among Palestinians to this day.

The violence will end, and a just peace will come, only when each side realizes that the other is there to stay. Many Palestinians have accepted this premise, and an increasing number are willing to give up on the idea of an independent Palestinian state and embrace instead the concept of a single democratic, secular and multicultural state, which they would share equally with Israeli Jews.

Most Israelis are not yet reconciled this position. Some, no doubt, are reluctant to give up on the idea of a "Jewish state," to acknowledge the reality that Israel has never been exclusively Jewish, and that, from the start, the idea of privileging members of one group over all other citizens has been fundamentally undemocratic and unfair.

Yet that is exactly what Israel does. Even among its citizens, Israeli law grants rights to Jews that it denies to non-Jews. By no stretch of the imagination is Israel a genuine democracy: It is an ethno-religiously exclusive state that has tried to defy the multicultural history of the land on which it was founded.

To resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, Israeli Jews will have to relinquish their exclusive privileges and acknowledge the right of return of Palestinians expelled from their homes. What they would get in return is the ability to live securely and to prosper with -- rather than continuing to battle against -- the Palestinians.

They may not have a choice. As Olmert himself warned recently, more Palestinians are shifting their struggle from one for an independent state to a South African-style struggle that demands equal rights for all citizens, irrespective of religion, in a single state. "That is, of course," he noted, "a much cleaner struggle, a much more popular struggle -- and ultimately a much more powerful one."

I couldn't agree more.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Interview in Boston Globe

The Interview | With Saree Makdisi

Language and conflict

By Anna Mundow

May 4, 2008

Saree Makdisi, professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA, is the author of "Romantic Imperialism" and "William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s." His latest book, "Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation" (Norton, $24.95), is a lucid, invaluable chronicle of Palestinian daily life in the occupied territories. Makdisi, who alternates firsthand accounts with reports and interviews involving the United Nations, the World Bank, and Israeli and international human rights organizations, observes that "if the Palestinians will never recuperate Palestine as it was before the arrival of Zionism, and Israelis will never realize a purely Jewish state . . . they can at least put their two impossible ideals aside for the sake of a common future."

The son of a Lebanese father and Palestinian mother, Makdisi was born in Washington, D.C., raised in Beirut, and educated in the United States. He spoke from his home in California.

Q. What is the link between your literary and your political writing?

A. I'm primarily interested in the work of Romantic-era writers like Blake and [Percy Bysshe] Shelley who lived in times of tremendous upheaval and spoke out against the prevailing point of view, who questioned the orthodoxy. That's an inspiration for me.

Q. Which orthodoxy are you challenging here?

A. The prevailing orthodoxy that in general Israel is the aggrieved party and the Palestinians are the aggressors, whereas it seems to me that the situation is exactly the opposite. Half of Palestine's people were forced from their homes during the creation of Israel, in 1948; they have never been allowed to return although they have the legal and moral right to do so. Instead we see the continuing existence of a system that keeps people displaced and unable to exercise their full human rights.

Q. And you insist that language is central in this?

A. Think of the way language is used to describe this conflict. For example, technically, legally, and morally, there's a distinction between "colony" and "settlement." You settle your own territory, you colonize somebody else's. What the Israelis are doing in the occupied territories is colonizing. So why is an activity that the dictionary defines as colonization portrayed as settlement? Yet even I use the term "settlement" in this book.

Q. Because you don't want to confuse the reader?

A. And be marked as an extremist. What does it mean when someone who uses language accurately can be dismissed as an extremist?

Q. But this conflict is hardly about language . . . .

A. No, it's about land. From the late 19th and early 20th century on, the project was to establish a Jewish homeland or state - they're not the same thing, by the way - . . . on land that had an overwhelmingly non-Jewish population. If you think about it, such a project will always require violence.

Certainly from the early 1930s on, leading figures like [David] Ben-Gurion were clear that their project entailed the removal of as much of the Palestinian population as possible. That process continues to this day in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with incredible pressure brought to bear on the indigenous Palestinian population.

Q. Why do you concentrate on everyday life?

A. It's the least-known aspect of the occupation. So much of the conflict is portrayed in the mainstream US media in slogans or clich├ęs. But when you hear from the guy who can't get to his cucumber farm or the woman who can't get to the hospital to give birth, it's very hard to argue with those things.

Q. Have the Palestinians brought this on themselves?

A. I don't think it's helpful to blame the victims. A better question is what does Israel get to do in order to assert its own security? According to international law, there are things you can and cannot do as an occupying power. If you don't like those constraints, don't be an occupying power. If the Israelis are unhappy with the results of their occupation, with what it has led people to do, let them end it. They will be much more secure if they do.

Q. You say that "the rights of Palestinians are inseparable from the rights of Israelis"? Explain.

A. For all the talk of a two-state solution, only one state controls the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. In that state, the Jewish half of the population has full rights, the non-Jewish half doesn't. That is unjust. But neither side is going to go away. I favor a situation in which both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians Arabs live in equality in a single, democratic, secular, and multicultural state that does not discriminate on the basis of religion as Israel does. . . .

Q. Is that seen as a possibility?

A. It is among Palestinians. I talked to everybody from politicians to ambulance drivers, and they all said it's one piece of land, the two populations are mixed, the only way is to live together. They want to get on with their lives. Among Israelis, only a small number thinks this way, because there's no pressure to do so. No sanctions, no boycott, no peaceful pressure from the outside, which is what I advocate - I'm against violence directed against civilians in any circumstances. . . . Historically speaking, no privileged group has voluntarily relinquished its privileges. That happens only when pressure is brought to bear. Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert himself has said that as soon as Palestinians adopt the South African paradigm and set of demands - one person, one vote - the world will take the Palestinian side. I wish the Palestinian leadership would get that message.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Strangulation of Gaza

The Strangulation of Gaza

[Originally published in The Nation, February 1, 2008]

The people of Gaza were able to enjoy a few days of freedom last week, after demolition charges brought down the iron wall separating the impoverished Palestinian territory from Egypt, allowing hundreds of thousands to burst out of the virtual prison into which Gaza has been transformed over the past few years--the terminal stage of four decades of Israeli occupation--and to shop for desperately needed supplies in Egyptian border towns.

Gaza's doors are slowly closing again, however. Under mounting pressure from the United States and Israel, Egypt has dispatched additional border guards armed with water cannons and electric cattle prods to try to regain control. It has already cut off the flow of supplies crossing the Suez Canal to its own border towns. For now, in effect, Suez is the new border: even if Palestinians could get out of Gaza in search of new supplies, they would have to cross the desolate expanses of the Sinai Desert and cross the canal, on the other side of which they would find the regular Egyptian army (barred from most of Sinai as a condition of the 1979 Camp David treaty with Israel) waiting for them.

Now that Gaza's fleeting taste of freedom is beginning to fade, the grim reality facing the territory's 1.5 million people is once again looming large. "After feeling imprisoned for so long, it has been a psychological relief for Gazans to know that there is a way out," said John Ging, the local director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). "But it does not resolve their crisis by any stretch of the imagination."

Indeed, all the frenzied shopping in Egyptian border towns brought into Gaza a mere fraction of the food that UN and other relief agencies have been blocked by Israel from delivering to the people who depend on them for their very survival. As long as the border with Egypt is even partially open, Israel refuses to open its own borders with Gaza to anything other than the bare minimum of industrial fuel to keep the territory's one power plant operating at a subsistence level, and a few trucks of other supplies a day.

UNRWA has almost depleted the stocks of emergency food aid it had previously built up in Gaza. Only thirty-two truckloads of goods have been allowed to enter Gaza since Israel imposed its total closure on January 18; 250 trucks were entering every day before last June, and even that was insufficient to meet the population's needs.

On January 30 UNRWA warned that unless something changes, the daily ration that it will distribute on the 31st to 860,000 destitute refugees in Gaza will lack a protein component: the canned meat that is the only source of protein in the food parcels--which even under the best of circumstances contributes less than two-thirds of minimum daily nourishment--is being held up by Israel, and the stock of those cans inside Gaza has been exhausted. The World Food Program, which feeds another 340,000 people in Gaza, has brought in nine trucks of food aid in the past two weeks; in the seven months before that, it had been bringing in fifteen trucks a day.

Gazans have been ground into poverty by years of methodical Israeli restrictions and closures; 80 percent of the population now depends on food aid for day-to-day subsistence. With the aid, they were receiving "enough to survive, not to live," as the International Red Cross put it. Without it, they will die.

All this is supposed to be in response to Palestinian militant groups' firing of crude homemade rockets into Israel, which rarely cause any actual damage. There can be no excuse for firing rockets at civilian targets, but Israel was squeezing Gaza long before the first of those primitive projectiles was cobbled together. The first fatal rocket attack took place four years ago; Israel has been occupying Gaza for four decades.

The current squeeze on Gaza began in 1991. It was tightened with the institutionalization of the Israeli occupation enabled by the Oslo Accords of 1993. It was tightened further with the intensification of the occupation in response to the second intifada in 2000. It was tightened further still when Israel redeployed its settlers and troops from inside Gaza in 2005 and transformed the territory into what John Dugard, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories, referred to as a prison, the key to which, Dugard said, Israel had "thrown away." It was tightened to the point of strangulation following the Hamas electoral victory in 2006, when Israel began restricting supplies of food and other resources into Gaza. It was tightened beyond the point of strangulation following the deposition of the Hamas-led government in June 2007. And now this.

When Israel limited commercial shipments of food--but not humanitarian relief--into Gaza in 2006, a senior government adviser, Dov Weisglass, explained that "the idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet but not to make them die of hunger."

Israel's "diet" was taking its toll even before last week. The World Food Program warned last November that less than half of Gaza's food-import needs were being met. Basics including wheat grain, vegetable oil, dairy products and baby milk were in short supply. Few families can afford meat. Anemia rates rocketed to almost 80 percent. UNRWA noted at about the same time that "we are seeing evidence of the stunting of children, their growth is slowing, because our ration is only 61 percent of what people should have and that has to be supplemented."

By further restricting the supply of food to an already malnourished population, Israel has clearly decided to take its "diet" a step further. If the people of Gaza remain cut off from the food aid on which their survival now depends, they will face starvation.

They are now essentially out of food; the water system is faltering (almost half the population now lacks access to safe water supplies); the sewage system has broken down and is discharging raw waste into streets and the sea; the power supply is intermittent at best; hospitals lack heat and spare parts for diagnostic machines, ventilators, incubators; dozens of lifesaving medicines are no longer available. Slowly but surely, Gaza is dying.

Patients are dying unnecessarily: cancer patients cut off from chemotherapy regimens, kidney patients cut off from dialysis treatments, premature babies cut off from blood-clotting medications. In the past few weeks, many more Palestinian parents have watched the lives of their sick children ebb slowly, quietly and (as far as the global media are concerned) invisibly away in Gaza's besieged hospitals than Israelis have been hurt--let alone actually killed--by the erratic firing of primitive homemade rockets from Gaza, about which we have heard so much. (According to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, these rockets have killed thirteen Israelis in the past four years, while Israeli forces have killed more than 1,000 Palestinians in the occupied territories in the past two years alone, almost half of them civilians, including some 200 children.)

Israel's squeeze is expressly intended to punish the entire population for the firing of those rockets by militants, which ordinary civilians are powerless to stop. "We will not allow them to lead a pleasant life," said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when Israel cut off fuel supplies on January 18, thereby plunging Gaza into darkness. "As far as I am concerned, all of Gaza's residents can walk and have no fuel for their cars."

Olmert's views and, more important, his policies were reaffirmed and given the legal sanction of Israel's High Court. In what human rights organizations referred to as a "devastating" decision, on January 30 the court ruled in favor of the government's plan to further restrict supplies of fuel and electricity to Gaza. "The decision means that Israel may deliberately deprive civilians in Gaza of fuel and electricity supplies," pointed out Sari Bashi, of the Gisha human rights organization in Israel. "During wartime, the civilian population is the first and central victim of the fighting, even when efforts are made to minimize the damage," the court said. In other words, harm to the civilian population is an inevitable effect of war and therefore legally permissible.

That may be the view of Israel's highest legal authority, but it is not how the matter is viewed by international law, which strictly regulates the way civilian populations are to be treated in time of war. "The parties to a conflict must at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants in order to spare the civilian population and civilian property," the International Red Cross points out, invoking the Geneva Conventions and other founding documents of international humanitarian law. "Neither the civilian population as a whole nor individual civilians may be attacked."

Moreover, no matter what Israel's High Court says, what is happening in Gaza is not a war in the conventional sense: Gaza is not a state at war with the state of Israel. It is a territory militarily occupied by Israel. Even after its 2005 redeployment, Israel did not release its hold on Gaza; it continues to control all access to the territory, as well as its airspace, territorial waters and even its population registry. Over and above all the routine prohibitions on attacks on the civilian population and other forms of collective punishment that hold true in case of war, in other words, international law also holds Israel responsible for the welfare of the Gaza population. Article 55 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) specifically demands, for example, that, "to the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population; it should, in particular, bring in the necessary foodstuffs, medical stores and other articles if the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate."

Israel's methodical actions make it clear that it is systematically grinding down and now actually starving people for whose welfare it is legally accountable simply because it regards Gaza's 1.5 million men, women and children as a surplus population it would, quite simply, like to get rid of one way or the other: a sentiment made quite clear when Israel's chief Ashkenazi rabbi proposed, shortly after the current crisis began, that the entire Palestinian population of Gaza should just be removed and transferred to the Egyptian desert. "They will have a nice country, and we shall have our country and we shall live in peace," he said, without eliciting even a murmur of protest in Israel.

The overwhelming majority of Gazans are refugees or the descendants of refugees who were expelled from their homes when Palestine was destroyed and Israel was created in 1948. Like all Palestinian refugees, those of Gaza have a moral and legal right to return to the homeland from which they were expelled. Israel blocks their return for the same reason it expelled them in the first place, because their presence would undermine its already tenuous claim to Jewishness (this is the nature of the so-called "demographic problem" about which Israeli politicians openly complain). As long as the refugees live, what Israel regards as the mortal threat of their right of return lives on. But if they would somehow just go away...

"Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the knowledge, acquiescence and--some would say--encouragement of the international community," the commissioner-general of UNRWA warned recently.

The question now is whether the world will simply sit and watch, now that this unprecedented threshold is actually being crossed.

Having taken matters into their hands and destroyed the wall cutting them off from the outside world, it is most unlikely that the people of Gaza will simply submit to that fate. A hermetic closure ultimately depends not merely on Israel's whims but on Egypt's willingness--or ability--to cut off the Palestinians of Gaza and watch them starve. For all the US and Israeli pressure on Egypt, and for all the steps Egypt is now taking, it seems most unlikely that it would let things go that far. Not intervening to save fellow Arabs from the Israeli occupation is one thing; actually participating in their repression is quite another. The Egyptian government would have to answer not only to the people of Palestine but to its own people, and indeed to all Arabs.

Working together, Hamas and the people of Gaza have forced Egypt's hand and made much more visible than ever before the role it had been playing all along in the Israeli occupation and strangulation of Gaza; now that its role in assisting Israel has been revealed, it will be difficult for Egypt to go back to the status quo. Gazans have thrown Israel's plans into disarray, because Israel's leaders could do little more than watch with pursed lips as the people of Gaza burst out of their prison. And they have placed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the government of Ramallah in a corner: they will have to choose between defending their people's rights and needs or confirming once and for all--as indeed they are doing--that the PA is there to serve Israel's interests, not those of the Palestinians. In which case they too will one day be called to account.