As a geopolitical nightmare plays out in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank, some of those who follow the news and politics closely in the United States are struggling to think clearly about a conflict they’ve been taught to believe is complicated and inscrutable.
The late public intellectual and broadcaster Michael Brooks said in remarks made at Lafayette College on February 27th, 2020, when asked about his position on the situation as a Jewish man, “My Jewish values teach me to oppose apartheid.”
So, it’s not a complex issue. That’s the big thing. It’s super simple. There’s one group that has enormous power. It’s the most powerful country in the Middle East. It’s backed by the United States. It acts on another population of people with total impunity and it’s never held accountable for anything.
As Brooks also notes, apartheid (the Afrikaans word for separate – as in a separate set of laws) has been applied to the Israeli government by not only the likes of Nelson Mandela himself, but also two previous Israeli Prime Ministers, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak.
American Jewish intellectuals and academics have been sounding the alarm for years, from Tony Judt in his essay in the New York Review of Books, “Israel: An Alternative” (2003) to journalist Peter Beinart in his book The Crisis of Zionism (2012). The arguments vary, but basically come down to this: Israel can be a nationalist ethnostate for only the Jewish people, or it can be a democracy. It cannot be both.
Of note, even the right of return to Israel for Jews has not been applied equally, as we’ve seen in the case of Ethiopian Jews for instance, between 1955 and 1975.
For a full examination of the impact of the Jewish return to Palestine, I recommend Professor Rashid Khalidi’s book, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017. Khalidi begins the history from the British Empire’s Balfour Declaration in 1917 and concludes with an examination of the Israeli crackdown after the Second Intifada with attacks on Gaza in 2008, 2012 and 2014.
Khalidi notes the massively lopsided death toll. Estimates for casualties vary, but the Second Intifada killed approximately 1,000 Israelis (around 700 Israeli citizens and 300 Israeli Defense Forces), while estimates of Palestinian losses were over 3,000. Israeli retaliatory attacks on Gaza in 2008 killed approximately 1,300 Palestinians (with 13 Israelis killed). The 2012 attack on Gaza killed about 100 Palestinians while 2 Israeli soldiers were killed.
Khalidi also notes, importantly, that these massively asymmetrical attacks and destruction were carried out with warplanes, bombs and artillery provided by the US government.
This is just a brief snapshot. A way to illustrate the absolute incongruity of losses over time. And this doesn’t include Palestinians displaced violently from West Bank towns and villages east of Jerusalem.
In 2005, the Israeli government closed all Jewish settlements in Gaza; however, more consequently, it placed the entire Gaza Strip under military siege by land, air and sea. Israel tightly controlled all supplies to Gaza including food, water, electricity, fuel, medicines and construction material. This allowed the Israelis to control even the amount of calories available to the people locked in the Gaza Strip.
In early 2006, Dov Weisglass, then a senior advisor to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, explained that Israeli policy was designed “to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” For more on Israel’s siege and military blockade of Gaza you should visit the website for the Institute of Middle East Understanding (IMEU).
The situation in the West Bank has been more accurately described as Jim Crow. Palestinians in the West Bank are also under military occupation and are susceptible to violence and displacement at any time.
On May 11th, 2022, the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was murdered by an IDF sniper in Jenin, West Bank. (Israel at first denied this, then as evidence mounted they were forced to admit it.) To add to the violent insult, the IDF attacked her funeral procession and struck pall bearers with batons.
In 2018 and 2019, in response to President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to disputed Jerusalem, tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered nearly each week at the Gaza border fences to protest the blockade. This “Great March of Return” was peaceful and non-violent, according to Peter Cammack, a fellow with the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Cammack argued that the march indicated a new trend in Palestinian society and Hamas, with a shift away from violence towards non-violent forms of protest.
Over the course of the Great March of Return demonstrations, 223 Palestinians were killed and 9,200 were injured. Notably IDF snipers shot at arms and legs specifically to maim the protesters. One Israeli was killed by shrapnel and four Israelis were injured by rocks thrown from near the fence. Human Rights Watch reported that while some Palestinians burned tires and hurled stones the IDF border guards were under no threat of firearms or conventional weapons.
Admittedly, these are just handpicked examples of a conflict that is one-sided in extremis. More importantly, this should make clear that this conflict did not begin with the Hamas attacks on October 7th. As violent and horrific as that massacre was, it was one strike in a very long, bloody and one-sided campaign. Demands to assess and denounce the October 7th attacks absent any of this historical context are absurd.
The current Israeli operation in Gaza is a genocide. Don’t take my word for it. Pay careful attention to people like Jewish scholar Judith Butler, or scholars of genocide, or Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
We can stop this. We need our politicians to be brave. While personal courage isn’t a quality we generally associate with Congress or politicians at any level, it is noteworthy that President Biden, a well-known devout Catholic, spoke at length with Pope Francis on October 22nd and on the 29th His Holiness publicly called for a ceasefire.
Two-thirds of Americans agree with a ceasefire now. America is in an especially unique position. We have the leverage. As of March of this year, the United States has provided Israel $158 billion (current, or non inflation-adjusted, dollars) in bilateral assistance and missile defense funding.
We are not bystanders. Ceasefire now.