The Thistle Volume 13, Number 2: Dec., 2000/Jan., 2001.

Crisis in the Middle East

Ariel Sharon

Ariel Sharon is a 72-year-old former general and current head of the right-wing Likud Party, out of government since the ouster of that lion of peace Benjamin Netenyahu by Barak. Sharon’s military carrier is long and decorated - both with Israeli honors and Arab blood. Starting with involvement in the Jewish militia Haganah in the 1940s, Sharon went on to form a commando unit that killed 70 people, over half of them women and children, in 1953. He then led Israeli repression of the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war. His most noted achievement came in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, where he ordered the Israeli army to watch Lebanese “militiamen” kill 2000 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

The Al Aqsa Intifada was allegedly triggered by Sharon’s visit to the Al Aqsa mosque on Thursday, 28 September. The Al Aqsa mosque houses the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam, where Muslims believe Mohammed ascended into heaven. Claiming to bring “a message of peace,” Sharon needed 1000 armed police escorts to help haul his heavy tidings. It is uncertain how this jives with his other stated purpose, to demonstrate “Jewish sovereignty” over the compound. Nonetheless, it was Barak’s government who authorized Sharon’s visit and who provided his travel assistants. It is more important to realize that the violence started after prayers on Friday, the day after Sharon’s visit, when Barak ordered a massive police and military presence at the mosque.

Since the violence has erupted, there has been talk about forming a government of “national unity” in Israel, where the major parties form a coalition and both hold major power in the cabinet. Barak talked about forming a unity government with Sharon, but the talks collapsed over Sharon’s demand to veto any peace deal with the Palestinians. Sharon’s blood-drenched past is well-know to Palestinians, who despise him as a potent symbol of Israeli military occupation. Who better to bring into government and grant final say over an agreement to than this messenger of peace?


Recall the cold statistics of the last two months’ death and destruction: 280 Palestinians, 38 Israeli Jews and 13 Israeli Arabs as of 9 December. 3. But more importantly, let us not overlook the non-fatal causalities so far suffered in this conflict, estimated at over 7000 by November. Compare this with the much lower rate of around 18,000 injuries during the entire six-year previous Intifada (1987-1993). Many of these injuries are to the eyes and knees, something most unusual. Soldiers and security personnel are always trained to shoot for the chest in life-threatening situations, since it is the largest area of the body. Targeting the knees, and especially the eyes, requires time and accuracy, something ill afforded in a life-and-death situation. Are Israeli soldiers firing from safe distances, with time to aim? Why would the Israelis want any “collateral damage”, as military analysts call victims others than soldiers?

We need go no further than the official comments of Ehud Barak for an answer. It is obvious that the lower the body count, the better for Israeli public relations: “The prime minister said that, were there not 140 Palestinian casualties at this point, but rather 400 or 1,000, this... would perhaps damage Israel a great deal.” (Jerusalem Post, Oct 30). Of course, injuries in the hands of a angry press, stoked by condemnation of human rights abuses by the State Department, could make much noise about the massive numbers of serious injuries. Perhaps a televised tour of Ramallah would rouse passions in much the same way a 20/20 segment reporting on the conditions in a makeshift Kosovar refugee camp during the NATO bombing campaign roused passions against Milosevic and for the war. Many of these people will live the rest of their lives with major handicaps; others will rot and die in wretched Palestinian hospitals. Children loosing eyes, women crippled in one leg, teen-agers without the use of an arm will haunt Palestine for decades to come - undead, and therefore unnoticed by the so-called “civilized” world.

This explains a low death rate, but why have any unnecessary casualties at all? There are many reasons, all of them grim. First, we should note that abuse of Palestinians by the Israeli occupation forces is decades-old, and one of the major causes of the rebellion. Jewish settlers have also been given relative free reign to use force against Palestinians, and they have availed themselves of the opportunity. Israel also wants to intimidate the population into submission and end the uprising; violence is an inevitable part of this. However, there is another, more subtle and long-term possibility. In “The Power of Monotonicity,” [see] Irit Katriel explains Israel’s ethnic cleansing strategy: “It’s not a dramatic, one time, horrible event that makes the world stand still. It’s a long term, monotone process, composed of many small incidents, each of which is a tragedy for one more family, and another byte of background noise for us.” Like the world in T. S. Elliot’s “The Hollow Men,” perhaps Palestine will end “not with a bang but a whimper.

US Aid

For decades, Israel has been the largest single recipient of US foreign aid each year. Never mind the widespread poverty among India’s 800 million people, all those admonitions from Beaver Cleaver’s father “eat your food, there are starving children in China,” and the breakdown of Russian society: Israel has gotten more money per year than these countries throughout recent history, totaling over $80 billion since 1974. Starting with 1987, American aid has been a fixed package of $1.2 billion in economic and $1.8 billion in military aid. Although not adjusted for inflation, it is still a staggering number compared to what other countries receive. For instance, sub-Saharan Africa receives less than 25% the aid Israel does. Israel also receives unique leeway in how it spends this money: while all other countries must specify in advance how they will use foreign aid, Israel’s aid is given as a “block grant,” over which they have discretion for how to spend it and never have tell the US how it was spent. Benjamin Netenyahu stated Israel’s desire to outgrow its need for US economic aid. To achieve this goal, Israel’s economic aid will gradually be shifted to military aid over the next decade, with half of the economic decrease going into increased military aid. In addition, the US is giving Israel $1.2 billion in additional military aid in FY2000 to help implement the Wye River Accords pullouts from the occupied territories (perhaps for similar reasons to why the US needs to increase its military budget now that the Cold War is over). Interestingly, the second largest recipient of US aid for the last 22 years has been Egypt, who attained this dubious status after making peace with Israel in the 1978 Camp David Accords.

US Aid to Israel

UN role

One player who has been conspicuously absent from the “Oslo peace process” is the intentional community. Except for the United Nations plan to partition Palestine in 1948, Israel has consistently opposed the involvement of any outside entity except for the United States in its conflict with the Palestinians. This is with good reason: the world is almost of one mind against Israeli aggression and military occupation of the Palestinian territories. The principle UN position with regard to the occupied territories is Security Council resolution 242 of 1967, which states that Israel should withdraw immediately to pre-June 1967 borders. This entails Israel leaving the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including Arab East Jerusalem, which it occupied in the 1967 war. This resolution was reaffirmed in resolution 338 as the basis for a peace settlement and the will of the international community. Both resolutions were supported by the United States and are ostensibly the underpinning of the Oslo Accords and subsequent peace negotiations: the “land-for-peace” formula. The attitude of the world and the Security Council has been that peace talks should not be seen as a horse-trade involving concessions and bargaining over land, but as discussion over how Israel will withdraw from illegally conquered territory. Barak’s “concessions” over East Jerusalem and Palestinian self-determination should be viewed as “conceding” that military invasion and take-over are unjustified, not as an act of noblesse.

The uniformity of world opinion about the Israel-Palestine conflict can be seen in UN votes. Numerous General Assembly resolutions that in various ways are “anti-Israel,” such as those condemning Israeli violence in the occupied territories, pass along the lines of 130 yes, 3 no, and 30 abstentions. The 130 are most of the world, the 3 are Israel, the US, and an obscure third-world country bribed to sooth are damaged ego, and the 30 are US allies who are torn between their pledged allegiance to our flag and either the rest of the world or their true position. Security Council resolutions, the ones with real “teeth” that can impose sanctions and authorize the use of force, reveal an even more disturbing picture. It is frequent for resolutions regarding Israel to have 14 votes in favor and either 1 abstention or 1 veto, the non-yes vote being the United States. America has used its veto power incessantly to protect Israel from world opinion; what is more worrisome is that US obstruction is vigorously supported by domestic politicians, the press, the and general population. This October, the Council passed by a vote of 14 yes, 1 abstention a resolution deeming Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount as instigating the Al Aqsa Intifada and condemning Israel for its resulting excessive use of force against Palestinians. In a New York Senate debate, candidates Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio were asked not if the US should have voted for the resolution or even what the US should have done, but if the US should have vetoed it. Both candidates fell over each other clamoring for a US veto and affirming their support for Israel. One would think that seeing the world, from Britain to France to China to Africa to Latin America, united in their condemnation of Israel would at least give us reason to pause and re-examine our policy; superpower status apparently has its privileges.

Israeli opposition to UN and non-US involvement is an established pattern. One of the first UN peacekeeping mission the US took part in a was in Lebanon in 1982, to help contain the civil war triggered by Israel’s invasion that June. The two superpowers as a rule were not involved in peacekeeping because they could never be accepted as neutral: certain elements of any given conflict were invariably opposed to them, and certain other factions were invariably backed by them. This logic played itself out in gory detail when 255 American peacekeepers were killed by a bomb set off in a Beruit disco. One reason Americans took the extraordinary step of joining the peacekeeping force is that Israel insisted on an American role, specifically rebuffing European offers of personnel.

Israeli opposition to international monitors continues to the present uprising. One of the main Palestinian demands at the Sharm al-Sheik summit immediately following the outbreak of violence on Sept. 28 was that an international team investigate the violence taking place and its causes. Israel and the US steadfastly opposed, and instead got the Palestinians to agree to a US team of fact-finders. The Palestinians have also called for the dispatching of a UN peacekeeping force to act as a buffer between them and the Israeli, again to be rejected by the US-Israel.

Throughout the Israel-Palestine conflict, Arafat the PLO have called for greater European and intentional involvement, only to be blocked by Israel and the United States. Thus, the United States, rather than the UN or the international community, has been the mediator during the last 7 years of negotiations. The fundamental problem with this is that regardless of what one thinks about whether the US should support Israel, it is indisputable that America is not a neutral, impartial agent; how can a country that has clearly taken a side in the dispute negotiate a fair settlement and gain the trust of both parties? One Israeli official explained that the reason Palestinians think Israel sees US proposals before they do is because Israel writes them.

The Economic Consequences (and Causes) of the War

A crucial aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and one barely discussed in the US, is economics. The Palestinian economy has been wholly subservient to Israel since the occupation. A large portion of Palestinians commute to Israel for work, going through heavily-guarded border crossings each way. These people provide a ready source of cheap labor for Israel, which has worked assiduously through the Oslo process to prevent an economically-independent Palestine from developing. Besides labor, Israel also has control over certain extremely valuable water resources in the occupied territories, and hopes to retain sovereignty over them by conveniently placing settlement or access roads in the area.

The economic outlook of average Palestinians, both in Israel and the occupied territories, is bleak. In the territories, employment for many is at the whim of Israel. During unrest, it frequently “seals off” Palestinian cities and denies Palestinians access to Israel. On top of being an affront to one’s dignity, these moves cut off people from their jobs. During the current Intifada, the UN estimates Palestinian unemployment has skyrocketed from 12 to 40 percent in the last 2 months. Israel also controls the Palestinian Authority’s purse strings by occasionally withholding transfer payments of tax revenue Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians. Might Israel’s ability to turn Palestinian income on and off like a faucet contribute to their rage?

Arab Israelis

One of the frequently-forgotten victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict are the ethnically Palestinian citizens of Israel, referred to as the Arab Israelis. They comprise 20% of Israel’s population and are mostly the families of the 1/3 of the 870,000 Arabs living in Palestine in 1948 that were not expelled during Israel’s bloody birth. These people suffer massive discrimination and persecution in Israel to the present day. They were ruled by military edict from 1948 until 1966, when they were given a modicum of rights. According to Edward Said in the December issue of Z, Israeli Arabs can vote and serve in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), but they cannot own land or serve in the military. An Arab Israeli member of the Knesset was visited by an angry Jewish mob with the intent of capturing him during the beginning of the current Intifada (he was warned and escaped). This is only part of the many anti-Arab Jewish demonstrations that have been occurring in Israel and the Jewish settlements, with hardly any media coverage in this country.

While the Arab Israelis were mostly quiet before the current uprising, including the 1987 Intifada, they are taking part in the current rebellion. Said attributes this to the long discrimination suffered in Israel - where everything from land ownership to marriage to education to statistical publications are based on who is Jew and who isn’t - coupled with their sense of identity with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip suffering under the military occupation.

“Settlements” (i.e., colonies)

Ever since the 1967 War, Israel has engaged in a systematic campaign to “settle” the occupied territories with Jews. There are currently over 200,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and an additional 170,000 in East Jerusalem alone. The settlements clearly serve one purpose: to establish political control through the immigration of members of a certain group (Jewish). Can there be a better definition of colonization?

Palestinians are well aware of the nature of Israeli settlements. The Oslo accords explicitly forbid the movement of populations with the intent of changing the political reality during the negotiating phase, but this is precisely what Israel has done. For instance, the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied territories has doubled since the beginning of Oslo in 1993. Israel wants to retain security control over not just the settlements but also an elaborate system of roads connecting them. Palestinians see this as an attempt to geographically divide their small future state and give the Israeli army an unwanted permanent foothold in their country. This, coupled with the wild-West frontiersmen attitude (and arms) of many settlers, is why the settlements have been some of the major flashpoints in the current Intifada.


The Thistle Volume 13, Number 3: Dec., 2000/Jan., 2001.