In the Israeli minefield

It’s like entering a minefield to seriously discuss Israel and Palestine, a tale of two peoples who claim the same land.

I’ve entered this minefield before and have been called an ”anti-semite” and an “Israel hater” for saying pretty much what the sentence above suggests, that Palestinians feel a legitimate bond with the land Israel claims and holds with its military prowess. The individual who called me those names is an antiwar liberal on everything but Israel, at which point he becomes a jackboot militarist without a shred of mercy.

I’ve also been critical of governments like El Salvador’s, but I’ve never been called anti-Hispanic or an El Salvador hater. My concern was for the Salvadoran government and its US patron to stop the repression of the poor. I’m also opposed to the repression of democracy in places like Iran.

Israel trips on its own hard line

The killing by Israeli commandos of nine Turkish passengers or crew members on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara has, on one hand, raised the bar on public discussion of Israel and Palestine, while on the other, it has thrown a monkey wrench into talks among the US, Israel and the Palestinian Authority as it has moved Turkey from a tentative friend of Israel to a bitter enemy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to meet Tuesday with Barack Obama to patch up the embarrassment over Jerusalem settlements during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit. Netanyahu canceled and returned to Israel.

Demonstrators outside the Israeli consulate Tuesday in PhiladelphiaDemonstrators outside the Israeli consulate Tuesday in Philadelphia

The Hamas government in Gaza is noticeably absent from the shambles known as The Proximity Talks. It has been branded a “terrorist” organization and it has to cope with an Israeli, Egyptian and US supported blockade of supplies into the sliver of land on the Mediterranean. (Following the ship incident, Egypt opened its border with Gaza.)

It all might have been different.

In January 2006, Hamas won a parliamentary election, which included Palestinian voters from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Hamas received 44.5 percent of the vote to Fatah’s 41.4 percent, giving Hamas the right to form a government.

The US and Israel then connived with the losing Fatah element in the Palestinian Authority to mount military attacks on Hamas, as they worked to financially starve Hamas so it could not run the government it had been elected to run. When the dust settled, Hamas governed only Gaza. Then, Israel began the blockade and in December 2008 launched a punitive military attack into Gaza to wreck the place.

While Hamas is certainly not without sin, a UN report makes it clear the vast amount of violence and destruction was on the part of Israel.

As a shameful example how Americans are kept ignorant in this journalistic minefield, on Tuesday, in a New York Times story by Isabel Kershner, absolutely no mention of the 2006 election is made and instead she writes Hamas “took over [Gaza] by force in 2007.” Considering its famous motto — “All the news that’s fit to print” – I guess the full truth just didn’t fit.

The fact is a legal, democratic plurality of Palestinians felt Fatah and the Palestinian Authority were corrupt and too cozy with Israel, and they voted in candidates they felt had more integrity and that presented a tougher face to the Israelis. The fact they were then attacked and were able to defend their mandate at least in Gaza cannot even remotely be described as taking the place “by force.”

In this context, it’s good to remember that the first Likud prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, began his career leading the Irgun, the group that blew up the King David Hotel at midday, killing 91 Brits, Arabs and Jews. The British put a 10,000 pound price on Begin’s head. Begin was a “terrorist.”

So there’s plenty of “terror” to go around. What needs to happen is less demonizing and more honest, civilized negotiations to move beyond the cycle of killing.

There have been a number of attempts to break the Gaza blockade by sea and through Egypt. The early sea-based efforts got through. But they grew and eventually were stopped. This latest was the largest and was clearly seen by Israel as an action with serious symbolic power.

Einat Wilf, a Labor member of the Knesset, said she warned Defense Minister Ehud Barak that the flotilla was a public relations issue and not something to respond to militarily. “This had nothing to do with security,” she told The New York Times. “The armaments for Hamas were not coming from this flotilla.”

Force cannot solve Israel’s problem

Israel’s history, from the vantage point of many Israelis, is a strange echo of US Manifest Destiny, where land already populated by one people is coveted as the exclusive property of a second people. Many Israelis feel they have made the desert bloom and Palestinians are second class citizens in their land.

Israel identifies itself as a “western” nation, something that was intensified with the ascendancy of the Likud right. We all know the basic history: The Zionist movement began in Europe in the mid-1800s, and following the Holocaust Jews fled Europe, arriving in Palestine with frightful baggage and a propaganda-driven mission of renewal and regeneration in a new land.

But this is not the 17th or 19th Century when a people could be destroyed with no one save the victims raising a word of protest. Instead, we have a modern human disaster, the dark underside of that post-Holocaust destiny, in which Israelis have created a modern culture with all the western comforts — while they virtually imprison the Palestinians who also have a legitimate claim to the land.

The Israeli writer Amos Oz says, “Force cannot solve the problem that we are not alone in this land.”

A friend of mine who was a tank driver in the Six Day War lives outside Jerusalem. He thinks my views are wrong-headed and hostile to Israel, yet we remain friends. When I saw him here in early May, his mood was especially dark and fatalistic. Enemies were everywhere; at one point, he said Israel might have to resign itself to an exchange of nuclear weapons.

I suspect this cornered point-of-view is the way many Israelis feel in the current intractable climate with a blockheaded Likud on one side and Iran on the other.

According to former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, “the international blockade of Gaza is not sustainable” and the US “responsibility to Israel is to help them find a way out of this situation.” So far, the US has done a notably lousy job in this area. We have only dug Israel in deeper, hardening its sense of military-enforced exceptionalism, which is basically the mirror of our own distorted sense of exceptionalism.

We have become mutual admiration National Security States, one a huge giant, the other a tiny fortress surrounded by enemies. We model our policies on Israel’s anti-terrorism strategies and tactics, while they cite our preemptive strike into Iraq as a model for their behavior.

The attempt to marginalize the duly elected government of Hamas in Gaza was a terrible decision. To recognize Hamas’ electoral victory did not mean anybody had to like them. But it would have almost certainly had a moderating effect on them. Of course, we don’t know if that’s true thanks to the decision to, instead, crush the democratically elected government.

The point is Hamas is real, its existence is based on real Palestinian sentiment and it is not going to go away. Attacking a humanitarian flotilla intent on calling international attention to the blockade was, maybe, the stupidest thing Israel could have done.

Savvy with You Tube, Israeli propagandists have now loaded the internet with videos purporting to show they were attacked, while the flotilla activists are running their own videos. The competing back-and-forth video battle is a bit like the Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on first?” This kind of absurd overload, of course, is exactly what the Israelis want.

It doesn’t really matter precisely when Turkish crew members brought out their pipes. The important fact is clear: Israelis attacked the ship, thus initiating the violence. If history means anything, Gazans have the right to decide who sails into their ports. The Gaza blockade is indefensible.

It’s time for the US to get tough

A 1,200 ton merchant ship named the Rachel Corrie after the American protester killed by an Israel bulldozer is now steaming toward Gaza full of supplies intent on breaking the blockade. An Israeli naval commander said: “We boarded the [Mavi Marmara] and were attacked as if it was a war. That will mean that we will have to come prepared in the future as if it was a war.”

If they have any instincts at all as peace-makers, the Obama administration will clear its throat and make an unequivocal statement that this sort of Israeli posture will have consequences, such as the cutting of US aid.

It may be stepping on a mine, but a humanitarian ship named Rachel Corrie is no more an act of war than a Jewish shtetl was an act of war in Europe circa 1940. The blockade is meant to demoralize and disempower a people and nothing more.

US citizens need to lobby their government to end the costly appeasement of the Israeli right wing and its powerful American lobby. This attack on the high seas calls for a profile in courage moment, not the continued enabling of disaster.

It’s time to demand the recognition of Hamas and face-to-face talks among Israel and the two, divided elements of Palestinian governance, with the goal being their integration. Obama should do it for the good of everyone, Israelis, Palestinians and Americans.

The Likud march to the apocalypse must be checked.