I gave this talk earlier this week to the Unitarian Universalist Humanists of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Seattle on October 23rd. My talk goes till 42:00 approximately. The rest is Q&A, including a vocal altercation with an obstreperous audience member who thought I gave short shrift to Israelis:
When Jeanette, your president, first asked me to speak to you last summer, we were in the midst of a terrible 50-day war in Gaza which cost the lives of 2,100 Gazans and more than 70 Israelis. It was a bloodbath the likes of which even this violent place hadn’t seen in decades. Today, Gaza is in ruins, deliberately destroyed by the Israelis. A drone’s eye view of Gaza I watched shows devastation that reminds me of the Dresden bombing during WWII.
The world largely stood by and did nothing. Though U. S., Turkey and Qatar offered to mediate, Israel distrusted all of them as being biased toward Hamas. It preferred the services of the Egyptian military junta with which it has a cozy relationship.
About the best we can say in terms of a ‘positive’ outcome is that the massacre left a foul taste in most of the world’s mouth. It sank Israel’s reputation in the world even lower than it already was.
That’s enhanced the stature of both the BDS movement and the Palestinian Authority’s campaign for full statehood within the UN. There are only two parties opposed: Israel, as can be expected, and the U.S. We’ve sided with Israel throughout, vetoing Security Council resolutions opposing settlements and supporting a Palestinian state. For all that, we have precious little to show for it. Even our own leaders, Barack Obama and John Kerry. don’t have any faith in Israel’s leadership.
But due to the iron grip the Israel Lobby holds on our policy towards Israel-Palestine, we are immobilized. We cannot even be the honest broker between the two sides which we’d like to be.
During Operation Protective Edge we were placed in the awkward role of bystander. It reminded me of riding in a car on the freeway as you pass a fatal accident. You feel the horror and dread of death while being helpless to intervene.
The background to all this was the failure of the Israel-Palestine peace talks brokered by John Kerry over the past year. While some had great hopes for a positive outcome, I was skeptical since I didn’t see the will for an agreement on the Israeli side, nor the will to exert pressure on the American side. When those talks died a few months ago amidst much recrimination against Israel by the U.S. negotiators, the stage was set for last summer’s war and the subsequent rise in terror attacks on both sides.
Yesterday brought a new page of bloody terror the conflict. In a heinous attack in occupied East Jerusalem, a Palestinian from Silwan drove his car into the light rail tracks at the Ammunition Hill station, killing a 3-month old baby and young woman, both Israeli Jews. In a statement on its website, Hamas took credit and called the killing of the child a “brave attack.” Needless to say, this displays the psychopathology that currently rules here.
The loss of such a tender young child’s life is senseless. The mourning of the mother who was pushing her child’s baby carriage rends the heart. But let’s also remember the 500 dead Gazan children from Operation Protective Edge, and their mothers who were bereft at the loss of the precious lives they brought into the world with such hopes and dreams.
The Ammunition Hill attack is an example of the chickens of settlerism coming home to roost. I’ve used this expression made famous by Malcolm X to evoke the fatal inevitability of violence and hate in this unending conflict. Bibi Netanyahu recently defended the theft of Palestinian homes in Silwan and expulsion of their residents on U.S. TV. The theft was organized by settler NGOs like Ateret Cohanim and Elad using fraudulent real estate deals involving fake middlemen earning commissions for their subterfuge. In fact, yesterday the former group, whose chief U.S. fundraiser is the wife of a major New York City Orthodox Jewish Democratic leader, stole several homes in Silwan and forcefully evicted residents and replaced them with settlers.
Israel’s settlerist government supports such ethnic cleansing. Israel’s chief ally, the U.S., tepidly objects to the thievery. What are Palestinians to think about this? No one defends their rights to remain in homes they’ve occupied for generations. If deranged or extremist Palestinian militants take the law into their own hands in the midst of the vacuum, who’s to blame (aside from the perpetrators)? Obama is to blame. Kerry is to blame. The EU is to blame. If they take no action, the situation will only get worse. In fact, yesterday’s Haaretz used the term “Jerusalem Intifada” to denote a mounting wave of resistance and violence sparked by Israeli ultra-nationalism.
Settlers under the leadership of deputy Knesset speaker, Moshe Feiglin, have swarmed the Temple Mount, staking their claim to rebuild the Holy Temple in what they hope will be the near future. They make no bones about the fact that they seek to destroy the Muslim holy sites there. Ateret Cohanim and other religious extremist groups are the key forces behind this project.
Palestinians reacted with characteristic outrage at this intrusion on their sovereign holy ground. In the past days, Border Police invaded the sacred precincts, showered worshippers with tear gas and accompanying explosions. It was a madhouse, and all this on what is for Muslims holy ground. This was a flagrant provocation by the Israeli police doing the bidding of settlers.
Again, what is a Palestinian Muslim to think? That the Jews have his interests at heart? That they will accommodate them in any way? This is increasingly a zero-sum game for both sides. Either “we” win or “they” do. There is less and less chance of a compromise allowing both sides to win. This is a recipe for apocalyptic conflict. Religious war with blood flowing freely. We saw this in the invocations of the divine in the battle cry of the IDF’s Givati commander, Col. Winter, during Operation Protective Edge. He likened the Gazans to “Philistines” and called upon the Lord to bless his forces in battle and slay them as Samson slew his enemies and brought down the pagan temple.
This should make every reasonable person shiver with foreboding. Wars that have political origins can be ended through talks and compromise. But once the passions of the divine, sacred causes, and holy war enter, all bets are off.
Unfortunately, those who should know better, Obama, Kerry and others, are trying benign neglect. It may’ve worked for Daniel Moynihan in the 1969-era Nixon administration. But not here, not now.
The Israeli prime minister has loudly proclaimed that he will militarize Palestinian neighborhoods. He will flood them with Border Police who attempt to put the fear of the Jewish God into residents. They will pummel and brutalize East Jerusalem, which will incite even greater violence. More Palestinians will be emboldened to resist and the cycle of terror will only get worse. This is a festering sore that the world has allowed to become infected.
Ammunition Hill is across the Green Line in occupied East Jerusalem. It is also the site of the light rail line that was attacked. With the ever-tightening vise of settlerism squeezing Palestinians out of Jerusalem, the light rail line has become a symbol of oppression. It has been trashed, vandalized and burned by Palestinian militants. It is a symbol of their displacement and the official violence accompanying it. Though Israelis see the line as a positive development integrating the city and its neighborhood, that can only happen when all residents want to be part of the whole. Palestinians do not accept their marginalization within this scheme. The line, for them, helps Jews and advances Jewish interests. That’s a deadly formula as far as Palestinians are concerned.
Let me make clear what I always do in such situations: this talk is not a justification of terrorism. It is an admission of reality. If Israeli Jews weren’t stealing Palestinian land, if Israel accepted a compromise agreement, if the world cared about what happens to Palestinians, then they would not need to resort to terrorism. As long as Israel can invade frontline neighbors with impunity and kill Palestinians, Lebanese, and even Syrians in the thousands, terrorism will fester. And let’s not forget that Palestinian terrorism doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Operation Protective Edge was itself a massive terror attack that killed 500 children. That’s state-sponsored terror.
If Israel was smart, it would recognize Palestine, accept its sovereignty, and put authorities there and the world on notice that it expected them to provide security. Palestinians would rise to the challenge because they would have something to lose: their reputation and sovereignty. For extra protection, international monitors like those serving on the Lebanon-Israel border, could maintain the border as a conflict-free zone. Now, Palestinians are emasculated and powerless in the face of Israeli power. Powerlessness does not breed responsibility. Just the opposite.