Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Racism, terminology, and the continuing suffering of the Palestinian people

Yesterday, buried in the middle pages of the Independent, was a story that managed to escape the rest of the British press. "Israel placed curbs on Swedish journalists" attempting to enter the country, after a Sweish newspaper printed "long-standing Palestinian allegations that the Israeli army may have taken organs for transplants from men who died in custody." The article gives only passing mention of the article itself in the midst of detailed reporting on the Israeli response. The condemnations were interesting in that they said nothing about the substance of the actual allegations and everything about how Israel addresses criticism.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu "echoed colleagues in comparing the article to medieval "blood libels", which alleged Jews used the blood of Christian babies in religious rites." After the Sweedish ambassador to Israel was censured for condemning the article as "appaling," "Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of a right-wing coalition party whose outspoken criticisms of Arabs have prompted accusations of racism, praised the ambassador and compared her to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who acted on his own initiative to save Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust." He told Israeli Army Radio, "What angers us is that the Swedish government didn't condemn it but hastened to reprimand the ambassador who did find it right to condemn this blood libel, which recalls the Dreyfus Affair." The Dreyfus Affair, of course, being "the trial of a Jewish officer in the French army a century ago, which drew attention to anti-Semitism across the continent and inspired Zionists to promote Jewish emigration to Palestine." Lieberman "also compared the article to "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion", an anti-Semitic tract purporting to show a global Jewish conspiracy which was widely cited by Hitler among others."

Accusations of anti-semitism are common against critics of the state of Israel, but it is frankly rare to see the tactic employed so overtly and clumsily here. To invoke the Dreyfus Affair, blood libel, the Holocaust, and the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" in response to just one article frankly beggars belief. However, for greater coverage of the row, one has to look beyond the Western media. The Israeli press, such as Ha'aretz, covers it, but for a report that allows a side other than Israel's to come through, one has to go to Al Jazeera;

In the article, Donald Bostrom, a Swedish freelance journalist, writes about the shortage of body parts in Israel and makes references to the so-called New Jersey scandal earlier this summer which involved rabbis, illegal organ trading and money laundering.

Bostrom then gives what he says is his own eyewitness account of an Israeli army raid on a Palestinian village in 1992.

He told Al Jazeera he was not anti-Semitic and insisted what he wrote was true.

"The body was taken away and the authorities made an autopsy with this young man against the will of the family," Bostrom said.

"All those things are actually true and happened. When the military returned the body the family said, 'We think they stole the organ of the body' because there was an empty belly.

"What I do is to refer to three things which have actually happened: the boy was shot dead, the autopsy, and the family claiming the body was emptied of organs."

Using accusations of anti-semitism to silence criticism of Israel takes on an even more virulent form with relation to the ongoing dispute over Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. As the Guardian reports, "hardline pro-Israel groups in the US have been confronting President Barack Obama's demands for a halt to settlement expansion by accusing him of promoting the ethnic cleansing of Jews and jeopardising Israel's security." They "are also trying to shift the focus of administration policy from the Jewish settlements, arguing they are not an obstacle to peace, to demands for Arab governments to recognise Israel."

That the settlements themselves are a form of colonisation and annexation of the most viable Palestinian territories is, of course, overlooked in these attacks. Israel's demand that their intangible "right to exist" be recognised is also oben to considerable question. As Noam Chomsky points out;
This concept “right to exist” was in fact invented, as far as I can tell, in the 1970s when there was general international agreement, including the Arab states and the PLO, that Israel should have the rights of every state in the international system. And therefore, in an effort to prevent negotiations and a diplomatic settlement, the U.S. and Israel insisted on raising the barrier to something that nobody’s going to accept. Certainly, the Palestinians can’t accept it. They’re not going to accept Israel’s existence but also the legitimacy of its existence and the legitimacy of their dispossession. Why should they accept that? Why should anyone accept it?
Moreover, that they are accompanied by evictions of Palestinians - such as that on Sunday of two Palestinian families who had lived in East Jerusalem for 50 years - makes them a form of ethnic cleansing in and of themselves. As coverage of the pro-Israel accusations towards Obama states, "the accusation of ethnic cleansing is particularly ironic for many Palestinians, as the past 41 years of occupation have been marked by a continual forced removal of Arabs to make way for Jews."

The Guardian story also details the efforts of the Israel Project - which describes itself as a "non-governmental" organisation despite having "an advisory board that includes 20 members of Congress from both parties" - to derail the debate with misinformation and propaganda. Their report lays out a "strategy to play down the significance of the settlements" and advocates accusing opponents of "ethnic cleansing and antisemitism;"
"The idea that anywhere that you have Palestinians there can't be Jews, that some areas have to be Jew-free, is a racist idea. We don't say that we have to cleanse out Arabs from Israel. They are citizens of Israel. They enjoy equal rights. We cannot see why it is that peace requires that any Palestinian area would require a kind of ethnic cleansing to remove all Jews," the guide says.
It shouldn't need mentioning, of course, that hardline Israelis do "say that we have to cleanse out Arabs from Israel." This can be seen very clearly in policies such as denying Arab Israelis the "right of return" granted to non-Israeli Jews and the extention of the apartheid system that defines the occupied Palestinian territories into Israel itself. Moreover, the question of "why it is that peace requires that any Palestinian area would require a kind of ethnic cleansing to remove all Jews" is deliberately misleading. That the settlements are nothing short of colonisation of Palestinian lands, with the remnants that remain to form a Palestinian "state" being utterly unviable, and both this perception amongst Arabs and the reality of it in Israeli policy are well known.

This feeds into the distortions offered by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The ADL, an apologist and advocate for war crimes the state of Israel rather than the "civil rights / human relations agency" it purports to be, published an advertisement in the US media on the settlement issue. Here, they insist that "the obstacle to peace isn't Israel and the problem isn't settlements," looking to distract from the issue at hand by insisting that "the Arab/Palestinian rejection of Israel's right to exist for over 60 years" is the real problem. And again, this is more than mere obfuscation - it is a deliberate and outright lie.

Even the most vilified enemies of Israel - Hamas and Hezbollah - have repeatedly called for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, offering Israel full recognition and integration within the region. Given their ideologies, they are of course not to fond of this option, but have agreed to the international consensus as articulated in the Arab Peace Initiative. There is no Arab rejectionism. What we have, in reality, is a consistent line of US-Israeli rejectionism; they refuse to recognise a Palestinian state, they refuse to give up violence, and they rejected the Arab Peace Initiative.

Clearly, then, peace will remain out of reach as long as the US and Israel define the terms of the debate. If whatever they do is defined as the "peace process," as it is, no matter how rejectionist their policies are, then there is clearly little hope of a resolution. You simply cannot expect anything positive when the position of the occupiers and oppressors colours the very lexicon of the debate.

Hence, an important part of any activism working towards a viable two-state solution must be to challenge the parameters of debate and the inherent bias of the language used. As long as we only talk about "rejectionism" in terms of Arab or Palestinian actions, define the occupied territories as "disputed," refer to a mythical "right to exist," or allow accusations of racism to define what is thinkable (especially when the accusers are themselves promoting doctrines doused in extreme racism) then there will never be peace and the Palestinians will continue to suffer.

This will, in turn, drive more Palestinians towards Islamic extremism and increase genuine anti-semitism. We must be aware, too, that this is precisely the goal of US planners. An embattled Israel, fearing destruction, is a very useful client in their goal to control resources in the Middle East. A peaceful Israel, integrated into the region, isn't. This is precisely why US rejectionism, even under Barack Obama, is so fervent. It is also why we must not let the United States define the terms of the debate.