Cornel West recently spoke at a march on Washington in support of Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire between Hamas and Israeli military forces. Despite a string of shaky cease-fires, yet more rockets were exchanged last night, and the future remains undecided.
“This is a human affair,” Dr. West preached. “Any human being who chooses occupation and annihilation is a war criminal, and especially when they’re killing precious Palestinian babies. A Palestinian baby has exactly the same status as a white baby in Newtown, Connecticut, as a brown baby in the Eastside of LA, as a Jewish baby in Israel.” It’s a powerful moment, a reminder of the indiscriminate nature of warfare, and a military occupation in which an estimated 80% of deaths have been civilians.
Sadly, civilian casualties are nothing new for Palestinians, who have come under fire repeatedly over the past seven decades. Thirty-five years ago, James Baldwin, writing in The Nation, emphasized the necessity to account for Palestinian civilians in any peace plan. It’s humbling that his words still ring with such relevancy today:
Jews and Palestinians know of broken promises. From the time of the Balfour Declaration (during World War I) Palestine was under five British mandates, and England promised the land back and forth to the Arabs or the Jews, depending on which horse seemed to be in the lead. The Zionists—as distinguished from the people known as Jews—using, as someone put it, the “available political machinery,” i.e., colonialism, e.g., the British Empire—promised the British that, if the territory were given to them, the British Empire would be safe forever....
But the state of Israel was not created for the salvation of the Jews; it was created for the salvation of the Western interests. This is what is becoming clear (I must say that it was always clear to me). The Palestinians have been paying for the British colonial policy of “divide and rule” and for Europe’s guilty Christian conscience for more than thirty years.
Finally: there is absolutely—repeat: absolutely—no hope of establishing peace in what Europe so arrogantly calls the Middle East (how in the world would Europe know? having so dismally failed to find a passage to India) without dealing with the Palestinians...
According to Bill Ayers, the philosophical roots of the conflict go back even further, to the foundational metaphor of our country, a narrative that grants righteous dominance of one people over another:
Start at the beginning, when the Puritans provided one of the most durable symbols of the “American experiment,” a symbol that is as resilient and resonant today as it ever was: America was to be a city on the hill—our exalted place, chosen by God—whose inhabitants, the chosen people, would engage in an errand into the wilderness, their task to shine their countenance upon the darkened world and thereby to enlighten it. There were some twenty million indigenous peoples already here, according to the most recent scholarship; 90 percent would be exterminated. The project of a blessed people bearing civilization and progress and truth offers a ready justification for anything—conquest, theft, and mayhem, ultimately mass murder: We come in peace, we are messengers of God, we embody the greater good. Opposition is nothing but the Devil’s handiwork.
Beyond political calculation and opportunism, military advantage and strategic aims, imperial dreams and desires, this foundational symbol goes some way toward explaining many U.S. misadventures, including the unconditional military support the US offers Israel today. That nation, too, was built by a determined band of people who suffered and survived, arose phoenix-like to discover “a land without people,” they claimed, “for a people without land.” They, too, were a chosen people, a lighter-skinned European people claiming the leadership, who “made the desert bloom,” and they planted their plucky little democracy in the midst of hostile and threatening and notably darker-skinned neighbors. Perpetual but righteous war would become the necessary order of the day for the forces of goodness. And so it is, in settler Israel as in the settler US.
Perhaps the most vocal critic of the current conflict, and the US policies that have enabled its perpetuation, has been Rashid Khalidi, whose book Brokers of Deceit is a searing indictment of the failed peace process in the Middle East. Writing in The New Yorker, Dr. Khalidi critiqued Israel’s “collective punishment” of Palestinians:
What Israel is doing in Gaza now is collective punishment. It is punishment for Gaza’s refusal to be a docile ghetto. It is punishment for the gall of Palestinians in unifying, and of Hamas and other factions in responding to Israel’s siege and its provocations with resistance, armed or otherwise, after Israel repeatedly reacted to unarmed protest with crushing force. Despite years of ceasefires and truces, the siege of Gaza has never been lifted.
Later, in The New York Times, Khalidi expanded upon his view of the US role in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and in the enabling of Israeli militarization:
The blatant partiality of the United States in favor of Israel has already turned the words “peace process” into a bitter joke. Over many decades, American indulgence of Israel has blighted prospects of any resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians. Consequently, occupation has been entrenched and Israeli colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem has metastasized, going from under 200,000 illegal settlers in 1991 to over 600,000 today.... The United States is so closely aligned with Israel as to be effectively a co-belligerent. It is thus not fit to serve as a peacemaker. One is sorely needed to end the human tragedy for the 1.8 million Palestinians of Gaza, who have been besieged and blockaded for nearly eight years, and many of whom have seen their homes destroyed three times since 2008 by massive Israeli firepower.
It’s a thread picked up by historian Robin D. G. Kelley in Mondoweiss, and one that offers a forceful rebuke to military bombardment and occupation as the sole path to long-term regional stability.
“Freedom means,” Kelley wrote, “at minimum, ending the occupation, dismantling apartheid, eradicating racism, and ensuring the right of Palestinians to return to their native land. These are not abstract, pie-in-the-sky demands, but constitute the necessary conditions for a Palestinian future and a stable and secure region.”