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UN Gaza Report Part II: Israel’s Counterinsuurgency Apologist: Colonel Richard Kemp

6 Jul

 

Retired British colonel, Richard Kemp, has been an ardent supporter of Israel’s three major military operations in Gaza conducted over the last six

years. He has collaborated on several occasions with the two notoriously pro-Israeli NGOs, UN Watch and NGO Monitor, serving on the Advisory Board of the latter and appearing as star witness under such auspices at the UN, most recently at a two-day side event at UN Headquarters in Geneva devoted to condemning the UN Commission of Inquiry Report on the Gaza War of 2014.

 

There is no doubt that Col. Kemp has the credentials to speak as a counterinsurgency specialist, having served as commander of British forces

in Afghanistan and elsewhere, where he acknowledges close cooperation with Mossad and the influence of Israeli tactics. In fairness, Kemp writes from such a militarist view with little effort to assess the relevance of international humanitarian law, treating ‘military effectiveness’ as determined by military commanders as the defining criterion of legality for a challenged battlefield practice. In his own words, “[i]t’s the dispassionate military perspective that I bring.” Of course, such an outlook ignores the relevance of international criminal law, which is to superimpose accountability as a constraining framework on this ‘military perspective.’ Actually, Kemp doesn’t so much ignore international criminal law as to (mis)interpret its rules so as to vindicate the tactics of the counterinsurgent side while condemning those of the insurgent.

 

On June 25, 2015 the New York Times published an opinion piece by Kemp assessing the UN Report. What I find scandalous and perverse on the part of this self-claiming authoritative media source, is to publish such a harsh and partisan dismissal of a prudent and overly balanced report without any kind of offsetting piece. I can only imagine the furor that would have been provoked if the NYT had published a piece by an expert in international criminal law, say William Schabas or John Dugard, calling for the indictment and prosecution of Israel’s political and military leaders on the basis of the Report. At least, if such a piece had been published alongside the Kemp article, NYT readers could have been exposed to the realities of controversy flowing from these UN allegations that Israel (and to a far lesser extent, Hamas) was guilty of war crimes.

 

Kemp begins his article with the claim that “..it pains me greatly to see words and actions from the UN that can only provoke further violence and loss of life.” As is ‘law’ imposed on the powerful and not their weaponry is responsible for violence and the loss of life in Gaza. We are not told exactly why reaches this perverse conclusion, but presumably Kemp believes that the condemnation of Israel’s use of indiscriminate and disproportionate force would embolden Hamas, and Palestinians generally, to continue to claim a right of resistance. What Kemp (and Israel) obviously seek is a circumstance in which whatever the dominant military forces do is validated by its effectiveness and what a population under domination does in opposition is condemned with the implication that resistance to Israel’s prolonged occupation is inherently unlawful.

 

Kemp’s puff piece is filled with bland endorsements of Israel’s most blatant propaganda. For instance, Kemp asserts, in complete disregard of the evidence, that Israel imposed the blockade on Gaza “only in response to attacks by Hamas.” While it is common knowledge, even in Israel, that the blockade has been maintained since 2007 as a ‘collective punishment’ imposed on the civilian population of Gaza, having little to do with security, which was mainly sustained by way of rigorous monitoring of all crossings to and from Gaza, and with Egypt’s cooperation at Rafah during the Mubarak era and since Sisi’s ascent. Kemp has nothing to say about Israel’s frequent lethal incursions into Gaza that have accompanied the occupation since it started in 1967, and he uncritically supports Israel’s distorted one-sided timeline that claims Israel only attacks in retaliation for missiles and mortar fire from Hamas, and never initiates violent interactions by on its own. Kemp also never refers to the ceasefires broken by Israel, as in the leadup to Operation Cast Lead at the end of 2008. Instead, as Kemp has written elsewhere of this earlier brutal attack on a vulnerable, cage population, “I can only say this: during Operation Cast Lead, the IDF did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in the combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.”

 

Most disturbingly, Kemp writes in a condescending manner as follows: “The report is characterized by a lack of understanding of warfare,” as revealed by its failure to compare what Israel is doing with what the U.S. and Britain have done in Afghanistan, Iraq. In Kemp’s words, Israeli tactics are no different than those used extensively by American and British forces in similar circumstances.” What is most dangerous about this counterinsurgency worldview is its implicit reasoning that allows such conclusions to be set forth in good faith by professional soldiers. To begin with, Kemp is essentially correct that the counterinsurgency wars waged by the U.S. and Britain have relied on similar tactics, but does that make Israel’s pattern consistent with international law and morality? Most international law assessments of these uses of modern weaponry against densely populated civilian areas consider such tactics to be severe war crimes, not models to be invoked as validation.

Kemp’s state of play is revealed here: converting past crimes into authoritative precedents to justify present crimes, or to transform crimes into legitimate counterinsurgency tactics.

 

Beyond this, Israel’s tactics are worse in some instances than those of its predecessors. Whereas in Vietnam, the United States used its far less precise air power to inflict heavy casualties on the Vietnamese civilian population it refrained from attacking urban population centers as Israel did in the Gaza attack of 2014, as well as the earlier ones. Even in Falluja, the worst instance of American firepower directed at a city believed to be a center of insurgent opposition in Iraq to American occupation, the population was given ample time to vacate the city after warnings of impending attack. In contrast, except for the 800 Palestinians that held foreign passports who were allowed to leave Gaza, the remainder of the civilian population in Gaza was locked into the combat zone, losing even the desperate option of fleeing to safety by becoming a refugee. Col. Kemp, invoking his counterinsurgency experience and knowledge, never sees fit to mention such a damning ‘detail.’

Nor does he bother to point out that the whole of Gaza was a combat zone, and that civilians, including women and children, had no place of sanctuary and safety, other than to seek refuge in UN facilities and mosques, which then were turned into targets because of Israeli claims that weapons were stored in these places.

 

Parroting the worst elements of Israeli hasbara, Kemp sets forth this grotesque characterization of Hamas tactics: “Unable to inflict existential harm on Israel by military means, Hamas sought to cause large numbers of casualties among its own people in order to bring condemnation and unbearable diplomatic pressure against Israel.” To make such an extreme allegation without bothering to cite evidence is to portray Hamas as seeking the genocidal annihilation of its own people. This is an odd accusation in view of the evidence that Hamas became gained more popular support from the Gazan population after this Israeli attack than before, presumably because of its steadfastness under the most severe of pressures. Also, Kemp withholds comments on the repeated and strenuous efforts of Hamas to seek the renewal of the ceasefire prior to the initiation of the Israel onslaught in early July of 2014.

 

In effect, Kemp is appraising Israel’s behavior on the basis of the ‘new normal’ prevailing among counterinsurgency hawks that have led the West into war after war in its futile effort to defer the death of European colonialism, and its American sequel. What is done by the West is justified by military effectiveness (although without noticing that these wars have all been eventually lost), what is done by the forces of national resistance is criminalized if not demonized as ‘barbarism.’

 

 

It is not surprising that UN Watch and NGO Monitor organized an elaborate side event at the Palais des Nations in Geneva last week that featured Richard Kemp as its lead speakers, but included an array of other counterinsurgency specialists, with no attempt whatsoever to bring to bear the perspectives of international humanitarian law except in the spirit of Israeli apologetics. For description of this event held on June 29-30 see the home pages of either UN Watch or NGO Monitor. It is notable that unlike the response to the Goldstone Report in 2009 that featured denunciations of bias and personal attacks, the orchestrated reaction to COI report is more sophisticated, relying on a variety of substantive reports that set forth Israel’s claims of justification, a media blitz, along with major advocacy efforts by Israel’s well-trained NGO poodles.

 

A welcome contrasting vision, closer to law, morality, and reality is offered by Max Blumenthal in his new book, The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza (2015). David Swanson, the noted anti-war activist, titles his review of Blumenthal’s book, “the 51-day Genocide” <http//davidswanson.org/node/4815> As Swanson puts it in his review of the book, “I can think of a few other words that characterized the 2014 assault on Gaza in addition to ‘war,’ among them, occupation, murder-spree, and genocide. Each serves a valuable purpose. Each is correct.”

 

The Undisclosed Second Paradox in Michael Walzer’s The Paradox of Liberation

20 Jun

 

There is little doubt that several of Michael Walzer’s contributions to political theory will long remain influential (Revolution of the Saints (1965); Just and Unjust Wars (1977); Spheres of Justice (1983)). Although his work lacks the cumulative weight of a major philosophic presence, the ideas and issues Walzer has been exploring in the last several decades with great conceptual coherence and originality. His work exhibits a consistent practical relevance to the realities of the unfolding world around us. His writing is lucid, well informed, and is mainstream enough to be non-threatening. Walzer’s worldview is congruent with widely shared ethical presuppositions prevalent among liberals in Western society. Added to this, Walzer’s writings are tinged with a socialist nostalgic edge that imparts a now harmless progressive resonance. This is somewhat soothing for all those suffering varying degrees of guilty conscience as we go on as before, enjoying life in non-sustainable consumptive Western societies.

 

Aside from John Rawls, Jacques Derrida, Jürgens Habermas who enjoy preeminence, only Michel Foucault, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, and Amartya Sen have had a comparable contemporary influence to that of Walzer by way of philosophic commentary on major public issues. Apart from Walzer’s strong scholarly emphasis on Judaic Studies and ideological support for Israel, it is Rorty who seems closest to Walzer in ethos, philosophic stance, and intellectual style. As I read this latest extended essay by Walzer I kept thinking of the lines from Auden’s great poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”:

                        “Time with that with this strange excuse

                        Pardoned Kipling and his views

                        And will pardon Paul Claudell

                        Pardon him for writing well”

The point being that despite often finding Walzer’s views suspect, I never find his writing dull or his ideas without force and relevance, and that maybe in the end what flourishes through time is more style than substance.

 

Walzer has been a strong and consistent advocate of Israel and outspoken adherent of moderate Zionism throughout his career. Sometimes his eloquent partisanship has been hidden below the surface of his theorizing, giving his undisclosed messages the status of a sub-text, adored by the faithful and repudiated by the critical. Among critics this Walzer tendency to hide his political commitments beneath his theoretical generalization, creates an impression of a rather sneaky lack of forthrightness. For instance, his influential Just and Unjust Wars can be read (without any acknowledgement from Walzer) as a show of strong support for Israel’s approach to Palestinian armed resistance that is expressed in the abstract language of the ethics of counter-terrorism. Walzer’s tendency to be not straight forward about his ideological agenda is intriguingly relevant to his latest book, The Paradox of Liberation, which sets forth a bold and challenging general thesis—that the distinct secular movements that produced national liberation in Algeria, India, and Israel a few generations ago have each most unexpectedly and progressively yielded their identities to intense religious counter-revolutions. These counter-revolutions have each sought to restore tradition and religious observance in public spaces, including the governing process. This religious turn against the secular came as an unwelcome surprise to the founding generation of national liberation leaders whose successors find themselves pushed aside by more socially conservative elites.

 

These secularizing movements were rooted initially in the opposite belief that only by breaking with societal traditions can liberation be achieved for a national people that is being oppressed or acutely denied its true destiny. As Walzer summarizes: “The old ways must be repudiated and overcome totally. But the old ways are cherished by many of the men and women whose ways they are. That is the paradox of liberation.” (19) In the Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions (Yale University Press, 2015). Walzer is preoccupied by this paradox, and devotes himself to its explication. He contends that the paradox arises from the tension between the mobilization of a people around the negation of that which the majority society affirms (that is, religious values) and while this negation seems useful (even to many of the religiously oriented) during the struggle against alien oppression, it will itself be negated a generation or so after liberation, a phenomenon of negating the negation that can also be understood as the return of the repressed in the form of religious resurgence. The secularists enjoyed a temporary ascendancy because they were active resisters to oppressive circumstances rather than as was the case with religiously oriented leaderships, which tended to be passive and even deferential to the status quo.

 

This pattern of secularist victory giving way to religion is reproduced in a nationally distinctive form in each of these specific historical circumstances by the seemingly inexplicable rise and potency of religious zeal. In each of Walzer’s three cases, the political moment of successful liberation by secularists was soon to be superseded to varying degrees by the religious moment, an entirely unexpected sequel. The liberators whether led by Ben Bella, Jawaharlal Nehru, or David Ben Gurion were modernizers who strongly believed that religion was being and should be superseded by science and rationality. This meant that religion was largely a spent force with respect to cultural identity and public policy, and should in the future be confined in its role to state ritual occasions and private devotional practice. Walzer argument explains the central misunderstanding of these secular leaders, and expresses his own hope that the religious resurgence should not be viewed as the end of the national narrative. Also, Walzer would not welcome the Algerian phase three sequel to the religious challenge by way of bloody civil war, followed by military autocracy and renewed societal passivity.

 

What makes the book challenging is its main prescriptive argument that runs as follows. The secular nationalists made a crucial initial mistake, according to Walzer, by basing their movement on the negation of religion rather than byseeking its incorporation. If their secularist goal was sustainable liberation, which it certainly was, then the adoption of an either/or orientation toward religion and its practice was wrong from the start. Instead the attitude of the secular liberators toward religion should have one of constructive engagement, and not negation. What this means in the context of each movement is not spelled out by Walzer. The stress is placed on a recommended (re)incorporation of religious values into the reigning secular ideology combined with sensitivity to traditional values and practices. Walzer is fully aware that his proposed approach becomes problematic as soon as it is pursued unconditionally. As he recognizes, the traditions in each of these nations denies equality to women, often in cruel and unacceptable ways. Walzer does not want secularists to give up their commitment to gender equality for the sake of reconciliation with religiously oriented sectors of society. What he encourages is a sympathetic awareness of traditional attitudes toward gender while seeking to overcome their embedded biases. As is often the case, Walzer is more persuasive in diagnosis than prescription, delineating the problems far better than finding credible solutions.

 

One difficulty with the framework we are offered in the book is the failure to consider the discrediting relevance of the corruption and incompetence of the liberators, which amounted to a betrayal of their promises to lead a new and happy society of free people. Whether through corruption or the failure to deliver a better life to a large portion of the population, a post-liberation mood of disillusionment takes hold in different patterns, but they share in common the search for an alternative orientation.

 

In other words the excitement of liberation is hard to sustain during the state-building rigors of governance, and also in most cases, the personalities suitable for liberation are not well adapted to handle the routines and typical challenges of post-liberation existence. Israel, in particular, was an outlier from these perspectives, as its claims of liberation were at all stages shadowed by doubts as a result of fears, threats, uncertainties, and opposition to its underlying legitimacy claim from within its ethnic ranks and more so from those it sought to subdue by either displacement or subjugation. The anti-colonial liberations of India and Algeria never faced such basic challenges to its core identity.

 

There is for me a closely related yet more fundamental problem with the misleading comparisons relied upon by Walzer to develop his argument. India and Algeria were genuine liberation movements waged by indigenous nations to rid from the entire territorial space of their respective countries a deeply resented, exploitative, and domineering foreign presence. To place Israel in such a category is to foster several deep misunderstandings—there is the master presupposition that the Zionist movement is being properly treated as a case of ‘national liberation’ even if the Jewish nation was not engaged in reclaiming control over its residential territorial space. Jews were scattered in enclaves around the world when the Zionist movement was launched and most of its leaders relied on biblical claims to Palestine to ground its territorial claims. Although the early debate about whether a homeland in Uganda would fulfill Zionist goals illuminates the distinctiveness of the Zionist quest. Beyond this Zionists became legally dependent upon British colonialist support to carry forward their efforts to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine with the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. Zionism cannot be meaningfully regarded as a revolt against alien rulership, although in its last pre-state stage it did try to expel Britain from Palestine so as to compel an abandonment of its mandatory administration. Unlike standard anti-colonial movements, Zionism is more correctly perceived as an activist effort to overcome the realities of diaspora Judaism confronted by the persecution, discrimination, and assimilation in an array of national settings.

 

Given this background, it seems dubious, indeed polemical, to treat Israel’s establishment as an instance of ‘liberation,’ a terminology that obscures the centrality of the ‘dispossession’ experienced by the majority indigenous Palestinian Arab population in the course of Israel’s acquisition of statehood. In passing, Walzer does somewhat acknowledge some of these differences that distinguish Israel from India and Algeria, but regards them as inconsequential contextual issues that do not raise for him any serious doubts about the basic reasonableness of regarding Israel as coming into being as a result of national liberation led by the Zionist movement. Walzer’s focus is rather upon whether Israel fits the pattern of a secularist phase one giving way to a religious phase two, leaving us with a big question mark as to whether there will be a phase three, and if so, whether it will reflect Walzer’s hopes for a belated constructive engagement with religion rather than an Alegerian style relapse into civil strife and autocracy. Although Walzer expresses his personal wish for the Palestinians to have their own sovereign state (53) at some point, this wish is never contextualized or concretized by reference to criteria of equality between the two peoples. The Palestinian national liberation movement is discussed by Walzer as correlative to his main thesis. Walzer notes that even prior to achieving Palestinian statehood, the PLO’s secular leadership has been increasingly challenged and even discredited by a rising Islamist alternative. (53-55)

 

This reference to the Palestinian national movement is an interesting aside in relation to Walzer’s essential set of contentions relating to the paradox he is depicting, but it fails to engage the issue I find central, which is whether Israel’s establishment can qualify as an instance of national liberation. To be sure Zionism generated an extraordinary international movement that overcame many formidable obstacles that stood in its way, and none more formidable than an indigenous Palestinian Arab majority population that did its best to prevent Zionists from reaching their goal of statehood on behalf of the Jewish people. Although Walzer notes that the early secularist Zionist leaders stressed a commitment to equality when articulating their ideas about the preferred relationship between Jews and non-Jews in the Israeli state. In my view, it is questionable in the extreme whether this idealistic goal ever represented the actual intentions of Zionist leaders. It should be evident to all that such egalitarianism was never expressive of Israeli policies and practices on the ground from even before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

 

More problematic still, was the dispossession and displacement from the land of most of the indigenous Arab population that had been living in Palestine for many generations. Surely this Palestinian experience is profoundly different in character and consequence from the repudiation of exploitative rule of a country by a foreign, usually European, elite and its native collaborators. Again Walzer’s sub-text, whether consciously intended or not, seems to be the retroactive legitimation of Israel’s claim to be an example of national liberation of the sort achieved by Algeria and India, and hence to be situated in the highest echelon of 20th century state-building undertakings. As many of us realize this ‘liberation’ was for Palestinians a catastrophe, known by its Arabic word nakba.

 

Overall, this is a peculiar book, developing a general view of religious counter-revolutions against secular movements of national liberation, but due to the inclusion of Israel as a principal case despite not seeming to fit, there is an implicit polemical motivation that involves whitewashing the criminality of Israel’s emergence. Acknowledging such criminality is not meant to be a covert argument for delegitimizing the present state of Israel that has now been in existence for more than 67 years, and is a member state of the United Nations. My critique of Walzer, in other words, is not meant to lay the groundwork for a second Palestinian dispossession, this time directed toward Jews. I side with Edward Said in a commitment to fair future for both peoples based on their shared rights under international law and on diplomacy to negotiate compromises where rights overlap. I do agree with Said that such a jointly conceived future cannot be undertaken without a prior Israeli acknowledgement of the recent past as epitomized by the nakba, and such rituals of redress must include a formal apology to the Palestinian people for the suffering they have for so long endured.

 

In the end, the paradox that Walzer dwells upon is less consequential than the paradox he ignores: namely, that what is being represented as ‘national liberation’ of the Jewish people by Zionist ideologues is more objectively presented as the ‘national oppression’ of the Palestinian people. This oppression is experienced in different sets of circumstances: as a subjugated minority; as an occupied people; as a nation of refugees and exiles; as a community of resistance aspiring to Palestinian ‘national liberation’; as communities victimized by state terrorism. This second paradox is that what is portrayed as ‘liberation’ for one people serves at the same time as pretext and rationale for the ‘oppression’ of another people. In my view, the second paradox raised life or death questions for both peoples to a far greater extent than does the first paradox that seems to control Walzer’s own Zionist imagination.

 

Michael Ignatieff, whose political orientation resembles that of Michael Walzer, in the course of a mostly laudatory review of The Paradox of Liberation confirms my suspicion that the undisclosed intent of this book is to connect Israel’s fate with that of such exemplary liberation movements as those that took place in India and Algeria. Consider Igantieff’s revealing language innocently proclaiming this reading: “While Israel remains the central focus of The Paradox of Liberation, Walzer has made a major contribution to the question of what’s happening there simply by arguing that Israel may not be so special after all: the same kinds of problems may be occurring in other states created by national liberation movements. He compares what happened to Ben-Gurion’s vision with what befell Jawaharlal Nehru’s in India and Ahmed Ben Bella’s in Algeria.” [Michael Ignatieff, “The Religious Spector Haunting Revolution,” NY Review of Books, 19 June 2015] In a stunning instance of ‘benign neglect’ Ignatieff never once even mentions the relevance of Palestinian dispossession in his lengthy

assessment of Walzer’s version of Israel’s ‘national liberation’ story. Instead, he makes the opposite point, suggesting that Walzer in an indirect way diminishes Israel by his implicit denial of Israeli exceptionalism. As the language quoted above seems to suggest, Israel is upgraded by its similarities with (rather than differences from) other liberation narratives.

 

In closing, it is plausible, even morally, to argue that the Zionist cause was in keeping with a variety of attempts over the course of the last century by many nations and peoples to possess a state of their own that is defined by ethnic or religious boundaries that transcend in psycho-political relevance geographic boundaries, which incidentally have yet to be authoritatively drawn to delineate Israel’s territorial scope. Yet what is not plausible is to lump together the Israeli experience with that of India and Algeria just because the founding generation of leaders shared a secular ideology that was later subjected to a religious challenge once the state was established. For India and Algeria their respective anti-colonial struggles each possessed its originality, but without raising doubts about the delineation of the scope of territorial sovereignty and without needing to coercing the native population to submit or leave. This became integral to Zionism in the course of the struggle between opposed nationalisms, with expulsion necessary to ensure Jewish dominance over the development and governance of the country.

 

If Jewish biblical claims to territorial sovereignty are dismissed, as surely should be a major premise of secular thinking, then the Zionist project needs to be conceived of as essentially one of colonizing a foreign country. The presence of a deeply rooted Jewish minority, less than 5% when the Zionist movement got started in the late 19th century, does not make Palestine any less of a foreign country from the perspective of Jews who settled in Palestine in a spirit of missionizing zeal. As Walzer himself makes clear, Zionists were self-consciously opposed to the Judaism they had experienced in the diaspora that was premised on passivity and deference to the rulers of their country of residence and religiously expressed by the message of patience, the religious duty to wait for the Messiah, the only religiously acceptable experience of liberation. The founders of Zionism, and its current leaders, were determined to reconstitute Jewish life on the basis of assertiveness and even aggressiveness, overcoming the alleged diasporic legacy of passivity, and this feature of their movement has been transformative for even religious Jews. From this perspective, the historic triumphal event was undoubtedly Israel’s victory in the 1967 War, which became inspirational for diasporic Jewish communities identified more strongly than ever with the state of Israel, and questioned their own traditional postures of passivity.

 

My contention is that Walzer’s paradox dissolves as soon as the claim to categorize Zionism as a mode of ‘national liberation’ is deconstructed, while the second paradox remains to be explained. This second paradox dwells on the moral and political interplay of what transpires when the liberation of the self is organically linked to the dispossession of the other. In a postscript (134-146) Walzer explains why America does not belong with his three cases, which is because America’s original founding never truly embraced secularism. What he might have also said, but doesn’t, is that what the founding of America and Israel have most in common is the dispossession of the native populations, and it is this foundational fact that shapes the state-building experiences of both countries more than either has been willing to acknowledge. In this sense, we might invite Walzer to write a sequel on this second more consequential paradox, but realizing that such an invitation is certain to be refused. Its acceptance would implicitly repudiate the ideological benefits and normative authority of the first paradox that treats the establishment of Israel as if it is entitled to be regarded as one of the illustrious examples of 20th century anti-colonial struggles.

 

America at Its Best is Strange

31 May

America at Its Best

 

America even at its best is a strange place, alive with contradictions, a Teflon political culture that has an unshakable faith in its innocent and virtuous national character and its overall impact on the world, impervious to the ghosts of slavery and of ethnic cleansing of native Americans that should be tormenting our sleep and darkening our dreams, comfortable with its robust gun culture, and with its promiscuous reliance on rogue drones engineered to kill on command and on the brutal happenings that take place in black sites immorally situated in countries whose leaders agree to avert their gaze from the dirty work taking place. Looked at from a short distance this is not a pretty picture.

 

Yet there are still those rare moments when this unsavory national profile seems not to be telling the whole story. For instance, I felt heartened by a recent news item reporting that the conservative Nebraska Legislature voted to abolish capital punishment, and in doing so went so far as to override the governor’s veto. That’s right, Nebraska!

 

Unfortunately, the welcome Nebraska move may not survive the backlash in the making. The Republican state governor, Pete Ricketts, vows to overturn the new law: “My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical law to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families.” He is supported in this lethal passion by a pro-capital punishment legislator who proposes arranging a ballot initiative that supposedly will allow Nebraskans to reinstate the death penalty. It is not yet certain whether this is a legally permissible tactic.

 

While the abolitionist move stands there is a strong temptation to commend Nebraska for such an unexpected show of humanistic sensitivity, but that would be misleading, overlooking what actually swayed the majority to vote the way they did. Speaking for this majority, Peter Collins put it this way, “We went into it wanting to remain objective. This is purely about costs.” And sure enough, it seems that it was primarily conservatives, not liberals, that pushed hardest for abolition on the amoral grounds of fiscal conservatism and a commitment to “philosophical consistency” when it comes to entrusting the government with authority over life and death. As a Republican legislator, Laure Elke, insisted the bill was “a matter of conscience,” because if you are not able to trust the government on health care, how can it be trusted on such irrevocable life/death decisions. A few other conservatives were apparently troubled by the seeming contradiction between supporting the right to life for the unborn as a sacred matter while permitting a state government to impose death on a life in being.

 

The main crusader for the bill was a Democrat, Senator Ernie Chambers who had tried 37 times during his forty years in the Nebraska Legislature to get rid of the death penalty before achieving this notable victory. Even Chambers was forced to acknowledge that it was ‘conservative pragmatism’ not liberal idealism that made the difference, taking note of a growing Republican trend to oppose capital punishment because it is viewed as costly, inefficient, and for some, un-Christian. On one level, who cares why capital punishment was abolished. It is the outcome that counts. Yet on a second level, it is worth caring, because if the decision reflects cost/benefit assessments rather than a principled ethical stand, it could be quickly reversed when calculations changed.

 

It is indeed a strange country: rapid public strides in the direction of freedom to shape one’s own gender identity giving rise to a series of vindictive pushbacks by those that want to impose their particular life style on those that seek to live differently in ways that do no harm. The opportunistic rants of right wing politicians on such issues as same sex marriage, trans gender identity, and abortion may not be meant to hurt and demean but they do. They hurt and demean those who want to live openly their authentic identities or deeply felt needs, which is what freedom should mean for all of us, not just for ourselves but our neighbors, that is, for every sentient being on the planet. and are so often elsewhere in our world forced to live in locked closets or face harsh criminal punishments. Is not this the deeper meta-religious significance of globalization. For all that is wrong with what the United States is doing to others throughout the world, these explorations on the frontiers of personal freedom might be the start of a better page of national history if this forward momentum can be sustained and exported in relation to personal self-determination.

 

Perhaps, and only perhaps, what we insist upon for ourselves might finally spill over with respect to what we to do to others. I don’t expect the drones to disappear anytime soon or even for capital punishment to become a bad memory, but at least more folks will begin to draw the sort of connection that to align themselves with a conservative repositioning similar to what turned a big majority of legislators against the death penalty in Nebraska. Given the political climate in the country, ‘conservative pragmatism’ may be the best we can currently hope for at this time for America. Sadly, the 99% have once again left the playing field of political life enabling the 1% to indulge their inexhaustible appetites.

 

Of course, for me the abolition of capital punishment has never been a matter of cost/benefit analysis whether measured in dollars or bureaucratic efficiency. It is a matter purely situated in the domain of values. I believe that no government should ever be given the authority to kill its own citizens, or that anyone anywhere should be vested with authority to kill without proper submission to the rule of law, whether acting domestically or internationally, and I believe it would benefit prospects for species survival if many of us as possible strive for and advocate a comprehensive ethos of nonviolence or what Glenn Paige has dubbed ‘a non-killing politics.’ For now, this is a utopian wish, but this goal has long struck me as being a time sensitive ethical and biopolitical imperative. In the domain of social practice, I feel the same way about same-sex marriage, gender self-determination, and the reproductive rights of women. Capital punishment is about wrongful death, same-sex marriage is an emotional component of the right to life, and reproductive rights recognize the sacred endowments and personal responsibility of women in relation to their own bodies.

 

America is not alone in being strange. All countries are strange reflecting the particularities of tradition and experience. Strangeness is bound up with originality and contradiction, and is not necessarily negative. We can be inspired by what is strange and wonderful, and appalled by what is strange and abusive. It is this negative strangeness that we must struggle to mitigate, whether it be capital punishment, human trafficking, or the subjugation that accompanies deep poverty and all forms of forcible dispossession.

Apartheid and the Palestinian National Struggle

28 Apr

Apartheid and the Palestinian National Struggle

 

Preliminary Observations

 

In this period when the centenary of the genocidal victimization of the Armenian people in 1915 is being so widely observed and discussed, it seems especially appropriate to call attention to the comparable victimization of the Palestinian people. This second story of prolonged collective victimization also received its jump start almost a century ago with the issuance by the British Foreign Office of the Balfour Declaration supporting the Zionist movement project of establishing a Jewish national home in historic Palestine. The most striking difference between these two experiences of severe historical wrongs is that the Armenian people are seeking acknowledgement and apology for what was done to their ancestors a century ago, and possibly seeking reparations, while the Palestinian people may sometime in the future have the opportunity to seek similar redress for the past but now their urgent focus is upon liberation from present daily structures of acute oppression. This Palestinian situation is tragic, in part, because there is no clear path to liberation, and the devastation of oppressive circumstances have gone on decade after decade with no end in view.

 

The political puzzle of the Israel/Palestine conflict continues to frustrate American policymakers despite their lengthy diplomatic engagement in the search for a peaceful future that satisfies both peoples. There are significant changes, of course, that have occurred as time unwinds. Perhaps, the most crucial change has involved the gradual extension of Israeli control over virtually the whole of historic Palestine with American acquiescence. This coincides with a growing and more vivid awareness around the world of how much suffering and humiliation the Palestinian people have endured over the course of the last century, and the degree to which this frozen situation can be blamed on the unlimited willingness of the United States to deploy its geopolitical muscle on Israel’s behalf.

 

My approach to the Palestinian struggle reflects four points of departure: first, regarding the long suffering of the Palestinian people as having become the primary international moral challenge of our time, which does not deny that there are other equally serious moral challenges, but none is so implicated in wider global patterns of past injustice or as salient in the political consciousness of the peoples of the world; secondly, believing that international law and morality should be allowed to provide essential guidance in determining the contours of a just and sustainable peace between these two long embattled peoples; thirdly, emphasizing the decisive liberating role of nonviolent civil society militancy in finding a solution for the conflict, achieving liberation from below by the mobilization of people, not the action governments as offering the most promising present scenario for ending the Palestinian ordeal; and fourthly, approaching the struggle for Palestine as matter of human wellbeing without privileging a particular ethnicity, nationality, and religion, that is, from a sense of shared humanity rather than from adversary perspectives of Jewish and Palestinian exclusivity.  

 

The Palestinian struggle is about far more than the ‘end to occupation,’ although the concreteness of the Israeli occupation of Palestine lends itself to visualization, as would Israeli withdrawal, and this partly explains why so many liberal activists equate peace with ending the occupation. Yet conceiving the conflict in this territorial manner is profoundly misleading. It ignores the depth and complexity of what is at stake for both Jews and Palestinians, but especially for Palestinians. I consider the Palestinian national struggle within its broader scope and less distinct parameters as a persisting struggle to achieve the right of self-determination. Self-determination is the solemn promise of common Article 1 in the two international human rights covenants made to all peoples in the world, in effect, a legal, moral, cultural, and frequently a political entitlement to determine collective destiny so long as the equal right of other peoples is not encroached upon. These 1966 covenants set forth the content of international human rights law in their most authoritative treaty form. The extended inability to realize this right is the core tragedy of the Palestinian people, informing the hardships and humiliations of daily life.

 

In some respects, even describing the Palestinian goal in the language of self-determination is too restrictive, and by itself, not very clarifying. Ultimately the preconditions and contours of a just and sustainable peace is what should concern us most. It is an outcome that controversially also addresses the overlapping and conflicting right of self-determination enjoyed by those of Jewish identity who are now long enough resident in Israel to possess their own legitimate basis for claiming self-determination. The key strategy of accommodation is to find the best formula for reconciling these basic competing claims of self-determination, and to reject as unacceptable contentions of their fundamental incompatibility or their resolution by force of arms. It is important at this stage to recognize that Israeli unilateralism and Zionist maximalism are making it increasingly difficult for the affected parties to find such a formula, much less give it life.

 

When considering the content of this underlying right of self-determination additional substantive concerns are disclosed, above all the fate of the several million Palestinian refugees many living for more than 50 years in miserable refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. If Palestinian goals or the requirements of peace are confined to the territorial language of ending the occupation, the plight of Palestinian refugees tends to be left in limbo or at best consigned to the periphery of peacemaking that implicitly denies any right of repatriation and leaves the refugee communities without adequate representation.

 

There are other challenges facing peacemakers, as well. Edward Said, and other sensitive commentators on the interminable Palestinian ordeal have repeatedly observed that one catastrophic dispossession, that of the Palestinians in 1948, in no way justifies seeking a second dispossession, this time of Jews. In effect, the illegitimacies of the past that have victimized the Palestinians and produced the present intolerable state of affairs, must be put to one side in peacemaking contexts, and the future framed by reference to how Palestinians and Jews can best live together when account is taken of all the circumstances of past and present, including the allocation of rights by the application of international law. This injunction of mutuality should not be interpreted as a readiness to forget the past, or to minimize its relevance. Rather it is an insistence that replicating past wrongs by superimposing on all of historic Palestine a new power structure that excludes or subjugates Jews is not ethically acceptable or politically feasible as goals of conceiving Palestinian empowerment. Said did insist, however, that grave past injustices endured by the Palestinians, especially the massive dispossessions of 1948 and again in 1967, must be confronted and acknowledged by Israel before any sustainable progress toward peace and reconciliation is possible. Similarly, there is no way of reconciling the contending claims of self-determination if Zionism clings to its demand of ‘a Jewish state’ and an exclusive unlimited right of return for Jews only.

 

The contention that Israel has become an apartheid state is highly relevant to grasping the fate endured by the Palestinian people over the course of the last hundred years. Most poignantly, if the quest for Palestinian self-determination continues to fail, the outcome of the unresolved struggle will almost certainly result in the further entrenchment of existing systematic structures of ethnic discrimination. Such structures possess the key elements of the international crime of apartheid. If this is so, it means that the very arrangement relied upon to sustain public order in Palestine and Israel is itself an ongoing international crime of utmost gravity. Apartheid is designated as a crime against humanity in the Rome Statute of 2002, the treaty that regulates the operations of the International Criminal Court.

 

In other words, the present and the future of the Israel/Palestine relationship cannot be understood in neutral, symmetrical, and static terms of both sides more or less equally thwarting the path leading to conflict resolution and enduring the same consequences if that path remains blocked. Unfortunately, this has long been the official American rebuke to both parties. John Kerry, the American Secretary of State, and President Barack Obama, never tire of telling Israel and Palestine that each must make ‘painful concessions’ if the deadlock is to be broken and peace to be attained. Such language conveys a fundamentally distorted image of the present reality because it refuses to take account of the essential and vital difference between the situation of the oppressor and the oppressed, a difference that becomes unmistakable if you experience directly the many dimensions of everyday inequality between the two peoples. [this point is often made by Edward Said. See for instance his last interview: “My Right of Return,” (with Ari Shavit), in Gauri Viswanathan, ed., Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said (Pantheon, 2001, 443-458, esp. 445-449.]

 

The imagery of deadlock and equal responsibility for the unsatisfactory present reality also falsely implies a static situation that would seem detrimental to both sides. This is a false image because with the passage of time Palestine loses, and Israel gains. This is so territorially, but also to live as the oppressor is consistent in most respects with living well, while living under conditions of oppression or as refugees in to varying degrees living badly. Of course, power shifts are common, and roles can be reversed, although this does not seem likely anytime soon.

 

The existing Israel and Palestine interplay is constantly evolving. This understanding leads me to have a quite different overview of the present situation that I will express in a deliberately provocative way–either the future will witness a further entrenching of the Israeli apartheid state or Israel will abandon and dismantle current apartheid structures and accept a Palestinian call for peace in accord with international human rights law, and more generally, agree on steps that need to be taken to realize the Palestinian right of self-determination. As previously stated such a Palestinian realization of self-determination must not be exercised at the expense of a complementary Jewish right of self-determination. This is not meant as an indirect endorsement of Zionist goals as articulated by currently dominant Israeli forces. It is obviously difficult to adjudicate between these overlapping claims of self-determination, and doing so most likely requires help from genuinely detached third parties. Putting this more concretely, a spiritual homeland for the Jewish people in ancient Palestine would could be maintained, but not the current Jewish state with its preferential ethnically framed nationality laws, making Israel what the Jewish leader Henry Siegman perceptively identifies as an ‘ethnocracy’ rather than a ‘democracy.’

 

Let me acknowledge, without delving into the matter, that the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the formal representatives of the Palestinian people in international venues, has been partly responsible for the confusion about these fundamental points by seeming to go along with both a territorial definition of the conflict and a solution based on the Oslo process despite it being tainted by the United States acting in the role of intermediary. The PA posits its primary goal to be the establishment of some kind of Palestinian state on the currently occupied territory of the West Bank, and indeed claims that such a state already exists, a position affirmed by the General Assembly in a resolution adopted on November 29, 2012. This also allows Israel and the United States to continue treating ‘the peace process’ as necessitating direct negotiations between the parties despite Israel’s multiple efforts to de facto annex portions of the West Bank at Palestine’s expense ever since the early 1990s. By now it should be evident that these direct negotiations have given the Palestinians zero benefits for the last 20+ years while bestowing on Israel a golden opportunity to pursue its expansionist agenda in violation of international law. The fact that Israel continues to lend rhetorical support to such a peace process sustains for many the illusion that its government favors a genuine effort to solve the conflict through diplomatic compromise. Washington does its part, going sheepishly along not only because it habitually defers to Israel, but because playing this particular diplomatic game enables the United States to continue portraying itself as patron of a process dedicated to producing peace.

 

 

 

Understanding Israel’s Recourse to Apartheid

 

At a conference at the National Press Club on April 10, 2015 in Washington devoted to assessing and depicting the Israel Lobby as it operates in the United States, the influential Haaretz columnist, Gideon Levy, painted a picture of the current Palestinian ordeal concisely with a few verbal brush strokes. He emphatically told the audience what every follower of this ‘peace process’ should have understood long ago: “The two state solution is dead!” What does that mean? According to Levy, neither Israeli motivation nor any practical possibility of moving toward Palestinian self-determination is present, even in that constricted and inadequate sense of territorial empowerment with respect to currently occupied Palestine. Israel’s main policies have long been subversive of the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestine, the major presupposition of the ‘two state solution.’ The centerpiece of this subversion is, of course, the settlement phenomenon—the establishment and continuous expansion of 121 settlements authorized by Israel (along with 102 so-called ‘settlement outposts’ that are formally unauthorized but are nevertheless officially supported and subsidized) that now provide unlawful homes for between 700,000-750,000 Israeli settlers. This massive encroachment on any future independent Palestine has been abetted by the multi-billion dollar construction of a network of settler only roads, and by building a separation barrier of several hundred miles many segments of which cut deep into occupied Palestinian territory. This notorious wall was authoritatively declared illegal by 14 of 15 judges of the International Court of Justice back in an advisory opinion issued in 2004, endorsed by the General Assembly, and summarily rejected by Israel.

 

Although Levy didn’t explain exactly what he meant by using the word ‘dead,’ it can be interpreted in two distinct ways: first, as Benjamin Netanyahu himself proclaimed in the recent Israeli electoral campaign, as long as he and the Likud Party control the government, Israel will never allow the formation of a Palestinian state in historic Palestine. This also seems to express the real views of a majority of Israeli citizens, and thus the utterance of views to the contrary by Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders for international consumption should be disregarded as a cynical move to placate public opinion; and secondly, even if the words were to be treated as sincere, the settlements, roads, and wall make a viable sovereign Palestinian state incapable of establishment even if Israel some day possesses the political will to bring it into being.

 

The two-state solution has long been what the NY Times columnist Paul Krugman calls a ‘Zombie Idea’, that is, a discredited idea that continues to be accepted as the way to solve a problem because it upholds the self-interest of some powerful political actors, thereby diverting attention from alternative solutions that could be burdensome for those who benefit from freezing the status quo; it is a zombie, as in being a ghost, which lives on beyond its natural death causing torment to those it haunts. In ghostly respect the two sate solution continues to be treated as the only solution for the convenience of the parties, including the United States, Europe, and the UN, despite their private awareness of its irrelevance. During my period as UN Special Rapporteur I was often privy to corridor conversations that acknowledged the absence of any hope for a two state solution, but in public it was business as usual with these same individuals expressing their fervent hopes that talks would soon resume and finally find common ground.

 

 

In the contrasting theater of ‘reality politics’ the prospects are for further Israeli unilateralism. This impression has been reinforced by the selection by the Knesset two years ago of Reuven (Ruvi) Rivlin as President of Israel. Rivlin is a rightest Likud figure long known for his unapologetic embrace of a one state solution that envisions the Israeli incorporation of the whole of occupied Palestine. Netanyahu, a wily politician, differs from Rivlin in fundamental respects, and despite both men belonging to the same political party, they disagree on key issues and are personal antagonists: Netanyahu has previously given lip service internationally to a diplomatic process built around bilateral negotiations, as well as expressing his provisional support on behalf of Israel to a two-state solution; somewhat surprisingly Rivlin, unlike Netanyahu, strongly opposes an apartheid approach to internal Israeli security. In its place, Rivlin offers the Palestinians a Faustian Bargain, if Palestinians agree to live in an orderly manner while foregoing self-determination they deserve to be treated as fully equal citizens within a Jewish state comprising Greater Israel, including a guaranty of unrestricted political participation that might even include a Palestinian victory someday in national elections. [elaborated in by David Remnick, “The One-State Reality,” The New Yorker, Nov. 17, 2014.] To obtain this equality of treatment, the Palestinians would be expected to accept this consummation of the Zionist Project in a form that was originally proposed by Ze’ev Jabotinsky the Zionist visionary who inspired the founding of the Likud Party!

 

It should be obvious that the Palestinians will never agree to such an outcome of their national struggle, which would amount to the acceptance of a humiliating political surrender. In the unlikely event that the Ramallah leadership of the PA ever dared to accept such a deal, perhaps disguised in its presentation by granting Palestinians some community and local rights of self-government, the Palestinian people are almost certain to reject it. Such an arrangement would not bring peace, but at most it would be seen as nothing other than one more ceasefire to be broken by a further cycle of renewed resistance.

 

In effect, combining the physical encroachment on any Palestinian expectations of a viable sovereign state of their own with the rightward drift of internal Israeli politics, makes the apartheid solution a near certainty whether in the form of a perpetuation of the present condition of irresolution or by adopting a version of the Israeli one-state outcome within which discriminatory structures will have to be maintained to uphold public order. In light of such futures, robust Palestinian resistance can be anticipated, and for Israel to contain and suppress it will require police and paramilitary structures of control at least as strong as has has long been operative in the West Bank, and in different modalities in Gaza, ever since occupation commenced in 1967.

 

Again referring to Levy’s Washington talk, he regards the cumulative impact of the occupation as having produced the “systematic dehumanization of the Palestinians.” Collective dehumanization is an almost sure sign of the presence of apartheid when those experiencing abuse are ethnically and territorially distinct, and have a sufficient demographic weight as to consider themselves as ‘a people’ rather than a victimized minority.

My own experience with Palestinians has certainly confirmed this dynamic of dehumanization, but it has also been coupled with shining instances of Palestinian humanization despite everything as well as with Israeli dehumanization associated with forcing its will by brute force on a totally vulnerable people being denied their most elemental rights.

 

At this point, a glance at history helps us appreciate the perversity of this emergence of apartheid in Palestine. It needs to be remembered that the Zionist project received its first decisive international endorsement in a strictly colonialist form, by way of an assurance in 1917 given by the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Alfred Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, the head of the Zionist Movement in Britain, that the British government would “view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” At this initial stage, a Jewish state, as distinct from a national home, was neither endorsed in the text nor envisioned as an overt goal, although Zionist leaders seemed to have had this in mind from the beginnings of the movement in the late 19th century. Even the limited idea of a Jewish homeland was qualified by the clause “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

 

The Balfour promise of a Jewish national home was intended to be fused with the British plan to govern the whole of Palestine primarily in pursuit of its strategic goals of safeguarding trade routes to India, and especially the Suez Canal. Britain resorted to its habitual colonial tactic of ‘divide and rule’ with respect to its administration of relations between Jews and Arabs. But as the peace diplomacy unfolded after World War I, the British were forced by the United States to roll back their overt colonial ambitions, and operate within the mandate system that entailed an international commitment to grant Palestine eventual national independence as a single independent state but also contained the Balfour promise of a Jewish national home. In actual fact, the British governed Palestine as a de facto colony during the mandatory period from 1920-1948, but their divide and rule approach backfired as the Jewish presence disproportionately increased and as Zionist statist ambitions became evident they began colliding with British policy. In the end Zionist extremists resorted to systematic terrorism with the goal of inducing the British to abandon Palestine. Palestine became ungovernable, and the British shifted from their divide and rule tactics to the advocacy of a partition plan that would divide Palestine into two national entities, one for Palestinians, the other for Jews.

 

After World War II, when Britain could no longer handle the burdens of administering Palestine, the UN was given the job of addressing these conflicting claims, and in GA Resolution 181 influenced by the British approach, a partition plan for Palestine was approved over the objection of Arab countries. In the UN plan, 55% of historic Palestine was awarded to the Jewish claimants, and the remaining 45% to the Palestinians. Jerusalem was given to neither side nor split, but was designated as a corpus separatum to be administered as an international enclave by the UN with the Trusteeship Council given the assignment.

 

There was no attempt by the UN to implement, or even consider, self-determination by consulting the will of the resident population in Palestine, which was then overwhelmingly opposed to partition. Partition was a paternalistic initiative of the international community that in effect ratified the settler colonialist approach of the Zionist movement as initially facilitated by Britain and later greatly strengthened due to developments in Europe, especially Germany. Not surprisingly partition was at the time rejected by the Palestinian majority population and accepted by the Zionists, resulting in the 1948 War, decisively won by the Jewish side. This battlefield outcome shrank the Palestinian remnant from 55% to 22% of the land, and also de-internationalized the city of Jerusalem, putting West Jerusalem under the control of Israel and East Jerusalem under the administrative authority of Jordan ; in the course of the 1948 war, there occurred the forcible dispossession of an estimated 750,000 Palestinians accompanied by the destruction and depopulation of as many as 531 Palestinian villages. The Palestinians recall and observe these events as the nakba, or catastrophe, a narration of national tragedy that combines the politics of dispossession with the tactics of massive ethnic cleansing.

 

Subsequent consequences, associated with refugee camps in neighboring countries, the 1967 War that resulted in Israel’s occupation of the rest of Palestine, and intensifying hostility toward Gaza, especially after 2006, are viewed by Palestinians as a continuation of the nakba, conceived now more adequately as a process through time rather than as a circumscribed event.

 

If we consider the sweep of developments over the course of the century a pattern emerges that continues into the present. Put simply: ever since the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the Palestinians have survived within a steadily diminished horizon of expectations, while the Zionist Movement was continuously widening its horizons. The unfolding of this dual process can be crudely expressed by reference to three periods: the first, lasting from 1917 to 1947, the mandate period during which the demographic balance of Palestine started shifting due to Jewish immigration, a dynamic accelerated by the emergence of Nazism that also increased international attention to and support for a Jewish homeland, and later, Israeli statehood; secondly, from 1948 to 1967 during a state-building period in Israel, with the West Bank and East Jerusalem administered as occupied territory in the aftermath of the 1948 War by Jordan and Gaza by Egypt; thirdly, from 1967 to the present when these Palestinian territories (as well as the Syrian Golan Heights) were shifted from Arab occupation to Israeli occupation, during which de facto annexation of portions of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights took place. Gaza was first occupied and settled, with Israel ‘disengaging’ in 2005, but continuing to exert effective control over Gaza through its total regulation of borders, air space, and shoreline.

 

The UN is typically criticized for devoting too much attention to Palestinian grievances while overlooking other issues where the humanitarian urgency is as great or greater. This criticism that is frequently invoked by political leaders in Israel and the U.S. completely overlooks the degree to which the UN, and the League before it, have a special responsibility for the failure to resolve the conflict over Palestine. No where else in the world can such a humanitarian fiasco be laid so directly at the feet of the UN making it seem more appropriate to blame the Organization for doing too little or doing what it did ineptly, rather than blaming it for being obsessively focused on Israel’s wrongdoing with respect to Palestine and Palestinians.

 

 

 

 

The Politics and Ethics of Naming

 

Calling the Israeli domination of Palestinians within the various governmental zones of Israeli domination apartheid is one facet of the wider controversy. For ardent defenders of Israel the mere allegation of apartheid is inflammatory and viewed as so totally inaccurate as to suggest that anyone calling Israel an apartheid state is an anti-Semite. Israel defends its policies toward Palestinians in Israel and under occupation by invoking the democratic character of Israel in which Palestinians vote, form political parties, and enjoy membership in the Knesset. For Palestinians who live outside of Israel under occupation in the West Bank or Gaza, Israel justifies its policies by security considerations. And for the Palestinian refugees, Israel shifts blame to the Arab countries in which they are resident.

 

As the accusation of Israeli apartheid has become more and more mainstream pro-Israeli responses have become harsher. Even revered and eminent figures such as Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu after expressing their opinion as to the actual and potential apartheid character of Israel have been defamed. Despite this effort to intimidate the use of the terminology of apartheid to describe not only the occupation of the West Bank but also the discriminatory regimes operative in Israel itself and East Jerusalem, as well as the oppressive securitization of Gaza, is increasing. Apartheid as the descriptive label of Israeli policy toward the Palestinian people has been gaining acceptability throughout the world, including within the UN. It has also captured the imagination of many campus groups in the West that organize Palestinian solidarity efforts and justify the BDS campaign under the banner of ‘Israel Apartheid Week,’ believing that the idea of apartheid now better expresses the essential character of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian people than any other descriptive language. In retaliation, Israel and its NGO global network of support are seeking to criminalize civil society initiatives that flow from the apartheid analysis.

 

It is important to distinguish the political use of the terminology of apartheid in expressive and impressionistic modes from its legal usage in international law, although the two types of usage overlap. The legal conception of apartheid has evolved via the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid adopted in 1973. This treaty criminalized apartheid and made clear that the essence of the crime involved maintaining systematic regimes of extreme discrimination based on race or ethnicity, and although derived from the South African experience the crime was not limited to that particular type of discriminatory separation. The Rome Statute of 2002 that underpins the operations of the International Criminal Court categorizes the crime of apartheid within its broader classification of crimes against humanity in Article 7(1)(j). Article 7 provides a clear definition of apartheid as an: “..institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination of one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of managing that regime.” It is understood that ‘race’ is used here in a broad sense to encompass diverse ‘ethnicities’ or ‘religions.’

 

The political use of apartheid in relation to Israel does not attempt to pass legal judgment. It is rather an assessment based on the systematic character of structures of domination and discrimination that cannot be convincingly rationalized as either non-discriminatory or by reference to the reasonable requirements of Israeli security. In the background of the apartheid debate is the overarching idea of international humanitarian law as mainly set forth in the Fourth Geneva Convention to the effect that an occupying power has as its primary obligation the protection of civilians living in a society under occupation, subject only to the right of the occupier to adopt measures necessary to uphold security. The apartheid perception with respect to Palestinians is diverse and fragmented. This corresponds to the sub-regimes of control that Israel has established to deal with different segments of the Palestinian resident population.

 

The most clearly delineated apartheid structures are maintained in the West Bank where there is a pervasive subjugation of the Palestinian population by a regime of rightlessness as administered by Israeli military authorities, and to some extent since 1993 delegated to the Palestinian Authority. This regime gives rise to contrasts between the Palestinian experiences of everyday abuse and uplifting Israeli experiences of the rule of law and the stable life circumstances enjoyed by unlawful settlers. This bright line of discrimination is reinforced by the checkpoints, house demolitions, settler only roads, an intrusive separation wall, settler violence, and epitomized by the grossly unequal allocation of Palestinian water resources.

 

The 1.8 million Palestinians living in Gaza, especially since the Israeli ‘disengagement’ of 2005 followed by the Hamas electoral victory in 2006, have been subjected to the most severe sub-regime of discriminatory domination. The Gazan civilian population has been locked within the borders of Gaza and subject to periodic military attacks, chillingly described in Israel as ‘mowing the lawn.’ Jerusalem and pre-1967 Israel are administered by the government of Israel, and here discriminatory laws are based on nationality and administrative rulings limiting Palestinian rights and stability of residence, denying family unification, restricting employment and education opportunities, and imposing the domination of a Jewish state, creating a situation of pervasive human insecurity for the Palestinian minority. There are also about 1.6 million Palestinians living behind the Green Line within Israel’s 1967 borders as Israeli citizens, while being denied real equality due to this wide variety of nationality laws that blatantly privilege Jewish nationality.

 

In its totality, the Israeli apartheid system can be compared to the colonial governance approach of the British. The British derived security by ‘divide and rule’ tactics while the Israel approach can be summarized as ‘divide, dominate, and discriminate.’ In the first case, we have the traditional format of a colonial power, while in the second, the most obvious label is that of ‘settler colonialism,’ yet it must be particularized in relation to Palestine to be fully understood.

 

 

 

The Palestinian National Movement

 

The Palestinian struggle has gone through a series of overlapping stages during the course of almost a century. There was an early period of a building internal resistance by the native population to continuing Jewish immigration during the mandate period coupled with growing Zionist influence and militancy in Palestine. The British colonialist approach tended to support this buildup of the Jewish presence in Palestine, initially feeling more kinship with Jews as mainly fellow Europeans. This widening cleavage eventually led the British and then the UN to seek stability and conflict resolution via partition, dividing the two peoples territorially, with the hope of creating separate polities. The British reached the conclusion, which was endorsed by the UN, that Jews and Palestinians would never peacefully live together, and that separation was the only viable approach. This idea of partition, eventually accepted as a goal by many world leaders, including those representing the Palestinian people, has since the 1990s morphed into ‘the two state solution.’ Among its original flaws, aside from the arrogance of imposing a solution from without and above, was the dispersion of the native Palestinian population throughout all of Palestine, whereas the Jewish population was confined to certain portions of the country. This meant that even with dispossession many Palestinians would find themselves captive in the incipient Jewish state, and consigned to the status of a subjugated minority in what had been their homeland for countless generations.

 

The failure of partition led to a phase of Arab belligerency in relation to the Palestinian struggle. In wars waged in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, it was the goal of neighboring Arab countries to liberate Palestine and Jerusalem by joint military action. These efforts were unsuccessful, resulting in a series of Israeli military victories, coupled with territorial expansion, and belligerent occupation.

 

The failure of such liberation from without was followed by a period of resistance from within, the formation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization under the leadership of Yasir Arafat. This rise of national resistance activity was especially pronounced in the years following the 1967 War, a period of nationalist resurgence by the Palestinian people. It was in this period that Palestinian armed resistance activity began being portrayed in the West as ‘terrorism’ and its suppression by Israel was welcomed, especially in reaction to internationalizing the Palestinian struggle through the staging of shocking violent incidents at the Munich Olympics, hijacking, exploding planes, attacking airports and passenger ships.

 

Armed struggle by Palestinians also was discredited and defeated by Israel’ effective counter-terrorist tactics and by its ability to tilt in its favor the media treatment of the conflict. In a spontaneous show of civil society activism, the Intifada of 1987 created a new previously unexpected challenge to Israeli dominance. In a show of populist unity and courage, ‘the war of the stones’ was defiantly waged by the Palestinian people. It communicated to the world the dramatic refusal of the Palestinian people to allow the occupation to be normalized. The inequalities in weaponry and suffering between the two sides began to shift the balance in the war of ideas and images, especially giving enhanced credibility to Palestinian narratives of victimization.

 

In response, the conflict once again became internationalized. The United States playing a leading role, culminating in the formulation of the Oslo Framework of Principles solemnized by Itzaak Rabin and Yasir Arafat with a historic handshake on the White House Lawn in 1993. Oslo diplomacy reflected the power disparity that exists between Israel and Palestine, and the naively bewildering trust of the Palestinian leadership in the good offices of the U.S. Government to deliver a decent agreement. It should not have been surprising that the diplomacy over these many years was of a one-sided variety that relied on fruitless periodic negotiations between the parties, with the United States serving as intermediary and wrongly assigning blame for failures to find an agreed solution to the inflexibility of the Palestinians.

 

The unwillingness of Israel even to stop settlement expansion during the negotiating sessions both exhibited the one-sidedness of the process and the underlying absence of political will in Israel to reach a fair settlement. Of course, there is an element of subjectivity with respect to the content of ‘fair,’ but international law could have offered guidelines had it been allowed to be relevant. And what is objectively clear was translating Israel’s unlawful ‘facts on the ground’ into new negotiating positions that continuously diminished Palestinian prospects. In retrospect, the Oslo diplomacy was based on the relative bargaining power of the two sides, combined with the intensity of their respective political will. It was also shaped by the American deference to Israel’s policy priorities, above all, its refusal to give ground on the right of return of dispossessed Palestinian refugees or to accept shared governmental authority in Jerusalem.

 

The intifada was the basis for what later became the legitimacy war strategy of struggle. The energy of Palestinian resistance shifted from top down to bottom-up, that is, to the agency of civil society. The formal authority or top-down Palestinian leadership is being bypassed. There is a rejection under existing conditions of both armed struggle and inter-governmental diplomacy, including via the UN. Major mobilization efforts are directed at delegitimizing Israeli policies and practices, as well as stimulating militant forms of nonviolent coercive support for Palestinian empowerment and liberation. This Palestinian version of a legitimacy war has been deeply influenced by the successful anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa, and has centered its actions in relation to a comparable BDS Campaign that responded to an appeal from a coalition of Palestinians NGOs in 2004, and has been gaining global momentum, including within the United States, especially, in the aftermath of the massive military onslaughts carried out against Gaza in 2008-09, 2012, and 2014.

 

Many sympathetic commentators believe that the Palestinians are winning this Legitimacy War, including the important Palestinian founder of the Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah. It is also the thesis of my book Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope. I take note of the international experience since the end of World War II in which the side that prevailed in a Legitimacy War generally controlled the political outcome of conflicts, despite being militarily inferior. Recourse to a Legitimacy War strategy usually reflects two kinds of developments: a societal sense of moral outrage that combines with the refusal of governments and international institutions to promote a just solution.

 

This unfolding of the legitimacy discourse has definitely moved in a direction favorable to Palestinian hopes. In the years following World War II, Israel was seen as the David battling the Arab Goliath, with Israel scoring unexpected military victory after military victory against hostile larger neighbors accused of seeking to throw the Jewish people into the sea. The Palestinians were portrayed as ‘rejectionists’ that defied the UN’s plan widely deemed at the time in the West to be a reasonable compromise. This negative image of Palestinian political behavior was further strengthened by the portrayal of Palestinian resistance as ‘terrorism.’ This violence was widely perceived as unacceptably threatening the Jewish people, and reminded the world of the Holocaust and the fate of Jews during the Nazi period. Such a link between Jewish victimization in the Holocaust and the Palestinian/Arab struggle was strongly promoted through intense Israeli propaganda efforts. (hasbara)

 

This image, which remains strong in the West, and certainly is powerful in the United States where Israel is viewed not only as the most admirable and dynamic country in the region, but also as the most important strategic partner Washington possesses and a recipient of intense support in Christian evangelical circles. This strategic bonding was greatly facilitated by Israel’s military prowess as revealed in its victorious wars, especially the 1967 War, and given additional reinforcement through its long experience of counter-terrorism that was treated as a major Israeli contribution to American security policies in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

 

Concluding Comments

 

The basic drift of my argument is as follows:

            –UN authority was not able to obtain a solution;

            –armed struggle and international statecraft were tried, but both failed to resolve the conflict or improve the Palestinian position;

            –what this leaves is either Israeli unilateralism, carrying out the Zionist endgame of incorporating the whole of Jerusalem and the West Bank into Israel, and claiming to be the state of the entire Jewish people, or a Legitimacy War victory by the Palestinian people that induces a cycle of ‘new diplomacy’ on a level playing field;

            –in the interim, any further attempts to revive the Oslo diplomacy, even enjoying should they enjoy the cynical of the Netanyahu government should be resisted as a dead end that is more harmful to the Palestinian struggle than is facing the realities of Israeli expansionism.

 

Given this understanding of the conflict, and considering the extraordinary record of military assistance given to Israel by the United States government, the American people have an increasingly dishonorable connection to the conflict. The American indulgence of Israeli exceptionalism includes issuing a free pass to Israel when it secretly became a nuclear weapons state. American citizens have a special responsibility for the long ordeal of the Palestinian people. The Jewish philosopher, Abraham Heschel observed “[f]ew are guilty, but all are responsible.” The Legitimacy War scenario gives each of us ample opportunities to exercise our individual responsibility. We owe the Palestinian people and ourselves nothing less.

 

Armenians 1915: The Genocide Controversy

19 Apr

Armenia: The Genocide Controversy

 

Of the many current concerns associated with historic wrongs, none is more salient these days than the long simmering tensions between modern Turkey and the Armenian diaspora (and the state of Armenia). And none so convincingly validates the assertion of the great American novelist, William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This year being the centenary of the contested events of 1915 makes it understandable that was simmering through the decades has come to a boil, with the anniversary day of April 24th likely to be the climax of this latest phase of the unresolved drama.

 

The Armenian red line for any move toward reconciliation has been for many years a formal acknowledgement by the Turkish government that the killings that occurred in 1915 should be regarded as ‘genocide,’ and that an official apology to the descendants of the Armenian victims should be issued by the top political leaders in Turkey. It is not clear whether once that red line is crossed, a second exists, this one involving Armenian expectations of reparations in some form or even restorations of property and territory. For now the battleground is over the significance of granting or withholding the G word from these momentous happenings. The utterance of this word, alone, seems the only key capable of unlocking the portals leading to conflict resolution, but it is a key that Turks across the political spectrum refuse to use.

 

What has recently raised the temperature on both sides is the clear alignment of Pope Francis with the Armenian demands. At a solemn mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on April 12th that was devoted to the centenary of the Ottoman killings of Armenian Christians Francis quoted with approval from the 2001 joint declaration of Pope John Paul II and the Armenian religious leader Karenkin II to the effect that these massacres in 1915 were “widely considered the first genocide of the 20th century.” The pope’s reliance upon an earlier declaration by a predecessor pontiff was interpreted by some Vatican watchers as a subtle indication of ‘restraint,’ showing a continuity of view in the Catholic Church rather than the enunciation of a provocative new position. Others equally reliable commentators felt that situating the label of genocide within a solemn mass gave it more authority than the earlier declaration with the 1.1 billion Catholics around the world, with likely more public impact. The unusual stature enjoyed by this pope who is widely admired the world over as possessing the most influential voice of moral authority, exerting a powerful impact even on non-Catholics, lends added significance to his pronouncements on sensitive policy issues. There are some in the Catholic community, to be sure, who are critical of this latest foray into this conflict about the application of the word genocide at a delicate time. For instance, the respected Vatican expert, Marco Politi, said that Pope Francis’s comment were typical of this pope who “uses language without excessive diplomatic care.”

 

For these very reasons of salience, one supposes, the Turkish response has been strident, involving some retreat from the more forthcoming statements made just a year ago by the then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In an apologetic and conciliatory speech addressed directly to the Armenian community Erdoğan in 2014 said: “May Armenians who lost their lives in the early twentieth century rest in peace, we convey our condolences to their grandchildren.” His language in 2015 reverts to a much harsher tone, in a pushback to Francis declaring that religious leaders make a ‘mistake’ when they try to resolve historical controversies. In an effort to constructive, Erdoğan restates the long standing Turkish proposal to open the Ottoman archives and allow a joint international commission of historians to settle the issue as to how the events of 1915 should most accurately be described, and specifically whether the term genocide is appropriate. Both Erdoğan and the current prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, continue to regard the core issue to be a historical matter of establishing the factual reality. The Turkish position is that there were terrible killings of the Armenians, but at a level far below the 1.5 million claimed by Armenian and most international sources, and mainly as an incident of ongoing warfare and civil strife in which many Turks also lost their lives, and hence it was an experience of mutual loss, and not ‘genocide.’

 

The almost internationally uncontested historical narrative is that the essential factual questions have settled: the Ottoman political leaders embarked on a deliberate policy of mass killings of the Armenians living in what is now modern Turkey. From this international consensus, the Armenians claim that it follows that Armenian victimization in 1915 was ‘genocide,’ the position endorsed and supported by Pope Francis, the European Parliament, and about 20 countries, including France and Russia. As might have been expected the NY Times jumped on the bandwagon by publishing a lead editorial with the headline, “Turkey’s Willful Amnesia,” as if was a matter of Ankara forgetting or a dynamic of denial, rather than is the case of selective perception, nationalism, and fears about the fragility of domestic political balance that explain Turkey’s seemingly stubborn adherence to a discredited narrative.

 

Yet there are weighty problems here, as well. The conclusion of ‘genocide’ is ambiguous. Not only did no such crime, labeled as such, exist in 1915, but there was not even the concept crystallyzed in this manner. Indeed the word was not coined until 1944 by Rafael Lemkin in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, written in reaction to the crimes of the Nazis. Lemkin’s text does indirectly lend support to the Armenian insistence that only by acknowledging these events as genocide is their true reality comprehended. Consider this often quoted passage from Lemkin’s book: “I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times in history. It happened to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action.”

 

From a Turkish perspective, it is notable that the Nuremberg Judgment assessing Nazi criminality avoids characterizing the Holocaust as genocide, limiting itself to crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. If in 1945 there was no legal foundation for charging surviving Nazi leaders with genocide, how can the crime be attributed to the Ottoman Turks, and how can the Turkish government be reasonably expected to acknowledge it. Also in the Nuremberg Judgment there is a clear statement to the effect that criminal law can never be validly applied retroactively (nulla poena sine lege). This principle is also embedded in contemporary international criminal law. That is, if genocide was not a crime in 1915, it cannot be treated as a crime in 2015. Yet from an Armenian perspective, this issue of criminality is tangential, and is not the ground on which the Turkish narrative rests. Both sides seem to agree that what is at stake is whether or not to characterize the events as ‘genocide,’ regardless of whether genocide was a distinct crime in 1915.

 

But here ambiguity abounds on this issue of criminality. The preamble of the Genocide Convention (1950) includes language compatible with the wider import of Armenian contentions: “Recognized in all periods of history that genocide has inflicted great losses on humanity.” In effect, that the reality of genocide long preceded the conclusion of the treaty. And even the premise of prior criminality is reinforced by Article 1: “The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace, or time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and punish.” By using the word ‘confirm’ it would appear that the crime of genocide preexisted the use of the word ‘genocide’ invented to describe the phenomenon, and thus no persuasive jurisprudential reason is present to oppose redescribing the events of 1915 as an instance of genocide.

 

Such a discussion of the pros and cons of the legalities is far from the end of the debate. The pressure to call what happened to the Armenians as genocide is best understood as a pycho-political campaign to achieve an acknowledgement and apology that is commensurate with the magnitude of the historical wrong, and possibly to set the stage for a subsequent demand of reparations. The insistence on the label ‘genocide’ seeks to capture total control of the moral high ground in relation to the events by authoritatively associating the tragic experience of the Armenians with the most horrendous events experienced by others, and most particularly by the Jewish victims of Nazism. In this sense, although Nazis were not indicted at Nuremberg for genocide, the whole political effort to criminalize genocide as a crime was in reaction to the Holocaust, lending an initial credibility to the ‘never again’ pledge. In other words, only by calling the events of 1915 genocide can the issues of guilt and responsibility be resolved in accord with the Armenian narrative with sufficient gravitas. The Armenian claim is thus not to be understood as primarily expressive of a criminal law perspective, but reflects the key contention that what took place resembled what is prohibited by the Genocide Convention, and thus in this extra-legal sense is appropriately called ‘genocide,’ which functions as a way of concluding that the Armenians were victimized by the worst possible type of human behavior. And further, that no other word conveys this assessment as definitively as does ‘genocide,’ and hence the Armenian insistence is non-negotiable. Any step back from this posture would be interpreted as a further humiliation, thereby dishonoring the memory of those who suffered and opening the wounds of the past still further.

 

At present, both sides are locked into these contradictory positions. No way forward is apparent at present. Each side is hardening their positions, partly in retaliation for what they perceive to be the provocation of their adversary in the controversy. Erdoğan’s relatively conciliatory tone of 2014 has been replaced on the Turkish side by a relapse into defensiveness and denial, and the revival of the largely discredited nationalist version of the events in 2015 as a mutual ordeal. The Armenian campaign, in turn, has intensified, taking advantage of the centenary mood, and now given the strongest possible encouragement by Pope Francis. In this setting, it is to be expected that Armenians will mount further pressure on the U.S. Government, considered a key player by both parties, to abandon its NATO-oriented reluctance to antagonize Turkey by officially endorsing the view that what happened in 1915 should be acknowledged by Turkey as genocide. Barack Obama had assured the Armenian community during his presidential campaign that he believed that Armenians were victims of genocide in 1915 but has to date refrained from reiterating this position in his role as president.

 

The contextualization of this tension associated with the redress of a historical grievance is also an element in the unfolding story. There appears to be an Israeli role in deflecting Turkish harsh criticism of its behavior in Gaza by a show of strong support for the Armenian campaign. Then there is the peril in the region especially faced by Christians, the Yazidis (an ancient syncretist religion drawing on Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Nestorian Christianity and Islam, and believed by many Iraqi to be devil-worshipers) and non-Muslims, especially at risk from ISIS and other extremist groups seeking to ‘purify’ areas under their control in the Middle East. In this picture also is the rise of Islamophobia in Europe, as well as the moral panic created by the Charlie Hebdo incident and other post-9/11 signs that religiously induced violence is continuing to spread Westwards. When Pope Francis visited Turkey last November there was reported an agreement reached with Erdoğan that the Vatican would combat Islamophobia in Europe while Turkey would oppose any persecution of Christian minorities in the Middle East.

 

I have known well prominent personalities on both sides of this Armenian/Turkish divide. More than twenty years ago I endorsed the Armenian position in talks and some writings. In more recent years, partly as a result of spending several months in Turkey each year I have become more sympathetic with Turkish reluctance to apologize and accept responsibility for ‘genocide.’ Among other concerns is the credible anxiety that any acknowledgement of genocide by Turkish leaders would unleash a furious right-wing backlash in the country imperiling social order and political stability. Aside from such prudential inhibitions there are on both sides of the divide deep and genuine issues of selective perception and identity politics that help maintain gridlock through the years, with no breakthrough in sight. Augmenting pressure on Turkey as is presently occurring is likely to be counter-productive, making the Turkish hard line both more mainstream and inflexible. Indicative of this is the stand of the main opposition leader, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu (head of the CHP) who seldom loses an opportunity to oppose the governing party on almost every issue, when it comes to the Armenian question is in lockstep solidarity with Erdoğan.

 

I see no way out of this debilitating impasse without finding a way to change the discourse. It serves neither the Armenians nor the Turks to continue this public encounter on its present path. The Turkish proposal for a historical joint commission is a bridge to nowhere as either it would reinforce the existing consensus and be unacceptable or the gridlock and be unacceptable. What might be more promising would be a council of ‘wise persons’ drawn from both ethno/religious backgrounds, and perhaps including some third parties as well, that would meet privately in search of shared understanding and common ground. A Turkish columnist, writing in this same spirit, proposes renewing the Erdoğan approach of 2014 by moving beyond sharing the pain to making an apology, coupled with offers of Turkish citizenship to the descendants of Armenians who were killed or diplaced in 1915.[See Verda Özer, “Beyond the Genocide Debate,” Hürriet Daily News, April 17, 2015] One possible formula that might have some traction is to agree that if what was done in 1915 were to occur now it would clearly qualify as ‘genocide,’ and that was done one hundred years ago was clearly genocidal in scale and intent. Perhaps, with good will and a realization that both sides would gain in self-esteem by a win/win outcome, progress could be made. At least it seems worth trying to use the resources of the moral imagination to work through with all possible good will a tangle of issues that has so long seemed intractable.

Interview with William Schabas, former Chair, UN Commission of Inquiry for 2014 Israeli Attack on Gaza

16 Feb

[Prefatory Note: I am posting an interview conducted by email in recent days with Professor William Schabas in the immediate aftermath of his resignation as Chair and Member of the three person Commission of Inquiry appointed by the UN Human Rights Council last August to investigate allegations of violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law, as well as state crimes associated with Israel’s military attack on Gaza (code named by Israel as Operation Protective Edge) of July-August 2014. The depleted commission now consists of the remaining two members (Mary McGowan Davis of the United States as the newly designated Chair, and Doudou Diène of Senegal) and is due to submit its final report to the HRC in March; Professor Schabas, a distinguished specialist in international criminal law with a worldwide reputation is on the faculty of Middlesex University in London, had participated fully in planning the inquiry, the gathering of evidence, listening to witnesses. His exclusion from the drafting of the report deprives the Commission, and hence the HRC and the international community, of the member with the greatest professional credibility and reputation for no acceptable reason.

 

As has so often been the case when Israel faces the prospect of criticism it mounts an array of charges of bias directed at both prominent individuals and their institutional sponsors. This was my experience as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine during the entire period of 2008-2014 in which I was subject to continuous defamatory attacks, spearheaded by UN Watch, a notorious NGO that avoids the message while mounting a furious attack on the messenger, seeking to blacken my reputation by writing letters of personal denunciation to a variety of prominent persons, who took such tactics far more seriously than they deserved. Israel officially charged me with bias at the time of my appointment, including issuing a Foreign Ministry declaration of non-cooperation, implemented in December 2008 when I tried to enter Israel on a HRC mission on behalf of the UN and was expelled after being held in a detention cell overnight.

 

In September 2009 when the Goldstone Report was issued after an inquiry similar to the one that Scshabas was chairing, prompted by the 2008-09 Israeli attack on Gaza (Operation Cast Lead). Richard Goldstone, a prominent liberal figure at the time but also a dedicated Zionist with close personal and professional connections to Israel, was put under pressure from the outset to decline the appointment, and Israel as in this case refused to allow the UN to enter Israel to carry out its fact finding mission in the most efficient manner. Although the Goldstone Report was fair and balanced, it was viciously attacked from the first moment of its presentation as ‘a blood libel’ against the Jewish people, and Goldstone personally was vilified by Israel’s most prominent political leaders, including the Prime Minister and President. This relentless pressure led Goldstone to retract on his own a crucial finding of the report as to the deliberate use of force by the IDF against Palestinian civilians, an action mainly discrediting of Goldstone himself, as the finding of the report continued to enjoy the support of the other three distinguished members of the inquiry group, including by Christine Chinkin of LSE, one of the world’s leading experts on international humanitarian law.

 

William Schabas’ resignation has its own disturbing specific context, although it bears the imprint of Israel’s determination and skill in mounting campaigns of bias to discredit whoever has had the professional willingness to present unpopular truths concerning allegations of state crimes by Israel arising out of its controversial uses of force in Gaza and overall unlawful occupation administration. As explained in the interview, Schabas was responding to Israeli charges of bias from the outset of his appointment, but with a recent emphasis on the fact that he had some years ago prepared as a modestly paid consultant a short technical report for the Palestinian Liberation Organization on the international law questions associated with a possible Palestinian application for membership in the International Criminal Court. Schabas’ attackers had gained enough traction in recent weeks to induce the President of the HRC to propose referring the question of Schabas’ bias to the UN Legal Affairs Office for resolution. Rather than see the work of the COI diverted and delayed by this side issue, Schabas chose to resign. As is usual in these cases, when a person who stands forth in public for truth and principle as Schabas has done since the beginning, there follows a flow of hate mail and death threats that appear to be the work of pro-Israeli extremists who consider critics of Israel as ‘Jew-haters’ or worse. It is important that those of us who seek a sustainable and just peace for the region stand in solidarity with William Schabas who knowingly stepped into this toxic environment because of his lifelong commitment to strengthening the role of international criminal law in protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty. It is a shameful reality that Israel has been so successful in mounting these campaigns within the United Nations against its more visible critics, and by so doing divert needed attention from its own persistent and flagrant wrongdoing from the perspective of international law. ]

 

 

Interview with William Schabas, recently resigned under pressure as Chair of the Commission of Inquiry appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to Investigate Allegations of State Crimes associated with Israel’s military attack on Gaza, code named Operation Protective Edge

 

  1. When you accepted the position of Chair of this Commission of Inquiry into allegations of criminality directed at Israel and Hamas in relation to Israel’s military operations in Gaza during July and August 2014, what were your hopes and worries? Were these borne out by your actual experience?

 

This was not the first time I have been asked to do something by the High Commissioner for Human Rights. I have never said no when asked. I am a loyal and enthusiastic supporter both of the High Commissioner and of the Human Rights Council. Thus, when initially requested by the High Commissioner if I would agree to have my name submitted as a candidate for the Commission and then by the President of the Human Rights Council if I would agree to be a member of the Commission I did not hesitate. I considered it an honour that both of them thought I could do this challenging job of participating in the Commission. I should add that I was never asked whether I would be the Chairman and only learned that I had been selected for that job when the announcement was made.

This was not the first such Commission. In particular, in a sense it follows in the footsteps of the Goldstone Commission. But there have been other inquiries since Goldstone and a huge amount of work conducted by special procedures of the Human Rights Council and by other UN institutions over the decades. When the most recent Commission of Inquiry was established, I think I believed that we would be a small piece in this much bigger mosaic of initiatives. I hoped the Commission would contribute both to justice and peace but my expectations were modest. On more than one occasion, I said that the difference between this Commission and its predecessors was that this time the International Criminal Court was standing in the wings. The State of Palestine had already begun ratifying international treaties. It acknowledged that accession to the Rome Statute was on its agenda.

 

  1. How did the work of COI proceed? Were you pleased with the workings of the undertaking as a whole? Do you expect that your resignation will have effects on the conclusions of the report, the reception of its findings, and their likely implementation?

 

I need to be very careful here because the Commission has not been very public in its activities. It has gathered a huge amount of material. It has also met with many individuals – victims, experts, human rights activists, UN officials, representatives of governments, diplomats – but these ‘hearings’ were not open to the public. Some of those who met with the Commission, in particular a delegation of Israelis that travelled to Geneva in January 2015, publicized their meetings with the Commission. But as a general rule, the identity of those who met with the Commission has not been divulged.

I regret not being able to contribute to the drafting of the report. That job was only beginning at the time of my resignation. I am confident that the professional staff of the Commission, consisting of a dozen specialists, and the two Commissioners will produce a fair and effective report.

Although Netanyahu has called my departure a victory, my own sense is that he has shot himself in the foot or, as they say on this side of the Atlantic, scored an own goal. His strategy seems to be based on the idea that he will be able to prevent the report from appearing. But I think he is very wrong here. Instead of keeping his powder dry, he has fired one of his best pieces of ammunition in order to eliminate me. Now, it is harder for him to attack the Commission and its report.

 

  1. Can you explain your rationale for resignation more fully? Were you influenced by the experience of Richard Goldstone and the Goldstone Report?

Were you not aware when you were approached that these issues of supposed ‘conflict of interest’ would be used to challenge your credibility in a defamatory manner? Was the decisive factor the unanticipated response of the President of the Human Rights Council to the contention about your consultancy with the PLO on Palestinian statehood?

 

There had been calls for me to resign from the moment I accepted the mandate in early August 2014. I did not ignore them but I concluded that they were not substantial. I do not think that I was biased or that there was a reasonable apprehension of bias. The allegation about the legal opinion I delivered to the PLO in October 2012 only emerged in late January. It seems the Israeli ambassador raised this informally with the President of the Human Rights Council who then drew it to my attention and asked me to explain, which I did. Subsequently, Israel made a formal complaint. The President proposed that legal advice from the United Nations in New York be requested in order to determine the procedure to follow in examining the complaint. The five-member Bureau of the Council agreed to this. Within minutes of its decision, I submitted my resignation.

I think that when there is an inquiry or investigation into the impartiality of a member of a tribunal or similar body, it is problematic for that body to proceed with other matters until the issue of impartiality is resolved. It was my own assessment that it would be difficult for the Commission to continue to work until my status had been determined. That was likely to take weeks. At best, it would distract the Commission from its important work at a crucial phase. At worst, it would prevent the Commission from completing its report by the March session, as it was required to do. Although I would have preferred to fight and defend myself from the unfair charges of conflict of interest, I considered that I had become an obstacle to the Commission completing its mandate. The least bad solution was for me to get out of the way.

Your question seems to imply that I should have seen all of this coming and extricated myself from the business much earlier. I cannot say I did not consider this in August when I saw how brutal and vicious the attacks on me had become. An important difficulty then was that already one of the three members who had been appointed had taken the step of withdrawing. Amal Clooney had initially been named along with myself and Doudou Diene. It seems there was some kind of misunderstanding. Within a few hours of the announcement of her appointment, she said that she could not serve. For me to withdraw subsequently would, I thought at the time, have been disastrous for the Human Rights Council. Bear in mind that the conflict in Gaza was still raging at the time. I decided that I would tough it out. I did not accept the charges of bias. It is easy today to second guess this. I should add that despite the nasty attacks from predictable directions, there was great support for the Commission of Inquiry. In September, the President of the Council reported to the plenary Human Rights Council. UN Watch and its friends howled about the composition of the Commission but there was no reaction from the members of the Council. In particular, on various occasions the European member states, who had abstained in the resolution establishing the Commission, reassured the three Commissioners of their support for its work and its activities.

 

  1. In retrospect, do you find any substance to the charges of bias or conflict of interest? How can one be both an expert on this subject-matter and not have some pre-existing opinions? Should not the proper test be one of professionalism and objectivity with respect to the evidence and applicable law? For instance, would a person who had been critical of Nazism or apartheid be rendered unfit to investigate allegations of crimes against humanity or racism?

 

The word ‘bias’ gets thrown around a lot in this discussion. My attackers constantly claimed that I was ‘biased’. All that they meant was that I had an opinion different from their own. When one talks about bias in the context of judicial independence and impartiality, the issue is not whether the individual in question has opinions that have been expressed in the past. Everyone has opinions. Some conceal them. Others, like myself, wear them on their sleeve. But bias only occurs when an individual charged with a task requiring fairness and impartiality is unable to set his or her opinions aside. There is absolutely no evidence to support such a charge against me on this basis.

Lawyers often talk about ‘perception of bias’ or ‘fear of bias’. This is more subjective. It will occur when someone has a close personal relationship with a litigant or when financial interests are involved. There is reasonable concern that someone placed in such circumstances would have difficulty being impartial. But again, there is nothing of the sort in my situation.

Until the issue of the legal opinion that I provided in 2012 for the PLO arose, the only serious charges against me concerned a couple of statements I had made about Netanyahu. They were presented out of context to suggest that I had some kind of obsession with the man. In one case I was reacting to Netanyahu’s attack on Richard Goldstone. Netanyahu had said that Goldstone was one of the greatest threats to the survival of Israel. I said that I thought Netanyahu was the greatest threat to Israel’s survival. In the other I was talking about double standards at the International Criminal Court. I cited Desmond Tutu, who had criticised the African focus of the Court and said that he wanted to see Tony Blair brought before it. I said that my choice would be Netanyahu. Otherwise, I had not really thought much about the man. I of course stand by what I said. I have never said that I regretted making those remarks. I have never retracted them. I had a right to say them.

Could the UN have found someone who would be qualified to work on a Commission of Inquiry who did not have opinions about Israel and Palestine? Perhaps. Is there a thoughtful, well-informed individual on the planet who does not have an opinion on this?

The Israeli complaint about the legal opinion I had done for the PLO precipitated the chain of events that led to my resignation. Israeli called it a blatant conflict of interest. That is simply wrong. I did the opinion about two years before my appointment. It concerned Palestinian accession to the Rome Statute. I’ve done this for other governments too, helping them to address the legal issues involved in joining the International Criminal Court. I’ll gladly do it for others too, including Israel and the United States, if they ask me. The legal opinion for the PLO was the work of a recognised expert in the field. Although the PLO later acceded to the Rome Statute, it seems it was unimpressed with my legal advice because it did not accede in 2012. But that’s the nature of a legal opinion. Political leaders respond to other imperatives, which is quite understandable. I was not giving the PLO political advice. I was not their advocate or lawyer. I was simply providing a technical service. From beginning to end the whole matter lasted a couple of weeks. I received the request by e-mail and delivered the opinion by e-mail. I was paid a modest amount for my work. This is not a conflict of interest.

I have been struck by the failure of those who have challenged my presence on the Commission to engage with the legal authorities. For example, in 2004 Israel applied to have Judge Elaraby removed from the International Court of Justice in the advisory opinion on the Wall. The application was dismissed almost unanimously by the Court. Judge Elaraby had been a senior diplomat in Egypt and had frequently expressed views about Israel and Palestine. Judge Elaraby had been legal advisor to Egypt for part of his career. He certainly gave legal opinions to Egypt about the conflict over the years.

An Israeli academic friend of mine has drawn my attention to Hersch Lauterpacht, who was a strong supporter of Israel. He even wrote a draft of the declaration of independence, and provided advice to the Zionist movement and the State of Israel at various times. He was elected a judge of the International Court of Justice. Lauterpacht sat in the Israel v. Bulgaria case, which was dismissed at a preliminary stage but with Lauterpacht in dissent. Israel didn’t object that time.

Your reference to a person with views on Nazism is of interest because this was precisely the argument raised by Eichmann against the Israeli judges. There was never any suggestion that the three judges, all of them German Jews, did not have strong views about the Holocaust. It was assumed that they did. How could that not be the case? The Supreme Court of Israel ruled that professional judges would set aside their opinions and judge in an impartial manner.

 

  1. On the basis of this experience, would you accept future assignments from the HRC or OHCHR? Were you a victim of a campaign of defamation waged by UN Watch, NGO Monitor, etc.?

 

Of course I will continue to serve the Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. These two institutions are central to the international protection of human rights.

The charges of bias against me were nothing more than a witch-hunt, something reminiscent of McCarthyism. Shortly after I was appointed, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach published full-page ads in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post attacking my appointment. These were full of vicious lies. They dealt with matters that had nothing whatsoever to do with the mandate of the Commission. For example, I was described as a ‘friend of Iran and its genocidal former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’. This is simply a lie. In 2012, I was a member of the Iran Truth Commission that condemned the Iranian regime for gross violations of human rights. In 2011, I accompanied filmmaker Sandra Schulberg to Tehran in order to show her film Nuremberg, Its Lesson for Today. I spoke there about the Holocaust to young Iranians, confronting denialism and anti-Semitism in the lion’s den, so to speak.

 

  1. Overall, what did you learn from this experience that bears on the role and limitations of the UN? Is the Israel/Palestine conflict a special case? What can be

done to depoliticize the process of such fact finding and policy making undertakings? Did the approach of the Canadian Government of not backing its own citizens play a role in making you more vulnerable to the Israeli pushback?

 

I think that Israel and Palestine is indeed a special case in UN activity because of the highly politicized context. Fact finding commissions dealing with Syria, Libya and North Korea simply do not confront the hysteria associated with Israel and Palestine. Israel argues that it is a victim of double standards at the Human Rights Council. But it is a beneficiary of double standards at the other Council. This is a nasty, toxic matter. But the job must be done. I hope that those who will be called upon to pursue these issues within the United Nations will not be intimidated by stories of the intense and vicious attacks to which I was subjected, including death threats and unceasing abuse on the internet, much of it quite vile, violent and even racist. The language employed by Israel’s leaders contributes to this terrible atmosphere and, at least indirectly, incites the more fanatical participants. Last week, Foreign Minister Liberman likened me to Cain, a man who murdered his own brother. I must confess to having punched my brothers a few times, when I was much younger, but I have never murdered anyone! The Israeli representative to the UN described me as ‘Dracula’. But such analogies only contribute to the violent tone of the discussions.

Canada’s foreign minister, John Baird, denounced my appointment. I’m a Canadian citizen who has served his country in a variety of ways. I am an Officer in the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest honours. The current government of Canada is run by a nasty, right-wing bunch who have greatly tarnished the country’s once rather noble position in the field of human rights. Their reactionary positions are well known within the Human Rights Council and, more generally, the United Nations. It would have been an embarrassment if Baird had approved of my appointment.

 

  1. On balance, how would you compare this COI with that chaired by Goldstone? My impression is that with Goldstone, there was a posture of noncooperation, but no public campaign until the report was issued, and then an ugly multi-level campaign took shape, and led to his partial retraction and total discrediting (especially as he acted without the support of the other three members with whom he apparently did not even consult). How should such COIs be structured in the future? (you may know that my successor as SR had no prior knowledge, and has made the position almost invisible, which may have been the intention).

 

I wish I had a good answer to your question. It is tempting to say that in the future, the UN should vet appointees in the way that US government officials vet judicial nominees and similar appointments. As you know, there is no shortage of judges in the US who get through congressional approval because they don’t seem to have ever had an opinion about abortion or capital punishment and similar issues. Maybe the UN can identify a similar cohort of human rights experts who have never had opinions on important issues. Given that the nature of human rights work involves participating in various forms of activism, that may prove more difficult than similar exercises in the US judiciary. And it is also likely to eliminate some of the best qualified candidates from the pool.

What I would like to see is more pushback on these wrong and unfair charges of bias and conflict of interest. Some clarification on what is and what is not acceptable would make things clearer. I would like to see some UN guidelines that spell out the fact that the mere fact of having expressed opinions about a situation or a crisis does not disqualify someone from being a member of a Commission of Inquiry or serving in some similar function. It could also be made clear that providing a legal opinion in the past on a matter not directly related to the subject-matter of a commission is not a conflict of interest. The charge of bias seems far too easy to throw around. When it gets before courts, as it did in the International Court of Justice and the Supreme Court of Israel, it doesn’t get much traction, however. Let us get more clarity on this within the UN so that demagogic charges of bias can be knocked out early.

Viewing American Sniper

26 Jan

Viewing American Sniper

 

[American Sniper was released on Christmas Day, 2014. It is a movie version of Chris Kyle’s memoir, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, with 255 kills, 160 officially confirmed by the Department of Defense. The movie set in Iraq is directed by Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper plays the part of Chris Kyle, and Sienna Miller is brilliantly cast in the role of his wife, Taya]

 

American Sniper is a fictionalized movie version of the war stories associated with Chris Kyle’s experience as a Navy SEAL in the Iraq War as recounted in his best-selling memoir. The film can be viewed from a variety of angles, including even as one more indictment of war as hell. A second line of interpretation focuses on the intense psychological tensions experienced by this single American soldier and his comrades caught up in the horrors of urban warfare in Iraq.  A connected theme are the adverse impacts of Kyle’s war service on his family that is made to cope with the complex and contradictory traumas of his absence (confronting his potential death on a distant battlefield) and his alienated presence whenever he returns, a scarred individual who longs to go back to Iraq to resume his assigned role as ‘legendary sniper.’  Multiple scenes in the movie portray Kyle as haunted by his service. In his book, Kyle consistently treats his victims as “savage, despicable.” At one point he makes such statements as “I only wish I had killed more,” “I loved what I did. I still do. If circumstances were different – if my family didn’t need me – I’d be back in a heartbeat. I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun. I had the time of my life being a SEAL.” The film avoids giving emphasis such to extreme statements, but it does portray this sniper as convinced he was cut out for the combat role given to him, and that he seems more alive and content when active in the killing fields of Iraq than when back home.

 

 

Kyle’s own violent death is also metaphorically significant—actual events disclosed by text in the film but not depicted, Kyle was killed by an American soldier wounded in Iraq whom he had helped at a nearby veterans’ hospital where he worked at the advice of a psychiatrist to overcome his own version of PTSD. Such an ending of his life conveys the irony that for Kyle the more dangerous battlefield turned out to be in the neighborhood of his family residence, his assailant not the evil ‘savages’ he mowed down in Iraq but a fellow American veteran who had experienced those very same encounters. Kyle had survived four tours of duty as a sniper in the midst of the most bloody military operations in Iraq, but these survival skills proved irrelevant to the minefields of innocence that now made the American countryside a dangerous war zone.

 

From box office success and right-wing praise, American Sniper, is obviously most commonly regarded as a celebration of Chris Kyle as war hero who deserves the thankful praise of the country. From this outlook, Kyle killed enemies of America at great risk and cost to himself, and spared the country a repetition of the 9/11 attacks. It is this self-serving and essentially distorted vindication of the Iraq War that the film presupposes, even to the extent of having Kyle watch on TV as the plane strikes the World Trade Center, with a quick scene shift in the movie to waging war against those presupposed to be the foot soldiers of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Embedded in this view was a double false narrative that the American mission in Iraq was to carry out a necessary counter-terrorism operation linked to the 9/11 attacks and that the Iraqis being killed in Falluja and elsewhere should be perceived as ‘terrorists’ rather than as fighters against an invasion and occupation of their country by a foreign power that disrespects their religion, culture, and sovereignty.

 

These narratives dominated my perception of the movie, although those associated with its production deny such lines of interpretation. Clint Eastwood (the director and producer) and Bradley Cooper (who plays Kyle in the film) have publicly questioned employing a political optic in commentary on the film. They insist, in contrast, that the movie was ‘a character study’ of Kyle and ‘apolitical’ in the sense of not taking a position pro or con the Iraq War. Eastwood has tried to lend credibility to his claim by pointing out that he opposed the Iraq War, and was even skeptical about Afghanistan. Yet whatever he privately feels this not how most viewers most viewers would experience the film, either being enthralled by Kyle’s exploits or appalled by them. Eastwood may have aspired to tell an apolitical story, but if so, he has failed badly.

 

The Iraq War was a war of aggression undertaken in 2003 despite the rejection of a well-orchestrated (and misleading) American plea to the UN Security Council for authorization. Against such a background,  the attack on Iraq and subsequent occupation were widely regarded as international crimes bearing resemblance to the category of aggressive warfare for which German and Japanese leaders were punished for waging after World War II. In this light, the Iraqi violence associated with the hostile American occupation needs to be portrayed as a unilateral repudiation of the limits set by international law and the UN Charter on recourse to war by the world’s most powerful country. Additionally, American Sniper depicts the doomed efforts of an outgunned society to resist a militarily dominant foreign invader that is imposing its will on the country’s future by force of arms. Such a viewing is not meant to imply that we need to endorse some of the horrific Iraqi tactics relied upon, but it should remind us that presenting the Iraqis as ‘evil’ and as ‘savages’ functions in the film as an unchallenged display of Islamophobic propaganda, and cannot be credibly explained away as a realistic exploration of a war hero’s temperament and struggle for sanity and survival. American Sniper also presents Kyle’s story in such a way as to avoid any self-criticism directed at the American mission in Iraq.

 

The movie also lacks redeeming artistic merit. It is relentless and repetitive in portraying battle scenes of intensity intertwined with Kyle’s tormented relationship with his wife and efforts to become a father to their two children during his brief interludes of home leave between military assignments. We learn nothing about the realities of our world beyond a tired rendering of the embedded post-9/11 polemic on the necessity of foreign wars to keep America safe from evil forces lurking in the Islamic world. This orthodoxy is not even interrogated, much less rejected. And no where in the film is there any acknowledgement that the United States in Iraq was acting in defiance of international law and causing great devastation and suffering to a totally vulnerable foreign country, as well as producing a massive displacement of the civilian population. Leaving behind a devastated country and widespread chaos. The Iraqi experience of such carnage in their own country is treated as irrelevant, and is reminiscent of Vietnam War films that were mostly devoted to explorations of the victimization of the young Americans caught up in an experience of war that they could neither understand nor win, while overlooking almost altogether the massive suffering being inflicted on a foreign people in a distant land. That is, even most anti-war portrayals of these American wars accept the dehumanization of the foreign others.

 

For me the most significant impressions resulting from American Sniper’s narrative of the Iraq War are as follows:

 

            –the striking imbalance between the sophisticated military technology at the disposal of the United States versus the primitive weaponry in the possession of the Iraqi adversaries, creating an overwhelming impression that the Iraq War was more ‘a hunt’ than ‘a war;’ such an impression is somehow deepened by a scene in the film in which Kyle is teaching his very young son to hunt for deer;

            –the failure to make any effort at all to understand the experience of this war from the perspective of the Iraqis, creating the absurd impression that the only victims deserving empathy were Americans like Kyle who had endured the torments of warfare and suffered its admittedly disorienting consequences; the emotions of remorse as associated with the harm done to Iraq and Iraqis is no where to be found in the film.

 

What may be disturbing is the radical subjectivity of likely audience responses. In America, great popularity of mostly uncritical commentary on American Sniper, reinforcing the regressive national mood of glamorizing bloody military exploits as the most admirable expression of true patriotism. Elsewhere in the world the perception is likely to be quite opposite: American Sniper inducing anti-American attitudes either out of fear or resentment or both, solidifying the global image of the United States as a cruel geopolitical bully. That is, American Sniper is wildly pro-American for most domestic viewers, and severely anti-American for most foreign viewers. This gap in subjectivities exhibits the degree to which Americans are living in a bubble of their own devising.

 

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It is highly unlikely that many Americans will appreciate this disparity of perception, and even fewer will pause long enough to assess its significance. If more of us could see ourselves as we are seen in the mirror of foreign reactions it might help end this unhealthy national romance with permanent war that started after World War II with the Cold War and continues now in the form of the ‘War on Terror.’  Such a pattern of delusional geopolitics will never produce peace and security in the 21st century, and will fatally divert attention from meeting the challenges of humanity associated with climate change, nuclear weapons, poverty, and extremism. To question this American domination project is to antagonize the entrenched bureaucratic, media, and neoliberal forces that benefit from endless war making and its associated expenditures of trillions. In the end it is this grand project of late capitalism that American Sniper indirectly vindicates, thereby burdening the nation and the world, perhaps fatally.

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