US senators cautiously challenge ethnic cleansing by Israel

Children in the Palestinian Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar, near the occupied West Bank city of Jericho, attend their first day of school in August 2017. US Senators are urging Israel not to demolish the village.

Shadi Hatem APA images

In a rare move, 10 US senators wrote Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week calling on him “not to demolish the Palestinian village of Susiya and the Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar” in the occupied West Bank.

“Your government’s threats to demolish these communities are particularly distressing in light of [Israel’s] efforts to dramatically expand settlements throughout the West Bank,” the lawmakers state.

In September, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said that the demolitions would be war crimes for which Netanyahu and other top officials could be personally liable.

Last week, European Union diplomats also lamented planned demolitions, but indicated no change in their policy of providing Israel with unconditional aid and support.

They followed up with a visit to Susiya this week, a symbolic gesture unlikely to deter Israel:

Among the signatories of the letter to Netanyahu is Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who mounted a strong challenge to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential primaries. Sanders is a perceived 2020 frontrunner.

Though he has a mixed record on Palestinian rights, Sanders was often refreshingly outspoken during the campaign, garnering cheers from Democratic audiences.

Earlier this year, Sanders appeared to be backsliding when he joined the 99 other US senators in smearing UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, and claiming that the UN is singling out Israel, a serial violator of international law, for criticism.

At the time, this writer noted that the diverse coalition Sanders brought together would be jeopardized if Sanders thinks Palestinians can be thrown under the bus with no reaction.

Starting to listen?

Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator tipped as another progressive 2020 Democratic hopeful, also signed the letter.

After three years ago fleeing a question about Israel’s 2014 invasion of Gaza, Warren now appears more responsive to constituents’ concerns about violations of Palestinian rights.

While still opposing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, Warren nonetheless declared in August that she rejects the Israel Anti-Boycott Act on First Amendment grounds.

The 29 November letter from the 10 US senators reinforces the impression that Democrats are slowly becoming more outspoken on behalf of Palestinian rights.

It may be dawning on some congressional Democrats that President Donald Trump and his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, are irresponsibly inclined toward abetting Israeli violations of international law.

The letter comes in the same month as the unprecedented introduction of a House bill intended to end Israeli military detention, abuse and torture of Palestinian children.

These are positive developments, even if they represent glacially slow change among key figures of the self-styled “resistance” to Trump.

Yet there were profound analytical flaws in the senators’ letter which were avoided in the House bill sponsored by Representative Betty McCollum of Minnesota.

She exhibited courage not only with the sensible bill, but in referring to the “Israeli-occupied West Bank” and the “two separate legal systems” in operation there, an implicit acknowledgment of the apartheid reality imposed by the occupying power.

Double standard

By contrast, the senators’ letter did not refer once to the occupation under which Palestinians live, nor to how Israel’s planned demolitions would constitute ethnic cleansing and war crimes.

Rather, the letter couches the senators’ concern about Israel’s actions strictly as “an irreversible step away from a two-state solution.”

Even worse, the senators express concern that the Israeli government’s actions “endanger Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy.” This coded language effectively endorses the common liberal Zionist view that Palestinians are a “demographic threat” who must be corralled into their own bantustan – a Palestinian state in name only – to head off demands for equal civil and political rights with Israeli Jews in a single state.

A “Jewish democracy” by definition excludes and necessitates violating the rights of millions of Palestinians.

Discriminatory laws and policies aimed at ensuring that Israel remains a “Jewish state” have relegated Palestinians within Israel to second-class status and worse for 70 years, and within the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip for the past 50 years.

Imagine a letter from US senators in the era of South African apartheid that raised concerns about the policies of the white-supremacist government, but did not dare to situate these within the unacceptable context of apartheid. This is what the senators did in failing to name the reality.

And for all their professed concern, the senators implicitly signal acceptance of Israel’s occupation when they tell Netanyahu, “Instead of forcibly evicting these communities, we encourage your government to fairly re-evaluate Susiya’s professionally developed master plan and provide the residents of Khan al-Ahmar equal building rights.”

“Equal building rights” with whom? Could the senators mean with the Israeli settlers whose very presence on land stolen from Palestinians is a violation of international law?

The senators should have affirmed that as an occupier Israel has no business making any such decision about the Palestinian lives and communities it rules by military force.

“Separate but equal” surely should not be the response of some of the US Senate’s most liberal members to apartheid as practiced by Israel.

While any public opposition to Israel’s actions at all is notable when it comes from the US Senate, the weak analysis is painfully akin to that of white liberals in the 1950s regarding Jim Crow segregation.

Democratic Party activists should continue pushing politicians on these matters, or find candidates willing not only to recognize occupation and apartheid when they see them, but to speak bluntly in favor of Palestinian freedom and equal rights.

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Zionism is a political, supremacist ideology that has led to the only neo-colonial regime of the 21st century – a regime that has violently dispossessed over five million indigenous Arabs and has turned the region into a flash-point for a global nuclear war.

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Michael F. Brown

Michael F. Brown is an independent journalist. His work and views have appeared in The International Herald Tribune, TheNation.com, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The News & Observer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post and elsewhere.