The Mideast crisis: Ali Abunimah
Thursday, August 21, 1 p.m. ET
This week’s devastating violence between Israel and the Palestinians appears to have rendered the eight-week-old truce, or hudna, null and void. After Thursday’s killing of a senior Hamas official by Israel in retaliation for a suicide bombing of a bus in Jerusalem which 20 people died. The Islamic militant group Hamas threatened revenge and formally abandoned the cease-fire.
Ali Abunimah, a writer and commentator on Middle East and Arab-American affairs lives in Chicago. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Financial Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Jordan Times and Lebanon’s Daily Star, among others. Abunimah co-founded The Electronic Intifada, a resource for media activists and journalists researching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is also a contributor to The New Intifada, the first book on the Palestinian uprising (Verso, 2001). Submit your questions to Ali Abunimah on what it takes to stop the violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
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Washington, DC: Why did the Palestinians bomb the bus in Jerusalem if there was a truce?
Ali Abunimah: The suicide bomb in Jerusalem two days ago, which killed 19 Israelis, including a number of children was a particularly cruel and senseless attack, and like all attacks on civilians was morally reprehensible. This one seems to have been calculated to cause as much horror as possible. The Israeli government is, unfortunately, trying to make political capital out of the horrible death of its citizens by — as usual — blaming the Palestinian Authority for it. The Israeli government knows quite well — and the Israeli press is reporting — that this attack was organized and carried out from Hebron, a Palestinian city which is under complete Israeli military occupation. The Palestinian Authority has absolutely no forces or freedom of operation there, and there is, in fact nothing they could have done to stop this attack.
Alexandria, VA: How many Hamas Leaders are there? Israeli killed so many leaders already and still Hamas exists? Who is the real leader of this organization?
Ali Abunimah: I have no idea how many Hamas leaders there are. Israel claims to have killed a lot of them. By now they should have killed the entire leadership several times over. The fact is, as long as Palestinians are forced to live as non-citizens with no rights under a brutal foreign military occupation, people will be motivated to resist. Some of that resistance will be in a legitimate form, and some of it, unfortunately will be in an illegitimate form, like the recent bombing.
Washington DC: Realistically speaking, can Abu Mazen really control the various factions?
Ali Abunimah: Realistically speaking, the Palestinian Authority (PA) does not have the strength or means to control much of anything. This is largely because it does not control much on the ground. It controls tiny slivers of territory, and its forces have been decimated by Israel. So what it could do — and did — is secure a ceasefire that virtually eliminated violence against Israelis. That is something Israel has never been able to achieve through years of murder and destruction. Israel was not satisfied with that and demanded that the PA launch a civil war. Everyone serious about peace, including senior Bush administration officials, understood that was not a serious demand, which is why — before the bombing — the US was backing “security agreements” reached between the PA and the Sharon government. The PA, in other words, was doing everything Washington and Israel asked.
New York NY: If Palestinians are upset about living in horrendous conditions, why don’t they ask Arafat to hand over some of his personal ill-gotten gains? And please don’t respond with nonsense about Israeli occupation. Israelis didn’t steal that money - Arafat did.
Ali Abunimah: Once Palestinians are rid of the tens of thousands of heavily armed foreign troops who are systematically stealing their land in order to give it to Jewish settlers, they will, in freedom, be able to elect leaders of their choosing — not Israel’s or Washington. Corruption, is unfortunately endemic to our region — as the scandalous revelations about the corruption of Sharon and his sons, Gilad and Omri demonstrate.
Alexandria, Virigina: Is it true that Bishop Tutu has compared the Israeli rule over Palestinian West Bank and Gaza to aparthied rule in South Africa? What are the similarities?
Ali Abunimah: Yes he has, on several occasions. The similarities are striking. There is nowhere on earth today where you membership in one or another ethnic/racial group matters so much to how you are treated and what your rights are. In the occupied territories, it determines everything. Israel’s effort to corral Palestinians into ghettos is very similar to apartheid South Africa’s “homeland” or Bantustan policy. This is no surprise. Sharon, and other Israeli leaders were long-time allies of Apartheid South Africa. Sharon traveled there himself in 1982 and expressed his admiration for the South African army and what it was doing in Angola and Namibia.
Springfield, MA: Our US government is part of the problem in Israel-Palestine. Both our government and our media is so one-sided on this issue. Isn’t it futile to even pretend that the US can be an honest peace-broker in Israel-Palestine? How can we get other countries to step up to balance the equation? It seems like both the UN and the EU, which have been more supportive of Palestinian rights (and at least dare to say the word ‘Occupation’) are impotent.
Ali Abunimah: The United States is still a democracy. We have to continue to educate people about what is truly happening. The undue influence of special interests, like the insurance industry, big oil and the pro-Israel lobby distort our foreign policy terribly. Public pressure is the right corrective. We are making progress, we need to keep working at it.
Miami, FL: Palestinians supported Saddam Hussein. They danced in the streets on September 11. Tell me, given those facts, why in the world would I sympathize with you and your cause? With people who strap explosives to themselves and DELIBERATELY target babies?
Ali Abunimah: Really? Did you ask them all? Did you conduct a poll? This is an example of the kind of ridiculous statement that so distorts this debate. Let’s have a serious discussion.
I already said what I feel about the attack in Jerusalem. You on the other hand do not seem at all concerned that the Israeli army has killed more than 400 children in the past three years, including two children yesterday. Why should anyone support YOUR cause, when Israel does that. I suppose that you would argue that when Israel murders babies it is “self-defence.” Well, that is exactly the logic that the supporters of suicide bombings.
Windsor, CT: Since Israeli Americans are able to make tax-free contributions to Israel, isn’t it time to lobby for Muslims/Palestinians to be able to do the same in Palestine? A strong Palestinian military/security apparatus can go along way toward reducing palestinian resistance attacks on Israelis and likewise dissuade Israel from its frequent attacks on Palestinians. If Palestinians were as well armed as Israelis, we wouldn’t have these problems. There would be a deterrence factor and little need for suicide bombings to exact retribution.
Ali Abunimah: Palestinians clearly have a legitimate right to self-defence against a foreign military occupier — which as I said earlier must be distinguished from attacks against civilians which are never justified. But rather than escalating the violence and the weaponry we need to de-escalate it. Instead of arming the Palestinians, we should cut off the weapons to Israel without which it could not rob millions of Palestinians of their freedom and their land.
Los Angeles, CA: Greetings, Mr. Abunimah. Whom will EI endorse in the runup to the 2004 Presidential Election? Why?
Ali Abunimah: The Electronic Intifada does not endorse candidates for elective office. I do not know who I will support in a personal capacity yet. Unfortunately I have yet to see any candidate take a balanced and courageous stand on the Palestinian issue.
Milwaukee, WI: With Palestinians clearly divided over using peaceful verse violent means to achieve their goals, isn’t a Palestinian civil war inevitable?
Ali Abunimah: Israel has been trying to encourage such a civil war for many years, but has failed. Palestinians are very aware of how destructive a civil war would be and that it would only serve Israel’s hardline leadership who do not want peace. I do not believe there will be a civil war amongst Palestinians.
Naperville, Illinois: Ali, Why do you think the Palestinians feel the way they do about the Israelis?
Ali Abunimah: Well, Israel’s hardline apologists will tell you that Palestinians dislike Israel just because Israel is a “Jewish state” or that Palestinians are naturally hateful and so on.
Of course the reality is that Palestinians feel towards Israel as any people would about another group who have forced them out of their homeland and taken it over, and continue to deny them peace freedom and dignity on even a fraction of their land. Despite the enormous suffering Israel has caused to the Palestinian people, most Palestinians want peace with Israel and have consistently supported the peace process. I continue to believe that this will come, but never while Israel insists on maintaining its occupation and colonies, and racist laws, such as the one that allows Israeli citizens to marry anyone in the world except a Palestinian.
spring tx: Why hasn’t the war on terror targeted obvious threats to the security of Americans abroad from Hezbullah, Hamas and Yasser Arafat’s terror machine? Why isn’t he in the deck of cards?
Ali Abunimah: Well, for the obvious reason that Hamas, Hizbullah and Yasir Arafat do not attack the United States. These are organizations/people who have specific grievances with Israel and their conflict is with Israel. Hizbullah did at its very beginning carry out attacks on US forces, but these were US forces in Lebanon who were taking part in the war there. Since that time it has not targeted Americans.
Oh, why isn’t Arafat in the “deck of cards?” Well, he isn’t Iraqi, and he wasn’t part of the former Ba’ath government of Iraq.
Rick From Victoria BC: Ali, are there people in the Middle East who do not wish peace under any condition? I want to believe that peace is possible but will the Middle East always be a battleground?
Ali Abunimah: Of course there are, on all sides. And they will always exist. But I think they are few in number and they will not matter if there is a fair peace that the majority of people support. Those extremists thrive in situations of extreme injustice as exist today. You have them on the Palestinian side, in some of the factions, and on the Israeli side around the cabinet table. For example, several of Mr. Sharon’s ministers openly advocate the “transfer” — i.e the ethnic cleansing of all Palestinians. These people are not advocates of peace. They are advocates of genocide.
Battle Creek, MI: Does anyone from the palestinian militant groups hamas, islamic jihad, al aqsa martyrs brigade, and even from arafats fatah movement, want peace? It looks to me like they are pretty happy with continued fighting. The palestinians and israelis are at home with this way of life.
Ali Abunimah: If peace was something that could be produced simply by wishing for it, then we would have it, because most Israelis and Palestinians desperately want peace. We do not have peace because there are major structural injustices that remain unsolved. Millions of Palestinians live under foreign military occupation by an overwhelmingly superior power that is actively engaged in taking away their land and giving it to its own citizens. Until this fundamental cause of the conflict is addressed there will never be peace.
Atlanta, Ga: It appears that the current palestinian leaders want peace and to curb the violence. Do they really have any power to do so?
Ali Abunimah: I think I answered this above, but let me add. The ceasefire was a major achievement and initiative. Israelis were right to be skeptical about it though. But, Israel could have tested it to see if it could lead somewhere. Israel could — if were serious about peace — have fulfilled its road map obligations. It chose to do the opposite.
Chicago, IL: Do the shortcomings of the Road Map give us an opportunity to advocate for a more just solution?
Ali Abunimah: The road map has shortcomings, but it is workable. The basic deal is an end to the occupation and two states side by side. The problem is that it is not being implemented fairly.
The road map is quite explicit that it must freeze all settlement activity in PHASE ONE. ALL settlement activity. It has not done that, and in fact since May it has announced plans for 12,000 Jewish-only housing units in the Israeli colonies. The road map says explicitly that Israel must end violence against all Palestinians everywhere. It continued with its violence. It got away with all this because the US refuses to hold Israel and the Palestinians equally accountable. That is why the road map has failed. Israel opposes the goal of a genuinely independent Palestinian state and is actively undermining that goal by continuing to build settlements. The US is doing nothing to stop it.
In the end, Israel loses more from slamming the door shut on a two-state solution, because that leaves only a single, bi-national state as an alternative, in which Palestinians will gain equal power and Israel will have to stop being a “Jewish state.” That seems to be what Israel is choosing by its actions. You certainly can’t want Palestinians to be stronger advocates for a Jewish state than Israel, so if Israel throws away its future as a Jewish state, I don’t see anyone objecting. But its Israel’s choice, and time for it to save itself is running out.
Detroit, MI: Arafat is to blame for most of the homocides bombings that take place in Israel. Why should Israel and/or PA not take him out of country or this world? And why should anyone in Israel trust Palestinians?
Ali Abunimah: Homocide?
Santa Barbara, CA: Is it true that Israel violated the truce by reserving the right to “targetted assasinations” of Palestinian militants?
Ali Abunimah: Israel violated the truce by carrying out numerous assassinations and killing and many other raids and acts of violence. It didn’t just “reserve the right” to do this. It went out and did it.
Seattle, Washington: Do you ever forsee a “Coalition of Arab States for Democracy”, and Constitution of such that would abolish militant groups that threaten peace and security?
Ali Abunimah: I hope to see democracy throughout the region replacing the current undemocratic regimes in Arab states and replacing the apartheid situation in Israel where one group rules over millions of other people by military force. Nowhere today in the region is there true democracy. We desperately need it.
Washington, D.C.: Isn’t it reminiscient of apartheid and racism to insist that no Jews may live in The West Bank or Gaza, which is what would happen if all the settlements were removed?
Ali Abunimah: Not at all. What is reminiscent of apartheid is forcing people off their land because they are not Jews and building Jewish-only settlements in their place. This is what Israel is doing and it is racist and illegal under international law.
In a just solution, there is no reason Jews would not be able to live in the West Bank, provided they live their on the same terms as everyone else. They would have to abide by the same laws, and they wouldn’t just be able to steal land from other people. They would actually have to buy it lawfully!
Pittsburgh, Pa: Based on the “road map” DO you think that the US has a biased view in terms of both side implementing the peace process? If so what are the other countries that are part of the quartet doing to balance implemation?
Ali Abunimah: In short, yes, for the reasons I explained earlier, I think the US has been very biased. The “quartet” that sponsored the road-map includes the US, the UN the European Union and Russia. Unfortunately the other sponsors are doing nothing to balance things out and the US has actively sidelined any other parties.
Seattle, WA: I have traveled to Gaza and the West Bank and was shocked by what I saw there. Why does the media give such a ‘partial view’ of the conflict?
Ali Abunimah: That is a complicated question and difficult to answer in such a small space. The Electronic Intifada has a lot of articles and resources about media coverage and bias, especially our periodic Coverage Trends. I hope you will take the time to look at them.
Albuquerque, New Mexico: I believe historically the original peoples of that area were one and the same. How did they become so divided? Was it purely a religious division? I am Jewish, and have Palestiain friends, and we get along wonderfully. Where has this all started, and why?
Ali Abunimah: The problem is not an “ethnic” problem or an “ancient hatred.” There are plenty of Palestinians who get on perfectly well with plenty of Jews. And Jews lived peacefully in Palestine for millenia, until the modern period. Most of those Jews were in fact Arab Palestinians who also happened to be Jewish. And for all I know, my ancestors were probably Jewish.
The conflict arose in modern times when a group of European activists founded a movement to colonize Palestine in the name of Jewish people without regard to the rights of the people who were already living there. This naturally created a conflict, and this conflict persists because Israel — the result of this colonizing movement — has refused to recognize the rights of the indigenous people and live in peace with them.
Even though Israel came about because of European colonization, it is today a fact. Israelis have a right to live in peace and security with Palestinians, but not at the expense of Palestinians. For there to be peace, there must be equality and justice.
Seattle, WA: George Bush is the first U.S. President to say the words “Palestinian” and “state” together. He has also spoke about U.N. resolution 242, which no other President has done. This is (for American politics) a bold move, do you support his efforts, and do most Arabs think he is serious?
Ali Abunimah: As I have written before, I believe the road map is a flawed but workable program. It recognizes that occupation is the basic problem and that for there to be peace there must be an end to the occupation. It also says that at the end of the process there must be two states. Unfortunately, in practice Bush is doing nothing to restrain Israel’s efforts to make this impossible. He continues to allow Israel to flout its obligation to stop building the settlements and to stop its repression. So the vision is workable, but the US has not shown seriousness about implementing it.
I can’t tell you what all or most Arabs think, but I think many would agree with the statement above.
Cleveland, Ohio: I have read that the latest Hamas leader assassinated by Israel was actually moderate in comparison to others in that organization. Is that true?
Ali Abunimah: That is true — at least in Hamas terms. He has pushed hardest for the ceasefire, and on the eve of the June 4, Aqaba summit he was interviewed by Ted Koppel on ABV’s Nightline and he made such moderate statements that Koppel had to ask him to repeat his answers several times.
spring tx: IS Saudi Arabia the main contributor to the continuation of Palestinian terror?
Ali Abunimah: No. The main factor fueling violence is the continued presence of tens of thousands of foreign troops in the occupied territories — troops who use only violence to enforce their control of the Palestinian population.
Albuquerque NM: If Hamas and Islamic Jihad feel that hundreds of casualties must avenge one of their own, why is Israel the bad guy if it doesn’t reciprocate proportionately? If it did, in this case, it would need to inflict thousands, I might add.
Ali Abunimah: Well, in the past three years, Israel has killed more than 2,500 Palestinians, while Palestinians have killed about 800 Israelis. On both sides, the vast majority of the dead are unarmed civilians. On the Palestinian side 400 of those killed by Israel are children. So if you do the math, you will see that in fact, Israel kills about 3 Palestinians for every Israeli that is killed.
Washington, D.C.: If Israel had no weapons wouldn’t it be immediately be decimated by it’s Arab neighbors? Would you support that?
Ali Abunimah: Israel has peace with Egypt and Jordan and the Palestinians have offered peace in exchange for their freedom. The entire Arab League has endorsed this. Israel certainly has and will certainly retain the capability to defend itself from any threat. But occupying another people and stealing their land for colonization is not self-defence. It is aggression. And it is what is making peace more and more unattainable.
Santa Fe, NM: Palestinians shot off fireworks after the latest atrocity. According to you, based on your response to Miami FL, are we readers somehow responsible for personally traveling there and directly confirming every news report that sheds a grotesque light on the Palestinian people? Do you challenge the documented fact that Palestinians danced in the streets after September 11?
Ali Abunimah: No, but you have to do better than a single report or a baseless claim. I have also seen video of Israelis cheering when Israeli forces shelled and rocketed the Palestinian town of Beit Jala a couple of years ago. I also have heard Israeli screaming “death to the Arabs” many times. And recently, Israeli cabinet minister Avigdor Lieberman called for all of the Palestinian prisoners held by Israel (7,000 people) to be drowned in the Dead Sea. I can come up with many more examples. Yet I am not entitled to conclude from them that all Israelis think in this barbarous way or make generalizations about an entire people.
Jacksonville, Florida: I don’t understand why a people who had suffered so much in the past century under the hand of Nazis are so focused on repeating the crimes that were commited against them on others. Its seems to me that someone who had seen such horrors, would not do the same to others. If the Jews of Europe had stood up to the Nazis as the Palestinians are resisting the Isrealis the world might be a very different place. What motivates someone who has suffered so much to exact the same suffering on others?
Ali Abunimah: That is a question you have to put to Israelis. Israel, as a matter of policy and propaganda, has sought to co-opt the memory of the Nazi holocaust as a way to justify Israeli actions and shield Israel from criticism. There are many principled holocaust survivors who have spoken out against Israel’s actions and who reject the notion that Israel acts in their name of their memory. These voices have often been marginalized and silenced, but we should listen to them. Having said that, while many supporters of Israel condemn all Palestinian resistance as “terrorism,” even resistance against the occupation forces, they celebrate the Warsaw Rising, in which Jews staged an armed uprising against their oppressors. You will have to ask them to explain such double standards.
Dallas, Texas: When are the Palestinians going to take responsibility for Hamas and IJ? It appears that you want to encourage them on one hand, and on the other give lipservice to condeming violence. As a one-time Palestinian supporter, I now question Palestinian sincerity.
Ali Abunimah: Well, as I explained, the Palestinian Authority does not actually control much. Israel controls the occupied territories and it is unable to stop. Where do you want the cycle to end? If you accept the logic that the occupation must continue until all resistance stops, then the occupation becomes self-justifying and eternal. If you accept the reality that when people are under occupation, then some will resist, you can begin to see that ending the occupation is the path to ending all the violence and bringing peace. You are entitled to question Palestinian sincerity. Fine. But what of Israeli sincerity? Why would a government that wants peace continue to confiscate land by force and build settlements if it truly wanted peace?
Kingsville, Texas: Civil disobedience and coordinated non-violent protests served among others, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King causes and brought the world’s sympathies and support to their causes. Why hasn’t it been seriously considered by the Palestinians since time seems to be running out?
Ali Abunimah: Civil disobedience and non-violent resistance have always been, and remain, an integral part of Palestinian resistance. MOST Palestinian resistance is non violent. But the fact is the media and governments do not care about non-violence. They only react when there is violence. When is the last time you heard CNN report about Palestinians rebuilding a demolished home, replanting uprooted trees, or refusing to obey curfews, all as acts of resistance? These things happen every single day in Palestine. But the message the world sends time and again is, we only pay attention when body parts are flying.
David San Diego, CA: What do you feel Israel should do to protect its citizens agains further terrorism?
Ali Abunimah: I believe Israel should immediately accept the far reaching compromises offered by the Palestinian people and the entire Arab League for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem — areas which comprise only a fraction of the country in which Palestinians were until recently the overwhelming majority. If Israel removes its occupation army and allows Palestinians their freedom, it will find the peace that arms have never enabled it to achieve. Israel can have peace with its neighbors, as the treaties with Egypt and Jordan show. But peace must be based on justice.
Orlando, FL : Why don’t Palestinians relocate over to Jordan… where their customs and traditions can be respected and observed? Israelies are the ones who don’t have a country to go to… what are they suppose to do - NOT EXIST? ISRAEL HAS THE RIGHT TO EXIST … Palestinians have an option.
Ali Abunimah: What you are proposing is ethnic cleansing. Why should Palestinians leave their homeland? I am proposing that instead of brutally extinguishing one society in an act of genocide, as you propose, that we instead live together in peace.
Miami, FL: Do Mr. Bush, his elected cabinet, or the U.S. administrations in general know the true intentions of the Israelis toward Palestinian people and land? How about other supporters of Israel in the U.S. Senate, U.S. Congress, and the Christian Coalition, do they really know about the rights of Palestinians? Is their support based on self-interest, pressure, or just lack of knowledge?
Ali Abunimah: The growing role of the Christian right in the US in opposing peace and supporting the most extreme elements of the Israeli government needs to be exposed to all Americans. I wrote an article about this recently that you can read here.
San Francisco, CA: What is wrong with Israel building a wall to keep out its neighbors?
Ali Abunimah: Everything when the wall is almost entirely in its neighbors’ territory. And more, when it divides hundreds of thousands of families from each other. See this special feature on the wall done by Nigel Parry, for The Electronic Intifada.
Orlando, FL: I just visited the website you endorse - the Israeli Crowd Control (w/ pictures of a bullet) item collection is very disturbing. I was under the impression that you were pro-non-violence??
Ali Abunimah: The T-Shirt design you are mentioning is a statement AGAINST violence. It is a powerful statement that people do find disturbing. That is why it is effective and has been a popular item.
Comment from Ali Abunimah: It appears we are out of time. Thanks to everyone who participated. Please continue to work for peace with justice for Palestinians and Israelis.