The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has led to an explosion of “people power” in the streets of Beirut, in which hundreds of thousands of Lebanese citizens have called for an end to Syria’s occupation of their land. These calls have been celebrated and echoed in other capitals, and nowhere more so than in Washington. However, there is another area in the Middle East where a struggle to end foreign occupation has brought the natives only death and destruction. For decades, Israel has crushed the 3.5 million Palestinians living under military domination, beating them into submission while taking away their civil rights and their land.
As an Israeli Jew committed to peace for Israel and our neighbors, I was shocked and disgusted by the recent terror attack in Tel Aviv, which took the lives of innocent Jews. Such acts of terror have made headlines and been rightfully condemned by the international community. However, deadly Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilians have not received significant press attention in the West or led to appropriate, decisive international action. For decades the Israeli army, equipped with US arms and technology, has killed, maimed, beaten and tortured tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians. Clearly, America could have put an end to this. Instead, however, it chose to allow Israel to continue with the brutal oppression of the Palestinians, and never demanded from Israel to stop committing war crimes.
From 1986 to 1991 I served in the Israeli army in the occupied Palestinian territories. During this period I was shocked and disgusted at what my comrades and I were repeatedly ordered to do to Palestinian civilians. To crush the uprising for independence and statehood, we were ordered to brutalize them. In one of our army bases in the West Bank, there was a mysterious room. Every day we watched Palestinians being led into it. After a couple of days our commanders would lead the Palestinians out, black and blue from bruises and their faces swollen. They resembled sacks of potatoes more than human beings.
We later realized this room was a torture chamber. On some days, we could hear screams coming from the room. It was a sickening experience. However, we continued participating in the occupation because Israeli politicians persuaded us that we were in the midst of a “peace process.” So effusive were they in their lectures on how Israel “only wants peace” that we were blinded from seeing the reality of how the state is brutally oppressing, subjugating and dehumanizing the Palestinian people.
As many Israelis realize today, when Israeli governments talked about the peace process during the Oslo period, they were pulling the wool over the world’s eyes. Israel continued colonizing the West Bank and Gaza with its Jewish-only settlements and, at the same time, entrenching a cruel military regime over Palestinians.
The same is true today with Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement” plan, which is being marketed by Israeli propaganda as a “painful concession” toward peace. Many of us who live in Israel and visit the occupied territories recognize the truth: Israel is continuously intensifying its military rule in the West Bank while stealing more Palestinian land and building more illegal Jewish-only settlements.
After years of failed political efforts by the Israeli and international human rights community aimed at ending the occupation, it is clear that new approaches must be implemented. For years, American taxpayer money has funded the occupation—the torture chambers, the military apparatus, the bulldozers used in house demolitions, the building of settlements and now the construction of the West Bank wall, declared illegal by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). It is high time that American companies and institutions united in a multi-tiered campaign of strategic, selective sanctions against Israel until the occupation ends.
The first step for American civic institutions is to engage in selective divestment—withdrawal of their investments from companies that are, directly or indirectly, funding the occupation. First and foremost, states, cities, universities, churches, unions, banks and pension funds should divest from Israel Bonds, which finance the occupation, and from any company that sells arms, ammunition or other military equipment to Israel.
This should include companies like Caterpillar, which manufactures and sells the bulldozers that have flattened thousands of Palestinian homes, and General Dynamics, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, Northrop-Grumman, Raytheon and other corporations, because these companies play an active role in enabling Israeli forces to engage in practices that violate international humanitarian law.
Second, the West should hold Israeli military personnel and political leaders personally accountable for human rights violations, including trial before international courts and bans on travel to other countries. This strategy has been implemented in other conflicts (Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and South Africa, for example), proving its deterrent value and effectiveness.
Prohibiting the sale of arms and military equipment to Israel is, in fact, called for by existing US law. According to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 USC S2304), “No security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”
The current hypocritical American Administration is not enforcing this law with regard to Israel. It is, therefore, up to American civil society to uphold the law and prevent the sale of any military equipment to Israel by pressuring the government, filing complaints against companies that violate this law and withdrawing all investments from such companies.
The Presbyterian Church took a positive step in this direction when in July 2004 its General Assembly passed a resolution calling for selective divestment from companies that profit from the occupation. This past February the World Council of Churches, which brings together more than 340 churches worldwide, issued a similar resolution. While criticizing the severe human rights abuses inherent in the occupation and the construction of the illegal West Bank wall, these resolutions also affirm the right of the State of Israel to exist securely and peacefully, and they categorically reject the tragic cycle of indiscriminate violence perpetrated by both sides against innocent civilian populations.
Sanctions are a powerful and nonviolent means to insure that the Israeli government abides by international law and ends its appalling human rights violations in the occupied territories. We have witnessed the power of worldwide economic pressure in the collapse of the South African apartheid regime. If American civic institutions follow the same strategy, we could see the end of the Israeli occupation in our lifetime. Americans should stand up for human rights and justice, follow their own law and take the most productive step toward peace and security in the Middle East.
Shamai Leibowtitz is a human rights lawyer from Tel Aviv who has represented asylum seekers, migrant workers, Palestinians and human rights activists in the Israeli courts. He is a reserve tank gunner with the rank of staff sergeant in the Israeli army, and part of a group of over 1,400 soldiers who have refused to serve in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A longer version of this article was first published in The Nation magazine on 16 March 2005, and is reprinted with the author’s permission.