US hands lit torch to Israeli arsonists

Chief arsonist Benjamin Netanyahu and his finance minister Bezalel Smotrich in Jerusalem on 26 January.

Ronen Zvulun Pool/SIPA

The US is paving the way for horrific violence against Palestinians by allowing Israel to go into settler-colony and apartheid overdrive.

By doing so, Washington may also be hastening the end of the total impunity that allows Israel to episodically “mow” down Palestinians who challenge its colonial domination.

Events of recent days will make it more difficult for Washington and its allies to treat the situation of extreme injustice in Palestine as something that can be managed indefinitely.

That conflict management approach – by which the colonized Palestinians are treated as an equal partner to their oppressor while being required to do the occupier’s dirty work – prevailed during the quarter-century that followed the signing of the Oslo accords by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the mid-1990s.

It was during that period, of course, that Israel grabbed West Bank hilltops and accelerated the building of its settlement colonies in violation of international law, further fragmenting Palestinian land and society.

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price typified that approach during a press conference following Israel’s bloody daytime raid in the West Bank city of Nablus on Wednesday.

Eleven Palestinians, including a child and three men over the age of 60, were killed and dozens more injured by live fire during the raid, which began when Israeli forces disguised as Palestinian civilians opened fire in a busy vegetable market.

Price said “we are deeply concerned that the impact of today’s raid could set back efforts aimed at restoring calm for both Israelis and Palestinians,” implying that it wasn’t the violent raid itself that posed a setback to calm.

Price emphasized “the urgent need for both sides to work together to improve the security situation in the West Bank,” absurdly suggesting that Palestinians are responsible for maintaining the security of Israel’s regime of settler-colonization, apartheid and military occupation.

During the same press conference, reporters pressed Price on whether the State Department’s professed concern would be matched by material consequences imposed on Israel for its actions.

He pointed to “the arrangement that Israelis and Palestinians” came to over the previous weekend, by which the Palestinian Authority was pressured by Washington to drop its pursuit of a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s announcement that it would formalize settlement outposts and build new settlement units.

In other words, the US pressured the Palestinian Authority to abandon its efforts to compel Israel to abide by international law at the UN because, as Price’s deputy, Vedant Patel, told reporters two weeks ago, the Biden administration viewed the intervention as “unhelpful.”

Asked whether Wednesday’s bloodbath in Nablus meant the US’s efforts were a failure, Price insisted that Washington was playing a “constructive and useful role.”

“The United States is a partner. We are a partner to Israel; we are a partner to the Palestinians,” Price added. “We are, in our capacity as a partner, coordinating between and among them.”

Washington’s aims in Aqaba

In that “capacity,” the US pressed Palestinian Authority and Israeli security officials to meet in Aqaba on Sunday, hosted by Jordan’s King Abdallah and joined by Egyptian officials.

A joint communique claimed that the Israelis and Palestinians committed to “de-escalation on the ground and to prevent further violence.”

According to the communique, Israel made a commitment “to stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months and to stop authorization of any outposts for six months.”

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly poured cold water on any notion that there would be a pause in Israel’s theft and colonization of Palestinian land.

“There is not and will not be any freeze,” Netanyahu said just hours after the Aqaba communique was issued.

Violence severely escalated before the ink could even dry.

On Sunday, almost certainly in retaliation for Wednesday’s deadly raid, two Israeli settlers were killed in an apparent Palestinian shooting attack in Huwwara, a village near Nablus and a frequent flashpoint of occupation violence.

Settlers then went on a revenge rampage, burning and vandalizing Palestinian homes and vehicles and attacking livestock.

One Palestinian, 37-year old Sameh Aqtash, was shot dead by either settlers or the military, and dozens more were injured.

So much for Washington’s efforts at “de-escalation.”

Undoubtedly, the main goal of the Aqaba summit was to bolster and restore the role of the Palestinian Authority as Israel’s native enforcer, with political cover and possibly training from Egypt and Jordan.

Israel and the Palestinians “affirmed their commitment to all previous agreements between them, and to work towards a just and lasting peace,” according to the communique.

This can only refer to the Oslo accords, which obligate the PA to collaborate with Israel against Palestinian resistance to the occupation.

While talk of peace and justice is mere lip service, Washington and its local clients will press the PA hard to fulfill its obligation to protect Israel and its rampaging settlers from the Palestinian people.

US “partnership”

This is what American “partnership” truly looks like in practice.

Washington provides a minimum of $3.8 billion in military aid to Israel each year while giving a relative pittance to the Palestinian Authority on the condition that it serves as an enforcement arm for the Israeli occupation.

All the while, the US serves as Israel’s lawyer at international fora, undermining Palestinian efforts towards accountability. (During that same press conference last Wednesday, Price’s colleague reaffirmed Washington’s opposition to the Palestine investigation at the International Criminal Court.)

And what else has happened in the days after Washington, ever the constructive partner, thwarted the Security Council vote on Israel’s settlements?

Israel approved plans for 7,000 new settlement units – “the largest number ever authorized in one sitting,” according to The Times of Israel – including hundreds of homes in outposts not yet formally legalized by the government built on Palestinian land.

Tel Aviv is also moving to build thousands of housing units in the E1 area of Jerusalem, which would effectively sever the West Bank into two and, in the words of Peace Now, deal “a deadly blow to a future Palestinian state.”

Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s extreme-right finance minister who lives in one of the settlements slated for additional building, appears assured that Washington will not stand in the way.

“It is permitted to have disagreements between friends, but in the end we do what is right for us, and they understand that,” Smotrich said, as reported by the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz.

Meanwhile, Smotrich was crowned governor of the West Bank last week in a move that legal experts say constitutes de jure annexation of occupied territory.

An agreement signed by Israel’s defense minister transfers governmental powers in the West Bank to Smotrich, extending Israeli sovereignty beyond the Green Line.

Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer, said that “transferring powers to Israeli civilian hands is an act of de jure annexation because it entails removing power from the occupying military and placing it directly in the hands of the government.”

He added that the agreement “is simultaneously a giant leap of legal annexation of the West Bank and an act of perpetuating the regime’s apartheid nature.”

Settlement building and formal annexation of occupied territory are blatant violations of international law.

And yet the only response the State Department spokesperson could muster when asked about it on Thursday was the tired refrain that it was crucial for both Israel and the Palestinian Authority “to refrain from any unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions or have the potential to undercut efforts to advance the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution.”

What that really means is avoiding steps that challenge the maintenance of Israel’s regime of settler-colonial domination under the cover of a nonexistent peace process.

The joint communique issued on Sunday hailed “the importance of the Aqaba meeting, the first of its kind in years.”

It announced another gathering to be held in March, this time hosted by Egypt at the Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh, aiming to “maintain positive momentum and expand this agreement towards wider political process leading to a just and lasting peace.”

This is a throwback to the constant flurry of summits, peace plans and roadmaps that characterized the heyday of the Oslo era: endless process and busy-work substituting for any real effort to hold Israel accountable and end its subjugation of Palestinians.

It’s an effort to put Washington back in the driver’s seat.

But events on the ground show that a colonial conflict has its own brutal logic. The fury and resistance of the Palestinian people can no longer be controlled or contained either by Israel’s brutality or by Washington’s bad-faith diplomatic charades.

Legislative “reform” threatens impunity

Ironically, by refusing to put more than the slightest of pressure on Israel, the US may be helping to burst the bubble of impunity that it has helped maintain for so long.

Gilad Noam, Israel’s deputy attorney general, warned lawmakers earlier this month that the government’s efforts to erode the independence and scope of the judiciary undermines its best defense against the scrutiny of the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice.

If implemented, these changes would alter “the perception of the justice system as professional, independent and apolitical,” Noam said.

“This could affect Israel’s ability to cope with the challenges of the international legal system,” Noam added, saying that “not everything can be elaborated upon in such a public debate.”

A confidential discussion on the international implications of the legislative “reform” was reportedly held behind closed doors last week.

Israeli reservists, including those in the air force, are threatening to refuse “to comply with call-ups or with certain directives” as the Israeli public protests what many call a “judicial coup,” lawmakers were told, as reported by the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz.

“Reserve pilots and navigators say crew members increasingly seek to postpone reporting for training days in their squadrons,” according to the paper.

Among the air force squadron WhatsApp groups, “the calls for refusal to serve are spreading like wildfire.”

Reservists are concerned “that new laws may make reserve pilots more vulnerable to legal action abroad,” Haaretz added.

Israeli defense ministry legal advisers told lawmakers during the closed-door meeting that “if the judiciary is weakened … the state’s claim to robust investigatory and legal mechanism[s] that make external intervention unnecessary will also be weakened.”

Israeli air force pilots could therefore “be first in the sights of the court in The Hague,” as Haaretz made clear.

If international justice wasn’t a rigged game, the US personnel whose fingerprints are all over Israel’s crimes wouldn’t be far in line behind them.

Ali Abunimah contributed reporting and analysis.

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.