Wanted: A US intifada against impunity at home and abroad


Is it still possible to separate the “foreign” from the “domestic?” The United States is about to embark on a presidential campaign season that may be one of the most important in decades. Candidates will make countless speeches in halls large and small across America expounding on their visions for foreign and domestic policies. But the two are harder and harder to separate, whether one is talking about events, markets, policies, or sentiments. We are living at a time when the global and the local, the national and the international, intersect dramatically, sometimes delightfully, sometimes terrifyingly. If nothing else, the events of 9/11 should have taught us that.

Of the many possible lessons that could have been learned from those searing events two years ago, the Bush administration has only considered — and quite ably marketed — a very few, all of them packaged under the general rubric of the “Global War on Terror,” which, with the Patriot Act, increased surveillance of Arab and Muslim Americans, and all sorts of “total information awareness schemes,” begins here at home as much as it does in Kabul or Baghdad.

The Bush administration is very comfortable with the word “global” — as long as it is used in the context of the “global projection of U.S. military might” or the “expansion of global markets,” on terms, of course, that benefit the U.S. much more than its economic trading partners. But the Bush administration is not at all comfortable with the concept, let alone the practice, of global justice. This administration is actively hostile to the progressive evolution of international criminal prosecution. Indeed, a Human Rights Watch staff member referred to the Bush Administration’s actions against various emerging institutions of international law as “America’s global jihad against international justice” last summer. (1)

Among the collateral damage of the last two years has been the cessation of U.S. support for and participation in the emerging, multilateral frameworks of international justice and accountability as well as active hostility to the global campaign against impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Bush administration’s withdrawal from the Rome Treaty establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC), and further attempts to undercut this promising new judicial body by signing coercive non-extradition treaties (“Article 98 Agreements”) (2) with numerous countries throughout the world, the adoption of the principle of pre-emption, the launching of a war in Iraq in contravention of Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, and the erosion and reversals of tort law at home will have longer-lasting, deleterious effects on the U.S. population and, given the U.S. role as the world leader, perhaps on the entire world, than anything that Al Qaeda could have dreamed up.

As the great 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt noted in her monumental work, On the Origins of Totalitarianism (1973): “All that is needed to achieve total political domination is to kill the juridical in humankind.” The Bush administration seems to have grasped this early on; its antipathy to the U.N. and multilateral frameworks of international law and treaties predated the events of 9/11. It has pursued unilateralist policies from Day One, demonstrating hostility towards the deliberative processes of international bodies that gave us the Geneva Conventions and the Conventions on the Prevention of Genocide (1948) and Torture (1984).

Although the US administration claims its opposition to international frameworks and institutions of justice is rooted solely in a need to safeguard US sovereignty, many seasoned observers are inclined to attribute these actions to a narrow-minded desire to preserve US hegemony at all costs. This should not surprise us, since the current administration is not simply neoconservative, but in fact, neo-Medieval, positioning the US as global liege lord, demanding tribute, obedience, and subservience from its vassals — all other states — as it pursues spectacular crusades accompanied by a rhetoric of divine guidance, undertaking holy struggles against evildoers.

There is no place in such a neo-Medieval world for deliberation, debate, or dissent. There is little role, if any, for the rule of law. We have entered a post-modern Dark Age, and it will take a lot of hard work and cooperation, at home and abroad, to reverse our slide towards totalitarianism, obscurantism, and coercive force, all of which require that we revitalize the principles and practices of a true democracy here at home.

Countering this dangerous new Dark Age will take, in fact, an intifada, to use a word that is much maligned and seldom understood in the United States.

Commonly translated in the media as “an uprising,” “intifada” has taken on connotations of violence, terror, and hatred, implying a total breakdown of the social order. In fact, the precise translation from the Arabic is “a shaking off, an awakening.” More to the point, “intifada” means to shake oneself off, so it has a reflexive, contemplative emphasis, signaling the personal beginnings of wider political transformations. An intifada is all about political changes rooted in profound paradigm shifts and experiences of personal commitment to a more humane political order. Certainly, that was why we chose to call our website “The Electronic Intifada.”

An “intifada” requires a serious questioning of conventional wisdom. This frequently results in challenges to the status quo in order to attain justice and to assert human dignity and human rights in the face of powerful, unjust, and crushing forces. An intifada, given this definition, is indeed a proper response to injustice and impunity. If you still have not grasped the true meaning of “intifada,” then look at the image of the brave young American activist, Rachel Corrie, standing unarmed before a house threatened with demolition just before a massive bulldozer crushed her to death.

Since its launch nearly three years ago, this website has attempted to reclaim and reassert the original meaning of “intifada” in order to mobilize broad-based opposition to policies and practices that are unjust, undemocratic, illegal, immoral, counterproductive, and very costly in Israeli-occupied Palestine. This site cannot be characterized simplistically as either a pro-Palestinian or an anti-Israel site. It represents instead a concerted attempt to highlight and advance the frameworks of global justice by encouraging people to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of international humanitarian law, rather than seeing it as an ancient, biblically-based battle, or as an ethnic conflict far too complex to understand, let alone resolve. One of the most basic and implicit messages conveyed by this website is the demand: “One yardstick for human rights.”

Plainly and simply, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians centers on a chronic failure to apply U.N. resolutions and international law to a situation characterized by grave breaches of International Humanitarian Law (3), ethnic cleansing, illegal seizures of land and resources, and current practices that can only be described as “genocide on the installment plan,” given recent alarming reports of chronic hunger, not to mention the inescapable despair and the growing misery and meaninglessness of life for those trapped in the isolated and impoverished bantustans that Palestinian villages have become.

The motor of this conflict dominating our nightly news is not some sort of Islamic concept of terror or a putative and distinctively Arab “cult of death,” as suggested recently by Canadian columnist Margaret Wente in the pages of the Toronto Globe and Mail, but rather, continued impunity for a clear pattern of grave violations of international law, violations in which the United States and her citizens are quite complicit.

If US progressives want to support the rule of law at home and abroad, while also strengthening democratic practices and a just socio-political order throughout the world, they could find few better starting points than a national and international campaign to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As Americans, we have a greater chance of realizing this worthy end than we do of influencing events elsewhere in the Middle East. Why? Because we are deeply complicit in an occupation that has become increasingly brutal under the government of Ariel Sharon, an occupation that angers not only the Arab and Islamic world, but also Europeans, Asians, and Canadians as well. All of this stirs deep resentment and mistrust of the United States throughout the world.

If any American citizens are still asking ” Why do they hate us?” they would do well to seek their answer in the annual inventory of killing machines that United States taxpayers send to an Israeli government headed by a man whom even the Israeli Kahan Commission of 1983 deemed unfit for public office because of his “personal responsibility” for a massacre that took over 1000 civilians’ lives in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in September 1982.

Launching a broad-based US intifada to end the occupation would benefit not only Palestinians immediately, but Israelis and Americans in the long-term as well.

It is no secret that Israel has violated international law with impunity for decades in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As an occupying power, Israel has repeatedly violated the Geneva Conventions by building settlements, diverting water, and undertaking extrajudicial killings, lately using the very imprecise instrument of Apache attack helicopters, which usually slaughter numerous civilians along with the intended targets. Such acts violate the US Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which stipulates that the US is not to disburse foreign or military aid to countries evidencing a clear pattern of grave human rights abuses.

A cursory review of Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories provide more than enough evidence that Israel violates this US law — daily. Israel has used torture, arbitrary detention, collective punishment, and the imposition of sieges on the largely unarmed civilian population. Violations of international humanitarian law, and disregard for a whole raft of U.N. resolutions, have become part and parcel of Israeli practices in the West Bank and Gaza. Indeed, infractions of these laws are woven into the very sinews of the institutionalized system of inequality and oppression that is the occupation.

From the perspective of Israel’s key ally, the United States, future stability in the Middle East hinges upon maintaining the toxic status quo in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by wringing maximum concessions from the Palestinians while demanding minimal sacrifices or behavioral changes from Israel. The now fading Road Map to Peace, though a slight improvement on the Oslo Accords of a decade ago, implicitly grants Israel permission to continue violating international laws and U.N. resolutions, which the Road Map, just like the Oslo Accords before it, sidelines in a rush to hammer together a dubious settlement based on pressure tactics and expediency, rather than an enduring peace built on the sturdier foundations of global justice.

As international legal scholar Kathleen Cavanaugh has noted: “Alarmingly, these flawed political agreements” — she’s talking about the Oslo accords and also the Dayton agreement as well — “have assumed de facto legal status, and have replaced international law in practice. As a result, compliance with international human rights law and humanitarian law has been rendered negotiable. The deftly woven ambiguity of the Oslo accords may have secured the initial Israeli-Palestinian agreement, but this ambiguity has also enabled Israel to claim compliance with the accords, while clearly seriously violating international law.” (4)

Continued Israeli violations of international humanitarian law are not just a problem for Palestinians suffering under a cruel occupation, the full extent and dimensions of which are rarely presented to a US television audience. Israeli impunity is also the primary catalyst for the criminal Palestinian suicide bombings that have brought violence, death, and destruction to the very heart of Israel’s cities.

When victims of longstanding and serious rights violations do not have recourse through proper channels, when they cannot obtain restitution and closure through the courts, the State, the international community, the media, the U.N., or the Hague, they may well take matters into their own hands, as some Palestinian factions unfortunately have done.

One of the most disturbing tendencies of the last two years has been the increasing harmony between US and Israeli positions on international law and “the war on terror.” Both countries disregard and disrespect international law, at times with seeming glee, on the grounds that fighting terror trumps compliance with international legal norms. The US, like its close ally Israel, has sent the world a disturbing message: “We are above the law.” This message poses dangers for Americans, Israelis, and others. U.S. and Israeli hostility to international law will likely lead to more deaths of Israelis and Palestinians, and possibly Americans as well. Double standards have a way of tripling and quadrupling resentments and bitterness.

What is desperately needed in the US, as a new presidential race gears up, is an intifada against impunity at home and abroad. Such a campaign could benefit progressives in the U.S. as they prepare for the 2004 elections. Progressives must seriously, critically, and courageously engage with themselves and others in discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its roots in a brutal and dehumanizing occupation that no democracy should be dirtying its hands supporting. More specifically, anyone who wishes to be known as a progressive or a democrat must, in the interests of being consistent and preserving his or her integrity and humanity, unequivically oppose ongoing Israeli infractions of international law through the occupation, seizure, and exploitation of Palestinian lands and the concomitant denial of basic rights to Palestinian men, women and children.

If progressives have the guts to undertake an intifada against the fears, threats, and the sacred, but hollow, icons that prevent serious and critical discussion of US support for continuing Israeli impunity for war crimes, they will find that taking on the occupation also allows them to broach a number of other urgent matters.

A thorough, no-holds-barred analysis of US support for dangerous and destructive Israeli policies can lead to a broad public debate about Israel’s occupation of Palestine. And this debate will inevitably require a critique of other problems of long-standing concern to progressives throughout the United States, such as the need for accurate and fair media in a democracy, which naturally leads to a deeper inquiry into the crucial necessity of open, inquiring, and democratic debate on this and other foreign policy issues that for too long have been the domain of so-called “experts.” No American citizen should uncritically abandon such weighty matters to a special class of professional pundits.

An honest critique of the Israeli occupation would also lead to a genuine engagement with the pressing question of campaign finance reform. Having worked in Washington for a number of years, and from talking to people on the Hill and at various think tanks of all political stripes in the US Capital, I know that the biggest obstacle to an honest accounting of American complicity in the brutalities of Israeli occupation is the fear among elected officials of a negative and well-organized response by the pro-Israel lobby.

As recent congressional races in Georgia and Alabama demonstrated, the powerful pro-Israel lobby will handsomely finance anyone opposing an elected official who dares to raise questions critical of Israel. The ensuing dynamic of fear and silencing results in political representation unreflective of the actual opinions, feelings, hopes, and analyses of the vast majority of the American voting public. This is a major impediment to a truly democratic order in the United States, and ought to be confronted forcefully by progressives in a fearless manner.

Furthermore, a close look at US support for the Israeli occupation would necessitate a deeper examination of the lucrative US arms trade. Israel is one of, if not the, largest recipients of US arms and military aid packages. Alarmingly, the Middle East as a whole is the largest recipient of US military assistance of all types — hardly a sensible policy decision given the volatility of this region, not to mention a history of US armaments ending up in the hands of the Taliban as a result of Byzantine aid policies of the Reagan years.

Last but not least, this focus would highlight the fact that Israel does, indeed, have quite an arsenal of nuclear and chemical weapons, though it has usually issued denials of this fact. The removal of all weapons of mass destruction (WMD) from the entire Middle East should be a key policy position for US progressives. As such, it must begin by exposing Israel’s frightening stockpiles of WMD.

If progressive candidates were to take on the ongoing Israeli occupation and US complicity therein, it would encourage the US public to consider the benefits of compliance with international humanitarian law by both the United States and its allies. There may well be some short-term gains to be reaped from being “above the law,” but in the long-run, it can only set dangerous and destabilizing precedents, particularly in a region of multiple and growing conflicts over borders, rights, and resources. It is no secret that water conflicts will figure prominently in the future of the Middle East, and without a solid and legitimate international legal framework, these will be very dangerous indeed.

Last but not least, a serious engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Israeli occupation might enable us to comprehend the dangers of demagoguery and manipulative rhetoric, which is currently combined in the US with alarming tones of dispensational Christian fundamentalist discourse, bigoted viewpoints, and highly stereotypical views of Islam and Muslims, as recently displayed by General Boykin’s pulpit-pounding sermons, in churches across the US, defaming Islam as a “satanic faith.”

An honest and critical analysis of the long-term consequences of the US war on terror would help Americans redefine the concept of terror itself. “Terror” is now America’s key symbol, a buzzword that has become so diffused and so large that we are not using terror and terrorism constructively in public discussions and policy debates anymore. Rather, terror and terrorism are using us, by stirring up thought-halting feelings of fear, impending doom, helplessness, rage, and revenge. These are not the bases of discourse and decision-making in a great democracy.

America must not be allowed to become a demagogic nation. It is up to progressives to prevent that. If we were to define terror more closely, and to study the definitions of terror and terrorism under international law, we would quickly see that terror is nearly always the fruit of impunity. Terror is the harvest sown by institutionalized systems of inequality, humiliation, and despair, and such problems can be healed only through building and strengthening the institutions of justice, locally and globally, not by launching preemptive wars abroad or building up military and intelligence capacities at home that threaten the freedoms that we all cherish as Americans.

In the face of these growing foreign and domestic dangers, US progressives indeed need an intifada. I hope that they will have the courage to launch one — and soon — before fascistic forces take over the US, as they have already overtaken Israel.

Notes

(1) See “Belgium makes justice less global” at http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/0624/p06s01-woeu.html

(2) For more information on the “Article 98” agreements, see comments delivered by Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth at the International Criminal Court Assembly of State Parties in 2002 at http://hrw.org/campaigns/icc/docs/ken-icc0909.htm

(3) International Humanitarian Law (IHL) refers to a body of laws and international conventions intended to provide clear codes of conduct in times of war, conflict and occupation. The laws define and attempt to prevent war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Central to IHL are the Hague Regulations on Land Warfare of 1907, which cover means and methods of warfare; the Genocide Convention of 1948 and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the two additional protocols of 1977. The Geneva Conventions stipulate the differences between legal and illegal conduct in times of military hostilities and military occupation. The Rome Statutes of the International Criminal Court, adopted in 1998, represent a further refinement and clarification of IHL. Of additional importance is the Nuremberg jurisprudence , which is the closest analogue to treaties on war crimes and genocide. At the heart of IHL is the stipulation that civilians and civilian infrastructure are not to be directly and intentionally harmed in times of war. See http://www.crimesofwar.org for more information and resources.

(4) “The Cost of Peace: Assessing Oslo.” Middle East Report 211: 10-12.

Laurie King-Irani is a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada. An American citizen, she teaches social anthropology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.