Winning prize for peace while advocating war

Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize only days after announcing an increase in troops in the ongoing US-led war in Afghanistan. (Pete Souza/White House Photo)

United States President Barack Obama has just accepted the Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony in Oslo. His nomination had been controversial, not least because he is continuing and escalating two illegal wars of aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also because it was awarded to him at the beginning of his term, before he has proven a genuine willingness to promote peace.

Though his eloquent and moving speech in Cairo last June spoke of “peace,” “mutual respect” and “new beginnings” with the Arab and Muslim world, his administration’s foreign policy has thus far proven otherwise. The glaring contradiction between his words and actions are nowhere else more obvious than in his dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In his acceptance speech yesterday, President Obama quoted former US President John F. Kennedy’s advice on attaining peace: “Let us focus on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.”

As a first step toward achieving that evolution, Obama advised that “all nations — strong and weak alike — must adhere to standards that govern the use of force.” Those standards — international humanitarian law — were however not applied by Obama to Israel in its devastating attack on the Gaza Strip last winter.

Though the UN-commissioned Goldstone report accused Israeli forces of committing war crimes and possible crimes against humanity in Gaza, Obama’s representatives at the UN Human Rights Council voted against a resolution that adopted the report’s findings. In addition, his government attempted to discredit the report by claiming that it was biased against Israel and flawed from the outset. This is hard to believe considering that its author is a jurist of international acclaim, not to mention a Jew with strong ties to Israel.

Obama also advocated that “Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure.” Yet when it comes to Israeli intransigence, Obama appears unwilling to demand the same level of accountability or exert any pressure at all.

Israel has flouted international law with impunity for 42 years with its settler-colonial project in the occupied West Bank, including Jerusalem. Israel’s illegal wall continues to annex Palestinian land, while home demolitions in East Jerusalem occur now almost on a weekly basis. Here, Obama has not “exacted a real price.” Instead he has rewarded Israel with billions of dollars of continued military assistance, and caved in to pressure by backtracking on his original policy that a comprehensive settlement freeze be a prerequisite for resumed peace negotiations.

Though US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell hailed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ten-month freeze as an “unprecedented step to achieving peace,” facts on the ground showed otherwise. Netanyahu declared openly that settlement construction would resume at full pace after the elapse of the ten-month period.

This week, the Israeli Peace Now movement reported that construction in West Bank settlements currently outweighs that within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Journalist Gideon Levy hit the nail on the head when he described this freeze as “just another scene in Israel’s masquerade” in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

Obama also warned those who violate international law by “brutalizing their own people.” He said that there must be consequences for genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo or repression in Burma. He failed however to mention the brutalization of Palestinian citizens of Israel, the slow genocide in Gaza or the repression in the occupied West Bank.

A recent report by Israel’s Interior Ministry revealed that 4,577 Palestinians were stripped of their right to live in East Jerusalem in 2008, an all time record in 42 years of occupation. Residency revocation in Jerusalem last year was 21 times higher than the average over the last 40 years. Israel treats native Palestinians in East Jerusalem as if they were foreign residents whose presence can be revoked at will, even though these Palestinians did not come to Israel. Rather, Israel came and imposed itself on them with its internationally unrecognized annexation and occupation of the city from 1967 until present.

An Amnesty International study published in October accused Israel of denying Palestinians the right to access adequate water. While Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank have lush gardens and sparkling swimming pools, some 180,000 Palestinians have no access to running water. The report states that Israelis use up to four times more water than Palestinians, while the settler population alone uses more water than the entire West Bank Palestinian population of about 2.5 million.

Though his presidency terminated in January of this year, Mahmoud Abbas and his collaborationist Palestinian Authority (PA) continue to be propped up by the Obama administration. Obama preaches the value of democracy, yet his government fails to recognize the democratically-elected Hamas government. Instead, the US continues to endorse Israel’s siege on Gaza which has resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe of such proportion that some Gazans have even resorted to faking cancer in the hope of escaping the isolated coastal territory.

President Obama also stated in his speech that “I believe peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please, choose their own leaders or assemble without fear.” Perhaps he should have then taken the opportunity to mention the systematic repression of any outward opposition to the PA or Israel by PA security forces. Then again, if he did so, he would be forced to acknowledge that these very police are trained in their art by none other than US General Keith Dayton and funded by US taxpayers.

While he champions the right to freedom of worship, Obama avoids the fact that his “loyal and true friend,” Israel, routinely denies Palestinians the right to freely access the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. He criticizes Burma for its religious repression, but is silent on the continuous incursions into one of the world’s holiest sites for Muslims by the Israeli army and extremist settlers.

Obama claimed as a centerpiece of his foreign policy the need to “prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and to seek a world without them.” He reminded his audience that it was incumbent on all of them to ensure that Iran and North Korea do not “game the system.”

While his administration is leading the efforts to increase sanctions against Iran, we hear no mention of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, even though it has demonstrated time and again its brazen willingness to use grossly indiscriminate, deliberate and massive firepower on civilian targets, as witnessed in the 2006 Lebanon war and during last winter’s assault on Gaza.

The most disturbing aspect of President Obama’s speech however was its unabashed justification of war. The leader of the liberal, democratic free world was accepting the world’s most coveted peace prize. And the overarching theme of his address was that it was impossible to eradicate violent conflict. Obama’s colleagues in the Knesset may well have been pleased to hear this.

“There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified,” Obama said. This fatalistic attitude lends itself more to a Rumsfeld-Cheney “bombing for freedom” ideology than that of someone accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.

Furthermore, it sends a very dangerous signal to the Israeli government who know that they have America’s protection in institutions tasked with upholding international law. It provides no impetus for Israel to end its occupation, lift its draconian siege of Gaza or embrace the only viable option that it has left — peaceful transition that will protect the rights of Palestinians and Israelis within the framework of a secular, bi-national, democratic state.

In fact, it only further emboldens Israel to accelerate its process of ethic cleansing and colonization, and use military force to achieve these ends. Indeed, many Zionists believe that it is after all morally justifiable to use violence to rid “Greater Israel” of anyone who is not Jewish. The comments of Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi that the Israeli military’s “next round of hostilities will be even more intense” is quite revealing in this regard.

What is surprising, is that President Obama seems to realize the folly of his very own “just war” doctrine. Quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., he states that “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem. It merely creates new and more complicated ones.”

If any modern conflict has proven this to be incredibly accurate, it is that of the Israelis and Palestinians. No amount of arrest raids, land confiscation, home demolitions or massacres can bring about peace. These do not solve the social problems of dispossession, statelessness and disenfranchisement. Nor do they quell the desire for freedom and self-determination. Indeed, they only serve to create new and more complicated problems.

By Obama advocating war as an acceptable foreign policy, he is only serving to create new, more complicated problems in the Middle East. Instead of promoting the dead two-state solution with a moribund puppet regime, he should acknowledge the fundamental root cause of this conflict — that of the dispossession of a people from their native homeland. Without this, there will be no practical, attainable peace.

Sayed Dhansay is a South African human rights activist and independent freelance writer. He volunteered for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in 2006 and is an organizer of the South African delegation for the Gaza Freedom March. He blogs at