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 Occupation: The Missing Word
 Rachelle Marshall, US
 September 16, 2006

"Life under occupation is life under permanent terrorism." —Shai Carmeli-Pollak, Israeli film director and peace activist, quoted in the Israeli magazine, The Other Israel.

"We need security, but we do not need foreign troops and helicopters and tanks anymore." —Hajii Agha Lalai Dastagiri, member of the provincial council in Kandahar, Afghanistan, New York Times, May 26.

"It’s one of those things where we have become the enemy." —Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), speaking on CNN about actions of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

THE DATELINES may read Gaza, or Kandahar, or Samarra, but the events reported are the same: bombings, firefights, missile strikes, and civilian deaths. The violence in all three places comes in the aftermath of foreign invasion and occupation. Thousands of American soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan, along with hundreds of troops from Canada and Europe. Some 130,000 Americans are at war in Iraq. Heavily armed Israeli soldiers surround Palestinians in the West Bank, and Gazans hear the constant drone of Israeli aircraft. Yet the word “occupation” has disappeared from the news, supplanted by the “war on terrorism.”

The semantic black hole is especially apparent when it comes to Israel. To Washington and much of the mainstream American media, Israel is not fighting to keep control of someone else’s land, but is an ally defending itself from Palestinian terrorists. With Israel’s illegal occupation off the table, whatever punishment the Israelis inflict on the Palestinians becomes justified. As President George W. Bush said while the Israeli army was laying waste to the Jenin refugee camp in 2002, “Israel has a right to defend itself.”

That right as interpreted by the United States and Israel has allowed Israel to lock an entire population behind barriers and checkpoints, take their land and water, and destroy their homes and orchards. It also allows Israel to wantonly kill civilians with persistent shelling and by using missile strikes to assassinate suspected militants. Israel has fired 6,000 artillery shells into Gaza in the past year. On May 20, an Israeli missile aimed at a member of Islamic Jihad also destroyed a car carrying Hamdi Amen’s family, killing Amen’s wife, mother, and 2-year-old son. His 4-year-old daughter Maria remains paralyzed in an Israeli hospital, but Amen is not allowed into Israel to see her. The Defense Ministry has agreed to pay the $5,600 bill he owes the hospital.

On June 8 Israeli artillery shells killed five members of the Ghalya family and two other Palestinians who were picnicking at a Gaza beach (see story p. 10). On the same day, three more Palestinians lost their lives when an Israeli missile hit their family car. Less than a week later Israeli missiles aimed at militants exploded in a Gaza street, killing eight Palestinians and wounding 40 more. Israeli novelist David Grossman wrote in Ma’ariv that the Israeli army was “pounding Palestinians with the fixed movements of a heavy piston...pummeling them deeper into their humiliation and rage and desire for revenge.”

The election of Hamas members last January raised the specter of militants ruling the West Bank and Gaza, but as the Israeli publication The Other Israel pointed out, “An Israeli lieutenant in charge of a checkpoint has far more concrete power over daily Palestinian life than the whole of the Palestinian government.” Uncertainty and frustration are the staples of Palestinian life. Palestinians not only need permission to go to school, or to work or to a doctor, but they can be seized at any time and taken away for interrogation. According to The New York Times, the Israeli army arrests 10 to 30 people a night. Thousands of Palestinians are in prison.

Palestinians are also paying a heavy price for their vote in last January’s parliamentary elections. International donors cut off $1.6 billion in aid to the Palestinian Authority after the election of a Hamas-dominated government, and since then some 165,000 teachers, nurses, police, and other civil servants have gone unpaid. The earnings of public employees sustain nearly a third of the Palestinian population, so the loss of this income has forced many Palestinians to sell off their belongings just to buy food. A loan by the Bank of Palestine this spring enabled Hamas officials to pay a month’s salary to workers making less than $330 a month, but this was a one-time-only measure.

As word spread of a health care crisis in Gaza, the United States and Israel said they would send medical supplies to the Palestinians, but they offered no plan for delivering them to patients. The U.S. and Israeli ban on allowing any aid to be used for salaries under the Hamas government leaves open the question of how long hospitals and clinics can function while doctors, nurses, and maintenance workers go unpaid. Arab and European countries are prevented by U.S. sanctions from sending aid, but the Bush administration finally ruled that the Europeans could send emergency allowances to some Palestinians through the World Bank. Payments would be based on need and could not be used for salaries, but the mechanism for distributing it has yet to be worked out.

Washington’s message to the Palestinians is: give in to Israel or else. “There is no humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories,” a senior U.S. official said. “There is a political and security crisis, and the Hamas government has to make some responsible decisions how to handle it.” Those decisions, he said, are to recognize Israel and reject violence. In plain English, unless Hamas stops insisting on an end to the occupation, the United States and Israel will inflict as much suffering on the Palestinians as it takes to bring down the government.

While shunning the democratically elected Palestinian government, Washington gave Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a warm embrace when he visited on May 24. His speech to Congress drew 16 standing ovations, including prolonged applause when he said, “We will not yield to terror.” Bush called Olmert’s plan to set permanent boundaries between Israel and the Palestinians “an important step toward the peace we both support,” even though it calls for annexing to Israel the West Bank’s prime agricultural land and most of its water, and would crowd Palestinians into two or three truncated enclaves. According to one of Olmert’s aides, the plan will put a proposed Palestinian state “in formaldehyde.”

A Fatal Qualifier

Bush did urge Olmert to hold serious peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before acting unilaterally, and Olmert—who wants $10 billion in U.S. aid to finance his plan—agreed. Once he returned to Israel, however, he added a fatal qualifier. Before negotiations can begin, the prime minister declared, Abbas “has to impose on Hamas the acceptance of Israel and the recognition of all agreements signed with Israel, and the disarming of its militant groups.”

There is no way Abbas can do this short of civil war. Hamas leaders say they will not recognize Israel until Israel takes reciprocal action by agreeing to return the West Bank and Gaza, and Palestinians who are tired of false promises and false hopes support them.

The prospect of ending the cycle of violence became even dimmer on June 6 with Israel’s assassination of Hamas security chief Jamal Abu Samhadana. At his funeral, which took place a day after Israel killed 10 people in Gaza, thousands of angry Palestinians called for revenge, and Hamas’ military wing announced that it would end its 18-month unilateral cease-fire. Since then a Hamas rocket attack seriously wounded an elderly Israeli in the town of Sderot, and an Israeli official warned that Prime Minister Ismail Haniya would be a target of assassination if Hamas carries out a suicide bombing.

The murder of a prominent figure such as Samhadana was in line with Israel’s longstanding practice of sabotaging peace negotiations by provoking a new round of violence. Like any political organization, Hamas includes pragmatists as well as hard-liners. Prime Minister Haniyeh and Foreign Minister Mahmud a-Zahar have offered to make peace with Israel in exchange for a complete end to the occupation, but instead of responding to these offers Israel has reinforced the militants by assassinating their leaders. Meanwhile, the continuing violence enables Olmert and his American supporters to focus attention on terrorism rather than the real issue: Israel’s continued occupation.

The end of Hamas’s cease-fire also threatens to undercut cooperation between Hamas members and Israelis committed to nonviolence. The Other Israel described a demonstration in the town of al-Ram in late May that was led by peace activist Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom together with former Palestinian candidate for president Dr. Mustafa Barghouti and two Hamas officials, Sheikh Abu-Tir and Abu Arafah. Behind them came a thousand Palestinians and some 200 Israelis. Hamas members and Israelis treated one another with “marked friendliness,” according to the The Other Israel. The march ended when a large force of Israeli mounted police and soldiers fired salvos of tear gas canisters at the peaceful protestors and arrested several.

Another indication that Hamas would accept co-existence with Israel appeared when imprisoned Hamas leader Abdel Khaled Natche joined with fellow prisoners Marwan Barghouti of Fatah and Rassem al-Saadi of Islamic Jihad to draw up a plan that offers peace with Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal to its 1967 boundaries, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. Its call for a two-state solution was in line with previous statements by Hamas leaders offering recognition of Israel once the occuption is ended.

Representatives of Fatah and Hamas agreed on a draft statement in late June that was based on the prisoners’ proposal and therefore constituted implicit recognition of Israel. “We recognize the fact they exist,” Hamas legislator Mushir al-Masri said. “What we don’t recognize is the legitimacy of the occupation.” Sami Masharawi of Fatah put it more positively. “Hamas has recognized a state in the ‘67 borders,” he declared.

The show of unity defused a power struggle between Fatah and Hamas that earlier had erupted in street clashes in which at least 20 Palestinians were killed. Israel, which has everything to gain from conflict between Palestinians, took steps to make the fighting even deadlier. The day after Hamas forces fired rockets at Fatah headquarters in Gaza and Fatah members set fire to the parliament building in Ramallah, Olmert announced he was shipping $20 million worth of arms and ammunition to Abbas “so he can strengthen his forces against Hamas.”

Whether or not the Palestinians agree to recognize Israel, or are led by Hamas or Fatah, is irrelevant in any case, according to the Israeli magazine Challenge, because Israel will not yield. “It is clear by now that recognition and talks lead nowhere,” the editor wrote in a recent issue. “They won’t stop the separation barrier, won’t stop cantonization, won’t get rid of the settlement blocs, won’t free the prisoners, won’t bring back the refugees, and won’t lead to a real Palestinian state.”

What then will lead to a just solution to the conflict? George Bisharat, professor at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, believes action by President Bush could make a difference. Bisharat noted in a recent column in the San Francisco Chronicle that Israel doesn’t lack a Palestinian partner for peace, but “a Palestinian partner for surrender.” Bush must refuse to be a partner in this charade, he wrote, and instead “demand that Israel negotiate with the Palestinians in good faith and on the basis of international law.”

Bisharat also maintained that “Our standing in a critical region of the world will turn on the answer.” Many people in that region see U.S. support for Israel’s occupation as part of a broader effort by the United States to assert control over the Middle East—an effort that so far has proven disastrous. The U.S. invasions of Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003, got rid of brutal autocracies, but fractured existing political and social institutions and left in their place lawlessness, internal conflict, and what Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki recently called “a flood of blood.”

Al-Maliki was referring to the seemingly uncontrollable violence being carried out in Iraq by sectarian militias, by insurgents who target occupation forces and their suspected collaborators, and by common criminals. The government that Bush hailed last May as a “constitutional democracy at the heart of the Middle East” does not dare operate outside the U.S.-protected Green Zone and provides virtually no services to the Iraqi people. Even Iraq’s independence is a fiction of the Bush administration.

Byrwec Ellison pointed out in The New York Times after Bush’s surprise visit to Iraq on June 13 that an American president could fly into a country without the knowledge of that country’s leader “Only in a state occupied by the United States military. Only in a state whose airspace we control. Only in a state without real government autonomy or authority.” The situation is not likely to change soon. Under pressure from the Bush administration, Congress eliminated from the latest supplementary military appropriation bill a provision banning permanent U.S. bases in Iraq.

American forces are not protecting ordinary Iraqis from the violence, and in fact contribute to it with continuing raids and arrests. The reported murder by Marines of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha last November was noteworthy mainly because it was an act of willful brutality. Civilians have been shot by U.S. forces at checkpoints, during searches, or when they get in the way of a convoy. Thousands of Iraqis have died as the result of air strikes aimed at suspected insurgents. Al-Maliki publicly complained that U.S. troops “do not respect the Iraqi people. They crush them with their vehicles and kill them just on suspicion.”

Similar complaints are made against U.S. occupation troops in Afghanistan. After a runaway military convoy smashed into a line of cars just north of Kabul on May 28, killing five civilians, thousands of angry Afghanis rushed into the streets to protest. Popular opposition to the American military presence, and especially to the army’s use of air strikes that kill villagers, is at least partly responsible for the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan. Many Afghanis regard even the Taliban as preferable to the corrupt warlords who have taken their place.

The Bush administration’s overthrow of ruling regimes in Afghanstan and Iraq has not brought freedom to these countries but only continuing carnage. The U.S. military in these countries behaves less brutally than do Israeli forces in the West Bank and Gaza, but both are armies of occupation and as such a continuing source of resentment. There will be neither peace nor justice in the Middle East until they are withdrawn.

Rachelle Marshall is a regular correspondent for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, where this appeared in August, 2006.