Ethnic Cleansing and the "Moral
How the West and free press underwrote
Israel's ethnic cleansing
by Edward Herman
www.zmag.org, March 2006
One of the most dubious clichés
of the humanitarian intervention intellectuals and media editors
and pundits is that human rights have become more important to
the United States and other NATO powers and a major influence
on their foreign policy in recent decades. David Rieff writes
that human rights "has taken hold not just as a rhetorical
but as an operating principle in all the major Western capitals,"
and his comrade in righteous arms Michael Ignatieff claims that
our enhanced "moral instincts" have strengthened "the
presumption of intervention when massacre and deportation become
state policy." This perspective was built in good part on
the basis of the experience-and misreading-of developments during
the dismantling of Yugoslavia in the 1990s where the propaganda
line was that NATO had reluctantly and belatedly entered that
conflict to stop ethnic cleansing and genocide perpetrated by
the Serbs, and had done so successfully. This was allegedly an
intervention rooted in Blair-Clinton-Kohl-Schroeder humanism,
supported and pressed on these leaders by journalists and human
There are many things wrong with this
explanation and analysis of recent Balkan history, one of the
most important of which is that NATO intervention was not late.
It came quite early and was a primary cause of the ethnic cleansing
that followed. It encouraged a breakup of Yugoslavia in a manner
that left large unprotected minorities in the newly formed republics,
thereby assuring ethnic conflict. It sabotaged peace agreements
within these new states in the years 1992-1994 and it encouraged
non-Serb minorities to hope for NATO military aid in arriving
at final settlements, which they finally did get. NATO powers
even actively or passively supported the most complete ethnic
cleansings of the Balkan wars-which was of Serbs in Croatia's
Krajina area and Serbs in NATO-occupied Kosovo from June 1999.
There were other problems with the notion
that the NATO intervention in the Balkans had a humanitarian basis
and effect, but it is equally important to recognize the selectivity
in this focus and the political root of that selectivity. The
humanitarian interventionists were almost completely silent during
the 1990s massacres and deportations by Indonesia in East Timor,
the Turkish slaughters and village burnings in their Kurdish areas,
the killings and huge refugee exodus in Colombia, and the large-scale
massacres in the Congo, carried out in good part by invaders from
Rwanda and Uganda. For some reason the "moral instinct"
of the humanitarian politicians didn't reach these cases, where
the killers were allies of these politicians-and obtained arms
and military aid and training from them. Equally interesting,
the moral instinct of the humanitarian interventionist intellectuals
and journalists failed to override the biased focus of their political
leaders, but instead worked in parallel with those biases. This
helped their political leaders go after the targeted combatants
with greater violence, partly by diverting attention from the
approved villains and the damage they were inflicting on their
(implicitly unworthy) victims.
The Remarkable Case of Israel
The most interesting case of an aborted
"moral instinct" is that involving Israel, where the
state has been engaged in a systematic policy of dispossession
and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians on the West Bank and
in East Jerusalem for decades, not only without a meaningful response
on the part of the "free world," but with steady support
from the United States and spurts of approval and support from
its democratic allies. The ability of the Western political leaders,
media, and humanitarian intellectuals to get enraged at Arafat,
Chavez, and Milosevic, while treating Begin, Netanyahu, and Sharon
as statespeople deserving of economic and military aid and diplomatic
support, is a small miracle of self-deception, advanced double
standards, and moral turpitude.
What makes it a miracle is that the basic
premises, as well as the performance of the Israeli state, fly
in the face of the entire range of enlightenment values that supposedly
underlie Western civilization.
First, it is a racist state as a matter
of ideology and law. It is officially a Jewish state: 90 percent
of the land is reserved for Jews. Palestinians have been barred
from leasing or buying state-owned lands that were seized in 1948
and later and Jews from abroad have a right to immigrate and become
citizens with privileges superior to those of indigenous non-Jews.
This kind of ideology and law was unacceptable as regards the
apartheid state of South Africa, although it is interesting that
Reagan was "constructively engaged" with that state,
Margaret Thatcher found it quite tolerable, and South African
"anti-terror" operations were integrated with those
of the "free world." But the Israeli analogue of the
Nuremberg laws and its construction of a state built on racial
discrimination is acceptable to the enlightened West. The "chosen
people" replace the "master race." That is not
only acceptable, but Israel is held up as a model democracy and
"light unto the world" (Anthony Lewis). By implication,
Israel's creation of a body of humans who are second class citizens
by law (or of a still lesser class in the occupied territories)
is also acceptable. This is a unique system of "privileged
Second, the Israeli state has been allowed
to ignore numerous Security Council resolutions and the Fourth
Geneva Convention regarding its occupation of the West Bank, as
well as the International Court of Justice ruling on its apartheid
wall. It has been able to dispossess Palestinians of a large fraction
of their land and water, demolish thousands of their homes, cut
down many thousands of their olive trees, destroy their infrastructure,
and create a modern network of roads through the occupied West
Bank for Jews only while imposing serious obstacles to Palestinian
movement. This systematic ethnic cleansing has been implemented
by an extremely well trained and well equipped army working over
a virtually unarmed indigenous population to make room for Jewish
settlers-in violation of international law on the proper behavior
of an occupying power. This is a unique system of "privileged
ethnic cleansing," "privileged law violations,"
and "privileged exceptions to Security Council and International
Third, Israel has periodically crossed
its borders to make war on its neighbors-Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon-and
has engaged in supplementary bombing or acts of terrorism against
those three countries plus Tunisia and for many years has maintained
a terrorist proxy army in Lebanon while carrying out numerous
terrorist raids there under its Iron Fist policy, inflicting heavy
civilian casualties. While the 1982 invasion of Lebanon was proclaimed
to be in response to terrorist attacks, in fact it was based on
the absence of terrorist attacks (despite deliberate Israeli provocations)
and the fear of having to negotiate with the Palestinians rather
than continue to ethnically cleanse them. There was no punishment
or sanction against Israel for these actions, as Israel benefits
from a "privileged right to aggression, state terrorism,
and sponsorship of terrorism."
Fourth, given its right to ethnically
cleanse and terrorize in violation of Security Council resolutions
and international law, its victims have had no right to resist.
They may be pushed off their land, have their homes demolished,
olive trees uprooted, and their people killed by IDF and settler
violence, but forcible resistance on their part is unacceptable
"terrorism," to be "deeply deplored." A thousand
or so Palestinians were killed by Israelis during their first
and non-violent phase of resistance in the initial Intifada (1987-1992),
but their passive resistance had no effect on the illegal occupation.
The international community did nothing to alleviate their distress
and Israel had a tacit understanding with the United States that
it would be supported in its violent response to the Intifada
until that resistance was broken. The ratio of Palestinians to
Israelis killed in those years was 25 to 1 or higher, but it was
the Palestinians who were labeled as terrorists.
Fifth, the Israelis were also free to
put in charge of the state the person responsible for a string
of terrorist attacks on civilians and, at Sabra and Shatila, a
massacre of somewhere between 800 and 3,000 Palestinian civilians.
The Yugoslav Tribunal argued that genocidal intent could be inferred
from an action seeking to kill all the people of a given group
in one area, even if not part of a plan to kill all of them elsewhere,
citing their own earlier decisions, plus a UN Assembly resolution
of 1982 that the slaughter of 800 at Sabra and Shatila was "an
act of genocide." But that kind of Tribunal judgment was
applied only to target Serbs-it was not applied by the West to
Sharon and it didn't even interfere with his becoming an honored
head of state.
Sixth, with rights to ethnically cleanse
and terrorize, such invidious words were not considered applicable
to Israeli actions. They were, however, applied with great indignation
to Serb operations in Kosovo, which were features of a civil war
(stoked from abroad) and were not, as in the Israeli case, designed
to remove and replace an indigenous population in favor of a different
ethnic group. Israel had also been the beneficiary of the privileged
usage of the words "security" and "violence."
The Palestinians may be far more insecure than the Israelis and
subject to a much higher and more sustained level of violence,
but again it is the Palestinians who must reduce their resort
to violence and the big issue is how Israel can be made more secure.
Palestinian security is not an issue in the West because their
victimization is of no concern and because their insecurity is
a result of their failure to accept the ethnic cleansing process.
The ethnic cleansing process, which involves
wholesale terrorism, and is the causal force that has elicited
a responsive Palestinian retail terrorism, is actually put forward
(along with the wall), not as a deliberate program to "redeem
the land" for the chosen people, but as necessary to combat
"terrorism"-and the primary terrorists get away with
Seventh, Israel is the only Middle Eastern
state that has built up a stock of nuclear weapons and they have
been aided in this not only by the United States, but also by
France and Norway. This has happened despite the 39 years of ethnic
cleansing, record-breaking violations of Security Council demands
and international law, and periodic invasions of Israel's neighbors.
This privileged right to nuclear weaponry and exemption from the
jurisdiction of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Non-Proliferation
Treaty flows from Israel's other privileges noted earlier and
ultimately the protection and cover of U.S. power.
Eighth, the "free world" has
been aghast at the possibility that Iran might be positioning
itself to acquire nuclear weapons at some future date. Iran has
been threatened with "regime change" and bombing and
other attacks by both the United States and Israel, but because
Iran's actions conflict with the regime of privilege in which
only Israel (and its superpower underwriter) have a security problem
and right of self defense; others, like Iran, must cope with the
threat of attack and sanctions for engaging in legal actions and
possibly seeking nuclear means of self-defense, without help from
a "free world" busily appeasing the United States and
its Middle Eastern client. So Israel not only has a nuclear privilege,
it is privileged to be able to get the "free world"
to help it monopolize that privilege in the Middle East, which
of course gives it greater freedom to ethnically cleanse.
Ninth, the "free world" has
also been upset at the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian election
of January 25, 2006, in which Hamas won 76 out of a total of 132
seats in Parliament; Fatah won 43. It is widely held that this
new legal political power of Hamas may disturb the "peace
process," and George Bush is not prepared to negotiate with
a group that employs "violence." Violence, however,
is a Bush and U.S. specialty, with three major aggressions in
the last seven years and an openly announced program of domination
based on military superiority. Israel's operations in Palestine
are violent beyond anything the Palestinians have been able to
muster, although, in the ludicrously biased West, "suicide
bombing" is horrifying, whereas "targeted assassinations"
Hamas has grown in popularity because
Fatah and its leaders have failed to stop the ethnic cleansing
process and have been unable to halt a steady increase in Palestinian
misery, with Israel walking over Fatah's leaders and making their
tenure a complete failure. Hamas was actually funded by Israel
years ago with the objective of splintering the Palestinians and
weakening the secular Fatah. It succeeded in this, but now that
an Islamic group has taken on power, they and their patron will
be able to find another reason to avoid any final negotiated settlement
with the Palestinians who have voted in a party that does not
eschew violence-as Sharon and Bush have mythically done. Hamas
also refuses to disarm and insists on the right to defend its
people against a ruthless ethnic cleansing occupation, but in
the West this is unreasonable, as only one side has the right
to self-defense and a concern over "security." There
is no right to resistance in this case of shriveled moral instincts.
The "peace process" is an ultimate
Orwellism, which I defined years ago in a doublespeak dictionary
as, "Whatever the U.S. government happens to be doing or
supporting in an area of conflict at the moment. It need not result
in the termination of conflict or ongoing pacification operations
in the short or long term." So the "peace process"
in Palestine, steadily accepted or actively supported by the U.S.
government, has been characterized by intensified ethnic cleansing,
the destruction of the Palestinian infrastructure, the settlement
of some 450,000 Jews in the West Bank, the construction of an
apartheid wall, and the Israeli takeover of much of East Jerusalem-in
other words, the establishment by state terrorism of enough "facts
on the ground" to make any kind of viable Palestinian state
unthinkable. But for the propaganda organs of the "free world,"
there has been a meaningful "peace process" going on
that the election of Hamas might halt.
How Do We Explain This Hypocrisy?
This has all come about because the Israeli
leadership has wanted lebensraum for the chosen people, the indigenous
Palestinians have stood in the way and have had to be removed,
and the Israelis have been able to do this, with critical U.S.
military and diplomatic support. This process has fed on itself.
That is, the eventual Palestinian violent resistance, along with
Palestinian relative weakness and vulnerability, have exacerbated
the racist underpinning of the ethnic cleansing project with a
resultant increase in its savagery over the years, helped along
by Israel's elevation to its recent leadership of a major war
criminal. U.S. aid and protection in the project has been crucial,
as that has prevented any effective international response to
policies which violate basic morality as well as law and which,
if carried out by a target state, would result in bombing and
trials for war crimes.
The U.S. role, and the neutralization
of any "moral instinct" in the United States, results
in part from geopolitical considerations and the role of Israel
as a U.S. proxy and enforcer and from the ability of the pro-Israel
lobby and its grassroots and Christian right supporters to cow
the media and political establishment into tacit or open support
of the ethnic cleansing project. The lobby's tactics include aggressive
exploitation of guilt, with references to the Holocaust, identification
of criticism of Israeli ethnic cleansing with "anti-Semitism,"
along with straightforward bullying and attempts to stifle criticism
These efforts have been aided by 9/11
and the "war against terror," which have helped demonize
Arabs and make Israeli policy a part of that supposed war. The
lobby and its representatives in the Bush administration were
eager supporters of the attack on Iraq and they are now fighting
energetically for war against Iran-in fact the lobby is the only
sector of society calling for a confrontation with Iran and it
is planning a major campaign on Bush and Congress to get the United
States to take action. The Iraq war provided an excellent cover
for intensified ethnic cleansing in Palestine and a further war,
despite its serious risks, might help in a further phase of ethnic
cleansing and possible "transfer" of a population that
poses a "demographic threat."
The performance of the "international
community" in the face of the ethnic cleansing project has
been a disgrace. Gung-ho for war and trials of alleged villains
in ex-Yugoslavia, where the United States was pleased to oppose
ethnic cleansing, selectively, the EU, Japan, Kofi Annan, most
of the NGOs, and the Arab states have been gutless and their "moral
instinct" paralyzed by the U.S. commitment to Israel, the
strength of Israel and its diaspora, the Israeli exploitation
of Holocaust guilt, and the racist EU bias held over from the
colonial past and exacerbated by the flow of propaganda that features
"suicide bombers," not targeted assassinations, massive
and illegal brutalization, and land theft.
Palestine is a crisis area par excellence
where a virtually helpless people has been abused, humiliated,
and steadily displaced by force in favor of settlers protected
by a huge military machine, supplied in turn and protected by
the United States, and with the tacit agreement, if not more,
of the rest of the "free world." The big issue now for
the "free world" is, will Hamas behave and accept ethnic
cleansing (still in very active process) and possible bantustan
status at best or will it threaten to resist and to commit "terrorism?"
It is very important because several million
Palestinians are being immiserated in a tragic system of violence
that could be terminated easily by the United States and the international
community by threatening an end to aid and possibly sanctions.
The situation in Palestine is also very
important because hundreds of millions of Arabs and a billion
or more people of the Islamic faith, and billions beyond that,
interpret the West's treatment of the Palestinians as a reflection
of a racist and colonialist attitude toward Arabs, Islamists,
and Third World people more broadly. It is a producer of anti-Western
terrorism, but also, and even more importantly, a deep anger,
hatred, and distrust of the West and its motives. It is a cancer
that bodes ill for the future of the human condition.
Edward S. Herman is a media analyst, economist,
and author of numerous books and articles.
Edward S. Herman page