Palestine in the Crosshairs

by John Steinbach

CovertAction Quarterly, Spring 2002


Fifty four years ago Israel, in defiance of international law and U.N. resolutions, refused to readmit approximately 800,000 refugees expelled and displaced during the first Israeli/Arab conflict. In 1967, Israel conquered and occupied large areas of Palestinian land, creating approximately half a million more refugees, many for the second time. Today, about 4.5 million registered Palestinian refugees and a worldwide Palestinian nation of nearly eight million struggle for justice, human dignity, and self-determination. The Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) represents one of the last remaining instances of settler-state colonialism and the longest and largest unresolved refugee crisis since World War II.

Much of the blame for the Nakba and the prolonged occupation lays squarely at the feet of the US From the mid-1800s until present, a mixture of domestic and geo-political considerations has dictated US policy toward Palestine. Since 1948, the bi-partisan US position toward Palestine has varied from almost complete indifference, to affected humanitarian concern for refugees, to grudging recognition of sharply circumscribed national rights.

In sharp contrast, because of strategic and domestic considerations, US support for Israel has ranged from unconditional to mildly critical (on occasion and always temporarily), under nearly every circumstance superseding Palestinian rights and enabling and emboldening Israeli oppression. The loudly proclaimed notion that the US has been "evenhanded" or an "honest broker," let alone a "full partner" in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations is patently absurd.

Over a hundred years ago, negative Arab stereotypes and the notion that Christian Europeans were entitled to rule the "Holy Land" (Palestine) were already firmly entrenched in the popular imagination, an inheritance from their European forebears. "The European view, inherited by the Americans, was shaped by mostly hostile encounters with Middle East peoples beginning with the rise of Islam. ...Then the Crusades...intensified the hostility by whipping up emotions against Islam and Muslims."

By the mid-1880s, mainstream American evangelical Protestants, who equated themselves with the biblical Israelites, had conceived of the notion of Jewish return to Israel (as a precondition for the imminent second coming of Christ) before the Zionist Movement emerged in the late 19th Century. The nascent Zionist movement was only too happy to take advantage of fundamentalist Christian attitudes, an enduring alliance which has continued to the present.

After World War I, Woodrow Wilson, despite "a steady flow of reports" critical of the "Zionist project," approved of the British Balfour Declaration (1917), a document "drafted primarily by Zionist figures in the American government," that supported a "Jewish Homeland" in historic Palestine. At no point was the opinion of the Palestinians themselves ever considered. US Zionists Like Felix Frankfurter and Louis Brandeis "managed to institutionalize in American foreign policy in particular, and in American political thought in general, misinformation about Palestine as well as the denial of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination."

Although the Zionist movement still represented a minority of Jewish opinion in America and Europe up until WWII, over the next several decades, the Zionist lobby grew dramatically and had great influence on public and, especially, political opinion. In a portent of things to come, on the 25th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, 63 senators and nearly 200 representatives urged the establishment of a "Jewish National Home." "As the Jewish claim to Palestine rose to prominence in the minds of Americans, the knowledge that Arabs inhabited the land and also had a claim was generally pushed aside."

During the next twenty-five years the Palestinians were largely absent from US foreign policy considerations. US support for Israel continued and was consolidated, especially under Lyndon Johnson. It was during this period that Israel, with French and US complicity, emerged as a major military power and developed its nuclear capability. "Between 1964 and 1967...a new, unprecedented, covert military-security relationship (with Israel) was formed..."9


The 1967 War ended with Israel occupying the remaining parts of Palestine, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip containing more than one million Palestinians. The US response was an unprecedented increase in political, military and economic support for Israel, reflecting perceived increased Israeli strategic value. In 1968, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), under the leadership of Yassir Arafat's Fatah movement, became the recognized representative of the Palestinian people. Predictably, as the oppression mounted, so did PLO guerrilla actions against Israel and the world began to recognize the legitimacy of Palestinian national demands In a telling reaction to the PL0's growing power, Nixon instituted an official policy of implacable hostility toward Palestinian nationalism and a commitment not to recognize or talk to the PL0, a policy that continued nearly 20 years.

Jimmy Carter raised the ire of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other Zionist pressure groups when he expressed support for a "Palestinian Homeland" and criticized Israel's settlement policies. Despite Carter's relatively open-minded attitudes toward Palestine, it is important to understand that he never favored the creation of a Palestinian State, and did nothing to slow the settlements. US support for Israel continued to intensify during the Carter years, and the concept of Israel's "strategic indispensability...slowly became part of the body of US assumptions about Israel.''

The Reagan era represented "a quantum leap in efforts to promote Israel and delegitimize the Palestinians in the United States.'' Reagan saw Israel as a bulwark against communism and threatened to unleash its military might against the "Soviet proxy" Syria while Palestinians were relegated to the status of "terrorist bands." Illicit arms technology transfers to Israel resulted in a greatly enhanced Israeli military, and enabled the arming of repressive regimes world-wide which the US could no longer directly supply.

At the foreign policy level, Reagan maintained the basic US principles toward Palestine of no right to self determination, no independent state, no electoral franchise and no right of return. Ronald Reagan's extreme embrace of Israel and complicity in Israeli attempts to destroy the PLO in Beirut and Tunis, coupled with the ongoing settlement construction and the commensurate increase in Occupation brutality, led the Palestinian grassroots to rebel. The Intifada eventually required the permanent deployment of well over 100,000 Israeli troops, and the cost to Israel, both in dollars, casualties, and international opinion became prohibitive.

With the onset of the Intifada, for the first time the American public began to see the Palestinians as a distinct people with legitimate national aspirations. When a weakened and coerced Arafat and PLO were finally forced to concede to American dictates and renounce armed struggle, this and the Intifada exposed contradictions between Reagan and the Shamir government, ultimately leading to direct talks between the US and the PL0.

A broad range of pro-Israel groups and "front" groups coordinated by Israel and the AIPAC and supported by pro-Israel "think tanks" like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) organized a formidable strategy of intensive lobbying and financial support for Congressional supporters of Israel. According to the late Israel Shahak, "Major Jewish organizations support Israel as loyally and unconditionally as the Communist party for so long used to in regard to the USSR.'' Politicians who dared question US policy in the Middle East found themselves targeted by AIPAC and subsequently often defeated. It goes without saying that there is no remotely comparable Palestinian/Arab lobby.

A major front in the propaganda war was waged in the media where, historically, debate over Palestinian rights has been severely curtailed and almost entirely negative. From Time Immemorial (Harper and Row, 1984), the genocidal screed by Joan Peters, denied the Palestinians' very existence, yet became a bestseller and received virtually universal accolades in the mainstream media. When Israeli and European scholars revealed massive fabrication of evidence, omissions, misquotes, and plagiarism of discredited sources, "none of the publications which favorably reviewed it issued retractions."

The power of the Israeli lobby continues unabated. A typical recent triumph of the Zionist lobby is the October 20, 2000, House Resolution 426 expressing Congress' solidarity with Israel and condemning the Palestinian leadership for encouraging the violence that has erupted in the Middle East. The resolution failed to also condemn violence perpetrated by Israeli forces. Motion agreed to 365-30. The majority of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus supported the resolution.

No previous American President had been as reliably pro-Israel as was Bill Clinton. Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, was one of Israel's most avid supporters in Congress, and virtually his entire Middle East team read like a "Who's Who" of AIPAC and WINER From the start, the Oslo Peace Process was intended to result in a final settlement conforming to Israel's familiar "red lines"; no return to 1967 borders, no removal of settlements, no Palestinian Right of Return, no independent Palestinian state, and no shared Jerusalem, each point in direct violation of international law and UN Security Council resolutions. Israelis managed to get a weakened Arafat to sign the Oslo Accord. Clinton continued Reagan's and Bush's policy of putting "dialogue" with the PLO "at the service of Israel's game plan: talk inconclusively about procedures while Israeli force was systematically applied to crush Palestinian resistance and initiatives."

The Madrid "Peace Process," initiated by the US in 1991 directly in response to the first Intifada had stalled for two years. The problem was that Israel had (and has) absolutely no intention of relinquishing control of the Occupied Territories; the solution was Bill Clinton and 0slo. "A tacit understanding exists between Israelis and Palestinians who attended the secret negotiations (in Oslo) to the effect that no autonomy in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip can possibly materialize even if the Oslo Accord mandates it."

The Clinton-orchestrated "peace process" provided perfect cover to implement the policy formulated by Ariel Sharon in 1977 and elaborated on by radical fundamentalist settlers in the early 1980s. This plan, called the "Matrix of Control," called for the establishment of strategic hilltop settlements throughout the West Bank, to be connected by "bypassing roads" and reserved for the exclusive use of settlers and Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The purpose was described by Professor Tanya Reinhart as "envisaging the maximal defense of all existing settlements and the partition of the West Bank into (Arab) enclaves. Each enclave is to be surrounded by bypassing roads, settlements and Israeli Army fortresses....If Israel ever decides to withdraw its troops from any downtown (Arab) area...the Army will continue to rule that city from outside." Reinhart went on to conclude:

The meaning of the plan is that we will solve the problem of 2 million Palestinians in the Territories by imprisoning them in ghettoes, starving them and turning them into beggars. But instead of calling it 'an occupation' we will present it as a step toward a Palestinian State. We will crush Palestinian throats with our boots while smiling to them nicely

Peace Now and much of the Israeli "peace movement" avidly supported this racist Apartheid-like plan and pressured the Palestinian Authority (PA) to accept it. The fundamentalist settlers and Israeli radical right supported it privately and attacked it publicly in order to manipulate the Labor Party "doves." Shahak points out that it was the Labor Party "doves" who actually implemented the plan and that historically Labor has been "more noxious in terms of the actual oppression of its victims."

Implementation of the Matrix of Control was the tail that wagged the entire Clinton "peace process." It bought Israel seven years of feverish settlement activity (the number of Israeli settlers more than doubled between 1993 and 2001, an unprecedented rate) and enabled the construction of a web of security roads and Israeli Army forts. Only when the project was near completion and continued Israeli "control from the outside" was assured," did Barak present his "generous offer."

While the "peace process" and the Final Status Talks were ongoing, US economic and military aid to Israel continued to accelerate at an unprecedented pace. According to Richard Curtiss, US aid to Israel from 1949 to 1997 totaled over $134 billion, equal to $23,240 for each Israeli. Put another way, from 1949 to 1996 the total US foreign aid to Israel exceeded the total aid to all of sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean combined (total population 486 million). Israel receives more annual per capita aid than the GNP per capita income of Egypt despite the fact that it is "an advanced, industrialized, technologically sophisticated country, as well as a major arms exporter." The tired old argument that US aid is to ensure survival of the "tiny beleaguered" Israel is farcical; Israeli military forces are in the top ten worldwide, with an arsenal of hundreds of sophisticated nuclear weapons capable of reaching beyond Moscow.

The overriding strategic function to US aid to Israel is inextricably connected to access to Middle East oil and markets and the related repression of Arab nationalism. The development of a popular, class based pan-Arab movement capable of challenging western control of Middle Eastern oil is Washington's greatest nightmare. To ensure Israel's surrogate role as the overwhelmingly dominant power in the region, the US has provided it with the most advanced weaponry and technology, deliberately creating a military imbalance which the US has exploited by also selling generally less sophisticated weapons to its other client states in the region, making the Middle East by far the most lucrative market for the military-industrial complex.

Among its various strategic roles, Israel provides intelligence information, serves as a testing ground for new US weaponry, helps defeat radical national movements, and funnels arms to nations which the US cannot support directly (examples include the Nicaraguan Contras, Apartheid South Africa, Guatemala and El Salvador, Chile, and Iran). All this serves the interests of the weapons industry. "The Aerospace Industry Association...has given two times more money than all the pro-lsrael groups combined...the general thrust of US policy would be pretty much the same even if AIPAC didn't exist."

As the Oslo "peace" negotiations dragged on, Israeli settlement activity surged and Israel enjoyed seven years of unprecedented prosperity. Under the approving eyes of Washington, Israel expelled Palestinian workers, set up Maquiladora-like "industrial parks" in Gaza and the West Bank, and repeatedly curtailed movement within the Occupied Territories, while closing its borders to Palestinian workers; policies deliberately designed to make Palestine totally economically dependent.

On the ground the result was unprecedented Palestinian economic deprivation, with a 20% decrease in per capita income, skyrocketing unemployment and dramatic deterioration in its infrastructure and education system. Inevitably, grassroots Palestinian support for the "peace process" and the Palestinian Authority evaporated, leading directly to the second Intifada.

Yasser Arafat has come under intense pressure from the US and Israel to "crack down on 'terrorists'," but so far he has supported the Intifada while distancing himself from the radical Islamists. "Arafat does not control the Islamists, nor does he control the stone-throwing students and youths who constitute a disproportionate number of the dead and wounded."

Sharon's response to the second Intifada, with US approval, has been a policy of escalation of the occupation, punctuated by periodic provocations designed to elicit violent Palestinian response. For example, Arafat called for a cease-fire on December 16, 2001 and despite an actual increase in Palestinian deaths, three weeks of relative calm prevailed.

In mid-January, Sharon ordered the assassination of Khamis Ahmad Ali, a senior Fatah leader, resulting in a renewed Palestinian uprising, precisely Sharon's intention. Arafat has been held under house arrest and Israel has attempted his assassination with many unsuccessful helicopter and tank attacks on his headquarters while holding him prisoner. There have been widespread invasions of Palestinian territory, including downtown Gaza City, Bethlehem, Ramallah...and the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian homes and businesses. Rocket attacks from Apache helicopters and F-16 fighters have destroyed much of the Palestinian infrastructure, including Gaza Airport and Seaport. The long-standing Israeli campaign of political assassinations and attacks on Palestinian police has intensified.

Sharon's intentions are transparently obvious. By isolating Arafat and attacking the Palestinian Authority, and by systematically assassinating the leadership of the secular groups like DFLP and PFLP in the last twelve months, Sharon is attempting to create a political vacuum that would be filled by an insurgent Hamas and Hezbollah, turning what has historically been a secular conflict into an increasingly religious one. Sharon can then claim, as is already the case, that he has no "peace partner" to negotiate with and, consequently, that Israel has no recourse except to take unilateral action to create "buffer" zones, annex large areas of the Occupied Territories and turn them into a war zone resembling southern Lebanon, all the while continuing settlement building and infrastructure expansion.

As of early 2002, Sharon has openly admitted his intentions about the future of Israel by introducing the term "transferring." He intends to make existence for Palestinians in the occupied territories and Israel itself so miserable as to force them to flee. This plan will make hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into refugees twice removed. Anywhere else in the world, this practice is called ethnic cleansing. The silence of the Western media on the subject is deafening.

Abetting Sharon's schemes, Washington has broadened and intensified a propaganda campaign designed to undermine and isolate Arafat.


Beginning with the installation of the Saud family in the 1920s, Western Imperialism has a long and sordid history of promoting reactionary political Islam to counter nationalism and secular democratic movements in the Middle East. Following the Second World War, the strategy shifted to include countering perceived Soviet influence and containing anti-colonial and anti-imperialist pan-Arab secular nationalism. Present manifestations of this policy are readily apparent in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kosovo, and the former Soviet republics. "Political Islam traps the people it victimizes and makes them powerless in the face of the challenges of liberal capitalist globalization, and that this suits dominant capital's purpose.

An independent secular-democratic Palestine would be a powerful symbol that could weaken Western control of the region and its resources. In order to prevent this, Israel borrowed a page from the US by tacitly supporting and enabling Hamas in the 1980s, thus driving a wedge between the secularists and Islamists, fomenting discord and weakening the resistance. Coupled with Israel's strategy of decapitation of the secular leadership with a protracted campaign of political assassinations (greatly accelerated during the past 18 months), the result has been to threaten the Palestinian political infrastructure.

If the Palestinian resistance assumes a more fundamentalist religious character of its own (an outcome which would doubtless please at least some on the Israeli right), Israel, driven by its own fundamentalist settler-colonial logic (Zionism), may attempt to use such a development to justify even more draconian measures of oppression.


Israel's strategic role has taken on even greater importance in the aftermath of 911. The current war hysteria driving US policy dictates increased unilateralism, as elucidated by George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech especially targeting Iraq. Conventional wisdom no longer questions whether, but only when, to attack Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. Unlike the Gulf War, however, it is unlikely that the US can count on substantial international support.

If the US attacks Iraq unilaterally, Israel's position as the dominant power in the region would be emphasized. "Protection" of Israel from Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction" will undoubtedly be a large part of the initial justification. The presumed Israeli role in the new Iraq war would be to provide intelligence and logistical support and, especially, to discourage other Arab states from interfering militarily on Iraq's behalf by brandishing the threat of retaliation, above all with nuclear weapons.

During the Gulf War, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney threatened, " I assume [Saddam] knows that if he were to resort to chemical weapons, that would be an escalation to weapons of mass destruction and that the possibility would then exist, certainly with respect to the Israelis, for example, that they might retaliate with unconventional (nuclear) weapons as well." It is significant that, during the 1967 and 1973 wars, the US and USSR went on high nuclear alert. "Should war break out in the Middle East again... or should any nation fire missiles against Israel, as the Iraqis did, a nuclear escalation, once unthinkable except as a last resort, would now be a strong probability.''

The proposal by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah for permanent "peace" based on Israeli withdrawal to 1967 borders in return for diplomatic recognition by the Arab states and "normalization" is being lauded as a "breakthrough." Although it

Jerusalem, and apparently makes no mention of the Palestinian right of return, it is unlikely that Israel, especially under Sharon, will respond favorably. Typically, the Israeli response to seemingly innumerable Arab peace proposals over the years is to feign interest, study it, and ultimately reject it. The real significance of the Saudi proposal is that it illustrates the level of panic prevailing among the Arab monarchs in the wake of the warm popular response to Osama bin Laden's demands for US evacuation from Saudi Arabia, Palestinian autonomy, and an end to the puppet regime of the House of Saud.


The U.N. Security Council Resolution 1397 of March 14, 2002 "affirming a vision of a region where two states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side within secure and recognized borders," was introduced by the US in the face of mounting international condemnation of the current military campaign against the Palestinians, the largest and deadliest since 1967.43 Vice-President Dick Cheney's mission to the Middle East designed to whip up support for the "war on terrorism" and especially for the impending war against Iraq had encountered a stone wall, making it clear that there was little or no appetite for US war plans.

The UN resolution, the visit by US negotiator General Anthony Zinni, and recent statements by the State Department mildly critical of Israel are mendaciously designed to temporarily appease Arab and European discontent with the carnage in the Occupied Territories in order to gain support for an invasion of Iraq. Israel has repeatedly made clear that it has no intentions of permitting a truly independent Palestinian state. A potential silver lining in the resolution is that, for the first time, the Security Council is formally on record supporting the concept of a sovereign Palestine, enhancing Palestinian credibility.

In the opinion of Professor Naseer Aruri, "The anti-war movement never had a problem supporting liberation movements in Vietnam, Central and South America, South Africa and elsewhere; but regarding Palestine there is a problem. This is due to a variety of factors, including fear of being labeled anti-semitic, and fear of losing funding. Broad segments of the American Peace Movement come dangerously close to acquiescence in Israeli War Crimes. It is an uphill struggle to build a grassroots movement to end the occupation and challenge US support for Israel, but it is not impossible. "

The situation for Palestine has become increasingly desperate. The Bush policy of "hands off" while blaming the Palestinians for escalating violence (overwhelmingly affecting Palestinian civilians), conforms precisely to Israel's strategy of creating "facts on the ground," making any future negotiated settlement problematical. With Israel appropriating 80% of West Bank aquifer water and controlling much of the most fertile land, it is abundantly clear that any presently conceivable future Palestinian state would be "independent" in name only. Even if Israel were to completely withdraw to pre-1967 borders as required by law, a Palestinian "state" comprising only 22% of historic Palestine (less than 1/2 the UN-partitioned Arab land in 1948), would present serious questions of viability.

Considering that Israel has an absolute obligation under the Fourth Geneva Convention to readmit Palestinians expelled in 1948 and 1967, the inherently racist concept of Israel as "a State of the Jews" rather than a state of all its citizens is unviable. According to Professor Shahak, "Discrimination, amounting to a form of apartheid, but one based on religion not on race, is inherent in the character of Israel as a 'Jewish State'." The only option that fully satisfies International Law is the establishment of a secular democratic, or binational state.


John Steinbach is an activist/researcher with Gray Panthers of Metro Washington, and a longtime Palestine Solidarity activist.

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