Bullshit Philosophy

Half-assed political and religious commentary from a cynical left-winger

Posts Tagged ‘Israel/Palestine’

Irish Peace Activist Speaks About Gaza Flotilla

Posted by Kevin on August 22, 2012

[Note: This is the second of two articles I wrote on behalf of Law Students for Justice in Palestine, a student group of which I was an officer during my time at Vermont Law School. I was relatively happy with how they turned out and thought sharing them here would be a good way to break my nearly two-year absence from blogging. This originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of The Forum, the VLS student newspaper, and can be found here (PDF, starting on p.1). For the first article, see here.]

On May 31, 2010, Israeli helicopters and assault boats attacked a multinational flotilla en route to the Gaza Strip in international waters. The ships carried humanitarian aid, and the human rights activists on board intended to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. The most notorious aspect of the attack was the boarding of the Turkish-flagged ship Mavi Marmara, in which Israeli commandos killed nine passengers, including 19-year-old U.S. citizen Furkan Dogan.

One eyewitness to Israel’s attack on the Freedom Flotilla was Fiachra O’Luain, an Irish citizen who acted as second mate on the American-flagged ship Challenger I. O’Luain spoke at VLS on Jan. 12 at an event hosted by Law Students for Justice in Palestine (LSJP), discussing his experiences on the flotilla and his subsequent abduction to Israel.

Israel’s land, air and sea blockade, begun in 2007 following the takeover of Gaza by the militant group Hamas, has drawn widespread international condemnation as collective punishment against the people of Gaza. Despite claims that the blockade was necessary for self-defense and aimed primarily at keeping weapons from entering Gaza, the Israeli government has blocked shipments of food, medicine, construction materials, and various other civilian goods. The people of Gaza are still reeling from Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s late 2008 – early 2009 invasion, which left up to 1400 Palestinians dead and devastated Gaza’s economy and civilian infrastructure.

Wanting to raise awareness of the plight of the Palestinians, O’Luain joined the Freedom Flotilla in attempting to break the Israeli blockade. In explaining why he became interested in the conflict, he compared the fight for Palestinian freedom to the history of liberation struggles in Ireland. He also cited the use of Irish passports by agents of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, in the 2010 assassination of a senior Hamas official in Dubai as a reason why the Irish should pay particular attention to Israel’s actions.

The flotilla participants were initially optimistic about their chances of success, O’Luain said. Several previous aid convoys had managed to enter Gaza by both land and sea, and they did not think that Israel would use deadly force against a nonviolent humanitarian aid flotilla that included journalists, politicians, and prominent peace and social justice activists. As a result, the attack on the Mavi Marmara came as a shock, he said. He and the rest of the Challenger I crew could hear the gunfire as Israeli forces boarded the ship, and urgently tried to warn them that the passengers were unarmed, he said.

Many of the details of what transpired on the Mavi Marmara are disputed. An Israeli inquiry into the attack claimed that the soldiers acted in self-defense, but the passengers maintained that the soldiers showed little concern for innocent life, firing live ammunition both before and after landing on the ship. It is clear that the passengers fought the commandos, but there is little publicly-available evidence that they were armed with anything other than improvised weapons. The Israeli narrative dominated mainstream media coverage of the attack, in large part because, as O’Luain noted from his own experience, Israeli forces carefully worked to confiscate photos and video possessed by the flotilla participants. In fact, O’Luain argued that Dogan, who was later determined to have been shot in the head at close range, was targeted because he was carrying a camera.

Eventually, the other ships in the flotilla were captured and towed to the port of Ashdod in Israel. The passengers of the Challenger I formed a human chain to prevent being taken off the ship, O’Luain said, but they were eventually forcibly removed. O’Luain said that he and other flotilla participants were beaten and threatened at gunpoint while in Israeli custody, and held incommunicado for several days; he showed obvious discomfort discussing his imprisonment. He refused to sign deportation papers, fully intending to contest the proceedings against him on the ground that he had not entered Israel voluntarily. Despite this, he was eventually forcibly flown out of the country along with other international activists.

International reaction to the attack on the Freedom Flotilla was swift and fierce. Although the Obama administration fully supported Israel’s actions, many other countries criticized the attack. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay described Israel’s blockade as illegal and criticized Israel for using disproportionate force against the flotilla. The harshest denunciation came from Turkey, which unlike the United States took issue with its citizens being killed on the Mavi Marmara. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described the attack as “state terrorism”, and Turkish-Israeli relations reached a historic low point.

The attack on the flotilla resulted in an investigation by the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC). O’Luain testified to an HRC fact-finding mission, and the commission’s report published in September 2010 condemned Israel’s use of force as “not only disproportionate to the occasion but demonstrat[ing] levels of totally unnecessary and incredible violence.” O’Luain’s evidence was also used in a separate inquiry into the attack commissioned by U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki-moon: the so-called “Palmer Report”, named after former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, who headed the committee that produced it.

The Palmer Report, which declared Israel’s blockade legal and questioned the motives of the Freedom Flotilla, was criticized by some observers as a whitewash. O’Luain compared the report to the Widgery inquiry into the infamous Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972, which exonerated the British military for the killing of civil rights protestors in Northern Ireland. He accused the Palmer inquiry of being more concerned with repairing relations between Israel and Turkey than reporting the truth about the attack on the flotilla.

O’Luain, ready to take a break from activism following his experiences with the flotilla, plans to pursue a Master’s degree in Development Practice at Trinity College in Dublin.


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“Refusal to be Displaced” is Nonviolent Resistance

Posted by Kevin on August 22, 2012

[Note: This is the first of two articles I wrote on behalf of Law Students for Justice in Palestine, a student group of which I was an officer during my time at Vermont Law School. I was relatively happy with how they turned out and thought sharing them here would be a good way to break my nearly two-year absence from blogging. This originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of The Forum, the VLS student newspaper, and can be found here (PDF, p.22). I have edited it slightly for stylistic reasons. For the second article, see here.]

Palestinian professor Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh has been involved with opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestine his whole life. “Just by being born” near Bethlehem in the West Bank, “I was participating in nonviolent resistance,” he said, as a result of continuing to live in an area which Israeli authorities have long been allegedly trying to ethnically cleanse of its Palestinian inhabitants.

Qumsiyeh spoke at VLS on March 28 at an event hosted by Law Students for Justice in Palestine (LSJP). He is a professor at Bethlehem and Birzeit Universities, chairman of the board of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement Between People, and coordinator of the Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements in Beit Sahour. His most recent book is “Popular Resistance in Palestine: A History of Hope and Empowerment”.

Contrary to the typical mainstream media portrayal of Palestinian resistance as exclusively violent (involving heavy reference to suicide bombings, rocket attacks, and armed groups such as Hamas), Qumsiyeh argued that such acts are exceptions. He identified roughly fifteen major Palestinian uprisings between the 1880s and the present (and thinks another is coming soon), all of which he said were overwhelmingly nonviolent even as the authorities often used violence in response.

One common method of nonviolent resistance used by Palestinians is demonstrations. Qumsiyeh frequently participates in protests against Israel’s wall, the proposed and partially-completed route of which effectively annexes West Bank territory in many areas and frequently cuts residents off from their land and livelihoods. “I’ve been in the U.S. four weeks and I’m already missing the smell of tear gas,” Qumsiyeh joked. He noted that protests are often violently suppressed by the Israeli military, with demonstrators beaten and sometimes killed. “Colonizers aren’t about to let any resistance go on,” even if it is nonviolent, he said.

Palestinians also engage in civil disobedience against the occupation. As an example of this, Qumsiyeh cited the closure of Palestinian schools by Israeli authorities during the First Intifada (a major Palestinian uprising that began in 1987). In response, Palestinians continued running and attending schools clandestinely, running the risk of jail time if caught.

Ultimately, violence on either side is just a symptom; the root cause of the violence is “apartheid and ethnic cleansing,” Qumsiyeh said. He argued that a true resolution of the conflict requires respect for what he noted were “four words that couldn’t be found” in the “road map” for peace outlined by former President George W. Bush: human rights and international law.

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Statement from Bernie Sanders on Gaza

Posted by Kevin on February 7, 2009

Last week I finally heard something back from the office of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on Israel’s attack on Gaza:

Thank you very much for contacting me about the recent Israeli incursion into Gaza that resulted in the loss of hundreds of Palestinian lives. I appreciate the opportunity to respond to you on this important issue.

As you know, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been of the world’s most difficult disputes over the last half century. The hatred, violence and loss of life that define this conflict make living an ordinary life a constant struggle for both peoples. This crisis not only endangers the Middle East but also creates enormous instability throughout the region and ultimately, the world.

Recently, this decades-old conflict spilled over once more as Israel launched a major military campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip in order to counter Palestinian rocket fire into its cities and, more broadly, to significantly weaken Hamas rule in Gaza. Tragically, the operation resulted in more than 1,200 Palestinian deaths, the majority of whom were civilians. Thirteen Israelis also lost their lives in the battle before both sides declared temporary cease-fires.

While I fully support Israel’s right to defend itself from the constant barrage of rockets Hamas fires into its homes and urban centers, I have strongly condemned the use of violence by either side as a means for achieving its goals. Leaders on both sides must recognize that the only solution to this conflict is thorough a political process that recognizes the Palestinian right to self-determination and the right of Jews to a safe and secure homeland in Israel.

Unfortunately, the approach of the Bush administration over the last eight years has been one of disengagement from the conflict and complacency with the status quo. This approach has been shown to be not just ineffective, but detrimental to achieving the long-term goals each side seeks. Worse yet, the United States’ inaction on this issue has consistently been out of sync with our allies and has weakened the international coalition’s efforts to resolve this conflict.

That is why I wholeheartedly support the new Obama administration is its commitment to expand our diplomatic presence in the region and to take a more active role in facilitating negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. To that end, President Obama recently appointed Senator George Mitchell as a Special Envoy to the Middle East. I believe Senator Mitchell is uniquely qualified for this role due to his ability to listen to both sides in conflicts, his non-confrontational manner and his years of experience in negotiating peace agreements.

Moving forward, the United States must again be a leader in helping bring both sides together to negotiate a final status agreement. We must work with those Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are truly committed to peace, security and statehood rather than empty rhetoric and violence. We must also enlist the help of the United Nations and the international community to lend support for a two-track process that provides the Palestinians with a state of their own while ensuring the security of the Israeli people.

A two-state solution must include compromises from both sides to achieve a fair and lasting peace in the region. The Palestinians must fulfill their responsibilities to arrest terrorists, confiscate terrorists’ weapons, dismantle terrorist organizations, halt all anti-Jewish and anti-Israel incitement, and recognize Israel’s right to exist. In return, the Israelis must end their policy of targeted killings, prevent further Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes, businesses and infrastructure.

Further, instead of being used as a political football, the Palestinians should be given the financial support of wealthy Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as the rest of the international community. Frankly, I have little respect for the leaders of wealthy Arab countries who express great concern about the plight of the Palestinians, while they put billions in Swiss bank accounts. Economic assistance is desperately needed to help create jobs and improve the desperately low standard of living that afflicts so many Palestinians.

I have long believed that one of the best antidotes to war and international tension are citizen exchange programs. In many instances, when people of different backgrounds get to know each other on a personal and human level, differences of opinion can be worked out or, at least, a mutual understanding can be established.

To that end, I was proud to sign a letter last year calling for $20 million in funding for the Israeli-Palestinian Peace, Reconciliation and Democracy Fund, which helps support “through Palestinian and Israeli organizations, the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of the press, and non-violence among Palestinians, and peaceful coexistence and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.” Included is $10 million for the People-to-People Exchange Program, which among other things, trains hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian teachers in peace education.

While I was in the U.S. House of Representatives, I was also very pleased to introduce and pass legislation that established the Arab-Israeli Peace Partners Program in Vermont. This program allocated $1.5 million over a two-year period to enable Arabs and Israelis to come to the United States to work together in our local communities, and develop ways to expand democracy and the peace process.

With the help of the United Nations and the international community, we must intensify our diplomatic efforts to bring peace to this embattled region. Rest assured, I will continue to support the Palestinian right to national sovereignty while at the same time ensuring the security of Israel. In addition, it is essential that we work toward improving human rights in the region and provide economic support if we are to achieve our political goals.

There’s some good and some bad in here. Overall, I’m happier with Sanders’ statement than with Welch’s, or with what I heard on the visit to Leahy’s office (or the visit to Sanders’ office, for that matter). But I do have some problems.

I’ll deal with the good news first. He makes note of the civilian nature of most of the Palestinian casualties, something not many in his position have been willing to do. And he shows a slight willingness to criticize Israeli actions and point out how their actions are counterproductive. I basically agree with his point about Arab governments that only pretend to care about the Palestinians, as well as his remarks on Bush’s policies. He doesn’t go nearly as far as I’d prefer on any of the above – he doesn’t seem to be willing to stick his neck out very far – but it’s something. At least he’s a lot more detailed and specific on the matter than Welch.

Probably my biggest gripe is Sanders’ apparent embrace of a key piece of Israeli framing of the conflict: Hamas started it! The attack was primarily “to counter Palestinian rocket fire into its cities,” he says (leaving out the fact that it was planned months ago, ready to be executed when an appropriate excuse could be found). And then there’s this egregious piece of hyperbole, referring to “Israel’s right to defend itself from the constant barrage of rockets Hamas fires into its homes and urban centers”. I’ve already written about the tendency of him and others to massively overstate the effect and importance, and to ignore the causes, of Hamas’ rocket attacks in the process of decrying what “both sides” are doing. Sanders here comes pretty close to saying – whether he realizes it or not – that Gazans brought it on themselves, that they have no right to resist occupation.

[To make myself clear, I’m not saying I think the rocket attacks are justified, just that it’s pretty minor compared to what Israeli forces regularly do. It’s incredibly frustrating to see bottomless emphasis placed on Hamas “terrorism” which poses no existential threat to Israel, while much greater Israeli crimes are barely mentioned and often rationalized.]

Regarding the necessary compromises Sanders outlines toward the end, I don’t have a major beef with it (although I might come back to it in a later post). My only quibble is with the idea that the Israelis should “prevent further Israeli settlements on Palestinian land”. Well, not with the idea itself, but with the implicit notion that the settlements already there are fine. And with the concept that even just not building more of them is a concession of any sort on the part of Israel. I don’t remember where I read it, but someone once suggested that dismantling the settlements, every last one of which is on stolen land, isn’t a concession any more than it would be for a thief to return stolen jewels. It’s just the bare minimum they should be expected to do.

I don’t really have an opinion one way or the other on the citizen exchange programs Sanders talks about. My gut response is that it’s not a bad idea, but I wonder about its long-term effectiveness. Does anyone else have an opinion?

Also important is what Sanders doesn’t say. Not a word about the ongoing blockade. Not a word about Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure during the conflict, like police and schools. Not a word about white phosphorus. Not a word about the role of US military aid in conflict. And not a word about why he supported (or at least wouldn’t publicly oppose) the noxious Senate resolution granting 100% support to Israel.

I want to be clear at this point that while I’m certainly nitpicking, I’m not being a perfectionist about this issue; I recognize that any politician that fully embraces my position is going to be a virtual pariah to the DC establishment (sure there’s Kucinich, who I still admire, but no one really takes him seriously), and there’s not exactly a lot of people to support someone willing to stick their neck out, so I realize that the muddled positions like the ones I’ve been critiquing are probably the best we’re going to get absent some large public outcry that doesn’t appear to be forthcoming. But I still think it’s important for those against Israel’s occupation to voice criticisms even when a given position, like Bernie’s, is better than those of the sociopaths running both the Democratic and Republican parties (and we should of course praise them when they do give us something better, as I’d like to think I’m doing here). If no one is at least talking about justice for the Palestinians, that guarantees it will never happen.

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As if to prove my point…

Posted by Kevin on January 27, 2009

…from yesterday, in regard to Israel/Palestine (namely, that there isn’t a clear reason to be hopeful for a substantive change in U.S. policy), we get this from The Guardian:

The Obama administration appears intent on trying to help the Palestinians while at the same time being seen not to abandon its traditional support for Israel. The new US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, reassuring Israelis, today backed the Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

“We support Israel’s right to self-defence. The [Palestinian] rocket barrages which are getting closer and closer to populated areas [in Israel] cannot go unanswered,” Clinton said in her first news conference at the state department.

She added: “It is regrettable that the Hamas leadership apparently believes that it is in their interest to provoke the right of self-defence instead of building a better future for the people of Gaza.”

It doesn’t seem at this point that the Obama administration is willing to publicly criticize any Israeli action. Clinton’s remarks are hardly surprising; to my knowledge she’s never seen an Israeli massacre she didn’t like. But, some might say, maybe Obama will push for a just settlement for the Palestinians behind the scenes. Well, I’ll believe it when I see it. But if that’s the case, he’s only making it harder for himself in the long run by embracing Israeli framing of the conflict.

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“Cynical Obama hater”?

Posted by Kevin on January 26, 2009

The title for this post comes from an email I received a few days ago, presumably from a reader, who had the following to say:

You should really stop being such a cynical Obama hater, you know, the best way to make sure nothing good happens is to keep telling yourself only bad things are going to happen under Obama. Why don’t you try to make things better, have some optimism already!

I didn’t really want to respond at first because I thought it was kind of a ridiculous assertion and I wasn’t sure it was worth taking the time to respond to, but on further reflection I realized that a reply might help to clarify a few things and keep him and others from misunderstanding my frequent criticism of Obama and the Democratic Party.

So, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a cynical Obama hater. I guess I can’t really reject the cynical part; it’s right in the name of the blog after all! I guess I am pretty cynical in the sense that I’m suspicious of the motives of Obama and the Democratic Party, and think Obama’s reputation in some quarters as a great progressive champion is almost entirely undeserved, but I’d say my cynicism is with good reason. The last time I was somewhat optimistic about the Dems was in 2006, when they took back Congress; a fat lot of good that did me. They couldn’t manage to stop or even slow down many of the Bush administrations crimes, and in many cases were complicit in them – this includes Obama. So you’ll have to forgive me for not taking them at their word that things are going to be different now, that Obama isn’t just another mushy-middle centrist politician. I’ll believe it when I see it.

As for being an Obama hater, that to me would be someone who criticizes Obama more or less no matter what he does, and I don’t really think that applies to me. I’m definitely an Obama critic, but I won’t deny that there have been encouraging signs from Obama in his first few days in office. The question is whether he’ll keep it up, or if he’ll come under the sway of the neoliberal and/or hawkish advisers he’s surrounded himself with as time goes on.

[That’s already pretty much happened on economic policy, as Obama’s top priority seems to be handing another $350 billion to Wall Street. Because that worked out so well the last time!]

For instance, it’s undeniably good that Obama issued an order on day one to close Guantanamo (and while we’re on the subject, that Obama’s appointed a number of people to the Justice Department and especially to the Office of Legal Council who oppose torture as well as the Bush admin’s monarchical view of executive power), but it’s still unclear what system the detainees will be tried under. What have we really gained if, as some are advising him, he just ends up trying the detainees in “national security courts” where “tainted” evidence (i.e. stuff gained through torture) can be used?

Likewise, I don’t know enough about the guy one way or the other to say for sure, but it seems encouraging that Obama picked George Mitchell for his Mideast envoy, showing that he might be more evenhanded in his approach to the Israel/Palestine conflict than his predecessors. And he just remarked in a speech today that the Gaza blockade should be ended. Still, this is Obama’s only concrete statements on the issue so far, and it’s still an open question as to what he’s actually going to do about any of it. Given both Obama’s past hostility to the Palestinians and that of many of the people around him (i.e. Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emmanuel), once again, I’ll believe it when I see it.

That said, I certainly do tend to come down pretty hard on the Dems on this blog, probably harder than I do on Republicans/conservatives, but it’s not because I’m implacably opposed to the Dems or something. Rather, I’m just frustrated at the fact that they’re frequently in a position to implement progressive policies, or to stop conservative ones, but choose not to. You don’t bring about change in that fact by being a groupie, you do it by criticizing them and/or withdrawing support when they do bad things and only praising them when they deserve it.

It also has to do with my desire to offer something in my writing that other people aren’t already saying, and let’s face it, there’s no shortage of groups and blogs to cheerlead for the Dems.

I will say that, as a Green Party supporter, there’s a danger for us in being perceived as too close to being “Obama haters.” One Democratic criticism I heard during the 2008 election campaign went something along the lines of, “Greens aren’t going to vote for a Democrat anyway, so there’s no point in courting them.” Being perceived as too knee-jerk critical could make it easier to write us off.

However, I think Obama lovers pose a much bigger threat to the progressive movement than the Obama haters. An Obama lover is the opposite of our earlier definition: this is someone who supports Obama and the Dems pretty much no matter what they do. These are the people like my father-in-law who, when faced with Obama’s vote for the FISA bill, immediately did a 180 in their position on warrantless wiretapping, or at least stopped seeing it as such a big deal.

This faction of progressives, the Cult of Obama Worship as I call it, has been the main source of my frustration in recent months. Obama is going to be under enormous pressure to maintain the status quo, and no change is going to happen if the pressure is only coming from the establishment forces. If you really want him to do good things, then the best thing you can do for him is to hold his feet to the fire and create conditions under which he has to implement progressive policies if he wants to stay in office.

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Progressive excuses for Democratic complicity in Israeli brutality

Posted by Kevin on January 19, 2009

I have to say that so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the American mainstream media’s handling of the Israel/Gaza conflict. It’s nowhere near perfect, of course, but there’s still a slightly greater willingness to question Israeli claims than in past conflicts. It’s too bad that that new found openness doesn’t extend to our political system, where overwhelming majorities of both parties in Congress still express lockstep support for Israel no matter what it does, and only peripheral actors like Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul are willing to speak out for the people of Gaza. Meanwhile Obama continues to hide behind his “only one President at a time” bullshit (as many others have noted, why doesn’t this extend to economic policy?).

[I was particularly disappointed by the silent complicity of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on the issue, as he’s one of my Senators and he’s supposed to be this great progressive crusader. Not one Senator, not even Bernie, was willing to publicly oppose the resolution supporting Israel’s attack.]

So lately I’ve been trying to figure out why the Democratic Party keeps granting knee-jerk support to Israeli war crimes and ethnic cleansing, and why the party rank and file, which overwhelmingly opposes the attack on Gaza, is largely unwilling to challenge them on the issue, often choosing instead to rationalize their party’s continuing attachment to the Israeli far right. The answers to both of these questions are closely linked, so forgive me for segueing back and forth between the two.

The primary response of many progressives when faced with Democratic intransigence on Israel/Palestine is a collective throwing up of the hands, claiming “There’s nothing we can do about it; AIPAC is just too powerful. Might as well live with it.” But the so-called “Israel lobby” isn’t some unstoppable force of nature. Groups like AIPAC are so disproportionately influential for a reason.

The main reason in this case is because, as Glenn Greenwald notes, “one side of the debate (the AIPAC faction) is strong and aggressive in its criticisms and pressure tactics and the other side (the faction wanting an even-handed U.S. approach) is not.” I highly recommend reading his post in full, as well as this one from Juan Cole on roughly the same subject.

Democratic politicians have everything to gain and nothing to lose by supporting the attack on Gaza as well as the broader Israeli occupation: they get the support of and contributions from AIPAC and its followers, knowing that the vast majority of the people on the other side might grumble about it but won’t turn against them. From Greenwald again:

Just as Congressional Democrats have known for the last eight years, Obama will know that there is only a price to pay when he acts contrary to the Republican and Beltway “centrist” agenda, but no price to pay when he acts contrary to the agenda of his most ardent supporters (because they won’t criticize him, because to do is to “tear him down,” “help Republicans,” act like a Naderite purist, etc. etc. etc.). That meek and deferential attitude — aside from being a wildly inappropriate and even dangerous way to treat a political leader — also ensures that one is irrelevant and taken for granted and one’s views easily ignored.

The solution, as he notes and as should be patently obvious, is to be willing to apply pressure to Democrats when their actions warrant it. We’ve already seen several instances in the transition where Obama was pulled to the left by progressive criticism. And, in my opinion, it involves a willingness to deny them our votes if they continue to support Israeli brutality.

But, all too many progressives are unwilling to do either of those things. Instead, they find some bullshit way to explain how the party had no other choice, or even how it’s really not so bad that the party frequently aligns itself with the Israeli far right.

A great article on this subject is “The Pragmatism of Ethnic Cleansing” by Steven Salaita. From the article:

I have seen countless times on the Internet and have heard even more frequently some variation of the following argument: “Obama had to court the Israel lobby in order to be elected; it’s part of presidential politics in the United States.” Bolder commentators suggest that it would be foolish to expect otherwise… Other liberals smugly accuse Obama’s skeptics of purism, which they say has no business in serious political conversations.

For one reason or another, many progressives see the Palestinian cause as a reasonable sacrifice in order to have a Democratic president. But as Salaita argues, “This concession may be something they’re prepared to live with, but we should remember that the Afghans and Palestinians have no choice.” American progressives aren’t the ones who have to live with the consequences of the Israeli occupation (not directly, anyway), which might explain why they are often unwilling to make much of a fuss over Democratic complicity in it. (Salaita again: “I doubt Obama’s pragmatists would have been such staunch advocates of electoral realism if they, like the Palestinians, were being removed from their homes and confined to bounded ghettos.”)

In the case of Obama, whenever the issue came up during the campaign I would hear from his supporters some variation of “He doesn’t really believe that, he’s just saying it because he has to to get elected,” and/or “Once he’s in office he’ll be fair to the Palestinians.” I certainly hope that’s true, but I don’t know what they’re basing those statements on, other than faith. Some who make this argument, like Lisa Gans at the Huffington Post, claim that the reason the Israelis invaded Gaza when they did was because they wanted to get it out of the way before Obama took office, presumably because they were worried about how he might react. I’ll admit this does look slightly more plausible in light of the fact that it was announced today that Israeli troops will be out of Gaza by the time Obama’s inaugurated, but I ultimately find this argument unpersuasive. At best it’s a minor factor in Israel’s reasoning. Much more important is the upcoming Israeli elections, with both Kadima and Labor depending on the invasion to bump up their sagging poll numbers.

In any case, even if Obama doesn’t really believe what he’s plainly saying on the issue, I’d say that makes it worse, not better. As Arthur Silber points out, by making this argument his supporters are admitting that he’s a liar who isn’t willing to take a stand for what he believes in. Either that, or he’s a borderline sociopath who just doesn’t give a shit about Palestinian lives.

Given that, why should I believe he’ll be a good president? And why is it so hard for progressives to accept that maybe Obama just doesn’t care, that he’s not a closet progressive, and that perhaps he’s just another politician whose only concern is getting and holding onto power?

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Statement from Peter Welch on Gaza

Posted by Kevin on January 6, 2009

[Update I: Various edits made to this post.]

[Update II (1/10/09): In a surprise to absolutely no one, both houses of Congress this week passed resolutions voicing absolute support of Israel in its attack on Gaza. According to the roll call, Peter Welch voted for the House version (it passed by a voice vote in the Senate, so there’s no record of who did and didn’t vote for it). The text of the resolution contradicts even Welch’s milquetoast position below, making me wonder didn’t vote present if nothing else. The most likely explanation in my opinion is that he didn’t think about it much and just voted how Nancy Pelosi told him to vote, which from what I hear is pretty common with Welch. He’s not exactly known for his courage.]

Today I received an email from Rep. Peter Welch’s (D-VT) office on Israel’s attack on Gaza:

I have long supported a two-state solution as the only viable path to peace in the Middle East. The renewed violence in Gaza only sets back the prospects of achieving the two-state solution and, with it, lasting peace. It also intensifies the suffering of the people living there.

I support an immediate cease fire – and end to rocket attacks targeting Israelis and an end to Israeli military action in Gaza – and a return to the negotiating table. I also support the free passage of international relief convoys into Gaza to provide humanitarian assistance and relief to the population.

The human tragedy that is occurring in Gaza will only end when both sides recognize that their peace and prosperity will not be achieved through acts of violence, but through negotiation.

This pretty much illustrates the problems I noted in my report on the Burlington protest. It’s good that Welch supports a ceasefire, but once again there’s the false equivalency and the unwillingness to blame anyone for the crisis, and no mention of the blockade. I don’t get the impression from this statement that he’s put a whole lot of thought into the issue or feels a lot of engagement with it.

Another thing that bugged me about his statement, as with Leahy and Sanders, was the lack of any mention of concrete actions they’ve taken or are willing to take to bring about a ceasefire. They all “support” a ceasefire but won’t necessarily do anything to actually get one. Remember, one of the oldest tricks in politics is to support something in principle but oppose its implementation every step of the way.

As I’ve said previously, positions like Welch’s are an improvement over those of all too many other Democrats. Sadly, though, this sort of position is probably the best we’re going to get from the Democratic Party without some sort of massive grassroots pressure that doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. Although the latest polling data (via Glenn Greenwald) shows that Democratic voters overwhelmingly oppose Israel’s attack on Gaza, to my knowledge it hasn’t translated into widespread criticism of the Democratic leadership. This issue just isn’t a priority for many progressives.

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Report on Gaza protest

Posted by Kevin on January 1, 2009

So on Tuesday I attended a protest in Burlington against Israeli brutality in Gaza organized by Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel. In the process we visited the offices of our Congressional delegation (Rep. Peter Welch, Sen. Patrick Leahy, and Sen. Bernie Sanders) inquiring about their positions and demanding they condemn the attack. [This is probably the best news story I’ve been able to find on it.] As a recent transplant to Vermont, I wasn’t really familiar with any of their positions on the issue beforehand, so this was a learning experience for me.

Good news first: I was glad that all three offices actually sent people out to meet with us, and that except for Welch they had statements prepared. That in itself was a big change from some parts of Illinois I’ve lived in. I went to undergrad in Dennis Hastert’s district while he was still House Speaker, and his office frequently refused to meet with opponents, at one point refusing to even accept a petition from antiwar activists. So I have a lot of respect for politicians whose staffers will meet with people they might not necessarily agree with.

I haven’t been able to find Leahy or Sanders’ statements on their websites [which unfortunately indicates that this issue isn’t a very big priority for them, especially in Welch’s case], so I’m going off of memory when I refer to them – and therefore I don’t have much in the line of direct quotes.

In their defense, I will say that the statements were a lot better than the “near-unanimous support for Israel” by other prominent Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid [or for that matter my former senators from Illinois, Dick Durbin and Barack Obama, both hardcore pro-Occupation partisans]: that Israel’s massive aerial assault is totally justified by Hamas’ primitive rocket fire, and the resulting loss of innocent life is entirely the fault of Hamas. So, I’m not saying Leahy and Sanders are sociopathic douchebags like Reid and Pelosi.

Still, I found myself pretty dissatisfied with Leahy and Sanders’ positions. I’m realistic enough not to expect that they’ll embrace Dennis Kucinich’s position (outlined in the above article), but I still hoped for a little better. Not only did they not go far enough, but they also embraced some lousy framing of the conflict. They both bent over backwards trying to please all sides, to not criticize Israel too much.

For instance, even while calling for a ceasefire, they both felt the need to preface their statements with something along the lines of, “Israel has the right to defend itself, but…” Both included statements like, “Oh, it’s horrible what both sides are doing.” Several of the protesters criticized them for trying to create a false equivalency between the two sides, as if one side doesn’t have an almost complete monopoly on the use of force, and as if the other side isn’t resisting an illegal and horrific occupation. That may not justify Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, but the context does pretty much destroy any claim of equality between the two sides, as well as any Israeli pretext of “self-defense.”

Here’s a good quote on the matter from Titus North at Electronic Intifada:

I know that it is customary for many to equally condemn both sides whenever violence flares up in the conflict, but there is nothing equal between the two sides. The Palestinians have for decades been subjected to occupation, disappropriation, assassination and siege, always with massive suffering to civilians, and are expected to accept it without lifting a finger. Should the Palestinians put up any resistance, Israel feels free to launch any scale of attack, secure in the knowledge that at most it will be subject to calls for “restraint” and condemnation of violence on “both sides.” While I do not like the rockets that get fired from Gaza, as long as we as Americans provide the military, financial and diplomatic support that makes the Israeli occupation and siege possible I feel that we as Americans are in no position to condemn the Palestinian resistance.

And another good one from Robert Fisk:
…we demand security for Israel — rightly — but overlook this massive and utterly disproportionate slaughter by Israel. It was Madeleine Albright who once said that Israel was “under siege” — as if Palestinian tanks were in the streets of Tel Aviv.

Leahy’s statement in particular criticized Israel’s “disproportionate” attack, which sounded good at first glance until I noticed that he’s still saying an attack was on some level justified, if only it had been more “proportionate,” whatever that means.

Sanders’ statement argued for the need to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, but neither senator made any mention whatsoever of the cause of that crisis: Israel’s blockade. There’s not going to be a lasting resolution to the crisis without an end to the blockade, but apparently that would involve too much criticism of Israel for their tastes.

We also urged them to vote to end military aid to Israel. None of the staffers had anything to say one way or the other on the matter. I’m not optimistic.

American policy isn’t going to change unless we demand it. I strongly urge everyone reading this to write to and/or call your representatives and senators (as well as the Obama transition team) demanding that they publicly come out against Israel’s brutality in Gaza. Also consider signing this open letter to Obama from the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation urging a change in Israel/Palestine policy. Write letters to the editor, and see if there’s any actions near you (or consider organizing one if there isn’t). Most importantly, educate the people around you on the conflict, and call them out if they spread misinformation or use bad framing.

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BLAST FROM THE PAST: On Obama and Litmus Tests

Posted by Kevin on December 20, 2008

[originally posted 3/13/07]

I do have things to say occasionally, but I’m usually not within easy reach of my blog when I think of them, and they end up being forgotten. However, today something stuck out to me in an article about Barack Obama by Allan Hunt Badiner that I feel the need to sound off on:

A sizable percentage of the progressive sector may not be happy with any candidate who does not agree with them on every issue. They have already shown a surprising lack of concern for the political and practical consequences of their inflexibility. The following that Dennis Kucinich, and Ralph Nader enjoyed are cases in point. Intractable liberal voters are like window shoppers who feel most comfortable going home empty-handed and later whining that they couldn’t find something they liked. They may have been as responsible for reelecting Bush as his hard-core conservative base.

I’ll admit, I do have a couple litmus tests for potential candidates. One is on the occupation of Iraq. Any candidate that does not support an end as soon as possible, not just in talk but in actions, will not be getting my vote. On this issue, I have no real problem with Obama, aside from the fact that he, like other Democrats, opposes the war while still embracing much of the foreign policy philosophy that led to it (particularly preemptive war, but more generally they have the same vision of America’s role in the world as the neocons, with a few modifications). However, if this were the only sticking point then Obama would be good enough on this issue that I could grudgingly vote for him.

The problem is my other litmus test. As I regularly tell my Obama-supporting fiancee Rebecca, I absolutely have to insist that my leaders not be liars and murderers. Is that so much to ask for? To the Allan Hunt Badiners of the world, it apparently is.

The primary issue to which I refer here is the Israel/Palestine conflict, on which Obama is extremely regressive. I’m not “anti-Israel,” as I’ve previously argued, but I frankly believe Israel to be a colonial occupier that should be treated as such. I’m really not inflexible on the issue, though; as long as a candidate supports a truly even-handed approach that recognizes the bad deeds done by both sides and is willing to put pressure on the Israeli government where need be, I can live with that person.

Unfortunately, the previous statement does not describe Barack Obama. Judging by his public statements, a President Obama would mean little if any change in the status quo in which the Palestinians are expected to make the most as well as the biggest compromises, the crimes of the Israeli government are ignored and we continue to give them the weapons, money and diplomatic cover to commit those crimes.

As Rebecca described to me from a constituent coffee in Washington, DC, that she attended, Obama expressed absolute support for the Israeli attack on Lebanon last summer, with nary a word about Israel’s targeting of civilians there. In addition, there is little silver lining to be found in his recent speech to AIPAC. Here is a good article on the subject. My favorite quote:

“But in the end,” he added, “we also know that we should never seek to dictate what is best for the Israelis and their security interests. No Israeli prime minister should ever feel dragged to or blocked from the negotiating table by the United States.”

You really can’t get more clear than that on where Obama stands.

As some have noted, it was not always this way; Obama was previously at least mildly sympathetic to the Palestinians. This changed when he ran for national office. I guess how one interprets this is matter of opinion; Rebecca insists that this means that Obama’s “pro-Israel” (for lack of a better term) stuff is just going through the motions to avoid having AIPAC goons come after him, and that if elected he’ll give Palestinian concerns a fair shake. I look at it and see someone who is willing to sell out oppressed people for votes and money. Why should I trust this guy? Is it really so wrong of me to have qualms about supporting someone who knowingly sides with the oppressors over the oppressed? Shouldn’t we insist on more from our leaders? Or should we, as Badiner seems to argue, passively accept Obama’s position as the best we can do even as people continue to suffer and die in the slow-motion ethnic cleansing of the Occupied Territories?

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BLAST FROM THE PAST: Time to Retire the “Pro/Anti-Israel” Frame

Posted by Kevin on December 20, 2008

[originally posted 8/30/06]

Believe it or not, I’m still alive. So, where have I been all summer? Mostly, sitting around the house doing nothing when I’m not trying to find work. So why haven’t I updated? I’m probably saying nothing here I haven’t said before, but it’s a combination of getting tired of this blog as news aggregator (i.e. how it would be much easier to just point people toward sites like AlterNet than it would be for me to post links to all the cool articles I find there) and the fact that it takes forever to do anything on my dialup connection; I probably spend more time waiting for stuff to load than I do on actual work.

In any case, I am planning on doing some posting in the near future. I’m hoping that if I announce it here then I’ll feel obliged to actually do it.

While I’m here, one link that I happen to have on hand:

UN denounces Israel cluster bombs, something you probably won’t see featured too prominently in American media.

The UN’s humanitarian chief has accused Israel of “completely immoral” use of cluster bombs in Lebanon.

UN clearance experts had so far found 100,000 unexploded cluster bomblets at 359 separate sites, Jan Egeland said.
“What’s shocking and completely immoral is: 90% of the cluster bomb strikes occurred in the last 72 hours of the conflict, when we knew there would be a resolution,” he said.

I’m sure some moron out there is going to read that and think, “Kevin’s so biased against Israel; why doesn’t he condemn Hezbollah rocket attacks against Israel?” I don’t usually mention stuff like that because it should go without saying that I’m against it. Why am I more vocal about wrongdoing by Israel? Because it’s a position you don’t hear very often in American media and that therefore needs to be said. Not to mention that, while I certainly don’t approve of suicide bombers and Islamic fundamentalists, Israel is the occupying power in the case of Palestine, and Hezbollah was a product of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The events there need to be looked at in that context. However abhorrent some of the methods of resistance may be, Palestinians and Lebanese aren’t mad at Israel for no reason.

The fact that I’m against suicide bombings doesn’t go without saying shows how two-dimensional the minds of some people are. They really can’t conceive of a person being against needless civilian deaths and suffering no matter which side does it. You’re either on “Israel’s” side (despite the fact that there’s much more debate on this issue in Israel than there is here, which would seem to imply that a significant chunk of Israel isn’t on Israel’s side) or you’re on Hezbollah’s side, they say. When they kill civilians it’s a tragedy; when we kill civilians it’s regrettable but necessary (or the bastards had it coming, depending on who you talk to).

On a related note, I get really annoyed when people frame the debate in terms of being “pro-Israel” or “anti-Israel/pro-Palestine” (and even more annoyed when people I agree with give in to the framing).

First, the framing implies that “Israel” is some monolithic entity in which everyone agrees on everything, which of course ignores the comparatively large Israeli peace movement. As such, it’s not Israel that I’m against, but rather certain actions and policies taken by the Israeli government over the years and advocated by groups like AIPAC here in the US.

In addition, it’s not like I’m concerned with Palestinian (or in the current case, Lebanese) rights and well-being at the expense of Israeli security, although I am of course concerned with that. On the contrary, I believe that the colonial domination of Palestine and the war on Lebanon are making Israel less secure and are strengthening the hand of Hamas/Hezbollah, not to mention Islamic fundamentalists across the Mideast, often at the expense of more moderate and/or nonviolent groups. How is that “anti-Israel”?

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