America has a long and very close relationship with the state of Israel. US commitment to Israel’s existence, safety and security is important and necessary. However, too often, it has been at the expense of the Palestinians who are equally entitled to a state, security and safety. Indeed, the original UN resolution allowing for the creation of Israel also called for a Palestinian state.
While the track record of most American presidents, as witnessed by its voting record in the UN has demonstrated our consistent tilt, George W. Bush has taken America’s relationship with Israel to the next level. Bush has aligned America with Israel, opting for military might rather than diplomacy, ignoring international law, and being complicit in war crimes.
As in Lebanon, so now in Gaza, the Bush administration has entered into an unholy alliance with Israel to promote a war whose major casualties are civilians. Israel has not simply attacked militants to destroy their infrastructure, but Gaza’s society. Its military has slaughtered civilians who account for a majority of the 900 killed and nearly 4,000 injured, mainly women and children; destroyed the infrastructure and institutions of society (homes, neighborhoods, universities and schools, mosques, police stations, hospitals); and contributed to the radicalization of a future generation of Palestinians. Not content to stand on the sidelines deflecting blame from Israel, the US has staunchly defended Israel to the point of adopting the Israeli government’s blaming of HAMAS for the civilian deaths in Gaza just as it blamed Hizbullah for the high civilian casualty count in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Moreover, the US has provided Israel with the F-16s, Apache helicopters and bombs used in the massacre of Gaza civilians and even abstained from a UN vote for a ceasefire that it helped draft .
Despite calls from the international community, including the UN, EU, international human rights organizations and many religious leaders including Pope Benedict XVI for an immediate ceasefire, Israel with the blessing of the Bush administration has continued, even escalated its air and ground war. As Professor Avi Shlaim, an Israeli and a distinguished Oxford Professor of International Relations concluded, Israel has become a “rogue state,”
[a] review of Israel's record over the past four decades makes it difficult to resist the conclusion that it has become a rogue state with "an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders". A rogue state habitually violates international law, possesses weapons of mass destruction and practises terrorism - the use of violence against civilians for political purposes. Israel fulfils all of these three criteria; the cap fits and it must wear it. Israel's real aim is not peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbours but military domination.
Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has also severely criticized Israel’s conduct of the war, "We are seeing a continual massacre in the Holy Land where the overwhelming majority has nothing to do with the conflict, but it is paying for the hatred of a few with their lives…. Let's look at the conditions in Gaza: It's looking more and more like a big concentration camp."
If the shoe were on the other foot, if Palestinians were engaging in the same kinds of actions against Israelis, newspaper headlines and sound bites from the Bush White House and sectors of Congress would be decrying the massacre, barbarism and new holocaust perpetrated by Palestinians or HAMAS militants. It is important to remember that “they see more than we see.” Israel’s barring of foreign reporters from Gaza and a generally timid American press have enabled it to downplay the tragedy of Gaza, a tragedy all too evident to Arabs and Muslims who have access to Arab television, in particular al-Jazeera.
What of the Future?
Palestinians and Israelis are both losers. The destruction of Gaza with its devastating impact on the lives, psyches and economic condition of its peoples will reinforce a sense of injustice, humiliation, rage and hatred in the Muslim world. Israelis long term will not be more secure and their image, moral stature and reputation internationally will be undermined in many parts of the world. As in the after math of the Israeli-Hizbollah war, when Hassan Nasrullah, Hezbollah’s leader, emerged as the most popular leader across much of the Muslim world, Israel may win the battle but not the war. HAMAS resistance will enhance its stature in the Arab world and reinforce for many that it remains the only independent viable Palestinian alternative to a complaint and compromised Mahmud Abbas. Nasrullah’s blunt criticism of Egypt will be applied by many in the region to Arab leaders: “The leaders of Egypt are accomplices to the crime; they are collaborating with the "Zionist enemy" in trying to break the Palestinian people.” Demonstrations throughout the Arab world, popular political discourse, and the internet discredit the ambivalence and failure of Arab leaders and the Arab League to respond effectively and reinforce for many the belief that, as in Palestine, Islam is the only viable political alternative in the Arab world. The failures of Arab and Western governments and resultant inflamed anti-American/Western popular sentiment provide fodder for militants and threaten the security of mainstream Muslim societies and the West.
Soon-to-be President Barack Obama will have to move quickly both to distance himself from the Bush legacy and to set America on a bold new path in its relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds. The Obama administration must send a clear message that America stands for self-determination and the rule of law and human rights for all, Palestinians as well as Israelis. It is time for the United States not only to pressure HAMAS, but also to place similar pressure on a ceasefire, an end to HAMAS rocket attacks, and Israel’s destruction of Gaza and collective punishment of those who under international law have a right to resist occupation. America’s continued uncritical support for Israel has not been to the United States’ advantage. It has fuelled the legitimate anger of the Muslim world, supplied justification for terrorism, and sullied our image, reputation and moral stature globally.
The road to a just and enduring peace will require that the United States take a new path that denounces illegitimate acts of violence, whether Palestinian or Israeli, as not acceptable. The US can no longer support or turn a blind eye to Israel’s illegal occupation and partitioning of Palestine, territorial expansion and continued settlement building. It can no longer provide Israel with advanced weaponry and arms that are used not in legitimate defense against militant attacks but to wipe out a legitimately elected Palestinian (HAMAS) government, kill civilians, in particular women and children, and leave the civilian population of Gaza facing starvation and a lack of medicine, water and electrical power. This is not what our country stands for; nor is it the re-appropriation of American principles and values that candidate Barack Obama promised.
John L. Esposito is University Professor and Professor of Religion & International Affairs, Georgetown University and co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.