It’s a warm August evening, and I’m standing in a crowd of people onboard a cruise boat circling New York Harbor at sunset. Hundreds have gathered to raise funds for a U.S. flotilla to deliver humanitarian aid to the besieged Gaza Strip. Among the attendees is Jewish-American Emily Henochowicz, a 21-year-old Cooper Union art student whose eye was shot out by an Israeli tear gas canister in the West Bank while she was protesting the Israeli Navy’s lethal raid of a Turkish aid flotilla in late May. Emily, whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors and whose father is an Israeli citizen, represents the increasingly diverse profile of worldwide support for Palestinian self-determination. The Audacity of Hope, as the U.S. flotilla is ironically named, will join a fleet of ships from Europe seeking to break the three-year-old U.S.-backed Israeli siege of Gaza—a society which, according to Harvard economist Sara Roy, “has been deliberately reduced to a state of abject destitution, its once productive population transformed into one of aid-dependent paupers.”
As the cruise boat turns back towards the sun-soaked Manhattan skyline, I recall the event which first opened my eyes to the realities of Palestinian suffering.
Home for winter break after my first semester at Juilliard, I awoke on a late-December morning and reached for my laptop. As I opened to The New York Times’ home page to scan the headlines, my drowsiness suddenly gave way to an alert horror and confusion. The Israel Defense Forces (I.D.F.) had just begun Operation Cast Lead, a three-week-long assault on the Gaza Strip which Amnesty International would later describe as “22 days of death and destruction.” Photo galleries chronicling the carnage on the ground in Gaza reminded me of the scenes depicted in Goya’s The Disasters of War, a series of etchings he made in response to the inhumanity of Napoleon’s incursion into Spain during the Peninsular Wars. Unlike Goya’s piece, new etchings were dispatched from Gaza each morning: An image in the British newspaper The Independent shows five young sisters wrapped up like mummies after being bombed in their sleep; in a photo seen in The New York Times online, a man on his knees is mourning over the bodies of his two sons and nephew; a picture on the Human Rights Watch Web site reveals shells of white phosphorous, a highly incendiary substance used in violation of international law, bursting over a U.N. school.
In the end, 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed: a ratio more than 100 to 1. Despite Israel’s claims of self-defense against Hamas rocket fire—a pretext that apologists in the American media almost unanimously accepted without question—Israel could have peacefully defended itself from rocket fire simply by observing the terms of the June 2008 ceasefire, which it broke in early November. Up to that point, an Israeli think tank with close ties to the military and intelligence community acknowledged that Hamas was “careful to maintain the ceasefire.” Rocket fire by Hamas was retaliatory, and a renewal of the ceasefire remained on the table well past the day of the invasion. Given the ample opportunity for peaceful resolution, Operation Cast Lead was an act of aggression, and, considering the brutal and indiscriminate character of the assault, tantamount to massacre.
One month after the invasion, Amnesty International issued an important report entitled Fueling Conflict, acknowledging that both international and U.S. domestic law forbid the transfer of arms to Israel given its consistent human rights violations. Insisting on a comprehensive arms embargo between the two countries, the report concluded that the bloodbath in Gaza could not have taken place without “U.S. taxpayer money.” Obama responded months later by renewing our nation’s longstanding vows to Israel with a $30 billion gift in military aid over the course of the next decade.
The United States’ and Israel’s “unbreakable bond,” in the president’s words, is nothing new.
Ten years ago to the month, the world witnessed the outbreak of the second intifada, a large-scale popular uprising by Palestinians fed up after years suffering under a humiliating and abusive occupation, failed negotiations, and the continued annexation and settlement of indigenous territories. In the first three weeks alone, more than 100 Palestinians were killed, one-fourth of them children, as Israeli security forces suppressed demonstrations and riots in the West Bank and Gaza. As Palestinians began returning fire on Jewish settlements, Israel used a replenishing supply of U.S. military helicopters to attack residential complexes in the occupied territories, part of an “indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force,” according to a special session of the U.N. Security Council. The first suicide bombings struck Tel Aviv and Jerusalem five months later, after the mostly nonviolent initial uprising was disintegrated by force and the more radical Palestinian elements rose to the fore. As former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami would later write in his book Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, “Israel’s disproportionate response to what had started as a popular uprising with young, unarmed men confronting Israeli soldiers armed with lethal weapons fueled the intifada beyond control and turned it into an all-out war.”
Years of violence ensued, lopsided casualty figures persisted, and repeated efforts at peace from around the globe were consistently thwarted by the U.S. and Israel. From annual U.N. General Assembly resolutions to a comprehensive Saudi peace initiative, to the Geneva Accords and the Road Map, the steadfast allies continued to reject any prospect for peace.
In 2004, the U.N. International Court of Justice convened to issue a landmark advisory opinion on what are supposedly the most controversial issues preventing a peaceful settlement of the conflict. The decision was a rare consensus: the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem are “occupied Palestinian territory,” as the court reiterated the illegality of forceful acquisition of territory under the U.N. Charter; the transfer of population to settlements in occupied territory is “in flagrant violation” of the Fourth Geneva Conventions; and the long separation wall snaking through the West Bank, wrote the court’s Justice Thomas Buergenthal of the U.S., is “ipso facto in violation of international humanitarian law.”
A century after the completion of The Disasters of War, Goya’s countryman Pablo Picasso similarly depicted the chaos wrought by the Fascist bombing of the Basque country during the Spanish Civil War in his famous Guernica. Unfortunately, many Americans look at Israel-Palestine the way they might look at Guernica—a surreal abstraction from our comfortable existence; a larger-than-life portrait of the immutability and permanence of human cruelty.
But this is not a remote conflict. This is not a cosmic clash of cultures predetermined by scripture and reified by religious fanaticism. It is a conflict about dispossession, about scarce resources and isolation. It is about a 43-year old military occupation that restricts movement and bulldozes homes, and a siege that starves children. It is an arrangement we all pay for, we all perpetuate, and in the face of which our continued indifference amounts to complicity in war crimes. As the United States’ one-sided support for Israel continues to ignite the scorn of the Muslim world and plants the seeds of future terrorist attacks in America, it is in our immediate self-interest to take a stand in the struggle for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. With enough popular opposition to the decades-long status quo of their sacred alliance, the United States and Israel would finally be compelled to accept a settlement for a just and lasting peace.
Unlike Guernica, the canvas of the Middle East is still being painted, and we hold the brush.