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 EMERGENCE OF THE PLO
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
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
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
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.
ISRAEL, THE US & POLITICAL ISLAM
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
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
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
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
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
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.