Kirstein Remarks on Gaza Panel

These are my remaks for Chicago Gaza Panel, February 26, 2009.

Spanish philosopher Miguel Unamuno, during the Spanish Civil War, declared in 1936, “Sometimes to be Silent is to Lie.” He directed this remark on his campus of the University of Salamanca, where he had served twice as rector, to the pro-Franco fascist General Milan-Astray, who forced him off campus at gunpoint and placed Unamuno under house arrest. This was a shocking violation of academic freedom which I am sure Stanley Fish, now op-ed columnist of the New York Times, would with charactristic nuance defend.

Unamuno died within two months after suffering a heart attack. In this country professors have been denied tenure, denied promotion, subjected to public vilification, experienced censorship of their books, been prohibited from speaking at previously scheduled events, been suspended, denied the right to teach classes in their specialty, pressured to turn down appointments at universities, and have been fired from both tenure and non-tenure track positions for speaking truth to power about the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Naming names was used during the McCarthy Era to blacklist and smear supposed communists and internationalists including many academicians. Well I am naming names of the courageous victims of the New McCarthyism who refused to be silent: Norman Finkelstein, Joel Kovel, Terri Ginsberg, Mehrene Larudee, Douglas Giles, John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, Nadia Abu El-Haj, Joseph Massad, Ward Churchill and Juan Cole.

The suffering of Arab peoples must end and perpetrators such as the State of Israel brought to justice before the International Criminal Court. Israel unfortunately is merely the most recent non-Arab nation to dispossess the Arab peoples with approximately 400-500,000 forced out of the Palestine Mandate with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

Twenty years later in the 1967 six day War which Israel initiated, despite the gleeful global propaganda of its heroic victory, Israel expelled between 100,000 and 260,000 Palestinians from the newly conquered West Bank, and drove 80,000 Syrians from the Golan Heights. (Mearsheimer, Walt Israel Lobby).

I say the latest non-Arab nation to engage in Muslim ethnic cleansing because The Lausanne Treaty of 1923, yes an actual treaty, required the deportation of 350,000 Muslims from Greece to Turkey. While Christians were also subjected to “population exchange,” no other international treaty has targeted specific peoples for mandatory population uprooting.

The Gaza slaughter is another recent act of state terrorism against a defenceless and abused people. Gaza is a strip of land on the Mediterranean that is one of the most undeveloped and densely populated in the world. It was part of the British Mandate in Palestine after World War I and was occupied by Egypt after the 1948 war and is about 25 miles long and 6 miles wide. Its population consists of 1.3 million Palestinians living in absolute poverty. Israel took control of the region during the Six-Day War in 1967, along with the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula which was later returned to Egypt.

When 9,000 Israeli settlers colonised Gaza, they stole one-third of Gaza and the other two-thirds of the enclave was where the huddled masses of Palestinians lived.

Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Vatican Council on Justice and Peace, recently referred to Gaza as “a big concentration camp.” Imagine a Jewish state, born out of the Holocaust, establishing a concentration camp along its border in this manner.

Norman Finkelstein has referred to Gaza as “Israel’s favourite shooting gallery,” and described the attack as: “Israel targeted schools, mosques, hospitals, ambulances, and U.N. sanctuaries, as it slaughtered and incinerated Gaza’s defenseless civilian population.”

Here are some facts on the ground:

First) There had been a ceasefire negotiated by Israel and Hamas, which has been the democratically elected government of Gaza since February 2006, that was reasonably intact from June 2008 until November 4, 2008. On that date, conveniently timed to coincide with the distraction of America’s presidential election, Israel violated the ceasefire by invading Gaza with tanks and airstrikes, and killing about 5 Palestinians. This led to Hamas’s Qassam rocket attacks on Sderot and other Israeli communities as the ceasefire unraveled leading to the full-scale Dec. 27 Israel invasion.

Second) Fatah, the descendant of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, is the Arab faction that runs the West Bank, under Israeli supervision, the other component of occupied, colonised Palestine. Yet there are strong supporters in both Gaza and the West Bank of the other non-ruling group. The Palestinians are a united people in spirit.

Third) Israel waged a twenty-three day assault from December 27 until January 18, 2009 on a civilian population in a manner reminiscent of the wehrmacht during World War II. The timing was deliberate in that it began under the waning days of the Bush administration which Israel knew would not challenge the invasion and it ended just prior to the Obama inauguration so as not to offend the sensibilities of a possibly somewhat less militant U.S. administration.

Fourth) 1,300 Palestinians were killed including 400 children. Thirteen Israelis died and three were civilian. This is a 100 to one ratio and a shocking lack of both proportionality in which a nation uses excessive force beyond military necessity, and discrimination when a military force deliberately ignores non-combatant immunity. The National Lawyers Guild reported the following incidents from their eight-member legal team that investigated the possibility of war crimes in Gaza:

“We spoke to Khaled Abed Rabbo, who witnessed an Israeli soldier execute his 2-year-old and 7-year-old daughters, and critically injure a third daughter, Samar, 4-years old, on a sunny afternoon outside his home. Two other Israeli soldiers were standing nearby eating chips and chocolates at the time on January 7, 2009. Abed Rabbo recounts standing in front of the Israeli soldiers with his mother, wife and daughters for 5 to 7 minutes before one of the soldiers opened fire on his family.

“We spoke to Ibtisam al-Sammouni, 31, and a resident of Zaytoun neighborhood in Gaza City. On January 4th, the Israeli army forced approximately 110 of Zaytoun’s residents into Ibtisam’s home. At approximately 7 am on January 5th, the Israeli military launched two tank shells at the house without warning killing two of Ibtisam’s children: Rizka, 14 and Faris, 12. When the survivors attempted to flee, Israeli forces shot at them. Her son Abdullah, 7, was injured in the shelling and remained in the home among his deceased siblings for four days before Israeli forces permitted medical personnel into Zaytoun to rescue them. After medical personnel removed the injured persons, an Israeli war plane destroyed the house… The dead remained beneath the rubble for 17 days before the Israeli Army permitted …their…burial.”

The New York Times reported on February 11, 2009 that the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, announced that Israel is blocking needed humanitarian aid from reaching the devastated area. Israel permits only one border crossing into Gaza which can deliver enough daily life-sustaining supplies for only 30,000 people. Ban wants other points of entry to be opened as well. Israel has blockaded the Gazan coast on the Mediterranean and Egypt, which has one border crossing into Gaza, has been reluctant to open that as well.

Israel maintains that Hamas must be disarmed and not allowed to acquire weaponry through tunnels in the south or other means. No other nation in the world is required to have an absence of military self-defence. The Palestinians are basically disarmed anyway. They lack a navy, an army and air force to defend against Israel’s strategic power.

It is interesting there is an absence of international pressure for Israel to reduce its level of military forces. Israel receives about $3 billion dollars in direct assistance each year from the American taxpayer even though Israel is one of the wealthiest nations on Earth with per capita income equivalent to Spain or the Republic of Korea. It receives the most modern US weaponry such as Blackhawk helicopters and F-16 jets which it uses to terrorise defenceless populations.

Israel is the only Middle East state with nuclear weapons and only one of three countries in the world not to ratify the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968. This mythical notion of a Jewish David surrounded by an Arab Goliath in a hostile region is imaginary at best. While it is more of a democracy than some Arab authoritarian states, its aggression and undermining international peace and security through repeated violations of international humanitarian law are more significant in a global context.

Israel is an officially Jewish state with the Star of David hexagram emblazoned on its flag. America has long been critical of nations that are wedded to an official religion. Our own constitution requires that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The United States is not officially Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Baha’i or Druse or Jewish.

There is an inherent undemocratic character about nations that establish an official religion. While the U.S. has been openly critical of Muslim and Communist states that deny religious pluralism, such criticism is never directed at Israel.

Israel’s population is 7.1 million and 76% Jewish and 24% non Jewish with mostly Muslim Arabs with about 2% Arab Christian.) (CIA Factbook). Their 1.3 million Arabs are treated as second-class citizens: They can’t join the army which means they are denied the generous benefits given to veterans.  (Haaretz 12/20/07)

They can’t marry Palestinian partners and remain in Israel. Marriage could lead to deportation. Israeli law gives official recognition to Jewish cultural institutions but not Arab. Israeli-Arabs have been expelled from their homes in the Negev-a desert area in the south-because they were told they were illegal.

The argument is frequently advanced that Israel and the United States are allies in the war against terrorism. In fact the opposite is the case. A more nuanced and normal relationship with Israel, that is evident in most bilateral relations, would possibly reduce the threat of so-called terrorism. Al Qaeda in particular has declared Palestinian suffering as one of its chief grievances against the U.S. Iran, a supporter of Hamas, also frequently refers to the American lack of balance in its approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict as a source of tension and enmity.

Israel needs less financial support from the economically ravaged United States and the United States needs less of an Israel-centric Middle East foreign policy. Israel’s existence is not reasonably threatened by the facts on the ground and as the most powerful nation in the region, it can afford to demonstrate more tolerance and less racism in its approach to the Palestinian conflict. United States national security and international peace and justice are ultimately served by a resolution of this conflict that brings justice to the Palestinians, secure borders for Israel, a Palestinian state that is contiguous, viable and truly independent and an end to this carnage.

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