I was part of a small delegation of Arab Americans invited to meet US Secretary of State Antony Blinken the day before his recent visit to Egypt, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Our meeting came on the heels of two tragic days in Palestine/Israel.
On January 26, 10 Palestinians were killed during an Israeli undercover raid into Jenin. Nightly raids of heavily populated Palestinian communities have taken almost three dozen lives so far this year. These raids and killings coupled with a new round of mass expulsions and intensified settler violence have left many Palestinians both seething in anger and despairing of any improvement in their lives.
The next day, a lone Palestinian gunman murdered eight Israelis as they walked home from their synagogue in a settlement to the east of Jerusalem.
Both mass killings were deplorable and yet tragically predictable.
Even two weeks on, all of this has left the region concerned that the violence could spin out of control, though it appears for now that things may remain on a low boil. While extremist elements in the Israeli government may want to accelerate matters with more violence, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself has intensified the adoption of a series of measures that includes: sealing the homes of the Palestinian attackers and the arrests and/or expulsion of their family members and friends; sending more forces into the Occupied Territories; and allowing for more weapons to get into the hands of settlers. For its part, the Palestinian Authority condemned the raids into Jenin and said it would cease security co-operation with Israel. But both the PA and Hamas appear thus far to have more interest in tamping things down than accelerating towards more violence.
Needless to say, perhaps, we met Mr Blinken against a tense backdrop. We expressed our concerns, including: admitting Israel into the US visa waiver programme without Israel guaranteeing full reciprocity and respect for the rights of Arab Americans to enter and depart without harassment; plans to build the US embassy on Palestinian-owned land in Jerusalem; and the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism that includes legitimate criticism of Israel.
In my remarks, I attempted to place the recent events in the context of decades of failed US policies that have brought us to where we are today. The asymmetry of power that has existed between Israelis and Palestinians has been amplified by the US’s asymmetrical approach to both. Washington has given full-throated support to Israel, while applying pressure mainly to the Palestinians.
When Palestinians have taken actions with which the US has disagreed, Washington has called them out or taken punitive measures to sanction them. But when Israel has acted contrary to international law or America’s own interests, the US has responded, when at all, timidly with private communiques or public statements of concern. Knowing that there would be no consequences to their behaviour, the Israelis would either simply proceed, or delay until the heat was off.
The result of having no consequences for such behaviour has been devastating on several levels. America has enabled Israeli politics’ drift to the far right. Its enabling of hardliners and their policies has weakened Israel’s forces for peace, who have come to realise that they would have no backing for their opposition to human rights violations and the deepening of the occupation. At the same time, as prospects for a two-state solution have become increasingly impossible to implement, Washington has helped to discredit the camp of Palestinians who endorsed the Oslo Accords, while also indirectly emboldening Palestinian hardliners and those who advocate violence as the only way forward. I made it clear that this was not the result of the past two years, but decades of US failed policies.
It’s not enough for the US to express concern about the efforts of individuals within the current Israeli government to run roughshod over Israel’s democracy, while falling silent in the face of their proposed responses to the recent terror attack – all of which (including home demolitions and expulsions) are clear violations of international law. And it’s not enough to continue to express support for a two-state solution and speak about “the equal worth of Israelis and Palestinians”. The two-state solution is becoming less and less possible, and the US’s silence in the face of Israeli actions makes it clear that it is loath to defend Palestinian rights or respect Palestinians’ humanity.
For America to dig its way out of this hole and begin to transform the downward spiralling dynamic, I recommended that the US reverse course. The Israeli side needs to hear that there will be consequences to policies that violate rights and international law and provoke violence. I suggested that the US meet and offer direct financial support to the Palestinian human rights organisations, and make it clear that there will be consequences in aid and political support for any further movement on settlement expansion, home demolitions and expulsions.
Such actions wouldn’t make immediate change, but they will send a message to Israel’s extreme right that their period of impunity cannot be indefinite. It will strengthen those forces in Israel who support ending the occupation, give hope to Palestinians that they have US support and open the door to new possibilities. It’s taken decades to dig this hole that Americans, Israelis and Palestinians are in. There’s no time such as the present to stop digging and reverse course. Otherwise, the mutual violence and repression will continue, and Washington will have only its inaction to blame.