What's missing from America's Palestine policy? The human element

In Washington, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been reduced to 'Israeli humanity versus the Palestinian problem'

Protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza raise their arms as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies in Washington last October. EPA
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Officials in Washington and their counterparts in Israel are sitting around tables making plans for what they want to see after Israel ends its assault on Gaza.

From what I’ve read, their plans are either insensitive or delusional because they fail to consider that the issue isn’t who runs what and how it will be run. What must be understood is that the wounds inflicted by this war will last and will define reality for a generation or more.

These are the personal, not the political, consequences of this war. The loss and trauma inflicted in so many ways on millions of Palestinian victims are hardly ever factored into the calculations by Israeli policymakers or their enablers in Washington. To them Palestinians have always been mere pawns on a chessboard, objects to be moved or cast off, at will.

In a real sense, herein lies the root of the entire conflict. From the beginning, neither the British nor the early Zionist leaders saw the indigenous Arab population as full human beings.

When learning of the British plans to secure a Mandate and turn it over to the Zionist movement for a Jewish colony in Palestine, the Americans sent a team to survey the opinions of the Arabs. What they found was a near-total Arab rejection of both the Mandate and the Zionist enterprise.

On hearing of the results, the British Lord Balfour was quoted saying: “In Palestine, we do not propose … consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country. Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is … of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”

I reminded a White House official that it wasn’t either Palestinian suffering or Israeli suffering. It was both

The founders of the Zionist movement shared this sentiment. Figures such as Max Nordau wrote that the Jewish people were “more industrious and more able than the average European, not to speak at all of the inert Asiatic and African”. And they believed that the colony they would build would be a “rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism”.

This deeply racist mindset found its best expression in the 1960 film The Exodus that transposed the American “cowboys and Indians” storyline onto the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – with Israelis as pioneers seeking freedom for themselves and their families, facing hordes of savages who sought only to kill them. The conflict was thus reduced to “Israeli humanity versus the Palestinian problem”. And what was needed was a way to defeat, subdue, or solve the “problem” so that Israeli humanity could realise their dreams.

This remains the thinking of too many policymakers in Washington.

As they grieved with the Israelis over the trauma of October 7, they could see the Israelis as real people with whom they identified and for whom they mourned, while Palestinians remained an abstraction receiving little sympathy. This is why it has taken months for any real expressions of compassion for tens of thousands of Palestinians dead and the attendant devastation of Palestinian homes and cities.

Early in this war, I spoke with a senior White House official. After he expressed his pain at the horrors of October 7, I told him that I understood and asked him to also consider Palestinian trauma. He angrily dismissed my appeal as “whataboutism”, suggesting that my intent was to justify or diminish the suffering of Israelis. I reminded him that it wasn’t either Palestinian suffering or Israeli suffering. It was both.

Five months later, with more than 32,000 dead Palestinians and the entire population of Gaza on the brink of famine, attention is finally being paid by the administration. But it’s too little and too late.

Despite the White House focus on the humanitarian crisis – lack of food, water, medicine and housing – there is still no appreciation for the deeper toll inflicted on Palestinian lives. If the US, Israel’s strongest ally, recognised the true toll, it wouldn’t just be dropping in aid or building a pier, or thinking that a reformed Palestinian Authority doing the work of Israel’s occupation in Gaza was an acceptable “day after” scenario.

If they saw Palestinians as equal human beings, they would tell the Israelis to stop bombing. They would remove the block on UNRWA. They would support a UN resolution that would send international forces into Gaza and the West Bank, ending the illegal Israeli occupation of both. And they would set up an international relief and reconstruction effort not only to rebuild Gaza, but also to send in teams of doctors to address the physical and psychological wounds of this war.

They would, in other words, demonstrate the sense of urgency, compassion and care that human beings deserve.

My recommendation to the officials sitting around the tables in the White House is: “Before you start, think of how you would want your families treated if they have been subjected to the horrors of the past five months. Think of what they would need so that their wounds can heal and not fester. The losses they’ve endured can’t be forgotten, nor can the trauma they’ve experienced be erased. How would you want your families to be treated? If you are able to do that, then proceed. If you can’t, then step aside and find someone who can.”

Published: March 25, 2024, 2:00 PM