The Open Wounds of Mideast Conflicts

Dennis J Bernstein

Peace in Palestine and Palestinian statehood have barely surfaced in the 2016 Presidential election, although President Barack Obama has just approved a massive military aid package for Israel and Israel is expanding its settlements in Palestinian territory. In part, the silence is because both major party candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have already professed their devotion to Israel.
But the festering wound of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a major source of violence in the Middle East, contributing to hostilities in Iraq and Syria, will not go away by being ignored, as Ali Abunimah, author ofOne Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli/Palestinian Impasseand co-founder and director of the Electronic Intifada, explained in a Flashpoints interview.
Dennis Bernstein: Ali, welcome back to Flashpoints.
Ali Abunimah: Thank you Dennis. I’m happy to be back in one of my favorite places, and speaking for one of my favorite organizations, the Middle East Children’s Alliance, doing some incredible work. And I hope people are going to come out and support them.

Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah in Helsinki on October 14, 2011. (Flickr Veera Vehkasalo)
Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah in Helsinki on October 14, 2011. (Flickr Veera Vehkasalo)

DB: Well, I hope so too. And, again, the work that MECA does is more crucial than ever. Working to bring pure water, to do the significant life-saving work that they continue to do. There’s a lot going on in this world, Ali. And there’s a lot that you know a lot about. […] We hear once again the Iraqi army is poised to take back Mosul. They are armed, they are strong, And we’re already getting reports that they’re winning. You want to give us your initial response to when you hear the Iraqi forces, once again, have massed to take Mosul? How does that sound to you?
AA: Well, it sounds to me like in every one of these situations, the first and foremost victims are going to be defenseless civilians. And that’s what worries me, and concerns me the most. This plan to take Mosul has been in the works for a long time. It’s been announced a long time ago, and people in Mosul as people throughout Iraq and in Syria, are between a rock and a hard place. They have been given no choice about who they are going to get bombed or killed by.
DB: And there are a lot of people who are worried that this is just a part of this expanding war, that we see expanding into Syria. Nobody really knows where this is going to go. Do you want to put this in the context of Syria. And just to mention that Gorbachev just released a statement saying that he’s terrified that the situation is grave in terms of Syria. And relations between the U.S. and Russia are worse than they have ever been.
AA: Well, you have to kind of step back, and look at the big picture, in a way. I mean in the context of this election campaign, if you can call it that, there are revelations that are really quite shocking that are being completely glossed over because Trump is stealing all the headlines. But it’s been revealed that Hillary Clinton in a memo which was only leaked through WikiLeaks said flat out that ISIS was funded by two of the closest U.S. allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and ISIS and other groups in Syria.
And on the other side you have Russia, which is supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad which has killed vast numbers of civilians, that is besieging eastern Aleppo and raining hell and fire on people there. And you have a war that only seems to be getting bloodier and more horrific.
And it seems to me any sensible person would say that the priority has got to be to stop the war. And the people who can do that, or the powers that can do that, are the United States and Russia who have the power to stop feeding their proxies with weapons, with money, and to bring an end to the bloodshed. And from that point there’s got to be some kind of political solution to this mess. Because otherwise the effort to fight until victory is simply going to destroy what’s left of Syria, and kill even more people than have already died.
That seems to me a sensible view, but at the same time people’s passions are so raised that if you try to say that the priority has to be to stop the war, and stop the bloodshed, that you are accused with siding with the dictator, or siding against the dictator, or supporting the atrocities that are happening, or opposing them.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressing the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C. on March 21, 2016. (Photo credit: AIPAC)
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressing the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C. on March 21, 2016. (Photo credit: AIPAC)

What we do know is that the U.S. has been involved in fueling this war. Russia is involved, Iran is involved. And I am among those who are not convinced that more U.S. weapons, or more bombardment by the U.S., by Russia, or by any other country is going to produce better outcomes for people in Syria. So now, when you look at what Gorbachev said, or, indeed, what senior U.S. military officers have said, for the U.S. to take on, to have a more direct involvement in Syria would effectively mean a war with Russia.
And, I think we’re old enough to know how that sounds. A lot of people nowadays, a lot of younger folks that I talk to don’t have a memory of what it meant to live in the shadow of nuclear war, and so, maybe don’t hear that the same way people who lived through that era do.
DB: I think you’ve got a point there. I remember sort of hiding under my desk, and the biggest fear I had when we were doing those air raid drills was, my mom worked and I didn’t know where the hell that was. I didn’t know how I would ever find her, if the bomb fell. And we all grew up with that kind of fear. And here it is, for another generation of our kids. It’s terrifying. Ali, it looked like there was a moment when there was going to be a cease fire, and there was going to be a truce. It lasted for about two seconds and then it exploded into an even worse war. What happened?
AA: Well, I’m not claiming any expertise in this area but what I’m seeing is a cycle where the parties in Syria see this as a battle for… an existential battle. The regime sees a victory as an existential battle, as do many of its supporters. And those who have been under the horrific bombardments of the regime see it as an existential battle. In a situation like that, it’s not going to stop, unless those who are arming and financing and supporting these parties say “Enough.” Civil wars… this is one of the most horrific civil wars in modern times, if not in history.
And it’s not going to end by itself, unless the powers, particularly the United States and Russia, decide they’re going to end it. And so far they haven’t decided to do that. And there is a push to get the U.S. even more involved. And when we look at the results of U.S. involvement in Iraq, in Libya, throughout the world, for the past half century or more, in Southeast Asia, it’s hard to look at that and not just apprehend the prospect of another major U.S. military involvement with real fear and horror.
DB: I want to get deep into Palestine, but just one more question. I have to ask it. My listeners tend to get furious with me when I raise issues this way. But I have to ask you, do you have a preference, do you think Trump or Hillary Clinton is more capable of dealing… I don’t mean it to be a farcical question. It’s an important question, because they are the ones. Do you think either one is better than the other? … Long pause.
AA: Long pause. I will not be voting for either of them is what I can say. And I have been through enough cycles to know that the whole “lesser evil” argument is what has got us to this point. If voting for the lesser evil was a strategy then we would not be facing the horrendous choice right now, of Trump who is supported by some of the most nasty, extreme, fascistic and racist and white supremacist elements. Who is himself, very unpredictable. I don’t think anyone can know what he would do if he was president. I don’t think anything he says can be taken as a reliable indicator of what he’ll say or do tomorrow.
And Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, as these leaks show, is going to be the reliable candidate of the war industry, of the financial industry, of… if you just look at the way she makes policy. I mean, what these e-mails reveal on Palestine, for example, on Israel, is that it was all about… it’s like, we’re going to oppose the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement because that’s going to get us money from our donors.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaking to the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C. on March 21, 2016. (Photo credit: AIPAC)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaking to the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C. on March 21, 2016. (Photo credit: AIPAC)

She’s saying, in writing, in these e-mails, in memos she’s sending her staff, that Saudi Arabia is funding ISIS. And the Clinton Foundation is taking money from Saudi Arabia. And the Obama administration made like the biggest weapons deal in history with Saudi Arabia. They’ve sold $115 billion dollars worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Can I say with any conviction that that is the lesser evil? I honestly can’t.
DB: Alright, let’s turn our attention to the situation in occupied Palestine. That word occupied doesn’t often make it into the corporate press. But that’s exactly… it’s not only occupied, but it’s an expanding occupation. Some refer to it as an ethnic cleansing. Take your pick of terms. Apartheid, Israeli-style.
But, Ali, let’s take it in two parts. Why don’t you give us your sense, give us an update, where you see the situation on the ground now — is it worse after the last Israeli slaughter? Is it status quo? How would you evaluate the situation on the ground now?
AA: Well, that’s the big question. First of all, the word occupied, remember, didn’t even make it into the Democratic Party platform. There was a big fight about that, and you had Cornel West, and you had the members who were appointed by Bernie Sanders who were fighting to have the word occupied included in the platform. And Hillary’s appointees fought tooth and nail, successfully, to keep it out.
Children play on the ruins of demolished homes in Shejayeh, an area which was heavily hit by Israeli cannon shells and F-16 missiles during Israel’s 51-day war on Gaza in the summer of 2014, when more than 2,200 Palestinians were killed and around 100,000 became homeless. (PHOTO M. OMER)
Children play on the ruins of demolished homes in Shejayeh, an area which was heavily hit by Israeli cannon shells and F-16 missiles during Israel’s 51-day war on Gaza in the summer of 2014, when more than 2,200 Palestinians were killed and around 100,000 became homeless. (PHOTO M. OMER)

So, the situation throughout Palestine it is pretty grim. In Gaza, which is only a small part of the territory, but they just marked the population reaching 2 million. You know, it’s now been just over 2 years since the last mass Israeli slaughter in Gaza, and there’s been no accountability. The economic situation is a catastrophe. The siege is tighter than ever. And the construction, reconstruction has been more or less blocked to a… just to a trickle by Israel. And the conditions of life are unsustainable. You have the U.N. that keeps saying by 2020 Gaza will be unlivable. I mean, it’s already unlivable, if you listen to people who are there, in terms of not just the sustenance that people need to live and breathe, but the prospects.
I mean, the population there is overwhelmingly young. More than 51% under the age of 18, and people have no prospects. This is one of the most highly educated populations in the region, and young people go to the university, they do very well, and then there’s nothing for them to do. It has the highest unemployment rate in the world. And this is all created deliberately by Israel, endorsed by Barack Obama, endorsed by the European Union, with the complicity of the United Nations.
[…] And, you know, it’s been forgotten. There’s almost no mention of what’s happening in Gaza. In the West Bank, this month marks a year since a major upsurge in confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli occupation forces and settlers, which really was stoked by Israel’s increasingly aggressive incursions into the Al-Aqsa Mosque’s compound in Jerusalem. It’s repression of the population in East Jerusalem. That’s really, along with Hebron, being the epicenter of the upsurge in violence.
More than 250 Palestinians have been killed on the West Bank in the last year. Thirty Israelis have been killed. And many of the Palestinians have been killed without any pretext, without any reason, without any accountability. But certainly a significant number, I think over 100, were killed in the context of carrying out attacks mostly on Israeli occupation forces at checkpoints, in what have been described by all the human rights groups that have looked into it, as extrajudicial executions.
But the key point here is that most of those who have carried out such acts have been very young, unaffiliated. This is not directed by any groups. And I think that’s a manifestation of just the sheer hopelessness that many young Palestinians feel. That Israel has decided that they will live under permanent conditions of apartheid, with more and more of their land taken.
Palestinians in the West Bank are also under a kind of siege. It’s a bit different from Gaza but they are also being squeezed into smaller and smaller areas. And what’s the response of the U.S. government? What’s the response of Barack Obama, whom everyone thinks is so cool? You know, he’s leaving office, and look how cool he is, and we wish he could have another 8 years. And you hear this kind of thing from people.
Well, this is the president who signed the biggest military aid package to any country, from any country, in history. Thirty-eight billion dollars over the next 10 years of weapons for Israel, to maintain its occupation, to maintain its apartheid, perhaps to attack Gaza again, in the near future. And that is the reality we’re dealing with.
And then, you know, the irony, just the other day the State Department put out this very strong statement about a new Israeli settlement in the heart of the West Bank. The State Department said “This settlement is closer to Jordan than it is to Israel, and we strongly condemn this.” And people are saying “What do you mean? You just signed this unconditional give-away of 38 billion dollars, what do you expect from Israel? Why should they behave any differently?”
A panoramic view of the Israeli settlement of Ariel on the Occupied West Bank. (Photo credit: Beivushtang)
A panoramic view of the Israeli settlement of Ariel on the Occupied West Bank. (Photo credit: Beivushtang)

DB: Could you talk a little bit about the arrest and torture of resistors, particularly young people? Are young people continuing to be arrested and tortured, and suffer in this way?
AA: Yeah. You know, what’s also happened is that there has been a huge upsurge in arrests. Over 1,000 Palestinian children have been arrested by Israel in the past year. The number that are in custody currently is at the highest level in a long time. I think it’s over 200 that are currently in custody, including some children as young as 12. And thousands of Palestinians are currently, I think the number is close to 7,000, are in Israeli prisons. And more than 700 are held in what’s called administrative detention. This is detention without charge or trial, which is indefinitely renewable. And this is something that is a holdover from British colonial times.
And we’ve seen [hunger strikes] in the past years, you know, consistently, but this has intensified again in the last year, … Palestinians undertaking lengthy hunger strikes, against this administrative detention.
So, this is happening again, with complete silence from the rest of the world. I mean, you know, Israel is being praised every day as a liberal democracy. It is a liberal democracy that runs a gulag for a population living under this brutal occupation. It’s a liberal democracy, so-called, where Palestinians have no rights.
I mean, we have arrests now […] since we are in the [San Francisco] Bay area let’s call out Facebook […] who are complicit with Israel in censorship. But Israel itself arresting Palestinians, over 140 Palestinians arrested for so-called incitement, for saying things on Facebook. Just the other day a world renowned Palestinian astrophysicist Imad Barghouthi, who’s been in jail since the spring, was sentenced to seven months for incitement.
Now incitement can mean criticizing Israel, criticizing the occupation. And what the Israeli military prosecutors– because these are military courts– did was they introduced as what they called evidence the number of “likes” that his Facebook posts had received, the number of “likes” — the number of “shares”– as evidence against him. […] You know, all these folks who are talking about free speech and “Je suis Charlie” and all of this kind of stuff, when it comes to Israel’s crackdown on Palestinians even being able to express themselves on social media, there’s total silence.
But people are going to prison for it. There is the Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour who is in prison currently for a poem she wrote. The journalist Semite Dway who came out of six months in prison, again for things she wrote on Facebook. And these cases are not being talked about.
DB: I really don’t mean to harken back to the campaign, other than Trump’s main thing is he’s going to build a wall to keep out the dangerous Mexicans. We’ve seen a wall built on Palestinian land, big wall, tall wall. I guess you can see it from space. What has been the impact of that wall?
AA: Well, it’s been devastating. It’s cut through Palestinian lands, communities. It has not been about security. That’s been a lie. It’s been about annexing Palestinian land to Israeli settlements. But you know, here’s a dirty little secret the Israelis don’t boast about – they stopped building it. They never finished it, because it was too astronomically expensive. And Palestinians can get around it anyway. So, they never finished it even though it exists in large areas and has wreaked havoc around Palestinian towns and cities and lands.
A portion of the separation wall built by the Israeli government jutting into the town of Bethlehem to enclose the tomb of Rachel within the Israeli zone. Many portions of the wall contain graffiti and artwork by the Palestinians and their visitors. (Photo credit: Ted Lieverman)
A portion of the separation wall built by the Israeli government jutting into the town of Bethlehem to enclose the tomb of Rachel within the Israeli zone. Many portions of the wall contain graffiti and artwork by the Palestinians and their visitors. (Photo credit: Ted Lieverman)

But also another thing, the wall that Trump wants to build is not hypothetical. That wall is already there, I have been to different parts of the U.S./Mexico border to San Diego, to Arizona, to Nogales, and I’ve seen the Obama Wall. Let’s call it its real name–it’s the Obama Wall. A great amount of border militarization has been done by Obama, by the Democrats who always want to be in the position of outflanking the Republicans on the right and saying, “Look how good we are at deporting people. Look how good we are.”
And, in fact, the connections there are very strong because the Obama administration awarded a contract to Elbit Systems, the Israeli company that operates the surveillance systems along the Israeli walls. Obama awarded a contract of $140 million to Elbit Systems for what’s called a virtual wall, in Arizona. This is a system of radars and high tech surveillance of people’s movements.
And all of that is tested. Who are the guinea pigs for these technologies that Israel is selling in the United States to control Americans, to control Mexicans, to control others? The guinea pigs are Palestinians under occupation.
DB: They’ve become the model. You want to repress your rebelling population that you’ve been brutalizing for 50 years? Call on Israel, follow their…
AA: Absolutely, I mean the Israeli press has articles from time to time about–proud articles–about how these racists, repressive, right wing regimes in Europe, like Hungary, are really anti-Semitic regime, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant. How they are now turning to Israel to help them build walls to keep out refugees who are fleeing for their lives. So Israel has become, as Naomi Klein called it, “the world’s shopping mall” for these so-called homeland security technologies. And Israel is proud of it. It’s big business for them.
And that’s certainly true in the U.S. where we see this huge industry of U.S. police departments going over to Israel for training. And that’s become a big issue, also, in terms of the struggle against police brutality, and police racisms, police killings in this country. Because their attitude, if not always the exact techniques but certainly the attitude, is not to view citizens in this country, particularly in the big cities, as people who deserve safety and protection, like everyone else, but as a hostile enemy population that has to be controlled.
And that attitude is really being mutually reinforced. I don’t want to blame Israel for it because that would be unfair to the United States which really needs no lessons in racism from anyone else.
DB: You know, another parallel structure, that virtual wall that you’re talking about at the southern border cuts through a number of Indian tribes, and right through Indian land. And we now see a major battle in North Dakota for land rights, and for rights of sacred territory. I want to ask you, Ali, I have often heard a parallel structure between the plight of the Palestinians, and the plight of the Native Americans. What do you think about that struggle? Is that an inspiration for the Palestinian movement?
AA: Sure. I mean the parallel structure has a name and that’s settler colonialism. And this is a settler colonial country, as is Canada, Australia, all of these colonial extensions of Europe, and particularly Britain, of which Israel is one. They operated against the indigenous people in the same way, through treating them as if they were simply a nuisance that is on this land that God had given to the invaders.
I mean, it’s incredibly inspiring, and what has been important for me to learn is that we talk, often Native people, Indigenous people in North America are talked about as if they were wiped out, and their struggle is over. And I think it’s critical to recognize, and this is something I’ve had to learn, that they are here, and they are fighting, and they are struggling. And it’s not too late for there to be restitution to Native people. It’s not too late for their land to be protected, for land to be returned. These should all be live and active demands that we should support. And the struggle in North Dakota is one of many. I mean these struggles are going on all over North America.
I was in New Zealand in April, and friends there took me to visit an important Maori burial ground and sacred site, one of the last major areas of open land near Auckland, near Auckland airport. And, in fact, [it is] a world historic site because it’s the last place that humans arrived for permanent settlement about a thousand years ago. And they want to build track housing on it. So people there are fighting to protect that land. So this is a global struggle.
DB: …For Indigenous rights, for the rights of the people whose land it really is.
AA: Absolutely.
DB: Well, I guess the final question is, and it speaks right to your lecture. Can Israeli apartheid really be defeated? The other side of that question comes out of the right wing, out of Netanyahu, who says, “I don’t have a partner for peace.” But this isn’t about looking for a partner for peace, is it? This is about on the one hand, liberating land, the people’s’ land, and the other part it’s about the infringement, the expanding colonialism.
AA: You know, I’m going to say something and maybe talk about this more tomorrow and I’m going to say something right now that might sound a bit nuts, which is, I think it’s already been defeated. What could I possibly mean when…
DB: What’s been defeated?
AA: Well, the idea, and the legitimacy of it has been defeated.
DB: Of Israel?
AA: Of this system where Israel has a right to perpetually superior rights over the Indigenous people in Palestine. I think that’s already gone. No one can defend it anymore. And nobody is really trying except for the hard-core ultra-Zionists, who are trying to make that case. So now I think the struggle is really about shifting the balance of power. Because Israeli apartheid is a reality. It’s a discredited idea. But it’s a hard reality and so it’s really about fighting to shift the balance, to replace it with something that looks like justice. But I think we’ve already won the war of ideas, in that sense.
DB: So, then what comes next?
AA: Well, what comes next is what I think we’re all struggling for which is a decent life, of justice, equality, protection, economic democracy, which I think is fundamental. Because just having political rights, like we can all go and vote on November 8th, right? Most people can go for it if you’re not disenfranchised. But there’s no economic democracy in this country. So that’s why many of us say “Well, it doesn’t make a difference, who I vote for.” So, economic democracy is something we have to struggle for here, as in Palestine. And, I can’t pretend I have all the answers for that, but that’s why I want to be part of this making mix. Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author ofSpecial Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives consortiumnews