Another Bloody Passover

On March 27 Jews around the world will begin the celebration of Passover. The biblical story of the exodus from Egypt commemorates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery and their emergence on the historical stage as a nation.

Is it not ironic then, that this Passover also marks nearly 35 years of Israel's military occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem?

Americans often see the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as an irrational cycle of violence in which our government periodically intervenes as a mediator. This view obscures three fundamental realities of the conflict.

The most basic is that since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel has been occupying the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem -- territories that the Palestinians, backed by the consensus of international opinion, seek to turn into an independent state.

Second, while there is absolutely no justification for the Palestinians' targeting of unarmed civilians in their struggle to end the occupation, no Palestinian armed actions of any sort have ever posed an existential threat to Israel. The military balance has always been heavily in Israel's favor.

Finally, the United States has played a major role in maintaining Israel's occupation and its military supremacy. The U.S. is Israel's principal supplier of advanced weapons, including the F-16 fighters and Apache helicopters that have been used to attack the buildings of the Palestinian Authority and to target Palestinian leaders for assassination over the last 18 months.

The first substantial commitment of American military aid to Israel was in 1969-74. In part, this was an implementation of the 1969 Nixon Doctrine, which envisioned setting up regional surrogates in the third world in order to avoid sending U.S. troops to future Vietnams. In part, it was a payoff for the partial withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights following agreements reached through Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy. Military aid to Israel escalated in 1979. This was a payment for signing the peace treaty with Egypt that year and also an effort to build up Israeli forces to replace the loss of Iran as a Middle Eastern Nixon Doctrine surrogate after the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Israeli is now the single largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. Since 1987 it has received annually about $1.8 billion in Foreign Military Financing grants, $1.2 in Economic Security Funds grants, $2 billion in loan guarantees, and about $.5 billion from other federal budgets. In fiscal year 2001 Israel is receiving $1.98 billion in military aid and $949 million in economic assistance, the first stage in the gradual elimination of economic aid and increase in military aid projected over the next decade.

Increasing numbers of Israelis are now returning to the previous understanding of the Israeli peace movement -- that there is no military solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, and that seeking to enforce one requires those serving in the Israeli armed forces to engage in systematic, unconscionable violations of human rights. Such behavior ultimately enhances the militarization of Israel and undermines the efforts of those who aspire to a democratic society under the rule of law. The revived Israeli peace movement has targeted the continuing occupation and the inadequacy of Israel's offer to the Palestinians at the July 2000 Camp David summit as the root causes of the violence since September 2000. Serious challenges have been raised to the claim of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak that he handed the Palestinians a state on a silver platter but that Yasir Arafat refused and resorted to violence.

Over three hundred army reservists have declared that they will no longer serve in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Hundreds more have refused to serve without stating so publicly. Sixty-two high school seniors wrote to the Prime Minister indicating their grave reservations about serving in the army. About a dozen young men have publicly declared themselves to be conscientious objectors over the last year -- far more than ever before. Although they are still a minority, these military refuseniks and their supporters are the Israelis with the clearest vision of how to end the conflict with the Palestinians and establish a just peace. Their bold actions provide Americans with an opportunity to support peacemakers rather than providing armaments.

The military supply relationship between the United States and Israel has encouraged Israel to be more intransigent with the Palestinians. It has not promoted a just resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There is an international consensus that a such a resolution requires the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. It will also require addressing the claims of the Palestinian refugees in exchange for peaceful coexistence and normalization of relations between Israel, Palestine and the other Arab states. American military aid to Israel should be suspended until Israel is prepared to withdrawal fully from the occupied territories and address the claims of the Palestinian refugees.

American Jews can contribute to re-envisioning America's role in the conflict by reminding ourselves that the Passover story has a powerful universal message of liberation. Denying freedom to another people is inconsistent with celebrating our own, and will ultimately make Israel and the occupied territories an intolerable place to live for both Jews and Palestinians.

Joel Beinin (beinin@stanford.edu) is a Professor of History at Stanford University.

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