What is a Balanced View of Israel’s Occupation of the Palestinian Territories?

By Barry Miller

What does it mean when a person says, “I have a balanced view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” Is the person saying there are people on both sides of the issue whose positions are considered extreme but they hold a realistic view of the situation from the middle? Does it mean that they know the historical record better, thus allowing them to better interpret the situation than others?

Would a balanced view be the same in the U.S., the European Union, Israel and the Middle East? Not necessarily, not if individuals’ knowledge of the historical record were different, if their cultural or religious backgrounds were different, if they have come to believe non-historical popularized myths. Norman Finkelstein, DePaul University’s professor of political theory in Chicago, says there is pretty much agreement among scholars on the historical record of this conflict. So let’s spend a few moments reviewing Israel’s 38 year old occupation of Palestinian land.

Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazzen has been able to temporarily quell Palestinian violence without starting a civil war among Palestinians militant factions. Israel, in turn, has released several hundred Palestinian prisoners and begun returning control of several West Bank cities to the Palestinians. Both parties are urged to return to the quartet’s Road Map as the path to political negotiations and hopefully peace.

The abhorrent violence of the occupation of the Palestinian territories has been directed towards both Israelis and Palestinians civilians. Israeli civilians, inside Israel’s borders, have been victimized by suicide bombers. Palestinians have been subjected to daily violence by both the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and settlers. For each Israeli civilian killed, approximately three Palestinians are killed. The truly unfortunate reality is that nearly 20% of each civilian population killed are children under the age of 18. However, to focus on the violence misses the root cause of the conflict—Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

An easy pitfall for any discussion of the conflict is to assume that Jewish, Christian and Muslim societies are each monolithic which they aren’t. There are religious, cultural and political differences among each group. For example, Hamas and other militant factions deny Israel’s right to exist but most Palestinians, Muslim and Christian, long to end the violence and live peacefully as neighbors of Israel in a viable state of their own.

Israel has Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Jewish movements. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews believe God has given them all of ancient Samaria and Judea, which extends on both sides of the Jordon River. Israel’s IDF and ultra-Orthodox settlers have committed violence against Palestinians. A 2003 poll in Ma’ariv indicated that about 60% of Israeli Jews support an end to the Occupation and the removal of all Settlements built under Sharon.

Even among U.S. Christians, there is division. Mainline Protestant churches generally oppose Israel’s military occupation whereas Christian Zionists, believers in the Rapture, support it.

As recently reported by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Ariel Sharon said Israel should press forward with a building plan to connect Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem despite U.S. and Palestinian objections. Sharon announced the building of 3,500 new housing units in the five-kilometer (three-mile) corridor between the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim and the eastern part of Jerusalem. Sharon made it clear he wanted to move forward with building in the E-1 corridor, the designation for the land between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim. He was quoted as saying, “There is a need to carry out construction in E-1". "This program has been in existence for 10 years. We should definitely move ahead with it."

U.S. officials have repeatedly objected to Israeli announcements of plans over the years to expand Ma’ale Adumim, home to 30,000 Jews in Israel’s largest settlement. Even President Bush spoke earlier this year of the need for "territorial contiguity" and a "viable Palestinian state". Some observers feel this expansion will end the current period of peace.

It’s time to assess where the conflict is going. It’s time to ask, “What is a balanced view of the situation?”

Within the American Jewish community, some ask why should Americans take so much interest in this conflict and not in other trouble spots in the world like Darfur or the Congo? That is a fair question. However, upon thinking about it, I am aware that the U.S., my country and your country, gives $3-6 billion U.S. tax dollars in economic and military aid to Israel each year. The economic aid has been used to build illegal Jewish-only bypass roads and settlements (colonies) on land confiscated from Palestinians by force. I also am aware of my country's nearly 40 U.N. Security Council vetoes of resolutions critical of Israel. For at least 15 of these votes, the U.S. cast the single dissenting vote, i.e. the veto. Because of my country's actions in support of the occupation, I feel complicit in the oppression of the Palestinians and theft of their land.

We were a signatory to the Fourth Geneva Convention, developed after World War II, which includes over 100 articles of humanitarian law prohibiting torture, illegal detention, house demolition, colonization, deportation or transfer, collective punishment, extra-judicial killings and humiliation and degradation of the civilian population. The U.S. also voted to approve U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 (Withdraw Israeli armed forces from occupied territories…guarantee territorial integrity, ensure just settlement of refugee problem), 338, 465 (Affirms Fourth Geneva Convention and deplores Israeli colonies in the occupied Palestinian territory).

The International Court of Justice has condemned Israel's separation barrier, built mostly on Palestinian land. Opposition to the barrier is based on its path. The U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution, albeit non-binding but a measure of world opinion, that endorsed the ICJ ruling by a vote of 150 to 6. Only Israel, Australia, the U.S. and a few small nations voted against the GA resolution. World opinion clearly sees the occupation much differently than the U.S. government.

The Wall adversely affects 4 out of 10 Palestinians and prevents the viability of an independent Palestinian state, the stated goal of the Road Map. In East Jerusalem, the path of the Wall ensures “preferred” demographic balance by isolating Palestinian villages on the outside. Some villages are totally enclosed by the Wall. Its construction enables Israel to continue its illegal land theft, maintain a Jewish majority within the new de facto boundary and ends all hope for the Road Map.

In 2004, United Methodists, like many other mainline Protestant denominations, passed a resolution strongly critical of Israel's occupation and violence instigated by either side. A copy of that resolution is attached. This is the latest of several resolutions from previous years critical of Israel’s occupation. Unfortunately, the building of settlements, bypass roads and now the Wall continue unabated. In an abrupt reversal of previous U.S. policy, ignoring international law and his own Road Map, President Bush has recently given Ariel Sharon assurances that Israel will be able to keep most of its East Jerusalem and West Bank settlements.

Over a quarter million settlers live in more than 200 settlements built on Palestinian land. Jeff Halper, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) director and professor at Ben Gurion University, and others are now of the opinion that the occupation's strategic encroachment on Palestinian land has progressed to the point that a viable Palestinian state is not possible. If both a two-state and uni-national state are not possible, is the likely alternative an apartheid state?

With the continual growth of Israel's facts-on-the-ground, the occupation may be in its later stages. Like other denominations, various United Methodists are considering selective phased divestment actions. Divestment is the conscious decision on the part of investors to not profit from any investments in companies that support the ongoing Israeli occupation or violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's unfortunate that the situation has deteriorated to the point where such drastic action is being considered.

At a recent program discussing divestment at a North Park University, Rabbi Herbert Bronstein, from North Shore Congregation Israel, was a member of a program. He, too, is against divestment. But he said 70% of the American Jews don't support Israel's occupation. I am aware that U.S. groups like Jewish peace groups like JVP and Chicago-based Not-In-My-Name are opposed to the occupation. JVP even supports divestment.

Here is the question I can't answer. If 70% of America's Jews oppose Israel's occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, why hasn’t there a much louder Jewish voice these past 38 years demanding that the U.S. government stop funding the occupation and play an honest and balanced role as a Middle East peacemaker? Why aren't there more Jewish voices willing to criticize the policies of the Israel government regarding occupation? Does American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful American Jewish lobby which supports Israel, represent the viewpoint of the majority of American Jews? Why does the occupation have to become a wedge issue that separates Christian and Jews?

I am free to criticize the policies of my church, the Bush and Clinton administrations, the actions and policies of the United Nations, governments in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Colombia, Cuba, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Canada, Mexico, France and China but risk being labeled anti-Semitic if I criticize the Israel's Likud government's occupation policies or my government's support of those policies. As the world's fifth greatest military power with a fleet of F-16s second only to the U.S., more than 200 nuclear weapons, and now with the purchase of 500 U.S. bunker buster bombs, Israel’s existence is not threatened by the Palestinians. If there was a just settlement for the occupied territories, wouldn't terrorism be greatly reduced? Palestinians think so. Couldn't both peoples live in peace as neighbors?

How can American Jews and Christians constructively dialogue about the occupation of Palestinian occupation? How can these two great Abrahamic religions, who share the justice callings of the Prophets, jointly find compromise and work collectively to pursue a just and lasting peace in the Middle East? I would welcome abandoning divestment actions if Palestinian self-determination could be realized in a viable Palestinian state.