As the West reviews its unflinching support for Israel

As the West reviews its unflinching support for Israel

Shahid Javed Burki May 24, 2021
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

I write this as it is not clear even to those who have given their unflinching support to the Jewish state of Israel, how and when the current bloody conflict that is waging between the Palestinians and Israelis is likely to end. There are a number of reasons why the Americans and most of their government have cheered on Israel in its ways. This was the case even when the right wing of Israeli politics under long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put greater than the usual pressure on the Arabs who were the citizens of Israel. While the most enthusiastic support for Israel came from the Democratic Party, it was the Republican Donald Trump who satisfied the long-standing Jewish demand that they should be allowed to shift the capital of their country from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The city has Islam’s third holiest site after Mecca and Medina. The square, protected by a high boundary wall, has two of the holiest sites for Islam — the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. It is from this spot that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is believed to have gone to Heaven for his communion with God. Even though the square was part of the Israeli controlled Jerusalem, there was tacit understanding that Jews would not enter the compound. This they did in early May to cut off the wires that connected a number of loudspeakers to the muezzin calling the faithful for prayers. The sound was cut off so that Jews could hear the prayers of the Rabbi delivered at the Holy Wall just below the mosque. This led to a violent response from the Palestinians living in the city that was once their own. They demonstrated in the streets of the city and threw rocks at the Jews who also came out. Hamas, the Palestinian organisation that controls the narrow Gaza Strip, fired rockets into Israel and the Jewish state responded by a full-scale armed assault on the strip. Planes were used to bomb the strip while projectiles were fired using powerful cannons. Scores of Palestinians lost their lives while their houses were destroyed.

The current Israeli-Palestinian conflict has as its backdrop significantly changed American politics. There are movements in the country that have been launched in support of the Black people and against the mostly white police that has been held responsible for a number of Black deaths. George Floyd, a young hand-cuffed black man had fallen on the ground as the police were pushing him into the squad-car, and became a symbol of the popular move against the harshness of the state towards the poor and defenceless. A white policeman placed his knee on Floyd’s neck and pressed hard with his full weight. The knee remained on the neck for almost ten minutes and the captive’s cries of “I can’t breathe” were ignored by the four policemen involved in his arrest. This entire scene was recorded by a young black girl who saw it as she was passing by. That recording became the main piece of evidence as the policeman who had used his knee to kill Floyd was tried for various offences including murder and was pronounced guilty by a 12-person jury. This incident added one more event to the accumulating stories about the mistreatment of the Black population and added fuel to a growing movement, ‘Black Lives Matter, or BLM’.

This was not the only movement that was bringing about change in the US political scene. The Covid-19 pandemic brought evidence that low-income groups had suffered much more from the disease than those who were well-to-do. On top of all this, former president Trump refused to concede defeat to the Democratic candidate Joseph Biden. He urged his supporters to stop the validation of the election that was scheduled for January 6, 2021. The supporters heard him and marched to the Capitol, the building that houses Congress, beat back the defences and entered the building. There were deaths in what came to be called an insurrection.

It is against this developing US story that the events in Israel and the West Bank are being seen in America. According to one newspaper analysis, “for decades, both parties offered almost unquestioning support for Israel and, with words like ‘occupation’ and ‘Palestine’ considered far outside the acceptable debate in official Washington. But left-wing Democrats no longer shy away from such terms,” wrote Lisa Lerer and Jennifer Medina, in their analysis of the what they called the ‘Middle East carnage’. They quoted Daniel Gordis, the author of a book, We Stand Divided, who said that, “the rise of identity politics made this almost inevitable. It looks like weak against the strong, the disenfranchised against the enfranchised, the stateless against the state.” Gordis is senior vice president at the Shalem College in Jerusalem. This theme was picked up by some members of the US House of Representatives whose full support Israel could always count on. This time around four young women, two of them Muslims and one of whom was a refugee from Somalia, spoke. They spoke openly about the heavy-handed display by Israel. The group was led by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, commonly known as AOC. She and other Democrats gave fiery speeches on the floor of the House.

AOC directly challenged the President, who had asserted that Israel had a right to defend itself. “Do Palestinians have the right to survive?” she asked. “Do we believe that? And if so, we have responsibility for that as well.” Less than 24 hours later, on May 14, nearly 150 prominent liberal advocacy groups issued a joint statement calling for “solidarity with the Palestinian residents” and condemning “Israeli state violence” and “supremacy” in Jerusalem. The statement was endorsed by a diverse group focused not only on the Middle Eastern and Jewish issues but by people dedicated to causes like climate change, immigration, feminism, and racial justice — a clear indication that for the Democratic Party’s liberal faction, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had moved far beyond the realm of foreign policy.

Much has changed over the last quarter century. In 1988, when James Zogby, the founder of the Arab-American Institute, pushed the Democrats to include a mention of Palestinian sovereignty in their platform, party leaders responded with a strong warning: “If the P-word is even in the platform, all hell will break lose,” he was told. Eager to stave off an angry confrontation at the convention, the issue was shelved without vote. Recalling that incident, Zogby maintains that the world has changed and the “base of the party is moving in a very different direction than where the party establishment is. If you support Black Lives Matter, it was not a difficult leap to saying Palestinians lives matter too.” There is a slight change in the way the world — and that includes the US — is looking at this particular conflict in Palestine. As I write this, both the US and Europe had begun to put pressure on Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to cease fire on the Gaza Strip.



Published in The Express Tribune, May 24th, 2021.

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