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U.S. Resistance to International Criticism of Israel

By Stephen Zunes


The violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip underscores the need for the international community to take assertive actions that can encourage a just and lasting peace in the region. It is crucial to recognize that while the violence must end, the underlying crisis has deeper roots.

The bottom line is this: The Palestinians are an occupied population, not unlike the Kuwaitis under Iraq in 1990 and 1991, or the East Timorese under Indonesia from 1975 to 1999. The Palestinians have endured the longest military occupation of the past century, save for Japan's occupation of Korea between 1910 and 1945. However one may wish to challenge the tactics or ideology of the Palestinians resisting the occupation, the onus of responsibility lies with the Israeli occupiers. The decision by some Palestinians to take up arms also can be placed on the United States' refusal to live up to its obligations to enforce United Nations resolutions.

Palestinian Rights and International Law:

A final peace agreement at Camp David this past July between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat was not nearly as close as many believed. Barak's proposal was doomed to fail. It would have allowed for continued Israeli control over a patchwork of illegal Jewish settlements, military outposts, and a network of exclusive highways throughout the West Bank and Gaza, making it virtually impossible for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Maintaining those settlements and their infrastructure is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and UN Security Council resolutions. An unsustainable peace agreement based on this proposal would have been worse than no peace agreement at all.

Therefore, when President Bill Clinton and other U.S. officials blamed the Palestinians for the breakdown of the talks, there was a strong sense of outrage among Palestinians. They thought that taking a position to the negotiations consistent with international law would lead to a recovery of their lands seized by Israel in 1967.

While a strong case can be made that Palestinian attacks against Israeli forces set back the hope for peace, a people under foreign military occupation do have the right, under international law, to attack uniformed occupation forces. Attacks against civilian Jewish settlers, by contrast, are not legal, yet neither is their presence on occupied Palestinian land. Israelis within Israel itself have been virtually unscathed by the recent violence. If Barak's government is genuinely interested in its people's safety, there would be an immediate withdrawal of troops and settlers to Israel.

U.S. Defense of Israel:

The majority of Israeli military encounters with Palestinians are not against armed resistance, but against young people with rocks and slingshots. Reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and independent Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups, have shown that Israeli forces are the major perpetrators of the violence. The casualty ratio between Israelis and Palestinians is 10 to 1, with most Palestinian victims unarmed. Yet the U.S. has refused to support resolutions defending basic human rights in the Occupied Territories.

  • On October 7, UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1322 was adopted condemning the "excessive use of force against Palestinians." It called on Israel, as the occupying power, to abide by the Fourth Geneva Convention. Every Security Council member endorsed the resolution except for the United States, which abstained.

  • On October 19, the UN Human Rights Commission condemned the "grave and massive violations of the human rights of the Palestinian people by Israel," and requested that the High Commissioner for Human Rights visit the Occupied Territories to examine the situation, including the "disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force" by Israel. The U.S. voted against the resolution.

  • On October 20, the UN General Assembly condemned Israel's excessive use of force against Palestinians. It demanded that Israel, as the occupying power, abide scrupulously to its legal obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. The resolution reiterated that the Convention was applicable to all territories occupied by Israel since 1967, and that settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, were illegal and an obstacle to peace. It also called for the prevention of Israeli settler violence. The United States was one of only six states (the others being Israel and four tiny Pacific island nations dependent on U.S. aid) which voted against the resolution.

In contradiction to these UN statements and resolutions, the U.S. Congress passed an October 25 resolution 365 to 30 which blamed the Palestinians exclusively for the violence. Al Gore and George W. Bush made similar statements during the waning days of their presidential campaigns, as have the congressional leaders of both parties.

Moreover, prominent political figures and pundits in the United States have sought to blame Arafat and the PA for encouraging rioting against Israeli troops. Those most responsible for violence on the Palestinian side, however, are Islamists and young people, the two segments of Palestinian society over which Arafat has the least control. Furthermore, as it has been from South Africa to East Timor, youth are often at the forefront of such spontaneous rebellions without any need for prompting by their seniors in positions of authority.

Finally, no Israeli government has ever been able to make successful compromises for peace without U.S. pressure. If the U.S. had pressured Barak to compromise this summer, Barak could have told the Israeli public that further sacrifices were necessary to preserve the close relationship with the United States. Instead, by claiming that the Israelis had compromised more than the Palestinians, the United States left the Barak government open to criticism from the right that it had given away too much. As a result, the Labor government has fallen and the right-wing Likud is favored to win the upcoming election.

A Lesson Learned:

For nearly 22 years, the United States blocked enforcement of UNSCR 425 and nine subsequent resolutions demanding Israel's unconditional withdrawal from Lebanon. Had the U.S. not opposed these resolutions, Palestinians would have seen a precedent for Israeli withdrawal through a nonviolent process based on international law, and would have had more faith in U.S. leadership.

Instead, Palestinians saw the Israelis withdraw only when a protracted guerrilla war resulted in losses of Israeli soldiers to a degree deemed unacceptable by the Israeli public. Israel was forced to make a hasty, chaotic retreat this past May. Unfortunately, as with Lebanon, continued guerrilla warfare against Israel will likely lead to thousands of Arab casualties, primarily civilians, and the dislocation of tens of thousands more. Yet unlike Lebanon, such violence will probably not convince Israel to withdraw. Israelis see the West Bank-for strategic, religious, and nationalistic reasons-as far more important.

Necessary Steps:

Achieving a lasting peace settlement will be difficult until the fighting stops. The UN must be able to send in an international peacekeeping force to separate the sides, and an impartial international commission should be empowered to investigate the causes of the violence.

The PA called for such actions, but Israel refused to accept them. The Clinton administration also opposes such a deployment because it is unacceptable to Israel. Yet Israel's permission is not required, since the land in question is occupied territory. The inquiry led by George Mitchell is unlikely to succeed due to the limitations on its mandate and Mitchell's role as a staunch defender of the Israeli occupation while he was a U.S. senator. The three-member team appointed by the UN on December 19 is likely to be more objective, yet Israel refuses to cooperate with it.

Regardless, the U.S. must step aside and allow the UN, the European Union, or some other body which recognizes the rights and obligations of both parties, to now take the lead in peace negotiations.

Stephen Zunes is Associate Professor of Politics and Chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. The above text may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the author and to CPAP. This Information Brief does not necessarily reflect the views of CPAP or The Jerusalem Fund.

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