By Kristin Szremski
President Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly Thursday was a crushing blow to those who have the audacity to hope that the United States can and will be a truly honest broker in the Middle East peace process. In his remarks – delivered in his trademark lets-get-this-job-done style, Mr. Obama shifted the paradigm of discussion in much the same way his predecessor George Bush framed the post-911 debate by saying “You are either with us or you’re with the terrorists,” leaving no middle ground where true debate can take place.
Mr. Obama set the stage by saying Israel is the historic home of the Jewish people and then immediately moved to stifle any justifiable debate this statement – for which no historical or empirical evidence exists – would elicit by saying it was time move on and to forgo “the familiar list of grievances.”
In two short paragraphs, Mr. Obama dismissed the rights of the Palestinians who had lived in that region for thousands of years before the creation of the State of Israel. With this dismissive phrase, Mr. Obama negated the validity of very real grievances held by the millions of Palestinians who constitute 40 percent of the world’s refugees – the largest and longest-standing refugee population. He chose to ignore the plight of the 1.5 million Palestinians living in an abject humanitarian crisis in the besieged Gaza Strip or the
He evoked the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human when he said that “freedom, justice and peace for the world must begin with freedom, justice, and peace in the lives of individual human beings.” The United States upholds these values because it is the right thing to do, according to the president, who also said that those who uphold these values are America’s friends while those who “have denied those rights – whether terrorist groups or tyrannical governments – have chosen to be our adversaries.”
What is so maddening is that Israel is guilty of exactly what Mr. Obama is attributing to our adversaries – by implication in this case, the Palestinians. But the president overlooks Israel’s duplicity to focus instead, once again, on its victimhood. “The slaughter of innocent Israelis is not resistance – it’s injustice,” President Obama told the General Assembly.
What about the slaughter of innocent Palestinians? Are the deaths of more than thousands Palestinians at the hands of Israeli soldiers, police and illegal settlers, worth any less than the deaths of Israelis? Don’t their deaths amount to injustice as well?
To be sure, no one can support the bloodletting of innocents.
But how President Obama can unconditionally support Israel without once acknowledging that it consistently denies the rights of not just the Palestinians but also of non-Orthodox Jews living in Israel, undermines the sincerity and determination he is trying to achieve with this speech. He therefore undermines the position the United States is trying to take within the Arab and Muslim worlds. Annually, the U.S. Department of State lists numerous human rights abuses perpetrated by Israel upon Palestinians and non-Orthodox Jews in its Human Rights Report. The same is true in the State Department’s annual Report on International Religious Freedom.
One can’t travel to Jerusalem, let alone the West Bank, without seeing evidence of home demolitions; the 30-foot-high concrete barrier isolating Palestinian villages into tiny enclaves; complete lack of freedom of movement; and the illegal settlement construction that eats up more and more Palestinian land with each passing year.
Because of Israel’s occupation, per capita income in the Palestinian Occupied Territories has dropped 45 percent since 2000 and its gross domestic product has plummeted too, and consequently unemployment and poverty have skyrocketed.
The Israeli military, police and illegal Israeli settlers killed more than 6,500 Palestinians – including nearly 400 children – between 2000 and Dec. 30, 2009.
At the end of 2009, roughly 9.400 Palestinians, including 310 children and 34 women, were still in Israeli custody in detention facilities mostly inside Israel, in violation of international law. In Gaza, the number of detained was 855. Many of these prisoners were being held without charges for indefinite periods of time.
Also in 2009, Israel destroyed some 2,881 housing units giving shelter to 3,253 families totaling 18,750 individuals; more than 3,000 houses were partially destroyed and at least 16,000 houses were damaged and 51,453 civilians suffered from fear and forcible migration, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.
President Obama: According to international law – and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which you quoted in your speech – all of the above facts amount to legitimate, justifiable grievances for the Palestinian people. To discard these and to disallow them to be part of the discussion, you are discarding the entirety of the occupation and its unjust legacy. You are laying the responsibility for the Middle East conflict solely and squarely upon the shoulders of the victims – the Palestinians and obligating them to meet the demands of the very people who are occupying them.
You can drive Mr. Abbas – who has very limited support among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza – to the bargaining table. But until the United States has the integrity and temerity to stand for truth and to hold Israel accountable for its crimes against humanity and force it to end the occupation, you will never achieve peace.
Until you speak the truth, you will not be able to count peace in the Middle East among the legacies of your presidency.