More balanced U. S. conversation about Palestinians following latest round of Israel-Hamas conflict
By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer
A shift in Washington’s perspective of the latest war began to rapidly evolve as the Israeli military machine pounded Gaza. The Biden decision to communicate bluntly with Netanyahu emerged from Biden’s listening to “a lot of loud progressive voices.” Boastful victory statements by the two enemies, however, only underscore the distance between them. The U.S. would have to be a lot more honest than it has been in the past in brokering peace. A statement by Harvard faculty has come out full force in support of the Palestinian people.
Biden and key Democrats adopt forceful stance on end to conflict
As the Israeli war military machine pounded Gaza harder and harder, a shift in Washington’s perspective of the war began to rapidly evolve. As President Biden’s conversations with Israeli Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu increased in number, totaling six, they also became franker. Ultimately, along with Egypt’s role in convincing Hamas to end its rocket attacks, Biden’s insistence that Israel’s pounding of Gaza stop was definitive.
Biden had help from members of his party, in particular Senator Robert Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who, according to the Washington Post, “set off a commotion inside the White House.” Menendez unusually sharp comments were at odds with his previously solid support of Israel, come what may. His terse statement averred, “The violence must end. Any death of civilians and innocent Jews and Arabs alike is a setback to stability and peace in the Middle East.” Menendez made his comments independent of the White House, causing aides there to figure out how this computed with other Democrats’ stances.
Then, there was Representative Rashida Tlaib’s eight-minute meeting on the tarmac at Detroit’s airport. There, she met with President Biden and fellow Michigan Representative Debbie Dingell. Tlaib, the first Palestinian American woman elected to Congress, expressed problems with Israel’s explanation for its continued military attacks on Gaza. She has equated Israel’s attacks on Palestinians with the American racial justice movement, namely Black Lives Matter.
In a speech in the House as the Hama-Israel conflict intensified, Tlaib proclaimed, “It is our duty to end the apartheid system that for decades has subjected Palestinians to inhumane treatment and racism.” In the tarmac meeting, Biden and Tlaib talked about her family who live in the West Bank and her issues with their miserable treatment under Israeli military occupation.
During the eleven days of fighting in which Biden acted on his convictions about the conflict, his thinking rapidly evolved. In the words of the Post, “No member of Congress swayed Biden’s thinking or the White House strategy, a senior administration official said, but the changing political mood did give administration officials an opening to further press Israel to wind down the conflict. The shifting political sands were a key component in Biden’s own evolving response to the Gaza conflict, which is the first major foreign policy crisis of his administration…The episode also marks a clear inflection point in U.S.-Israel relations, reflecting growing skepticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu among Democrats alarmed by the Israeli leader’s recent actions — as well as his solicitous relationship with former president Donald Trump.”
The Biden decision to communicate bluntly with Netanyahu did not emerge sui generis from his head. There, listening to “a lot of loud progressive voices,” most loudly from Menendez and most emotionally from Tlaib. Here, we also want to credit the Egyptian mediators, who convinced Hamas to knuckle under to all the pressure. In the end, the sixth conversation, Biden told Netanyahu that he expected to see the conflict terminate that day.
Israeli and Hamas claims to victory premature
No sooner than the declaration of a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas was announced, both sides claimed victory. Meanwhile, all told, the air bombardment killed at least 240 Palestinians, at least 65 of whom were children, and 12 were killed in Israel. Much of Gaza is in rubble, including at least 258 buildings destroyed, including health care facilities, water and sanitation lines, and electric power lines. Despite the heavy losses inflicted on Gaza, Hamas has retained control of approximately two million people.
Hamas practically exalted in its elated sense of victory. According to a senior member of Hamas’ political bureau, according to the Post, “This is the euphoria of victory. We have the right to rejoice, despite the pain, wounds, destroyed homes and martyrs. I say in the name of our Palestinian people, we will build the homes destroyed by the occupation. We will return a smile and hope to the bereaved.” Netanyahu, similarly, rejoiced over Israel’s victory, namely its eleven-day barrage of bombs over Gaza as an “exceptional success.”
These boastful victory statements only underscore the distance between the two enemies and the full-blown diplomatic press needed to bridge the gap between such divergent parties. Seemingly entrenched and intransigent, both Hamas and the present right-wing version of the Israeli government would seem to be lifetimes apart. Much more is needed. If the U.S. is to be the ‘honest broker,’ then it would have to be a lot more honest than it has been in the past in brokering peace as well as in announcing its intention that in the end game Palestine must be liberated.
New generation of Palestinians and American pro-Palestinians speaks of justice and freedom from oppression
As Biden’s motorcade moved from the Detroit airport to the Ford plant where he would promote his environmental program, it traversed a protest that waved Palestinian flags. In this largest Arab American community in the U.S., lining Biden’s route were large numbers of protesters waving Palestinian flags in support of Palestinians in the homeland who were responding to decades of oppression under the guise of a military occupation. Biden had just had his presumably pointed tarmac chat with Rashida Tlaib and it must have begun to dawn on him that there were both moral and political messages embedded in these experiences.
The President must have had a sense of relief when the ceasefire was announced. Without recognizing these Arab Palestinian inputs from his visit to Detroit, Biden, according to the Guardian, said “he would continue what he called his ‘quiet relentless diplomacy.’” Even though Biden had called on Netanyahu to end the Gaza attacks, he was still following a traditional U.S. presidential pattern of supporting Israel’s self-defense and refusing to join a United Nations security council demand for a ceasefire.
What Biden may have realized during his process of rethinking this latest Israel-Hamas conflict, and what he might have been suppressing, was the fact that Arab Americans had helped him win the election. The conversation with Tlaib and the sight of protesters waving Palestinian flags along his travel route may have just tweaked his conscience, giving him the strength to stand up to Netanyahu.
Biden is of course aware of the linkage of the Black Lives Matter movement and the initiative to free Palestine. The Guardian points to the possibility that the coalition of American ethnic groupings including Blacks and Arab Americans in helping him cross the victory line in the primaries can “now become a powerful counterweight to the pro-Israeli traditions of the Democratic party.”
Another change that affects the debate on Israel and Palestine is semantic, introducing the term “apartheid” into the discussion. Human Rights Watch has depicted the situation of apartheid in occupied Palestine as status quo. And, while U.S. sentiment is still largely pro-Israeli versus pro-Palestinian, there is evidence of a shift to the Palestinian side, especially among Democrats. In Biden’s recognition of Palestinian suffering, he seems to be aware that the pendulum is swinging towards the direction of Palestinian justice.
A new twist—Harvard faculty embraces liberation of Palestine
A statement by Harvard faculty comes out full square in support of the Palestinian people. Letting the statement speak for itself, it reads, “As US-based scholars who oppose racism and colonial violence in all its forms, we write to express solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom and self-determination. Israeli state violence has devastated Palestinian life through a combination of warfare, territorial theft, and violent displacement. Unwavering US financial, military, and political support has fueled an apartheid system that institutionalizes the domination and repression of Palestinians.”
The rest of Harvard faculty’s grievances concern those we have read about earlier in Arab America posts, including the issue of evictions from Sheikh Jarrah, violence in Israeli cities, and decades long dispossession of Palestinians. In addition to denial of rights of freedom and self-determination, the statement cites the denial of their right to resist. “Palestinian resistance in all its forms is criminalized by Israel and the US. Every measure of self-defense by a people without a state or an army against a nuclear power backed by the US is subject to immediate censure while Israel continues its violent aggressions with impunity.”
A further issue raised in the Harvard faculty statement is how the support for Palestinian liberation has crept into U.S. academia, “…where even scholarly criticism of Israeli human rights violations is increasingly equated with antisemitism and forbidden by law.” In Gaza and the West Bank, one might imagine, the situation is far worse than in the U.S. There, basic academic freedom and educational rights are prohibited. Criticism of Israel state policies by Arab and Jewish scholars is punishable.
In a final declaration, the statement says, “…at this moment when Israeli ethnonationalist violence is at an all-time high, US military support remains steadfast, and solidarity with Palestine is criminalized, US-based scholars cannot be silent. We demand an end to US support for Israel’s apartheid regime, condemn Israeli state aggression, and affirm our support for the Palestinian liberation struggle.”
There is not one iota of equivocation in that declaration. It stands robustly on its own.
“Eleven days: Inside Biden’s rapidly evolving approach to the Israel-Hamas conflict,” Washington Post, 5/21/2021
“Why both Israel and Hamas are claiming victory,” Washington Post, 5/21/2021
“A radical change: America’s new generation of pro-Palestinian voices,” The Guardian, 5/21/202
“Statement by Harvard Faculty in Support of Palestinian Liberation,” Palestine Forum, 5/22/2021
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He did fieldwork in an east Libyan Saharan oasis and has taught at the University of Libya-Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo. John served with the United Nations as an advisor in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, the UN, and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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