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Opposition to Israel’s policies is anti-genocide not anti-Semetic

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Picture: AFP / Taken January 2, 2024 – Lebanese media report that this building in a suburb in Beirut has been hit by an Israeli air strike targeting a Hamas office and killing the group’s deputy leader Sheikh Saleh al-Aruri, this week. There is no ethical, practical, legal or geopolitical case for destroying Gaza and killing thousands of people to protect Israel against threats that Hamas poses, says the writer.

By Jeffrey D Sachs

When Congress returns in January, President Joe Biden will push the case to deepen American complicity in Israel’s war in Gaza through another US armaments package for Israel. Americans should raise their voice in a resounding no.

An arms package for Israel is not only against America’s interests but also against Israel’s interests. The only path to real security for Israel is peace with Palestine. The US can help bring this about by ending the supply of munitions for Israel’s brutal war and by promoting the two-state solution as called for by international law.

I spelled out the diplomatic path to the two-state solution in a previous column for Common Dreams. That path remains open. It is actively promoted by the Arab and Islamic countries and supported by nearly the entire world.

If Israel ends the genocide, it will end the global opposition it now faces.

Israel’s brutality in Gaza is becoming a true threat to Israel’s survival. Because of Israel’s extraordinary violence, the world is uniting against Israel, while Israel is suffering massive military losses. Incredibly, some Israeli leaders are now openly advocating an even wider war in the Middle East, one that could well spell utter disaster for Israel.

The surging global opposition to Israel’s policies is not anti-semitic. It is anti-genocide. It is also pro-peace, pro-Israel, and pro-Palestine. If Israel ends the genocide, it will end the global opposition it now faces.

Defeating Hamas is not Israel’s real aim in Gaza

The Israeli government argues that it is in a mortal fight for survival against Hamas, and therefore must take every measure, including the very destruction of Gaza, to survive. This is false. There is no ethical, practical, legal or geopolitical case for destroying Gaza — killing tens of thousands of civilians, and uprooting 2 million people — to protect Israel against the kinds of preventable and controllable threats that Hamas actually poses.

During the years 2008-2022, Hamas and other militants killed around a dozen Israeli civilians per year, while Israel usually killed at least ten times more civilian Palestinians. There was a spike in 2014, when Israel invaded Gaza, with 19 Israeli civilians killed versus 1,760 Palestinian civilians. Hamas launches many rockets, but almost all are intercepted or cause little damage. Israel responds with periodic massacres (as in 2014) and with more regular airstrikes. The Israelis even have a cynical name for their periodic killing, called “mowing the grass“. It is common knowledge inside Israel that Hamas long served as a “low-cost” political prop used by Netanyahu to “prove” to Israelis that a two-state solution is impossible.

In all the years of Hamas rule in Gaza after 2007, Hamas has never captured Israeli territory, much less remotely threatened Israel’s existence or survival. Simply, it couldn’t do so even if it wanted. Hamas has around 30,000 fighters, compared with more than 600,000 active and reserve personnel in the IDF. Hamas lacks an air force, armoured units, a military-industrial base, and any geographic manoeuvrability outside of Gaza.

On October 7, Hamas fighters made a surprise incursion into Israel that lasted that horrific day. This did not reflect a new super-ability of Hamas to invade Israel but rather a shocking failure of Israeli security. Israeli leaders had ignored extensive warnings of an upcoming Hamas attack and had inexplicably left the Gaza-Israel border severely under-manned.

Even more astoundingly, they did so just days after Israeli extremists had stormed the al-Aqsa Mosque complex, one of the Islam’s holiest sites. Hamas exploited Israel’s astounding security lapse by breaching the border in an attack that led to around 1,100 Israeli civilian deaths, and Hamas’ taking of 240 hostages, with an unknown number of the Israeli civilian deaths that day caused by Israeli aerial bombing and crossfire in the IDF’s counter-attack.

By re-fortifying the border with Gaza, Israel has stopped further ground incursions by Hamas. Netanyahu has ordered the destruction of Gaza not to protect Israel from Hamas, but to make Gaza uninhabitable and thereby to fulfil his long-standing intention to impose permanent Israeli rule over the territory. Netanyahu gets the added bonus of clinging to power despite his grievous other failures.

The Israeli government’s more basic objective is to solidify its total control over “Greater Israel”, meaning all of the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Its objective with the incursion in Gaza is to push the population out of the territory. On October 10, Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant stated that “Gaza won’t return to what it was before. We will eliminate everything”.

More recently, Netanyahu spoke of “voluntary emigration” of the Gazan population — voluntary, that is, after Gaza has been laid to waste and Gazans told to evacuate. Metula Mayor David Azoulai declared that “the whole Gaza Strip needs to be empty”. “Flattened. Just like in Auschwitz. Let it be a museum for all the world to see what Israel can do. Let no one reside in the Gaza Strip for all the world to see, because October 7 was in a way a second Holocaust.” He later clarified that he would like to see the Gaza population “relocated”, not murdered.

Most recently, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a self-declared fascist, called for Gaza’s population to be cut to 100,000-200,000 from the current population of more than 2 million. Israel aimed from the start of its invasion of Gaza to push the Gazans into Egypt, but Egypt adamantly refused to be a party to ethnic cleansing.

In the 1970s, the aim of dominating Palestine to create Greater Israel as a Jewish state was a fringe belief. Now it rules Israeli policy, in part reflecting the enormous political weight of hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

“Greater Israel”, defined as Israel of pre-1967-War borders, plus Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, is home to roughly seven million Jews and seven million Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians. Israel can rule Greater Israel only by dominating seven million Palestinians, or by driving them out of their homes by war, violence, and extreme discrimination. The quest for Greater Israel in practice leads Israel to commit grave crimes against the people of Palestine. The ongoing crime is Apartheid rule, with its severe injustices and indignities. The graver crime is ethnic cleaning as Israel is attempting in Gaza. The gravest of all is genocide, witnessed in the thousands of deaths of innocent civilians occurring each week now in Gaza.

Israel’s turn towards extremism

The American people need to understand that Israeli politics has become dominated by extremists who mix religious fervour with murderous violence against the Palestinians. This ultra-violent side of Israel is readily apparent in Israel but is still largely unknown to the American public. Israeli brutality in Gaza comes as a surprise to many Americans, yet it has become par for the course in Israel itself, although some Israelis are no doubt in denial of the facts on the ground in the Occupied Territories. The Grayzone has put together a shocking compilation of Israeli soldiers and leading personalities celebrating Palestinian deaths.

Israel’s genocidal violence towards the Palestinian people appeals to much of the Israeli public for several reasons. First, always lurking in the shadows in Israel is the memory of the Holocaust. Politicians like Netanyahu have long stoked the terror of the Holocaust to argue crudely and falsely that all Palestinians want to kill all the Jews, so that the violent suppression of the Palestinians is a matter of life and death for Israel.

Of course, as in any spiral of hatred, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy to Netanyahu’s rhetoric and actions, leading to counter-actions and hatreds from the other side. Yet rather than trying to solve those through dialogue, interaction, diplomacy, and peacemaking, the cycle of hatred is stoked.

Second, orthodox rabbis have expanded upon the security narrative by insisting that Israel has a sacred right to Palestine because God gave all the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean to the Israelites.

Third, with 700,000 Israeli settlers living in the Palestinian lands conquered in 1967, Greater Israel has become a fait accompli for a large part of the Israeli people, with a large voice in Israeli politics. These settlers moved into conquered territory and now fervently insist on defending their settlements. The UN Security Council (UNSC Resolution 2334) has unequivocally declared Israel’s settlements in occupied Palestine to be in flagrant violation of international law, yet Smotrich himself, in the inner cabinet, is a leader of the settler movement.

The emergence of this violent strand of Judaism dates to the early 1970s, just after the 1967 Six-Day War. The policy question in Israel after 1967 was what to do with the newly occupied Palestinian land. Drawing on the proposals of Yigal Allon, a leading Israeli politician, Israeli leaders decided to keep East Jerusalem and to establish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza to put “facts on the ground” to protect Israel’s security. From the start, Israeli governments defied UN Security Council Resolution 242 (1967), which rejected Israel’s acquisition of territory by war.

What happened next was momentous. Ultra-religious Jews took up the cause of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories as part of a messianic calling to make Israel the “Earthly support of the Lord’s throne,”(here p. 69). In 1974, Gush Emunim was launched as an ultra-nationalist religious settler movement by followers of the father-son rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Zvi Yehuda Kook, whose teachings combined the land claims of the Book of Joshua, Talmudic law, Chassidic mysticism, nationalism, and political activism.

The religious motivation of Greater Israel is that God gave the Jews all the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. In the Book of Joshua, probably completed in the 6th century BC, God instructs the Israelites arriving from Egypt after 40 years in the desert to annihilate the nations of Canaan in order to take the land for themselves.

God promises the land extending “from the Negev wilderness in the south to the Lebanon mountains in the north, from the Euphrates River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, including all the land of the Hittites”. (Joshua 1:4, New Living Translation). With God’s backing, Joshua’s armies commit a series of genocides to capture the land.

This extraordinarily violent text and related parts of the Bible (such as the annihilation of the Amalekites in the Book of Samuel), have become crucial points of reference for right-wing Israelis, both religious and secular. As a result, today’s Israel pursues a 6th century BC messianic vision of securing all of Palestine for the Jews. Supporters of Greater Israel often label the opponents of this ideology as anti-Semites, but this is wildly off the mark, as the former Executive Director of the Harvard Hillel has eloquently argued. The opponents of Greater Israel are against extremism and injustice, not against Judaism.

The Jewish settler movement led to a murderous disdain of the Palestinian. In his book Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, Prof Israel Shahak draws attention to the religious zealotry of Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, a leader of the West Bank settlers:

“Let us say clearly and strongly: we are not occupying foreign territories in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]. This is our ancient home. And thank G-d that we have brought it back to life … Our responsibility to Jewish faith and redemption commands us to speak up in a strong and clear voice. The Divine Process of uniting our people and our Land must not be clouded and weakened by seeming logical concepts of ‘security’ and ‘diplomacy’. They only distort the truth and weaken the justice of our cause, which is engraved in our exclusive national rights to our land. We are a people of faith. This is the essence of our eternal identity and the secret of our continued existence under all conditions.” [2002]

In Jewish History – Jewish Religion (2nd edition, 2008), Shahak quotes the Chief Chaplain of the Central Regional Command of the Israeli Army in 1973: “In war, when our forces storm the enemy, they are allowed and even enjoined by the Halakhah (Jewish law) to kill even good [Palestinian] civilians, that is, civilians who are ostensibly good” (p. 76).

The tactic of using violence to provoke mass Palestinian flight has been part of Israel’s playbook from its inception. On the eve of Israel’s independence, during 1947-8, Jewish militant groups used terror to provoke the mass departure of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in a sordid process called Nakba by the Palestinians (“catastrophe” in Arabic).

Netanyahu’s government aims to repeat the Nakba in the Gaza war by forcing Gazans to flee to neighbouring Egypt or other parts of the Arab Middle East. However, unlike in 1947-8, the world is watching in real-time, and is expressing outrage at Israel’s blatant attempt at ethnic cleansing. Egypt told Israel and the US in no uncertain terms that it would not be a party to Israel’s ethnic cleansing, and would not accept a flood of Gazan refugees.

The quest for Greater Israel is doomed to fail

Israel’s attempt to violently create a “Greater Israel” will fail. The Israeli Defence Forces are suffering massive losses in the brutal urban warfare in Gaza. While Israel has killed more than 20,000 Gazans, mostly women and children, it has not destroyed Hamas’s capacity to resist Israel’s invasion. IDF leaders say that the battle against Hamas will require many more months, but well before then, global opposition will likely become insurmountable.

In desperation, Israeli leaders such as Defence Minister Benny Gantz want to expand the war to Lebanon and probably to Iran. US hardliners such as Republican US Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have dutifully and predictably chimed in, urging a US war with Iran. This Israeli gambit too will likely fail. The US is in no position to fight a wider Middle East war, after having drawn down its stockpile of munitions in Ukraine and Gaza. The American people too strongly oppose another US war, and their opposition will be heard in an election year, even by a Congress in the pocket of the military-industrial complex.

Israel’s diplomatic setbacks, unless reversed, will prove devastating. Israel has haemorrhaged political support worldwide. In a recent UN General Assembly vote, 174 countries, with 94 percent of the world population, voted in favour of Palestinian political self-determination, while just 4 countries with 4 percent of the world population – Israel, the United States, Micronesia and Nauru – voted against (another 15 countries abstained or did not vote). Israel’s hardline militarism has united the world against it.

Israeli leaders and diplomats have to stop shouting that critics are all anti-Semites and listen to what the world is actually saying: Israel and Palestine need to live side by side based on international law and mutual security.

Israel counts entirely now on its one remaining supporter, the United States, but US support is also waning. By a huge margin, 59 percent for and 19 percent opposed, Americans support a cease fire. Americans support Israel’s security but not its extremism. Of course, America has its own Christian and Jewish zealots who base their politics on biblical literalism/orthodoxy, but they are a minority of public opinion. American support for Israel depends on the two-state solution. Biden knows it and has reiterated US support for the two-state solution, even as the US supplies munitions for Israel’s war on Gaza.

While American Jews generally support Israel, they do not support Israel’s religious messianism. In a 2020 Pew Survey only 30 percent of American Jews believed that “God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people”. Sixty-three percent believed in the feasibility of peace between Israel and Palestine through the two-state solution. Only 33 percent believed as of 2020 that the Israeli government was making sincere efforts towards peace with the Palestinians.

Even Orthodox US Jews are divided on the question of Greater Israel. Some orthodox Jewish communities such as the Chabad are believers in the biblically motivated Greater Israel, while others such as the Satmar community (also known as Naturei Karta) are anti-Zionists and outspoken critics of Israel’s war on the Palestinian people stating that Judaism is a religion not a nation concept. The Satmar community believes that the revival of the Jewish homeland must follow God’s timeline, and not a Zionist timeline.

Supporting Israel’s extremism is not in America’s interest

The US has been providing the munitions for Israel’s brutal war. This complicity has led to a lawsuit by Palestinian plaintiffs charging the US Government with violations of the Genocide Convention. As part of this legal effort, the US-based Centre for Constitutional Rights has methodically documented the genocidal statements by Israeli leaders here and here.

The US is also facing severe and costly diplomatic isolation as it defends Israel’s indefensible actions. In recent votes of the US Security Council and the UN General Assembly, the US has stood almost alone in backing Israel’s hyper-violent and unjust actions. This is hurting the US in countless other areas of foreign policy and global economics.

The US federal budget is also under tremendous stress from military-related spending, which will reach around $1.5 trillion in total in 2024. The American people have had enough of the bulging military spending, which has been a central factor in raising the public debt from around 35 percent of GDP in 2000 to around 100 percent of GDP today.

With soaring debts and the rise in interest rates on mortgages and consumer loans, the public is resisting Biden’s calls for more deficit spending to fund the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, and will vociferously oppose a wider war in the Middle East, especially one that would draw the US into direct combat.

Of course, US open-ended support for Israel has seemed to be unstoppable in American politics. The Israel lobby — a powerful constellation of Israel politicians and wealthy Americans — has played a huge role in building this strong support. The Israel lobby gave $30 million in campaign contributions in the 2022 Congressional election cycle, and will give vastly more in 2024. Yet the lobby is up against the public’s growing opposition to Israel’s brutality in Gaza.

Two-state solution only true chance for peace, security

Israeli leaders and diplomats have to stop shouting that critics are all anti-Semites and listen to what the world is actually saying: Israel and Palestine need to live side by side based on international law and mutual security. The support for a two-state solution is support for the peace and security of the Jewish people in the state of Israel, just as it is support for the peace and security of the Palestinian people in their own state.

To the contrary, supporting Israel’s genocide in Gaza and inflaming anti-Israel (and anti-US) sentiment around the world, is antithetical to Israel’s long-term security and perhaps even its survival. The Arab and Islamic states have repeatedly declared their readiness to normalise relations with Israel within the context of the two-state solution.

This goes back to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and includes the important Final statement of the extraordinary joint Arab Islamic Summit in Riyadh on November 11, 2023. The US and Arab countries should quickly agree on establishing a joint peacekeeping force to keep both sides safe in the context of implementing the two-state solution.

Many zealous religious settlers will strongly resist a Palestinian state, asserting their right to do so based on ancient biblical texts. Yet the point of Judaism is not to rule over millions of Palestinians or to ethnically cleanse them. The real point is not to provoke global opprobrium but to use reason and goodwill to find peace.

As Hillel the Elder declared, “Whatever is hateful and distasteful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary. Go learn.” The real point is to fulfil the ethical vision of the Prophet Isaiah (2:4), who prophesied that “nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore”. So may it be.

Prof Sachs is the Director of the Centre for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. He serves as an SDG Advocate under UN Secretary-General António Guterres. This is an edited version of his article that was published on Common Dreams