Browning/My Turn: Israel's heartlessness

At the forum on Israel and the Palestinians held at the Congregational Church in Ashfield last month, I watched three films: “5 Broken Cameras,” “Paradise Now” and “Occupation 101.” In each of these films, the Israeli Army’s treatment of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories was indescribably cruel.

In one episode, Israeli soldiers invaded Palestinian homes in the middle of the night and arrested boys who did not appear to be older than 11 or 12. In another, a teenage boy, held by soldiers, was shot point-blank in the leg. Live ammunition was used to break up a crowd of unarmed Palestinians demonstrating against the taking of their land by Israeli settlers. Ancient olive trees, often the major source of income of Palestinian farmers, were uprooted by bulldozers or burned. Israeli settlers invaded Palestinian property during the night, leaving behind trailers so that in the morning they could “legally” claim the land as their own. Seriously ill or injured Palestinians on their way to hospitals were held up for hours at check points, sometimes resulting in the deaths of the patients.

A map of Palestine from 1946 shows the vast bulk of the land belonging to the Palestinians, with Jewish settlements sprinkled in the northern part of the country. A current map reveals that the Israelis now control 90 percent of the land, with the Palestinian people’s share reduced to enclaves separated from each other — almost always by Jewish settlements — with travel between the enclaves tightly controlled by the Israelis.

Some years ago, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa described this maze-like system of enclaves as worse than the bantustans in which South African blacks were forced to live during the era of apartheid. In fact, repeatedly in descriptions of the conditions of life that the Palestinians must endure, the word “apartheid” was used.

In my opinion, one of the saddest aspects of this conflict is the effect such blatantly brutal treatment of one’s neighbors has on the Israelis, especially the Israeli soldiers, some of whom appeared to be hardly more than adolescents. A kind of sadistic pleasure sometimes seemed to be the dominant emotional response as, for example, when a youthful soldier took a chainsaw to an olive tree, ignoring the sobbing of a Palestinian woman begging for mercy for her family. There is a price, both psychological and spiritual, to be paid for such heartlessness.

After watching these films and listening to testimony of Palestinians living in the United States, I find it hard not to conclude that Israeli policy has one of two aims: either to make life for the Palestinians so utterly intolerable that they will emigrate or to drive the Palestinians into the sea. I do not think, however, that the majority of the Palestinians will abandon their homeland — there are already 7 million in the Palestinian diaspora — nor does it seem likely that Israel can ever achieve the goal of the ultra-orthodox Jews — a Jewish state occupying all of ancient Palestine. Short of a radical change in Israeli attitudes and policies, only an indefinite continuation of the present stalemate seems predictable. But humans can tolerate only so much oppression and genuine terror. In private conversations, I heard rumblings of a third intifada, likely more bloody than the previous two.

It should be clear that we are not innocent bystanders. It is our taxes, sent as “foreign aid” to the Israel, that allow the Israeli Army to buy the bulldozers that demolish the homes, the tanks that rumble through Palestinian villages and the helicopters that bombard Palestinian towns and cities. As responsible citizens, we Americans ought to declare our unwillingness to continue to finance the decades-long suppression of the Palestinian people’s dream of a Palestinian state with contiguous borders.

Although the Obama administration’s negative vote in a recent U.N. General Assembly’s decision to give the Palestinians “observer status” signals a continuing American refusal to relinquish its long-standing bias in favor of Israeli interests, a wiser path would be to adopt a genuine honest broker approach. In fact, it would ultimately be in Israel’s best interests if American leaders could resist intimidation by the Israeli lobby and adopt a clear-sighted view of Israeli policies.

A Jewish friend has observed that because of centuries of persecution and especially the Holocaust, many Jews tend to be paranoid. Obama is no psychiatrist but, if he wishes a place in history as an outstanding president, he must summon the courage to be a hard-nosed advisor warning against the folly of any nation’s leaders believing that their county can flagrantly violate the rights of fellow human beings without retribution in some form being visited upon the perpetrators.

It must now be clear that with the changes that have recently occurred in the Middle East, Israel’s true security depends on lessening its isolation in an increasingly hostile neighborhood. If the United States is really Israel’s steadfast friend, it will not shirk the task of warning Benjamin Netanyahu’s government that American support is not infinite and that the time has come for Israel to respond with genuine seriousness to the long-ignored Palestinian cry for justice.

Preston Browning is an Ashfield resident.

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