Brutal occupation spawned turmoil in Mideast today

April 05, 2002|By Moustafa Bayoumi

NEW YORK -- There is a dangerous tendency in the United States to view the violence between Israelis and Palestinians as either the product of Palestinian fanaticism or as symmetrical fighting between two warring factions.

Many people seem to believe that violence is the inevitable outcome for these two peoples.

This ignores a fundamental truth. The suicide bombings must be stopped, but the root of the violence is not pathological terrorism or cynical politics, but a brutal military occupation that has been strangling the Palestinian people for decades.

One recent proof of the cruelty of the occupation started on March 1, when the Israeli army began to carry out its plan of invading Palestinian refugee camps around the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Israeli army rounded up every man and boy between the ages of 14 and 45, numbering into the hundreds, reported The Washington Post. Guilty of nothing more than being male and Palestinian, each was stripped to his underwear and handcuffed, interrogated and then photographed, according to the Associated Press. In the Tulkarm refugee camp, the Israeli army wrote numbers on the arms of Palestinian men and boys after the roundup.

In early March, the Israeli army fired upon at least three ambulances. On March 4, Dr. Khalil Sulieman, a high-ranking physician in the Palestinian Red Crescent Services (the Palestinian Red Cross), was killed when the Israeli army shot at his ambulance in the Jenin refugee camp. On March 7, an ambulance driver and employee of the United Nations was killed while heading to Tulkarm to provide medical assistance. The United Nations and the Red Cross have both condemned these killings, as have several human rights organizations.

"Attacking humanitarian personnel and their vehicles is strictly prohibited under international humanitarian law," said Human Rights Watch.

These are aspects of an Israeli policy intended to humiliate and deliberately harm the general Palestinian population in order to force it into submission. This was articulated most clearly when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said, "We must inflict heavy losses on their [the Palestinians'] side."

Upon hearing Mr. Sharon's statement, Secretary of State Colin Powell responded by saying, "If you declare war against the Palestinians thinking that you can solve the problem by seeing how many Palestinians can be killed, I don't know that that leads us anywhere."

Mr. Sharon's policy has led to a sharply escalated death toll. It has also ultimately led to the invasion of Ramallah and the virtual proclamation of war by the Israelis against the Palestinians.

The tragic violence we are witnessing today must be understood as the culmination of decades of military occupation. Since September 2000, when the current uprising began, at least 1,260 Palestinians and 410 Israelis have been killed by the violence, according to Reuters.

"Daily funerals and thoughts of revenge among Israelis tend to blur the fact that we, the Israelis, are the occupiers," wrote Ishai Menuchin, a reserve major in the Israel Defense Forces, in The New York Times. "And as much as we live in fear of terrorism and war, it is the Palestinians who suffer more deaths hourly and live with greater fear because they are the occupied."

Mr. Menuchin has taken a brave stance, refusing to serve in military actions he finds morally repugnant. "I will not obey illegal orders to execute potential terrorists or fire into civilian demonstrations," he wrote. "And I will not take part in `less violent' actions like keeping Palestinians under curfew for months, manning roadblocks that prevent civilians from moving from town to town or carrying out house demolitions and other acts of repression aimed at the entire Palestinian population."

People like Mr. Menuchin and the Palestinian physician Mustafa Barghouti, who heads a nonviolent activist movement called Grassroots International Protection for Palestinians, need to be heard above the continuing cries for more death and repression.

Every victim of the conflict, both Palestinian and Israeli, deserves to be mourned, and there can be no excuse for targeting civilians on either side of the conflict. The suicide bombings must cease. And the Israeli army, too, must cease its illegal activities in the occupied territories. Under the Geneva Convention, an occupying power must protect a civilian population, not brutalize it.

There can be no solution to the conflict without an end to the occupation and a just resolution to the Palestinian question. This must begin with a concerted international effort to guarantee the safety and security of everyone in the region, Palestinian and Israelis alike. Without the help of international peacekeepers and observers, the cycle of violence may never end.

Moustafa Bayoumi is a professor in the English department at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. He can be reached at

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