A mural by British artist Banksy appears on the Separation Wall in Palestine. Photo by walker cleavelands.
2009 kicked off with promise in the air, a tonic sense of the future around which Western civilization warmed itself. Despite a snowballing economic catastrophe unseen since the 1930s, the world staggered onward, still high from the incredible euphoria of Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency. With the expiration of the Bush Era inevitable, we all held our breath, collectively waiting to exhale.
On January 20, millions flocked to Washington, D.C.—a pilgrimage, for all intents and purposes—for the coronation of a man heralded as the first truly global president, his inauguration ushering in a new era of multilateralism and international co-operation. A blinding contrast to the Medieval policies of his predecessor, President Obama hurtled to power amid a historic torrent of grassroots support that quickly became a democratic revolution, hallmarked by a perennial appeal and promise to the American people for change—real, quantitative, lasting change. At just after noon Eastern Standard Time, Barack Hussein Obama II raised his right hand, rested his left on Lincoln’s Bible, and recited the 56th oath of office. A great cry went up in Washington; across the world, billions of lungs let out a single breath.
To those aghast at Bush’s disastrous mismanagement of the United States—something like seventy per cent of the U.S. electorate, to say nothing of the rest of us—the mere notion of an Obama White House all but pharmaceutically allayed the most apocalyptic fears. Celebration erupted with the thought of eight years’ neoconservative rule skulking sheepishly out the door, following Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and, later, a wheelchair-bound, appropriately Dr. Strangelove-esque Dick Cheney into shameful history. Elated over the election of the nation’s first African-American president, America embraced a man whose story represented the most cherished principles of its national self-image: hope, progress, perseverance—and compassion. In the wake of Bush’s inhuman crusades, Obama’s perceived moral clarity drew voters like moths to a porchlight, compelled by their new leader’s apparent rejection of ideology and an ethical imperative nearly extinct in an epoch of waterboarding and extraordinary rendition. After all, we’re talking about the same man who, less than two years earlier, had broken a great Western taboo by confronting one of the world’s most contentious geopolitical issues, telling a small crowd in Iowa, “Nobody’s suffering more than the Palestinian people.”
It was a proclamation that would prove haunting in the weeks leading up to Inauguration Day.
A “Measured Response”
Photo by Amir Farshad Ebrahimi.
While much of the world nursed its holiday hangover, a terrible conflagration ignited the Middle East in the last week of 2008. Responding to rocket attacks by Hamas militants, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, a punishing aerial assault over Gaza on December 27 followed by a ground invasion that, after a few days, brought the death toll in the Occupied Territories to 500, then 700, then 900. By the time of the IDF’s withdrawal—completed within hours of Obama’s inauguration—the number of Palestinians killed in the Gaza war had reached close to 1,300. On the other side of the geder ha’hafrada, Israel’s victims numbered thirteen—ten of whom were soldiers.
On January 3, a little more than a week after the first IAF fighters scrambled, a vastly smaller but no less passionate assembly than that which occupied D.C. took over Yonge & Dundas Square. From a distance, the sound of police horses in heavy lockstep and the sight of Israeli and Palestinian flags triggered latent emotions; wherever you stood on the issue, the startling tableaux summoned a near-visceral response. Rallied by tearful cries over crackling bullhorns and loudspeakers, demonstrators in solidarity with Palestine waved banners and signs, shouting “Shame, shame, Israel!” or “Long live Palestine!” Across the street, a pro-Israel counter-demonstration made its point in no less vocal nor uncertain terms: “Defeat Islamo-fascism,” read one sign; elsewhere, “Smash Muslim Terrorism” struck high alongside “Stop Islamic Racism.” Divided by an unnervingly small police presence, the emotion of either sidewalk’s rally reached feverish nationalistic levels. “We just want peace!” shouted a woman flanked by Israeli flags.
Between the rallies of January 3 and 10, the Canadian chapter of B’nai B’rith sounded the alarm over what it perceived as fertile conditions for one hate crime after another. “Since the launch of Operation Cast Lead,” it warned, “the Jewish human rights organization has documented a spike in incidents against Jews in Canada, including harassment and death threats.” Citing recent synagogue bombings in France, B’nai B’rith appealed for heightened caution, while raising the commonly held image of Israel as a virgin state beset on all sides by Islamist savages. She had no choice; her people hovered dangerously close to annihilation. By this rationale, condemnation of Israel’s policies swerves unforgivingly close to antisemitism.
Demonstrators in solidarity with Gaza overwhelm Bloor Street on January 3, 2009. Photo by Todd Aalgaard/Torontoist.
Such conflation evokes a lingering continuum of Bush’s neoconservative orgy: either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists. To Diana Ralph, coordinator of Independent Jewish Voices, such black-and-white terms not only dilute the issue, but expose Jewish communities to greater risk. “Because Israel claims to speak on behalf of all Jews in the world,” she told Torontoist, “its escalating violence, inhumanity, and flouting of international law, humanitarian law, the Geneva Conventions, and UN Resolutions inevitably generate resentment not only against Israel but against Jews in general.” Defining true antisemitism as hatred and discrimination against Jews and Judaism—not outrage over Israel’s hard-line, arguably racist policies—she asserts that “the major Jewish religious and secular organizations conflate principled criticism of Israeli policies with antisemitism, which they term ‘the new antisemitism.'” In a tragic irony, a grim cycle of true hatred triggered by Israel’s unethical behaviour can result, the very sort that B’nai B’rith warned so ardently against.
“If everyone who expresses criticism of Israeli policies is labelled antisemitic,” Ralph continues, “it becomes as meaningless a concept as calling anyone critical of U.S. policies ‘un-American.'” Throughout the so-called “war on terror,” America has experienced the intellectual poison of retreating from dialogue on nationalistic grounds. Immediately after 9/11, “rallying behind the president” became tantamount to shutting up and drinking the Kool-Aid; in Israel, Ralph describes, a similar patriotic censorship keeps many Israelis in the dark. “This is to be expected since all Israeli children are subjected to a heavy diet of the official line in school and in the media, and most Israeli parents send their children off to the IDF where they are subjected to further indoctrination.” And despite a thriving domestic peace movement, the Israeli government’s dehumanization of Palestine is ensuring a terrible, far-reaching perpetuity. “Most Israelis have no relationships with Palestinians and have never visited Palestine or even Israeli Palestinian villages,” Ralph says, “so they believe the stereotypes and lies.”
But in defending itself from Palestinian “Islamo-fascism,” according to Sue Goldstein, a member of the Toronto Jewish Women’s Committee Against the Occupation, “what Israel has wreaked and continues to do is unconscionable.”
“It’s not just a humanitarian disaster,” she says. “Because if we only view it as such, we conveniently erase the politics behind it, detach the evidence from its moorings, until we are left trying to get ‘two sides’ to ‘disarm’ in a sea of ‘balance’ without considering where the culpability belongs: firmly on Israel.” Alluding to disinformation in the conflict, Goldstein recalls that “it was Israel who broke the ceasefire on 4 November 2008.” Targeting Hamas tunnels allegedly intended as conduits through which to kidnap Israeli soldiers, troops entered the Gaza Strip under cover of darkness late that night, killing six Hamas gunmen in a pre-emptive raid. Hamas retaliated, firing volley after volley of rockets into southern Israel. “This was a pinpoint operation intended to prevent an immediate threat,” the Israeli military stated. In response, Hamas declared that “the Israelis began this tension and they must pay an expensive price. They cannot leave us drowning in blood while they sleep soundly in their beds.”
Oddly enough, what began on the eve of Obama’s election officially ended within hours of his inauguration—and at a human cost as execrable as can be imagined. On January 22, two days after a “unilateral ceasefire” was declared, evidence began to mount that Israeli forces, in response to rockets fired by Hamas, had committed unspeakably grisly acts against the civilian population of Gaza. Collective punishment, a violation of the Geneva Conventions and a war crime from which countless atrocities derive, has been a frequent accusation against the Israeli military throughout the history of the occupation. Recently, however, with the IAF’s use of white phosphorus against the population of Gaza, reports of Israeli tanks shelling houses swollen to capacity with civilians, and Israel’s staunch refusal to permit such civilians to leave the war zone, the state has backed itself into an incredibly ugly position. “To lock people into a war zone,” said UN investigator Richard Falk, “is something that evokes the worst kind of international memories of the Warsaw Ghetto”—a chilling indictment in light of history.
Change We Need
Photo by MR MARK BEK.
History, of course, will be the final arbiter of the ongoing catastrophe, and time is running out for a solution. And as a chorus of whispered hopes at this month’s rallies can attest, that’s where Obama comes in.
During his inaugural address, the newly minted president proclaimed: “To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.” While the text is vague enough to refer to any number of crises, the timing of Obama’s call-out is telling, suggesting that a shift in tone may be forthcoming between the United States and one of its closest allies.
With his political capital growing, the world is increasingly hopeful that the measured pragmatism of the Obama Administration can reverse the devastating momentum of even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “For the next four years,” says Hanadi Loubani, coordinator of KAIROS‘ Middle East program, “Obama needs to realize that achieving peace will take more than simply reinvigorating diplomacy and relinquishing the Bush Administration’s use of force to address the region’s problems.” Dismissing the conventional wisdom that resigns to an “intractable morass that lacks solutions,” Loubani tells Torontoist that “the desired outcomes, and the path thereto, are relatively clear: a safe, secure and democratic Israel living in peace, prosperity and mutual recognition with its neighbours; a free, independent and democratic Palestine within the pre–June 1967 borders, and the creation of a united Jerusalem as the capital of the two countries.”
To get there, however, Obama “needs to abandon the entire façade of peace negotiations of the past years.” Change, far from being the exclusive domain of domestic U.S. policies, must extend to all avenues of American influence, and needs to start with this week’s arrival of Obama’s envoy to the region. “Obama needs a new Middle East policy and approach,” she continues, “one that regards ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories as an urgent priority for regional and global stability.” But time is running out for a two-state solution, Loubani says. “This vision is being threatened by continued violence such as the recent Gaza war, the absence of a final agreement after so many years of trying, Israel’s expansion of its settlements in the West Bank, and waning Palestinian confidence in the peace process.”
Underscoring the urgency of this pivotal moment in history, she adds, “Obama is likely to be the last president to have the option of dealing with the two-state solution.”
But to those who call Gaza home, ancestrally or otherwise, even the most promising policy is eclipsed by the unyielding horrors of daily life. Hammam Farah, a member of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, spoke with Torontoist about hardships encountered by loved ones in the region. “I was born in Gaza,” he told us at the height of the invasion, “and have my whole extended family there. They are terrified. There is only bread left to eat. It used to be bread or rice since the siege was imposed two years ago, but now only bread is left. The water is dirty and needs to be boiled. And there is no electricity.”
Worse, he says, is that “they also have to contemplate whether to stay home or seek shelter elsewhere, and that decision could determine whether they live or die. I could only get in touch with my grandmother to learn all this.”
“She said all of Gaza has been destroyed,” he adds. When told of Israel’s repeated claims to be only attacking Hamas members and facilities, she laughed.