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The War Over the War: Israel, Gaza and American Protest

Protests on both US coasts about Israel’s war on Gaza reveal lines of demarcation and solidarity – and suggest Israel is losing the “war over the war.”

Protest against Israel's siege of Gaza in San Francisco, CA, July 20, 2014. (Photo: Daniela Kantorova / Flickr)

Part of the Series

“Stop shooting rockets,” they yelled over the heads of the police. Waving Israeli flags, nearly a hundred members of Stand With Us stood behind stone-faced riot cops as a few thousand antiwar protesters filled the plaza to condemn Israel’s bombing of Gaza. Palestinian flags bobbed as attendees turned their backs on the Zionists and faced the stage. At the microphone, author Max Blumenthal bellowed, “The Zionist Era is over! Israel says it wants peace, and they do.” He paused, “They want piece after piece of Palestinian land,” he yelled, “That’s the kind of peace they want.” Cheering rose from the crowd.

2014 808 war 1Palestinian protester leads the rally in a chant at Columbus Square Circle New York City, August 2, 2014. (Photo: Nicholas Powers)The San Francisco rally joined others in London, Tel Aviv, Paris, Islamabad, Seoul, Frankfurt and more cities in a global outcry against Israel’s siege of Gaza. As Israeli missile after missile struck homes, photos of victims wrapped in gauze or parents cradling dead children filled social media. Driven by the deep human impulse to sympathize with suffering, thousands of people poured into city streets to demand an end to the rain of bombs.

At the rallies, signs were held like mirrors reflecting the true nature of the siege, an act of gruesome lopsided violence. Israel is a nation of eight million with a large military hammering Gaza, a small strip of land packed with one and half million cramped Palestinians living in dire poverty, whose political party, Hamas fires errant rockets that terrorize Israelis more than hurt them. In the 29 days of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, the New York Times reports that Hamas fired 2,909 rockets into Israel and there were 67 Israeli deaths: all but three were soldiers. In contrast, Israeli Defense forces hit 3,834 targets and killed nearly 2,000 Palestinians: most were civilians and at least 132 were children.

As the latest cease-fire holds, a bomb-battered people pick through rubble and find rage, pain and more rage. Worldwide criticism of Israel, most of which is fueled by sympathy for Palestinians, some by anti-Semitism, has like acid begun to erode Israel’s base of support in the United States. Israel has won in Gaza, but it lost the war over the war.

Stand With Us

Circling the July 26 San Francisco rally was a large white tape with the names of Palestinians killed by Israeli missiles, how old they were and where they lived. I lifted it and walked to the Stand With Us group. What strikes the eye is the whiteness of their protest. White shirts, white skin, the white of the Israeli flag blazed in the sun.

“SHAME ON YOU! SHAME ON YOU,” they chanted angrily. One cop muttered to another, “The only shame is we have to fucking be here.” Nearby, an Asian woman grimly said, “The cease-fire is over.” I asked what happened. She showed me a smart-phone app called Red Alert that let her know when Hamas fired a missile.

I asked for an event organizer and was pointed to a curly haired man, sweaty from working in the sun. His name was Michael Harris, and I asked him about the rally. He said, “Ninety-nine percent of American Jews support Israel’s right to defend itself. Only fringe elements are on the other side,” and motioned to the antiwar rally, “Hamas is the enemy of peace for both Israel and Palestine. They don’t accept Israel in any form. Now Israelis may be divided on a Palestinian state, but we are united in having a state in our historic homeland.”

I asked about the contradiction between Israel as a state for Jews and Israel as a multi-ethnic democracy. “Israel is already a multi-ethnic state”‘ he said firmly, “Twenty percent are Arabs, and Arabs have been in every parliament; they have equal voting rights, but the Jewish people have as much of a right to a state as anyone else.” Harris squinted in the heat, “Palestinians have the right of return to a future Palestinian state, but we don’t support the bi-national nightmare. Look at what happens when different ethnic groups live together. Unless you like what you see in Syria and Lebanon.”

People waited to talk to him. “When you’re faced with those like Hamas,” he said quickly, “who make their intentions clear: Are you paranoid if they’re really trying to get you?”

The “Kool-Aid of Zionism”

Leaving Stand With Us, I again lifted the tape with the names of Palestinians killed by Israel and went to the plaza where the antiwar rally grew louder. What struck the eye was its contrast to the Zionist rally, the A.N.S.W.E.R. sponsored protest was a spectrum of skin tone, Arabic and English accents, young and old, white youth, white progressive Jews, Mexican-Americans and Arabs throwing their collective fist to the sky.

“This obsession with security is shared by all settler-colonial states. It has brought forth an extreme right wing who promises to finish the job. It’s why they can’t have a normal human impulse of sympathy to Palestinian victims.”

Backstage, I saw Blumenthal and asked him about Harris’s defense of Israel. His eyes flashed above a faint smile. “It is part of the lies told. Palestinian citizens face discrimination; just last year racist laws were passed targeting them. Look at Adalah: The Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. As for Hamas, Israel uses Hamas to paint all Palestinians as rejectionists, draws out negotiations while they build settlements and when those negotiations collapse, use that to create the facts on the ground to nullify the possibility of a two-state solution.”

I asked him about the contradiction of Israel as a homeland for Jews versus Israel as a multi-ethnic democracy. He said, “Most Palestinians refugees know that the struggle is for rights in a bi-national state and if it is not achieved, the only alternative is apartheid. This obsession with security is shared by all settler-colonial states. It has brought forth an extreme right wing who promises to finish the job. It’s why they can’t have a normal human impulse of sympathy to Palestinian victims.”

Looking over the two rallies, opposing flags waving like theater curtains, I asked him about the contrasting degrees of diversity. “Being an American Zionist affords a double privilege,” he said. “You’re probably white and definitely Jewish. You can claim white privilege and shield yourself from scrutiny by claiming historic Jewish persecution.” Those last three words – historic Jewish persecution – rang in the air.

I asked him about Israel’s security obsession. “They’re wounded by an implanted memory,” Blumenthal said, “Israelis are like the victims of Jonestown who drank the poisonous Kool-Aid of Zionism, which exploits Jewish history to do to others what was done to us. If Jews are allowed to remain in Zionist captivity, it will be suicidal for Judaism.”

The Two Faces of Israel

The rally marched out of the plaza to take its message to the city. We flowed like a river on Market Street, waving signs and red, black, green Palestinian flags under the corporate logos of downtown San Francisco. “Free, Free Palestine,” our chant echoed between buildings, louder and louder as if trying to reach the offices where businessmen and politicians sold Americans the face of Israel.

For decades, imagery of Israel has pulsed across the media from high to low culture. In his speeches, President Obama called Israel our stalwart ally, our principal friend, so close that no “daylight” could slip between it and Washington. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of it as an, “island of democracy in a sea of instability and despotism.” Each a variation on the theme created by Theodore Herzl in Zionism’s 1896 foundation text The Jewish State where he wrote of Israel as, “a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.”

In mid-brow culture, we see the legacy of this colonial ideology in movies like 1966’s Cast a Giant Shadow, or 2005’s Munich or documentaries like 1999’s One Day in September or 2008’s Waltz with Bashir, where the Israeli Defense Force is incredibly competent and/or torn by their humanitarian ethics over the bloodletting of war.

This ideological portrait of Israel as civilization’s outpost, whose soldiers are efficient yet torn by empathy became how the IDF advertised its siege of Gaza. We are told, again, of “precision” bombing, texts and phone calls even “door-knock” mortars to warn families to get out before the missile strikes. Israel cares more for Palestinians than Hamas, who, they say uses its own people as human shields. On CNN, Netanyahu said, “They (Hamas) want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can because . . . they use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. The more dead, the better.”

If so, then why fall for the trap? Why give Hamas the credibility of victimhood when it never posed a real, existential threat? Hamas rockets were so crude, they practically had to fire them from sling-shots. Then a sad thought struck me so hard, I stopped in the middle of the march as people passed me by.

It was never about “Hamas.” It was about the question I asked Harris and then Blumenthal; it was about the contradiction between Israel as a multi-ethnic democracy and Israel as a Jewish homeland. The former demanded it act like an outpost of civilization, the latter as a violently expansionist colonial state to secure its Jewish majority. The way to resolve that antagonism is to displace it on the Palestinian, now transformed into the figure of a “Nazi-Muslim.” This inhuman terrorist, who is set on killing Jews, sacrifices his or her children in ways civilized Israelis won’t, say as suicide bombers or human shields. The Nazi-Muslim resolves Israel’s political and cultural paradox by being a savage terrorist who is unfit for civilization and therefore ripe for expulsion.

And that explains the other face of Israel, a shadow face behind the official one. From top to bottom, a virulent racism against Africans and Arabs has become a national pastime. We see it, in Likud supporter May Golan yelling, “I’m proud to be a racist” at a 2012 rally, where she called for the deportation of Africans. We see it in the nationalist mobs going on a rampage in Tel Aviv, smashing the store windows of illegal African migrants, pelting them with rocks and beating them in the streets. We see it in the poll results by Camille Fuchs, showing most Israeli youth don’t want an Arab neighbor and that a majority in Tel Aviv want a total expulsion of Africans. And finally, sadly, we see it, in the Israelis sitting in chairs on a hilltop to cheer the glow of IDF bombs striking Gaza as inside that light, human beings burned.

The march suddenly stopped and we were told to sit down. Were they planning to block traffic? Instead the spokeswoman hollered, “A father lost his child, we’re looking for her.” We craned our necks like storks, this way and that, searching for her as if she was our daughter. “Found her,” the spokeswoman said and I saw a spindly girl leaping into her father’s arms. We exhaled relief and stood, clapping as the Palestinian man hoisted her on his shoulders.

Days later, I would see on my Facebook feed a video from Israeli journalist Haim Har-Zahav that showed a right wing mob of mostly young Israeli men, waving the blue and white flag, cheering the IDF’s bombing of children. “Tomorrow there’s no teaching in Gaza,” the mob chanted with gusto, “They have no children left.”

The March

For the second time in the march, the young Muslim men raised their fists and yelled “Allahu Akbar!” For a split second, I imagined guns in their hands. Instantly, I grimaced at the cliché lodged in my mind from countless newsreels of Muslims marching down bullet pocked streets, hoisting a coffin, raising guns and shouting, “Allahu Akbar!”

The path of our protest was to the open space of empathy with the Other in which the suffering of Palestinians, shows that ultimately they are just like us.

No one picked up their call, and it fell back in their throats as they looked around, slightly confused, slightly hurt. One tugged on his keffiyeh like a tight shirt collar. The people holding the Palestinian flags were too atheist or Jewish or weekend Muslim, too punk, too feminist, too queer to yell for freedom in the name of anyone’s god.

More so, we were marching not just through the physical streets of San Francisco, but through the narrative geography of a democratic space. Our silence around their “Allahu Akbar” chant was, I thought, to not trigger American associations of the Muslim terrorist which would just close doors. The path of our protest was to the open space of empathy with the Other, in which the suffering of Palestinians shows that ultimately they are just like us.

But the commonality between us and the Palestinians is visible not just in the horrific photos of despair, but in the election of Hamas itself. In a 2007 lecture, Columbian University professor Rashid Khalidi, explained that the 44 percent of voters who choose Hamas did so because Yasser Arafat’s Fatah – which up until then was Palestine’s lead party – had become corrupt, sending its children overseas, building villas and buying cars. In contrast, Hamas funded soup kitchens, sports leagues, orphanages and health clinics. “We want someone to pick up the garbage,” Khalidi said in the voice of a Palestinian voter, “and not take all the money and buy BMWs!”

The rise of Hamas was driven by the very human desire to clean house, to get better services and yes, self-determination, which in this context meant a tougher line on Israel. But not suicide attacks, which Khalidi said had lost support among Palestinians. Nor was the vote for, he said, Hamas’s conservative social policies, much less its charter, which does call for the elimination of Israel. “It’s not a document most people in Hamas pay much attention to. Much more attention is paid to it by its enemies,” he half-smiled. “I don’t think most Hamas members know what’s in their charter.”

I heard that same desire among Palestinians in the march. A trio of Muslim women, heads covered, laughing and shouting slogans were nearby and I asked if they had been to Israel or Palestine. “My parents are born and raised in Palestine. I was born here,” Bushra said, “but I was there just a month ago in Bait Hanina, and you can see the difference. Where Jews live, it’s cleaner; where Arabs live, it’s not as clean; the garbage is not picked up. There are some nice Israelis, there are some that are not. But you face discrimination more when dealing with authority. It’s less about Palestinians versus Israelis than Palestinians versus Israeli institutions like the courts, the military.”

She looked up as if seeing Israel in front of her; a wind seemed to pass through her face. Bushra turned to me, “I don’t hate Israelis. The most painful thing about the occupation is people can’t visit each other or see their ancestral homes even if they’re just a stone’s throw away.” She opened her palms up as if juggling ideas, “Israel is an established country: if we could be citizens with a government invested in us; we would go for it.” She waved at the march, “This whole thing is not about forcing Israelis out, you know; it’s their home too.”

Never Again

August 1, less than a week later, I was in New York, watching a Jewish woman jumping up and down giving us two middle fingers. We were at “The Mass Rally to Stand with Up with Gaza Against Israeli Crimes” in Columbus Square Circle, again large red, black, green Palestinian flags waved above our heads. Tightly bunched by police pens, a thousand protesters chanted, “Free Palestine!”

Clapping and cheers flew as a group of Hasidic Orthodox wearing Palestinian flags walked by. They were living proof that resistance against Zionism could come from the heart of Judaism; it wasn’t anti-Semitic to critique Israel, and somehow, I thought, our applause showed how much suspicion we faced, as if we knew that others just assumed we were driven by anti-Semitism rather than sympathy for victims of occupation. Peering over the heads and between signs, I saw one of the Hasidic men mount the stage and hold the bullhorn to his mouth. “Zionism, No!” he yelled, “Judaism, Yes!”

Soon we surged down Broadway as cameramen circled the march and tourists stared as if we were a parade. “Oh no,” my friend Vallerie Matos said, “the white shirts. They’re the worst.” She pointed a finger at burly white shirt policemen, known for being the wrecking balls of the NYPD. They corralled us on to a sidewalk until frustration charged the air like kerosene, and finally, they let us spill over to the bike lane. The march was more controlled than the one in San Francisco, more bottle-necked between police barriers. But we marched from CNN to Fox News to hold above our heads the invisible Palestinian story.

On the side of the march, I saw one of the Hasidic men being interviewed and jogged to him, asked his name; asked him why he joined the protest. He said his name was Joel Eidlisz, and his life had been threatened by Zionists for protesting Israel. “The Zionists want to turn our religion into nationalism,” Eidlisz said. “It was founded by a group of evil Jews.” I winced and asked on what principles he protested.

Political activism creates this double-life: you live physically in one place, but your thoughts and emotions are far away, fighting from a distance, against historical wrongs.

“We believe the Torah says we should not occupy the Holy Land. Second, we must not rebel against nations. And third, we will not use force to end our exile,” he said, voice shaky from adrenaline, but walking the line of his conviction. I asked him about the ever-present memory of the Holocaust in Israel political rhetoric. “We as traditional Jews believe the almighty controls everything, even what we suffered. The Holocaust was a punishment for our sins. In the Torah, when we suffered, our leaders looked at what kind of sin we did to cause it.”

I shut my notebook, thanked him and walked away, jaw clenching, feeling gratitude collide with anger, thankful he was there but judging him for saying a people’s “sins” caused them to be oppressed. No, I thought, Jews did not “earn” the Holocaust. Palestinians did not “earn” the Occupation.

“What’s wrong?” Vallerie asked.

“God is not a white shirt,” I said.

The Cease-fire

Days later, August 5, I read news of the cease-fire and sighed. Each photo of a dead person, sprawled on a street in Gaza, zapped me like a cattle prod. I radiated angry panic. I wanted to do something. Political activism creates this double-life: You live physically in one place, but your thoughts and emotions are far away, fighting from a distance, against historical wrongs. For the past month, I felt like I lived in an astral-projected state, witnessing like a phantom the very real destruction of a people.

And now, however briefly, the siege was over. And yet, it will start anew because the conditions are not just the same as before, they’re worse. Before Operation Protective Edge, Hamas, like the corrupt Fatah before it, overstepped its mandate and abused its power. Slamming the Koran on a religiously mixed and somewhat secular Gaza caused friction. Girls and boys were no longer allowed to be in the same classroom. Men were not allowed to tend women’s hair. Women were told to wear head coverings and to not run in a marathon. And like a bad Islamic version of Footloose, Hamas banned the Arab Idol contest. Their approval rating, before the siege, was at a low of 20 percent. Now they have emerged from the rubble as victims of Israeli aggression and a champion who shut down Israel’s airport with rockets.

And of course, Israel’s right-wing, in power now for 18 years and presently ranging from religious fundamentalists The Jewish Home to the ethnic nationalists of the Likud party will push further out, make more settlements, take more land. The West Bank may be annexed; the blockade tightened so the people of Gaza continue to starve.

Palestinians live in a geopolitical vacuum.

And then there is the brutal fact, repeatedly pointed out by Khalidi in an April 2013 talk for his book, Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East, that the Palestinian struggle is just not vital to the geopolitical interests of the United States. “To suggest that the Israel lobby has some kind of arcane influence on American policy in the Middle East overall is a terrible mistake,” he said. “On issues of strategic importance to the United States, the power of the Israel Lobby was shown to be minimal. On Palestine, it has enormous weight. But on issues of strategic importance . . . like peace between Egypt and Israel, which was crucial in the eyes of American policy makers over three administrations, Nixon, Ford, Carter to American Cold War objectives, there was absolutely no hesitation in pushing, pressuring and forcing Israel to do things that American policy makers wanted.”

Palestinians have no state, no army, no natural resources to sell in the global market place, and they are nearly 11 million people scattered across the region; 4 million in Palestinian Territories, 1.2 million in Israel, 5 million in surrounding Arab nations and half a million across the globe. They are minorities clutching the dust of host countries. They have no nuclear weapons the United States wants dismantled, as in Russia; no trade debt, as in China, to worry lawmakers; no oil to sell; no land to rent the US military as it pursues its endless War on Terror. Palestinians live in a geopolitical vacuum.

One hope, Khalidi says over and over in various talks, is if the Arab Spring knocks down the monarchies and oligarchies in the Middle East. Maybe more democratic governments will listen to the deep sympathy their people have for the Palestinians and force the United States, in order to retain its influence, to force Israel to make concessions. But the Arab Spring has sputtered, and the Middle East is in the iron grip of reaction.

What we know today is that already Israel is looking to the next conflict. It will, as it says, “mow the lawn,” a colloquialism for a military attack to cut down the militant resistance that inevitably grows. It struck me that Israel’s Achilles Heel was not a violent resistance, but a nonviolent civil rights movement of Palestinians, one that used their own democratic principles against them, but more importantly, one that could save both Israeli and Palestinian from the downward spiral of violence.

Looking at the photos from the Siege on Gaza, one showed a boy trapped in rubble, screaming for someone to pull him from the crushing stone. Tired of sorrow, I clicked off the webpage, but next was a page I found during research and forgot to close.

Broken skeletons lay in a pile in a photo above a story about a mass grave of Palestinians found in the Jaffa district of Tel Aviv. They had been killed in 1948, when around 700,000 fled for their lives or were forced to run. Of course, some were just slaughtered, and it was their skulls found here, askew like cracked ceramic bowls, rib cages and hip bones in a dusty heap.

I thought again of that boy, screaming as he reached up from the rubble of war. How he almost was a forgotten skull, how one day, in the coming siege, he could be a skeleton among skeletons under the Land of Israel, a nation celebrating its glory.

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