Nov 17th 2015

Invisible Victims

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute
Everyone made nice, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington last week. It was make up time. The Administration sought to demonstrate that despite, what the President referred to as their "minor difference" over the Iran deal, there were no remaining hard feelings. Three-quarters of the Congress welcomed Netanyahu with a letter denouncing Palestinian violence and incitement. And the Israeli PM was fawned over during an appearance at a liberal think-tank. 

Before, during, and after the visit, official statements and press coverage largely focused on two themes: Israel's security needs in the wake of the P5+1 Agreement with Iran; and how, despite Netanyahu's testy relationship with President Obama, the US-Israel relationship remains as strong as ever. When Palestinians were discussed at all, it was most often as perpetrators of incitement and violence or as a problem to be solved so that Israel could live in peace.

President Obama did speak of the need to "lower the temperature between Israelis and Palestinians" and his concern "that legitimate Palestinian aspirations are met through a political process". For his part, Netanyahu stated that he remained "committed to a vision of two states for two peoples, a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state". But in the overall scheme of things, the President's call to "lower the temperature" and Netanyahu's response that he was open to "discussing...practical ways...[to] lower the tension", appeared to be "throw away" lines—oft repeated, but never implemented.

What was missing was any forthright acknowledgment of the suffering of Palestinians under a harsh occupation that has abused and humiliated them, denied their fundamental rights, and sucked the very life out of their hopes for the future. There was nothing new here, since the failure to address these realities has long characterized US policy discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

From the earliest days of the Zionist enterprise in Palestine, the West has portrayed the resultant conflict in a simplistic equation—Jewish humanity confronting the Arab problem—real people versus an abstraction. Even when Palestinian national rights were finally recognized, the policy discussion shifted only slightly with the call for a Palestinian state presented as necessary, not to free Palestinians from the nightmare of Israeli rule, but to insure that Israel would remain a "Jewish state".

There were occasions when leaders deviated from this dominant narrative. Bill Clinton spoke about Palestinian suffering in his remarkable address to the Palestinian National Council in 1998, as did Barack Obama in his 2009 Cairo University address and his 2013 Jerusalem speech. But instead of marking a permanent change in our policy discourse, these appeared to have been one-off exercises. In any case, in recent years, there has been little or no mention of the cruel burdens faced by Palestinians. And no outright denunciation of Israel's cruel treatment of the captive people over whom it rules or any proposed action to change this deplorable situation.

We can talk about "lowering the temperature", but unless the behaviors that raise that temperature are called out by name, nothing will change. Sympathy is, of course, due to victims of stabbings. And those who incite such behavior should be called to account for their words. But where is the sympathy for: the thousands of families in Hebron who have been evicted from their homes to make way for extremist Israelis who have settled in the midst of their city; or the fathers who have been subjected to humiliating treatment at Israeli checkpoints in front of their children; or the children who have recoiled in shock at the sight of their fathers demeaned in this way; or the innocent victims of collective punishment, whose only crime was to be related to someone who is alleged to have committed a violent crime; or the family members of those who have died at checkpoints because they were denied access to hospitals; or the 50% of young Palestinians who have no jobs, no prospect of a job, and therefore no hope for the future?

In the end, these Palestinian lives matter and must be acknowledged and protected. In the absence of concern for Palestinian lives, talk of one-state or two-states is empty.  In the face of the systematic violations of Palestinian rights, it is an abomination to argue that a two-state solution is needed in order to protect Israel's Jewish character.

Palestinians are victims, invisible victims. It is this history of abuse to which they have been subjected and the anger and despair it has fostered that has led the very young to act out, as they have. Their desperate actions are deplorable and should not be celebrated. They should instead set off alarm bells causing us to reflect on how we in the West have contributed to their anger and despair by ignoring them for so long.

Netanyahu should not have been hosted and feted in Washington, he should have been called out by policy makers for his behavior. Until that occurs, nothing will change. Palestinians will remain invisible victims, denied their rights, and peace will remain as elusive as ever.   

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