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Why we need to divest from the US-backed Israeli Occupation

March 2011

NOTE: the following is an excerpt from an article by Stephen R. Shalom, Jewish professor, writer, and advisory board member of the Israeli Occupation Archive. This article is a slightly edited and footnoted version of remarks delivered at New York University 28 Feb 2011 for Israel Apartheid Week

This evening a campaign is being launched at NYU to “Divest From the US-backed Israeli Occupation Now!”   Why is everybody always picking on Israel?   Is it anti-Semitism? Hostility to democratic values? Jewish self-hatred? Sympathy for terrorism?   On the contrary, this campaign represents an affirmation of democratic values. It represents a non-violent way to challenge state terrorism. And far from reflecting anti-Semitism or self-hatred it represents an opportunity for Jews and non-Jews to support universal human rights and human dignity.   But surely, it will be said, Israel is not the worst violator of human rights in the world. It is not. But there are at least four reasons why it is entirely appropriate that those in the United States concerned with social justice devote considerable attention to addressing Israeli crimes against Palestinians, and to U.S. backing for those crimes.   First, the Israeli occupation and its policy of building settlements and displacing the local population are unequivocally illegal and unjustified.   Second, the Israeli occupation has been a vicious one, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.   Third, the Israeli occupation has been the most long-standing occupation in the world.

And fourth, our government, the United States government, has made possible this sordid record of occupation and abuse.

Let me briefly consider each of these points in turn.

  1.     Legality Some half a million Israeli settlers live in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem.[1] These settlements are big and small. The single settlement of Maale Adumim is one and half times the size of Manhattan, with 35,000 people.[2] Some settlements are authorized, some are not. But whatever their size, whatever their authorization status, every one of them is illegal under international law.   The proof of their illegality is overwhelming. Theodor Meron, the Israeli government’s own legal adviser in 1967, privately warned that any settlements would be contrary to international law.[3] The International Court of Justice — in a portion of an opinion that had the unanimous support of all its judges, including the one from the United States — ruled that all the settlements in the occupied territories are illegal.[4] In December 2010, the General Assembly passed resolution 65/104 by a vote of 169-6, with 3 abstentions, reaffirming that the settlements are illegal. The six opposed were Israel, the United States, and four tiny Pacific islands, three of which are essentially U.S. dependencies.[5] And just 10 days ago, the Security Council considered a resolution co-sponsored by 120 countries, calling the settlements illegal. The Security Council vote was 14-1, with the United States casting a veto. In explaining its vote, the U.S. declared that its vote should not be misunderstood as support for settlement activity. “On the contrary, we reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity.”[6] At one time, Washington used to call the settlements “illegal,” but then switched to “illegitimate,” maybe thinking this was a little gentler. Now if you look up “illegitimate” in the dictionary you find, in addition to “born out of wedlock,” the definition “against the law, illegal,” as well as “illogical” and “erratic.” So despite Washington’s word games, no country apart from Israel really thinks the settlements are legal.   Israel replies to this charge by claiming that the “occupied territories” were not really occupied since these territories were acquired by Israel in a just war of self-defense. Israel’s supporters argue that although Israel fired the first shots in this war, it was a justified preemptive war, given that Arab armies were mobilizing on Israel’s borders, with murderous rhetoric.   The rhetoric was indeed blood-curdling, and many people around the world worried for Israel’s safety. But those who understood the military situation — in the Israeli government and in the U.S. government — knew quite well that even if the Arabs struck first, Israel would prevail in any war. As Lyndon Johnson told the Israeli foreign minister, “All of our intelligence people are unanimous that if [Egypt] attacks, you will whip hell out of them.”[7] Nasser was looking for a way out and agreed to send his vice-president to Washington for negotiations. Israel attacked when it did in part because it rejected negotiations and the prospect of any face-saving compromise for Nasser. Menachem Begin, a member of the Israeli cabinet at the time and an enthusiastic supporter of this (and other) Israeli wars, was quite clear about whether it had been necessary to launch an attack: Israel, he said, “had a choice.” Egyptian Army concentrations did not prove that Nasser was about to attack us. “We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.”[8]   However, even if it were the case that the 1967 war was wholly defensive on Israel’s part, this cannot justify the continued rule over Palestinians. A people do not lose their right to self-determination because the government of a neighboring state goes to war. Sure, punish Egypt and Jordan — don’t give them back Gaza and the West Bank. But there is no basis for punishing the Palestinian population by forcing them to submit to foreign military occupation.   2.     Brutality But this occupation is not just illegal and unjustified; it has also been extremely brutal. Since September 2000, some three thousand Palestinians who were not taking any part in hostilities were killed by Israeli security forces.[9] More than 18,000 Palestinian homes were demolished,[10] not counting the thousands blown to smithereens in the Gaza attack during the winter of 2009.   Gaza has been subjected to a particularly vicious blockade. As the UN reported in November,   “Some 1.5 million people had been trapped for over four years under the ‘illegal and inhumane and counter-productive blockade on the Gaza Strip.’  It was more than a humanitarian crisis; it was an economic crisis, as well as a crisis of physical infrastructure.  It was also a psychological crisis, especially for the 800,000 children.”[11]   The UN hoped that things might improve in recent months, but in January the UN found that unemployment had increased to 45 percent, and per capita wages shrunk almost 10 percent.[12]   Israel, of course, claims the blockade is necessary to prevent the importation of weapons into Gaza, but this claim is easily refuted by noting one essential fact: the blockade restricts exports as well as imports; in fact, there’s been a near total prohibition on exports, a ban whose only purpose is to crush the Gazan economy as a form of collective punishment.   In Gaza more than 90 per cent of the water supply is unfit for human consumption, and the Israeli blockade prevents the entry of materials needed to construct or repair water facilities.[13] But it’s not just Hamas-controlled Gaza where Israel denies Palestinians their basic needs. The World Health Organization estimates that a population requires on average 100 liters of water per capita. The average Israeli consumes 230 liters per capita; the average Israeli living in one of the West Bank settlements uses 282 liters per capita. The Palestinians of the West Bank, however, get only 66 liters per capita, just two thirds of their minimum needs.[14] And just this month the UN noted that Israeli officials have been destroying Palestinian water cisterns on the West Bank.[15]   Human Rights Watch recently issued a report summarizing the situation on the West Bank. It found a “two-tier system of laws, rules, and services that Israel operates for the two populations in areas in the West Bank under its exclusive control, which provide preferential services, development, and benefits for Jewish settlers while imposing harsh conditions on Palestinians. … Such different treatment, on the basis of race, ethnicity, and national origin and not narrowly tailored to meet security or other justifiable goals, violates the fundamental prohibition against discrimination under human rights law.”[16]   The Israeli Human Rights group B’Tselem reported that “Israel’s severe restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement in the West Bank are enforced by a system of fixed checkpoints, surprise flying checkpoints, physical obstructions, roads on which Palestinians are forbidden to travel, and gates along the Separation Barrier.  The restrictions enable Israel to control Palestinian movement throughout the West Bank as suits its interests, in a sweeping breach of Palestinians’ rights.”[17]   In October 2010, there were 99 fixed checkpoints in the West Bank. In addition, there are what are called “flying checkpoints” along West Bank roads: from April 2009 to March 2010, there were some 300 per month. In addition, Israel blocks the access roads leading to some of the main traffic arteries in the West Bank by means of hundreds of physical obstructions. In May 2010, the UN counted 420 of these physical obstructions.[18] As of January 31, 2011, there were 73 kilometers of roads in the West Bank from which Palestinians were totally forbidden and another 155 to which their access was restricted.[19]   So just because there is no major Israeli attack going on as we speak does not mean that there currently aren’t severe human rights violations occurring in the West Bank, and far worse, of course, in Gaza.   3.     Longest Occupation To be sure, there have been other horrendous foreign occupations. Some have suggested that those who criticize the Israeli occupation are guilty of a double standard for giving more attention to that occupation than to the others. Now of course the definition of an occupation is contentious. The United States stole Texas from Mexico, but most people don’t consider this an ongoing occupation. So let’s look at some occupations that are widely acknowledged.   South Africa occupied South West Africa for many years. But that occupation ended in 1990 with the independence of Namibia. If we date the occupation from 1966, when the General Assembly formally revoked South Africa’s mandate over the territory,[20] that occupation lasted 24 years, compared with Israel’s 43 plus. Most countries in the world showed no anti-Israel double standard: they condemned South Africa’s occupation just as they condemn Israel’s occupation. Not all countries, of course, condemned South Africa. The leading Western powers long blocked any serious sanctions against South Africa, and Israel cooperated with the apartheid regime in developing nuclear weapons.   Another awful occupation was Indonesia’s in East Timor. This occupation too is over. It also lasted 24 years, compared with Israel’s 43 plus. Because of Indonesia’s political clout the UN was pretty ineffectual in dealing with the Timor situation. Jakarta had the backing of many non-aligned nations, and its invasion and occupation were abetted by the United States. Among the countries that didn’t think Indonesian behavior was so bad, however, was Israel, which abstained on the eight General Assembly resolutions condemning Indonesia’s invasion. (This was better than the United States, which voted “no” on these resolutions.)[21]   Morocco’s rule in Western Sahara is a brutal occupation that is still going on. Morocco assumed control of two thirds of the territory in 1976 and the rest in 1979,[22] so that occupation has been in effect for ten years less than Israel’s. Washington and Paris have prevented any UN sanctions against Morocco, and have maintained close ties with that government. Israel too has been on good terms with the Moroccan regime.[23] The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is currently recognized as an independent state by 44 countries and the African Union; the United States and Israel are not among them.[24]   Thus, we note two things. First, that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories — which is still ongoing — has lasted longer than any other generally recognized occupation in the world. And second, the two governments that most vociferously complain that Israel has been singled out for criticism — Israel and the United States — have themselves been rather muted in their condemnation of other occupations.   4.     US role As long as the United States has given full backing to Israel, the Israeli government has been able to pursue a policy of aggression, occupation, and abuse rather than one of peace.   The United States has given Israel massive amounts of military and economic aid. Since 1948, Washington has provided more than $100 billion in aid to Israel, which makes Israel the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance of any country in the world. On a per capita basis, the disproportion is even more extreme. Consider what Washington has given to various countries. Since World War II, the United States has given 15 dollars — $14.89 — in aid to every Nigerian; 13 dollars to every Indian; 18 dollars to every Brazilian; 17 dollars to every Mexican; 32 dollars to every Indonesian; and $13,373 to every Israeli. And, of course, Israel is a rich country, not a poor one with a desperate need for aid.   From 1976 to 2004, Israel was the leading annual recipient of U.S. foreign aid. Since then only the two countries where Washington has been waging war — Iraq and Afghanistan — have gotten more aid than Israel.   Lately, almost all U.S. aid to Israel has been military aid. Many of the weapons Israel used in its attack on Gaza came from the United States, paid for by our tax dollars.[25] One reason the Israeli public can afford “guns and butter” is because a large chunk of the guns are paid for by Washington. U.S. Foreign Military Financing grants represent 18 percent of the overall Israeli military budget.[26] And the U.S. is not just providing dollars, but military technology.   Andrew J. Shapiro, the Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, summarized matters this way back in July. As a result of the Obama Administration’s “enduring commitment to Israel’s security…our security relationship with Israel is broader, deeper and more intense than ever before.” Shapiro said that “…as Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs, one of my primary responsibilities is to preserve Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge,” and this is being done “through an unprecedented increase in U.S. security assistance, stepped up security consultations, support for Israel’s new Iron Dome defensive system, and other initiatives.”[27]   As the U.S. Congressional Research Service notes, “U.S. military aid, a portion of which may be spent on procurement from Israeli defense companies, also has helped Israel build a domestic defense industry, which ranks as one of the top 10 suppliers of arms worldwide.” From 2001-2008, Israel ranked seventh in the world as an arms exporter.[28]   But military aid is not the only support the United States gives to Israel. You would think that when a conflict breaks out somewhere, the United Nations would try to impose a ceasefire. But the United States uses its veto in the Security Council to provide diplomatic cover for Israeli crimes. Since 1967, the United States cast its veto 42 times to protect Israel, which was more than a third of all the vetoes cast during these years by any country on any issue.[29] And many times criticisms of Israel never even make it to the resolution stage because of the expectation of Washington’s veto.[30]   Despite this, Israel’s international behavior has been so outrageous and dismissive of world opinion, that even Washington has sometimes felt the need to abstain on or even approve resolutions critical of Israel in the Security Council. Israel thus stands as the country in the world that has been most often condemned by the Council.[31] Nevertheless, the United States has made sure that the Security Council never imposes consequences on Israel for its violation of Council resolutions. So is there a double standard regarding Israel? Absolutely. But the double standard is in Israel’s favor. Why? Because no other nation with such a record of violations of international law and of the resolutions of the Security Council and other UN bodies has been as exempt as Israel from Security Council sanctions. Compare the virtual immunity of Israel with the sanctions and even military actions imposed on other criminal states: Iraq under Saddam Hussein, apartheid South Africa, colonial Portugal, or Milosevic’s Serbia.[32]   Last week Israeli peace groups called for a demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy, with the slogan, “Top of Form   The US is an Accomplice to the Settlement Crime!” They’re exactly right. There are two criminals here, and both need to be opposed. Both are behaving not just illegitimately, but illegally. And immorally. We must confront them both.   Stephen R. Shalom teaches political science at William Paterson University in New Jersey. He is on the board of New Politics and writes for ZNet; he is also a member of the Israeli Occupation Archives Advisory Board.   NOTES [1] See B’Tselem. Note that the CIA WorldFactbook gives inaccurate figures. See Alicia Shepard, “CIA Gets Numbers Wrong on Jewish Settlers,” NPR Ombudsman, June 2, 2010, [2] Tony Judt, “Fictions on the Ground,” New York Times, June 22, 2009. [3] Donald Macintyre, “Secret memo shows Israel knew Six Day War was illegal,” The Independent (London), May 26, 2007. [4] International Court of Justice, Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Advisory Opinion, July 9, 2004; Declaration of Judge Buergenthal, (agreeing that the Israeli settlements violate Article 49, paragraph 6, of the Fourth Geneva Convention and thus violate international humanitarian law). [5] See UN Press release GA/11035, Dec. 10, 2010. The island states are Marshall Islands, Micronesia (Federated States of), Palau, and Nauru, the first three of which are dependent on Pentagon spending. [6] UN News Centre, “United States vetoes Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements,” Feb. 18, 2011. [7] Lyndon Baines Johnson, The Vantage Point: Perspectives on the Presidency, 1963-1969, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971, p. 293. [8]Excerpts From Begin Speech At National Defense College,” New York Times, August 21, 1982. [9] B’Tselem. [10] Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. [11] UN Department of Public Information, “Press Conference by Director of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in Near East Operations in Gaza,” 30 November 2010. [12] UN Department of Public Information, “Humanitarian crisis in Gaza dire as unemployment rises, warns UN agency,” 10 February 2011. [13] B’Tselem, “Water supplied in Gaza unfit for drinking; Israel prevents entry of materials needed to repair system,” 23 August 2010. See also Amnesty International, Troubled Waters – Palestinians Denied Fair Access To Water, London, October 2009, Index: MDE 15/027/2009. [14] B’Tselem, Human Rights in the Occupied Territories: 2008 Annual Report, Feb. 2009, pp. 25-26. [15] “Statement by the United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory, Maxwell Gaylard, on Continuing Demolition of Water Cisterns in the West Bank,” Feb. 1, 2011. [16] Human Rights Watch , Separate and Unequal: Israel’s Discriminatory Treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, 2010. [17] B’Tselem, Restrictions on Movement: Checkpoints, Physical Obstructions, and Forbidden Roads, accessed 2/28/11. [18] Ibid. [19] B’Tselem, List of forbidden and restricted roads as of 31 January 2011. [20] UN GA Res. 2145 (XXI), Oct. 27, 1966. [21] See voting records on General Assembly resolutions 3485(XXX) (1975), 31/53 (1976), 32/34 (1977), 33/39 (1978), 34/40 (1979), 35/27 (1980), 36/50 (1981), and 37/30 (1982). [22] CIA World Factbook, Western Sahara, accessed Feb. 18, 2011. [23] In 1965, the Mossad helped the Moroccan regime capture and assassinate exiled opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka. Israel provided Morocco with military aid in its efforts to control the Western Sahara. See Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, “Israel and Morocco: A Special Relationship,” The Maghreb Review, vol. 21, nos. 1-2, 1996, p. 40; Michael M. Laskier, “Israeli–Moroccan Relations and the Arab–Israeli Conflict, 1977–2002,” Israel Affairs, vol. 10, no. 3, Spring 2004, pp. 43, 52; Xavier Cornut, “The Moroccan connection,” Jerusalem Post, June 22, 2009. [24] SADR Diplomatic Recognition List as of Dec. 2010. [25] AI, Fuelling conflict: Foreign arms supplies to Israel/Gaza, AI Index: MDE 15/012/2009, Feb. 23, 2009. [26] Jeremy M. Sharp, U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel, Congressional Research Service, RL33222, September 16, 2010. [27] Andrew J. Shapiro, Assistant Secretary, Political-Military Affairs, Remarks at the Brookings Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Washington, DC, July 16, 2010. [28] Sharp, op. cit., pp. 2, 5-6. [29] See Global Policy Forum, “Subjects of UN Security Council Vetoes,” , accessed 2/18/11; and note 6 above. [30] See Céline Nahory, “The Hidden Veto,” Global Policy Forum, May 2004. [31] See the appendix to my “Anti-Semitism and the Israel-Palestine conflict – assessing the claim of double standards,” Israeli Occupation Archive, Nov. 19, 2010. [32] Double Standards: How the International Community has Taught Israel that it is Above the Law. A report of the Negotiations Affairs Department Palestine Liberation Organization, Sept. 24, 2002. This study was published by the PLO, and so its analysis is obviously partisan, but the tables, assembled by Dr. Barbara Metzger, provide a good summary of the situation.


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