America’s Moral Obligation to Palestine
We stand today on the precipice of a great moral crisis as an international community, and indeed as a nation; one that has been culminating for over seven decades. Ironically, the crux of this crisis parallels the motivation that drove our country’s birth; yet that irony has seemingly been lost on our leadership, and perhaps more regrettably, on our general populace.
Since the end of the Second World War, the United States’ inaction on the humanitarian and political crisis engulfing the Palestinian people has had profound and long-lasting effects on the well-being of millions. In an effort towards political and economic expediency, our nation has turned a blind eye towards the occupation and deprival of self-determination for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza. America’s inaction today dismisses the precedents set by the Great Men who founded it. Throughout our history, America’s goals both domestically and internationally have been guided by our de facto national credence, that “All Men are Created Equal”[i] and that the right of self-determination is a fundamental human right. Indeed, the very founding of the United States was predicated on the issue of self-determination.
We preach the rights of mankind all around the world; freedom, liberty, equality. Yet how can we ask others to uphold these democratic values while we ourselves are not stepping forward to do so? How can we hold ourselves up as the moral arbiters of the international community while acting blasé about this situation? In the spirit of those principles, the United States has declared - numerous times - its advocacy and support for the oppressed throughout the world, whether during its infancy as a nation, through the World Wars, or during the Cold War; however, it has yet to do so for the Palestinian people.
It would be helpful at this point to provide a brief overview of the complicated history of the situation that dates back over a century:
Following the First World War, the Mandate for Palestine was created, granting the British Government control over the region. This control lasted until the end of the Second World War, when the United Nations passed Resolution 181 (II), creating a two-state solution to the question of a Jewish homeland [xxii]. Rejected by the Arabs, conflict broke out between the two sides in 1948, which resulted in an Israeli victory and the occupation of much of the Palestinian land, contrary to the United Nations’ Resolution. Subsequent wars in 1967 and 1973 resulted in additional Palestinian land being occupied, which brings us to the present day, in which much of the Palestinian Territories are occupied by Israeli settlements and military personnel.
The solution today is clear: two states coexisting in peace. This seems to be the only practical way in which the rights of, both, the Israeli and Palestinian people can be secure without having one group living in the shadow of the other. The issue with a one-state solution is obvious; one of the groups would be treated as second-class citizens with limited rights and privileges. As former Secretary of State John Kerry argued, there would be a society founded on the idea of “separate and unequal” if a one-state solution was pursued.[ii]
This returns us to the two-state solution, which also has obstacles of its own. A couple of the biggest obstacles are the matters of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, as well as the de facto military occupation of Gaza. Both of these matters make it nearly impossible to establish two states. At a certain point, there will no longer be an area of land populated contiguously by the Palestinian people; it will be scattered with settlements. As John Kerry outlined, “…if more and more settlers are moving into the middle of Palestinian areas, it’s going to be just that much harder to separate, that much harder to imagine transferring sovereignty. And that is exactly the outcome that some are purposefully accelerating” [ii].
While most of the international community is quick to express their disapproval at the current situation [iii], the world’s foremost political and economic power has shown less eagerness in pursuing a solution to the problem. I fear that the constant delay in the United States’ approach to this issue will result in a situation where any possible hope for a solution would be deemed impractical and not implementable.
Officially, the United States has promised to take measures that will “promote a comprehensive and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”[iv] It has generously provided the Palestinian people with economic assistance to ease the burden of the humanitarian crisis, and that should not go unappreciated. Billions of dollars have been sent in aid to the Palestinian people in the past few decades, which has undoubtedly saved countless lives. In fact, “bilateral assistance to the Palestinians since 1994 has totaled more than $5 billion.”[v] The ultimate goal of the United States, however, is to find a “lasting solution” to the issue between Israel and the Palestinians. As time goes on, the chances of finding this solution become dimmer due to the continued building of Israeli settlements on land that has been delegated to the Palestinian people for a future state, thereby further limiting any leverage for negotiations.
It is imperative that the United States take steps towards disavowing the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian Territories, as well as working with the international community to implement a blueprint for the Palestinian people to govern themselves. That blueprint begins with the United States rejecting the establishment of settlements within the West Bank. The United States must do this for the simple and undeniable fact that it is the right thing to do; the moral thing to do. We pride ourselves on being stalwart in our commitment to liberty and self-determination around the world, and in the spirit of those principles, the United States needs to act in order to preserve any possible semblance of hope that a mutually agreeable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will take place.
However, the United States must go further than blueprints and outlines; further than a simple resolution issued by the House of Representatives.[vi] Resolutions are symbolic, and do not accomplish anything concrete. The unique position which the United States holds globally makes it the most capable of bringing about change. The reasoning for this lies in a critical aspect of U.S. foreign policy; international aid. The United States has consistently provided financial aid to both Israel and the Palestinians since the early 1950’s.v [vii] In fact, the United States disbursed over $3.3 billion to Israel in 2019 alone.[viii] Of that amount, over 99% went to military assistance. viii Meanwhile, $120 million was disbursed to the Palestinians in that same year.[ix] None of that amount was comprised of military assistance, but rather various humanitarian and developmental causes [ix].
It is clear that both the Palestinian and Israeli people depend upon the United States’ economic assistance. Therefore, the U.S. needs to put financial pressure on both groups by withholding non-essential aid until they are both willing to meet at the negotiating table. Over the years, the psychological aspect of knowing that the U.S. will be there in the event of a financial emergency has made both sides complacent and unwilling to compromise. The solution, therefore, is simple: a denial of non-humanitarian aid to both Israel and the Palestinian Territories until the former withdraws its settlements in the West Bank and its military presence around Gaza, and until both groups affirm to accept the implementation of a two-state solution in accordance with U.N. Resolution 181 (II). Furthermore, compensation for those evicted from their homes following the 1948 conflict should be provided by the Israeli Government, whether in the form of a “right to return” or some financial reparation, in accordance with U.N. Resolution 194.[x]
In addition, both groups must pledge to the immediate halting of violence as a means of advancing their goals. Violence is not the solution; aside from the moral implications, three major conflicts have already been fought in an attempt to resolve this issue, and yet we remain in the same position as we were seven decades ago. The longer we wait to act, the less likely it is that a two-state solution will be implemented; there will soon be no more Palestinian land to create a state from due to the establishment of Israeli settlements. It is increasingly frustrating that the United States has not yet utilized its leverage to solve the issue at hand. The economic pressure needs to be placed on both peoples; not simply one or the other, as the Trump Administration implemented following the Palestinians’ rejection of its solution.[xi] There can be no favoritism – or perception of favoritism - with respect to a humanitarian crisis that has dragged on for decades.
A valid criticism of the aforementioned plan is that the halting of military assistance to Israel may result in increased levels of terrorism by groups such as Hamas. While this point appears reasonable, it is important to remember that Israel’s military capabilities are far superior to its neighboring states.[xii] [xiii] [xiv] Any halting of military assistance from the United States would not affect the security of Israel for several years at the least. It would, however, give Israel an incentive to reevaluate its position with respect to a two-state solution.
I will concede that Hamas’ control over Gaza complicates prospects for peace. Their attacks on innocent civilians should be condemned in the strongest terms, and there is absolutely no justification for them. That being said, the stagnancy of a two-state solution, coupled with the West Bank’s current occupation, has unfortunately emboldened Hamas and radicalized more individuals. If a resolution can be reached on the larger goal of a two-state solution, I believe that the issue of Hamas will be resolved along with it.
On the whole, some may argue that the Palestinian Territories in the West Bank and Gaza are currently self-governed by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. I would ask those who take that position exactly what kind of self-governed community has to rely on an occupier to access electricity and water?[xv] [xvi] Is it truly self-determination when a people do not have control over their basic necessities needed to survive? Is it truly self-determination when the freedom of movement is restricted? When the property rights of its people are non-existent and can be taken at any time? When a military presence is omnipresent? I would argue that it is not.
The conditions on the ground are well-documented and undeniable:
In the West Bank, a subjugated population is living in constant fear. Fear of the human rights violations they are subjected to [xvii]. Fear of the “night raids and house searches by Israeli forces" [xix]. Fear of “the prolonged and arbitrary detention of Palestinians” [xix]. This is not a way to live.
Property rights are virtually non-existent for those in the West Bank, where it is not uncommon to see “the demolition or seizure of Palestinian properties" [xix]. Medical access boasts a similar story, making it difficult for Palestinians to get the assistance they require [xix].
Conditions are no better in Gaza, where 38% of the populace are poverty-stricken.[xviii] Over half of the population does not have sufficient amounts of food. xx 90% of Gaza’s primary source of water, its aquifer, is not fit for consumption [xx].
On-the-ground polling, unfortunately, reveals a deep divide among different groups concerning a two-state solution. Recent surveys indicate that a mere 39% of Palestinians support a two-state solution[xix], while between 44% and 45.5% of Israelis do.[xx] Americans are faring a bit better, with polls indicating that 55% are in favor of a two-state solution.[xxi] While these figures are by no means encouraging, an element at play may be the fatigue caused by the length of this issue. People on all sides are losing hope, and feel that there is no resolution in sight. As previously stated, the United States is in the best position to facilitate a resolution by forcing the hands of both sides. It will be impossible to satisfy the entirety of the populace on either side, but after seven decades of strife, it is time for compromise.
The greatest compromise that can be reached with respect to the issue at hand is that of a two-state solution outlined in U.N. Resolution 181 (II), with the rights of both the Israeli state, as well as the Palestinian state, to coexist peacefully. Both groups would be afforded their right to self-determination, while also preserving the historical and religious importance of the city of Jerusalem by establishing it as an international city accessible to both peoples.[xxii] This is the moral solution that should be pursued, and one can only hope that, in due time, it will become a reality.
More than an economic issue; more than a political issue, this is a moral issue. The United States preaches freedom around the world, and holds itself up as the shining example of liberty. This runs in contradiction to its current inaction towards the Palestinian Territories. The international community is more interconnected today than at any time in history, and the words of Martin Luther King are as relevant now as when they were written in the Birmingham Jail so many years ago: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”[xxiii]
I am not naive to the fact that the United States has not always fulfilled its promises, nor has it held itself to the same standards it has set for the world. I know that there are instances in our history where we have fallen short of that standard; but the history of the United States is a history of extending those treasured rights to more and more people. We can always strive to do better than we are currently doing. As a nation, and more importantly, as an international community, we have the capacity to heed the words of Tennyson: “Come my friends. ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”[xxiv]
[i] Jefferson, Thomas. “Declaration of Independence: A Transcription.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.
[ii] Kerry, John. “Remarks on Middle East Peace by Secretary of State John Kerry.” U.S. Embassy in Honduras, 29 Dec. 2016, hn.usembassy.gov/remarks-middle-east-peace/.
[iii] Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Including East Jerusalem, and the Occupied Syrian Golan – GA Resolution, 7 Dec. 2017. www.un.org/unispal/document/ga-resolution-on-israeli-settlements-in-the-occupied-palestinian-territory-including-east-jerusalem-and-the-occupied-syrian-golan/.
[iv] “U.S. Relations With Israel - United States Department of State.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, 20 Jan. 2021, www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-israel/.
[v] Zanotti, Jim. U.S. Foreign Aid to the Palestinians, Congressional Research Service, 12 Dec. 2018. crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/RS/RS22967.
[vi] Andrews, Natalie. “House Passes Resolution Backing Two-State Solution.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 6 Dec. 2019, www.wsj.com/articles/house-passes-resolution-backing-two-state-solution-11575653283.
[vii] “U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel: Total Aid.” Total U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel (1949-Present), www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/total-u-s-foreign-aid-to-israel-1949-present.
[viii] “U.S. Foreign Aid by Country: Israel.” U.S. Aid, explorer.usaid.gov/cd/ISR?fiscal_year=2019&measure=Disbursements.
[ix] “U.S. Foreign Aid by Country: West Bank/Gaza.” U.S. Aid, explorer.usaid.gov/cd/PSE?fiscal_year=2019&measure=Disbursements.
[x] 194 (III). Palestine - Progress Report of the United Nations Mediator, United Nations. unispal.un.org/UNISPAL.NSF/0/C758572B78D1CD0085256BCF0077E51A.
[xi] Knell, Yolande. “US Stops All Aid to Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza.” BBC News, BBC, 1 Feb. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-47095082.
[xii] “GMI Ranking Table: Global Militarisation Index.” Bonn International Center for Conversion, gmi.bicc.de/ranking-table.
[xiii] “Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: Israel.” Arms Control Association, July 2018, www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/israelprofile.
[xiv] Wezeman, Pieter D. EU Non-Proliferation Consortium, 2011, Conventional Strategic Military Capabilities in the Middle East, www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2016-03/Conventional-strategic-military-capabilities-in-the-Middle-East.pdf.
[xv] Staff, AP, and Toi Staff. “Israel Begins Cutting Palestinian Electricity in West Bank, Citing Debts.” The Times of Israel, 22 Sept. 2019, www.timesofisrael.com/israel-begins-cutting-palestinian-electricity-in-west-bank-citing-debts/.
[xvi] Agha, Zena. “Israel's Problematic Role in Perpetuating Water Insecurity for Palestine.” Atlantic Council, 28 June 2019, www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/israel-s-problematic-role-in-perpetuating-water-insecurity-for-palestine/.
[xvii] Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Humanitarian Needs Overview, United Nations, Dec. 2018. www.humanitarianresponse.info/sites/www.humanitarianresponse.info/files/2018/12/humanitarian_needs_overview_2019-%281%29.pdf.
[xviii] Humanitarian Situation in the Gaza Strip, Oct. 2011. unispal.un.org/pdfs/OCHA_Gaza-HumSituation.pdf.
[xix] “Public Opinion Poll No (75): 5-8 February 2020.” PCPSR, pcpsr.org/en/node/799.
[xx] Hermann, Prof. Tamar, and Dr. Or Anabi. “Israelis Believe Netanyahu's Investigations Will Have the Greatest Impact on the Vote.” The Israel Democracy Institute, 3 Feb. 2020, en.idi.org.il/articles/29689.
[xxi] Saad, Lydia. “Majority in U.S. Again Support Palestinian Statehood.” Gallup.com, Gallup, 22 Apr. 2020, news.gallup.com/poll/293114/majority-again-support-palestinian-statehood.aspx.
[xxii] Resolution Adopted on the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestinian Question, United Nations, 1947. undocs.org/A/RES/181(II).
[xxiii] King, Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” "Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]", 16 Apr. 1963, www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.
[xxiv] Tennyson, Lord Alfred. “Ulysses.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45392/ulysses.