Educating Constituencies, Influencing Public Opinion
Educating Constituencies, Influencing Public Opinion
October 3, 2002
As the largest Arab-American membership organization in United States, ADC takes as one of its principal tasks in promoting a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, public education on the question of Palestine.
The pro-Israel community in the United States, which consists not only of major American Jewish organiz-ations but also the highly organized evangelical Christian right and the neoconservative political movement in general, has mobilized public education as one of its principal tools for many decades. Clearly, in order to explain the complexities of this conflict, and why an end to the Israeli occupation is the key to peace in the Middle East, it falls to us to do far more to educate the American public about the political, social and economic effects of the occupation.
All too often, arguments in favor of Palestinian human and national rights tend to be cast in terms of international law or historical justice. Polling research indicates, and this is confirmed by all the available anecdotal evidence, that Americans are largely unmoved by both of these styles of argument, which can be decisive in many other cultural contexts, such as among Arabs or Europeans. American skepticism about international law cannot be overstated. Citing U.N. Security Council resolutions and other relevant aspects of international law simply cuts little ice in a society long conditioned to regard the United Nations as a forum for anti-American sentiment. Americans have never accepted, as a cultural predisposition, the authority of international law deriving from multilateral institutions, instead passionately believing in the supremacy of American constitutional law and self-defined United States national interests. Similarly, Americans in general do not seem to respond to historical arguments about the origins of ongoing conflicts. The average American, including senior government officials, does not really evince much interest in historic rights and wrongs, preferring instead analyses of existing situations as they are in the present moment. Indeed, the evidence strongly suggests that neither Israeli arguments about ancient ties to a biblical homeland, nor Palestinian arguments about dispossession and ethnic cleansing that occurred in 1948, do much to create support among Americans for the specific policies or positions of either side. Simply put, Americans don’t put much stock in international law, which they frankly consider irrelevant, or historical contexts they would regard as “ancient history.” They care more about what the problem is today and what can be done to solve it today.
What Americans respond to, we strongly believe, are human issues with which they can identify at a visceral and cultural level. More than anything else in recent years, the spectacle of suffering and cruelty created by Palestinian suicide bombings attacks against Israeli civilians, which are consistently and widely broadcast on American television in all their horror, has solidified support among Americans for Israel’s brutal policies of repression in the occupied territories. Certainly the experience with the September 11th attacks make Israeli efforts to promote an identification between Israel’s position and that of the United States all the easier. What is most strikingly missing from the American consciousness at this stage is an understanding of the realities of life under occupation. Few Americans are aware that the occupation even exists, many if not most people believing that East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip are in Israel, and that Israel behaves in a democratic manner including in these areas. This situation is exacerbated by the many voices who have been attempting to argue that the occupation either never existed or has somehow been ended by Oslo process arrangements involving areas of Palestinian authority autonomy under occupation. Disturbingly, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently added his voice to this constituency by speaking in terms of a “so-called occupation.” We strongly believe that if the American public were genuinely aware of the realities of life under occupation, and the extent to which the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians is characterized by positions of ethnic dominance and subordination based on radical forms of discrimination, that outrage would be the widespread response. These are the realities, the lived experiences of daily life, to which Americans would respond powerfully, unlike legal and historical arguments. The first thing that Americans need to be educated about is the fact that the 3.5 million Palestinians living under Israeli occupation are the largest group of noncitizens in the world today. Americans have a profound sense, which could if properly deployed be tapped into with enormous effect to communicate the Palestinian experience, of citizenship and political rights. There is almost no awareness that the Palestinian people live as noncitizens in their own country, under the rule of what is, in effect, a foreign military dictatorship. Americans have a keen sense of political injustice, and I think that such an arrangement can convincingly be described as “the worst form of tyranny” to an American audience. Americans were outraged about the systematic denial of freedom and disenfranchisement of the indigenous African peoples in the Republic of South Africa during the era of apartheid. The key was a public education campaign which successfully explained to millions of ordinary Americans how the nonwhite peoples of South Africa were subjected to radical forms of un-freedom based on their racial and ethnic identity. It is probably the case that most Americans have the impression that Palestinians in the occupied territories are citizens in Israel, or enjoy rights analogous to citizens of Israel. In order to promote an understanding that the key to peace is an end to the occupation, it must be made clear that occupation means living without citizenship and under a government to which one has no access and in which one is totally unrepresented – all based solely on ethnic identity. Such a situation is, by definition in the American cultural context, both a scandal and totally indefensible.
Equally, Americans have no sense of how the daily lives of Palestinians living under occupation are defined by the most radical form of ethnic discrimination in the world today. They are shocked to learn that every aspect of daily life in the occupied territories is determined by whether one is officially regarded as Jewish or Arab. In our experience, they are amazed to learn that everything from where one may live, the roads one may drive on, the laws one lives under, the amount of water one is allocated, the educational system one may access, whether or not one may be armed for self-defense and so many other basic aspects of daily life are administered in the most discriminatory possible manner by Israel in favor of Jewish settlers. In our experience, the Israeli practice of home demolition has been a very effective tool in communicating the abuses of the occupation to Americans, because of the particular status homeownership and the sanctity of the family house has in American popular culture, mythology and consciousness.
This sense of the onerous characteristic of daily life under the Israeli occupation has not been effectively communicated yet to the American public. There is virtually no understanding of what Israel’s tactics of collective punishment and economic warfare, particularly during the current intifada, have meant for any entire population. At present, more than 800,000 Palestinians in the West Bank have been living under virtual house arrest, each village turned into a large prison, each house into a cell. As Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer described it, “No one goes in and no one goes out. In all of the major cities, there is no movement between the population centers.” Americans, who value freedom of movement as a key personal freedom, would not respond well to such policies if they were aware of them.
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) recently released a report stating that 22.5 percent of all Palestinian children under the age of 5 are suffering from malnourishment as a result of such collective punishment by Israel. The World Health Organization regards a 10 percent malnourishment rate in any age group as constituting “malnutrition crisis.” The report specifically cites the Israeli occupation army’s “market disruptions from curfews, closures, military incursions, border closures, and checkpoints” as one of the most important factors in creating and perpetuating the crisis. In spite of these American generated reports, awareness of Israel’s tactics of economic warfare aimed at an entire civilian population remains very low in the United States.
Roadblocks and checkpoints, discriminatory practices that would already strike many Americans as abusive and unacceptable, have also been used to exacerbate a crisis in public health in the occupied Palestinian territories. Countless Palestinians have died at checkpoints while Israeli soldiers refused to let the sick, the injured and women in labor continue on their way to medical care. Hospitals, clinics and ambulances have all been consistently and repeatedly targeted by the Israeli army during the past 18 months of fighting. As a physician who spent all of my professional life caring for the sick, this aspect of the conflict is particularly heartbreaking for me. I believe if they were aware of it, many of my fellow Americans would feel the same.
Collective punishments, economic warfare and the deliberate impoverishment and starvation of an entire civilian population of millions of men, women and children cannot be justified. This is a serious human rights abuse, plain and simple, being carried out against an entire people. If properly publicized, these realities would have a profound effect on the way many people perceive the conflict.
We cannot, of course, consider using these facts to explicitly or implicitly justify the unjustifiable, especially attacks against Israeli civilians. But we can explain that the message Israel is sending to the young people in the occupied territories is, “the present is unbearable, the future is without hope and that life has no value.” It plays into the hands of extremists who would argue to young Palestinians that they have nothing left to lose, and the only way to give their life meaning is to send an equally bleak and brutal message back to Israel that, “if we have no freedom, then you will have no security.” Moreover once we have established the intolerable effect the occupation has on daily life in Palestinian society, and the inevitability that any population subjected to such long-term systematic abuse will rise up to overthrow their oppressors, we can, I think, successfully explain to millions of Americans that peace and occupation are incompatible. We can also explain that the United States has no business supporting and underwriting this kind of systematic assault on the rights of millions of people. Click here to read other speeches by Dr. Asali >>