MAR 2002

The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict (When Philosophers Attack!)

[Editor’s note: Thom Saffold made two trips to Palestine in summer 2001 to help launch the International Solidarity Movement, which seeks to bolster the role of nonviolent direct action against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. In the September issue of Agenda we republished an "Other Voices" column Saffold wrote for The Ann Arbor News upon his return, along with his and my responses to various critical letters to the News editor (and with our condemnation of the News for denying Thom space to respond there). The September article was called "SmOTHERed VOICES in The A2 News". Here I’m pleased to publish an intriguing and resourceful extended argument, by UM philosopher Justin Shubow, against the September article. Shubow’s words are in the left column of the next four pages, and following a brief reply by Saffold, my replies are on the right, keyed to Shubow’s text by lettered references [A, B, C, ...]. Part One concerns Shubow’s doubts about Saffold’s eyewitness testimony, Part Two concerns Shubow’s doubts about our arguments on behalf of Palestinian causes, and finally there is an brief annotated bibliography courtesy of Shubow and me.—Eric Lormand]

Letter to the Editor by Justin Shubow

"Smothered Voices in the A2 News" (9/01) is not only replete with gross factual errors and flimsy arguments, but as I will show, contains something even worse.


Let’s start with Saffold’s original "Other Voices" column. Here is a particularly choice sentence: "Today, the village [Beit Sahour] is filled with peaceful and peace-loving people who suffer under an occupation worse than that of Rome 2000 years ago." That would be right if only the Israelis were crucifying Palestinians by the thousand, defiling their houses of worship, and, indeed, destroying the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque. If only the Palestinians had a messiah to be slayed!

It gets better: "Israel has maintained a brutal and illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip for decades, not unlike the German occupation of Europe during World War II." This is from the same man who wrote in the 7/18/94 issue of The Saline Reporter that the Israeli treatment of Palestinians is "another form of fascist racism." And the title of that article?: "Yad Vashem: Never Again—Except to Palestinians?" Yad Vashem is Israel’s Holocaust museum. So not only are the Israelis worse than Romans, but they’re Nazis.

But what of the substance of Saffold’s column, his "first-hand" account of "unprovoked" attacks by Israeli forces? I did some online sleuthing that places his veracity severely in doubt. I discovered that Saffold published an almost identical account on many websites days before the Ann Arbor News printed it. For instance, it can be found on the Independent Media Centre site and He also posted it on the alt.religion.christian, alt.religion.christian.roman-catholic, alt.religion.christian.east-orthodox newsgroups. The earliest post I could find was on July 10, the day after the events in the column were claimed to have taken place.

To my astonishment, I discovered that there are significant differences between the version of the story published online and the one printed in the Ann Arbor News.

Here is one sentence from the printed (i.e., Ann Arbor News) version: "When I arrived back at my host’s home about 4 pm, I found Israeli tanks and soldiers menacing the eastern part of the village." The same sentence from the online version reads thus: "As I arrived back at my host’s home about 4 pm, people excitedly told me that tanks had advanced into the village to the north, and there had been an explosion." And it is followed by two sentences that do not appear in the printed version: "With my video camera and press pass, I asked the taxi driver to take me to the scene. He admitted he was afraid, but took me as close as he dared—and refused payment." Thus, in the later, printed version, Saffold claims to have himself observed the Israeli tanks and soldiers in, it can be inferred, the area near his host’s home. In the earlier version, however, he hears secondhand about the tanks, and they are so far away that he must take a taxi to see them. Also, in the printed version, the tanks are in the eastern part of the village, while in the online version, they are to the north. Lastly, in the online version, he is told of an explosion, which is not mentioned in the printed version. If that explosion did indeed occur, it would seem to represent the initiation of the violence. Note that it is unclear who is responsible for it. [A]

Saffold’s printed account comes to a climax with this paragraph: "As the [Israeli] tank backed down the street, it stopped, slowly turned its muzzle directly at me, held it for a moment, and then continued down the street. Minutes later, a single rifle bullet was fired at me as I was moving to a different position. I captured the moment on videotape." Hold on to your hats, but this paragraph does not appear at all in the online version. That’s right, we are supposed to believe that in the earlier version Saffold, who would like nothing better than to expose Israeli barbarism, somehow neglected to mention that he was shot at! And that he caught it on tape! As if that’s the sort of thing one might forget or overlook. [B]

After reading an earlier draft of this piece, which I had submitted to the Agenda, Saffold invited me to watch the video with him, which I have since done (Lormand was also present at the screening).  Were my suspicions justified?  Let’s just say that having called Saffold’s bluff, I now cash my chips.

Saffold’s footage consisted of his following around an Israeli tank as it drove around Beit Sahour. As the tape began to roll, he told me that we were about to come to the part that he is "most embarrassed about," for he did not actually film the tank firing at Palestinians. He explained that, due to the way his camera works, he could not always tell when it was recording or not. In fact, of all the exchanges of gunfire he mentioned in his column, he somehow failed to capture virtually all of it. Indeed, except for about six quick gunshots that only the camera’s sound picked up, no shooting is ever portrayed.

As for any differences between the online and printed versions of his story, Saffold told me that they can be explained by the fact that in the printed version, he had to leave things out for the sake of brevity, and also that in between writing his two versions, he had time to get the details straight.

When he had finished showing me the video, I asked if I could see the footage of him getting shot at. At first, he seemed puzzled by my request, as if he didn’t know to what I was referring. He was unclear even as to whether what I was asking about was in his original column or in his reply in the Agenda. I asked him if he had remembered making such a claim, to which he replied, "I don’t think I did. I don’t think I said that." He added, "I’d be real curious to see what I wrote." Lormand procured a copy of the September issue of the Agenda, and I pointed out the paragraph in question. Upon reading it, Saffold now remembered writing it. Although he had thought he had caught it on tape—i.e., he affirmed that he really did get shot at—he told me that he wrote the paragraph before he had looked at the actual videotape. When I pressed him as to why the paragraph didn’t appear in the online version, he said that he remembered the event only after writing that version. [C]

Invitation by Thom Saffold

In July of 2001, I wrote a piece of reporting on a tank attack on a peaceful Palestinian village, Beit Jala. The Ann Arbor News published it as an "Other Voices" column. Three letters to the editor impugned my veracity, and I wrote a rebuttal, which the News did not publish. Agenda ran it instad.

In December, Justin submitted a long letter to Agenda again attacking what I wrote originally and in my rebuttal to the three letter writers. I contacted him immediately to offer to show him video footage that I thought would clear up any questions he had. I had shot it last summer in the Palestinian territories as or organizer of the International Solidarity Movement (see & for details). We arranged a time, and I showed him shots of a tank menacing a Palestinian village, an example of Israeli police brutality, and images of a brutal occupation.

Justin was not satisfied, and submitted the letter published in this issue, in which he not only re-stated his original criticisms, but further accuses me of being a liar, propagandist, and con artist.

Justin spends all of his energy picking apart my reporting, while ignoring the violations of human rights that they portray. His arguments are dazzling and his logic is unassailable. He has a great future in the corporate world proving that profits really are more important than people, and that obviously harmful products or processes are good for us. I recommend arms manufacturer GE: "We bring good things to life." 

Rather than respond to each of his responses, and provoke another long letter from him, I will let the readers decide for themselves. I’ll show the same video footage I showed Justin to you on Saturday, March 23, at 10:30 AM at G115 Angell Hall, UM. Along with "Journey of a Soldier", a behind-the-scenes short film by an Israeli reservist.

Maybe you’ll see some things that Justin could not or would not.

Editor's Replies by Eric Lormand

[A] Shubow is right that the Israeli tank attacks may have been provoked, for all Saffold witnessed first-hand. But this is openly acknowledged in Saffold’s article, when he tells us he reached the conclusion by interviewing over 20 nearby residents. (Saffold’s videotape does portray other out-of-the-blue attacks by Israeli soldiers against peaceful Palestinian demonstrators, clearly enough that Shubow, upon seeing it, asked Saffold about the feasibility of a lawsuit.)

[B] Shubow is right that Saffold couldn’t plausibly have forgotten or overlooked that he was shot at. But there is an innocent alternative explanation, which Saffold offered when, spurred by Shubow’s earlier draft, I asked him about the online omission of the tank muzzle and the rifle shot. As a citizen of a western power, with more protections than Palestinians have under Israeli rule, Saffold and others in the International Solidarity Movement went to Palestine to extend this protection to nonviolent Palestinian demonstrators, and to expose Israeli oppression of Palestinians. One downside of emphasizing how he was personally treated, Saffold explained, is that this would only distract a typical reader’s attention from the far more serious plight of the Palestinians. (This worry is borne out by Shubow’s characterization of how Saffold was treated as the article’s "climax".) On the other hand, a "local interest" angle could garner more readers in a hometown newspaper (as opposed to having little effect on a far-flung online audience). Saffold’s weighing these considerations could easily explain the relevant online omissions. (Could Shubow plausibly maintain that Saffold lied in print to get this extra "bounce"? Not at all, as I’ll explain in [F] below.)

[C] Shubow is right that Saffold was puzzled by the request, and right that this puzzlement went away when we showed him the three-sentence passage Shubow quotes four paragraphs above. But it’s not plausible in the end that this was due to Saffold’s forgetting the (gist of the) passage. Shubow’s paragraph with the quoted passage was in his earlier draft letter, which Saffold had read and reread during the days before meeting with Shubow (and which Saffold had discussed with me). So I didn’t for a moment interpret Saffold’s puzzlement as his forgetting he had been shot at, or as his forgetting he had claimed (in the printed version) that he had been shot at. Instead, I interpreted him as denying claiming he had filmed himself getting shot at. Since Saffold had dwelled on the quote recently, the only plausible explanation for his puzzlement is that his intended meaning in this quote was different from Shubow’s (natural) reading.

And in fact there is a subtle ambiguity in the quote—was "the moment" that Saffold captured on videotape his being shot at by a rifle, or his being aimed at by the tank? The former is Shubow’s reading, and it’s definitely the more natural one. But taken Shubow’s way, the printed version is multiply quirky: odd for Saffold to be filming while "moving to a different position" (far enough away to be worth mentioning); odd to say a videotape "captures" a rifle bullet, since this normally means being seen versus merely being heard; and odd for sound alone to indicate what a bullet was "fired at", to a normal audience (so that Saffold could plan to use it as evidence for his being shot at, in his subsequent public showings of the videotape). So in the end, Shubow’s reading doesn’t sit well. (Perhaps Shubow’s well-trained ear for such dissonance set him to sleuthing in the first place.)

The oddity goes away on the hypothesis that Saffold originally meant he videotaped the tank event, instead of the rifle event—one available meaning of Saffold’s paragraph, but something a better edit would express by writing the sentences in different order: "[T]he tank ... slowly turned its muzzle directly at me, held it for a moment, and then continued down the street. I captured the moment on videotape. Minutes later, a single rifle bullet was fired at me as I was moving to a different position." This explanation is simple because the printed version would easily result, say, from having the tank sentence and videotape sentence together in a draft, and then "pasting" the bullet sentence in the wrong place. The explanation is powerful in explaining: (1) Saffold’s puzzlement—his intended meaning would naturally have "primed" him not to notice the unintended reading, and so to store away only his intended gist rather than the exact words of the passage; and (2) Saffold’s diminished puzzlement when we made him notice the unintended reading. The idea that the tank and videotape sentences "go together" (and were written together) even explains why (3) he uses the same word "moment" in both. And the explanation is innocent because Saffold’s videotape does visually capture the moment that the tank aimed at him, clearly enough to be worth mentioning for upcoming public audiences.

In short, I think that Saffold and Shubow were merely miscommunicating, and that this explains (4) their mutual inspecific talk of "making such a claim", "remember[ing] the event" and (from the Saffold quote) "sa[ying] that". I also think Saffold was (understandably) flustered by the whole strange mixup, and as Shubow pressed him for deeper and deeper explanations Saffold naturally was in no good position to introspect what might’ve caused him to write his words six months earlier.

As a final question, I asked him whether he wrote any other versions of his story, and he answered in the negative. Apparently he had forgotten that there is a third version—the one on his own web site. (I didn’t mention it in my original draft so as to avoid confusion.) Except for lacking two paragraphs, it is identical to the printed version. The first missing paragraph is the one in which he claims that Israeli soldiers aimed their rifles at him and ordered him to leave (an event, incidentally, which is also not on the videotape). The second is—you guessed it—the one in which he gets shot at. It seems, then, that Saffold edited his original version once, and put it on his web site, and later added the two paragraphs and submitted it to the Ann Arbor News.

If we are to buy Saffold’s story, then, we must believe that he has an extremely poor memory. First he doesn’t remember getting shot at. Then in his first edit of his original version, he still doesn’t remember getting shot at. Later in conversation he can’t remember whether he wrote about getting shot at. And then he can’t remember how many versions he has published. Reminds me of Reagan during Iran-Contra. [D]

As for his claim about editing for brevity, I find it wholly unconvincing. His printed version is approximately one hundred words longer than the original online edition—and that’s even after he cut out four extraneous paragraphs from the first version. Furthermore, what I am most concerned with is the additional material in the printed version, not what was left out. [E]

With his excuses and explanations sounding like "my dog ate my homework," I cannot help but conclude that my suspicions have been vindicated. [F]

[D] Of these four alleged memory lapses, we "must" posit only the fourth. As for the first two, Saffold’s expressed reluctance to divert concern away from the Palestinians and toward himself makes sense of his online versions without the unbelievable hypothesis that Saffold forgot being shot at. As for the third alleged lapse, for all the reasons I gave this is much better explained as a misunderstanding. But as for the fourth, it would be completely normal and completely innocent—not reminiscent of Reagan’s Alzheimer’s and not reminiscent of Reagan’s cover up—to avoid keeping track of precisely how many drafts are available of an event one wrote about six months earlier, for different venues. Especially for someone who writes many articles, as Thom does for his weekly newspaper The Street Wall Journal and many other outlets.

[E] Shubow is right that the printed version is longer than the online version, and right that the word limits can’t explain the additions Saffold put in the printed version (such as the rifle-shot and tank-muzzle passage). But these additions are already sufficiently explained, above. Together with other needed additions (such as introductory material for the more mainstream newspaper audience, and closing material on later events), it makes sense that Saffold found himself over his word limit, and had to shave material elsewhere for brevity. Saffold offered this as a (partial) explanation of the online material absent from the printed material (such as the taxicab details). Though Shubow says Saffold offered brevity as an explanation of "any differences", this clearly is a misunderstanding on Shubow’s part, given Saffold’s other explanations.

[F] Shubow’s sleuthing efforts are impressive, and were worth his pursuing, though I think in the end they don’t even point toward any interesting conclusion about "journalistic ethics" (as Shubow says at the end). Even if they did, it’s not clear what conclusion about Saffold they would lead to—not that Shubow is under an obligation to offer a detailed positive speculation about Saffold’s thinking. In the circumstances, Shubow reasonably expresses only a vague conclusion, that he has vindicated unspecified "suspicions" of Saffold’s unspecified "bluff" (presumably meaning an intentional lie), casting a haze of "severe doubt" on Saffold’s "veracity" about unspecified matters.

But it seems that, caution to the wind, Shubow’s main suspicion is that Saffold wasn’t shot at at all, and lied about this in the printed version. If the matter came down simply to Saffold’s testimony versus Shubow’s suspicions, it would be understandable for readers to withhold judgment, even taking into account Saffold’s longtime, widespread reputation for integrity. Reputable people have lied for less important causes. But we are not at such an impasse. We have extra evidence that Saffold did not lie about the rifle shot.

If Saffold were lying he would’ve known the videotape captured no rifle shot. But by plan, Saffold returned to Ann Arbor last summer and showed the videotape repeatedly on community access TV (on his weekly show "Peace Insight") and at multiple public showings. Anyone wanting to check his testimony could’ve watched the videotape, and Saffold would’ve known this. The risk of local detection would be too high—and so we’d expect him to relate the incident only to distant online readers rather than to local newspaper readers (of the News and of Agenda). But he did exactly the reverse. (Could Shubow suggest that it took a few days for Saffold to work up the will to lie, so the rifle story appears only in the later, printed version? That would be a poor explanation of why the true, videotaped, tank story similarly appears only in the printed version. Saffold’s innocent rival explanation that he was trying to keep the focus on Palestinians rather than on himself makes much better sense of this pattern.)

Nor would we expect a liar to arrange a special showing of the videotape for a critic such as Shubow, who is clearly suspecting the very alleged lie in question. We’d expect a liar to say his dog ate his videotape. (Unless—someone less cautious than Shubow might suggest—Saffold pasted the lie sentence in the wrong place in his document, and so didn’t even realize he had claimed the rifle shot instead of the tank’s aiming was on videotape. But that would be the wildest guess of all—such an editing mistake might be expected of someone with their guard down, but not of someone deliberately lying.)

Shubow has come nowhere near vindicating his suspicions about Saffold’s integrity.


I could point out even more inconsistencies in Saffold’s story, but for brevity’s sake, I turn to his and Lormand’s replies. Lormand writes, "even if the ‘Arab World’ (including Palestinians) invaded Israel, this would not justify the ongoing occupation. Germany invaded France multiple times, but victorious France rightly never ‘occupied’ Germany, bulldozing entire German towns and replacing the inhabitants with French settlers." Actually, after World War I the Allied powers occupied the Rhineland, an occupation that was supposed to last for fifteen years. Also as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, France received economic control over the German Saar area. Altogether, after the war Germany lost 13.1 percent of its prewar territory.

Similar occupations and boundary changes occurred after World War II. France again gained economic control over the Saar, and of course got possession of Alsace-Lorraine. Belgium and Denmark also received territory from Germany. In the east, Germany lost huge swathes to Poland. [G]

It is standard practice in international law for the victims of aggressive wars to receive land as reparations and as a bulwark against future attacks. In the case of Israel and the Six-Day War, this would certainly hold. It is important to realize that from 1948 to 1967 the West Bank was occupied by Jordan—though curiously enough it was never then referred to as an "occupied territory." In the original 1947 UN partition plan, the West Bank was intended to be part of an independent Arab state. In 1948, however, it was invaded and occupied by Jordan (which expelled all of the Jews living there), which officially annexed it in 1950. In 1967, Jordan, coming to the aid of the Egyptians, with whom Israel was already fighting, attacked Israel. (Israel had launched a pre-emptive strike against Egypt after Nasser had closed the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping, which was an act of war under international law. In Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer, editor of Dissent magazine, discusses Israel’s invasion of Egypt as a prototypical example of a justified pre-emptive strike.) Jordanian troops invaded Israeli Jerusalem, and the outskirts of Tel Aviv were shelled from the Judean Mountains in the West Bank. Israel fought back, and ended up capturing East Jerusalem (including the Old City) and the entire West Bank. [H]

[G] My analogy concerns not the bare existence of an occupation, but its nature–as illustrated by my reference to bulldozing towns and (coercively) removing inhabitants in favor of settlers. The Israeli occupation has this very nature, in violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which reads "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." I’m not aware of any analogous cases that would strike us as justified.

[H] The West Bank Palestinians were made fully vested citizens of Jordan, while Israel treats them as conquered peoples with no political rights (and few other rights). Nevertheless, Palestinians objected strongly to Jordanian rule from the start. And to the extent that Jordan or other Arab states such as Iraq expelled Jewish inhabitants, this is no moral stain on Palestinians, and no excuse at all for similar or further expulsions of them. For the first half of the 20th century Palestinians had been the most accommodating hosts in the world to Jewish migration, and most all along favored a single secular state with equal rights for inhabitants of all religions and ethnicities (extending over the lands of British Palestine).

Given Shubow’s idea that the occupation of the West Bank is justified by the history of Jordanian attacks on Israel, I wonder whether and how he would justification of the occupation of Jerusalem and other areas assigned to the UN itself in the 1947 partition plan. It could not proceed in quite the same way, because the UN never attacked Israel.

One oddity of Walzer’s discussion is that in the whole of known history, the Six-Day War is the only case he mentions of a justified pre-emptive strike. Right away this should make us suspicious of special pleading. If anything, judged by Shubow’s proposed standard of international law, the Six-Day War is among the least justified pre-emptive strikes in history, because under international law Israel was bound by the United Nations Charter, which permits the use of force only in self-defense against armed attack—and a blockade is not recognized as an armed attack. Instead, international law required Israel to take its grievances to the Security Council. These requirements are reflected in many subsequent UN resolutions with overwhelming international support, chiefly Res. 242 which, far from "certainly" endorsing Shubow’s account, "emphasiz[es] the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and … requires the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East … including … [w]ithdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent [1967] conflict".

In the months after the war, Israel made overtures for peace in the Knesset, in the United Nations, and to various foreign statesmen. As it was put, Israel’s leaders were awaiting a "phone call" from their defeated enemies—a call that never came. Rather than negotiate a settlement with Israel, which, among other things, would entail dealing with the refugee issue, Arab leaders met in Khartoum and notoriously announced a platform of "three noes:" "no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition ofIsrael." As Abba Ebban put it, "This is the first war in history which has ended with the victors suing for peace and the vanquished calling for unconditional surrender." Thus, the issue of the status of the West Bank, which has dragged on until the present, could have been resolved then. [I]

Another of Lormand’s claims is that "the Israeli state was ‘born’ in 1947 as a child of rape—due to immediately prior invasions of Palestine. Early Zionists knowingly bought land stolen from Palestinians by absentee Ottoman ‘lawyers’…." I do not have anywhere near enough time or space to go into the details of how Jews legally bought land in Palestine, and actually went out of their way not to purchase land on which poor fellahin worked, so as to avoid displacing them. It is well documented how Jews paid exorbitant prices to wealthy Arab landowners. As Transjordan’s King Abdullah wrote in his memoirs, "It is made quite clear to all, both by the map drawn up by the Simpson Commission and by another compiled by the Peel Commission, that the Arabs are as prodigal in selling their land [to Jews] as they are in useless wailing and weeping." Not only did the (Arab) mayors of Gaza, Jerusalem, and Jaffa sell land to Jews, but even many leaders of the Arab nationalist movement did. And even if Lormand’s preposterous claim is right, that Israel was born as a child of rape, may I point out that there is all the difference in the world between abortion and infanticide. It is one thing to prevent a state’s coming into existence, quite another to destroy it. [J]

Lormand apparently thinks he has an ironclad argument to prove that Israel is currently the bad guy in the current conflict: "if the sides and their actions are symmetric why do Palestinians cry out for international peacekeepers and human rights monitors…and why does the Israeli government reject this…? Simple: Israel…is the side with a secret shame to hide from the world." Has it ever occurred to Lormand that peacekeepers cannot stop terrorist attacks, but would surely get in the way of justified Israeli reprisals? Similarly, peacekeepers have never been able to protect Israel from foreign attack, whether on the Israeli-Lebanese or -Egyptian border. As for human rights monitors, there are already plenty in the occupied territories. Saffold himself mentions the organization B’Tselem. The real issue is whether Israel should accept an affront to its sovereignty in the form of UN monitors. Moreover, let’s not forget that this is the same UN that declared that "Zionism is racism," that until 1998 refused to include anti-semitism in its definition of racism, that gave Idi Amin a standing ovation after he gave a speech calling for the "extermination of Israel as a state," and that until 2000 ensured that Israel was the only country that wasn’t a member of a regional group and therefore could neither hold a seat on the Security Council nor serve in many important bodies. [K]

Here is another of Lormand’s "knock-down" arguments: "Maybe in some ideal world we should all be Gandhi duplicates, and maybe if all Palestinians were Gandhi duplicates there would be no ‘current hostilities’ but instead a nationwide hunger strike unto death that might shame the outside world into forcing Israel’s rule to and end. So yes, Palestinians are responsible for falling short of this (pretend) ideal." In philosophy, this is known as the fallacy of the excluded middle: either Palestinians are Gandhis or they are violent—no other possibilities are considered. The fact is that Palestinians have virtually never tried non-violent tactics, such as civil disobedience. In fact, in the past year some leaders and intellectuals in the occupied territories, such as Eyad Sarraj, have called for a change of tactics, noting how little has been achieved by Palestinian violence. The idea that Palestinians are justified in their use of violence is, I believe, the reason why they and their apologists compare the Israelis to Nazis or Romans. Non-violent tactics are always morally preferable to violent ones, but they work only against a "bad guy" with a conscience—for example, the British in India, or white Americans in the 1960s black civil rights struggle. Thus, since the Palestinians use violence, it must be because heartless Israelis are bent on destroying them, right? [L]

One claim that both Lormand and Saffold make is that the current conflict is not a war, since the Palestinians don’t have a country, let alone an army. As for not having a country, Saffold himself writes in his original column, "These areas are, in effect, the de facto State of Palestine and the Palestinian Authority considers it their right to protect the sovereignty of those lands." As for not having an army, although the Oslo agreement allows for 30,000 security officers, the Israeli government believes that the Palestinians have well over 40,000. In other words, one in fifty Palestinians is a so-called "policeman." By comparison, the U.S. ratio is one in 400. Lormand and Saffold both claim that the Palestinians are armed only with AK-47s, yet many newspapers, such as Yediot Aharonot, have reported that the Palestinian Authority has RPGs, mortars, and anti-tank missiles. In addition, in 1995 Israel gave the Authority 240 heavy machine guns. As has been well reported, this past January Israel intercepted a ship attempting to smuggle 50 tons of Iranian arms into Gaza. The ship’s cargo included surface-to-air missiles, Dragunov sniper rifles, mortars, mines, Katyusha rockets, and 3,000 pounds of C-4 explosive—just the sort of thing any police force needs. What is not as well known is that a similar arms-laden ship—whose cargo included Stella surface-to-air missiles, the Russian equivalent of the U.S.’s Stinger—was intercepted by Israel last year. One wonders if other ships have evaded detection. [M]

[I] We can’t jump straight from the 1967 Khartoum conference to "the present", as if the West Bank issue has dragged on all this time because Israel has been pining by the phone. It’s true that Arab leaders didn’t feel like placing that call in the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War, which they (like virtually all the world) considered to be unjustified Israeli aggression. But soon Israel’s phone started ringing off the hook with proposals for implementing international law (Res. 242, above): respect for Israel’s security and peace in exchange for Israeli respect for the inadmissibility of acquiring territory by war. In 1983 Noam Chomsky (pp. 64-70, 75-79) described and documented nearly 20 such peace offers in the previous 13 years. Each was rejected out of hand or simply ignored by Israel, which casts doubt on Israel’s willingness to answer its phone in the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War, and most were unpublicized in the US media. Source of peace offer, then month/year: Egypt 2/70, 6/70, 2/71; Jordan 2/71; Egypt 1/76; Security Council resolution backed by Egypt, Syria, Jordan, PLO, and USSR, vetoed by US 1/76; Egypt 11/76; PLO 3/77, 8/77; Egypt, Syria, Jordan 8/77; US/USSR proposal endorsed by PLO 10/77; PLO 11/78, 4/81, 7/81; Saudi Arabia 8/81; Syria 2/82; Saudi Arabia 2/82; PLO 7/82; Iraq 1/83.

[J] Shubow’s points are clearly irrelevant to my claim, since I didn’t say Zionists only bought land from absentee Ottomans, nor that they bought the land inexpensively, nor that they always bought it without a care for the peasants to be displaced. And Shubow simply ignores the most important part of my claim, which I repeat: all the Zionist land purchases up to 1947 totaled a mere 7% of British Palestine. My quote continues "… After WWII, outside powers stole 48% more of the Palestinian’s total land and simply added it to the Zionists’ previous 7%. Israel knowingly accepted this stolen gift from the same body (the General Assembly of the UN) that has been ordering it out of the rest of Palestine since 1967." These figures are well known, not at all "preposterous". And since this is clear and literal theft, it’s not important whether one allows oneself the "rape" rhetoric—if that’s awkward, I think the basic awkwardness is in the widespread analogy between a helpless "baby" and the militarily overwhelming and politically well-organized Zionist society of 1947-48.

While my rape analogy is meant to add nothing substantial to my literal charge of theft, I think Shubow’s analogy with abortion and infanticide is misleading. What really matters is the right of human beings to democratic self-determination. If the inhabitants of an existing state wish to destroy (or dissolve) it, there is nothing wrong with that. if the inhabitants of a region do not wish to form a state, there is nothing wrong with that. On the other hand, destroying a state against the wishes of its inhabitants is very wrong, but in the same way and to the same degree, preventing the inhabitants of a region from forming a state is very wrong.

What is the significance (today) of emphasizing the difference between the 7% that Zionists legally owned and the stolen 48% they knowingly accepted? Not that the state of Israel should be destroyed by force, against the will of its inhabitants, of course. Rather, that current negotiations should not be construed as about Israeli "concessions" of land traded for Palestinian "concessions" of peace. Most of pre-1967 Israel is already a Palestinian "concession" of land (and houses, etc.) for which Palestinians have yet received nothing, least of all Israeli respect for Palestinian peace and security (and self-determination). Justice requires such respect, as well as massive economic compensation (from Israel and/or from the UN) for the stolen land.

[K] "Ironclad" and "prove" are Shubow’s words, apparently deployed merely to set the bar high for me and low for himself. I doubt that arguments are ever ironclad proofs; where possible, instead, we should seek to persuade one another by finding points of preexisting agreement and fashioning new hypotheses that cohere most simply and fully with that common ground. So it’s a start that Shubow agrees that the Israeli government rather than the Palestinians reject international peacekeepers and/or human rights observers. My hypothesis is meant as a particularly simple explanation of this agreed-upon ground. Of course there are other possible explanations, such as the one Shubow favors. The trick is not for me to disprove his rival explanations, but to portray it as fitting worse than mine does with less controversial claims.

Contrary to what Shubow suggests, Israel has requested and welcomed UN peacekeepers on a number of occasions. Israel proposed UN administration for the Gaza Strip (and Sinai) in 1956, in order to reduce raids from there (Tessler 356). And the subsequent decade was far and away the most peaceful stretch of time before or since, along Israel’s border with Gaza and Sinai. Shubow could point out that this did not stop all attacks, but this would be an irrelevant standard. Famously, Israeli’s main longtime strategy in response to violent attacks has been overwhelming and disproportionately violent attacks of its own, whether against the perpetrators themselves or against other vulnerable targets. Clearly this massively violent strategy has not "stopped" all attacks on Israel, though clearly it has stopped (or at least postponed) some. Likewise, peacekeepers clearly can’t stop all attacks, but clearly can stop (or postpone) some. It’s doubtful that the overwhelming-violence strategy has reduced the overall incidence of attacks, instead escalating and perpetuating a cycle of attacks. Since peacekeepers at least have the virtue of not escalating a cycle of violence, it would be hard to argue that peacekeepers do worse overall than the massively violent Israeli strategy. And the 1956-66 period strongly suggests peacekeepers do better. During this same period, with UN monitors instead of peacekeepers, the Syrian border was the site of frequent clashes.

So it’s doubtful that Shubow’s hypothesis about security explains Israeli leaders’ resistance to UN peacekeepers. It’s also doubtful that a general mistrust of the UN explains israel’s rejection of peacekeepers: this is the same UN that has acquiesced for over 50 years in Israel’s defiance of the Palestinians right of return or compensation (which was also a condition of US recognition of Israel), that has acquiesced for 35 years in Israel’s intransigence in implementing Res. 242, and acquiesced for 20 years in Israel’s defiant occupation of Lebanon. All without any action, beyond the largely symbolic penalties Shubow mentions.

Instead, the operative pattern seems to be this: if Israel has control of a territory, they reject UN peacekeepers there, and if another state has control, they welcome UN peacekeepers there. This fits better with my suggestion: that Israeli leaders simply do not want their own activities fettered or monitored.

[L] Again, "knock-down" is Shubow’s word, and I disavow the standard he sets up of looking for perfect arguments (rather than the best available ones). Nor did I assume in any way that there’s no middle ground between being completely pacifist and being completely violent. I was replying to a critic of Saffold who finds it significant that Israel is not "entirely to blame for the current round of hostilities". My point is that this is no surprise; that the only way Israel could be "entirely" to blame for the current hostilities is if the Palestinians were "entirely" nonviolent. Shubow’s distinctions look irrelevant to this exchange.

I don’t myself put any stock in analogies between Israeli occupation and Nazi or Roman occupation. Saffold does, as Shubow quotes at the top of his letter. But Shubow is wrong if he believes Saffold’s thinking has anything to do with justifying Palestinian violence. Saffold’s whole career as a journalist, activist, organizer, schoolteacher, and minister is a deep testament to MLK-like principles of nonviolent direct action. He has repeatedly risked life and limb for this commitment in Bosnia, Palestine, and elsewhere.

[M] Saffold doesn’t say that nationhood is required for a war (he says that "roughly equal sides" are required for a war rather than a massacre), so Shubow hasn’t caught Saffold in a contradiction. If anyone’s in danger of contradicting himself, its Shubow, who says two paragraphs earlier that Israel has sovereignty over the Palestinian territories, so he can’t be quoting Saffold approvingly, and he can’t be allowing (as he seems to) that nationhood is required for war. Meanwhile I don’t agree that the territories are a "de facto state of Palestine", so Shubow’s quote from Saffold has no force on me.

I don’t myself see any reason to fuss over the word "war". My point was directed at a letter writer’s blaming the Palestine Authority for not "apologizing when mistakes are made", presumably mistakes such as suicide bombs hitting the wrong target. If the PA were formally leading a war against Israel, and commanding the suicide bombers, or if the PA police Shubow highlights were doing the suicide bombing, then tidy PA apologies would be in order. But none of this responsibility can be assumed. Shubow’s claims again look irrelevant to my point.

I have no idea what weaponry the Palestinians have, and made no claims about this.

Lormand and Saffold also accuse Israel of ethnic cleansing, but if Israel really were bent on driving out all Arabs from their land, why in 1949 did it offer to repatriate 100,000 refugees? Similarly, after the war in 1967 why did Israel allow 54,000 Palestinians to return to the West Bank? Why, if they want to get rid of the Arabs, would they ever use rubber bullets? Milosevic certainly didn’t use rubber bullets. Israelis must be some of the dumbest ethnic cleansers ever, having armed the Palestinian Authority with AK-47s and machine guns. Furthermore, if ethnic cleansing is Israel’s goal, how can Lormand and Saffold explain the fact that Israel has one million Arab citizens (out of a total population of six million) or that Bedouin, Druze, and some Christian Arabs volunteer to serve in the Israeli military? [N]

What is so ironic about Lormand and Saffold’s claims is that it is Arabs who have been the ones with genocidal intentions in the conflict. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (and leader of the Palestine Arab Higher Committee), Haj Amin al-Husseini, personally asked Hitler for an alliance with Nazi Germany, and spent the war in Berlin as a guest of the government. Although Hitler didn’t give the mufti the public commitment he desired, he did promise that when the time was ripe he would do so and that "thereafter, Germany’s only remaining objective would be limited to the annihilation of the Jews living under British protection in Arab lands." During the war, the mufti (who was in contact with Himmler and Eichmann) was responsible for organizing Muslim SS troops from Bosnia and Herzegovina, who played a role in the destruction of Yugoslavia’s Jews. Just prior to the Arab invasion of Israel in 1948, Azzam Pasha, Secretary-General of the Arab League, declared, "This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades." It is well known that during many of the Arab-Israeli wars, Arab leaders, most famously Nasser, called on their troops to "drive the Jews into the sea." There are no refugee camps at the bottom of the Mediterranean. And perhaps most chilling of all, the first head of the PLO, Ahmad Shukeiry, declared on the eve of the Six Day War that once the war was over, "the surviving Jews would be helped to return to their native countries, but my estimation is that none will survive." [O]

If Lormand and Saffold plan on writing about Israel and the Palestinians again in the future, they had better acquaint themselves with the relevant history, and, in the case of Saffold, some journalistic ethics. [P]


[N] Just as there are degrees of being clean, there are degrees of ethnic cleansing—it doesn’t require expulsion of all members of the relevant ethnicity. Nor does ethnic cleansing require genocide, so there’s no puzzle about rubber bullets. Nor does ethnic cleansing require expulsion from an entire political region—carving off pieces of the West Bank for Jews only and not Palestinians is literally ethnic cleansing—using an ethnic criterion to prohibit some people from inhabiting that piece of land. So ethnic cleansing is entirely compatible with a nation’s retaining a population of the ethnicity that is being cleansed. Milosevic stands accused (rightly or wrongly) of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, but there were unexpulsed ethnic Albanians all along both in Kosovo and in (the rest of) Serbia. Furthermore, like Albanians in Kosovo and Serbia, Palestinians in pre-1967 Israel do not have equal rights with the majority ethnicity (Serbs in Serbia, Jews in Israel). In particular, Israel’s ethnically-based restrictions on land acquisition and use generate a degree of ethnically-based cleansing even for its Palestinian citizens. Many of the Palestinians who remained within Israel in 1949 became internal refugees when they were prevented by law from returning to their homes (Tessler, 281), and thus urban areas of Acre, Jaffa, and Nazareth were ethnically cleansed. More generally, Israel’s continued refusal to allow Palestinian landowners to return to their lands within Israel is itself ethnic cleansing. it doesn’t matter whether the owners were initially expulsed or left voluntarily. If your government prohibited you from returning home after a voluntary vacation, and did so on an ethnic basis, that would also be ethnic cleansing.

One difference between Milosevic and Israeli leaders is that Israel rejects international monitors and UN peacekeepers on territories it controls, while Milosevic accepted them, despite considering himself to be fighting against "terrorist" attacks from an organized and active self-styled army. If Milosevic had rejected monitors and peacekeepers he would universally have been suspected of hiding shameful secrets. Why should Israel not be subject to the same degree of suspicion? Palestinians in the occupied territories receive far worse treatment, and endure far harsher conditions, than Kosovars did under Milosevic—their chief social grievances (before the Nato bombing) had to do with increasing their access to Albanian-language universities, and the like.

[O] First, since we say nothing about genocide there is no "irony". (Perhaps Shubow is thinking of the analogies Saffold uses to Nazis and Romans, but Saffold is free to treat genocide as a disanalogous aspect, and I myself agree with Shubow in wanting nothing to do with such analogies.) Second, as I mentioned above, in all the world, and right through the Holocaust, Palestinians have been (overall) the people most accommodating to Jewish migration. This is exemplified by Shubow’s own points about the relatively high degree to which Palestinians were willing to sell lands to Jews, even when other nations (including the US) were closing their borders to Jewish emigration. And it’s exemplified by the nearly thirty-year history of PLO peace proposals.

There have been Palestinian leaders who indulge in genocidal rhetoric: Shukeiry is the clearest case (though he was a puppet of the nonPalestinian "Arab leaders" Shubow mentions). His policies have been steadily repudiated from the moment Arafat became leader of the reorganized and more authentically Palestinian PLO. Likewise there have been Zionist leaders who indulge in genocidal rhetoric: the Irgun command are said to have adopted the cry "As in Deir Yassin, so everywhere!" after Menachem Begin’s 1948 massacre of 250+ peaceful villagers there (Chomsky, p. 96), and the Israeli army issued a booklet in 1973 saying "When our forces encounter civilians during the war or in the course of a pursuit or raid, the encountered civilians may, and by Halachic standards even must be killed, whenever it cannot be ascertained that they are incapable of hitting us back." (Said, p. 91). But these policies have also been repudiated thoroughly in the meantime. It’s not clear what significance any of this has now—to encounter extreme genocidal rhetoric, against both Jews and Arabs, you might do better to travel around Michigan than to travel around Israel and Palestine.

[P] I’ll treat the parting shot as good advice for anyone who isn’t omniscient, and further recommend that people acquaint themselves with the relevant current events, and some practical ethics, by attending the screening of Saffold’s video and considering a trip to strengthen the influence of nonviolent direct action in the occupied territories (see Saffold’s "Invitation" on p. 12 for details).

SUGGESTED READINGS (selected & annotated by Justin Shubow)

Karsh, Efraim (1997) Fabricating Israeli History: The ‘New Historians’ (Responds to the Israeli "new historians," such as Benny Morris and Ilan Pappé, who wish to debunk "archaic" Israeli historiography.)

Laqueur, Walter (1972) A History of Zionism (The standard work on the subject.)

Laqueur, Walter, and Barry Rubin, eds. (2001) The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict (Contains the primary source documents essential for understanding the conflict.)

Lewis, Bernard (1999) Semites & Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice (A disturbing examination of anti-semitism in the Middle East. The chapter on "The Nazis and the Palestine Question" is of particular interest.)

MEMRI (The Middle East Media Research Institute). (A non-profit, non-partisan organization that translates the Arabic and Farsi media. Newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post have used its eye-opening research.)

Sachar, Howard M. (2001) A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time (The definitive work on the subject.)

Walzer, Michael (2000) Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument (The best overview of just war theory, chock-full of real examples and with excellent discussions of terrorism and reprisals.)

FURTHER SUGGESTED READINGS (selected & annotated by Eric Lormand)

Chomsky, Noam (1999) Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, & The Palestinians (Chomsky’s good at exposing thinking that treats the US and Israel by different basic standards than it does Palestinians.)

Journal of Palestine Studies (Quarterly academic journal good for book reviews and new thinking toward peaceful resolution.)

Tessler, Mark (1994) A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (850 pages, but each one full of arguments and responses from both sides.)

ZNet Middle East Watch  (Many good links to both sides, plus latest from Chomsky, Edward Said, & other antidotes for Shubow’s list.) R

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