Over the past few weeks, there has been a furious political controversy over whether Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Somali American Muslim, is anti-Semitic. Omar has been critical of the influence of pro-Israel lobbying on the U.S. government, and said members of Congress are expected to show “allegiance” and “pledge support” to Israel. In response, Omar has been accused of hating Jews. Bret Stephens has said Omar “knows exactly what she is doing” and is intentionally evoking stereotypes about Jewish conspiracies. Meghan McCain nearly came to tears on The View as she described Omar’s remarks as “very scary.” National Review’s Kevin Williamson said Democrats have a “major problem in the form of Jew-hating weirdos,” hauling out as his prime example Louis Farrakhan, a man whose entire significance in contemporary American politics is being denounced or being the subject of demands that others denounce him.
The reaction to Omar is, as plenty have pointed out, absurd. The specific facts she alleges should be uncontroversial. Politicians of both parties do routinely pledge their heartfelt support for Israel. Here’s Nancy Pelosi: “I have said to people when they ask me, if this Capitol crumbled to the ground, the one thing that would remain would be our commitment to our aid, I don’t even call it our aid, our cooperation with Israel. That’s fundamental to who we are.” And while I think Omar is wrong about the specific way that Israel’s influence in Washington works (it’s mostly ideological rather than financial), there is absolutely a fixed bipartisan consensus that support for Israel should be fundamental for Americans. The United States gives Israel billions of dollars in military aid each year, which the Congressional Research Service says “has helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world.” U.S. military aid for Israel, it says, “has been designed to maintain Israel’s ‘qualitative military edge’ (QME) over neighboring militaries.” U.S. politicians routinely go to AIPAC and give slobbering speeches about how much they love Israel. Ilhan Omar’s words may have been chosen in a way that invited more controversy than needed, but the points she was making were quite true.
However: I am not really interested in litigating the controversy around Omar herself. In fact, I think the Left is somewhat falling into a trap here, because we are having the wrong discussion. I see many of my friends and colleagues getting into long arguments over whether it is or is not unfair to call Omar’s remarks anti-Semitic. It is important to fight back against smears, but I am worried that in doing so, we are not spending sufficient time discussing what I think is a far more important issue: the grotesque ongoing crime the state of Israel is committing against the Palestinian people. When we are having a fight about the meaning of anti-Semitism, or even having a meta-conversation about the influence of Israel rather than the actions of Israel, we are squandering time that could be spent discussing something far more important: Israel is murdering Palestinian children with impunity.
Last week, an independent commission of the UN Human Rights Council released a report on Israel’s 2018 conduct in Gaza. Last year, there were a number of protests by Gazans at the border. Israel responded to these protests by opening fire with live ammunition, killing 183 Palestinians. A further 6,000 were wounded with ammunition. As I have pointed out, previous efforts to justify these killings have been pitifully flimsy. The purpose of the protest was to peacefully cross the border as part of a “Great March of Return” (¾ of Gazans are registered refugees who cannot leave and return to their ancestral homelands). Israel treated those who approached the border as posing a violent threat and shot many of them dead. No argument was provided as to why this was in any way necessary, even on the assumption that the protesters were aggressors and Israel was “defending itself.” (In fact, the truth is the other way round: Gazans are in a “prison camp” and Israel violently expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their land and has spent decades refusing to allow them to return.)
The UN report provides far more disturbing details of Israel’s actions at the protests. Not only were thousands of Palestinians shot, but many of them were shot far from the border wall, and many of them weren’t even participating in the protest. Worse, those shot included children, disabled people, journalists, and paramedics. Journalists were even shot while wearing PRESS identification and paramedics were shot in uniform. And this wasn’t some “fog of war” situation: These people were shot by precision snipers. The UN report concludes that there is strong evidence Israel committed international crimes, by intentionally shooting children, disabled people, journalists, and medics.
Here are some of the individual accounts from the report. They are disturbing in the extreme:
- Israeli forces shot a schoolboy in the face as he distributed sandwiches to demonstrators, 300 m from the separation fence. His hearing is now permanently impaired.
- Mohammad was a footballer. At approximately 9 a.m., Israeli forces shot him with a single bullet in both legs while he was walking alone approximately 150 m from the separation fence. His injuries ended his football career.
- Naji, a mechanic from the Bureij refugee camp, was killed with a shot to the abdomen by Israeli forces as he stood wrapped in a Palestinian flag, 300 m from the separation fence.
- Israeli forces shot Yousef, a student journalist, in the legs with two bullets in immediate succession. He was wearing a blue vest marked “Press” while photographing the demonstrations approximately 800 m from the separation fence. His right leg had to be amputated.
- Israeli forces shot Mohammad, a student athlete, in the back of his right leg as he gave onions to demonstrators to relieve tear-gas symptoms, approximately 300 m from the fence. His leg had to be amputated.
- Israeli forces killed Abed, from Beit Lahia, when they shot him in the back of the head as he ran, carrying a tyre, away from and about 400 m from the separation fence.
- Bader, from Jabaliya, was killed by Israeli forces when they shot him in the head as he stood smoking a cigarette 300 m from the separation fence.
- Israeli forces injured a schoolgirl with bullet fragmentation. As she lay on the ground, four men attempted to evacuate her. The forces shot three of them, killing Marwan Qudieh (45) from Khuzaa village and injuring a potato seller and another man in the legs. One of the rescuers had to have a leg amputated.
- Alaa, a member of the Palestinian cycling team, was shot by Israeli forces in the leg as he stood holding his bicycle, wearing his cycling kit, watching the demonstrations, approximately 300 m from the separation fence. His right leg had to be amputated, ending his cycling career.
- Israeli forces shot a graphic designer from Gaza City in the abdomen when he was approximately 150 m from the separation fence. His injuries are such that he will never be able to father children.
- Israeli forces shot Mohammad, a naval police officer, in the chest, killing him, as he sat on a hill with a friend, around 500 m from the separation fence. Israeli forces killed Ali, a university student from Rafah, with a shot to the head as he spoke on the phone about 150 m from the separation fence.
The most upsetting crimes in the report are the murders of disabled people. Israeli snipers shot and killed a double amputee in a wheelchair, and two men who walked with crutches:
- Fadi, from Khan Younis, had had both legs amputated following an Israeli airstrike in 2008. On 14 May, Israeli snipers shot him in the chest at the Abasan Al-Jadida protest site, where he was sitting in his wheelchair with two friends approximately 300 m from the separation fence. He died immediately. [Note that the reason Fadi was a double amputee in the first place was that Israel had bombed him.]
- Ahmad, from the Jabaliya refugee camp, walked with crutches, having been injured by Israeli forces during a demonstration in 2017. On 20 April, Israeli forces shot him in the back of the head as he sat on a hill approximately 150 m from the separation fence. He died that day.
- Mohammad, from the Jabaliya refugee camp, walked with crutches. On 26 October, Israeli forces killed him with a shot to the head, approximately 200 m from the separation fence.
On a single day, 60 demonstrators were shot and killed. Many survivors are now permanently disabled, and will live for decades in chronic pain and discomfort. A witness describes the scene:
What was notable was the amount of injured people. And the slow, methodical shooting. Every few minutes… you would hear a shot ring out and you would see someone fall. And then another shot and another person fell. It went on for hours… I saw a man who had been shot in the throat, I didn’t see it happen but I saw the immediate aftermath. He was covered in blood. I saw a man who had been shot in the head… There was a constant stream of bloody bodies being carried back towards the ambulances. It was surreal and endless. It became almost normal, it was happening so often. A shot, a person falling, people carrying the body away. The number of wounded was astonishing. I couldn’t say how many people I saw who were shot because it was so high. I have covered wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya. I have never seen anything like this. The slow methodical shooting. It was just shocking…
This is monstrous. Sickening. Thinking about what the Israeli government did should turn your stomach. This was not a “both sides” situation. Some demonstrators hurled stones, but these are unarmed people going up against one of the most powerful and sophisticated militaries in the world, with billions of dollars of U.S. weaponry. The demonstrators did not rain terror down upon Israel. They tried (and failed) to cross a border, and they were murdered in cold blood. Israel made it clear that they would tolerate no challenge to their authority: This was not about a perceived physical threat, it was about a threat to their legitimacy. Dissent could not be tolerated and had to be punished through the harshest possible means.
You may be wondering why Israel, The Middle East’s Only Democracy™, would do something like this. Aren’t they the good guys? In Bret Stephens’ article condemning Ilhan Omar, he says it’s “a shame” Omar doesn’t like Israel, because “Israel is the only country in its region that embraces the sorts of values the Democratic Party claims to champion.” (“When was the last time there was a gay-pride parade in Ramallah?” he asks.) Stephens does not mention the mass murder of dissidents, because it would make this argument seem somewhat ridiculous. It’s also hard for some to believe—Israel brags about how humane and restrained it is, why would they deliberately shoot disabled people? Here I think the answer is quite clear: Israel did not necessarily shoot disabled people and paramedics because they were disabled people and paramedics. Instead, snipers were given free rein to fire at will at the demonstrators, and because Israel has spent so long dehumanizing Palestinians and treating them as a terrifying threat to its security, the snipers simply found targets and took them out. This makes sense as a strategy for Israel: It knows it will suffer no consequences, and by showing its “zero tolerance” for border breaches, it hopes to deter future Palestinian dissent. And murder is indeed a fairly effective deterrent (and every Palestinian footballer now knows they risk their career if they go near a border protest).
The problem here is that this is a crime against humanity. But why should Israel care about that? Nobody is treating it as such. People like Stephens and Williamson don’t even feel the need to come up with defenses for what Israel did, because it’s simply not on the radar in the U.S. Benjamin Netanyahu simply waved away the new UN report, saying that “the council has set new records of hypocrisy and lies out of an obsessive hatred for Israel” and Israel will continue to “fiercely defend its sovereignty and citizens against Hamas attacks and Iran-backed terror organizations.” It’s not clear what this means: Did they or did they not shoot clearly-marked journalists and medics? Is Fadi Abu Salmi still alive somewhere? Was he only pretending not to have legs? If the facts in the UN report are wrong, let’s hear the refutations, but at the moment Palestinian lives are simply being treated as worthless, their deaths unworthy even of discussion.
The Obama administration never put much pressure on Israel. Ben Rhodes, in The World As It is, says the Palestinians found “little more than rhetorical support from us” and that while it was clear that “Netanyahu wasn’t going to negotiate seriously” about peace, Obama “would always side with Israel when push came to shove.” But the Obama administration at least occasionally grumbled about the seizure of Palestinian land, making some public complaints about settlement expansion. Now, nobody cares. The New York Times reports that while the Israeli government used to condemn terror attacks against Palestinians, it no longer even bothers. After all, why should it? This is even true in the case of truly horrible violence, as when a yeshiva student murdered a Palestinian woman with a four-pound rock. In the Times, her widower described “how the stone smashed through the front windshield, striking his wife in the head and causing her brains and blood to spill out ‘like a waterfall.’”
When I see Meghan McCain sniffling about anti-Semitism, or Rahm Emanuel writing a self-pitying essay about how hurtful and bigoted it is that he has been accused of being too deferential to Israel, I can’t help but feel enraged. Where the hell are your tears for the Palestinians? Where are your tears for the husband who watched his wife’s brains flow out of her head like a waterfall? Where are your tears for the amputee who had his legs bombed off and then was shot in the chest? Where is your compassion for Razan al-Najjar, the heroic 20-year-old woman who served as a medic for protesters (clearly identified as such) until Israeli soldiers killed her? What about little malnourished Gazan children? Yes, every life matters, and Israeli families’ tears are worth no less, but the death ratio is massively skewed toward Palestinian casualties. Israel has one of the most powerful militaries in the world, while Palestinians are desperate and deprived, using kites as weapons. People like Stephens and McCain are not moved in the slightest by the thousands of deaths and maimings caused by the country whose well-being so preoccupies them.
Honestly, I am a little frustrated here, even with the Left defending Omar. I am glad she is drawing attention to the existence of a dangerous political consensus that allows Israel to get away with serious crimes. But it is our responsibility to avoid even getting wrapped up in a stupid debate, if it means we spend less time talking about the actual lives and deaths of Palestinians. Every additional op-ed about “the anti-Semitism controversy,” on either side, takes airtime away from the real issue: The United States, through bipartisan-endorsed military aid, is abetting a series of atrocities by the government of Israel. These crimes are ongoing—42 more Palestinians were shot by snipers just today. The issue here is murder, and we must refuse to be distracted from talking about it.
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