On Israel-Palestine, Biden Must Stop the Harm
On Israel-Palestine, Biden Must Stop the Harm

On Israel-Palestine, Biden Must Stop the Harm

The absence of a peace process doesn’t mean the absence of U.S. responsibility—or of the need to act as Jerusalem begins to boil over.

JERUSALEM – Within the span of a few days in April, violent confrontations erupted in East Jerusalem that were severe enough for the U.S. Embassy and State Department to put out a statement, expressing “deep concern” and calling for “safety, security, and rights” for all in Jerusalem. A Jewish supremacist group with ties to a newly elected Knesset member had walked through the streets chanting, “Death to Arabs,” as they hunted down and assaulted Palestinians during the height of Ramadan. Then, last Friday night, as thousands of Palestinians prayed in the al-Aqsa mosque, tensions boiled over as some Palestinians threw rocks and bottles at Israeli police, who responded by shooting stun grenades and rubber bullets at crowds of worshippers, including women and children. Some of the shots were fired directly inside the mosque as people prayed. Over 200 Palestinian civilians were injured.

The majority of the violence was and continues to be perpetrated by the Israeli state, not only through the visible violence inflicted on people, but chiefly through destructive state policies. Multiple videos of police brutality against Palestinians have been emerging on social media in recent weeks, showing Israeli police officers plucking young Palestinian men out of crowds and beating them while already in custody. The current round of unrest broke out after Palestinians began protesting the unprecedented decision by the police to block off the seating area around Damascus Gate—cutting off the central public space where Palestinians gather to celebrate during Ramadan nights. The barricades were eventually removed, which temporarily defused tensions.

Palestinians have been protesting the threats of eviction for years on a weekly basis.

Just up the road from there, in Sheikh Jarrah, where there hasn’t been as explicit an outbreak of violence, that same police force is responsible for carrying out evictions of Palestinian families from their homes to make way for Jewish residents. Palestinians have been protesting the threats of eviction for years on a weekly basis. As part of an organized campaign by the state to displace Palestinians in East Jerusalem (they make up 40 percent of the city’s population), several families comprising a few hundred people have been ordered by a Jerusalem district court to vacate their homes in the coming weeks. Residents of four homes housing six families could be evicted as soon as this Monday. This, despite the fact that all of them legally settled there in an agreement between Israel and the Jordanian government, after losing their homes in Jaffa, Haifa, and other parts of what became the state of Israel in 1948. According to Israeli law, Jews can legally reclaim land they owned before 1948, while Palestinians have no such legal course of action.

While the Biden administration has made clear that it doesn’t see a chance for making progress on Israel-Palestine peacemaking, these recent episodes are a reminder that Jerusalem, the microcosm of the conflict in Israel-Palestine, is a pressure cooker that can boil over at any moment. The reality on the ground in Israel-Palestine is shaped by the asymmetry of power between an occupying state and its heavily armed forces, and for stateless residents living in occupied East Jerusalem specifically, no entity to represent their rights, as the Palestinian Authority is barred from operating there. That is the context for everything that goes on here. Even when there are no reports or images of explicit violence, Israel inflicts state violence through a kind of war of attrition—which the U.S. enables by refusing to take steps to hold Israel to account.

Jerusalem, the microcosm of the conflict in Israel-Palestine, is a pressure cooker that can boil over at any moment.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently told his Israeli counterpart that “Israelis and Palestinians should enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and democracy.” This is a clear statement of recognition of the need to address the imbalance of power and protect Palestinian rights, though it does not suggest any real path toward achieving that. President Biden’s decision thus far to restore some aid to the Palestinians and preserve a commitment to a two-state solution does not address those needs. That would require a direct curbing of Israeli behavior, something the U.S. has not done in decades. The least Biden can do is stop the harm to Palestinians, which in turn will also prevent harm to Israelis.

Biden has said he will not accept unilateral actions by either side, but Israel continues to take unilateral steps, primarily through forced displacement, confiscation of property, home demolitions, unchecked settler violence, and Israeli police brutality. (Deputy State Department spokesperson Jalina Porter’s comments Friday night, calling on Israel to avoid such unilateral steps, is a good start, but it must be followed by action.) In 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, Israel increased home demolitions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, rendering over 1,000 people homeless. Last year also saw the highest rate of Israeli settlement expansion in years. And in the first four months of 2021 in East Jerusalem alone, Israel demolished over 50 Palestinian homes and structures, issued 40 additional demolition notices, and approved plans for nearly 5,000 new settlement units.

The recent report by Human Rights Watch charging Israel with crimes against humanity, as well as a joint report by the Carnegie Endowment and the U.S. Middle East Project calling for a new U.S. rights-based approach, point to a shift in the discourse and the direction of policy on Israel-Palestine. These reports signal a recognition that the extremely asymmetrical reality on the ground can no longer be obfuscated, denied, or neglected.

The U.S. under Biden appears to have taken a step back from the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” not because of more pressing domestic and foreign-policy concerns, but because there is tacit consensus that it’s a futile effort.

The U.S. under Biden appears to have taken a step back from the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” not because of more pressing domestic and foreign-policy concerns, but because there is tacit consensus that it’s a futile effort. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. can actually disengage, not when U.S. aid continues to flow unconditionally to Israel. After decades of Israeli military occupation and creeping annexation, and especially in light of former President Trump’s recognition of Israel’s illegal annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights (which Biden has given no indication he will reverse), a policy of disengagement really amounts to implicit support for the continued consolidation of Israeli sovereignty and its continued implementation of harmful and violent policies. Failure to act is not only not constructive; it is actively destructive.

One of the first steps Biden could take is to unequivocally disavow the Trump administration’s January 2020 “Peace to Prosperity” plan, which put a stamp of approval on Israel’s taking of land and resources by force and excluded Palestinians from the process outright. The administration should also plainly condemn, as the U.K. has, the systematic efforts by Israel to dispossess Palestinians from their homes. The Biden administration should also enforce America’s own foreign-aid laws by ensuring greater transparency and accountability for how its aid to Israel is currently used, so that Israel is held to U.S. human rights standards and other benchmarks for aid recipients—something that has increasing support within the Democratic Party. This also means exacting a price from Israel for undermining the administration’s own stated policies, like blocking the viability of a Palestinian state and emboldening political actors who are pursuing a single Jewish undemocratic state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. This could be done, for example, by ending the practice of defending Israel against international censure, for example at the U.N. Security Council.

While there appears to be little urgency in Washington to do almost anything on Israel-Palestine, that doesn’t mean the situation is not politically urgent, or that the U.S. can wash its hands of responsibility. The expectation that a state can keep people subjugated without rights or recourse and enjoy relative calm is not only morally problematic. It will unavoidably lead to more violence and harm, as we are now seeing across Jerusalem.

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