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“Israel has the right to defend itself.”
These are the words we hear from both the Democratic and Republican governments when the government of Israel responds to rocket strikes from Gaza with its enormous military might.
So that we understand each other. Nobody argues that Israel or any government does not have the right to defend itself or protect its people. Why are these words repeated year after year, war after war? And why is the question almost never asked: “What are the rights of the Palestinian people?”
And why do we seem to only take notice of the violence in Israel and Palestine when rockets fall on Israel?
At this point in crisis, the United States should demand an immediate ceasefire. We should also understand that while Hamas fired rockets at Israeli communities, today’s conflict did not begin with those rockets.
Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem have lived under threat of eviction for many years and are navigating a legal system designed to facilitate their eviction. And in the past few weeks, extremist settlers have stepped up their efforts to evict them.
And tragically, these evictions are only part of a wider system of political and economic oppression. For years we have seen a deepening of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as an ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip, which is making life for the Palestinians increasingly unbearable. In Gaza, with around two million inhabitants, 70 percent of young people are unemployed and have little hope for the future.
In addition, we have seen Benjamin Netanyahu’s government marginalize and demonize the Palestinian citizens of Israel, pursue settlement policies to eliminate the possibility of a two-state solution, and pass laws that cement systemic inequality between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel.
None of this excuses the attacks by Hamas in an attempt to exploit the riots in Jerusalem or the failure of the corrupt and ineffective Palestinian Authority, which postponed recently overdue elections. The fact is, however, that Israel remains the only sovereign authority in the Land of Israel and Palestine and is not preparing for peace and justice, but rather consolidating its unequal and undemocratic control.
In more than a decade of right-wing rule in Israel, Mr. Netanyahu has cultivated an increasingly intolerant and authoritarian type of racist nationalism. Desperate to stay in power and avoid prosecution for corruption, Mr Netanyahu has legitimized these forces, including Itamar Ben Gvir and his extremist Jewish ruling party, by accepting them into government. It is shocking and sad that racist mobs attacking Palestinians on the streets of Jerusalem are now represented in their Knesset.
These dangerous trends are not unique to Israel. All over the world, in Europe, in Asia, in South America, and here in the United States, we have seen the rise of similar authoritarian nationalist movements. These movements exploit ethnic and racial hatred to build power for the corrupt few, rather than prosperity, justice and peace for the many. For the past four years these movements have had a friend in the White House.
At the same time, we see the rise of a new generation of activists who want to build societies based on human needs and political equality. We saw these activists on American streets last summer after the murder of George Floyd. We see them in Israel. We see them in the Palestinian Territories.
With a new president, the United States now has the opportunity to develop a new approach to the world – one based on justice and democracy. Whether helping poor countries get the vaccines they need, leading the world to fight climate change, or fighting for democracy and human rights worldwide, the United States must lead the way by promoting cooperation in conflict.
In the Middle East, where we donate nearly $ 4 billion a year to Israel, we can no longer apologize for the right-wing Netanyahu government and its undemocratic and racist behavior. We must change course and take a balanced approach that upholds and strengthens international law relating to the protection of civilians, as well as existing US law that the provision of US military aid must not allow human rights abuses.
This approach must recognize that Israel has the absolute right to live in peace and security, but so does the Palestinians. I firmly believe that the United States has an important role to play in helping Israelis and Palestinians build that future. But if the United States is to be a credible voice on human rights on a global scale, we must consistently comply with international human rights standards, even if this is politically difficult. We have to recognize that Palestinian rights are important. Palestinian life is important.
Senator Bernie Sanders is a Senator from Vermont.