Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Benjamin Netanyahu(Credit: Reuters/Brian Snyder/Katherine Taylor/Nir Elias/Photo montage by Salon)
“We are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.”
These are truly rare words in U.S. politics, yet they are the words Bernie Sanders uttered in the presidential debate Thursday night.
Replace “Palestinian” with any other people in this statement, and it would be completely uncontroversial. This is how extreme the U.S. is on Israel. But Bernie Sanders is beginning to push back against the dogma.
“If we are ever going to bring peace to that region which has seen so much hatred and so much war, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity,” he said in the debate.
“We cannot continue to be one-sided. There are two sides to the issue,” Sanders continued.
Recognition that the conflict in Israel-Palestine has more than one side, and acknowledgement of the Palestinian people as anything other than “terrorists,” is a true rarity in the American political establishment.
The brutal, illegal Israeli military occupation Palestinians have lived under for almost 50 years is virtually never mentioned. The mass forced exile of the majority of the Palestinian population and their inability to return, the Palestinians killed and wounded daily by occupation forces, the crippling siege of Gaza — these are all off the table.
In mainstream U.S. politics, the Palestinians are almost invariably seen as mere trouble for Israel, which considers the indigenous Arabs to be a “demographic threat.”
When Hillary Clinton talks about the Palestinians, this is precisely the kind of image she invokes. In the debate, she characterized Palestinians simply as threats to Israel. Each time she spoke, she fearmongered about the militant group Hamas.
Sanders pushed back.
Ignoring Palestinian oppression
“I read Secretary Clinton’s statement speech before AIPAC,” he said in the debate, referring to the 2016 conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most influential pro-Israel group.
“I heard virtually no discussion at all about the needs of the Palestinian people. Almost none in that speech.”
Sanders didn’t hear any discussion of the needs of the Palestinian people because there was none. As Salon reported, Clinton did not once acknowledge Israel’s five-decade-long illegal military occupation of the Palestinian territories in her 4,000-word AIPAC speech.
The few instances Clinton mentioned the Palestinians were overwhelmingly negative; she characterized them as terrorists and troublemakers.
“You gave a major speech to AIPAC, which obviously deals with the Middle East crisis, and you barely mentioned the Palestinians,” Sanders scolded.
“There comes a time when, if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time,” he asserted, to applause from the audience.
Sanders was referring to Israel’s hard-line right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who, when he finishes his present fourth term, will be the longest-serving head of state in Israel’s almost 70-year history.
Clinton has pledged multiple times that, if she is elected president, she will meet with Netanyahu in her first month in office.
In the debate, Clinton did not budge a bit on her extreme position, refusing to even criticize Israel.
Israel’s disproportionate attacks
Sanders stood by his statement that Israel’s ruthless bombing in its 2014 war Gaza was “disproportionate and led to the unnecessary loss of innocent life.”
“Now, if you’re asking not just me, but countries all over the world, was that a disproportionate attack, the answer is that I believe it was, and let me say something else,” he said.
Sanders is absolutely correct. The world’s leading human rights organizations and the United Nations have explicitly said that Israel committed war crimes in its 2014 assault, in its shelling of civilian areas such as shelters for displaced people, hospitals, schools, homes, places of worship and more.
Since then, Israeli soldiers have admitted the same. Israel Defense Forces officers told an Israeli NGO that they were ordered to shoot “anyone you spot that you can be positive is not the IDF” — to attack “any person you see,” and to “shoot to kill.”
They also admitted that they shot at innocent Palestinian civilians because they were bored.
In the debate, Sanders corrected the misstatement he made in his New York Daily News interview, emphasizing that more than 10,000 Palestinian civilians were wounded and another 1,500 were killed in Israel’s brutal war.
Clinton refused to directly condemn Israel’s use of disproportionate force in Gaza, even after Sanders asked her multiple times.
“You evaded the question,” he said.
“I will certainly be willing to answer it,” she replied, but then totally failed to do so, instead fearmongering again about Hamas.
Blockade of Gaza
Instead of acknowledging Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, Clinton relied on pro-Israel myths.
“Israel left Gaza,” she claimed in the debate. “They took out all the Israelis. They turned the keys over to the Palestinian people.”
This statement is very misleading.
Yes, in 2005 Israel did withdraw its illegal settlements from Gaza, but these settlements were illegal in the first place, and international law required that they be removed — along with the still extant and ever-growing settlements in the West Bank.
While Clinton is right that the Israeli government did take out the settlers, she is wrong that it “turned the keys over to the Palestinian people.”