On June 5, 2009 Barack Obama made a speech in Cairo calling for “A New Beginning” between the United States and Muslims around the world. He rallied the Middle East and disillusioned Arabs from all corners of the earth, saying that this would be based on “…mutual interest and mutual respect and the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap and share common principles—principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
One year later, the United States government is one of the few world governments that remained silent when the Israeli Defense Force hijacked not one, but two ships filled with humanitarian aid bound for the illegally blockaded Gaza Strip. While the international community responded vehemently to the attacks on the first ship, the Mavi Marmara (Nicaragua suspended diplomatic relations with Israel and South Africa recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv among others), the most opposition the United States expressed was Barack Obama musing that “the status quo has to change.” Concretely, however, the United States would not support a UN Security Council resolution condemning the assault as Joe Biden went on the Charlie Rose Show chuckling and asking, “What’s the Big Deal?”
The big deal, Joe Biden, is that the United States gives $3.1 billion dollars per year to Israel in military aid. One fifth of the United States foreign aid budget, much more than is given to all starving African countries combined, goes towards Israel’s defense technology. After sixty-two years of increasing military aid, the Israeli Defense Force now has one of the most advanced defense technology systems in the world. So, when masked Israeli commandos descended by helicopter to the Mavi Marmara and opened fire on humanitarian activists, killing nine innocent people, it was most likely funded by the United States.
Adding insult to injury, the United States allows Israel to openly violate international law without consequences. In the case of Gaza, Israel has created a veritable open-air prison that violates Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibiting “collective punishment.” If one doubts that “collective punishment” accurately describes this strip of land inhabited by 1.5 million people, consider that Gazans are forbidden from leaving without a permit. Last year alone, forty percent of Gazans were denied exit permits, even for medical reasons. This is deeply problematic when one considers how after Operation Cast Lead destroyed many Gazan institutions the Israeli Defense Force not only made no effort to rebuild, but actively denies reconstruction materials from entering Gaza. Does the United States recognize this as a flagrant violation of international justice and punish Israel with sanctions and condemnations? Quite the opposite. Instead, while international activists are trying to combat Israeli injustices, the United States blindly gives Israel financial encouragement to do as they please. Contrary to its famous efforts to fight terrorism, the United States is actually funding state terrorism.
It is evident how the international community feels about Israel’s actions. From renowned protest cities such as San Francisco and Washington D.C. to small towns in Middle America to European capitals, cities with their own histories of human rights violations, and even the streets of Tel Aviv, grassroots activists have organized emergency protests condemning the Israeli raids on the Freedom Flotilla, calling for an end to the siege on Gaza, and most of all demanding an end to the U.S. aid to Israel. In addition, mainstream media outlets that traditionally maintain a strategic silence about the conflict published a flurry of articles and opinion pieces explaining, and even criticizing America’s “special” relationship to Israel. In the United States, even local news channels showed footage from protests and gave a brief, news-anchor summary of the Palestinian cause. However, despite the voice of the American people both in the streets and in the media, the Obama administration still remains silent, festering in their contradiction between public outrage and strategic interests.
Where is the justice and the progress? As long as the United States ignores Israeli aggression and funds their war crimes, it is quite the opposite: a continuous perpetuation of injustice. Barack Obama is right (as he usually is in his ambiguous rhetoric); maintaining the status quo is unsustainable, but financing the Israeli Defense Force and working within current unjust and illegal political and economic relationships will do little to destabilize egregious policies. Perhaps, it is time for something more radical; not a peace talk that legitimates sophisticated apartheid, but to stop funding Israel. Once Israel and the United States are no longer in a “special relationship” that tolerates flagrant violations of international law that cause the deaths of civilian activists, perhaps Barack Obama will be able to grant the Gazans (and all other Palestinians) the human dignity that he promised one year ago.
And that, Joe Biden, is the big deal.