In 2009, I was working in Congress when the eminent South African judge Richard Goldstone came to the House of Representatives to defend the UN report he authored on war crimes committed by both Israelis and Palestinians during that year’s war.
Goldstone stood before a handful of members of Congress and told them that before you condemn the report, you should at least read it. A few staffers and I sent emails across Capitol Hill offering to hand-deliver a paper copy of the entire 575-page report to any member of Congress. Only two took up our offer. That afternoon 344 out of the 435 members of US Congress voted in favor of condemning the report.
I watched from the House floor as members engaged in verbal gymnastics to justify their vote. We need to stand with Israel as the world unfairly blames it, one said. We need to stand up to Palestinian terrorists, another member of Congress said, his face turning red with rage, looking straight at me. Most of them, however, said the same thing: we need to move forward and not point fingers.
But pointing fingers, Goldstone reminded us, is sometimes the most important thing to do. Without ascertaining who violated the law and therefore who should be held accountable, we create no system of punishment for those who harm civilians. We give them, in short, no incentive not to do such things again. As I left the Capitol building that night, an Israeli friend who worked with me in support of Judge Goldstone reminded me that in Congress the ultimate four-letter word is “accountability.”
Three years later, Goldstone’s fear has come true: The same war is happening again in Gaza and southern Israel. And it is happening again because the United States too often looks away when Israel transgresses.
You can almost copy a news article from 2009 and paste it into a newspaper today to write the story that will surely unfold: Israel kills children who are playing soccer in Gaza. Hamas fires rockets into southern Israel, killing civilians. The US issues statement defending Israel’s right to self defense. The US says Hamas must change its actions but will not deliver these messages to Hamas because the US does not talk to terrorists. Then a few months later, a fact finding report is released saying Israelis used US weapons and failed to distinguish between civilians and combatants. The UN votes on the report, the US vetoes, and the report’s author, like Goldstone, is vilified. Pundits come on TV and debate who fired first and Fox News argues if there is a Palestinian proclivity to violence and hopelessness. And finally, NGOs put together donor pitches about how the solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict is getting Israelis and Palestinians to spend a summer on a picturesque lake in Maine.
But the solution is not getting Israelis and Palestinians to drink tea together. Nor is the solution to investigate Palestinian culture. The solution lies in addressing US aid to Israel, the check given each year to Israel regardless of whether it behaves. Last year, the US gave $3.1 billion to Israel. In comparison, Ethiopia received just $580 million. And while US law stipulates that no US weapon should be used to carry out human rights abuses, these laws are seldom applied to Israel. Even when 23-year-old American Rachel Corrie was killed by a bulldozer, the US did not press Israel for justice.
This is not to absolve Palestinians of guilt—many Israelis civilians have been killed by Palestinian attacks, and we must not forget that. But we should not think this is an Israeli Palestinian conflict. This is a issue of occupation, a problem imposed by Israel on Palestinians who often respond with inhumane acts of violence of their own.
Thankfully there is rising resentment over our nation's lopsided support. Jon Stewart regularly skewers Israel and there is a growing group of Americans—across all faith lines—who wonder if the US should give Israel so much money given its record. US media coverage has also shifted, too. When the 11-month-old son of the Palestinian BBC journalist Jihad Misharawi was killed Nov. 13, the Washington Post ran a picture of Misharawi holding his dead son on the front cover—something unheard of even five years ago.
But this shift is not reflected among US politicians. This is a crisis of will, after all, not a crisis of solutions.
Zahir Janmohamed is a San Francisco writer and former Congressional aide. Follow him on Twitter @zahirj