Before There Was Terrorism

Editors’ Note: Kathleen Christison worked for 16 years as a political analyst with the CIA, dealing first with Vietnam and then with the Middle East for her last seven years with the Agency before resigning in 1979. Since leaving the CIA, she has been a free-lance writer, dealing primarily with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her book, “Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy,” was published by the University of California Press and reissued in paperback with an update in October 2001. A second book, The Wound of Dispossession: Telling the Palestinian Story, was published in March 2002. She and her husband Bill, (a former senior CIA analyst whose dissections of the war on terror are featured on this website) live in the Southwest. The following is a talk she gave in New Mexico on May 2 under the auspices of Santa Fe Community Action Network, the Santa Fe Green Party, and Tikkun.

We hear a lot about “moral clarity” and “moral equivalence” these days-the idea being that, if you have true “moral clarity,” you can recognize a terrorist when you see him, and you know with clarity that there is no “moral equivalence” between Palestinians, who are terrorists, and Israel, which is a moral, democratic state fighting for its existence and using moral means to do so. At a time when the United States is officially engaged in a war on terrorism, which is officially defined as war against evil and evil-doers, moral arguments have a great deal of resonance. It’s thus easy to place the Palestinians among the “evil ones,” within the “axis of evil,” and thereby almost automatically to place Israel in the category of innocent victim. We Americans have already grown up with a strong image of Israel as a heroic little nation fighting against hate-filled Arabs, so the argument today that there is “no-moral-equivalence” between Israel and the Palestinians-or indeed between Israel and any Arabs-fits right in with the stereotypes and preconceived notions that we already have in our heads.

The perceptions that come out of these stereotypes-the perceptions that come out of the “no-moral-equivalence” argument and the effort to lump Palestinians in with the terrorists and other black hats around the world, while Israel is placed on a pedestal next to “us,” the good people-these perceptions have a huge impact on the policy we pursue in the United States toward every aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These perceptions make it impossible for the United States to play a meaningful role in resolving the conflict; they make it impossible for us to act as a neutral mediator or honest broker. In the end, they render us unable to approach the conflict from a position of equity. The only possible way for a mediator to resolve a conflict is to take the concerns of both parties to the conflict into account equally, but when one side is viewed as morally repugnant and the other as morally unassailable, there is no possibility of equitable treatment.

This difference in perceptions of the essential morality-the “worthiness”-of those on each side is and has always been fundamental to how policy is made in this country. Marc Ellis, a Jewish-American political scholar and professor at Baylor University, recently put it this way: speaking of progressives in Israel and in the American Jewish community who always used to be open to the Palestinian perspective but distanced themselves from the Palestinians after the peace process collapsed, he says that the underlying assumption of virtually all of these progressives, when push comes to shove, is that Palestinians are not quite equal to Israelis. “Any political empowerment of Palestinians must be limited and monitored by Israel,” he said-because, ultimately, “Palestinian history and destiny are secondary to Jewish history and destiny.”

This has always been, and remains, the fundamental assumption, and the fundamental inequity, of all U.S. administrations and of all U.S. peacemaking efforts. And ultimately, these perceptions and the misguided policy that has resulted from them have caused the perpetuation of the conflict-the decades-long perpetuation of a conflict that could have been resolved years ago.

This notion that Jewish “history and destiny” are superior to Palestinian “history and destiny” has basically always governed popular thinking, media commentary, and in the end the making of policy in the United States. We understand Israeli fears; we feel Israeli fears. But we generally don’t feel, or even care about, Palestinian fears. We have no conception of what it means for a Palestinian to have his land confiscated, his olive grove bulldozed, his underground water sucked up, so that Israel can build a settlement for Jews only or a security road on which only Israelis are allowed to drive. Gideon Levy, an Israeli commentator for the newspaper Haaretz, who knows the Palestinians well and remains open to Palestinian concerns and the Palestinian perspective, recently quoted Palestinian militia leader Marwan Barghouti as having asked him five years ago, “When will you [Israelis] finally understand that nothing frightens the Palestinians the way settlements do?”

Israeli settlements have been expanding inexorably across the occupied territories, including, and indeed particularly, during the peace process, and what this settlement expansion meant was the gradual diminution of the area where a free and independent Palestinian state could ever be established-the gradual destruction of the nascent Palestinian state. But most Americans have no conception that this has been occurring or of the fears that this process aroused in the Palestinians. And I include among those who didn’t focus on or really care what was happening to the Palestinians President Bill Clinton and his advisers, who oversaw the so-called peace process for seven years but failed to notice the steady expansion and consolidation of Israel’s control over the very territories supposed to be relinquished to Palestinian control.

As Americans, we are, of course, vitally concerned to guarantee Israel’s security and existence; we actively fear, and we talk all the time about, the danger that Israel will be destroyed. It’s been one of the pillars of our Middle East policy since 1948 to guarantee Israel’s existence. But we don’t care at all about guaranteeing Palestinian existence, and even more significantly, we don’t care, or even seem to notice, that Ariel Sharon is actively attempting to destroy the Palestinian nation. If you doubt this, let me quote Avi Shlaim, an Israeli historian at Oxford University who wrote recently that one of the hallmarks of Sharon’s career has been “savage brutality” toward Arab civilians and that “his real agenda is to subvert what remains of the Oslo accords, to smash the Palestinians into the ground, and to extinguish hope for independence and statehood.” If you doubt that, listen to what Sharon himself has written in his autobiography. Although he was raised, he said, to believe that Arabs and Jews could live side by side, his parents believed and taught him that “without question” only Jews had rights over the land. “When the land belongs to you physicallythat is when you have power, not just physical power but spiritual power.” Everything Sharon has ever done in his career, and in his year as prime minister, has clearly been directed at guaranteeing this continued Israeli physical and spiritual control of all the land of Palestine.

You can perhaps dismiss Sharon as an extreme example of this notion of the superiority of Jewish claims to all the land of Palestine, but his viewpoint increasingly represents the thinking and the actions of Israel as a nation-his popularity is very high at the moment in Israel-and in fact his policy is only a more blatant and brutal version of the policy pursued by every Israeli government since the occupation began in 1967. What possible reason, other than ensuring continued Israeli physical and political domination over the occupied territories, could there have been for the steady increase under both left-wing and right-wing governments of settlement building, road building, land confiscation, expulsion of Palestinians, segmentation of Palestinian population areas, etcetera, etcetera?

What possible reason, other than an intention to keep the occupied territories, could there be for the fact that it has always been hard to find a map in Israel that does not place the West Bank inside Israel? (This was true even during the late 1990s, at the height of the peace process, when the modalities for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories were supposed to be the principal topic of discussion.) What possible reason, other than a deep-seated reluctance to cede dominion over the occupied territories, could there have been for the constant delays in implementation of the Oslo accords that marked the entire seven years of the Oslo peace process? Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery has wryly labeled Ehud Barak’s penchant for backing off whenever he came near to consummating an agreement, either with the Palestinians or with Syria, “politicus interruptus.”

Yes, Ehud Barak did during the Camp David negotiations in July 2000 offer to permit the Palestinians to have a state, but the state he offered could not have been viable or sovereign or truly independent. I’ll explain this more fully a little later, but for now suffice it to say that this so-called state would actually have been a colony, over which Israel would have maintained full physical and political domination. This has been Israel’s intent since the beginning of the occupation 35 years ago.

Let me get back to this question of comparative morality. The major issue that we hear about constantly at the moment is terrorism-Palestinian terrorism. Of course there is no excuse whatsoever for terrorism-no excuse for any action by any individual or group or state that knowingly kills innocent civilians. Nor is there any excuse for Israeli actions that deliberately kill innocent civilians-and there is voluminous evidence, including testimony from Israeli soldiers themselves, that Israelis do deliberately shoot Palestinian children and adult civilians, deliberately bomb and shell civilian residential areas, deliberately fire on ambulances and relief workers.

Palestinian terrorism is not the essence of the conflict. Terrorism is a tactic-an ugly tactic, but it is only a tactic. The tendency of Americans is always to start the clock over again with the last big event-not to look behind that last event at what provoked it or at what actually lies at the root of the problem. What we’ve all concentrated on in the last few months have been the hideous images of Palestinian suicide bombings-horrific acts that have killed innocent people at religious ceremonies, out shopping, riding buses, eating in restaurants.

But both Israel and the U.S. act as though nothing went before this terrorism, as though it is mindless and unreasoned, based on nothing but blind hatred of Jews. This perception has allowed us to excuse Israel’s siege of the civilian population of the West Bank and destruction of the entire infrastructure of Palestinian government and society as merely legitimate retaliation; it has blinded us to the moral quality of Israel’s acts; it has allowed us unquestioningly to accept Israel’s definition of all Palestinian violence, even legitimate resistance to the occupation, as terrorism (President Bush recently brushed aside a British interviewer’s question about precisely this difference with a dismissive, “Look, my job isn’t to try to nuance. My job is to tell people what I think”); and it has blinded us to everything that went before: to the 35 years in which Israel has occupied Palestinian territories and ruled over the Palestinian population. Terrorism is a symptom of the problem; it is not the real problem.

Before there was terrorism, there was the occupation. Before there was terrorism, there were settlements. Israel has established over 250 settlements throughout the occupied territories and populated them with over 400,000 Israeli settlers. The number of settlers almost doubled in the seven years of the peace process between the 1993 signing of the Oslo agreement and July 2000 when the peace process collapsed at Camp David, and Sharon has added 34 new settlements during his year in office. Before there was terrorism, there were the roads. Israel has established a 300-mile road network throughout the West Bank connecting the settlements. These are high-security roads-three football fields wide with their surrounding security perimeters-and they are accessible only to Israelis. They separate Palestinian population areas from each other and from their agricultural land; in fact, before the current warfare, they segmented the areas of semi-autonomous Palestinian control into 227 separate, non-contiguous patches of land.

Before there was terrorism, there was land confiscation. Something approaching 60% of the land area of the West Bank has been confiscated for settlements, for this extensive road network, and for military bases. Before there was terrorism, there were olive groves and other agricultural land bulldozed to build roads and security areas for Israelis. Olives are a staple of the Palestinian economy. Before there was terrorism, there were checkpoints-Israeli-manned checkpoints through which Palestinians had to pass to move from one town to another and through which every item needed to run a city-food, medicines, manufacturing supplies, mail, ambulances-had to pass.

Before Jenin, the refugee camp that Israel destroyed last month in the name of rooting out terrorism, there was the occupation. Before Israel destroyed the entire infrastructure of Palestinian civil society last month-rampaging through Palestinian civil ministries for education and health and agriculture, destroying computers and hard disks and the entire written record of Palestinian society, ransacking Palestinian businesses and banks, blasting their way into and occupying and looting Palestinian residences, bulldozing whole housing blocks, destroying land registry maps and census records, as if to erase all trace of Palestinian existence-before all this, there was the occupation.

The occupation has always, from the beginning, been intended to exert permanent control over the Palestinian people in order to provide security for Israelis. Now, is this immoral, is this singular concern for Jewish security at the expense of Palestinian security and Palestinian rights immoral? Israeli commentator Gideon Levy wrote recently, in describing several instances in which Israel refused entry to or expelled representatives of international human rights organizations, that “as far as Israel is concernedhuman rights are still perceived primarily as an obstacle to security policies.” Is it immoral that Israeli security should take precedence over human rights for Palestinians? I think so, although many would debate me on that. Without question, however, whether the occupation is moral or immoral, it is illegal under international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention, which governs the conduct of states occupying foreign territory, was written and adopted in 1949 for the most moral of reasons: specifically to prevent the kind of horrors committed against Jews during the Holocaust. Both Israel and the U.S. are signatories to the Geneva Convention, but Israel ignores its provisions with respect to the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and the U.S. goes along with this. The rest of the international community does recognize the applicability of the convention to these territories.

The Geneva Convention prohibits the following: It prohibits the settlement of the occupier’s population in the occupied territory; that is, it should prohibit settling Jews in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. It prohibits the occupier from appropriating the property of the local inhabitants; that is, it should prohibit Israel’s confiscation of Palestinian land for settlements and roads, as well as its destruction of Palestinian agricultural land. It prohibits the occupier from taking any action that makes its temporary presence permanent and from asserting any claims to sovereignty; that is, it should prohibit Israel from permanent settlement-building and from any effort to annex those settlements to Israel-in fact, the convention actually prohibits any peace agreement that would legitimize any Israeli territorial claim in the occupied territories.

It prohibits the occupier from deporting the inhabitants of the occupied territory; that is, it should prohibit Israel from expelling any Palestinian from the West Bank, Gaza, or East Jerusalem-deportations Israel has carried out in the hundreds and thousands over the years. It prohibits collective punishment; that is, it should prohibit Israel from demolishing the homes of the families of suspected terrorists, from shelling entire neighborhoods in response to the actions of one or a few Palestinian gunmen, from retaliating economically against the entire Palestinian population following a terrorist attack. It prohibits the occupier from appropriating the natural resources of the occupied territory; that is, it should prohibit Israel from using the underground water resources of the West Bank and Gaza-water that Israel allocates to Israeli settlers at a rate at least five times as great as is allocated to Palestinians. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has estimated that Israeli settlers consume 348 liters per day, while Palestinians are permitted only 70 liters per day. The World Health Organization standard is 100 liters per day.

Much of the public discourse and policy today has come down to whether at Camp David Israel actually offered the Palestinians a generous deal that would have gotten Israel out of the occupied territories and given the Palestinians a state. There is a widespread impression-a misapprehension-in this country, fostered dishonestly by Israel and the U.S. media and U.S. policymakers, that Ehud Barak offered Yasir Arafat a state on a silver platter but that Arafat refused this generous offer and started the uprising instead. This is a gross misrepresentation of the facts. What Barak proposed would have left the Palestinians not with a state, but with a series of disconnected enclaves-three in the West Bank, plus Gaza, plus several disconnected neighborhoods in East Jerusalem-each of which would have been surrounded by Israeli-controlled territory. This would not have been a viable or defensible state. It is not a state that Israel itself would ever have accepted, and the Palestinians could not possibly have accepted it either.

Let me return to this issue of comparative morality before I finish. In late March, responding to the Seder massacre-a suicide bombing that killed 27 Israelis gathered for a Passover meal-President Bush said that “justice and cruelty have always been at war, and God is not neutral between them.” He had used this same phrase in his speech to Congress after September 11. In the context of his constant pressure on the Palestinians but not Israel to end violence, this statement indicates that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bush believes justice lies entirely with Israel, cruelty with the Palestinians, and that God is therefore on Israel’s side. Interestingly enough, Elie Wiesel wrote in his novella Dawn that God is a terrorist. Dawn is Wiesel’s story, said to be at least partially autobiographical, about a young man who fights against British control of Palestine in the 1940s by joining the Irgun, Israel’s pre-state terrorist organization led by Menachem Begin. Wiesel calls the organization a terrorist organization, without embarrassment, throughout the novella, and about midway through, by way of justifying his hero’s actions, he declares that “God is a member of the Resistance movement, a terrorist.”

George Bush and his supporters have made much of the notion that he is acting against terrorism with what he calls “moral clarity.” Elie Wiesel is hailed as a man of surpassing “moral clarity.” But one man’s moral clarity, it’s clear from these two views, is another man’s moral obfuscation. This is the kind of trouble, the kind of inconsistency, you get into when you try to define morality, and when you claim to base your foreign policy on God. Whose morality are we dealing with, and whose God, and whose definition of terrorism?


I’ve been asked to give you my vision of a peace settlement. George Bush and I both have a vision of peace; he has described his vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace, and that’s my vision too. Where we differ is that I don’t think Bush has a vision of how to get there. Most serious analysts believe that Bush came to his vision not out of any interest in forging a peace agreement, but in order, as Judith Kipper of the Council on Foreign Relations recently put it, to “make nice” with Saudi Arabia. Bush first enunciated his “vision” last fall, immediately after the Saudi crown prince had expressed his anger over U.S. support for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and Bush has reiterated the vision whenever-but only whenever-the Saudis have expressed enough concern about the Palestinians to make the Bush team worry that their “war on terror” might be impeded.

In fact, Bush’s policies and actions preclude any possibility that his vision can ever come to fruition. His support for Ariel Sharon, his grant of carte blanche to Sharon’s actions in the occupied territories, his declaration that Sharon is a “man of peace,” precisely at the moment when he is actively attempting to destroy the Palestinian people and nation, all indicate that Bush not only has no plan for achieving Palestinian statehood, but doesn’t care whether there ever is a Palestinian state, or indeed whether the Palestinian people survive. Several senior policymakers in Bush’s administration, in fact, particularly in the Defense Department, advocate never permitting a Palestinian state.

Any real peace agreement that is just and fair to both sides and that is stable and guaranteed to last must be based on a mediation approach that treats both sides more or less equitably. That does not mean they have to get an equal amount of territory in a peace agreement. Far from it, in fact: in any peace agreement Israel will always be guaranteed at least the 78% of Palestine that lies inside its 1967 borders, while the Palestinians will never get-and do not expect to get-more than the remaining 22%.

But equity does mean that if you are the United States trying to mediate a just and stable peace, you must take the two sides’ concerns into account equally. It means that, if you are concerned to guarantee Israel’s security, you must equally guarantee Palestinian security. It means that if you are concerned to assure that Israel remains a viable, defensible state, you must equally assure that the Palestinian state is viable and defensible. It means that you must start from the premise that neither people is inherently more moral than the other. It means that a dead Israeli child is no more innocent than a dead Palestinian child. The death of an innocent Israeli is no more tragic, no more outrageous, no more an obstacle to peace than the death of an innocent Palestinian. This is what equity means.

(Let me say as an aside that equity does not mean the policy absurdity we have just gotten ourselves into, of giving Israel the weapons-and the green light-with which to destroy Palestinian cities and then giving Palestinians a little bit of aid with which to rebuild them.)

Most fundamentally, an equitable approach to forging a peace agreement means that you must honestly examine what lies at the root of the conflict. What lies at the root of the conflict is the occupation-Israel’s 35-year-long occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. The root of the problem is not the right of return, it is not Israel’s right to exist, it is not the fear in which Israelis live. It is the occupation and what this means for Palestine’s right to exist and for the fear in which Palestinians live.

Ariel Sharon and George Bush, along with most Israelis and most Americans, seem to believe that the root of the problem is Yasir Arafat, that he is the principal impediment to peace and that, if only he were somehow removed from the scene, everything would move forward easily. In fact, however, let’s imagine a situation in which there is no Yasir Arafat. Let’s even imagine a situation in which there is no suicide bombing. Without Arafat, without suicide bombing, there would still be the occupation, and there would therefore still be resistance to the occupation, and the United States would still be confronted with the need to mediate a solution. But, unfortunately, even without Arafat, Israel would still be building settlements, building roads, confiscating Palestinian land, demolishing Palestinian homes, impeding Palestinian movement with checkpoints. Palestinians would still be angry and frustrated at having their opportunity for freedom and independence totally blocked, and they would still be using small arms, a few home-made mortars, and stones-the only military force available to them-to attack Israeli soldiers. Such attacks would be legitimate under international law because armed resistance to foreign occupation is considered legitimate, and Israeli soldiers are foreign occupiers in Palestinian land.

So, essentially, even without Arafat, we would be right where we are today. You can rant and rave all you want about Arafat. I rant and rave myself about how awful Arafat is. But eliminating him will not solve the problem. Only eliminating the occupation will solve the problem. That’s a real vision of peace.