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The Aftermath of Sharon's Visit to the U.S.
With Ali Abunimah
Vice President, Arab American Action Network

Wednesday, May 8, 2002; 1 p.m. EDT

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cut his visit to Washington, D.C. short after another suicide bombing near Tel Aviv that left at least 15 dead. At a news conference before his departure from Washington, Sharon said the attack was "proof of the true intentions of the person leading the Palestinian Authority," a reference to Yasser Arafat. Suicide Blast at Pool Hall Ends Respite, (Post, May 8)

Ali Abunimah, vice president of Arab American Action Network and co-founder of Electronicintifada.net, discusses Sharon's visit to the U.S. and the latest developments in the Middle East.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Minneapolis, Minn.: Don't suicide bombers prevent any prospect peace process from being successful?

Islam forbids suicide -- then why do suicide bombers commit this act in the name of religion?

Ali Abunimah: I think that all violence against innocent civilians diminishes the prospects of peace, and this is certainly true of suicide bombings like the one we just saw. Such bombings are horrific and need to stop. What we need to add however is that most of the violence directed against innocent civilians has come from Israel. While several hundred innocent Israelis have been killed by Palestinians, five times as many innocent Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces. Israel says that this is merely an "accident" and that it is acting in self-defense. Every human rights group that has examined Israel's actions, however, has found very deliberate targeting of civilians, wanton and deliberate use of force, and other grave abuses, such as torture. We will never know the full truth of what happened in Jenin because Israel blocked the UN Security Council-mandated inquiry, but both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch found evidence of Israeli war crimes. All of this Israeli violence which is designed to maintain Israel's military occupation of 3.5 million Palestinians is what is provoking and producing the violence. As long as Israeli chooses violence as its only way of addressing the Palestinians, then there will always be some Palestinians who choose violence in response. The only way to break this devastating cycle is a political process that quickly ends Israel's occupation and gives the Palestinians their freedom.

New York City: What were the actual terms of Barak's offer, and the negotiations after that (taba, I think). Do you think Sharon would be willing to pursue negotiations where Barak left off if Arafat would agree to start there?

Ali Abunimah: What Barak offered at Camp David was a formula for continued Israeli
military occupation under the name of a "state."

The proposal would have meant no territorial contiguity for the
Palestinian state, no control of its external borders, limited
control of its own water resources, and no full Israeli withdrawal
from occupied territory.

In addition, the Barak plan would have included continued Israeli
military control over large segments of the West Bank, including
almost all of the Jordan Valley; codified the right of Israeli
forces to be deployed in the Palestinian state at short notice;
meant the continued presence of fortified Israeli settlements and
Jewish-only roads in the heart of the Palestinian state; and
required nearly 4 million Palestinian refugees to relinquish their
fundamental human rights in exchange for compensation to be paid not
by Israel but by the "international community."

At best, Palestinians could expect a kind of super-autonomy within a
"Greater Israel", rather than independence, and the devolution of
some municipal functions in the parts of Jerusalem inhabited by
Palestinians, under continued overall Israeli control.

Despite this offer, Palestinians continued with the negotiations in
Washington, and then in Taba until January 2001, when Ehud Barak
broke them off. It has always been the position of the Palestinian
Authority that they are ready to immediately continue negotiations
from where they left off, but Israel has refused this. It is very
clear that Sharon, who has vowed never to dismantle a single Israeli
colony, and who has accelerated the pace of construction in the
occupied territories is even less interested than ending the
occupation than Barak was.

I have written a longer analysis of what happened at Camp David and
afterwards, with more documentation which you can read

Chicago, Illinois: Yesterday, CNN White House correspondent John King reported that the pool hall bombing was a "resumption of violence." Why do you think that US reporters continue to discount Palestinian deaths, since only the day before a woman and her two children were killed by a supposed mistake as Israeli soldiers wildly fired a heavy caliber machine gun at them as they worked in a garden.

Ali Abunimah: You make an excellent point. For many in the US media it seems that only violence against Israelis counts. For Palestinians the violence never stops, and I don't think there is a single day in which Palestinian civilians have not suffered random violence by Israel, torture, destruction of their homes, beating and woundings. Many of the reporters are based on the Israeli side of the line and refuse to base themselves in the Occupied Territories and hence they get a very one sided view. We need to hold them accountable for that and insist that they report fairly from both sides.

Philadelphia, Pa.: The policy of Israel in general, and Sharon in particular, has always seemed to be to weaken the secular and civilian institutions of the Palestinians. Many reasonable observers have suggested that this would likely augment the influence of the extremists -- Hamas, et. al. In your opinion, is this deliberate?

Ali Abunimah: Sharon has made it very clear that he does not want the Palestinians to have a truly viable and sovereign state, and has assiduously attacked and destroyed all of the civil and economic infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority, including roads, electricity and water installations. Over the past month Israeli forces destroyed the educational records of one million Palestinian children at the Ministry of Education in Ramallah, and seized archives and research records from the Palestinian department of statistics and other civil research institutions. On May 7, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israeli soldiers defecated and urinated throughout the offices of the Palestinian Ministry of Culture, just one example of widely reported wanton destruction. Israel has demolished completely the Palestinians' only civilian airport and badly damaged their port.

None of this has anything to do with "fighting terrorism." It has everything to do with laying waste to anything that could form the basis of a Palestinian state that is not entirely beholden to and dependent on Israel. The other side of the coin of destroying everything Palestinian, is the accelerated pace at which Israel is building Jewish-only settlements in the occupied territories, and Sharon's declaration that none of these illegal colonies will ever be removed.

Alexandria, Va.: Some in Israel propose building a fence around the Palestinian areas of the West Bank in order to keep Palestinians, including suicide bombers, out of Israel. Would such a fence be effective? Would its construction enhance Israel's security? Would you be in favor, in the absence of a peace agreement, of Israel constructing such a fence?

Ali Abunimah: How about we build a fence around Tel Aviv in order to keep Israeli soldiers and settlers out of the Occupied Territories?

The reason there is no peace is because Israel maintains tens of thousands of its troops and hundreds of thousands of its settlers outside its internationally recognized borders for the purpose of taking land away from the Palestinians, and ruling Palestinians through military dictatorship. While it does this, it demands that Palestinians provide perfect security for its soldiers and settlers. This untenable situation leads to a violent response from Palestinians who see no other means to defend themselves. I think only those totally blinded by ideology cannot understand this basic structural reality. If Israel is going to maintain a military occupation over millions of people by nothing but brute force, then no power on earth is going to stop some of these occupied people responding in kind.

The only way to end the violence is to end the occupation, and to allow Israelis and Palestinians to live side by side in peace as equals. Apartheid solutions, such as building ghettoes or fences for Jews or Palestinians will only perpetuate the violence.

London, U.K.: Dear Sir;
Congressman Armey was interviewed recently and openly advocated expelling the Palestinian population, and thus he is advocating a crime against humanity. Now, has there been discussion of this in the U.S. media, and why hasn't Mr. Armey been reprimanded?

I live in London, thus I don't watch U.S. TV.

Ali Abunimah: It was pretty shocking to hear US House Republican Majority Leader Representative Dick Armey openly, clearly and repeatedly call for the expulsion of the Palestinians, and for Israel to permanently annex the occupied West Bank.

One observer made the point that Armey was actually inciting Israel to carry out Nuremberg crimes. After a popular outcry, Armey issued a weak clarification, but this does not undo the statements he made repeatedly on national television. It is a sign of how distorted the debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the United States that a mainstream politician can make such comments with virtually no major outcry. You would at least expect to see a major newspaper editorial taking Armey to task, or other members of his party distancing themselves, but actually there was no such thing. In fact, even middle of the road newspapers such as USA Today have recently published Op-Ed pieces (such as one by Emanuel Winston on February 22) openly calling for the expulsion of all the Palestinians. Can you imagine the outcry if anyone dared suggest that the solution to the problem is expelling all the Jews from Israel? While Israel's most intransigent supporters claim that the Arab states (all of which have now offered Israel peace and normal relations), are plotting to throw Israel into the sea, in fact it is many of their allies who are openly advocating that all the Palestinians be thrown into the desert. Unfortunately none of the major pro-Israeli organizations in the US have condemned and repudiated these open calls for major atrocities to be committed, which makes me doubt their commitment to truly recognizing the Palestinians as human beings worthy of the same rights as everyone else. See here for more.

Buffalo, NY: I submitted this question to Mr. Rosenberg yesterday, but he didn't answer it. Israel constantly describes its 1967 borders as indefensible, yet it not only successfully defended them in 1967 it even expanded its territory just as it had in 1948 with even worse borders, so how did this concept of Israel's security depending on expanded territory come to be accepted by the main stream American press?

Also are there any charities serving the occupied territories that I can contribute to without fear of ending up on a list in Ashcroft's office?

Ali Abunimah: Israel has the most powerful army in the Middle East thanks to $3 billion in annual aid from the US tax payer. Israel also developed nuclear weapons in conjunction with Apartheid South Africa, and maintains the largest stocks of chemical and biological weapons in the region. The assessment from many Israeli experts is that all of Israel's neighbors combined present virtually no military threat to Israel. This is not going to change any time soon. Israel is also surrounded by countries that have made peace with it, or declared their desire and reasonable terms for doing so. The Palestinians obviously present absolutely no military threat to Israel's existence, although Palestinian groups have demonstrated their ability to inflict horror and misery on Israeli civilians. Israel's refusal to end the occupation has nothing to do with security, since everyone in the world except the most ideological supporters of Israel, recognize that the occupation decreases Israeli security. Israel simply wants the land, but doesn't want to give the indigenous people who live in it equal rights.

Bethesda, MD: What is your response to the notion that violence by the Israeli's against the Palestinian's is greatly exaggerated. We know that what is often heard on the AL-Jazeera network is often very slanted and sometimes blatant lies. How is an outsider supposed to know what the truth really is?

Ali Abunimah: I have seen nothing on Al-Jazeera that I have not seen reported in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, or watched on Canada's CBC, for instance. Many of the best reports about the horrors carried out by the Israeli army come from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

We do know that more than 1,500 Palestinians and about 400 Israelis are dead, and that there has been enormous destruction to Palestinian towns and cities. Can any of this really be in doubt? What is in doubt is precisely what happened in Jenin, and this is because Israel shot at journalists and later refused to cooperate with the UN fact-finding mission mandated by the Security Council.

It seems that there are some people who are so blinded by their prejudice against Palestinians that they cannot accept that there could be any underlying reality to what they are seeing reported about Israel in the media, and want to believe that it is some global conspiracy to besmirch Israel that would have to included tens of thousands of professional journalists, editors, network executives, human rights officials, governments, and so on. Personally, I don't believe in conspiracy theories.

Laurel, Md.: If present and future Israeli governments refuse to return to the 1967 borders, and the Palestinians insist on having the state of Palestine beginning with the withdrawal of all occupied territories since 1967, how can anyone believe there will ever be peace?

Ali Abunimah: There won't. Either the occupation must end, as the entire international community including the United States has agreed, or the Palestinian people must be expelled in a massive ethnic cleansing as several Israeli cabinet ministers and lately US Republican Dick Armey has proposed. Which side are you on?

Houston, Tex.: I will never forget seeing the Palestinian people celebrating in the streets on Sept. 11, can you?

Ali Abunimah: A remember seeing a short video clip of a small group of Palestinians celebrating in ambiguous circumstances, repeated thousands of times on US television. Obviously that does not represent "the Palestinian people," any more than the hundreds of hate messages I and other members of the Arab American community received from some twisted Americans after September 11.

There were many memorial events and vigils staged by Palestinians, here in the US and in Palestine, in sympathy with victims of the September 11 attacks, just as many Americans reached out to Arab Americans and Muslims to protect them from hate attacks by so-called "patriotic Americans." There are millions of Palestinians who have friends and relatives living in the United States, who are Americans, and who feel a great deal of love and loyalty to the United States even if many of them strongly disagree with US policy in the Middle East. One of the great things about the US is that we still have the right to disagree and work for a different policy. Right?

Bethesda, Md.: I am not satisfied with US media coverage of the conflict. Arab and European media coverage is much less protective of Israel's activities in the West Bank. What will it take for US media to start doing their job properly on this?

Ali Abunimah: It will take all of us making sure we are well informed about what is happening by using some of the international sources you mentioned, and diligently holding our local and national media accountable. Don't let your relationship between the TV/Newspaper/Radio be one way: Talk back!

Dallas, Tex.: Ali Abunimah,

I understand you to be a strong and smart individual. Being both of these things I would hope you see the importance in maintaining peace in the middle east. All that comes out of murdering innocent civilians, is world uproar and hatred. How do you think the Arab Nations should strive for peace with Israel? I think we need to clearly state that Israel will exist in peace alongside newly agreed upon areas for the Palestinians.

Ali Abunimah: I agree absolutely that no good can come out of murdering innocent civilians. Palestinians have to stop doing it and Israel has to stop doing it. Supporters of Israel have to stop rationalizing and denying Israel's murder of innocent Palestinians.

The Arab nations unanimously offered Israel comprehensive peace and normal relations in exchange for Israel withdrawing from the occupied territories, a far-reaching compromise that the entire international community supports. Israel has rejected this and has accelerated the pace of construction of Jewish-only settlements in the occupied territories. Hence what we need is for Israel to decide if it prefers colonies and military rule over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians and perpetual conflict on the one hand, or peace, normal relations, secure boundaries and democracy on the other. So far the signs are that Israel has chosen the first path.

Arlington, Va.: Let me begin by saying that I support the idea of a contiguous Palestinian state beside Israel and an end to the settlements. I've always tried to listen to the words of various PA representatives in the media and take them at face value. That's why I was especially shocked to hear news of 500-3000 dead civilians in the Jenin "massacre."

Based on the information coming from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and some other groups that can hardly be considered pro-Israel, we now know that the "massacre" was a fabrication.

My question is this: what were the motives for spreading such a story, and how am I supposed to believe anything the PA or their supporters say given they have been caught in such a massive lie?

Ali Abunimah: First, you need to get your facts straight. The first claim that hundreds of Palestinians were killed came from an Israeli general. Israel quickly withdrew his statement. Second, the first call for an international inquiry came from the Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres.

The fact is that nobody knows exactly what happened in Jenin, but there were many accounts of true and real horror coming out the camp while at the same time Israeli was keeping journalists and the international community out. It is entirely understandable that Palestinians feared the very worst, given that Sharon was in charge of the same Israeli army that allowed the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Beirut in 1982.

There are still many people missing in Jenin, and there has been very little aid provided to the people there, who are digging through rubble with their hands.

The same human rights groups you cite Amnesty, and Human Rights Watch have both said they found evidence of 'serious war crimes' in Jenin. Obviously this does not concern you.

Now, the question is, why did Israel refuse to cooperate with a UN fact-finding mission of more than 20 experts, headed by respected international diplomats of impeccable credentials. You can believe as Israel wants you to that the entire world is involved in an anti-Semitic conspiracy--that would be the height of gullibility. Or you can infer as I think most reasonable people do that Israel has something very serious and very ugly to hide. Now we shall never know the full truth, and Israel will always live under the shadow of what happened in Jenin.

Bethesda, Md.: What do you think will be Israel's reaction to yesterday's bombing?

Ali Abunimah: I expect Israel will continue with its failed and utterly bankrupt policy of brute force. If the latest horrific suicide bombing proves anything, it is that there is no level of Israeli brutality and violence that can prevent people determined to respond to the suffering of millions of Palestinians under Israeli military dictatorship by inflicting suffering on innocent Israelis. I do not expect that Sharon will understand this, and so I would be very surprised if we do not see a further escalation of Israeli violence.

Houston, Tex.: Sharon's recent condemnations of the Saudis and their condemnation of the UN as an organization dominated by biased and anti-semetic interests, one might be led to conclude that the Israeli leadership has no interest in peace and is working to protract the conflict in order to gain justification for annexing all of the West Bank and Gaza.

Do you think this is a valid concern, and if so what measures can be taken by Americans to stop this?

Ali Abunimah: Recently, a former member of the Israeli Knesset, Shulamit Aloni from the leftist Meretz Party, spoke here in Chicago. She said that any Israeli leader who was truly interested in peace would seize the Saudi peace initiative because it offers something Israel has always craved--full recognition and acceptance in the region. Even if it is not perfect, she said, a responsible Israeli leader would take it as a starting point and seek negotiations based on it. The Sharon government's response was to immediately denounce the Saudi plan as a plot to destroy Israel and to launch a campaign of incitement and vilification against Saudi Arabia. Not exactly a charm offensive is it?

While I do not doubt that genuine anti-Semitism exists, and like all forms of racism must be confronted, Israel's tendency to label any and every person who criticizes even its most outrageous actions an "anti-Semite"" is backfiring. Even here in the US people are losing their patience with such obvious smear tactics, and the danger that Israel creates when it does this is that when genuine anti-Jewish racism rears its head it will be ignored because Israel cried wolf so many times.

Maryland: When you go to www.pna.gov or www.mopa.gov.ps you get the electronic intifada. What is your relationship to the government and since your site comes up when contacting the government does the Palestinian Authority authorize, censor or otherwise control your content like they do to all newspapers, television and other media in Palestine? (edited)

Ali Abunimah: The Electronic Intifada is an entirely independent, volunteer effort. We have no relationship to the Palestinian Authority, and we are entirely responsible for content, which is edited in the United States. Our content is not controlled or censored by anyone except the authors of the site, and nor will it be ever. On the site's Live From Palestine diaries section you can read uncensored accounts from ordinary Palestinians and others who have lived through the recent events.

Because of the destruction of so much of the Palestinian infrastructure in the Israeli assault, many official Palestinian Web sites were knocked down. The Palestinian Authority apparently linked their Web sites to ours. They did not ask us before they did this, and we have put up a note explaining why those PA Web site now link to ours.

I assume that once they are able to maintain their Web sites again, they will remove the direct link to our site.

It is very unfortunate that Palestinians living in the occupied territories have always faced strict censorship from the Israeli occupation authorities, and later also from the Palestinian Authority. Today the main restriction on their freedom of speech comes once again from the Israeli occupation forces who have shut down and destroyed schools and universities, bombed TV and radio stations and transmitters, destroyed computers and telephone lines and totally prohibited movement and public meetings.0

Palestinians have always found ways to speak their minds, and the internet continues to be a major outlet for discussion among Palestinians who have very vigorous debates about everything. Our site is very much part of that mix.

Ali Abunimah: Thanks for all your great questions. I hope to do this again soon.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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