The violence of the oppressors

July 21, 2014

The oppression of Palestinians by Israel and of African Americans in the U.S. share many features--and their resistance struggles are tied together, writes Wesley House.

CONSIDER A scenario where someone throws rocks at a man's house, causing damage to his property, minor injuries to his family and psychological trauma to his children. Angered, the man exacts revenge by burning down the perpetrator's house, killing his wife and children inside.

A neutral commentator might point out that while the man's actions resulted in the loss of innocent life and perhaps his actions were an overreaction, his desire to take precautions to defend himself and his family from future violence was justified.

Imagine the same scenario again, however, but this time with the man as a slave master and the rock-thrower one of his slaves who was responding to the murder of a family member a few days before. A commentator making the same analysis that accepted the slave master's response as justifiable could rightly be called out for ignoring the context--above all, the subjugation of the slaves to a life of subservience.

But after the way the U.S. "liberal" media has been reporting on Israel's unrelenting and unapologetic murder of Palestinians--repeatedly describing on Gaza as an Israeli "response" to Palestinian violence--one wonders how the explanations about violence would have gone if the Internet existed during the reign of the slave South.

Protesters in Los Angeles march in solidarity with the people of Palestine
Protesters in Los Angeles march in solidarity with the people of Palestine (David Rapkin | SW)

By starting with the kidnappings of three boys from Israeli settlements in June, while ignoring the much more numerous examples of violence against Palestinians--including, for example, the murder of two unarmed Palestinian teenagers by Israeli soldiers in the preceding month, or Israel's almost daily breaking of a November 2012 ceasefire agreement reached with Hamas--the U.S. media shows how easily it adopt the oppressor's explanation of events.

Under the guise of "self-defense," this narrative has served as a pretext for destroying the lives and property of residents of Gaza, while simultaneously continuing settler expansion in the occupied West Bank.

Israel has continued to escalate its terror against Gazan civilians, last week moving from bombardment to a ground assault that has pushed the death toll well past 350--yet the U.S. media continue to distort the true story of what is taking place today, whether through manipulating headlines to obscure Israel's responsibility for war crimes, removing world-renowned reporters with a reputation for reporting the scale of Israel's terror and using the long-discredited rhetoric about the "violence of both sides."

TO JUDGE from the media, you would think Israel's killings of Palestinians had only escalated recently. But the Israeli government's attacks were on the rise prior to the launch of "Operation Protective Edge." According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Israel has killed five times as many Gazans in the first six months of 2014 than it did in the first six months of 2013.

Meanwhile, since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, more than hundreds of Palestinians have been killed and tens of thousands displaced. OCHA and Human Rights Watch explicitly reject Israel's claims that is targeting Hamas strongholds--and state instead that the high civilian death toll is a result of the targeting of civilian homes.

All of this while Israel continues its crushing economic siege of Gaza, one of the most densely populated territories in the world, and one of the poorest. Israel's refusal to acknowledge Hamas' mandate to rule or the siege that has been strangling Gaza for nearly a decade explain why last week's proposed "ceasefire"--put forward on Israel's behalf by Egypt, whose new military dictators are acting as Hosni Mubarak once did as one of Israel's most reliable allies--was viewed by Palestinians as a demand to surrender, not a a path to peace.

The media want their viewers and readers to believe that this conflict is about rockets fired back and forth between Israel and Gaza, rather than about Israel's illegal military occupation and colonial expansion.

The same scapegoating of Hamas and justification for the murder of children and civilians can be found as easily in liberal media outlets such as the Nation magazine as in the Israeli mainstream press. All of these arguments, even from those claiming to want peace, ignore Israel's history of colonial oppression and the violence against Palestinians that predates the current crisis, the founding of Hamas and much more.

IT SHOULD come as no surprise that the U.S. government remains the main international sponsor of the violence carried out by Israel.

Oppression certainly isn't foreign to the "Land of the Free," as shown by the history of the political, economic and social oppression of Black populations in the U.S.--and the traumatizing legacy that continues to haunt America's social fabric to this day.

With their roots in slavery, the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, militarized policing and police brutality continue to devastate Black communities. Today, these once openly white supremacist institutions have morphed into what is commonly referred to as the "New Jim Crow"--referring to the racialized caste system spawned from mass incarceration, at a time when the U.S. legal system is supposedly "color-blind."

The New Jim Crow has led to a prison system that is unprecedented in world history. As author Michelle Alexander points out in her book on mass incarceration, no other country imprisons so large a part of its population--and the brunt falls disproportionately on racial or ethnic minorities.

In 2006, one in 14 Black men--and fully one in nine African American men between the ages of 20 and 35--was currently in prison or jail, as compared to one in 106 white men. As Alexander points out, more Black adults are under the supervision of the justice system--whether incarcerated, on probation or some other form of control--than were enslaved in 1850.

And mass incarceration is only one face of the criminal justice system's racist practices.

According to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the "war on terror" has helped create a climate of impunity for law enforcement officials--and contributed to the growing number of accounts of brutality and racial profiling. The New York Police Department's notorious stop-and-frisk program reveals the extremes of the discrimination against Black and Latino communities. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, of the nearly 5 million New Yorkers subjected to police stops and street interrogations since 2002, between 82 and 87 percent were Black or Latino every single year.

Justified as a way of getting "tough on crime," the racist stop-and-frisk policy has predictably proven to be an utter failure on those terms. What it has succeeded in doing is bringing a massive influx of armed police officers into communities of color--making these communities into what Harlem anti-racial profiling activist Jazz Hayden described as "an open-air prison."

When the illegal stops have produced any arrests, they have typically been for minor offenses, such as marijuana possession--and the statistics here show that Blacks and Latinos suffer disproportionately here as well, even though selling and usage is roughly similar across racial demographics. For those who are arrested, they often have little if any recourse to proper legal assistance, and can therefore be coerced into accepting guilty pleas.

MANY OF the same dynamics evident in the racist functioning of the U.S. criminal justice system can be seen in the practices of the Israeli government against Palestinians.

Take the use of administrative detention, for example. Under Israeli statutory and military law, individuals may be detained without charge for up to six months on the grounds of "regional security or public security." Commanders can extend detentions for up to six months with military court approval--and the absence of a maximum cumulative period for detentions effectively gives these commanders the practical power to detain individuals indefinitely.

Administrative detainees are likely to undergo torture and humiliation, while having little if any legal recourse. Israel claims the right to withhold evidence from the accused by using "secret evidence," as well as to bar detainees from having a lawyer. For those detainees lucky enough to obtain legal counsel, lawyers aren't entitled to know the nature of "secret" evidence.

Amnesty International recently called on Israel to release all administrative detainees on the grounds that the practice is in direct violation of international law. According to the Israeli human rights organization B'tselem, there were 196 Palestinians in administration as of May 2014, and there have been over 6,500 cases in total since 1989. Only nine Israeli citizens have been detained under these rules.

All of this is justified on the basis of "security"--which has been the same pretext for militarized policing and criminalization against the oppressed in the U.S. As author and Columbia University professor Joseph Massad wrote, Israeli officials have on numerous occasions described their country as "living in a tough neighborhood," where Arabs "are the 'violent blacks' of the Middle East and Jews are the 'peaceful white folk.'"

To simply compare the conditions of policing and prisons in the U.S. and Israel ignores how the two countries "security" apparatuses are direct collaborators. As Ali Abunimah wrote in his latest book The Battle for Justice in Palestine, since 9/11, pro-Israel lobbying groups have created an industry of shuttling U.S. police chiefs into Israel to learn from Israeli authorities and to share tactics.

Abunimah quotes a neoconservative think tank, the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs, claiming it has brought "more than 100 federal, state and local law enforcement officials to Israel as part of its Law Enforcement Exchange Program and has trained 11,000 more law enforcement officers across the United States since 2002." These "intensive seminars" on "intelligence-led policing techniques and responses to critical events" include viewings of checkpoints in the Occupied Territories, as well as trips to Hebron, where many of the worst abuses against Palestinians have been documented.

Similarly, the export of "behavior pattern recognition" from Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport to the U.S. has led to problems of racial profiling being reported at Boston's Logan International Airport, as well as O.R. Tambo International Airport in South Africa.

Despite the NYPD's violations of constitutional rights--the explicit conclusion of federal and state judges--Israeli police have shown sustained interest in learning about its surveillance and "community relations" techniques--two practices that have made the New York police infamous among communities of color in recent years.

This "Israelification of domestic security," as left-wing journalist Max Blumenthal describes it, has led to the use of repressive policing techniques spawned by the "war on terror" against protesters during Occupy Wall Street, as well as in the NYPD's illegal spying on Muslims. The most recent revelations based on Edward Snowden's leaks of National Security Agency documents demonstrates that the spying on Muslim Americans extends into the federal security apparatus.

In all of these scandalous abuses by U.S. law enforcement and federal authorities, "security" is the excuse for persecution and oppression. Likewise, the continued decimation of Gaza is not for reasons related to "security," but for Israel's "right" to exist as an exclusively Jewish state through the expulsion and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population. This belittling of Palestinian life in the name of colonialism and capitalism is a familiar feeling for African Americans.

THE PARALLELS between the oppression of Palestinians by Israel and of African Americans in the U.S. exist historically.

For example, the Southern political establishment and its defenders in the North sought to maintain Jim Crow discrimination through a combination of methods. There was the ideological attempt to portray inequality as a part of the "natural order" of things. There were massive propaganda campaigns vilifying the Black population and legitimizing violence done against it, as part of reinforcing Jim Crow--something Israel is keenly aware of.

And, of course, along with the ideology of white supremacy came lynch mob violence, most famously used against the civil rights movement. Likewise, in Israel today, the whole world is witnessing unabashed racist mobs violently taking over the streets of Israeli cities--and social media) to call for "death to Arabs", for the continued bombardment of Gaza and ultimately for the genocidal expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza.

Like in the Jim Crow South, these aren't isolated incidents or a case of a few bad apples--they are the logical outcome in a state founded on the violent expulsion of the indigenous population.

Despite the claims of progress--more commonly made in the U.S. than in Israel, at the moment--racist still have a hold in both the U.S. and Israel.

In 2012, a poll by the Associated Press revealed that 51 percent of people in the U.S. harbored "explicitly" anti-Black sentiments. In Israel, a survey taken the same year by Israel's Dialogue polling group showed that a near majority of Israeli Jews favored outright discriminatory policies against Israel's Arab citizens, including denying them the right to vote and stripping them of citizenship entirely. Another poll found a majority of Israelis agreed with Knesset member Miri Regev's statement that African migrants are a "cancer in the body of Israel."

The oppression of African Americans and of Palestinians may take different forms and occur in different historical contexts. But both populations share a struggle against U.S. imperialism, against the U.S. government's most loyal Middle East ally and against state-sponsored racism.

The past and present movements for Black liberation in the U.S. have not been about garnering compassion or sympathy. The goal is to address institutional grievances rooted in capitalism and imperialism, while striving to develop political strategies rooted in social justice, both domestically and abroad.

As long as they are denied their fundamental right of self-determination and freedom by Israel, through its murderous assault on Gaza and its militarized occupation of the West Bank, the struggle of the Palestinians for justice will continue--and it will be bound up with the struggle in the U.S. against mass incarceration, militarized policing and all the other aspects of racism that plague Black communities in the land of Israel's main international sponsor.

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