Are Sanders’ Criticisms of Israeli Occupation Policies unprecedented in a Presidential Campaign?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Bernie Sanders is being attacked for comments on the Middle East in his interview with the editorial board of The New York Daily News, but all he did was restate current US government policy.

What is remarkable is that Sanders dared just, like, criticize Israeli policy toward the Palestinians as involving illegal squatter settlements and disproportionate use of force. Everyone knows these things, but I can’t recall another presidential candidate who said them outright during a campaign. This is because although they are a small minority, Jewish Americans form a swing vote in some key states like Florida, and they are unusually generous in donating to political campaigns. And politicians assume that Jewish Americans are looking for unvarnished praise of Israel. But while arch-conservative pro-Israel lobbies like AIPAC may never want to hear a discouraging word, Jewish Americans (most of them political liberals and leftists) are deeply divided on the far-right Likud government of PM Binyamin Netanyahu, and Sen. Sanders is well aware of this. Besides, his crowd-sourced funding model means he does not need the donations of billionaire American Likudniks.

You have to wonder whether Sanders is not making a historic breakthrough in American discourse on Israeli policy. It is just a few inches to the left, but it is unprecedented in a mainstream presidential campaign (and he still had to recite the mantra of Israel’s right to exist and point out that he has family there– as if those were relevant to the main issue of Occupation).

Here are the points he made:

1. ISIL must be defeated, and defeated primarily by Muslim powers in the region without involving the US in a land war. (This is more or less President Obama’s position, contrasting with the positions of Sec. Clinton, Sen. Cruz and of Trump on every other day).

2. Hamas is a terrorist organization that uses indiscriminate force in its rocket attacks on Israel.

3. Hizbullah in Lebanon is a terrorist organization. (That is the US State Department position).

4. Israeli settlements on the Palestinian West Bank are illegal (this is the Geneva Convention of 1949, which he rightly says is an international treaty)

5. Israel’s assaults on trapped little Gaza have involved unacceptably high civilian casualties.

He said he didn’t remember the number in the last attack on Gaza but thought it might be as high as 10,000. He is being attacked for this number, but he said specifically he didn’t remember the number, so obviously he meant to say the casualties were in the thousands. An editor looked it up on his smartphone and corrected it to 2,400. Sen. Sanders did not demur.

Israel’s Operation Protective Edge against Gaza probably killed 2,191 Palestinians, and the vast majority of them were civilians. Indeed, about 400 appear to have been children.

Israel’s 2008-9 Operation Cast Lead against Gaza killed around 1400, again mostly civilians.

But the Israeli peace organization B’Tselem estimates that from the year 2000 until just before the last Gaza assault, Israel had killed nearly 10,000 Palestinians [9,271], so that may be why that number stuck in Sen. Sanders mind. So the total since 2000 is over 11,000, though not all of those were non-combatants. A ‘Combatant’ is anyway hard to define in conditions of foreign military occupation — are 8 year olds throwing stones combatants? By the way, just in the years 2000-2008, the Palestinian Red Crescent counted 33,000 Palestinians wounded, so the issue of disproportionate force extends beyond just deaths.

And, of the over 11,000 Palestinians killed, about 2,000 were children.

In the same period, B’Tselem says that 1217 Israelis were killed by Palestinians (one would have to add a few dozen more, all soldiers save for 6, during the invasion of Gaza).

Thus, since 2000 Israelis have typically killed about 10 Palestinians for every Israeli killed if we accept the B’Tselem count, which may undercount Palestinian deaths according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.

So Sen. Sanders’ point is correct about disproportionate force. He he himself was not giving an exact casualty count.

Nothing he said was actually controversial or departed in any way from the current positions of the US government.


Related video:

Sanders Outlines Middle East Policy

22 Responses

  1. If you take the average of Palestinian children killed by Israel since 2000, which is 2089, based on the total provided by, which in turn takes its figures from human rights organizations, principally, B’Tselem, it comes to approximately 2.5 killed per week.

    That is, Israeli has, for the last 16 years, at least, murdered 2.5 Palestinian children per week..

  2. There will be no peace without justice to the Palestinians and Sanders, though courageous, reduced justice to the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza and forgot the right of the millions in the diaspora. Myopic and naive!

  3. Bernie is neither influenced by money or politics on this issue, and many others as well. He basically believes in fairness. He is a champion of the middle ground, a peacemaker.
    I hope he get his chance to influence more change than to date.
    And I hope other American Jews step to the plate for him.
    He’s encourages the best in people.
    Good luck to him

  4. This really is, as the Vice President might say, a “BFD.” And yet another reason Sen. Sanders is striking a chord with the younger, lefter voters.

  5. Dr. Cole:
    With respect, I do believe that the US Senate Ratified the Geneva Conventions [all 4], and thus they are not only International Treaties, but part of the USA Constitution.; thus you should amend point $ of your list, for clarity’s sake. Thank you

    If, I am mistaken, my apologies.
    Cordially yours

    • A minor issue, but not part of the Constitution. Treaties, according to the Constitution, when signed are considered “law of the land.:” That means they have the force of law in the US. There has been a court case, however, where Congress passed a law that conflicted with a treaty provision and the SCOTUS ruled that the law passed by Congress took precedence over the treaty provision. If I remember my international law correctly, the case involved migrating Canadian geese. The other issue is that to violate a treaty without cause is a violation of international law.

  6. Jerry Wechsler

    I praise Sanders for coming as close as possible to speaking truth to the Israelis, and his un-delivered but prepared speech to AIPAC was excellent. Obama has been trying to speak sense to the extremist Netanyahu, with little success.

    • Jerry Wechsler

      I think each of our candidates has some very important strengths and important contributions to make to the discussion of many issues.

      Neither of them, however, have been able to really speak the truth about Iran, which is that it has a great and long history of civil society, and does not really export “terrorism” – at least nowhere near as much as our beautiful (?) ally, Saudi Arabia.

      Politics is complex, full of contradiction and nuance. It is pretty much impossible to be “right” when pretty much every position is to a great extent “wrong.”

      Obama is trying to nudge the Saudis and the Likudites to wake up and smell the coffee of the next Arab Spring … But people are stubborn.

      I think both Hillary and Bernie would continue this effort, as futile as it may seem.

  7. And, of the over 11,000 Palestinians killed, about 2,000 were children.

    How many Palestinian children, like those Iraqi children in the 1990s, have died because of the deplorable living conditions that are a consequence of Israel’s stranglehold on Gaza? Do Israel’s Likudniks and other right-wingers and their supporters in the United States believe, like Madeleine Albright on the Iraq sanctions, it was/is worth it?

  8. The “positions of the US Government” are just for show, they have little or nothing to do with what the actual policy is.

  9. Actually, Sanders was correct. Here is the definition of casualty in the OED: A person killed or injured in a war or accident. There were 2400 killed and a total of 10000 injured or killed.

  10. The bottom line is this: the US Government has blood on it’s hands by supporting and financing the murderous, sadistic genocidal campaign against the Palestinians by the deranged war monger Netanyahu.

  11. If Netanyahu should follow Moshe Dayan’s footsteps and order his air force to attack a U.S. naval vessel in the Mediterranean thus killing U.S. sailors, I’m sure that Hillary Clinton would make every excuse possible for not holding Israel or its PM responsible (evidenced by her prostituting herself before the recent AIPAC convention).

    One imagines that if he were POTUS, Bernie Sanders would issue a direct order to the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy to blow Netanyahu to smithereens, order the Israeli ambassador to get his butt out of Washington and close our embassy in Tel Aviv.

    • … Hillary Clinton would make every excuse possible for not holding Israel or its PM responsible …

      Hillary would not be alone in defending the indefensible. The halls of power in Washington and New York are filled with similar Israel-Firsters.

  12. It just goes to show that Bernie doesn’t know what he is talking about or is afraid to tell. Another hypocrite going for the presidency.

    • ???? Help us out a little, ad bos….. what, precisely, do you mean by “Bernie doesn’t know what he is talking about”?

  13. The main issue is Occupation, says Mr. Cole. To paraphrase Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters, you knew Israel had this hobby of racism when you married it. Now you want it to just sit around in idleness? Play on an occupation as a time-filler, hence a hobby. You want the Palestinians to administer and finance their own detention camps? Just exactly what do you want?

  14. But Sen Sanders is still far from reality. Hamas and Hezbollah are freedom fighters, offering resistance against occupation.

  15. A bit of fairness in the equation might go a long way to making a lasting peace. Strange that it will take a Jewish President of the US to give the Palestinians a fair shake. Passing on AIPAC after decades of candidate fealty was a great act of courage.

    Curiously the American people seem to have rewarded Senator Sanders for his courage as he’s now outrunning the front runner.

  16. Mr. Sanders is substantially accurate the 10,000 estimate of “casualty” figures during the 2014 Operation Defensive Shield incursion into Gaza.

    The commonly accepted definition of “casualty” incudes wounded as well as fatalities. According to the Gaza Health Ministry figures published by Ma’an News Agency in January of 2015, the number of Gazan wounded was 10,626 during that incursion – in addition to the approximately 2,000 killed as a result of hostile action.

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