Israel has a “right to defend itself.” This is how Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King regularly respond when I, and other members of Maine Voices for Palestinian Rights, call on them to stand up for the rights of Palestinians. It is what we hear from politicians and candidates time and time again when the Israeli military targets Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Gaza. Both Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden, Democratic presidential contenders, tweeted those exact words in November when Gazans fired rockets in retaliation for Israel’s airstrikes that killed an Islamist Jihad commander, but also nine members of a family, including five children, inside their tin-roofed home.
Here’s the problem: Israel engages in rampant violations of the rights of Palestinians that are speciously justified by “national security.”
Is it necessary for Israel’s security to detain 500-700 Palestinian children each year — some as young as 12 years old — most often because they threw rocks at fully armed soldiers? Most are taken from their homes in the middle of the night by armed soldiers, unaccompanied by a parent. A majority of children detained report experiencing physical abuse by soldiers.
Is Israel just defending itself when it shoots unarmed protesters? According to the United Nations, since 2008 Israel has killed 2,909 Palestinian civilians, including 1,241 children. (For 1,737 additional fatalities, it is disputed whether the victim was a civilian or part of an armed group.) During the same period, Palestinians killed 120 Israeli civilians; 16 were children.
Is it necessary for Israel’s security to prohibit Palestinians from building houses or other structures on their own land in the West Bank? Israel has blocked the development of about 60 percent of Area C, the part of the West Bank under full Israeli control, by designating large parcels of Palestinian land as nature reserves or firing zones for the military, or state land. In the remaining 40 percent, Palestinian requests for building permits are almost always denied. If they build anyway, it will likely be demolished: the U.N. reports that since 2009, 6,361 structures in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have been destroyed, resulting in the displacement of 9,872 people.
And while Israel denies Palestinians the right to build on their own land, is it necessary for Israel’s security to build Jewish settlements on Palestinian land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, in violation of international law which prohibits an occupying power from transferring its civilian population into the territories it occupies? More than 600,000 Israeli Jews now reside in settlements that occupy 10 percent of the land in the West Bank. The settlements’ use of water has created a shortage for Palestinians. Israeli settlers commonly harass Palestinian farmers working in their nearby fields and destroy olive trees and livestock.
Israel’s violation of the rights of Palestinians is self-defeating: it makes Israel less secure because it feeds anger and violent retaliation and draws condemnation from the international community. Moreover, as close observers have documented, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is not motivated by security at all, but seeks to make life so miserable that Palestinians will leave and Israel can have their land.
And who, we should ask, really needs security: the occupiers or the occupied? As evidenced by the lopsided casualty numbers above, Israel has vastly superior military power, compared to a people armed with stones and unsophisticated rockets.
Abigail Fuller of Portland teaches sociology and is a member of Maine Voices for Palestinian Rights.