Thursday, April 2, 2009
By James F. Smith, Boston Globe, March 30, 2009
CAMBRIDGE -- Several academics at a Harvard-MIT symposium on Gaza today were fiercely critical of US policy -- including that of the Obama Administration -- for not putting serious pressure on Israel to respect the rights of Palestinians in Gaza.
The two-day event includes a number of academics who have long criticized the United States for coddling Israel. Several cited the recent Israeli invasion into the Gaza Strip, which left an estimated 1,300 people dead, as fresh evidence of what they described as Israel's willingness to punish all Gazans to achieve its strategic objectives. Israel contends it had no choice but to act militarily to stop constant barrages of rockets from Hamas fighters within Gaza aimed at civilians in Sderot and other Israeli communities.
Congressman Brian Baird, a Democrat from Washington state, described the widespread destruction he saw in Gaza in February when he visited there with two other legislators, including Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry and Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat. Baird said that while he absolutely condemned the rocket attacks from Gaza, they did not justify the full-scale Israeli military response. He called it "collective punishment" of Gazans.
He said that while walking through Gaza, little children came up and said, "Barack Obama, Barack Obama," suggesting the hopes people are placing in Obama. He said the new administration needs to move urgently to pressure Israel as well as the Palestinians for concessions to unlock the negotiating process.
Baird also said that Obama's message to the new Israeli government, expected to be led by right-wing politician Benjamin Netanyahu, should push Israel to start meeting longstanding conditions on settlements and other issues. If it doesn't, he said, then the US should consider imposing constraints on US military support of some $3 billion per year.
Other speakers, including some who have long track records of attacking Israel and US policy toward Israel, were less conciliatory.
Irene Gendzier, a Boston University professor, said of the Obama administration's response to Israel's incursion into Gaza: "The silence has been overwhelming." She said the new administration is preoccupied with Pakistan and Afghanistan, and is considering openings to Syria and Iran only with an eye toward undermining Hezollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank.
Gabriel Piterburg, a history professor at UCLA, described Israelis as settler-colonialists who set out to destroy the indigenous people in their way. He said what distinguished Palestinians from native peoples in countries such as his native Argentina, Australia and the United States was that the Palestinians escaped political extinction.
The resulting frustration of Israelis, he said, prompts exponential levels of violence. "They cannot resign themselves to accept [Palestinians] as an equal partner. Somehow there needs to be a recognition of the indigenous population as equal partners," he said, whether that be in a single state, in two states side by side or some other negotiated solution.
The conference concludes on Tuesday with a session at Austin Hall at Harvard Law School, with sessions on human rights and the reconstruction of Gaza.