Report from Palestine

Mike Rivage-Seul
Saturday, July 1, 2006

[The following is the text of a talk given to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico , on Sunday, July 16 th, 2006 .]

Today I’d like to speak to you about some conclusions I’ve drawn after a recent three-week visit to the Holy Land. The trip was a faculty development project for a dozen professors from Berea College in Kentucky, where I teach. We traveled to Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. The trip and the study connected with it made such an impression on me that I’ve resolved to speak on nothing else for the foreseeable future.

If ever we’ve doubted the centrality of Israel-Palestine to world peace, Osama bin Laden should have disabused us of our doubts. Recall that just after 9/11/01, he listed that situation in the Middle East as one of the chief reasons for the attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon. Virtually everyone in the Arab world sees Palestine as the taproot of tensions between Muslims and the west. They describe the Israeli invasion of Palestine in 1948 as “the Arab 9/11.” Solve the problem the invasion produced, they say, and you’ll have solved the problem of terror.

And yet Washington, Tel Aviv, and the Arab World seem paralyzed. Meanwhile the rest of us are at a loss about really understanding the problem. In fact, the whole Middle East situation seems opaque and irresolvable. And it is – at least given the way most of us understand it. I mean, the problem cannot be resolved if we continue mis-defining its nature.

The fact is we have the story backwards. We’ve accepted the “Official Story” propagated by Washington and Tel Aviv. And it happens to be just plain wrong. That story would have it that vastly out-numbered, basically peace-loving Jewish Israelis find themselves under attack by insane, blood-thirsty Palestinian terrorists.

The truth is nearly the opposite. And that’s the thesis I want to develop today. It argues that vastly out-gunned, peace loving Palestinian Arabs find themselves under attack by land-hungry Jewish Israeli terrorists. That argument, I realize is shocking, because it so drastically departs from the extremely one-sided approach purveyed in the highly controlled western media. So let me try to balance accounts today, supporting my thesis by three considerations. They are drawn from logical analysis, historical fact, and elementary moral principles. I’ll also tack on a fourth point at the end, suggesting a solution to the problem we’re about to discuss.

The moral principle I mentioned is important to note from the outset. Keep it in mind as I speak. Chomsky calls it “universality.” It means that obligations I define for you should also apply to me. If it’s wrong for you to kill innocent civilians, it’s also wrong for me. If it’s against the law for you to torture, it’s also illegal for me. If it’s immoral for you to possess nuclear weapons, it’s also immoral for me. If harboring terrorists makes you a terrorist, giving them safe haven makes me a terrorist too. Jesus the Christ put that same principle in terms of removing the log from your own eye before worrying about the speck in your neighbor’s.


Now for my first point. . . . Let’s begin with some logic. The focus here is simple analysis of power. The question is, Who in Palestine is threatening whom? The usual answer to this question is distorted because the Official Story begins by understanding Palestinians as standing on equal terms with Israelis. However, treating the two parties as equals is like comparing apples and oranges. In terms of power, Palestinians don’t even belong in the same equation with Jewish Israelis. You might even say that Jewish Israelis are an overwhelming majority in terms of power and allies. Consider the following:

Israel is a nation state; it has full representation in the UN with all the diplomatic tools and access to public forums to broadcast its case. Palestine has none of that.Israel is armed and trained by the United States. It is one of the most powerful militaries in the world. It has Phantom Jets, Apache and Blackhawk helicopters. Its drones can drop out of the sky to explode cars of unsuspecting Palestinians without a moment’s notice. Israel has Abrams tanks, HumVees and armored bull dozers. For their part, Palestinians have no army at all. Stone-throwing at soldiers who routinely reply with live ammunition, is considered a terrorist act. Any efforts on the part of Palestinians to acquire weapons are considered criminal and proof of terrorist intent.Jewish Israelis can apply curfews to Palestinian communities. They can invade those same neighborhoods and bulldoze houses at will. They can set up checkpoints. They can build a huge concrete wall that stretches for hundred of kilometers, encroaching on Palestinian land, cutting Arabs off from their fields and work. Palestinians can do none of that.If Jewish Israelis do not like a government elected by Palestinians, Israelis can apply collective punishment to an entire people. They can get trading partners to stop trade, make it impossible for Palestinians to access money to pay government workers; they can cut off food, water and medicine. And they do. What can Palestinians do about Israeli governments they don’t like?Israel is a client of the United States; it enjoys unqualified U.S. support as the world’s only super-power. Any attack on Israel is considered an attack on the United States. So Israel is not really a land of 3 million Jewish settlers against 250 million Arabs. It is that 3 million plus 280 million “Americans” living in the United States, which always supports Israel. In fact, Israel today is the top beneficiary of U.S. foreign aid, receiving $15 million per day. Meanwhile, the Palestinian government, Hamas, is considered terrorist, and has been designated by Washington as an object of regime change.Israel possesses nuclear weapons. It uses them to intimidate Arab states from coming to the aid of Palestinians. Palestinians, of course, and the entire Arab world do not possess anything like nuclear weapons. In terms of military force, stones thrown by children and absolutely desperate suicide bombers are the best Palestinians can do.All of these obvious considerations (and there are more) should make clear the answer to my first question. Who’s threatening whom? Clearly the Jewish Israelis constitute an overwhelming threat to the Palestinian Arabs who are nearly powerless by comparison.


That brings me to my second point. Here my question is, What does history have to teach us about the identity of the real terrorists in the Middle East?

To answer this question, if I were teaching this at Berea College, I’d stretch a timeline across the front of the classroom for date-by-date explanation. I’d begin with the legendary founding of Israel around 1250 BCE, and move from there. But let’s forget that this morning and concentrate on the Zionist movement. Here’s what history shows:

To begin with, it tells us that Zionism’s banner slogan, “a land without people” awaiting settlement by “a people without land” was simply not true. In the 1880s, when the Zionist movement started, Palestine had an Arab population of no less than 600,000. A 1921 census in Palestine showed 590,000 Muslims, 89,000 Christians and 84,000 Jews.The Zionist movement was explicitly secular at the beginning, and didn’t take on its religious patina till after the 1967 Six Day War. (Although the Christian British foreign secretary, Lord Shaftsbury, saw Jewish settlement as hastening the Second Coming of Jesus as early as 1840.)Zionism was understood in terms of 19 th century colonialism by both the British and Theodor Herzl (the father of Zionism) during the heyday of British settlement of Africa and Asia.Palestinians resisted Jewish colonization from the outset. There were strikes and demonstrations, and outright rebellions in 1920, ’21, ’29,’33, ’36, and from 1937-1939. That resistance grew to a fever pitch after the UN published its partition plan on Nov. 29 th, 1947. In fact, Palestinian opposition caused UNSCOP (UN Special Commission on Palestine) to suspend that plan.Israelis defied that suspension, and took matters into their own hands. Menachem Begin, the Irgun, Haganah and Stern Gang used terror tactics to drive the British from Palestine (for instance, blowing up British headquarters in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel). They also used terror to drive Palestinians from their homes. Most notably, in Deir Yasin (a site we visited), Israeli terrorists massacred 254 persons, including women and children, and threw their bodies down a well. Word quickly spread about what to expect from the Israeli settlers. Palestinians fled their homes. Israelis claimed they had left “voluntarily.” More than 600 villages were destroyed or occupied. Homes were demolished. Others were appropriated; they remain in Israeli possession to this day, while their former owners reside in refugee camps.According to Palestinians, Irgun, Haganah and Stern Gang terrorists also terrorized Jews in Iraq to stimulate their emigration to Israel. They began a pogrom themselves, and attributed it to Iraqis. Once again, the point was to terrorize Jews into leaving the country, and settle in Israel, where Jewish bodies were needed to offset the overwhelming presence of Palestinian Arabs.In the face of Israeli defiance of the UN and terror against Palestinians, the Arab world came to the assistance of its fellow Arabs in Palestine. That happened in 1948, and in the Six Day War in 1967. The latter only led to further expropriation of Palestinian land – subsuming into Israel Palestinian territories on the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. In 1973, the Arab world tried again to expel the Jewish colonizers. This time they nearly succeeded, but last minute intervention by the United States airlifting emergency military hardware to the Israelis, prevented their defeat.Israel stands in defiance of repeated UN resolutions (beginning with Resolution 242) demanding that it withdraw from the territories it occupied during the ’67 Six Day War. The resolutions are expressions of the Geneva Accords of 1949, which (ironically, to prevent a repetition of Nazi wartime appropriations) forbid annexation of territories gained in war.Palestinian resistance continues down to the present. In 1988 the First Intifada (or “throwing off” – of Israel occupation) involved strikes and demonstrations. It also pitted stone-throwing children against heavily armed occupation soldiers – on the “David vs. Goliath” theory that the world would then see how mismatched Palestinians are against Israeli brutality and over-reaction. Hundreds of Palestinian children have been killed, maimed, arrested and tortured in the process. A second Intifada began in 2000. It has been more militant and has involved suicide bombings. As a result, Israel has built a “Security Wall” illegally expropriating yet more Palestinian territory in the process, and confining Palestinians to apartheid Bantustans. Meanwhile, most of us stand silent.Our (non)reaction is explainable in terms of the one-sided story we get in the west from our government/media/military/educational complex.The historical conclusions here should be evident. Jewish Israelis are international outlaws. Like Saddam Hussein in 1990, they stand in defiance of multiple UN resolutions. United States response, however, is vastly different from its reaction to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. This invites the further question, Since when do illegal occupiers merit classification as “victims,” while the illegally occupied are considered “victimizers?”


My third point invites you to think with me about suicide bombers. Don’t they trump all other considerations, and absolutely justify retaliation on the part of the Jewish Israelis? Don’t Jewish settlers have to build a wall to protect themselves from such heinous crimes, have to set up check points, institute curfews, bulldoze houses of suspected terrorists, and even perform extra-judicial killings of Hamas officials who support terrorism of this kind?

Most U.S. citizens, I think, would agree they do. But consider that justification for a moment. To begin with, it presumes that suicide bombing represents an initiation of violence. Such presumption not only overlooks the considerations I’ve advanced in my first two points. It ignores the “levels of violence” identified, for example by Catholic bishops Dom Helder Camara (of Recife-Olinda in Brazil) and of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Both supply the insight that structural violence represents a first vicious step that initiates a “cycle of violence.” By structural violence, they are referring to social, economic, political and cultural arrangements such as those represented by colonialism and military occupation. Political economies that create unemployment and high infant mortality rates are also violent. So are policies that repress labor unions or other social movements. These phenomena are especially destructive in the former colonies of the Third World. Structural violence can cause deaths as surely and predictably as if guns were fired into the crania of each baby that dies. Palestinians would argue that the structural violence of Israeli invasion and occupation is what has stimulated Palestinian resistance – a second (and much lower) level of violence, even when it takes the form of suicide bombing.

Suicide bombers are, of course, terrorists, and must be denounced unequivocally. And when they target civilians, rather than Israeli occupation forces, their actions are clearly indefensible, morally speaking. However, so is the state terrorism represented by Israeli occupation and by response to suicide bombers. Both kill indiscriminately – women, children and the elderly.

But consider more carefully what is it that makes the Israeli response to suicide bombing different from the suicide bombing itself?

Israeli killing is much more effective. It has the apparatus of a nation state at its disposal. For this reason alone, it constitutes what Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman call “wholesale terrorism” as compared with “retail terrorism” of non-state agents like the Palestinian suicide bombers.Israel terrorism and killings are much more massive. It destroys whole neighborhoods – like those destroyed last weekend, when Israelis lobbed 155 shells into the Gaza Strip. Palestinian civilians killed by Israelis outnumber victims of suicide bombing by at least 10-1.Israel soldiers try at all costs to protect themselves while inflicting their horrendous damage. Suicide bombers, of course, give up their own lives in the process of detonating their bombs. It is the willingness of suicide bombers to sacrifice themselves that confirms the reality of the “structural violence” earlier referenced. Their readiness to die clearly illustrates how desperate and lacking in hope and options the structures of the Palestinian situation must be.As for intent, words alone distinguish so-called “retaliation” from suicide bombings. That is, Israelis often deny they are targeting civilian populations, while it is not possible to deny that suicide bombers target civilians. Imagine the reaction of Jewish Israelis or of our own government if Palestinians bombed Israeli villages, killed 200 civilians and 14 military in the process, and then claimed the 200 civilian deaths were unintended “collateral damage.” Israelis recently did that in Lebanon. And their claims were accepted by our officials and the media that serve them. Would parallel Palestinian assertions be similarly accepted? If not, that should tell us something about the truth value of Israeli claims that they are not targeting civilians.The conclusion of this third point is that suicide bombers must be condemned. They do not, however, represent an initiation of terror tactics that result in the deaths of the innocent. Israeli structural terrorism came first. Moreover, the massive nature of Israel’s “retaliation” to Palestinian suicide bombers makes the suicide bombing pale in comparison. So if Israelis want the “speck” of suicide terrorism to disappear, they must remove and throw away the log of their own violence against innocent civilians.


How can the problem I’ve just described be resolved? This is my final point. The best answer I’ve come across has been articulated by Naim Stifan Ateek, a Palestinian Christian theologian of liberation. Peggy and I met with him at Jerusalem’s Sabeela Center for Liberation Theology. Considering its Palestinian origin, the plan is a surprisingly generous call for justice tempered by mercy and forgiveness. It seems inspired by the South African Peace and Reconciliation process informed by the African concept of Ubuntu – justice tempered by compassion, but based as well on admission of crime and guilt.

Ateek’s plan embraces the following points:

Recognize that Jewish Israelis have no right to PalestineInstead, in view of the Holocaust – and only for thatreason – they have a need for a Palestinian homeland.

Palestinians must generously acknowledge the holocaust and the need it generates– Even though they played no role in the Holocaust

Jews must recognize and confess the great harm they have inflicted onPalestinians.

Monetary reparations are duePalestinians must be allowed to return to their confiscated homesHomes that have been destroyed must be rebuiltJews must honor UN resolution 242, withdrawing from and returning to Palestinians all the territory confiscated during the 1967 Six Day War and subsequently. This arrangement would recognize the original UN Two State Solution, and honor the Geneva AccordsTo help economic development, especially in the new Palestinian state, the two states should form a federation of Palestine-Israel with a common Parliament and market. It would make even more sense to form a four-state Middle East Federation, including Jordan and Lebanon. But this might be too threatening to Israel, which would be outnumbered by Arab states in the arrangement.In either the two or four state arrangement, Jerusalem should be designated the Federation’s capitol.Belonging exclusively to neither stateBut shared by both, like Washington D.C. in the U.S.Ateek’s plan has the advantage of coming from within the conflict. It is not some idea created by the United States or the U.N. The plan has the further merit of originating from the most aggrieved party. It is creative, and should recommend itself strongly to concerned people like us.


So that’s a practical suggestion for Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs. What about us? As U.S. citizens, we’re all deeply involved. Without the United States, Israel would not have been able to do what it’s done over the last 60 years, nor what it’s doing today. Israeli pilots fly those Apache helicopters and Phantom Jets that bomb and strafe Palestinian villages. But the helicopters and other weapons are ours. Israelis enjoy immunity from UN resolutions and sanctions only because of our government’s support. So what should we do?

Here are some suggestions:

Acquaint ourselves with the real situation by seeking information outside the mainstream. Read Chomsky, Znet, Information Clearing House, Al Jezeera – to get the Palestinian point of view.Write letters, make phone calls, speak out.Visit your congress persons on this issue to blunt the effect of the U.S. Religious Right. Each year they descend on Washington for two whole days of lobbying on one pair of issues. The first day, they devote entirely to the issue of abortion. Because of the “Pro-Choice” lobby’s counterweight, congress persons are often unable to meet the right’s abortion agenda to the complete satisfaction of conservative constituents. The next day, however, which the right devotes to Israel, congress people can satisfy them 100%. This is because there is no effective pro-Palestinian lobby. We’ve got to start one – or more accurately, join the one that is struggling for membership and participation.San Miguel’s Center for Global Justice could take up this issue. It is at the heart of Middle East problems, which are at the heart of world problems and the War on Terrorism.In doing all of this, we must risk and endure the charge of anti-Semitism. But you know what? Arabs are Semites too. As Palestinians put it, they are “the Jews’ Jews.” That means that Jewish Israelis are the ones practicing anti-Semitism on a grand scale in their policy of terror against Palestinian Arabs – and so are we if we remain silent.

The additional danger for the rest of us is that by silence, by accepting the “Official Story,” by ignoring simple logic, historical fact and elementary moral principle, we will commit again the crime of the German people. Remember that for the most part, they silently witnessed the rise of Adolph Hitler, and did nothing. In fact, most of them, including church people, enthusiastically approved his policies – including his anti-Semitism.

The call here is to change our way of thinking, to reject the new anti-Semitism (against Arabs), to risk calling things by their true names, and to force a change of direction in U.S. policy towards Israel-Palestine.


Mike Rivage-Seul is a Roman Catholic theologian. He has taught at Berea College in Kentucky for the last 33 years, where he currently directs the Peace and Social Justice Studies Program. Mike is an associate of San Miguel’s Center for Global Justice. He can be contacted at