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Palestine Tests U.S. Commitment to Human Rights

Mar 09, 2023
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

Another round of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians escalated recently as a result of Israel’s hard-line policies. The latest diplomatic endeavor by Egypt and Jordan might reduce tensions in a minimal way but will not reverse the trend. The U.S., which plays the most influential role in the Palestine issue, should not neglect the facts on the ground, should invest due political and economic capital in the issue and should recalibrate its policy of over-protection of Israel. Palestine provides a true test of the U.S. commitment to human rights.

Recent decades have seen the decline, or marginalization, of the Palestinian agenda in regional and global politics. Other agendas, particularly those involving Iran, have occupied the front pages of regional and global media. Although the rise of an Iranian agenda is in many ways natural, as Iran is emerging as a major regional power, the threat perception associated with it has been largely fabricated. We’ve seen a lot of anti-Iran propaganda over the last decade.

However, the decline of the Palestine agenda should never mean minimizing its impact. On the contrary, the Palestine issue is still highly relevant. Humanitarian concerns have not abated, and global efforts to protect the Palestinian people continue in light of the wobbly regional and international security situation. There are several things to consider:

First, the Palestine issue seriously affects the domestic stability of countries in the region. Despite the latest Arab efforts to normalize relations with Israel at the governmental level, the citizens of Arab countries have never forgotten the Palestinian people. Thousands of years of religious education have reinforced the idea that all Muslims are brothers; thus, any report of Palestinians being oppressed can lead to protests and demonstrations against Israelis for their hard-line policies and against Arab governments for their insufficient responses against Israel. Times may change, but some things do not: The handling of the Palestine issue is a significant element in the legitimacy of Arab governments.

Second, the Palestine issue will stimulate the growth of radical forces in the region. There are numerous radical forces in the Middle East, most of which claim to fight against Israel and to protect the Palestinian nation. These include Hamas of Palestine, Hezbollah and even the Houthis. It is not important whether, or to what extent, they really serve the cause. What’s important is that the failure of international efforts to manage the Palestine issue will lead to the growth of more radical sub-state organizations.

As a matter of fact, as a result of the current Palestine-Israel conflicts and the weakening of the Palestinian Authority, many small armed groups are emerging now. Experts believe that if President Mahamoud Abbas dies (he is 88 years old), more armed groups will appear in the West Bank. This is very dangerous.

Third, issues surrounding Al Quds could easily trigger large-scale turmoil worldwide. Jerusalem is called Al Quds by Muslims everywhere — meaning holy city — and it is the site of the Al Aqsa Mosque, one of the three holiest mosques in the world. It is believed that the Prophet Muhammad traveled from the Great Mosque to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Night Journey on a “strange” winged creature called Buraq in one night, after which he ascended to heaven, where he met the rest of the prophets and eventually God. 

Judging by the holy nature of Jerusalem, any insensitive activities by Israelis could easily trigger demonstrations of Muslims worldwide. There were at least two previous cases, the latest being the visit of Israel’s new far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, to the Al-Aqsa compound on Jan. 3. The other was the provocative visit of Ariel Sharon, a rightist Israeli leader, on Sept. 28, 2000. Both triggered very strong responses around the world.

Changes in Israel’s political landscape could produce similar reactions in the future, as rightist politicians would like to attract attention to get votes. These actions could produce more turmoil not only in frustrated Palestine but also in other Muslim regions globally.

Last but not least, the Palestine issue involves serious humanitarian concerns. There are 13.5 million Palestinians, including about 5 million living in Gaza and the West Bank. The rest are refugees living in neighboring countries. Not only are some of those living in neighboring countries denied the rights of full citizenship but those in Palestine are mired in very bad living conditions because of the sieges of the Israeli military. The security tensions have prevented meaningful international investment and economic development in the Palestinian territories. Simply as members of the human race, Palestinians should have the right and opportunity to live decent lives.

All in all, the Palestine issue remains a ticking bomb on the Palestine-Israel front, both in the region and around the world. Pretending to be deaf to the voices of Palestinians is by no means the way to solve the problem. The more frustrated Palestinians become, the more dangerous the potential fire will be.

Theoretically, the whole international community, including China and other parties, can do something together to address the issue. But the final key actually lies in the hands of the Americans. The single issue of Israel’s annexation of the settlements has been put forward in various UN institutions including the General Assembly and the Security Council. But other than the Barack Obama administration’s abstention to allow a UN Security Council resolution to condemn Israel’s behavior on settlement issue in 2016, no similar resolution has been passed. Even the 2016 resolution failed to produce a positive outcome, as neither the Trump nor Biden administrations took it seriously.

History indicates that the U.S. itself had long been the major obstacle to the passage and implementation of various UN resolutions addressing Palestine, including those proposed by China. The U.S. is the single most influential player on Palestine issue not only because the it commands the most political, economic and military resources but also because the U.S. has real leverage on major parties directly relevant to the issue, namely Israel and Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

The current U.S. administration should learn from the elder George Bush — who in the early 1990s once withheld assistance to Israel, paving the road to the Madrid peace conference. This led to Israel’s compliance, modest but important, with moves to solve the Palestine issue. Joe Biden used to be Obama’s vice president, so he should also inherit Obama’s reasonable policy on Israel, even at a modest level.

It is no problem if the U.S. brokers the process of Israel’s normalization with more neighboring Arab countries. This might even be inevitable, as Israel’s concern for security should be respected. However, under the Abraham Accords, the U.S. cannot forget the other side of the story — that is, the U.S. should also help make peace between Israel and Palestine by restricting Israel’s hard-line approach.

In a word, the Palestine issue is in many ways a test for the United States to see whether it is truly a responsible power and a leader of the international community. The U.S. claims to hold high the banner of the humanitarian cause. But if its concerns are genuine, it should pay due attention to the Palestine issue. That’s what really counts.

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