Losing Hearts, Minds and Credibility

Yousef Munayyer holds up recent examples of U.S. moves that further deteriorate its credibility as an honest broker.

Why is the “peace process,” which so many American Presidents have invested time in, dead? Answers to this question could fill volumes of history books but a recent episode from this week serves as a perfectly illustrative microcosm of the larger problem.The Associated Press reported Monday:

Under Israeli pressure, U.S. officials have quietly canceled a two-year-old scholarship program for students in the Gaza Strip, undercutting one of the few American outreach programs to people in the Hamas-ruled territory. The program now faces an uncertain future, just two years after being launched with great fanfare by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during a visit to the region.

So what is the reasoning behind this? Israel cites security reasons to ban students from traveling to the West Bank to get an education. The concern, according to the Israeli military spokesman quoted in the AP story, is that permitting students from Gaza to get an education in the West Bank would lead to the radicalization of the West Bank.

Israel often garners praise in the Western world for innovation, but the invention of a formula where education equals radicalization is truly a first—and nonsensical.

The restrictions on and closure of Gaza, of course, are effective collective punishment. A U.S. diplomatic cable from 2008 released by Wikileaks noted that Israeli officials told their American counterparts on “multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge.” In fact, a newly revealed document reinforces what Dov Wiesglass, adviser to then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, explained was Israeli government policy: “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” Indeed, a precise minimum necessary caloric intake was calculated and the 1.7 million human beings in Gaza became the captive lab rats of Israeli military scientists.

Dr. Sara Roy, an established scholar of development in Gaza, delved into the effects of the Israeli siege on the Strip in a fact-filled and informative lecture The Jerusalem Fund hosted last week. “All these measures,” she argues, “are intentionally designed to undermine and deplete Gaza’s economy and productive capacity, measures seldom justified on security grounds.”

So how does the cancellation of American scholarships to Palestinians in Gaza explain everything that is wrong with the “peace process?”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may recall the Oslo Accords. In fact, she should be intimately familiar with it. She was present, after all, at the signing of the agreement in the Rose Garden officiated by her husband Bill, who was then president. But she, along with many others in Washington, seem to have forgotten an important element of that agreement long ago.

Israel and the Palestinians agreed that “the two sides view the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a single territorial unit, the integrity and status of which will be preserved during the interim period.”

Israel permits only .003 percent of the population to leave each month on “humanitarian grounds,” which basically amounts to medical treatment. This is shockingly low when you consider that a much greater number, for example, likely suffer from breast cancer—the leading cause of cancer death in women in Gaza. They have only four mammography units in the entire Strip serving close to one million women. (In the U.S., there are about 25 such units for every one million women.) This leads to the sad reality that survival rates over five years from diagnosis are only 30 to 40 percent.

The even sadder reality: breast cancer survival rates in Israel, just beyond the Erez crossing which most in Gaza can only dream of entering for treatment, are among the highest in the world. Of course, breast cancer is only one of the cancers and other ailments that can effect a trapped population of over 1.7million people drinking ground water with chloride and nitrate levels “as much as ten times the safe levels established by [the World Health Organization].”

Only a fraction of those who truly need access to medical attention beyond what is available in Gaza are allowed out by Israel, even just to go to the West Bank, which Israel agreed is the same “territorial unit.”

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But the U.S., who was happy to take ownership of the Oslo Accords and the photo opportunities in the Rose Garden, consistently fails to enforce this fundamental principle. Instead of simply telling the Israelis to keep their commitments and allow students to travel freely to the West Bank for an education, the U.S. State Department backs down and cancels a scholarship program.

This is everything that is wrong with the U.S.-mediated peace process. Even on the simplest and least controversial issues—like allowing Palestinian students with State Department scholarships to travel from Gaza to the West Bank—the U.S., which provides billions of dollars annually to the Israelis, cannot muster the leverage necessary to get the Israelis to comply not only with their obligations as an occupier, but with previous commitments they have made.

Palestinians are asked to believe that the same mediator who can’t even get Israel to allow U.S.-funded scholars out of Gaza is going to mediate an Israeli military withdrawal from occupied territory, the division of Jerusalem, and a just solution to the refugee issue.

The failure of the U.S. to do anything about Gaza, when it is one of the only powers that can, is tantamount to supporting inhumane Israeli policies. In reality, it is U.S. credibility that is emaciated. Under the current circumstances, it's hard to see how that credibility can be nursed back to health.