Ethnic Cleansing

Ethnic Cleansing and the “Moral Instinct”

By Edward S. Herman

One of the most dubious clichés of the humanitarian intervention
intellectuals and media editors and pundits is that human rights have become more
important to the United States and other NATO powers and a major influence on their
foreign policy in recent decades. David Rieff writes that human rights “has
taken hold not just as a rhetorical but as an operating principle in all the major
Western capitals,” and his comrade in righteous arms Michael Ignatieff claims
that our enhanced “moral instincts” have strengthened “the presumption of
intervention when massacre and deportation become state policy.” This
perspective was built in good part on the basis of the experience—and misreading—of
developments during the dismantling of Yugoslavia in the 1990s where the
propaganda line was that NATO had reluctantly and belatedly entered that conflict to
stop ethnic cleansing and genocide perpetrated by the Serbs, and had done so
successfully. This was allegedly an intervention rooted in
Blair-Clinton-Kohl-Schroeder humanism, supported and pressed on these leaders by
journalists and
human rights protagonists.

There are many things wrong with this explanation and analysis of recent
Balkan history, one of the most important of which is that NATO intervention was
not late. It came quite early and was a primary cause of the ethnic cleansing
that followed. It encouraged a breakup of Yugoslavia in a manner that left
large unprotected minorities in the newly formed republics, thereby assuring
ethnic conflict. It sabotaged peace agreements within these new states in the years
1992-1994 and it encouraged non-Serb minorities to hope for NATO military aid
in arriving at final settlements, which they finally did get. NATO powers
even actively or passively supported the most complete ethnic cleansings of the
Balkan wars—which was of Serbs in Croatia’s Krajina area and Serbs in
NATO-occupied Kosovo from June 1999.

There were other problems with the notion that the NATO intervention in the
Balkans had a humanitarian basis and effect, but it is equally important to
recognize the selectivity in this focus and the political root of that
selectivity. The humanitarian interventionists were almost completely silent during the
1990s massacres and deportations by Indonesia in East Timor, the Turkish
slaughters and village burnings in their Kurdish areas, the killings and huge
refugee exodus in Colombia, and the large-scale massacres in the Congo, carried out
in good part by invaders from Rwanda and Uganda. For some reason the “moral
instinct” of the humanitarian politicians didn’t reach these cases, where the
killers were allies of these politicians—and obtained arms and military aid
and training from them. Equally interesting, the moral instinct of the
humanitarian interventionist intellectuals and journalists failed to override the
biased focus of their political leaders, but instead worked in parallel with those
biases. This helped their political leaders go after the targeted combatants
with greater violence, partly by diverting attention from the approved villains
and the damage they were inflicting on their (implicitly unworthy) victims.

The Remarkable Case of Israel

The most interesting case of an aborted “moral instinct” is that involving
Israel, where the state has been engaged in a systematic policy of
dispossession and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians on the West Bank and in East
Jerusalem for decades, not only without a meaningful response on the part of the
“free world,” but with steady support from the United States and spurts of
approval and support from its democratic allies. The ability of the Western
political leaders, media, and humanitarian intellectuals to get enraged at Arafat,
Chavez, and Milosevic, while treating Begin, Netanyahu, and Sharon as
statespeople deserving of economic and military aid and diplomatic support, is a small
miracle of self-deception, advanced double standards, and moral turpitude.

What makes it a miracle is that the basic premises, as well as the
performance of the Israeli state, fly in the face of the entire range of enlightenment
values that supposedly underlie Western civilization.

First, it is a racist state as a matter of ideology and law. It is officially
a Jewish state: 90 percent of the land is reserved for Jews. Palestinians
have been barred from leasing or buying state-owned lands that were seized in
1948 and later and Jews from abroad have a right to immigrate and become citizens
with privileges superior to those of indigenous non-Jews. This kind of
ideology and law was unacceptable as regards the apartheid state of South Africa,
although it is interesting that Reagan was “constructively engaged” with that
state, Margaret Thatcher found it quite tolerable, and South African
“anti-terror” operations were integrated with those of the “free world.” But the
Israeli analogue of the Nuremberg laws and its construction of a state built on
racial discrimination is acceptable to the enlightened West. The “chosen people”
replace the “master race.” That is not only acceptable, but Israel is held up
as a model democracy and “light unto the world” (Anthony Lewis). By
implication, Israel’s creation of a body of humans who are second class citizens by
law (or of a still lesser class in the occupied territories) is also acceptable.
This is a unique system of “privileged racism.”

Second, the Israeli state has been allowed to ignore numerous Security
Council resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention regarding its occupation of the
West Bank, as well as the International Court of Justice ruling on its
apartheid wall. It has been able to dispossess Palestinians of a large fraction of
their land and water, demolish thousands of their homes, cut down many
thousands of their olive trees, destroy their infrastructure, and create a modern
network of roads through the occupied West Bank for Jews only while imposing
serious obstacles to Palestinian movement. This systematic ethnic cleansing has
been implemented by an extremely well trained and well equipped army working over
a virtually unarmed indigenous population to make room for Jewish settlers—in
violation of international law on the proper behavior of an occupying power.
This is a unique system of “privileged ethnic cleansing,” “privileged law
violations,” and “privileged exceptions to Security Council and International
Court rulings.”

Third, Israel has periodically crossed its borders to make war on its
neighbors—Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon—and has engaged in supplementary bombing or acts
of terrorism against those three countries plus Tunisia and for many years
has maintained a terrorist proxy army in Lebanon while carrying out numerous
terrorist raids there under its Iron Fist policy, inflicting heavy civilian
casualties. While the 1982 invasion of Lebanon was proclaimed to be in response to
terrorist attacks, in fact it was based on the absence of terrorist attacks
(despite deliberate Israeli provocations) and the fear of having to negotiate
with the Palestinians rather than continue to ethnically cleanse them. There was
no punishment or sanction against Israel for these actions, as Israel
benefits from a “privileged right to aggression, state terrorism, and sponsorship of

Fourth, given its right to ethnically cleanse and terrorize in violation of
Security Council resolutions and international law, its victims have had no
right to resist. They may be pushed off their land, have their homes demolished,
olive trees uprooted, and their people killed by IDF and settler violence, but
forcible resistance on their part is unacceptable “terrorism,” to be “deeply
deplored.” A thousand or so Palestinians were killed by Israelis during their
first and non-violent phase of resistance in the initial Intifada
(1987-1992), but their passive resistance had no effect on the illegal occupation. The
international community did nothing to alleviate their distress and Israel had a
tacit understanding with the United States that it would be supported in its
violent response to the Intifada until that resistance was broken. The ratio
of Palestinians to Israelis killed in those years was 25 to 1 or higher, but it
was the Palestinians who were labeled as terrorists.

Fifth, the Israelis were also free to put in charge of the state the person
responsible for a string of terrorist attacks on civilians and, at Sabra and
Shatila, a massacre of somewhere between 800 and 3,000 Palestinian civilians.
The Yugoslav Tribunal argued that genocidal intent could be inferred from an
action seeking to kill all the people of a given group in one area, even if not
part of a plan to kill all of them elsewhere, citing their own earlier
decisions, plus a UN Assembly resolution of 1982 that the slaughter of 800 at Sabra
and Shatila was “an act of genocide.” But that kind of Tribunal judgment was
applied only to target Serbs—it was not applied by the West to Sharon and it
didn’t even interfere with his becoming an honored head of state.

Sixth, with rights to ethnically cleanse and terrorize, such invidious words
were not considered applicable to Israeli actions. They were, however, applied
with great indignation to Serb operations in Kosovo, which were features of a
civil war (stoked from abroad) and were not, as in the Israeli case, designed
to remove and replace an indigenous population in favor of a different ethnic
group. Israel had also been the beneficiary of the privileged usage of the
words “security” and “violence.” The Palestinians may be far more insecure
than the Israelis and subject to a much higher and more sustained level of
violence, but again it is the Palestinians who must reduce their resort to violence
and the big issue is how Israel can be made more secure. Palestinian security
is not an issue in the West because their victimization is of no concern and
because their insecurity is a result of their failure to accept the ethnic
cleansing process.

The ethnic cleansing process, which involves wholesale terrorism, and is the
causal force that has elicited a responsive Palestinian retail terrorism, is
actually put forward (along with the wall), not as a deliberate program to
“redeem the land” for the chosen people, but as necessary to combat
“terrorism”—and the primary terrorists get away with this.

Seventh, Israel is the only Middle Eastern state that has built up a stock of
nuclear weapons and they have been aided in this not only by the United
States, but also by France and Norway. This has happened despite the 39 years of
ethnic cleansing, record-breaking violations of Security Council demands and
international law, and periodic invasions of Israel’s neighbors. This privileged
right to nuclear weaponry and exemption from the jurisdiction of the
International Atomic Energy Agency and Non-Proliferation Treaty flows from Israel’s
other privileges noted earlier and ultimately the protection and cover of U.S.

Eighth, the “free world” has been aghast at the possibility that Iran might
be positioning itself to acquire nuclear weapons at some future date. Iran has
been threatened with “regime change” and bombing and other attacks by both
the United States and Israel, but because Iran’s actions conflict with the
regime of privilege in which only Israel (and its superpower underwriter) have a
security problem and right of self defense; others, like Iran, must cope with
the threat of attack and sanctions for engaging in legal actions and possibly
seeking nuclear means of self-defense, without help from a “free world” busily
appeasing the United States and its Middle Eastern client. So Israel not only
has a nuclear privilege, it is privileged to be able to get the “free world”
to help it monopolize that privilege in the Middle East, which of course
gives it greater freedom to ethnically cleanse.

Ninth, the “free world” has also been upset at the victory of Hamas in the
Palestinian election of January 25, 2006, in which Hamas won 76 out of a total
of 132 seats in Parliament; Fatah won 43. It is widely held that this new
legal political power of Hamas may disturb the “peace process,” and George Bush
is not prepared to negotiate with a group that employs “violence.” Violence,
however, is a Bush and U.S. specialty, with three major aggressions in the last
seven years and an openly announced program of domination based on military
superiority. Israel’s operations in Palestine are violent beyond anything the
Palestinians have been able to muster, although, in the ludicrously biased
West, “suicide bombing” is horrifying, whereas “targeted assassinations” are

Hamas has grown in popularity because Fatah and its leaders have failed to
stop the ethnic cleansing process and have been unable to halt a steady increase
in Palestinian misery, with Israel walking over Fatah’s leaders and making
their tenure a complete failure. Hamas was actually funded by Israel years ago
with the objective of splintering the Palestinians and weakening the secular
Fatah. It succeeded in this, but now that an Islamic group has taken on power,
they and their patron will be able to find another reason to avoid any final
negotiated settlement with the Palestinians who have voted in a party that does
not eschew violence—as Sharon and Bush have mythically done. Hamas also
refuses to disarm and insists on the right to defend its people against a ruthless
ethnic cleansing occupation, but in the West this is unreasonable, as only one
side has the right to self-defense and a concern over “security.” There is no
right to resistance in this case of shriveled moral instincts.

The “peace process” is an ultimate Orwellism, which I defined years ago in a
doublespeak dictionary as, “Whatever the U.S. government happens to be doing
or supporting in an area of conflict at the moment. It need not result in the
termination of conflict or ongoing pacification operations in the short or
long term.” So the “peace process” in Palestine, steadily accepted or actively
supported by the U.S. government, has been characterized by intensified ethnic
cleansing, the destruction of the Palestinian infrastructure, the settlement
of some 450,000 Jews in the West Bank, the construction of an apartheid wall,
and the Israeli takeover of much of East Jerusalem—in other words, the
establishment by state terrorism of enough “facts on the ground” to make any kind of
viable Palestinian state unthinkable. But for the propaganda organs of the
“free world,” there has been a meaningful “peace process” going on that the
election of Hamas might halt.

How Do We Explain This Hypocrisy?

This has all come about because the Israeli leadership has wanted lebensraum
for the chosen people, the indigenous Palestinians have stood in the way and
have had to be removed, and the Israelis have been able to do this, with
critical U.S. military and diplomatic support. This process has fed on itself. That
is, the eventual Palestinian violent resistance, along with Palestinian
relative weakness and vulnerability, have exacerbated the racist underpinning of the
ethnic cleansing project with a resultant increase in its savagery over the
years, helped along by Israel’s elevation to its recent leadership of a major
war criminal. U.S. aid and protection in the project has been crucial, as that
has prevented any effective international response to policies which violate
basic morality as well as law and which, if carried out by a target state,
would result in bombing and trials for war crimes.

The U.S. role, and the neutralization of any “moral instinct” in the United
States, results in part from geopolitical considerations and the role of
Israel as a U.S. proxy and enforcer and from the ability of the pro-Israel lobby
and its grassroots and Christian right supporters to cow the media and political
establishment into tacit or open support of the ethnic cleansing project. The
lobby’s tactics include aggressive exploitation of guilt, with references to
the Holocaust, identification of criticism of Israeli ethnic cleansing with
“anti-Semitism,” along with straightforward bullying and attempts to stifle
criticism and debate.

These efforts have been aided by 9/11 and the “war against terror,” which
have helped demonize Arabs and make Israeli policy a part of that supposed war.
The lobby and its representatives in the Bush administration were eager
supporters of the attack on Iraq and they are now fighting energetically for war
against Iran—in fact the lobby is the only sector of society calling for a
confrontation with Iran and it is planning a major campaign on Bush and Congress to
get the United States to take action. The Iraq war provided an excellent cover
for intensified ethnic cleansing in Palestine and a further war, despite its
serious risks, might help in a further phase of ethnic cleansing and possible
“transfer” of a population that poses a “demographic threat.”

The performance of the “international community” in the face of the ethnic
cleansing project has been a disgrace. Gung-ho for war and trials of alleged
villains in ex-Yugoslavia, where the United States was pleased to oppose ethnic
cleansing, selectively, the EU, Japan, Kofi Annan, most of the NGOs, and the
Arab states have been gutless and their “moral instinct” paralyzed by the U.S.
commitment to Israel, the strength of Israel and its diaspora, the Israeli
exploitation of Holocaust guilt, and the racist EU bias held over from the
colonial past and exacerbated by the flow of propaganda that features “suicide
bombers,” not targeted assassinations, massive and illegal brutalization, and land

Palestine is a crisis area par excellence where a virtually helpless people
has been abused, humiliated, and steadily displaced by force in favor of
settlers protected by a huge military machine, supplied in turn and protected by the
United States, and with the tacit agreement, if not more, of the rest of the
“free world.” The big issue now for the “free world” is, will Hamas behave
and accept ethnic cleansing (still in very active process) and possible
bantustan status at best or will it threaten to resist and to commit “terrorism?”

It is very important because several million Palestinians are being
immiserated in a tragic system of violence that could be terminated easily by the
United States and the international community by threatening an end to aid and
possibly sanctions.

The situation in Palestine is also very important because hundreds of
millions of Arabs and a billion or more people of the Islamic faith, and billions
beyond that, interpret the West’s treatment of the Palestinians as a reflection
of a racist and colonialist attitude toward Arabs, Islamists, and Third World
people more broadly. It is a producer of anti-Western terrorism, but also, and
even more importantly, a deep anger, hatred, and distrust of the West and its
motives. It is a cancer that bodes ill for the future of the human condition.

Edward S. Herman is a media analyst, economist, and author of numerous books
and articles.


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