Events elsewhere in the world — elections in Nicaragua, death squads in South Africa and recent decisions by the European Commission — hold much instruction for people concerned with the Middle East. Elections, after all, are not the same as democracy. After ten years of US armed intervention and economic aggression, a majority of Nicaraguans voting on February 25 chose an alternative to 10,000 percent inflation, to pervasive shortages, to the killings and sabotage of the Contras. “Sandinistas Lose the Hunger Vote” was the accurate headline in the Financial Times. The winning opposition front was cobbled together and financed by the State Department. Reporters have adopted the newspeak of the White House, talking about Nicaragua’s “democratic process.” It was precisely the process leading up to these elections which was not democratic. This was a victory for the Pentagon strategists of “low-intensity conflict” and for the shadow government that once employed Oliver North. Washington’s campaign against the Sandinista revolution subverted democratic process in the US while denying it in Nicaragua.
This confusion of elections and democracy occurs elsewhere — in Israel, for instance, where the US has thrown its weight behind Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s election plan for the Occupied Territories. Shamir’s scheme is rigged precisely to deny legitimate Palestinian representation, to produce quisling Palestinians who would negotiate the details of “autonomy” rather than the substance of independence. The circumstances under which Shamir’s elections would take place — a military occupation, intimidation and murder of activists, prohibition on political speeches and meetings of more than ten people — would deny any semblance of democratic process.
The reiease of Nelson Mandela after more than a quarter of a century in prison affirms more than any other recent event the profound power of a popular movement against the most pernicious and pervasive oppression. The liberation struggle in South Africa is far from won, but Mandela’s release underscores the certainty of apartheid’s ultimate demise. It is a victory for the South African people, and one that gives great heart to struggling people everywhere, not least of all to the people of Palestine.
South Africa has also seen some remarkable exposes of late regarding official “extrajudicial” murders of political activists. The New York Times reports that Defense Minister Magnus Malan has known since at least 1987 of an undercover police “hit squad” responsible for targeting and systematically killing political opponents. It is a matter of conjecture whether the international community might have taken a stronger stand against the apartheid regime had this information surfaced earlier.
If the Middle East is any example, probably not. Media reports about Israeli hit squads operating in the Occupied Territories surfaced as early as October 1988. One journalist investigating the matter, Steve Weizman of Reuters, was viciously beaten by unknown assailants in Jerusalem shortly after his story appeared. Since then, Palestinian human rights activists have reported two types of extrajudicial killings. Undercover army units, codenamed Samson and Cherry, are reportedly responsible for liquidating street activists. Israeli authorities have acknowledged the existence of Samson and Cherry, but claim that their orders do not include assassinations. In addition, elite army units have carried out what the IDF calls “military operations” against Palestinian activists suspected of having access to arms. Whereas the authorities claim to investigate Palestinian deaths automatically if IDF involvement is suspected, they do not investigate “military operations,” presumably because there is no need to launch an inquiry when a killing stems from a planned mission. Years from now, when repentant death squad members may fully disclose the Israeli role in such killings, as is happening now in South Africa, will the New York Times run a story expressing shock and amazement over the news?
Members of the European Parliament, in Italy and elsewhere, are studying ways of bringing to justice Israeli officials suspected of responsibility in willful killings and deportations, which constitute grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, equivalent to war crimes. Their aim is to create effective deterrents to the most egregious violations of human rights in the Occupied Territories.
Last February, the European Commission decided to suspend all scientific cooperation with Israel until Israel agrees to reopen Palestinian universities in the Occupied Territories, closed since early 1988. This action is particularly well conceived. It constitutes, first, only a temporary measure and one that is linked to a specific, limited goal. This can be as effective as an actual cut in aid. Second, it targets a community in Israel — scientists, educators, students — which is particularly well positioned to pressure the government to end its collective punishment of Palestinian students but which has been straddling the fence for the last two years. Military authorities announced later that same month that they would permit community colleges to reopen, though they have set no date. At the same time, they renewed the closure order against the universities for another three months.
The only threats emanating from Washington are ones of largesse. Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Bob Kasten (R-WI) introduced a bill in Congress in February proposing $400 million in housing loan guarantees to help Israel finance the settlement of Soviet Jews. This would be added to the annual $3 billion aid entitlement and other financial assistance going to Israel. The Housing Insurance Guaranty Program run by the Agency for International Development (USAID) currently has a ceiling of $100 million in loans to all countries in any given year, and a $25 million ceiling for any single country. Israel would essentially take over this entire program. In addition, the bill would waive management fees of 1 percent the first year and 0.5 percent in following years, saving Israel $4 million the first year and $2 million in subsequent years. Other countries would have to come up with the money USAID would forgo from the Israeli program. Such is the sanction Prime Minister Shamir has elicited with his prescription of “big immigration” for a “big Israel” — i.e., including the occupied Gaza Strip, West Bank, Golan Heights and Jerusalem.
One point that is apparent from developments in Nicaragua, South Africa and Israel concerns sanctions. Harsh economic warfare, as well as armed aggression, was a key element in US strategy to eliminate Sandinista control of the Nicaraguan state. In South Africa, it is unlikely that Nelson Mandela would be out of prison today were it not for the limited economic sanctions against Pretoria won by anti-apartheid activists in Europe and the US.
The Israeli government is extremely sensitive to any hint of sanction. Its response to the European Parliament initiatives and to Sen. Robert Dole’s remarks about trimming the largest US foreign aid programs makes this clear. What are needed now are many, many signals, to Washington and to Israel, from communities and groups around the US, that citizens here will no longer pay for Israel’s occupation policies.