A dark link binds two events that occurred last week half a world apart: the Israeli military action in Gaza, and Congress’ vote to repeal the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.
Like most initiatives in foreign affairs, the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment had a declared idealistic objective, and an undeclared practical objective. Officially, it was designed as a human rights bill, tying U.S./Soviet trade to facilitating Soviet Jewish emigration from behind the Iron Curtain, where, it was claimed, antisemitism was rampant.
The practical objective was to help Israel build Jewish settlements in the newly occupied Palestinian territories. At the time, much to the consternation of Zionists, there were too few American and European Jews willing to move to move to Israel proper, let alone the Palestinian territories.
Thanks to Jackson-Vanik, today Israel is a trilingual country, with a constantly growing Jewish settlement presence in the occupied lands. The pro-Israel organization JINSA honors the former Senator with its annual Henry M. Jackson Distinguished Service Award.
On the opposite end of Jackson-Vanik’s human-rights success are the people whose lands have been systematically confiscated and settled as a matter of Israeli governmental policy since the early 1970s– the Palestinians. There are many authoritative sources about the human-rights plight of the Palestinians, including America’s very own former president Jimmy Carter.
Yet, both the Democratic and GOP parties are committed to a policy of unconditional support for Israel. During the devastating Israeli military action in Gaza earlier this month, President Obama’s main public message was that the United States supports Israel’s right to defend itself.
Clearly Israel believes that the best defense is a good offense. Over 150 Palestinians were killed, mostly civilians, women and children making up a significant percentage. The infrastructure in Gaza was devastated. This, compared to 5 Israelis killed, and minimal infrastructure damage.
Israel claims that they ended the occupation of Gaza in 2005, and all they have gotten in return is terrorist rocket fire from the Palestinians. Therefore, they had to take military action to knock out the terrorist cells.
The United Nations disagrees. It claims Gaza remains under Israeli occupation because of its land, sea and air blockade. The blockade was instituted shortly after Hamas won the 2006 Legislative Council elections and the subsequent power struggle with Fatah, the Israeli- and U.S.-backed faction.
Under the blockade, Israel exercises total control of daily life over the 1.6 million Palestinians living in this 140 square mile strip of land. While Israel periodically modifies what is permitted into the territory, here is a sample of goods that have found their way onto banned lists:
- Wheelchairs, batteries for hearing aids, crayons, stationery, soccer balls and musical instruments;
- Refrigerators, toilet paper, books and candles, light bulbs, and mattresses (many items are blockaded by Israel as “luxuries”);
- Macaroni, and most other dry food stuffs, lentils and tomato paste;
- Tin cans are banned, making it impossible for Gazan’s to preserve their fruit and vegetables;
- Canned fruit, fruit juices and chocolate are blocked. Oddly, canned meat and coffee are allowed;
- Israel controls all fuel imports and the electricity grid, which it is known to turn off in retaliation for rockets launched at it from Gaza;
- A near total ban on building materials, including lumber that is more than 2 centimeters (about ¾ of an inch) thick.
The ongoing building materials ban makes it impossible for Palestinians to recover from Israel’s December 2008 Operation Cast Lead, in which 40,000 housing units and countless public buildings in Gaza were destroyed.
The May 2012 Church of Scotland Report (pdf) on the Gaza situation describes nothing less than a mass prison camp, where 75 percent of the population is dependent on food aid, with local food production being all but impossible because of Israeli restrictions.
While Jackson-Vanik helped Jews emigrate from behind the Iron Curtain, there is no such legislation to help Palestinians to escape from the lead curtain that surrounds Gaza. According to the Church of Scotland Report, in 2010 on average only 114 exit permits per day were issued, all on an exceptional basis. It should be noted that since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian border crossing with Gaza has eased somewhat, although Egypt’s hands are tied by its existing treaties with Israel, and the U.S. financial aid that comes with compliance.
Is it any wonder that the Gaza “inmates” will continue to radicalize and to lash out at their prison guards? Or that the population considers it a victory when their primitive rockets kill 5 Israelis during a conflict in which over 150 of their own died and what little infrastructure they had is further reduced to ruble?
The U.S. Congress is in the process of replacing Jackson-Vanik with the Magnitsky Bill. The first draft focused exclusively on Russia. However, newer drafts specify a universal scope. If passed into law, it will allow the U.S. to place restrictions and financial sanctions against government officials of countries involved in human rights violations.
Ironically, some Israeli politicians who years earlier benefited from Jackson-Vanik could be sanctioned under a future Magnitsky law.