Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was rushed to the operating room Friday morning for his second emergency surgery after a medical scan revealed fresh bleeding in the brain. We speak with Human Rights Watch, which is calling for the United States to cut back its multi-billion dollar foreign aid to Israel. [includes rush transcript]
Sharon suffered a massive stroke and brain hemorrhage Wednesday night and has since been in an induced coma. Before the surgery, doctors said they were planning to keep Sharon sedated and on a respirator until at least Sunday, to give him a chance to recover.
The Israeli newspaper Haarretz reports Sharon’s doctors have acknowledged he "probably suffered irreversible brain damage that would preclude his ever resuming office." Sharon’s deputy, Ehud Olmert, has taken over as caretaker prime minister. In Washington, President Bush hailed Ariel Sharon Thursday and expressed hope for his recovery.
Sharon has been one of the most dominant political figures in Israel’s history. He has been involved in each of Israel’s major wars dating back to its founding in 1948 and is seen as the father of the settlement movement. As Prime Minister, Sharon oversaw the continued building of the West Bank separation wall and Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip. While leaders around the world hailed Sharon’s tenure, there has also been intense criticism of his policies. Israel is the largest annual recipient of US foreign aid, with direct assistance and loans exceeding $5 billion dollars in 2005.
Last month, Human Rights Watch called on the Bush administration to cut back foreign aid to Israel. In a letter to President Bush, the group’s Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson asked President Bush to deduct from Israel’s foreign aid assistance the amount it spends on expansion of settlements and the separation wall in the West Bank. The organization says their request marks the first time a major human-rights group has asked for an actual cut in direct aid to Israel. Whitson also wrote a letter to Senator Hilary Clinton in November asking her to reconsider her position in support of the Wall.
- Sarah Leah Whitson, joins us in our firehouse studio. She is the Executive Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.
Read the HRW letters:
- Letter to President George W. Bush on Expanding Settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories
- Letter to Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton on Comments about the Construction of the Wall
JUAN GONZALEZ: In Washington, President Bush hailed Ariel Sharon Thursday and expressed hope for his recovery.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Our nation sends our deepest sympathies to Ariel Sharon. He lies immobilized in an Israeli hospital. We pray for his recovery. He’s a good man, a strong man, a man who cared deeply about the security of the Israeli people, and a man who had a vision for peace. May God bless him.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharon has been one of the most dominant political figures in Israel’s history. He’s been involved in each of Israel’s major wars, dating back to its founding in 1948, and is seen as the father of the settlement movement. As prime minister, Sharon oversaw the continued building of the West Bank separation wall and Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip. While leaders around the world hailed Sharon’s tenure, there has also been intense criticism of his policies. Israel is the largest annual recipient of U.S. foreign aid with direct assistance and loans exceeding $5 billion in 2005.
Last month, Human Rights Watch called on the Bush administration to cut back foreign aid to Israel. In a letter to President Bush, the group’s Middle East Director, Sarah Leah Whitson, asked President Bush to deduct from Israel’s foreign aid assistance the amount it spends on expansion of settlements in the separation wall in the West Bank. The organization says the request marks the first time a major human rights group has asked for an actual cut in direct aid to Israel. Whitson also wrote a letter to New York senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in November, asking her to reconsider her position in support of the wall. Sarah Leah Whitson joins us in our Firehouse studio. She’s Executive Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. We welcome you to Democracy Now!
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Hi.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about this unprecedented demand of an establishment human rights group in this country on the issue of Israel on aid?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, it didn’t strike us as something that was unprecedented. We have specifically called for a cut in loan guarantees to Israel in the past in connection with settlement activity and settlement expansion, and that was several years ago, when the issue was up on the table with George Bush, the first. In assessing and determining what kind of recommendations we should make to the U.S. government at this time, it struck us that there was no reason not to call for a direct cut in U.S. aid, and that that really was the issue, and that really was the leverage that the United States should be applying very directly to Israel’s continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank.
AMY GOODMAN: What would it mean for Israel to lose this money?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: I think more than the money, it would mean a huge understanding that the United States is not willing to support Israel’s unlawful activities, that the United States is actually willing to stand behind the public commitments, statements it’s made that it does not want Israel to expand settlements, that it continues to believe that these are wrong acts, that they undermine the political process and, obviously, they’re unlawful, as well.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, in your letter, you state that this directly contravenes international law and Israeli commitments under the roadmap, the continued expansion of the settlements. And you also suggest that — or not suggest, but that the wall is really an attempt to annex these territories into Israel. Could you talk a little bit about some of the specific settlement activities that has been going on just in the last few months?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Sure. Well, in the last month, specifically, the Ministry of Housing of Israel has basically put out tender offers for expansion of settlements in the West Bank, about 1,000 new housing starts. Earlier this year, the Israeli government announced that it’s going to expand the E1 settlement area, which is the last remaining open space around East Jerusalem on the Palestinian side, to have 3,500 new housing starts. That would effectively encircle the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem 100% with settlements and cut all of the roads that link the north of the West Bank to the south of the West Bank, so that literally the West Bank would be divided into two separate parcels.
Israel’s obligations under the roadmap are clear. They are supposed to cease all settlement activity. Israel has made that as a commitment and has stated that they continue to abide by their roadmap commitments, but, yet again, they’re not abiding by them, notwithstanding Bush’s reminder in October that they must stop settlement expansion. And it’s unlawful under international law, because the Geneva Convention very clearly states that you can’t transfer your own population into occupied territories. That’s a very classic expression of colonization and is unlawful.
AMY GOODMAN: And your response to Sharon and supporters of the wall saying that it has cut back on suicide bombers?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, I guess it really stands to be seen and tested whether or not, in fact, the construction of the wall has been responsible for the decrease in suicide bombings. I think a couple of things to note on that score is that when Israel started making pronouncements about the decrease in settlement — suicide attacks, the wall wasn’t even 10% built. And if it only took a 10% wall to halt suicide bombing, then maybe they should have stopped there.
In fact, there are many reasons why suicide attacks have decreased, and the Israeli government has recently explained why there are other reasons, in fact, that suicide bombings have decreased. One is that Hamas said that they would stop attacks on civilians on numerous occasions and, in fact, have for much of this year stopped these kinds of attacks, because of a faith in the restart of the peace process and a mutual ceasefire. The other is the checkpoints have, in fact, been very effective in isolating Palestinians, so that they can’t travel. It’s unclear that the wall is really the single-most important aspect of the decrease in suicide bombing attacks.
AMY GOODMAN: As Prime Minister Sharon lies near death in the hospital with this massive stroke and cerebral hemorrhage, there is a lot of discussion — I guess President Bush called him a man of peace — discussion of his having pulled out of Gaza. Your response to this?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, it was certainly a bold move, and I’m happy that Israel has taken the step to withdraw its troops from Gaza. But I think we should not be hasty in judging this an end to the occupation of Gaza or an end to occupation at all. I think it’s clear that Israel wants the occupation of Gaza to be declared over and done with, but so long as it controls really all aspects of Palestinian life or many important aspects of daily Palestinian life, the occupation cannot be said to be over, from a legal perspective.
Israel controls the airspace, Israel controls electricity, Israel controls water. In fact, just a few weeks ago, Israel decided and proclaimed that it was going to shut off the electricity supply to Gaza in order to punish the Gazans for the fact that militants in Gaza were continuing to launch Kassams directed towards Israel. Israel controls the borders and continues to decide who can come in and out of Gaza, even at the now so-called open Egypt-Gaza border. So in many ways, there are aspects of effective control that remain. And under international law, the key determinant is whether or not the other party retains effective control over the territory.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, obviously, there remains the question that if the removal of the worst aspects of occupation from Gaza are accompanied by a concentration of the control of the West Bank, really basically what’s happened is that Israel is hunkering down, to some extent, in terms of, like, assuring that portions of the West Bank remain part of Israel.
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, I think there was a clear calculation in Israel that the cost of maintaining the small settlements in Gaza was just not worth it, that they would never blossom into the thriving settlements of Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel on the West Bank, and a notion that, 'Well, we've given this, so we can keep and expand the West Bank key settlements.’ I think Sharon has said on numerous occasions that there are settlements he’s willing to give up and, as you know, the Gaza withdrawal was accompanied by the evacuation of a small number of settlements far out east into the West Bank. So I think there is clearly in the eyes of Israeli policy-makers a notion that they can decide the quid pro quo, what they’re going to keep and what they’re going to give up.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. You wrote the letter to President Bush and also to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Why this New York senator?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, the New York senator made some very troubling remarks during her visit to Israel in early November, where she stated that she thought that the wall was not against the Palestinian people and was, in fact, you know, designed to stop terrorists. It’s really unfortunate that she made these comments, and I don’t know if she made them out of ignorance or out of full knowledge, but, in fact, it’s clear that the wall isn’t just about protecting Israelis inside Israel. If that were the case, perhaps it would be located on the Green Line border between Israel and the West Bank. But, in fact, it’s not.
The wall has been designed very carefully, with a lot of thinking, with a lot of planning, with a lot of lobbying by settlements, by settlement communities, so that it encircles them to put them on the Israeli side of the wall. The wall is not separating Israeli citizens in Israel from Palestinians on the West Bank; it’s separating all of the Israeli settlers, almost all of the Israeli settlers in the West Bank from Palestinians. So this really has more to do with annexing territory, and in fact, the Israeli policy makers recently announced that they imagine that the walls would become the future border of Israel or that’s where they hoped it to be.
At the same time, to say that it’s not against the Palestinians is to ignore the severe consequences that the wall has had on Palestinian civilians. It is the single most devastating reality in Palestinian life today, when there are Palestinians who are literally trapped on the Israeli side of the wall and who cannot reach their land, who can’t reach their schools, who can’t reach their family members because of the wall. As someone recently noted, at parts of the wall is like driving from Washington to Baltimore by way of Philadelphia. The reality is that people cannot get from point A to point B without taking excursions that take them hours and hours. Just going about daily life has become a major, major obstacle as a result of this wall.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And you also point out in your letter to President Bush that the wall, even for — in protection of Israeli settlers, provides for further expansion, that it’s not actually — in some cases, the wall is not really at the border of the settlement, but hundreds of yards away, so allowing for future growth of these settlements.
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Absolutely. And, again, I think this notes to the fact that the wall is not about security, it’s not just about security, to be generous. It really was designed to reach the borders of planned settlement expansion. I mean, these plans exist. This is not a hypothetical, 'Well, one day we might expand or one day we may not.' The boundaries, the municipal boundaries for settlements have been drawn up: where they’re going to expand, how they’re going to expand, what their water source is going to be. And the wall’s route has been carved to the outer boundaries of where the planned settlement expansion is going to continue.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the latest scandal in Washington engulfing many Congress members: Jack Abramoff. It does relate here. _Newsweek_’s Michael Isikoff reported that federal investigators probing Abramoff’s finances, the Republican lobbyist, have found some of the money meant for inner city kids went instead to fight the Palestinian intifada. More than $140,000 of funds from Abramoff’s Capital Athletic Foundation were actually sent to the Israeli West Bank, where they were used by a Jewish settler to mobilize against the Palestinian uprising. Among the expenditures: purchases of camouflage suits, sniper scopes, night vision binoculars, a thermal imager, and other material described in foundation records as "security equipment." Your response?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: My response is that this is, unfortunately, another example where people in the United States are doing more to undermine a potential peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than even certain rightwing Israeli policymakers, with things like their construction of the wall. To support vigilante groups, to support armed groups in settlements, and I think that’s — the groups you’re referring to are indeed armed groups who carry out armed attacks against Palestinian civilians — is, you know, something that needs to be investigated and stopped. I mean, the U.S. government has made clear, in no uncertain terms, that it does not want Americans supporting armed groups, whether they be in Afghanistan or in the West Bank. But certainly, that should apply across the board. The bans and the restrictions that prevent Americans from supporting armed groups that attack Israeli civilians should also apply to armed groups that are attacking Palestinian civilians.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Leah Whitson, we want to thank you very much for being with us. Executive Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.