Occupation By COVID: Palestine As a Viral Export, 2020

7 December 2020 — Off Guardian

Michael Lesher

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Palestinian workers, Bethlehem checkpoint, West Bank (PHOTO: Ahmad Al-Bazz, ACTIVESTILLS)

As the year 2020 expires in an embattled welter of politicized suffering, I feel I need to address my fellow advocates for Palestinian rights, too many of whom seem not to notice – or actively deny – that, under cover of coronavirus hysteria, the unhealed wounds of Palestine are steadily infecting us all.

Yes, I know all of you face calumny enough from the Israel lobby without being smeared by pro-lockdown propagandists – many of whom, alas, cling to the name “progressive” even as they abjectly submit to the most massive civil rights violations of our lifetimes.

And I know the task I am setting for you is a hard one. After all, few Americans have paid much attention to Palestine in the past; how likely is it that today, punch-drunk from the creeping despotism unleashed as COVID-19 “health” regulation, a large public will turn from its troubles long enough to realize that the blows our country is tasting for the first time – curfews, closures, mass confinements, official lying, economic warfare – have been the lot of occupied Palestine for decades?

But there is no escaping the obligation to tell the truth: and that means, first of all, that we have to acknowledge the truth. And while advocates for Palestine are well aware of what the American government has done to that land – with its money and military hardware, the systematic violence of its client state, Israel, and the cruel deceit that is called U.S. “diplomacy” – too many remain strangely blind to the poisoning of our own nation with the same evils that have blighted the lives of millions in the West Bank and Gaza.

Yes, the venue is shifting – from foreign training ground to domestic soil – but we are only deluding ourselves if we refuse to see the connection between the two. The historian Alfred McCoy warned as far back as 2009 that what the U.S. was developing in the Middle East would inevitably come home to haunt us:

the War on Terror has proven remarkably effective,” he wrote, “in building a technological template that could be just a few tweaks away from creating a domestic surveillance state – with omnipresent cameras, deep data-mining, nano-second biometric identification, and drone aircraft patrolling ‘the homeland.’

By 2013, McCoy had concluded, sadly, that…

that prediction has become our present reality.

And it was only the start.

Israel’s example already figured in the militarization of American police forces: think Ferguson, think Chicago. But that was child’s play compared with this year’s reconstruction of West Bank-style administrative repression throughout much of the United States.

Israel rationalizes its imprisonment of Palestine as a “defense” against “terror”; here, state authorities prefer the pretext of combating an infectious disease. But the systems of control are ultimately the same.

Do I exaggerate? Who, then – before last March – ever heard U.S. politicians talk eagerly about “lockdowns”? Or bans on political demonstrations? Or the thought-policing of social media? And who would have thought that such instruments of mass repression could be introduced, not through legislation, but by means of “emergency” decrees from a handful of state executives whose edicts purport to be above the law?

These things are new to the United States; but none of them would have surprised Palestinians, whose entire lives – from where they can go to what they are allowed to post on Facebook – have been governed by arbitrary decrees for decades.

And more repression is on the way. Already there’s talk of U.S. citizens being “encouraged” to carry “contact-tracing” technology; even the first hints of travel restrictions, controlled through universal registration with a government-run monitoring agency, have begun to percolate in the “liberal” press. A year ago all of this would have been unthinkable. But Palestinians have lived under such a regime since the 1990s.

Nor should the Mideast-coronavirus connection really surprise anyone – least of all, those of us who have made it our business to follow the wrongs of Palestine. After all, we’ve been warned.

The exportation of Israel’s occupation to the West was predicted with uncanny accuracy by Jeff Halper in his book War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians, and Global Pacification. In 2016, Halper told In These Times that the success of capitalist states in controlling unruly populations would depend on what he called “globalizing Palestine.”

He said, back then:

“Israel-Pales tine is the micro cosm of the larg er world. What Israel’s doing to the Pales tini ans…reflects the kind of war that cap i tal ism is hav ing to fight now…. The wars that are being fought in Syr ia, or the wars being fought against poor peo ple in the States aren’t wars that F-35s or nuclear sub marines are any use for…. [W]hen they’re actu al ly going to fight wars among the peo ple, Israel becomes the go-to place. They [the Israelis] have the weapon ry, the tac tics, the sur veil lance sys tems and the secu ri ty sys tems that are more rel e vant for the types of cap i tal ist wars of repres sion that are being fought today than the big sys tems that the Pen ta gon has.

It’s a shame that Halper’s insight hasn’t been given more attention in public discourse – even on the left – during the critical nine months since last March’s declaration of a global “pandemic.”
But then, maybe it was inevitable that Palestine would be marginalized in exact proportion to its growing importance to the West as a blueprint for domestic oppression.

Certainly its plight was never more belittled than last spring, while more than forty U.S. governors were effectively Palestinianizing their populations with mass confinements, business closures, school shutdowns and restraints on public protest. If that was a rehearsal for something like Israel’s West Bank occupation on American soil – and it certainly looked like one – you’d never have known it from listening to the few politicians around the world who even bothered to talk about Palestinians.

Donald Trump – the outgoing President who wasn’t sure whether the Western Wall was in Palestine – first declared international law irrelevant to Israelis, then claimed to have a “solution” that would resolve the “conflict” once and for all.

What he proposed was predictably outrageous, of course. But was it really any worse than the apathy that greeted the “plan” throughout Western Europe? Was it more reprehensible than the behavior of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who – while still feeding at the Israeli trough – pretended for months to be leading a rebellion against an “annexation” of West Bank territory that, for all the noise the word’s novelty generated, was actually launched a long time ago and continues to this day?

At least it’s clear now (if it wasn’t all along) that the whole to-do over “annexation” was a conjuror’s trick. Israel and its allies use the word when it’s politically convenient and forget about it when it isn’t; the verbal fashion of the moment has no effect on the pace of Israeli land theft.

As for Abbas, he’s already making nice with President-elect Joe Biden despite the latter’s ostentatious Zionism – and why not? The actual measure of Israel’s purloining of West Bank territory is the amount of its illegal colonization by Israeli Jews. And that colonization, which began almost immediately after Israel seized the territories in June 1967, has never been more rampant than it is now.

This year alone, Israel approved a record-high 12,000 new “housing units” for its squatters in occupied Palestine, who already control nearly all of the most valuable land and whose pastimes include regular violent attacks against the rightful owners – not to mention the frequent destruction of their homes and olive groves. By early 2019 the number of illegal settlers in the Occupied Territories, which by then had mushroomed to over 650,000, was growing even faster than the overall Israeli population.

And what was Mahmoud Abbas doing all that time? Nothing. What was the European Union doing to halt Israel’s land theft? Nothing. What did the Democratic Party “resistance” to Donald Trump, apart from some ritual harrumphing over “annexation” proposals, have to say about the monstrous expansion of illegal West Bank colonies? Nothing.

Against that background, was Trump’s insult to international law even worth mentioning?

To tell the truth, it’s hard to think of any Palestine-related mainstream headline over the last year that didn’t crackle with absurdity. A warmed-over reprise of Israel’s long-standing demand for Palestinian capitulation was unblushingly called “the Deal of the Century.” A cynical bargain between the crime family that runs the United Arab Emirates and a blood-stained, racist Israeli Prime Minister with one foot already in a prison cell was heralded as “the dawn of a new Middle East” – by Washington’s Con-Artist-in-Chief, a man who could make Becky Sharp look innocent by contrast.

And where was Palestine – the actual land and people – amid all the sputtering? Not one square inch of occupied territory has been reclaimed from Israel’s occupation in over fifty years of Palestinian suffering and international indifference. Not one prisoner has been freed from the concentration camp called Gaza since the heroic sacrifices of its people that began in March 2018. No wonder Israel is doing so well at exporting its occupation: its techniques represent an unqualified success story.

In fact, the most accurate pointer to where matters stand comes from a little-noticed news item about the one real consequence of the Palestinian Authority’s “refusal to cooperate” with Israel’s annexation threats. According to 972 Magazine, tens of thousands of Palestinian children born since May do not officially exist – as far as Israel is concerned – since the P.A. has not communicated their names to the Israelis. Nor can the P.A. confer legal status on its own. It follows that these children have no official identity and, therefore, no rights; they can never, for instance, leave the Occupied Territories even if their parents are permitted to. Whether they will be allowed to own their homes one day, or even to work, will apparently be at the whim of the Israelis.

Let that image sink in a moment: people who do not legally exist, in a country that is not a country, administered by a “government” that is not a government. If there’s a better summary of what “Palestine” means today, I can’t think of it.

And if you think Palestine’s fate has no relevance for what awaits the American public, think again.

Under President-elect Biden’s latest coronavirus plan, just for instance,…

the CDC will be in charge of announcing recommendations for when it is safe to open or close restaurants, schools and businesses.

This means that an unelected and unaccountable panel of bureaucrats – working in a political environment where the dominance of Big Pharma is a matter of record – will have unprecedented control over American education and economic life. And for how long? Biden is careful not to say.

As for Palestine, the incoming administration’s top foreign policy adviser, Tony Blinken, announced last June that a Biden government…

would not tie military assistance to Israel to things like annexation or other decisions by the Israeli government with which we might disagree.

So the whims of Israel’s apartheid government will trump American law (no surprise there), and corporate plutocrats will have increasing power over whether and when Americans can go to school, work, or gather in public places. Nablus, here we come!

What can anti-occupation activists do about all this?


It seems to me, we can take seriously what we have said for years: Israel’s conduct in Palestine is not an isolated problem spurred by unique historical or religious circumstances; it is an international crime that threatens us all. In fact, Israel values its occupation of Palestine precisely because its methods and technology are so readily marketable. The longer we tolerate the repression of Palestinians, the sooner we will see that system replicated in countries around the world – including our own.


We need to apply the same skepticism with which we have long viewed Israeli propaganda to the extravagant web of fear-mongering, distortions and dissent-shaming now being spun to aid the importation of Israeli-style repression onto American soil. Coronavirus hysteria is really no different from the emotional exploitation of “terrorism”: a genuine but limited danger is shamelessly manipulated to cow the public into accepting measures that are far worse than the evil they are supposed to cure. As far back as early May, I was warning in print that the unconstitutional “emergency” orders of more than forty state governors in response to COVID19 involved unprecedented attacks on civil liberties.

Now things are actually looking worse – and with still less justification. A makeshift political system intended to respond to a massive bioterror attack – and even then, only temporarily – has been implausibly stretched to rationalize the long-term suspension of representative government, in four-fifths of our states, to counter one moderately serious respiratory virus. Meanwhile, the press has bombarded us with “expert” assurances that we have too much freedom for our own good, and that wanting to “get back to normal” – that is, to democracy and constitutional rule – is a product of “bias,” if not of some psychological malady. There’s no mistaking the official message: either we surrender the Bill of Rights or we all die.

But the official tally of each week’s deaths, state by state, hardly supports these apocalyptic pronouncements. New Jersey (where I live) provides a convenient example. Since the beginning of July and right up through the first week of November – the last for which statistics are available as I write this – the number of deaths from all causes in New Jersey has been virtually identical to the figure for the same period in 2019; the totals vary by barely a third of one percent. In other words, since the midpoint of the year, COVID19 has had no significant effect on the mortality rate in New Jersey.

True, the massive application of an unreliable testing procedure has managed to generate what New Jersey’s Governor Phil Murphy called an “uptick in cases”; but if you’re still looking for the Emperor’s new clothes amid these tales of a “deadly pandemic,” you can save yourself the effort – even the “experts” admit that the new “cases” seem to have materialized out of thin air.

So, when Murphy once again (on October 24) unilaterally extended a “state of emergency” that, by law, was originally supposed to end on April 9 – insisting that the “dangers presented” by the coronavirus required him to hold onto quasi-dictatorial power in order “to save lives” – he was taking pretty much the same tack as Israeli propaganda that claimed the Jewish State had to poison children in Gaza to protect itself from exploding helium balloons.

(Meanwhile, across the Hudson, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo is slated to receive an International Emmy Award for “his once-daily televised briefings on the coronavirus pandemic”; like Murphy, Cuomo excels at convincing jaded audiences that he has averted a catastrophe with edicts that more likely exacerbated it.

If there were an Oscar for Best Dramatic Performance by a Nation-State, Israel would win hands down every year,

…Norman Finkelstein has written. It looks as though Israel is finally getting some competition.)

So the question is not whether Israel’s occupation is being transported – in fact, has already been transported – far beyond the borders of Palestine. That much should be obvious. For advocates for Palestinian rights, there are really only two issues:

First, are we prepared to recognize the repressive measures we have long identified with occupied Palestine wherever they appear and under whatever pretext? Second, are we determined to resist them once they arise?

My own experience indicates that, so far, most pro-Palestinian pundits have not passed either test. I’ve been condemned by some, and cold-shouldered by others, for even mentioning the connection between lockdown policies and Israel’s long-standing outrages in the Occupied Territories.

When I submitted a version of this column to a left-wing site that has run many of my pieces in the past, the publisher responded that it was…

simply not something I can present.

Since I know him to be a reasonable and thoughtful person, I conclude that the publisher’s “not something I can present” means that his donors – to say nothing of other contributors – aren’t ready to see coronavirus policy as the police-state pretext it really is.

Yes, they’ll complain about the imprisonment of Palestine – and they’re right to do that. But refusing to notice similar abuses in their own country puts them in the absurd position of trying to keep a finger in a dike while a whole city floods around them.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If the wrongs of Palestine mean to us what we’ve always said they do, we can be – and should be – in the vanguard of resistance to what is surely the most alarming phase of the occupation to date: its spread across Europe and the United States, even as it intensifies in Palestine itself.

At the turn of the 20th century, Mark Twain noted bitterly how the oppression of other peoples led an empire’s citizens to submit to tyranny within their own borders:

trampling upon the helpless abroad had taught her [the “Great Republic”], by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home.

Surely those who object to the trampling of Palestinians should be the first to raise our voices against the dissemination of similar crimes throughout the world – especially when those crimes reach our own doorsteps.

If not, what have we been campaigning for all these years?

Michael Lesher is an author, poet and lawyer whose legal work is mostly dedicated to issues connected with domestic abuse and child sexual abuse. His latest nonfiction book is Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., 2014); his first collection of poetry, Surfaces, was published by The High Window in 2019. A memoir of his discovery of Orthodox Judaism as an adult – Turning Back: The Personal Journey of a “Born-Again” Jew – will be published in September 2020 by Lincoln Square Books.

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