Prominent democratic socialist academic and activist Cornel West, one of Bernie Sanders’ five appointees to the Democratic National Committee’s Platform Drafting Committee, accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “war crimes” in occupied Palestine, reflecting a growing awareness among progressive Americans of the continuing oppression and injustice suffered by Palestinians.
West, a professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary in New York, told the New York Times that Netanyahu has committed “war crimes” and that “the role of money and lobbies makes it difficult for there to be a candid dialogue” in the United States about Israeli policies and actions in Palestine.
This isn’t the first time West has labeled Netanyahu a “war criminal,” an accusation he has repeatedly leveled against President Barack Obama as well for killing hundreds of innocent civilians in numerous countries with unmanned aerial drones, and for his support of Israel.
“Benjamin Netanyahu is a war criminal not because he’s Jewish but because he has chosen to promote occupation and human annihilation,” West said at an August 2014 protest against Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli offensive in Gaza that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, the majority of them innocent civilians including nearly 500 children. “Barack Obama is a war criminal, not because he’s black or half African and white but because his drones have killed 233 innocent children and because he facilitates the killing of innocent Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.”
Entire neighborhoods were destroyed as Israeli forces fought to stop Hamas from launching rockets from Gaza into Israel. Entire families were killed. The Red Cross and human rights groups accused Israeli forces of deliberately shooting and killing unarmed civilians and medical personnel. Hospitals, clinics, schools and United Nations refugee shelters were bombed. Israel blamed Gaza’s dense population, as well as Hamas’ habit of operating among civilians, for the high civilian death toll.
While Sanders supported Protective Edge, he accused Israeli forces of “overreacting” by bombing United Nations facilities and densely-populated neighborhoods.
“On the other hand, and there is another hand, you have a situation where Hamas is sending missiles into Israel,” he said at a Vermont town hall meeting during the war, “and you know where some of those missiles are coming from? They’re coming from populated areas; that’s a fact.”
Under international law, Israel’s nearly half-century occupation of Palestine, as well as its ongoing construction and expansion of Jews-only settler colonies on Palestinian land, are illegal—although Israel refutes this. Before retiring in 2014, United Nations human rights official Richard Falk, a Jewish American, repeatedly asserted that Israeli settlement expansion is a “form of ethnic cleansing.” Other prominent international observers, including the Nobel peace laureates Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and Mairead Maguire, accuse Israel of practicing “apartheid” policies.
“When Israel [occupies] territory deep within the West Bank, and connects the 200 or so settlements with each other with a road and then prohibits the Palestinians from using that road, or in many cases even crossing that road, this perpetuates even worse instances of apartness, or apartheid, than we witnessed even in South Africa,” said Carter, the former US president who won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a lasting peace between former bitter enemies Israel and Egypt.
“I believe in a two-state solution, where Israel has security and the Palestinians have a state of their own,” Sanders told Rolling Stone last November . “The United States has got to work with the Palestinian people in improving their standard of living, which is now a disaster, and has been made much worse since the war in Gaza.”
Sanders has angered many Israel supporters with his more balanced approach to the Palestine issue, and with his decision to not attend this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference. AIPAC is the leading US pro-Israel lobby. On the other hand, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton—who claims to support a two-state solution and has criticized Israel on settlements—is a staunch Israel backer who has gone as far as to link the peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) global anti-occupation movement to “bullying” and “antisemitism.”
Israel receives around $3 billion in annual US military aid, which critics claim makes America complicit in Israel’s illegal policies and actions. Neither Clinton nor Sanders have said they would consider disrupting, decreasing or ending such aid, although in 1988 Sanders suggested that Washington should cut off military assistance to Israel if it refused to negotiate a viable peace deal with the Palestinians.