Bipartisan Contempt for Human Rights Increases Alienation of Young Voters

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Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and program director for Middle Eastern studies.
Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and program director for Middle Eastern studies.

With an important midterm election just weeks away, both parties are desperately trying to shore up their traditional base constituencies. For Democrats in recent years, young voters—who tend to support their party over the Republicans by a better than 3:2 margin–have made the key difference in a number of key races.

However, youth turnout may be suppressed somewhat this year, not just as a result of efforts by Republican-led state governments to make it more difficult for college students and other young people to vote, but by the fact that neither party has taken up platforms which excite them. Indeed, on a number of key issues dealing with the economy, the environment, and foreign policy, both parties have staked out positions well to the right of most 18-30 year olds.

To give just one example (in part because it is within my field of study):

This summer, U.S.-armed Israeli forces engaged in seven weeks of attacks on heavily populated civilian neighborhoods in the besieged Gaza Strip led to unprecedented concern among young Americans who, despite their misgivings about the hardline Hamas faction which administers the territory, found the Israeli attacks to be disproportionate and unnecessary. Close to 1,500 Palestinian civilians in Gaza were killed in the Israeli attacks, more of 500 of whom were children, and 18,000 homes were destroyed, leaving 100,000 homeless.

Polls show only 21 percent of 18-29 year olds believe Hamas was primarily at fault for the fighting, with the rest either blaming Israel or faulting both sides equally. However, broad bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress went on record saying Hamas was exclusively responsible for the violence.

Indeed, leading Democrats in Washington have joined Republicans in claiming that the people killed and the dwellings destroyed from Israeli bombing and shelling came as a result of legitimate acts of self-defense against military targets and dismissing reports by reputable Israeli and international human rights groups saying otherwise. In July and August, both houses of Congress passed a series of resolutions and forwarded public letters with broad bipartisan support providing unqualified backing for the massive Israeli air and ground assault in language directly contradicting findings by journalists, medical workers and United Nations officials on the ground, as well as investigations by both Israeli and international human rights groups.

UN officials and human rights groups have also strongly denounced Hamas and other Palestinian militants for firing rockets into civilian areas in Israel as well as their refusal to accept several cease-fire proposals which could have ended the carnage earlier. While none of these groups found any evidence that Hamas used human shields, as the Israeli government has alleged, they also criticized Hamas for not keeping armaments and fighters far enough from civilian areas in that crowded urban enclave.

In short, both sides are apparently guilty of war crimes and most youth voters who followed this summer’s events, even casually, recognize this.

However, the Congressional resolutions and letters all appear based on the assumption that while Hamas is guilty of terrorism and murder in the deaths of the five civilians killed by Hamas rockets inside Israel during this summer’s fighting, the Israeli government bears absolutely no responsibility for the deaths of nearly 1,500 Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli ordinance inside the Gaza Strip.

This comes in the face of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, and the Israeli group B’Tselem documenting serious war crimes by Israeli forces, including “indiscriminate attacks” on densely-populated civilian neighborhoods, shelling UN schools housing refugees, firing on ambulances and medical personnel, bombing hospitals, and other violations of international humanitarian law.

In an effort to discredit these reports, the House of Representatives, with more than 100 co-sponsors from both parties, passed a resolution by unanimous consent insisting that the Israeli attacks were exclusively “focused on terrorist targets” and that Israel “goes to extraordinary lengths to target only terrorist actors.” In addition, majority leader Harry Reid introduced a Senate resolution, also pushed through by unanimous consent, claiming that “the Government of Israel has taken significant steps to protect civilians in Gaza” and that “Israel’s attacks have focused on terrorist targets.”

In short, both parties expect voters to take their word about what happened in Gaza over that of reputable human rights organizations and international observers on the ground.

This cynical bipartisan effort to cover up for well-documented war crimes simply because the perpetrator happens to be a strategic ally of the United States will only add to the cynicism many young people already have about electoral politics. Indeed, if something as basic as universally-recognized international legal principles regarding the protection of innocent civilians in wartime can so easily be dismissed by both parties in Washington, what will be next?

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