Jewish Voices Profile: Stephen Zunes Against War
Nonviolence

Leading Expert on U.S. Middle East Policy & Strategic Non-Violent Action

Zunes Critiques U.S. Policy in Israel-Palestine

As one of the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and strategic nonviolent action, Stephen Zunes has consistently argued against violence and war around the world, from Israel to Yemen, and has made the case for the use of nonviolent solutions.

Zunes has also been an outspoken supporter of Palestinian and Israeli rights, and he has made powerful critiques of the United States’ unilateral support of Israel and of Israel’s violation of international law and human rights.

Zunes discussed the role of the United States in the Israel-Palestine conflict in a recent podcast interview with Parallax Views with J.G. Michael. He challenged the U.S.’s discriminatory policies on Israel and Palestine and offered hope in the form of changing public discourse.

On Biden’s Role in the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Both Israel and Hamas have violated international law by firing at civilian-populated areas during recent conflicts. While the United Nations Security Council has attempted to release a statement calling for a ceasefire, the United States blocked all such initiatives. President Biden supported Israel’s claim to self-defense.

Zunes pointed out, however, that Israel’s superior firepower has been disproportionately damaging at a 20:1 ratio of casualties and destruction; in other words, Israel’s violence has gone far beyond its right to defend itself.

He added: “Given that the United States is the provider of many of the weapons and delivery systems that were used in the Israeli offensive, the United States bears special responsibility for the carnage.”

The United States’ insistence on protecting Israel’s right to defend itself without offering the same protections to Palestinians “could arguably be considered racist,” according to Zunes.

On How the U.S. Helped Hamas Gain Power

The majority of the American public points to Hamas as the cause of conflict in Israel and Palestine. However, Zunes argued Hamas only grew in power due to “the U.S. failure to enable the more moderate Palestine authority… in creating a viable independent Palestinian state established in the West Bank and Gaza.”

Before the 1993 Oslo Accords, barely 10% of Palestinians supported Hamas. As the U.S.-led peace process continued to fail, by 2005 support for Hamas rose to almost 50%. The 2021 Gaza war, in which 250 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed over an eleven-day period, resulted in 77% of Palestinians polled believing Hamas fought to defend Jerusalem and its holy sites. “Every time there’s a war… their approval rating goes up again,” Zunes said.

On How to Move Forward: Treat Israel Like Any Other State

When asked how concerned citizens can begin having a more productive conversation about Israel and Palestine, Zunes responded: “I believe we need to treat Israel like any other state. And that includes the fact that no state has a right to invade, occupy, and colonize its neighbors; no state has a right to engage in indiscriminate bombing onto crowded civilian neighborhoods.”

He added: “try to avoid making this an ideological battle and make it much more about human rights, about international law, about the right of self-determination, about peace and conflict resolution,” not “about the nature of Zionism.”

The role of the United States in making Israel’s disproportionate violence possible must also be questioned. The U.S. threat of a veto at the UN Security Rights Council and the U.S.’s de facto profit by providing both military aid and arms for Israel’s wars must be reckoned with.

Stephen Zunes against war
Stephen Zunes

Zunes’s Case Against War

Stephen Zunes has written compelling stances against war over the years, offering nonviolent solutions to political crises.

U.S. 2002 Invasion of Iraq

In 2002, Stephen Zunes wrote “Seven Reasons to Oppose a U.S. Invasion of Iraq,” a policy report for Foreign Policy in Focus which countered mainstream American support for the impending Iraq War.

The invasion of Iraq emerged from a post-9/11 National Security Strategy in which President Bush wrote: “…as a matter of common sense and self-defense, America will act against [such] emerging threats before they are fully formed.” Zunes highlighted that the invasion would test the new “preemption” doctrine which declared that the U.S. had the right to invade and overthrow sovereign countries “if they are seen as hostile to U.S. interests.”

Zune warned of the dangerous standard this doctrine and the invasion of Iraq would set for the world: “To invade Iraq would constitute an unprecedented repudiation of the international legal conventions that such American presidents as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower helped create in order to build a safer world.”

In addition to arguing that there were insufficient grounds for a military invasion due to its illegality under international law and the lack of evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or links to anti-American terrorist groups, Zunes shared nonmilitary options the United States could pursue to solve those concerns:

  • Resume United Nations inspections.
  • Offer incentives for Saddam Hussein to cooperate with U.N. inspections, such as ending nonmilitary sanctions.
  • Utilize existing satellite surveillance technology.
  • Reverse U.S. opposition to arms control initiatives in the entire Persian Gulf region.

Ten years after his 2002 statements against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Zunes reflected that he correctly predicted the bloody and violent sectarianism, terrorism, and counterinsurgency it caused.

International “Responsibility to Protect” Libya

In 2011, Zunes wrote against the war in Libya and critiqued the U.S. and NATO’s so-called humanitarian airstrikes under the doctrine “responsibility to protect.”

While he agreed with the concept of an international “responsibility to protect” in theory, he recognized foreign intervention’s false altruism and potential for abuse. Muammar Gaddafi had no right to slaughter Libyans, yet he noted U.S. intervention went beyond protecting civilians and feared it would result in continued civilian deaths.

Zunes found that foreign intervention through violent struggle led by “an elite vanguard” like the United States has largely resulted in new dictatorships; instead, he suggested that a successful transition to democracy would be more likely through a massive nonviolent movement that establishes alliances, cooperation, and consensus.

He suggested nonviolent forms of Libyan action beyond protests to counter Qaddafi’s regime, such as strikes—particularly in the oil industry, boycotts, slowdowns, and other forms of non-cooperation.

Eleven years later, the violent conflict in Libya rages on, and it is apparent that Zunes’ predictions were accurate. As of 2019, Al Jazeera reported more than 345,000 people had become displaced due to the war, and more than 900,000 people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. In 2021, Foreign Policy demanded NATO to take responsibility for the civilians it killed in its 2011 humanitarian bombing campaign. 

Illegal Intervention in Syria

In 2013, Zunes made the case against the U.S. war against Syria. He argued that U.S. attacks would inevitably result in civilian casualties, regardless of the precision of cruise missile technology.

His research of empirical studies has shown that “foreign military interventions in cases of severe repression actually exacerbate violence in the short term” and often “increase the duration of civil wars, making the conflicts longer and bloodier.” No matter the U.S.’s intentions, Zunes has argued that military intervention only increases the amount of violence.

President Obama sought to control Syria’s chemical weapons, however threat of U.S. attack failed to deter the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, and the solution to bomb chemical weapon stockpiles would kill the thousands in nearby civilian neighborhoods.

Zunes also reminded his readers that a U.S. attack on Syria would be illegal since international law only legitimates military force for the purpose of self-defense against a direct attack or if the force is authorized by the UN Security Council.

He added: “Having the U.S. once again engaged in a war against a much smaller country on the far side of the world that is no threat to us in violation of international legal norms can only strengthen anti-American sentiments.”

In 2019, Zunes still argued against U.S. military involvement in Syria and suggested nonviolent strategies to end the conflict—“despite everything.” He proposed that the U.S. could limit Turkish escalation of the Syrian War by threatening to suspend all arms transfers and strategic cooperation with Turkey.  

Nonviolent Movement in Yemen

Stephen Zunes wrote about how U.S. policy contributed to the violence in Yemen in 2015, arguing that tragic civilian deaths could have been avoided if the broad-based, nonviolent, and pro-democracy anti-government movement had been allowed to come to power.

The anti-government movement drew support from tribal coalitions and city dwellers, prompting them to leave behind their weapons and take to the streets despite government snipers killing hundreds of unarmed protestors. They formed a 143-member National Council to form a provisional government until inclusive and legal elections could be held.

However, instead of supporting this movement, the Obama administration backed the Saudi regime’s plan which granted the government immunity for murdering civilians and transferred power to the Vice President Major General Hadi.

Zunes argued that U.S. support of this plan resulted in the marginalization of the nonviolent movement in Yemen and gave rise to the armed Houthi militia in 2014. It also made the Saudi- and U.S.-backed Hadi government illegitimate in the eyes of the Yemeni public.

Stephen Zunes: A Consistent Voice for Nonviolence

Over the last 43 years of his academic career, Stephen Zunes has consistently and bravely argued against war and violence in favor of nonviolent strategic actions. As an American scholar, he has urged the U.S. government to reckon with its role in increasing bloodshed in the world, regardless of the country’s intentions to spread democracy and protect civilian life.

Stephen Zunes, in this Tikkun interview, discusses Gaza, Israel, and U.S. policy.

Zunes writes, “The world watched in horror as the forces of both Hamas and Israel violated basic norms of international humanitarian law by firing deadly projectiles into civilian populated areas. The Israelis, of course, with superior firepower, inflicted far greater damage. The extreme disproportionate firepower of the Israelis is really staggering. We’re looking at a 20:1 ratio in terms of casualties and many times greater than even that in terms of physical destruction of civilian infrastructure. And, given that the United States is the provider of many of the weapons and delivery systems that were used in the Israeli offensive, the United States bears special responsibility for the carnage.”

Zunes has accompanied every critique of military violence with a nonviolent solution. He has made the case that nonviolent strategies can be deployed to achieve regional and international goals while protecting civilian life.

More About Stephen Zunes:

Zunes is a prolific writer who has authored hundreds of scholarly and general readership articles on U.S. foreign policy, Middle Eastern politics and international relations, strategic nonviolence, human rights, and more.

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