The Unscholarly Scholar

Juan Cole, Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan, is the editor of the International Journal of Middle East Studies. He has published several books, has won multiple awards and grants, regularly gives media interviews and teaches a survey course on the history of the modern Middle East.

In an April 16, 2004 Salon.com article, Professor Cole’s political leanings were on display, while his ostensible scholarly knowledge was woefully absent. Charging that President George Bush “and his neoconservative brain trust are mapping the Iraq conflict onto the Likud Party agenda in Palestine,” [sic, emphasis added], he proceeded to make multiple substantive errors to cement his political point. (As there is currently no internationally recognized place named “Palestine,” correct terminology would be “Palestinian areas.”)

For instance, he claimed that the Oslo Accords “required Israel to give back all or most of the Palestinian land it occupied in 1967.” The agreements made no such requirement, and Cole would therefore be hard pressed to provide a first-hand citation.

But, again revealing that he relies on propaganda rather than research, Cole went on to recite the tired canard that Gaza “is the most densely populated place in the world.”

Cole’s depiction of Israeli settlements as “forbidden” based on the Geneva Convention of 1949 is similarly un-scholarly. Those, like Cole, who maintain that the settlements are illegal rely on Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, August 12, 1949, which states:

Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the occupying power or to that of any other country…are prohibited…

and in the sixth paragraph:

The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.

They interpret this to be applicable to Israel’s settlement of the West Bank and Gaza, understanding Israel to have become a “belligerent occupant” of this territory through entry by its armed forces.

Those who argue that the settlements are legal point out that the Geneva Convention does not apply to the West Bank or Gaza, for, under its Article 2, the Convention pertains only to “cases of…occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party” by another such party. The West Bank and Gaza were never the territory of a High Contracting Party; the occupation after 1948 by Jordan and Egypt was illegal and neither country ever had lawful or recognized sovereignty. The last legal sovereignty over the territories was that of the League of Nations Palestine Mandate, which stipulated the right of the Jewish people to settle in the whole of the Mandated territory, a right preserved by Article 80 of the U.N.

Furthermore, even if the Geneva Convention did apply, it would not outlaw Israeli settlements, since the relevant Article 49 was intended to outlaw the Nazi practice of forcibly transporting populations into or out of occupied territories to death and work camps, and cannot be applied to Israel because Israelis were not forcibly transferred. In addition, had the drafters of the convention wished to outlaw settlements, surely they could have managed at least once to use the term (or some equivalent) in the text; they did not. As a result of this absence, some political partisans now read into the convention what is not there.

The fact that the West Bank and Gaza were never the territory of a High Contracting Party also takes the wind out of Cole’s specious argument that Israel’s killing of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was “a contravention of the Geneva Convention of 1949 governing military occupations.” Yet, even if the Palestinians could be considered a High Contracting Party, terrorists are combatants (though illegal ones), and are therefore not covered by the Fourth Geneva Convention at all, which is concerned with “protection of civilian persons in times of war.” Hamas, Islamic Jihad and similar groups are illegal paramilitary organizations with chains of command, paymasters, leaders and followers. The leaders, like Sheikh Yassin, may not wear formal military uniforms, but this does not render them immune from attack when they themselves plan, fund, order and encourage attacks against Israelis.

Cole falsely portrays Yassin as a harmless “half blind man in a wheelchair” who was (allegedly) a “restraining influence on young hotheads.” While he presents no evidence for Yassin’s “restraining” of “hotheads,” now that Yassin is gone and the hotheads presumably have free reign, would Cole countenance Israeli reprisals against those hotheads, or does he view them also as immune from attack?

While Cole airbrushes away Yassin’s terrorism, he treats Israeli leader Ariel Sharon rather differently, implying that Sharon is a “war criminal” responsible not only for the Sabra and Shatilla massacre at the hands of Christian Phalangists, but also the bloody fighting in Lebanon in the 1980’s (“It’s Time for Sharon to Go,” History News Network, Aug. 7, 2002). He writes that all was quiet in Lebanon before Israel invaded, the economy was on the mend, and the Palestine Liberation Organization presented no real threat to Israel. “It and its leftist and Muslim allies had been badly defeated by Syrian intervention in the 1976 Civil War,” he wrote.

In fact, Lebanon was raging during this supposed period of calm. According to journalist Frank Gervasi:

There was heavy fighting between the PLO and its Christian and Shi’ite Muslim opponents in 1978. Radio Beirut claimed that during that year alone some 60,000 Lebanese were killed. In a rare glimpse into what was happening, Time reported that 400,000 Christians had fled from PLO terror in the Lebanese capital and that some 35,000 homes had been destroyed.

In 1979, Nicholas Tatro, of the Associated Press – one of the more fearless correspondents based in Beirut – wrote that 990 persons had been killed in the city. The following year, Tatro quoting police figures, wrote that 2,183 Lebanese were killed and 6,815 wounded in fighting between PLO “troops” and Lebanese forces. The Lebanese newspaper A’Liwa’a reported in April, 1981, that in that month alone some 200 civilians were killed and 1,500 wounded by PLO and Syrian terrorists. (“Media Coverage: The War in Lebanon,” Center for International Security)

Cole goes on to allege that “Sharon launched his invasion on June 6, 1982 without any obvious casus belli.” The obvious casus belli was that the PLO was using south Lebanon as a staging ground for attacks on Israel. Israel charged the PLO with having staged 270 terrorist attacks in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and the Lebanese and Jordanian borders, killing 29 Israelis, in the 11 months following a July 1981 ceasefire. The PLO forces of 15-18,000 swelled as thousands more from across the Muslim world joined them. Their arsenal included mortars, Katyushas, and hundreds of T-34 tanks (Raphael Israeli, ed. PLO in Lebanon, p. 7). The regular shelling of Israeli towns in the northern Galilee forced residents into bomb shelters.

The professor also exaggerated: “The Israeli invasion is conservatively estimated to have killed nearly 18,000 persons, half of them innocent civilians.” He is presumably relying on a Lebanese police report released Sept. 2, 1982, which put the death toll at 17,825. What he fails to mention, however, is that the study provides no breakdown between Palestinian civilians versus Palestinian and Lebanese fighters (Associated Press, Sept. 2, 1982). Furthermore, referring to that statistic, New York Times correspondent David Shipler stated:

After the initial Israeli drive up the coast [at the beginning of the war], the Palestinian Red Crescent Society asserted that 10,000 people had been killed in the south and 600,000 made homeless, figures that were then passed on by the International Committee of the Red Cross in Beirut–even though such a determination would have been impossible, given the cutoff of communications and roads between Beirut and the south.

For more than a month after the invasion, I carefully interviewed numerous relief workers, medical personnel, religious leaders, Palestinian refugees and others in southern Lebanon and concluded that the figures were considerably exaggerated. This I reported in a front-page article in the New York Times on July 14, 1982, which also described in detail the sleight of hand by which Israel arrived at reduced numbers. . . .

The inflated casualty toll in the south retained a life of its own, however, and it appears to form the bulk of the overall total. . . . (New York Times, July 24, 2004)

Shipler, who was hardly soft on Israeli actions in Lebanon, might have added that the Palestinian Red Crescent Society at the time was headed by none other than Yasir Arafat’s brother. And, finally according to a New York Times article the day the report was released:

Many officials [in Bierut], including those of the International Committee of the Red Cross, have said that numbering the dead correctly is virtually impossible.

But Cole’s cavalier attitude towards the casualty statistic appears almost benign when compared to his absurd and unsubstantiated suggestion that Sept. 11 Lebanese hijacker Ziad Jarrah attacked America because of Sharon: “Jarrah was eight years old when he lived through the brutal invasion of his country by America’s ally, Ariel Sharon.”

Coming from the editor of the Middle East Studies Association’s “scholarly” journal, such propaganda surely does not bode well for the discipline’s future in this country.

You must be logged in to post a comment