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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

December 19, 2002

Bordering on obsession.

It is a cruel and ruthless military occupation, one which has persisted for decades and been declared illegal by international organizations. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs have been turned into refugees, as settlers sent by the occupying power slowly but steadily alter the tenuous demographic balance. Human-rights abuses are rampant, and although the government signed a peace treaty years ago, intended to grant the residents a voice in determining their own future, it has done everything in its power to prevent the deal from being realized.

Welcome to Western Sahara, a large strip of land subjugated by Morocco along northern Africa's Atlantic coastline. If you have not heard of the area, nor of its myriad problems, that is probably because it receives little if any coverage in the Western press. Apparently the world is too busy berating Israel for defending itself against the Palestinians to take much notice, particularly since it is an Arab state doing the "occupying."

Cases such as Western Sahara provide the most compelling proof of the international community's double standard regarding Israel and various other global conflicts. For all the attention devoted to every IDF roadblock set up, every curfew enforced and every Palestinian terrorist's home demolished, virtually nothing is said or heard when it comes to other land disputes, such as Morocco's brutal occupation of its neighbor.

In 1975, after the Spanish colonial regime in Western Sahara was withdrawn, the region's populace, known as the Sahrawis, looked forward to finally obtaining their long sought-after independence. Their hopes, however, were quickly dashed when the Moroccan army invaded, seizing control and claiming the area as its own.

In October 1975, the International Court of Justice ruled that Morocco's claim to the area was illegitimate, issuing an advisory opinion stating there was insufficient evidence to support "any tie of territorial sovereignty" between Western Sahara and Morocco. The Organization of African Unity, as well as some 75 nations worldwide, rejected Morocco's position and recognized the Sahrawi government-in-exile as the area's legitimate ruler.

But that has not stopped the Moroccans from pursuing their expansionist aims. Since the very beginning of their occupation they have been pouring money, resources and settlers into the area in a brazen attempt to "Moroccanize" Western Sahara and undermine any chance of it achieving freedom.

In 1980 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing "the inalienable right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination and independence" and expressed "deep concern" at the aggravation of the situation in Western Sahara as a result of the continued occupation of that territory by Morocco.

Though a 1991 UN-brokered cease-fire was meant to give the Sahrawis a choice between autonomy under Moroccan rule or outright independence, the Moroccan monarchy has spent the past 11 years hindering, delaying and stalling, and no vote has taken place.

AS FAR back as 1995 Human Rights Watch concluded that Morocco "has regularly engaged in conduct that has obstructed and compromised the fairness of the referendum process." In February this year 23 US Congressmen wrote to President George W. Bush accusing Morocco of having "created various obstacles to the referendum." Meanwhile, some 200,000 Sahrawi refugees languish in camps in neighboring Algeria, living in terrible conditions and afraid of returning home.

But the world, it seems, has little patience for such matters, preferring to court Morocco's King Muhammad VI rather than confront him about his country's policies. As a result, barely a peep is heard about the plight of Western Sahara. Indeed, how often does the international media file reports from "occupied Western Sahara"? How frequently do television and radio talk shows discuss Rabat's attempts to forge "Greater Morocco"? How many stories have appeared about gun-toting Moroccan settlers, backed by a trigger-happy army, moving in and displacing hapless Sahrawis from their homes? The answer speaks for itself.

The fact is that the media and various international groups place undue emphasis often bordering on obsession on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. We are bombarded so often with news and information about Israel and the Palestinians that it often seems to be the only crisis in the world other than Iraq and terrorism.

Take, for example, the European Union, whose Council of Presidents met in Copenhagen last week for a two-day summit. In a statement released after the meeting, just two major international issues, aside from the EU's expansion, received special mention: the Iraq crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the latter being the only conflict over
borders to merit such attention. And yet there are plenty of other border disputes out there, some of which pose a potentially far greater threat to international peace and security.

There was no mention in the EU statement of the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir, of China's insatiable desire to swallow Taiwan, or even of Russia's ongoing war in Chechnya, despite the fact that the protagonists in these conflicts all possess nuclear-weapons arsenals.

Instead the Europeans chose to devote their energies to sharply condemning the expansion of Jewish housing construction in Judea, Samaria and Gaza as if the addition of an extra bathroom or the refurbishing of a Jewish family's kitchen is a threat to global peace and stability.

This singular fixation on Israel is not only outlandish, it is hypocritical as well. Jews may indeed be news, as the old saying goes, but that doesn't mean all the news must be about Jews, and only about Jews. There are many other compelling human dramas out there such as the Sahrawis of Western Sahara which have yet to be scrutinized and dealt with.

By leaving these stories untold and instead focusing so intently on Israel, the international community is betraying not only its mandate, but its fairness and objectivity as well. And ultimately that is to everyone's detriment.

The writer served as deputy director of communications & policy planning in the (UK) Prime Minister's Office from 1996 to 1999. (Courtesy of Tomer Schwartz, chairperson of Union of Israeli Students in the UK).

(Crossposted here).