It is a disputed tract of land the size of Britain, it has been under occupation for nearly four decades, and hundreds of thousands of its Arab residents have been turned into refugees as a result of an aggressive and expansionist settlement policy.
Periodic peace talks between the protagonists have failed, UN resolutions on the subject remain unimplemented and the basic human rights of those living under occupation are continually and summarily ignored.
Yet despite the ongoing conflict surrounding this considerable piece of territory, even the most knowledgeable public policy observers would have difficulty identifying it as Western Sahara or recognizing that the occupier in question is Morocco.
Indeed, it says a lot about the media and the international community these days that most people reading the opening few sentences of this column would mistakenly think that it was a reference to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, even though the above-mentioned allegations are in fact not applicable to us.
But if you are wondering why you have never heard of Western Sahara, or perhaps thought it was a reference to an old John Wayne flick, that is probably because it is one of many such conflicts worldwide that receive little or no attention despite the wrongs being perpetrated.
The Obama administration, the European Union and much of the mainstream Western press are apparently too busy scolding Israel for building a few apartments in its capital city to pay much attention to Morocco’s misdeeds, particularly since the latter is an Arab state that is doing the « occupying. »
THE SAD story of Western Sahara stretches back to 1975, when Spain withdrew its colonial administration. In the wake of the Spanish retreat, Morocco invaded and claimed the territory as its own, denying the area’s residents, referred to as Sahrawis, the fundamental right to freedom and self-determination.
In response, the Sahrawi independence movement, known as the Polisario, launched a guerrilla war against the Moroccan occupation.
Later that year, the International Court of Justice ruled that Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara was illegitimate, and the Organization of African Unity, along with dozens of other countries worldwide, recognized the Polisario’s self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
The fighting continued until 1991, when the UN brokered a cease-fire that included the promise of a referendum to determine the territory’s future.
But for nearly two decades, Morocco’s unelected monarchy has refused to allow the vote to take place. Instead, it has been steadily trying to « Moroccanize » the area by pouring in thousands of Moroccan settlers in a transparent attempt to alter the demography and tilt the balance in its favor.
In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of Sahrawi refugees are huddled in camps in neighboring Algeria, enduring squalid conditions and facing an uncertain future.
But rather than standing up to Morocco for its abuses, the world has largely chosen to ignore them. For example, on April 8, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed Moroccan Foreign Minister Dr. Taieb Fassi Fihri to Washington. In her remarks to the press before the meeting, Clinton heaped praise on Rabat, but made no mention of the Western Sahara issue.
And when I checked the US State Department Web site and searched for Western Sahara in the daily press briefings held since the start of the year, the results returned a big and unmistakable zero.
Likewise, when was the last time you heard calls for Morocco to freeze construction of settler homes in Western Sahara, or threats to boycott Moroccan products because of its settlement policy in the area? And when was the last time that the editorial pages of major Western newspapers denounced Rabat’s brazen attempts to forge a « Greater Morocco »?
NOT SURPRISINGLY, the lack of international pressure has enabled Morocco to dither with impunity. Despite two rounds of UN-sponsored peace talks in 2007, and some meetings between negotiators earlier this year, no progress has been made in finding a solution for the beleaguered Sahrawi people.
The Western Sahara issue, and others like it, demonstrates just how unjust the international community can be. They howl and holler about Israel and Jewish « settlers, » all the while ignoring Morocco and its own brand of Arab settlers. Apparently, not all settlers are created equal, at least not in the minds of many of the world’s leaders and peace activists.
Of course I don’t mean to suggest that Israel’s policies are comparable to those of Morocco, for the simple reason that I view our presence in the territories as historically just and eminently moral, while Rabat is simply engaging in a lusty land grab.
But those who do view Israel’s liberation of Judea and Samaria as an immoral « occupation » need to realize that their obsession with the Jewish state comes at a price.
Jews may very well be news, as the old saying goes, but that does not mean that all the news must be only about Jews. By focusing so compulsively on Israel, the international community is betraying its mandate and objectivity.
And by holding Israel to an unjust and incongruous double standard, it is allowing other countries, such as Morocco, to literally get away with theft and murder.
So next time someone asks what you think of « the settlement issue, » have some fun with the question and tell them that you oppose what Morocco is doing. It’s not hard to predict what their response will be, but it is high time we started shifting the debate to where it truly belongs.