The depressing, crushing spectacle of extreme violence and mayhem unleashed across Israel and Palestine over recent days is a reminder of the depths to which humanity can sink.
To see complex historical, cultural and geopolitical questions – let alone humanity and decency – reduced to a ceaseless cycle of hatred, death and destruction is hard to stomach. We gaze at our TV screens aghast, we hear the threats, counter-threats, and the endless justifications and commentary. Meanwhile, the bloodletting goes on – and on. Western politicians, weighed down with simple binaries, take sides and in so doing obliterate any sense of context or complexity that might help us understand how this mess occurred in the first place.
Projecting the colours of the Israeli flag across the Sydney Opera House, declaring unflagging support for a state that for decades has thumbed its nose at UN resolutions and violently oppressed a besieged and impoverished population, is morally abhorrent.
The attempt to erase such concerns over recent days has been startling. At this point, to call for some acknowledgment of the origins of the conflict is to court accusations of siding with terrorists. And yet, as US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, arrives in Israel to demonstrate the US’s unwavering support, Israel is imposing an illegal blockade on Gaza (cutting of life-saving electricity and preventing passage of urgently needed medicines, food and other supplies) as bombs rein down with impunity on a narrow, congested strip of land occupied by 2.3 million people.
How can this be? Why has nuance been shed and historical memory so conveniently erased? Such abstractionism is of course continuing the egregious practice of labelling anyone who dares criticise Israel as antisemitic. This is absurd and ludicrous, and entirely misleading. In the meantime, we have the leader of the most extreme right-wing government in Israel’s history banging his fists together on TV urging extreme violence upon the people of Gaza. He urges them to flee to a checkpoint on the Egyptian border, knowing full well that it’s closed. So, in effect, the people in Gaza are trapped in a hellhole that day-by-day is being reduced to rubble. All this under the watch of the US, Britain and Australia.
Hamas’s attacks were horrific and utterly unacceptable; there’s no denying that. Many innocent people lost their lives, and the human suffering is unimaginable. But to then offer unwavering support to Israel, minus any mention of current and past wrongdoing, borders on the insane. It demonstrates a cruel, collective indifference. And Australia is complicit in this by implicitly endorsing the long-term suffering of Palestinians as Israeli government priority.
There are so many other ways western and other political leaders (including those in Israel) could have responded to a violent attack on innocent people. Instead, an entire population has to suffer the consequences of Hamas’s actions. It’s certainly not the first time that ordinary people in Gaza have paid the price. Just Google the statistics. There’s not a hint of compassion in any of this. Simple vengeance, even if this involves the mass slaughter of innocents appears acceptable, and is duly overlooked by western powers, apart from some glib calls for restraint.
Few would deny the right of a state to defend itself from violent attacks, but what does this mean when the response is so indiscriminate. This is where moral condemnation butts up against the impulse to wreak vengeance. Moreover, in rounding on all pro-Palestinian protests, we leverage unaccountable, organised violence. It’s striking that senior conservative politicians in Australia have questioned calls for restraint in the current crisis, as if this is appeasement. It’s ridiculous, as is the suggestion of sending more ammunition to the Israeli military.
Responding to protests in New York City, the Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez noted that these, “did not speak for the thousands of New Yorkers who are capable of rejecting both Hamas’ horrifying attacks against innocent civilians as well as the grave injustices and violence Palestinians face under occupation”. At least this statement reflects some sense of what is going on in the Middle East. It recognises all injustices when they occur – and calls them out. But it also invites a deeper historical understanding. Hamas has done terrible things, and the Israeli state has treated the Palestinian people cruelly and illegally since 1948. This is not a matter of moral equivalence, but a statement of historical fact. To ignore the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, to turn a blind eye to the assaults and killings, daily humiliations and impoverishment of the Palestinian population is to be complicit in their long-time suffering.
Rather than meeting violence with more violence, attention should turn toward how peace with justice might become a reality. Whatever else recent events demonstrate, it’s that oppressing people and subjecting them to even more violence is the road to failure. How many more times does that lesson have to be learnt?
It is worth remembering the words of former Norwegian Prime Minister, and new NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg who in the wake of the 2011 mass murder of 70 young people by right-wing gunman Anders Breivik said: “We are still shocked by what has happened, but will never give up our values…Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity.” He vowed his country would not seek vengeance; “we will answer hatred with love”. In a later news conference, Stoltenberg added: “The message to whoever attacked us, the message from all of Norway is that you will not destroy us, you will not destroy our democracy and our ideals for a better world.” This better world does not include blind rage and vengeance, or continuing oppression and violence.
This is a very different mindset that invites power to create that better world. Until and when human rights, social justice, antiracism, nonviolence and peace with justice are accepted as foundational principles – and embraced in good faith – nothing in the Middle East will change.