The Anatomy of Condemnation Politics

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In international politics, condemnation is as much about decoupling the truth from its context as it is about demanding justice and channelling solidarity.


If there is one lesson to be learned from the latest paroxysm of bloodshed engulfing Israel and Palestine and taking the world by surprise, it is that occupation exacts an enormous price from the occupier. But how much does occupation cost the occupier, one might reasonably ask? More than anything, occupation requires the occupier to keep those whose lands had been seized at bay. To sustain settler colonialism, there must be a clear segregation between the coloniser and the colonised.

Unsurprisingly then, eyebrows are being raised about the Israeli state’s capability, or lack thereof, to prevent any serious breach of one of the world’s most fortified borders that sustains its occupation. On the other side of the divide, as many critics of Israel repeatedly point out, is the world’s largest open-air prison, also known as the Gaza Strip. Thus, in a way, it makes sense that ordinary Israelis are pointing the finger at their government and military, for it is the prison authorities who bear the primary responsibility to prevent a prison break.

The border barrier separating Israel and Gaza is a technological marvel — albeit of a dystopian variety — with its barbed-wire fences bolstered by high walls and reinforced barriers, watch towers, surveillance cameras, the sensors-equipped underground anti-tunnel ‘Iron Wall’, and the ‘Iron Dome’ air defence system. It is, however, not sentient — at least not yet — and must rely on human superintendence to remain vigilant. It must also be complemented by an extensive intelligence gathering programme that probes into every nook and cranny of life in Gaza, with drones in the firmament and moles on the ground.

It transpired, moreover, that the barrier cannot sustain its integrity without heavy military reinforcement. As a result, when push came to shove, the few soldiers guarding it found themselves put to rout, then killed or taken hostage. Later, when Hamas militants stormed a music festival, indiscriminately shooting and slaughtering hundreds of festival attendees and taking some as hostages, nobody rushed to their immediate rescue, least of all the IDF.

It didn’t or couldn’t because its forces were busy demonstrating its raison d’être, aiding and abetting Israeli settlers in the West Bank to grab new Palestinian territories, which, if needed, presumably also could serve as festival venues in the future. In a bitter irony of fate, Israel had left its towns and cities vulnerable thanks to its relentless pursuit of arrogating more Palestinian lands. And it is partly due to a failure in intelligence gathering that the barrier stood idle when Hamas launched its surprise attack on Israel.

To the Israeli people, the true scale of the cost of occupation should now begin to register. When perpetuated ad infinitum, occupation turns inwards —  like the proverbial chicken, it comes home to roost. In the last few years, the Israeli state has been at war with itself. For a long time, many, if not all, liberal Israelis have cheered or remained quiet while their hard-right compatriots illegally annexed more Palestinian territories, denying more and more Palestinians their human dignity.

The demand placed on Palestinians to condemn Hamas’s action will end up silencing them. Any such demand legitimises occupation by decoupling the attack from its background context. It sets the terms of the debate in favour of the occupying forces. Under the circumstances, refusing to condemn could be an act of legitimate resistance. Refusing to condemn allows shifting the responsibility to make amends from the victims to the perpetrators, both Israeli and Palestinian. It enables a Gestalt shift in how the West has hitherto approached the question of Palestine.

Israeli politics has shifted rightwards in tandem, allowing far-right and extreme far-right parties to elevate to power, with politicians accused of corruption assuming key ministerial-level positions, including prime ministership.

Those who defy international laws will sooner or later violate domestic laws, and if the judiciary stands in their way, they will attempt to subvert it as well. The proposed judicial reforms will fundamentally corrode the Israeli judiciary’s independence. These are thus vehemently rejected not only by a significant number of Israeli civilians but also by many representing the military establishment.

If implemented, these reforms will also tarnish Israel’s much-vaunted reputation — at least in the Western world — of being the only democracy in the Middle East. The recent political developments in Israel have steadily coalesced into a new demarcation line within its constantly shifting borders. The state of Israel once could fight its enemies as one nation, real or imagined. Today, it carries too heavy a burden of infighting, and there is a real danger that it may collapse into itself — as does a dying star.

It is against this backdrop Israel’s colossal failure to prevent an attack of such magnitude took shape. Preoccupied with terrorising Palestinians in the West Bank and distracted by its domestic political turmoil, Israel had, of late, failed to pay enough attention to Gaza, missing crucial titbits about Hamas’s planning of the attack. It had been content with issuing a limited number of work permits to Gazans, believing such a concession would deter them from mounting any attack.

Imagine the lack of gratitude displayed by a people corralled into a tiny piece of land and doomed to live like caged animals perpetually, who demand more than just to eke out a living by working for their tormentors. Imagine the audacity of a few of them, misguided as they were, who wasted no time exploiting such a rare opportunity to retaliate.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Western allies have once again bestowed carte blanche to its latest Pavlovian response to any Hamas attack — collective punishment for the entire Gaza populace. Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’ has rendered the human rights of Palestinians null and void. Their eligibility for EU humanitarian aid is under scrutiny. They are no longer granted access to food, electricity, and running water, for these are only for human beings but not human animals. It’s open season at the Gaza Safari Park.

At the same time, many Western media outlets are on a mission to secure condemnations for Hamas’s attack from non-Hamas Palestinians and their sympathisers. In this case, condemnation must resound as a confession, for those who champion the Palestinian cause are deemed guilty by association. After condemnation is secured, they can all fall back into the familiar groove of not caring an iota about the humiliations Palestinians encounter on a quotidian basis living under occupation.

A few Jewish intellectuals regularly wonder why, despite there being conflicts of greater magnitudes, — think of the wars in Syria, Yemen, and most recently in Ukraine — the Israel-Palestine conflict has such a grip on humanity, why the plight of Palestinians engenders such raw emotions in their allies and sympathisers? One explanation could be that in no other conflict do the Western media ask victims of violence on one side to condemn similar violence against the other side — violence these victims did not partake in — but would not place the same demand on the other side. In the dominant narrative of the Israel-Palestine wars, Israelis get killed, but Palestinians only die.

The demand placed on Palestinians to condemn Hamas’s action will end up silencing them. Any such demand legitimises occupation by decoupling the attack from its background context. It sets the terms of the debate in favour of the occupying forces. Under the circumstances, refusing to condemn could be an act of legitimate resistance. Refusing to condemn allows shifting the responsibility to make amends from the victims to the perpetrators, both Israeli and Palestinian. It enables a Gestalt shift in how the West has hitherto approached the question of Palestine.

People in Palestine ask why the plights of Israelis and Palestinians often fail to resonate in equal measure with a large section of the Western audience. Unfortunately, such is humanity’s foible that we tend to empathise more with victims we can relate with. When Westerners hear news about young Israelis being gunned down at a music festival, they can easily imagine how they would feel had they found themselves in a similar situation, as musical festivals are a core feature of the Western cultural zeitgeist.

Gaza residents, in contrast, do not have the luxury of attending music festivals despite often living a stone’s throw away from an Israeli festival venue. They endure a subhuman existence; they are subject to a cull at the slightest whiff of contagions like freedom and rebellion. Such experience is alien to Westerners. Even if Palestinians refuse to do so, that they live under dehumanising circumstances is a reality that Israel’s Western allies have accepted as the status quo. This, however, does not stop Western governments from demanding compliance with the rules of war from a people they otherwise refuse to consider having equal human worth.

Many Western and Israeli civilians thus respond to scenes of Palestinians indiscriminately being bombarded in the same way most people react to nature documentaries. When an apex predator chases down its prey, most of us feel fascinated — perhaps also a tad sad — but rarely do we feel as horrified as we would had its victim been a human. In the end, it is the Rohingyas and the Uighurs who find much in common with Gazans because they lead just as precarious lives and exert just as little influence in international politics as Palestinians.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is unique in other ways as well. It is unique because it deters victims of similar atrocities from joining in common cause with the Palestinians. How else can we make sense of Ukrainians supporting Israel, who share an identical struggle with the Palestinians —who, just like Palestinians, are fighting to fend off an invader? It is one of a kind because it sends the moral compass of people supporting a just cause into a tailspin. How else can we explain why some Palestine supporters celebrated Hamas’s killing of fellow human beings, drawing vicarious pleasure from its heinous acts?

Some Israeli commentators have suggested that the latest Hamas attack is Israel’s own 9/11. There are, however, vast differences in circumstances. Israel will not succeed by following America’s delenda strategy. It cannot match America’s economic clout and military might. Unlike the United States, Israel is surrounded by enemies on all sides. Neither could the United States put a lid on Islamist terrorism by occupying Afghanistan and Iraq. Its War on Terror could not make American lives safer. Similarly, Israel and its allies cannot expect different results by pursuing the same old strategy of meting out collective punishment on Palestinians.

Whatever the consequences, as long as there is occupation, as long as there is apartheid, Palestinians will fight for their right to equal human dignity, and Israeli persecution will be met with violent retaliations, resulting in civilian deaths on both sides. After the latest sea change in Middle Eastern politics, the Abraham Accords are about to go up in smoke, leaving Israel with two choices: Either gradually or in one fell swoop, it annihilates the Palestinian people, thereby putting its own existence into jeopardy, or it returns them their human right to control their own destiny. We can only hope it opts for the latter. Or we must make it.

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