Suggesting that both sides are equally to blame is not a defensible position
It has been three weeks since the Israeli army launched a full-scale assault on the Gaza Strip, popularly termed a war between Israel and Hamas. Following an assault by the military wing of Hamas on Israeli soldiers and civilians, the Israeli government declared its intention to eliminate the group. In its efforts to do so, Israel has pummelled the Palestinian population in Gaza with airstrikes. It has cut civilians' access to water, food and power. And it has amassed hundreds of thousands of troops for a ground invasion, which has now begun.
According to the Ministry of Health in Gaza and the United Nations, over 8000 Palestinians have already been killed, some 40% of whom were children, and more than half of Gaza's residents are now displaced. It has also disappeared thousands of Palestinians from Gaza, doubling the number of Palestinian prisoners in just two weeks. They are now believed to be held in inhumane detention conditions. And, in the West Bank, it has violently invaded Palestinian towns and refugee camps, killing more than 100 people.
Meanwhile, another campaign is raging on the airwaves and across social media. Waged by both volunteers and professional pundits, Tiktok, X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, and Facebook are all overflowing with content aimed at influencing public opinion on the crisis. Some posts make light of Palestinian death with memefied, casual cruelty. Others sex up the Israeli Defence Forces. Still others cheerlead genocide.
Talking heads promising wisdom, hard truths or explanations for the conflict from across the political spectrum are also everywhere. As researchers both specialising on Palestine, we've taken a keen interest in what they've been saying. And on the side of Israel's apologists, we've seen two main narratives at work.
Both are deeply flawed. The first ignores all context to portray Israel as the undeniable victim of a brutish neighbour. The second draws selectively on context to portray Hamas and Israel as more or less equal adversaries tragically unable to come to an accord. This narrative, designed to appeal to moderates and confound pro-Palestinian messaging, argues that everyone has blood on their hands in this endless cycle of violence - meaning no easy condemnation of Israel is possible.
Standing with Israel
While the glaring narrow-mindedness of the first narrative should be self-evident in the face of Israel's crimes against humanity in Gaza, many American, British and European officials and pundits have openly embraced it. Prominent Christian evangelical media figures have also voiced their support, calling for unwavering solidarity with Israel.
Annalena Baerbock, the German foreign minister, put the 7 October attack in a vacuum at the recent peace summit in Cairo: "The reason for all the pain in the past weeks - the pain that has brought us here today - has a name. It was Hamas that brought horrible terror to Israel on 7 October and perpetrated abominable crimes."
Joe Biden, the US president, was equally one-sided in his speech in Tel Aviv:
Hamas committed atrocities that recall the worst ravages of ISIS, unleashing pure unadulterated evil upon the world. There is no rationalizing it, no excusing it. Period. ... The State of Israel was born to be a safe place for the Jewish people of the world. ... And I promise you: We're going to do everything in our power to make sure that it will be.
The US has since voted against a UN security council resolution calling for humanitarian pauses to allow the delivery of life-saving aid to Gaza. As US Secretary of State Blinken put it, "We're not in the business of second-guessing what [Israel] are doing."
This guiding thought has led some Western politicians to explicitly endorse Israel's crimes against humanity. Keir Starmer, the head of the opposition in the UK, unequivocally endorsed collective punishment for the Palestinian people when he said that Israel had the right to cut off food, water and power from 2.4 million people in response to Hamas' attack. This blatantly disregards Article 55 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which binds Israel to certain obligations under the law of occupation, notably ensuring that the population of Gaza has access to food, medicines, and other essential goods. Yet, for Starmer, a trained human right lawyer, and many others like him, it appears that threatening mass starvation and dehydration is deemed a valid tool of self-defense for Israel.
Neutered in the middle
As the number of Palestinians killed in Gaza quickly rises, we are hearing more of the second narrative of equally shared responsibility. A call for peace and recognition has been echoed by Hollywood stars and other prominent figures in the entertainment industry. The United Nations' human rights agency recently issued a press release condemning both parties:
We strongly condemn the horrific crimes committed by Hamas, the deliberate and widespread killing and hostage-taking of innocent civilians, including older persons and children. These actions constitute heinous violations of international law and international crimes, for which there must be urgent accountability [..] We also strongly condemn Israel's indiscriminate military attacks against the already exhausted Palestinian people of Gaza, comprising over 2.3 million people, nearly half of whom are children. They have lived under unlawful blockade for 16 years, and already gone through five major brutal wars, which remain unaccounted for.
In the past days we've seen reminders that all civilian life has equal value (Baerbock), commitments of humanitarian aid (Biden), and acknowledgments of Palestinian suffering (British PM Rishi Sunak). But we've yet to see a national leader in the West, apart from UN Secretary General António Guterres, suggest that stopping the indiscriminate attack would save more lives than a humanitarian corridor.
The crux of the problem, we are told by political leaders and much of the media, is that Israelis and Palestinians are caught in a loop. Yes, the Israeli government can be a bit heavy-handed and makes mistakes. But the Palestinians too have their share of blame. All parties, we hear, should respect international law.
To the subscribers of this narrative, the fact that Israel has for decades maintained an occupation of Palestine that is illegal under international law pales into insignificance considering the war crimes committed by Hamas. Their conclusion is that, in a tragedy of such unimaginable pain on all sides, chasing after the one who threw the first punch, and pinning it all on them, is a fool's errand. Both are to blame.
We oppose violence too. But one might ask: why focus on condemning both parties equally? If the crux of the issue is rooted in historical and contextual injustice, does equating the violence of both parties not divert from understanding this context? Doesn't this approach potentially ensnare the discourse in a quagmire of mutual blame and perceived equal suffering?
When the capacity of one side to exert violence over the other is so overwhelmingly disproportionate, surely even to the most moderate of moderates, something rings discordant here.
At the start of the invasion, Israel's defence minister said that "We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly". Hundreds are now being killed every day, and when Palestinians in the north obeyed Israel's order to travel south they were bombed anyway. The tired metaphor of 'shooting fish in a barrel' has never been so apt. Every message we have received from colleagues and friends in Gaza is the same: Israel's bombardment is like nothing they have ever experienced before.
The balance metaphor only works if weights of equal measure are distributed on both plates. If power were equally distributed, so too would be responsibility. But with Israel-Palestine these two weights are in no way equivalent.
Israel was built on the mass expulsion of Palestinians, many of whom became refugees in the Gaza Strip. Since 1948 Israel has steadily expelled Palestinians from the remaining land they have left, imposing a regime of apartheid in doing so. It has held the entire population of Gaza under blockade since 2007, militarily occupies the West Bank, and operates punitive systems of control that result in Palestinian death, detention and suffering with mundane regularity. It actively uses settlers to solidify its control over occupied territory, undermining the possibility of a two-state solution. And it possesses some of the world's most advanced weaponry, all while the United States and other Western governments watch its back.
Israel wields infinitely more power here, it calls the tune. The military wing of Hamas must be held to account for its war crimes, but Israel is primarily responsible for the context in which those crimes have been committed.
The belief that the truth lies somewhere in the middle justifies apathy and cloaks moral remorse. Somehow failing to take a stand is seen as a virtue. It allows for this to be erroneously labelled as a war between Israel and Hamas. In reality, what is unfolding in Gaza has been described by the UN Office of Human Rights as ethnic cleansing - a situation that neither the persecutions suffered by the Jewish people over centuries, nor the war crimes committed on and around 7 October can downplay.
The extensive documentation of Israel's attack on civilians in Gaza, primarily by Palestinians journalists but also by health workers, NGO staff and civilians is widely available. Nobody can say they did not know, and the role of the general public has never been more important.
People are taking to the streets in protest of Israel's actions like never before in Sanaa, Amman, Cairo, Beirut and Tunis. In European cities, protests have continued despite being prohibited by police; in London, 100,000 people demonstrated last weekend; while in Washington DC, hundreds of Jewish protestors were arrested for occupying a congress building and demanding a ceasefire. Much of the general public, it would seem, are on the right side of history. The task now is to convince our political leaders to take a stand.
The violence of resistance and the violence of oppression are often equated to give the latter more legitimacy, and to maintain an existing order. Genuine hope for change only comes when public opinion rejects that equivalence. ALL the atrocities committed by the Israeli state - both during the past three weeks and as an occupying power in general - must be condemned every bit as harshly as the actions of Hamas, and by as many people as possible. It is the only way that we can compel Western powers to intervene in this encroaching genocide of Palestinians.
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