Once again Israel defies an impotent international community which offers nothing but timid calls for ceasefire on “both sides.” And once again Palestinian suffering and death tolls continue to break records in the territories occupied by Israel since 1967.
Perhaps it is easy to dismiss this suffering by blaming the victims and resorting to ready cliches. Indeed, Israeli propagandists go out of their way to repeat the sound bite: we withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and since then the Palestinians have been firing rockets on our southern towns. This sound bite might fly in the western media; after all it resonates with a simplistic world view that ignites stereotypes which have been in the making for centuries, producing demonic and degrading representations of Muslims and Arabs. It becomes easy to describe the Palestinians in this context as the carriers of incomprehensible and irrational rage. This kind of representation has intensified since September 2001 with the “rediscovery” of Israel, and its supreme court, as a western lighthouse amid the darkness of the Middle East.
When examined closely, however, reality rules out crude explanations of “violence without reason” and “terrorism without context.” It becomes apparent that one cannot seriously discuss a legitimate resistance to a prolonged and horrendous military occupation within the context of the “war on terrorism.” Moreover, even if one finds a place to critique some practices of the oppressed one should keep in mind the root of the problem: it is the occupation, not the resistance. No rhetorical device can conceal the reality of colonialism by transforming it either to a mere “conflict” between equally culpable sides or to portray the occupier as the retaliating victim.
In his most recent report of January 2008, the UN rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied territories has recounted Israel’s actions in Gaza, calling them “war crimes” and demonstrating how these have been relentlessly producing a humanitarian crisis. Indeed, more than 80 percent of Gaza’s Palestinians are living below the poverty line and depend on the food aid supplied by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA. In recent years Israel has destroyed power plants and other civilian facilities, reduced the fuel and electricity supply, and closed the borders. Palestinians’ basic human needs, such as movement, food and medical treatment, became totally dependent on the whims of Israeli security technocrats and political demagogues. It was unsurprising then to witness on 23 January the overflow of tens of thousands of Palestinians to Egypt following the destruction of a part of the Gaza-Egypt border.
By the so-called disengagement plan Israel has aimed to escape its responsibility for Gaza’s fate while effectively remaining the occupier. It has also sought to impede Palestinian self-determination by separating the West Bank from Gaza and intensifying the colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem along with the vehement denial of the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. One cannot expect the Palestinians to sit quietly while Israel is creating facts on the ground to transform and fragment the ever-shrinking Palestinian homeland making their aspirations as remote as they have ever been. One cannot expect the Palestinians to submit to their reduction from humans to mere beings concerned only with survival.
Israel should not be allowed to escape its responsibility. The tens of thousands of Palestinians who have been killed, wounded, imprisoned, or handicapped only in recent years, and the thousands of houses that have been demolished can testify to the cruelty of one of the longest military occupations in recent modern history.
Unfortunately, parts of the international community have tolerated Israel’s atrocities and continue to turn a blind eye on Israel’s long list of war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is hard to escape the irony and hypocrisy when we compare the international strong condemnation of the capture of Israeli soldiers by resistance groups and the timid calls for Israel “to restrain” herself in massacring the Palestinians or in destroying Lebanon. These Israeli soldiers have names and families that broadcasters around the world learn to spell, while the Palestinians remain nameless and faceless numbers. This hypocrisy conveys a dichotomy between the powerful who by definition cannot commit terrorism no matter how reprehensible the actions are, and the underprivileged who by definition cannot commit but terrorism no matter how marginal and pitiful the actions are.
It is about time that Israel be held accountable. There is a need for an international protection for the Palestinians. Under the current conditions of gross power asymmetry it is unlikely that Israel will comply with the demands of international law and just peace without a pressure from the international community. The sooner this pressure comes and the sooner the international community assumes its responsibility, the less suffering we will witness in the region.
The Palestinians, however, cannot wait till the international community self-awakes into action. They will have to continue to resist in order to assert and restore their humanity. And for that purpose they will have to overcome their own internal differences and unite. Indeed, the long walk toward Palestinian freedom is overwhelming and becoming even more demanding of Palestinian blood. Yet, history informs us that the Palestinians will eventually have their freedom like the South Africans, Algerians, Egyptians, Indians and others.
Not only will the Palestinians overthrow the colonial yoke, but they will also have grounds for questioning the international community on its indifference to their cry for freedom and justice, and its apathy to the too heavy price that has been paid for these noble aspirations. Indeed, the question of Palestine is the current litmus test for the human condition under modernity. Palestinians bear not only the burden of liberating themselves but also of unmasking humanity’s false pretensions; ie exposing the realities of power that always trump universalist and humanist postures. In this sense, Palestinians are the voice of the wretched of the earth.
Nimer Sultany is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and currently a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School. He has worked as a human rights lawyer in the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and as the head of the political monitoring project at Mada al-Carmel (the Arab center for applied social research). This commentary was originally published by The Guardian’s Comment is Free and is republished with the author’s permission.