Dehumanizing the Palestinians

A dark future ahead: Palestinian children hold traditional Ramadan lamps during a march organized by Hamas in Gaza City, September 2007. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

The Israeli cabinet has voted to declare the occupied Gaza Strip a “hostile entity,” thus in its own eyes permitting itself to cut off the already meagre supplies of electricity (needed among other things to pump water), fuel and other basic necessities that it allows the Strip’s inmates to receive. The decision was quickly given backing by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Israel is the occupying power in the Gaza Strip, despite having removed its settlers in 2005 and transforming the area, home to 1.5 million mostly refugee Palestinians, into the world’s largest open-air prison which it besieges and fires into from the perimeter. Under international law Israel is responsible for the well-being of the people whose lives and land it rules.

There have been barely audible bleats of protest from the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (“Such a step would be contrary to Israel’s obligations towards the civilian population under international humanitarian and human rights law”) and the European Union (“The [European] Commission hopes that Israel will not find it necessary to implement the measures for which the [cabinet] decisions set the framework yesterday.”

What? It hopes that Israel will not find it necessary to cut off basic necessities to 1.5 million people of whom half are children?

These statements serve only to underline that Israel operates in a context where the “international community” has become inured to a discourse of extermination of the Palestinian people — political and physical.

Yossi Alpher, for example, a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and once a special adviser to former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, argued coolly this week that Israel should murder the democratically-elected leaders who won the Palestinian legislative election in January 2006 — calling for “decapitating the Hamas leadership, both military and ‘civilian.’” True, he admitted, there would be a possible downside: “Israel would again undoubtedly pay a price in terms of international condemnation, particularly if innocent civilians were killed,” and because “Israel would presumably be targeting legally elected Hamas officials who won a fair election.” Nevertheless, such condemnation would be quickly forgotten and, he argued, “this is a mode of retaliation and deterrence whose effectiveness has been proven,” and thus, this is “an option worth reconsidering.”

Alpher incited the murder of democratically-elected politicians not in a fringe, right-wing journal, but in the European Union-funded online newsletter Bitterlemons, which he co-founded along with former Palestinian Authority minister Ghassan Khatib. What journal would publish a call by a Palestinian — or anyone else — to murder the Israeli prime minister? Alpher presumably does not worry that he will be denied visas to travel to conferences in the European Union, or will fail to receive invitations to American universities. History tells us that he can feel confident he will suffer no consequences. Indeed, in the current political climate, any attempt to exclude Alpher might even be cast as an attack on academic freedom!

Declarations that reduce Palestinians to bare biological life that can be extinguished without any moral doubt are not isolated exceptions. In May, as reported by The Jerusalem Post, Israel’s former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu issued a religious ruling to the prime minister “that there was absolutely no moral prohibition against the indiscriminate killing of civilians during a potential massive military offensive on Gaza aimed at stopping the rocket launchings” (See “Top Israeli rabbis advocate genocide,” The Electronic Intifada, 31 May 2007). I could find no statement by any prominent Israeli figure condemning Eliyahu’s ruling.

And, in a September 6 blog posting, an advisor to leading US Republican Presidential hopeful Rudolph Giuliani argued for “shutting off utilities to the Palestinian Authority as well as a host of other measures, such as permitting no transportation in the PA of people or goods beyond basic necessities, implementing the death penalty against murderers, and razing villages from which attacks are launched.” This, the advisor stated, would “impress Palestinians with the Israeli will to survive, and so bring closer their eventual acceptance of the Jewish state.” (See: “Giuliani Advisor: Raze Palestinian Villages,” by Ken Silverstein, Harper’s Magazine, 14 September 2007) Giuliani faced no calls from other candidates to dismiss the advisor for advocating ethno-religiously motivated war crimes. Indeed the presence of such a person in his campaign might even be an electoral asset.

The latest Israeli government declaration comes as Palestinians this week marked the 25th anniversary of the massacres in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, in which the Israeli occupation army and political leadership were full participants. We can reflect that Israel’s dehumanization of Palestinians and other Arabs, its near daily killing of children, destruction of communities and racist apartheid against millions of people has been so normalized that if those massacres occurred today Israel would not need to go through the elaborate exercise of denying its culpability. Indeed, the “international community” might barely notice.

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books, 2006).