As usual, there has been a disproportionate and unbalanced reaction to recent and ongoing violence in our region. Since late September, Israel has been butchering civilians in the occupied Gaza Strip. As I write, the death toll has passed 115, of which over 30 are children.
Israel routinely kills 10 to 12 Palestinians per day, the daily equivalent of a Palestinian suicide bombing or two. Israel is engaged in the mass destruction of the Gaza Strip, subjecting people who have been suffering for decades from what in any other circumstances world leaders would denounce as ethnic cleansing if not outright genocide. Yet, other than pro forma criticism, there is great tolerance for the ongoing massacre.
Not only that, but some parties have even rushed to Israel’s assistance. At the beginning of this month, Israel accused UNRWA, the UN agency that has been providing basic services to Palestinian refugees since their expulsion from their homeland, of allowing an ambulance to be used by Palestinians to transport rockets for attacks on Israel. Israel’s ambassador at the UN was quick to demand the dismissal of UNRWA Commissioner General Peter Hansen. Instead of rejecting the Israeli charges as the obvious fabrications and propaganda that they were, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan immediately appointed a team of investigators and rushed them to Israel to investigate the accusations. This gave entirely undeserved credibility to the Israeli claims, which it eventually embarrassingly withdrew, and cast UNRWA in a highly unfavourable light. While Israel was embarrassed, the damage had been done as the American media often report only the initial charges and rarely follows a story to the end.
Had Annan treated every issue in the region with such seriousness, his action would not have stood out. But while rushing to investigate alleged actions against Israel, he did not lift a finger to investigate or halt the Israeli assault on Gaza during which, among other things, Israel destroyed an UNRWA-run kindergarten in Beit Lahia. Annan’s shocking pandering to Israel contrasts with the way he disbanded the Security Council-ordered investigation into Israel’s destruction of the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002. Before disbanding the investigation team, Annan caved in to Israeli pressure by removing Hansen as one of the members of the team, thus casting doubt on his integrity and neutrality.
The fact is that UNRWA, and indeed any agency, that aims to assist Palestinians and mitigate the deliberate and sadistic harm that Israel is doing to them has been targeted by Israel and its allies for liquidation. In the region, Israel has been attacking the agency and its personnel, impeding their work and occasionally killing its personnel, as it killed Iain Hook in Jenin in November 2002. Meanwhile, Israel’s allies in the United States have been conducting a campaign against UNRWA in the media and in Congress, charging the agency, absolutely falsely, of assisting Palestinian “terrorists” and inciting violence in the schools it runs. The secretary general of the UN knows all of this background, yet by failing to stand up to Israel in defence of his own people, and a UN organisation, he simply encourages this campaign of hate and incitement, as he encourages defiance of international law and UN resolutions by Israel.
The allegations against UNRWA were not even the most repulsive of Israel’s lies. On Oct. 5, Israeli troops shot dead a 13-year-old schoolgirl, Iman Al Hams, in Rafah, southern Gaza. As usual, Israel claimed that the child had been attempting to plant a bomb and thus constituted a deadly threat to its heavily armed occupation troops. Yet, on Oct. 11, the Israeli military prosecutor announced an investigation into allegations made by other soldiers that after the girl was shot, their company commander fired two bullets into her head at close range, and then returned a third time and emptied an entire magazine into her body.
Since the Intifada began, Israel has killed over 500 children. Virtually none of these cases has been investigated, despite overwhelming evidence that the children are usually shot in the head or chest, indicating a deliberate pattern of targeting. Perhaps only because this case was reported by other soldiers is it among those rare cases being investigated. When Palestinians describe the daily atrocities they suffer, not only are their stories dismissed, but the criminals are not punished.
On top of the atrocities in Gaza, the region was left reeling by the bomb attacks in Taba which targeted Israeli tourists and killed several dozen people, among them many Egyptians and other nationalities. This brought bitter denunciations from world leaders who naturally viewed it as an atrocious terrorist outrage. In the current anti-terrorism hysteria, why are we supposed to feel that the murder of civilians by a suicide bomber in an exploding truck is more terrible than the murder of civilians by a man in a tank, or a helicopter or a bulldozer wearing a uniform?
Israel’s assault on Gaza killed more children in a few days than the entire number of victims in Taba. It is simply immoral to continue to pretend that there is any difference whatsoever between the two types of terrorism. The point here is not to say that the attack in Taba is in any way excusable or justifiable, but rather to underline that the attacks in Gaza should be treated just like the attacks in Taba, as terrorist outrages, viciously targeted and calculated to kill innocent people.
If Western leaders and commentators recoil at this equivalence, they should at least understand that people here in this region already see the parallel. What they see are powerful nations that treat the lives of Jewish Israelis and other Westerners as inherently more valuable and worthy of protection than those of Arabs, Muslims and other people of colour. This is the case in Palestine and in Iraq. Europeans and Americans kidnapped by Iraqis and sometimes brutally murdered receive far more attention than the Iraqi children and guests at weddings that Arab television viewers routinely see being pulled out of rubble of buildings bombed by the United States in Fallujah and Samarra. Every sane person must unreservedly condemn the horrifying beheadings that have been taking place in Iraq, but it should be no crime to ask why they are taking place now, and why they never occurred before in the history of Iraq or the region.
More and more we see a world in which those who possess high-tech weaponry and uniforms are entitled to kill people far from their shores with absolute impunity and call it “self-defence” while those who challenge them in their own streets and villages in any way are labelled “terrorists”. The world’s expressed outrage at Taba and relative silence about Gaza and American actions in Iraq does not go unnoticed in the region. Rather, the double standard only fuels the fires of anger and extremism and leads to ever more desperate and horrid reactions.
Strangely though, Israel, which usually blames the Palestinians for absolutely everything, went to great lengths to exonerate them of any responsibility for the Taba attacks and was quick to blame Al Qaeda despite the absence of any evidence one way or the other. This was, of course, no act of generosity. Israel is simply desperate for the world not to draw the most obvious conclusion: as long as Israel occupies and terrorises an entire nation, Israelis will never find safety or security and will never build a wall high enough to hide from the consequences of the horrors they have wrought.
Ambassador Hasan Abu Nimah is former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations.