An Institutionalized Disregard for Palestinian Life
This column appeared on The London Review of Books' LRB blog on 9 July 2014.
One either rejects the killing of non-combatants on principle or takes a more tribal approach to such matters. In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, the global outpouring of grief and condemnation over the killing of three Israeli youths in the occupied West Bank constitutes the moral equivalent of Rolf Harris denouncing Jimmy Savile.
More than extending a cold shoulder to the Palestinian children who Israel has since 2000 been slaying at the rate of two a week, those who pioneer new heights of sanctimony every time an Israeli life is taken have been complicit in extinguishing Palestinian ones. While there seems to be no Israeli child in harm’s way Obama will not compare to his own daughters, their Palestinian counterparts are brushed aside with increasingly obscene mantras about Israel’s right to self-defense. Indeed, the institutionalized disregard for Palestinian life in Western corridors of power not only helps explain why Palestinians also resort to violence, but Israel’s latest assault on the Gaza Strip as well.
Thus, the latest round of escalation is dated from the moment three Israeli youths went missing on 12 June, for the simple reason that the shooting death of two Palestinian boys in Ramallah on 15 May—like any number of incidents in the intervening month where Israel exercised its right to colonize and dispossess—is considered wholly insignificant.
Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s instantaneous determination that Hamas was responsible was met with immediate confirmation by the White House, and has since been treated as established fact by the media. Yet the culprits remain at large and their institutional affiliation unclear. For its part Hamas, which like other Palestinian organizations never hesitates to claim responsibility for its actions and is prone to exaggerate its activities, has on this occasion pointedly denied involvement.
What we do know is that a distress call by one of the Israeli youths on 12 June included the sound of gunfire and led the Israeli security establishment to conclude they had been killed. Netanyahu deliberately suppressed this information, used the pretext of a hostage rescue operation to launch an organized military rampage throughout the West Bank, and engaged in demagoguery and incitement against the Palestinians that even by his standards plumbed new depths of vulgarity. To blame the subsequent burning alive of a sixteen-year-old Palestinian on a few errant fanatics (after attempts to portray it as the murder of a gay boy by his own family failed) is to pretend such barbarism exists independently of the colonial and political contexts that produce it.
If it was clear there were no hostages to be rescued, what then was Israel seeking to achieve? Quite a lot, and then some. Key among its objectives was reversing the tentative steps Palestinian rivals Fatah and Hamas had since April taken towards national reconciliation. Israel prefers a divided Palestinian polity partially ruled by militant Islamists to a unified one led by Mahmoud Abbas, a pliant septuagenarian who remains committed to negotiations and publicly proclaims security collaboration with Israel to be “sacred.” Concerned that the combination of reconciliation and growing Palestinian unrest could plant the seeds of yet another Palestinian uprising, Israel additionally sought to nip it in the bud. In doing so, it also re-arrested a number of Palestinians released during the 2011 prisoner exchange with Hamas, thus erasing the stain of releasing captives rather than incarcerating or assassinating those who forced it to do so. In the context of the latest collapse of American-sponsored diplomacy, and—Australia and Canada excepted—a virtually global consensus that Israel, its insatiable appetite for Palestinians land, and failure to discharge its commitments regarding prisoner releases were to blame, it was particularly convenient for Netanyahu to change the narrative from one about colonialism and its consequences to terrorism.
In the meantime, Israel’s pugilistic actions have produced major unrest in the West Bank and among the Palestinian community within Israel, and a new confrontation with the Gaza Strip. It remains a long way off from the much-vaunted “third intifada,” primarily because the organizational infrastructure that produced and sustained the first and second either is degraded, no longer exists, or is controlled by leaders that prefer the perks and privileges of power to struggle and sacrifice.
Hamas too would rather avoid a large-scale confrontation with Israel. But as we have seen in recent days, it is in contrast to recent months meeting escalation with escalation rather than enforcing calm. Not only have previous constraints on its conduct been removed, but it has less to lose than at any point since it seized power in the Gaza Strip in 2007. Its main objectives in the recent reconciliation agreement—payment of salaries for its civil servants, a re-opening of the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border, reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, and enhanced regional and international legitimacy—have signally failed to materialize. The new Palestinian Authority government formed with its endorsement acts as if the Gaza Strip does not exist, and continues to cooperate with Israel against Hamas in the West Bank. The unremitting hostility of Egypt’s new rulers to the Gaza Strip and Hamas in particular also suggests the absence of a credible mediator unless Turkey or Qatar somehow step into the breach.
Taken together, these developments could make for a confrontation between Israel and Hamas longer and more intense than either party bargained for. As always, the key issue remains whether the international community will continue to extend to Israel the impunity enjoyed by Jimmy Savile or impose the accountability finally imposed upon Rolf Harris.