No, We Can't Depoliticize Our Discourse on Israel-Palestine
“As a society, you were unwilling to reflect on the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire world was rocked,” a Pakistani man remarks to an American colleague in the aftermath of 9/11 in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
As violence in Israel and Palestine escalates, people from all sides beg for human rights to come before political agendas. But no one actually knows what that looks like in an arena where human rights themselves are politicized.
On October 7th, the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched an attack from Gaza. They fired rockets towards nearby Israeli towns. They blasted through the iron wall that separates Gaza and Israel, using a mix of drones, grenades, and assault weapons to attack nearby military bases, population centers, and a music festival. They killed over a thousand Israeli civilians and soldiers and took over 200 people hostage.
While many details of the attack remain shrouded in controversial uncertainty, it is undeniable that Hamas’ offensive was incredibly brutal.
In response to Hamas’ attack, Israel declared war, targeting what they claim are Hamas hotspots with airstrikes. Targeting Hamas in Gaza, where over 2 million people are packed into less than 150 square miles, has translated to targeting the most populated areas, including refugee camps, schools, and hospitals. Although civilians are given extremely limited evacuation notice, there is often nowhere to go. Israel has also stopped all entry of goods into Gaza, including food, water, medicine and fuel. Israel has recently also commenced deadly ground operations.
Both sides have already committed actions that constitute war crimes, including indiscriminate violence against civilians and civilian infrastructure, use of chemical weapons, and humanitarian blockades. Palestinian civilian casualties are significantly higher than Israeli civilian casualties.
The world responded loudly on all media platforms. Initially, the outcry was this is Israel’s 9/11. Hamas is a terrorist organization. They’re barbarians beheading babies and raping women. Then came the opposing camp: Israel must examine their own culpability. They’ve oppressed Palestinians for decades. Resistance is violent.
Soon after came those that tried to bridge the initial polarization with their middle ground advocacy for ‘humanity.’ Hamas is not Palestinian liberation and Israeli citizens are not Netanyahu’s government. If you care about Palestinian lives, you should care about Israeli lives too. It’s immoral to try to justify violence. To this, the pro-Palestine contingent responded: Israel has been doing the same thing to Palestinians and the world has been silent.
As the conflict has escalated, discourse once again has shifted. Allegations of intended and attempted genocide have been levied by both sides. Both sides also continue to claim moral high ground – Palestine was rightfully fighting for freedom. Israel has the right to protect themselves.
On face value, the ‘human rights’ camp seems the most reasonable. But the influx of posts that encourage everyone to adopt an apolitical human rights perspective and simply condemn all violence are frustratingly devoid of critical thinking. We wouldn’t have an escalating civil conflict if it was possible to perceive all violence as wrong, independent of its justification. For those that have personal investment in Palestine or Israel, that ask is near impossible.
That’s because the violent events unfolding today cannot be analyzed in a vacuum. Most attempts to do so clearly have a political agenda, despite often hiding behind the facade of wanting to depoliticize the conversation. Violence has been present in the region for centuries, and it has always been inherently political. As such, victimhood is also inherently political. The presence of discourse itself when certain populations experience violence (or the lack thereof) is entrenched in necropolitics.
In the early 20th century, Britain pledged in the Balfour Declaration to establish a national home for the Jewish people in British-controlled Palestine. The unfathomable horrors faced by the Jewish people of Europe during World War II created an urgent need for a safe haven for the Jewish nation.
The issue is that Palestine had become a home to other people in the many, many years since biblical Israel: Arabs who fought back against what they considered a European colonial movement. Arab resistance to British control and mass Jewish immigration led to the first waves of violence in the 1930s. In 1948, Britain handed over the issue of Palestine to the UN, who called for the partition of Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states.
The Palestinians refused to accept the proposed partition, as it did not grant them territory proportional to their larger population. This worried Zionist leaders, who conceived “Plan Dalet” in response, in order to reorganize Palestine into an assured Jewish-dominated state before the British Mandate ended. The plan provided a blueprint for the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian towns and cities and the displacement or massacre of their residents. The Haganah –the Zionist paramilitary– commenced what Palestinians refer to as the “Nakba,” the destruction of more than 500 Palestinian villages, towns and cities and the systematic massacre or displacement of their residents, violence that forced 700,000 Palestinians to flee Palestine. On May 15, 1948, Israel formally declared independence, catalyzing the Israeli-Arab War, with five Arab states fighting against the creation of Israel. Israel, backed by Western nations, ultimately won.
Modern-day Israel would look very different if not for the initial systemic removal of Palestinians from the Holy Lands. The Zionist movement’s drastic actions during the mid 20th century permanently entrenched the narrative that the existence of a strong, populous Palestinian nation inherently threatens the survival of Israel. To this day, the 7 million descendants of the 20th century Palestinian diaspora have not been granted the right to return to Palestine.
Since the 1950s, Israel has (explicitly and de facto) ruled the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT) by severe military rule. They have also increasingly facilitated the construction of Israeli settlements within the OPT, continuing to marginalize Palestinian territorial claims and sovereignty. The Human Rights Watch, along with numerous other international human rights organizations, continues to condemn Israel for creating a textbook definition apartheid state through their numerous policies that ensure Israeli domination and Palestinian subjugation.
The Gaza Strip – coined ‘the largest prison on Earth’– has been closed off from the rest of the world since 2007, with Israel controlling all movement of people and goods in and out of the territory. Gaza lacks needed imports, is not able to establish trade with other regions, has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, and grapples with constant electricity cuts and dire shortages of clean water. More than half of its population is impoverished, and only 20% of its population does not heavily rely on humanitarian assistance.
Israel’s oppression has rendered stable governance and economic development impossible within Gaza. Almost all scholarship on the root causes of extremism suggest that structural denial of economic opportunity and power vacuums are the conditions that enable militant groups like Hamas to thrive. Hamas arose after the first Intifada –first Palestinian uprising– seeking to take back all of historic Palestine through violence and replace the Israeli state with an Islamic society. In 2006, they defeated the Fatah party and gained authority over Gaza. They are the closest thing to a government that Gaza has, although their mission certainly does not represent the median Palestinians viewpoint. And Israel has certainly supported them as a “government” to counterbalance PLO influence in the West Bank when it was convenient for them.
The past few years have been characterized by unprecedented increased violence between Israel and Palestine, especially in the West Bank where Israeli settlements have been ramping up. Israel launched Operation Breaking the Wave in early 2022, conducting army raids in response to attacks by individual Palestinians on Israeli settlers. Israeli settlers themselves are also taking revenge into their own hands and violently attacking Palestinian communities, often with relative impunity.
This Times of Israel article describes the aftermath of the court proceedings of an Israeli extremist on trial for burning a Palestinian toddler (Ali Saad Dawabshe) and his parents alive in their home. As members of the Dawabshe family walked out of the courthouse, extremists chanted “Ali’s on the grill.” Extremist groups that call for the ruthless killing of the other exist in both Palestine and Israel (including within the Israeli Defence Forces).
While there is a history of mutual violence, there is also a clear dominant force (hint, it’s the only state). The image of a Palestinian youth throwing a rock starkly contrasts with an IDF soldier wielding the advanced military technology. Prior major examples of Palestinian uprisings –the two Intifadas– both ultimately resulted in significantly heavier Palestinian casualties by nature of the immense power imbalance.
As such, those that are critiquing Israel right now are not just critiquing Netanyahu’s government. They are criticizing the decades long systemic oppression of the Palestinian people under a securitized order where Palestinian subjugation is seen as imperative to upholding Zionism. When it comes to democracies, it is not possible to separate critiquing a government from somewhat critiquing its people, as the line between government will and popular will is inherently blurred. That’s why many see the Israeli people as partially responsible for the actions of their government over time, and not just as innocent passive actors.
Given the above context, to say that Hamas’ attack on Israel was unprovoked, unexpected, or unpredictable is weaponized ignorance. To say that Hamas’ attack is a terrorist attack entirely independent from the Palestinian liberation movement is weaponized ignorance. To say that the war has just started is weaponized ignorance.
These acknowledgements are critical because the way that we frame discourse about the violence carried out by terrorists is fundamentally different from how we describe the violence carried out by parties during war; violent acts of resistance (especially in response to settler-colonialism); and violence pursued in the name of security and self-defense. For example, Native Americans carried out brutal campaigns against white settlers in colonial America. In the modern day, we don’t see the colonists as victims, even if they were objectively victims of individual violence.
The question of whether or not Hamas is a terrorist group depends on how one defines “terrorist.” While Hamas is an extremist group that employs terror tactics, they are also explicitly a landed resistance movement created in response to Israeli oppression. The perhaps more critical question to ask is this: why is it strategic for Israel to paint Hamas as a terrorist group rather than a violent resistance/separatist movement? (Note: there is an important distinction between the textbook definitions of terrorism and its modern loaded connotation).
Reducing Hamas to a terrorist organization enables Israel to deny an active role in catalyzing Hamas’ violence. It also weaponizes the West’s islamophobia against Hamas, as the more we see an organization as falling into the “barbaric brown fundamentalist” trope, the less we see them as rational actors.
Violence is always a tragedy. However, our decision to focus on the impact of the violence versus the intent behind the violence is shaped by our conception of its justifiability. To criticize people for “trying to justify violence” on either side of this conflict is to ignore how discourse about violence functions in all political spheres. Seeing violence as ‘justified’ does not by any means necessarily indicate enjoyment of brutality or lack of care for certain loss of life.
Most states in the world –including Israel– consistently attempt to justify violence. The nature of state power dictates that those with authority get to define what is ‘violence’ and what is ‘security.’ The only true difference between ‘violence’ and ‘security’ is that ‘security’ claims ethical high ground.
To criticize third parties for looking to the root cause of violence is also dangerously unproductive. The best way to prevent future violence is to look to what caused it.
With all of that in mind, it is also incredibly important to be empathetic to the Israeli “we are innocent victims of a brutal terrorist attack” outcry, even if that is seemingly at odds with productive discourse.
Michel Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended and Achille Mbembe’s Necropolitics are particularly helpful reading to better understand the deep complexity at hand for all parties involved. Foucault argues that modern genocidal colonization is born from state power becoming intertwined with modern racism, which “appeal[s] to the principle that the death of others makes one biologically stronger” (Harcourt, referencing Foucault p. 258). This logic enables the elimination of entire populations “in the protection and survival of a nation, a people and/or a class” (Pele).
This is how the Nazis justified the genocide of more than 6 million Jewish people. But this argument also underpins how Zionists justify the subjugation of Palestine: a strong Palestine is seen as an inherent security threat to the survival of Israel.
“The most accomplished form of necropower is the contemporary colonial occupation of Palestine,” Mbembe affirms in Necropolitics. The colonial state –Israel– legitimizes their sovereignty from their history of oppression and diasporic identity. They believe they have a divine right to that territory, which is fundamentally incompatible with a Palestinian territorial right (p. 27).
Both actors in this conflict have a history of facing structural oppression and ethnic cleansing in the name of the survival of the state authority in power. Histories of oppression complicate how nations perceive violence – any violence is a lot more likely to implicate as a precursor to genocide, which also means that adversaries are seen as existential threats. Balanced co-existence is not possible if you believe the other side will eradicate you if given the chance. Thus, it makes complete sense that Hamas’ attack was a new level of terrifying to Jewish people, even if intuitively Israelis wield significant power over Palestine in the status quo. Israel’s systematic subjugation of the Palestinian people is also thus explainable, although no less morally abhorrent.
When examining the events of the status quo, Israelis are clearly victims of individual violence: they or their loved ones were brutally attacked, killed, raped, taken hostage. But much of the world really struggled to see the state of Israel as a victim and voiced as such in the days following Hamas’ initial attack.
Unsurprisingly, that discourse was not well received. When you are in a state of panic and shock and grief, it is an incredibly difficult task to critically examine one’s role as an oppressor in a system of structural oppression. That ask feels like it is robbing you of your right to individual victimhood. When one’s children are taken hostage, it is incredibly human to want to see the aggressors as monsters, not rational actors.
The world asked Israelis to think at a structural level before they had time to grieve individual losses, to grieve the sudden bursting of their security bubble.
But what the pro-Palestine contingent did not (generally) do was care about only certain loss of life, contrary to claims about hypocrisy made by many of those that support Israel. Rather, the contingent sees violent resistance to violent colonialism as justified.
Both sides propagated information to uphold a narrative that supported their particular political agenda. The vast majority of Israelis and members of the Jewish diaspora who have spoken out profusely over the past week do not speak out almost ever about the loss of Palestinian lives that results from Israeli violence. That’s not because they don’t care about the loss of human life. It is because they accept the tragedy of loss of life as a necessary evil to uphold the socio-political order that benefits them.
There are almost no viewpoints that can claim the ethical high ground of being apolitical and purely humanitarian in intent when the right to life itself has become politicized. The fight to oversimplify Israel and Palestine’s civil conflict into black and white bad-guy-good-guy narratives is a competition that will be won by no one.
If we want discourse to be productive, we need to acknowledge political agendas, not fight to prove that our side is ‘putting them aside.’ When keeping one population safe requires oppressing another, it is unquestionable that we need radical political change.