Updated: May 14, 2021 9:29:25 am
The deadly riots in Israel and the war in Gaza, triggered by yet another chapter in the Israeli drive to dispossess and oppress the Palestinians, is likely to evoke three kinds of responses: The indifferent, the imperial, the humanitarian. And alas, it looks like the imperial response, which has brought the region to this impasse, will triumph.
The dominant response is going to be a moral indifference. The Palestinian cause has been forgotten or more or less abandoned. Instead of becoming the symbol of the unfinished tasks of decolonisation, and a human rights catastrophe, the Palestinian question is now mostly an occasion to vent cynicism.
We all avoid the moral questions the oppression of Palestinians poses by comforting ourselves that in this conflict we can distribute rights and wrongs equally. There is Israeli terrorism, and there is Hamas terrorism. There is the spectacle of civilians on both sides living in terror. Missiles raining down on Israeli cities on the one hand, and the sheer brutality of Israeli defence forces operations on the other. There is the fanaticism of the Israeli right wing and there is the fanaticism of Hamas and Fatah, with bumbling politicians on both sides. There is the sheer geo-political opportunism about the Palestine issue.
Both the Arab states and the United States have used the Palestinians as a pretext; the Palestinians themselves have been marginalised. This attitude, that one must look beyond simple oppositions, or a black-and-white world, could have been the source of a morally productive conversation. Instead, it produces an aestheticised indifference: This is all simply grist for more exciting television like Fauda. It gets worse. In country after country, even a modest sympathy for the Palestinian cause is immediately seized on as a sign of some kind of obdurate Leftism, out of touch with the stern demands of our time.
This “a plague on all your houses” also whitewashes the fact that there is a monumental injustice to the Palestinians at the heart of the problem. We simply look for excuses to skirt around the core issue. This is the continuation of what Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University has described as the “Hundred Year War on Palestine.” Khalidi rightly points out that the Israel-Palestine conflict has both aspects: It is a conflict of two peoples who recognise themselves as peoples. But it is also part of a long history of settler colonialism in which “indigenous” populations are displaced. This is why Israel’s actions have the characteristic of imperial modes of governance: Dispossession of property, creation of second-class citizens, maintenance of oppressively governed enclaves and licence for state impunity.
The events leading up to the recent clashes at the Al-Aqsa Mosque can be seen as part of a long pattern of pushing out Palestinians from territory Israel wants to claim. A few courageous voices like Peter Beinart have seen the recent events as part of a long chain that began with the Nakba in 1947 (the catastrophe, as Palestinians called it), when more than half a million Palestinians were evicted. While a 19th century-style total ethnic expulsion may not be possible, Israel has been using a thousand cuts to dispossess Palestinians of their homes. It is also important to remember that this project could not have been sustained without the support of imperial powers, Britain in the early 20th century and the US now. Donald Trump may have had the virtue of making the nature of this project explicit. But in substance, no American administration has been able to significantly roll back this project of pushing the Palestinians out. Reducing Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem is likely to be the next objective. Palestine will once again be the site where the Biden administration’s liberal internationalism will die a quiet death.
The third response will be to take a humanitarian tack. This is to dig beneath the politics and find bridges in shared humanity and suffering. This can be expressed powerfully in literature, as most recently in Colum McCann’s Apeirogon, centred around two characters who have both lost children in the conflict. This is also the tack of the peace movements that use culture and a history of shared suffering to build bridges. They emphasise that dispossession and exile is something both communities share; they, of all the people, should be able to understand each other. These are important interventions at a human and cultural level. But relocating the conversation to culture and humanity, without serious political solutions on the table, has always yielded very modest dividends in protracted conflict. Humanity and culture, even when deeply internalised, collapse quickly when subject to fear. And they always fall short of acknowledging the core issue at stake: Political equality between two peoples.
This is a dangerous impasse. The indifferent and the humanitarian response will not be sufficient to stop the imperial Israeli response in its tracks. The imperial violence of Israel will beget more terrorist violence of Hamas and Fatah, with every world power from Russia to Iran fishing in the chaos. Israeli politics is dominated by a right wing will to power immune to the slightest considerations of justice and human rights, when it comes to the Palestinians. Palestinian politics has been broken for a while, with no political vehicle that can credibly craft an imaginative political movement. The sense of political hopelessness is profound. The Zionist project has, it has to be acknowledged, become a project for the occupation of three million people. It has no space for either acknowledging equal rights for all citizens, or a workable two-state solution, or for recognising the most basic truth that Israel cannot be safe unless the Palestinians are safe.
It is important for those of us who are true friends of Israel to not confuse the interests of Israel with the designs of the Netanyahu government to continue with Israel’s imperial project. We will have to remind Israel of the blowback of imperial politics: The ultimate consequence of trying to dominate a people is that you end up destroying the moral legitimacy of your own claims. No amount of military capacity can compensate for the images of lynching, rioting, and provocations that we have seen this week. And it is important for the world to remember that we continually risk conflict if the Palestinian question is simply treated as an object of geo-political opportunism, not as a question of basic dignity and justice.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 14, 2021 under the title ‘Ignoring Palestine’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.
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