The Language and Optics of Israeli Violence
By Prabhav Sharma | July 09, 2021
Territory and culture are two crucial tenets of identity and self-expression. Unfortunately, for over 50 years now, Palestinian nationals continue to view them as a privilege under constant threat of an apartheid regime with a colonialist-settler policy - Israel. The most recent realisation of these fears was in early May, 2021 when clashes erupted in the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem in response to the forceful eviction of Palestinians and placement of Israeli civilians instead, an act called by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as ‘a violation of International Humanitarian Law and a possible War Crime’. Israeli authorities, completely disregarding international law, ordered the police to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque, considered by Muslims as the ‘Third holiest place on the Earth’, with neither a legal mandate nor an intention to maintain peace. In response, Hamas, a Palestinian political organisation and military group controlling the Gaza Strip, informed its intention to launch rockets towards Israeli territories if their forces didn’t retreat from the holy site. Neither side altered their stand as 11 days of violence commenced with 256 Palestinians (including 66 children) and 13 Israelis (including 2 children) being reportedly killed.
Ultimately, as always, a ceasefire agreement was signed between Israel and Hamas while both parties had the moral audacity to claim a ‘victory’ in this catastrophic episode; depriving the people yet again of a genuine attempt to create sustainable peace. In the aftermath, Israel has continued to defend its actions via “the right to self-defence”, though discourse in the media has been transformed by a radical Israeli attack on the al-Jalaa Tower. This building, which has now ceased to exist, harboured civilian residents and the offices of two globally reputed news agencies: Al-Jazeera and the Associated Press (AP). While targeted killings of Palestinian journalists have been a recurrent component of Israeli aggression, this large-scale bomb blast has drawn global attention towards the censorship of truth by this occupational power. This article attempts to identify the relation between the global optics of Israeli oppression of Palestinians and the failure to establish lasting peace in the region.
Destruction of the al-Jalaa Tower.
Hamas: An Israeli Scapegoat
A common feature of European fascism in the first half of the 20th century, American invasionary policy in the Middle East and Israeli tyranny is the depiction of a disproportionately crippled enemy as ‘a national threat’ to foster a neo-nationalist policy structure. To elucidate the extent of this overestimation of threat in context to Hamas is quite unproblematic. Firstly, Hamas is an organisation deprived of popular international support, with numerous global powers designating it as a ‘terrorist organisation’. Even the countries which do not oppose its legal existence refrain from actively supporting it, and those who do, haven’t equipped it with the resources to realistically compete with Israel. On the other hand, Israel is supported by the leader of this significantly unipolar world, the United States of America, and is one of the strongest countries on economic, technological, military and intelligence fronts. Secondly, Israeli oppression of the Palestinians predates the existence of Hamas. While the latter was set up in 1987 and launched its first missile towards Israel in 2001, Israel has made active attempts to effectively annihilate Palestinian identity ever since 1967. Thirdly, the vast disparity in the fatalities, as seen last month, is not an anomaly but a recurrent phenomenon. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Special Focus Report, since the advent of Hamas, Israel has witnessed a decline in the number of fatalities while Palestine conversely has experienced ‘a continuing high death rate’. Fourthly, Hamas has been used as a constant scapegoat to validate Israeli systemic violence. In the previously pointed out attack on the al-Jalaa Tower, the Israeli government claimed that the building was being used by Hamas as its ‘research and development hub’. When Israel was questioned for this attack by reputed media houses, foreign states and international organisations, it failed to provide any substantial proof behind its claim and reiterated its anti-Hamas rhetoric.
The Iron Dome of Israel intercepting missiles fired by Hamas.
Throughout this century, Israel has successfully managed the media to spread the propaganda justifying Israeli actions as required measures to ensure their ‘existence’ and ‘survival’ which is ‘under threat’ due to Hamas. The statement, “If Hamas laid down its weapons tomorrow, there would be no more fighting. If Israel laid down its weapons, there would be no more Israel”, has been a regular feature of not only right-wing Israeli newspapers but also foreign politicians, the latest being Mitch McConnell (Minority leader in the US Senate). Further, the use of the terms, ‘victims’ and ‘agents of violence’, has been particularly skewed. While the newspaper headline, “Hamas kills 2 Israeli military personnel” is quite common, rarely is Israel held accountable for Palestinian killings. For instance, readers are more accustomed to phrases like “48 Palestinian Civilians dead” rather than “48 Palestinian Civilians killed by Israeli Forces”. It is important to note that the former statement states only a half and comfortable truth. This failure to affix responsibility of loss of life on the oppressor normalises violence and dehumanises the oppressed community. A plausible explanation behind this hesitation to hold Israel accountable is its recognition as a nation-state, while Hamas is denied the status of being a representative of Palestinian people and identity. However, to overcome this problem, more focus needs to be directed towards the United Nations Security Council 5th Research Report on Rule of Law titled “Rule of Law: A Retreat from Accountability”, which aims to uphold individual criminal accountability of nation-states to fulfill its objective of maintaining international peace and security.
Conflict or Occupation?
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu pointed out, “What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins but excels in winning with ease.” This statement succinctly explains the contemporary situation of Israel in context to Palestine. However, the question arises: How is Israel able to continue this pattern of ‘victory’ consistently? Denouncing the deep-rooted terminology of this question would help devise a reasonable answer. Global understanding is being governed by the belief that Israel and Palestine are engaged in a ‘conflict’ and Israel is ‘winning’. But, the International Court of Justice, the United Nations General Assembly, and the United Nations Security Council have legally determined Palestinian territory to be under ‘military occupation’. These two statements present a unique conundrum: How should the relation between oppressive occupation and conflict be conceptualised? And is their coexistence a possibility?
While classifying ‘a clash of interests’ as a conflict is a regular feature of day-to-day conversations, the same criteria cannot be applied in this situation because the validity of global and/or local response under International Law, and the optics of violence, drastically change with terminology. While the international community is conditionally authorised to override national sovereignty via the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Doctrine, in case of internationally recognised genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansings and crimes against humanity; a nation-state is granted maximum power under the Right of Self Defence in a conflict. The difference in these two modes of response couldn’t have been starker. From a linguistic vantage point too, the usage of the sentence “Israel and Palestine engage in a new round of conflict” instead of “Israel launches new round of oppression against Palestinians” is a huge reason for the perpetuation of violence. This also dehumanises Palestinian identity at another level altogether by taking away the right to even proclaim their oppression and exercise the agency of being a victim group.
Unfortunately, the barbarity of Israeli violence does not stop here. Even if we assume that the present occupation is truly a conflict, Israel still fails to abide by International Law. According to Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations…” Though various protocols have been proposed to determine if a state has exercised their right of self-defence in the spirit of International Law, according to the doctrine of proportionality which was stated in the Nicaragua vs USA ICJ Judgement, “Self-defence would warrant only measures which are proportional to the armed attack and necessary to respond to it.” To explain this in simple words, a person X cannot shoot a person Y in response to being punched by the latter, and then claim legal protection through the right of self-defence. Israel has constantly violated this principle since 1967 by portraying themselves as ‘an international victim’ to rationalise their disproportionate military attacks as ‘attempts to safeguard their existence’.
Future of the Palestinian Smile
Palestinian protesters smiling despite being arrested.
“Fear is the greatest form of oppression.” - Megan McCafferty
The Israeli attacks last month are no anomaly but have raised unprecedented questions about the global understanding of this occupation. It would be naive to assume that the rationale behind Israeli violence is the destruction of Palestinian infrastructure and human life. Instead, the primary motivation is instilling a sense of fear to cripple their identity and culture. With Naftali Bennett being sworn in as the new Israeli Prime Minister, ousting Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years in office, the long-anticipated constructive shift in Israel-Palestine relations is still a distant reality. An ultra-nationalist who claims to be a stronger right-winger and a more vociferous opponent of Palestine than even his predecessor, the new Israeli Head of State has no plans of negotiating a partition of territory between Israel and Palestine. Instead, he claims Israel needs to regain at least 60% of the West Bank territory in Palestinian control.
But the images of Palestinians smiling fearlessly while being arrested, amidst a constant existential threat, is fresh in global memory. This has reaffirmed the belief that the Israeli siege has strengthened Palestinian resolve instead of wearing it down. From Jerusalem and London to Cape Town and Paris, Palestinian supporters have spoken truth to power, advocated for the preservation of human rights, and sought global action against Israeli expansionist policy. However, with the United States of America blocking UNSC resolutions, Hamas and Naftali Bennett set to be at absolute odds and lack of global efforts to mediate a long-term peace and land negotiation deal; Palestinian resolve is likely to face tougher tests in the coming time.