Israel/Palestine: Equality or ethnic cleansing

The following piece is by Omar Robert Hamilton, a film-maker and a founder of the Palestine Festival of Literature. A version of it was also published on the Egyptian news site Mada Masr. 

August 4th 2014

What has become clear during the latest assault on Gaza is that cycles of violence are perpetuated and reinforced by cycles of rhetoric. The Israeli PR machine works by constantly shifting the parameters of the discourse. Arguments are made and forgotten. Inquiries are held and dismissed. First principles are ignored and histories are erased by carefully trained spokespeople who excel in double-speak and a logic of empathetic violence audience-tested for optimum American palatability. Their mantra: it’s not what you say that counts. It’s what people hear.

The facts are all there to make, together, a damning case against Israel. The statistics, the photographs, the captured anguish do not lie - and yet it is the spin that gathers quickly around them that dominates the agenda. Since the beginning of this assault, the raison d’etre of the Israeli campaign has changed three times - each time centering around a buzz word that is repeated until there is no room for any other concept. The words have been: “kidnapped” (June 12th to July 2nd), “rockets” (July 7th onwards) and now “tunnels” (July 17th onwards), a word and concept which only seriously entered the discourse alongside the announcement of the ground invasion. The following day the death toll spiked, with 60 people killed in 24 hours, and a fourth buzz term entered the discourse: “human shield.” Now that the tunnels are all allegedly destroyed, if another word is needed it will be “disarm.”

KIDNAPPED: the Israeli government has now admitted that Hamas did not kidnap the three boys. They even knew they were dead after only a few hours but trumpeted the manhunt to enrage the public and instigate the pre-prepared operation “Brother’s Keeper” to dismantle Hamas in the West Bank. Why? Because eight days earlier, after eight years of schism, a unity government between rival groups Hamas and Fatah had been signed.

ROCKETS: Israel boasts of its Iron Dome defence system, claiming it is a prime specimen of Israeli engineering that keeps its civilians safe. Yet Israelis also claim they live in a state of terror because rockets "rain down" on them. This contradiction cuts to the heart of the constructed national psyche of Israelis as a fearsome warrior people who live in constant terror. Ben Ehrenreich describes the rockets as “more like the ones you might have learned to build in high school shop class than any sort of 21st-century artillery: thick metal pipes with fins welded on, an engine at the base, a few pounds of explosive at the head, the latter usually insufficient for much by way of destruction. What little damage they do is caused mainly by the momentum of their impact.”  To date, two Israelis and one Thai civilian have been killed by these rockets, giving them a kill rate of 0.1%. The Palestinian death toll has, today, passed one thousand eight hundred.

HUMAN SHIELDS: From the hardest hawks to the softest of Israeli doves, the same justification is being proffered for the massive numbers of Palestinian fatalities: Hamas uses human shields. Even Amos Oz, the great conscience of liberal Zionists, could only muster this simplistic scenario

Amoz Oz: I would like to begin the interview in a very unusual way: by presenting one or two questions to your readers and listeners. May I do that?

Deutsche Welle: Go ahead!

Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?

If this is the thinking of a great intellectual heavyweight of the Israeli left, then a truly toxic atmosphere has been successfully engendered, one in which regular soldiers need not think twice before pulling the trigger. The fact is that the UN’s Goldstone Report into Operation Cast Lead found Israel had killed civilians "while they were trying to leave their homes to walk to a safer place, waving white flags" and documented multiple instances of Israeli soldiers using Palestinians as human shields. But the Goldstone Report, so thoroughly damning in its findings of multiple and wide-ranging war crimes, has been all but forgotten. 

TUNNELS: The BBC, ever mindful of the approved Israeli lexicon, refers to a series of "attack tunnels." So who are these tunnels attacking? They are, we are told, designed to penetrate Israel and kidnap Israelis. In 2006 Gilad Shalit, a soldier, was captured and held as a prisoner of war. He was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners - many of whom were rounded up again during Operation “Brother’s Keeper”. No civilian has ever been abducted through the tunnels. Clearly, their primary purpose is an economic one, born of the crippling, medieval siege that Israel maintains against Gaza. Along the Egyptian border it is not Hamas that builds the tunnels; They merely tax the goods being moved through by the entrepreneurs that dig and own them. Israel talks of a “terrorist organization [that] deliberately embeds its terrorist infrastructure inside civilians neighborhoods” when actually a system of loosely regulated capitalism is what governs the tunnel industry. If you own a house near the border you are very likely to get into the tunneling business because there’s nothing else you can do. Furthermore, if Israel’s operation is about destroying these tunnels, why has it cost 1,800 lives? There were thought to be over 1,000 tunnels between Egypt and Gaza which the Egyptian regime - not widely known for its ability to carry out security operations without slaughtering its citizens - destroyed with no loss of life.

The answer, of course, is that the operation is not about the tunnels, and never has been. Just as it was not about the kidnapped boys who were already dead or the rockets that don’t explode.

This war is about political capital and the bloodletting needed to appease a society that is entirely militarized: Netanyahu's approval ratings stand at 82%. This war is about fracturing the tentative Palestinian unity government: the much-hated security coordination between the PA and Israel hit an all time high in June (though Abbas’ language shifted dramatically in a speech on July 23rd, and the PA’s position may yet shift away from total complicity). This war is about the arms trade: the share price in Israeli weapons companies who can boast their equipment is live tested is up and the drone market is the key sector to corner for the future. This war is about reminding Gaza, Palestine, the whole world that there’s only way forward: to shut the fuck up and die.

None of this new. The aims of this war are no different than the aims of Cast Lead (2008 / 2009) or Pillar of Smoke (2012). After Israeli public opinion was satiated sixteen months ago a ceasefire was agreed upon, which Israel proceeded to violate 191 times, killing 18 people. The Palestinians violated it 75 times, killing none. Then Israel launched this war. To date 1800 Palestinians have been killed, around 20% of whom are thought to have been fighters. Sixty-four Israelis have been killed; 95% of them were soldiers. Israel has killed over 1,500 civilians, including 378 children. Hamas has killed 3 civilians. Who is it that is indiscriminately terrorising a civilian population for a political goal? 

Of course, a central tenet of Israeli spin is to always refer to “Hamas” and not  to “Palestinians” (Americans are sympathetic to Palestinians, but not to Hamas), to hit the word “terrorist” as often as possible and to stress that Hamas is “committed to the destruction of Israel.” It is never mentioned that in their 2006 election manifesto, Hamas dropped their call for the destruction of Israel and simply reaffirmed their right to armed resistance. Hamas is a political player that, like all others, is primarily interested in the acquisition of power and influence - they are very far removed from the theocratic death cult that Israel strains to see in its dark mirror. In 2006, as Hamas was engaging in the democratic process, it announced it would stop using suicide bombers. There has not been a bomb since. Israel claimed that the (still-incomplete) Wall was to thank. Again and again, Hamas have tried to play by the rules of the game as they are set by Israel, America and the International Community. Democracy is embraced and brings with it a siege. Israel's existence is recognized but this goes unmentioned. Military resistance is halted and the siege deepens. Truces are agreed to and Israel violates them. The noose around Gaza has been tightened for seven years, as tunnels are destroyed, fishing limits are reduced and buffer zones are extended - but there remains only one villain. Only one party is ever held accountable for its actions, only one people collectively pay the price. Hamas and its affiliates fire rockets not primarily to kill civilians but because nothing else brings them attention and a seat at the negotiating table, because the status quo is burying them alive.

But it’s not just Hamas vs Israel that counts anymore. Armies of online voices have lined up behind the two sides and a global PR battle is being waged.

There have been 14,000,000 tweets about Gaza in the last thirty days. The volume and pitch of outrage is palpable. There have been 6,500,000 uses of the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack compared to just 73,000 for #StandWithIsrael. Twitter, unlike mainstream media, is self-correcting and though there is some misinformation on there, its peer-reviewing structure filters falsities quickly. Photos now appear embedded into timelines and on instagram accounts are impossible to ignore and are causing a serious and genuine disruption to the register of the online world. There is a secondary trauma rippling through the cyberpsyche. For those who want to see the world, and not simply exist in their own echo chamber, it now spreads out before them online, rendering editorial choices made by major media outlets increasingly irrelevant in their lazy complicity.

At the other end of the battle are the much hyped Israeli Hasbara War Rooms. Young, educated volunteers doing their bit for their army and their country online. But now that Israel is focussing on rockets, tunnels and human shields their output has been little more than a toxic trickle of hate speech, incitement to violence, rallying the troops and shallow victimhood that, combined, is deeply confused as to whether it should be denying what is happening or justifying it. Sentences like “Hamas deprived Palestinian civilians of vital humanitarian aid” accept implicitly that there is a humanitarian catastrophe happening. Hamas, they write, is “cynically sacrificing the residents of Gaza it uses as human shields. It must be stopped”. Who, exactly, is it sacrificing these civilians to? And how will it be stopped? By killing more of them?

Meanwhile what is noteworthy is the growing discord between what Western reporters are saying on the ground and how the news is then packaged. Anne Barnard (NYT), Ayman Mohyeldin (NBC) and Ben Wedeman (CNN) are three notable reporters for major American outlets who are risking their lives to tell truths that are then edited, headlined and captioned by editors who lack either the intelligence or the courage to use language accurately. Obfuscatory headline highlights have included “Boys Drawn to Gaza Beach, and the centre of Mideast Strife” (NYTimes) and “100 People Killed Today in Israel, Hamas Fighting” (CNN). The difference in content and timbre between the tweets from the ground and the final packaged product could not be clearer. Other outlets have taken important steps forward, and the work of Sharif Abdel Kouddous (The Nation & Foreign Policy), Sherine Tadros (Sky News), Jonathan Miller & Jon Snow (Channel 4) and Peter Beaumont (the Guardian) has been exemplary and treated with due respect by editors for the massive risks it has entailed.

There has been an unprecedented level of public celebrity support for Palestine. While famous people’s opinions are of no more value than anyone else's, they have to make an economic calculation that most don’t: Is my moral conviction of equal or greater value than the potential backlash and loss of cultural capital and earnings? While Rihanna clearly miscalculated, others have stuck with their position and names such as Mark Ruffalo, John Cusack, Selena Gomez and Bryan Adams can be added to the growing list of public entertainers with a conscience. 

There has also been an upswing in global protest - well over a million people took to the streets over the weekend of July 26th and thousands of events have taken place across the world over the past month. Around the world, the views of the people are increasingly discordant with those of their governments. Except in South America which, once again, is leading the charge: two countries have severed ties with Israel, one has limited them and two more have recalled their ambassadors. Europe, meanwhile, scrambles to save the two state solution - with all the major economic powers now advising their citizens that investments in settlement enterprises may have unpredictable legal and economic consequences for them in the future.

Finally, and crucially, there is the mobilization of a new generation of Palestinians. The third generation of the 1948 diaspora are graduating now from universities around the world and have the economic stability to engage with the question of Palestine as an intellectual, political, generational challenge. The older, whiter, leftist groups that have been organising "pro-Palestinian" demonstrations and talking points for years are being replaced by young, intelligent diaspora kids who are taking the reins and shifting tactics away from picketing and towards boycotting, working to connect the Palestinian struggle with other ethnic and economic parallels and injustices while commanding the cultural tropes of their second homes. The same generation is rising in parallel inside Israel / 1948 Palestine and holds 1948 at the centre of their culture and their consciousness: an unprecedented march of 10,000 people to Lubya - an ethnically cleansed village - marked 2014’s Nakba Day. And while protesting alone is not enough to change anything, it is a useful barometer for general political appetite and engagement. The evidence of this appetite was further reinforced last week when a march to the Qalandia Checkpoint - which closes off Jerusalem to Palestinians in the West Bank - saw the biggest turnout in ten years. It was prematurely labelled the Last Intifada on Twitter.

For any intifada to be the Last Intifada it will have to have significant momentum inside the 1948 territories. For an idea to bring about sweeping change it has to be undeniable in its simplicity, irresistible in its plainspoken and self-evident truth. For the Palestinians who survived the Nakba, for their grandchildren living inside what is now Israel, that idea can simply be "equal rights". That idea travels across borders, walls, classrooms, prisons, refugee camps, airports and oceans. For the 1948 Palestinians it means equal education, services, legal protections, housing rights. For Palestinians in Jerusalem it means freedom to build, freedom to marry, freedom to choose where to live. For the Palestinians living in the West Bank it means no Wall, no biometric ID cards, freedom of movement, freedom to farm and travel. For Palestinians in Gaza it means no siege, freedom to fish, freedom to leave and return, freedom to trade, freedom to work, freedom to breathe. For Palestinians in the diaspora it means freedom to return home. Decades of Israeli policies of segregation have deeply fragmented Palestinians, with each geographic group facing its own particular challenges and persecutions. But the demand simply for equal rights rises above local concerns and creates a unifying idea. Questions regarding borders, negotiated settlements, land swaps, dialogue and security are all distractions intended to divert attention away from the central truth that the contradiction at the heart of Zionism can never be resolved - there can be no state that is Jewish and democratic when 20% of your citizens and a full 50% of those living under your control are not Jewish. There can be only equality or ethnic cleansing.