Silence and Bias amid the Fog of War

October 27, 2023

 

Compassion is not a zero-sum game. While Israel indiscriminately bombards civilians in their homes in its quest to eradicate Hamas, supporting Palestinians is perceived by some as endorsing Hamas. This inaccurate and dangerous conflation has led to a ferocious polarization and the erosion of impartial, compassionate, and fair discussion. Why does supporting freedom and basic human rights for Palestinians, opposing Israel’s illegal occupation of Gaza and the West Bank trigger this venomous and irrational response? And why do some governments around the world readily (and rightly) condemn the atrocities committed by Hamas, yet support, through action or silence, the even more brutal and ongoing violence committed by the Israeli government?

Since the devastating attack on Israel on October 7, which triggered an onslaught of unspeakable and wildly disproportionate retaliatory violence against the people of Gaza, I’m ashamed to say I’ve remained largely silent. I suppressed my instinct to voice my outrage and horror, and my disbelief in humanity – or the shameful lack of it – for fear of backlash from so-called keyboard warriors. In the fog of this emotionally charged tragedy, it seems rational debate and thoughtful exchange have been replaced by misguided fury and finger pointing.

Whilst I’ve refrained from posting my own thoughts, over the past weeks I’ve shared content from credible news sources, human rights groups, and international aid agencies calling upon the Israeli government to show restraint, and highlighting the need for information to be verified before it’s published in the mainstream media. As a result, I’ve received several cruel name-calling messages, including one accusing me of supporting Nazis.

As an emotionally sensitive person, their words affected me. They also made me more reluctant to share my perspective and raise my voice. Since when does caring about the truth, and about the basic rights and lives of all people — Palestinians and Israelis alike — make one a Nazi?

I remember once being stopped by a couple of young Israeli soldiers at one of the many checkpoints in the Palestinian city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank. While holding my passport, one of the soldiers asked if I’m pro-Israel. “I’m pro-people”, I replied. “That means you’re pro-Palestine,” the soldier said before instructing me to turn back; I would not be allowed to pass through the checkpoint.

Compassion in Israel, it seems, is a zero-sum game. Supporting one group of people means you wish harm on the other. Caring is dangerous.

I refuse to stay silent any longer. My conscience won’t allow it. In the words of the late Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

A Palestinian peace activist sweeps the street while an Israeli sniper aims his gun at a group of Palestinian children throwing stones nearby in the West Bank City of Hebron.

I believe myself to be a good person, and I care deeply for all people, and animals, equally. I mourn the deaths of the Israeli civilians killed by Hamas as I do the thousands more innocent Palestinians killed by Israel, and those who continue to be bombarded in their homes daily.

I simply don’t understand how this monstrously disproportionate response by the Israeli government can be in any way justified, let alone be actively supported by the US and British governments, and much of the western world.

Context, it seems is elusive these days, and too often used – or misused – to justify violence and oppression. Although I have not personally been to Gaza, I spent several months in the occupied West Bank where I had a glimpse of what daily life is like for Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. Again, I must preface this by saying I am not discussing the context in an attempt to justify the actions of Hamas. Such violence cannot be justified. Understanding the root causes of violence, however, is always important, and, as history has proven, is how we can hope to move towards peace.

In 2016, I published a photo essay titled: ‘Israel’s War on Nonviolent Resistance in Hebron,’ which (I hope) illustrates some of Israel’s efforts to prevent peaceful resistance against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which is deemed illegal under international law.

During one non-violent event organized by a group called Youth Against Settlements in Hebron, Palestinian students gathered near an Israeli checkpoint to paint signs with words of hope and freedom. The event was quickly and aggressively dispersed by Israeli soldiers after a few Palestinian boys threw stones towards the checkpoint. In response, the heavily armed Israeli soldiers fired stun grenades and rubber-coated bullets towards the children. As I was photographing the event, I hurried towards a building to get away from the chaos. One soldier saw me and as I entered a building he rolled a stun grenade towards me, which exploded at my feet, causing permanent hearing loss in my right ear.

I mention this anecdote merely to highlight the pereptually disproportionate response by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and how, despite having what ought to be an internationally protected right to protest peacefully against an illegal occupier, Palestinians are systematically, and often violently, punished, if not killed, for engaging in non-violent resistance.

I’m haunted by the face of the Palestinian child (in the photo above) who was detained by Israeli soldiers simply for riding a bicycle in a restricted part of the Palestinian city of Hebron. He was released shortly after, but the fear and psychological trauma of unlawful detention will no doubt stay with him.

As JFK famously said, “those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable.”

Going back to Gaza, we must all ask ourselves how we would feel if we were trapped in a small enclave with no escape, under siege by a foreign occupying force that limits access to water, food and electricity. When life becomes unlivable, and peaceful revolution is criminalized, it’s not difficult to understand how militant groups can convince people that violence is the only option.

Violence rarely achieves the desired result, and it seems Hamas has caused grave damage to the plight of Palestinian freedom and rights, I predict setting back any hopes of peace by many years.

But here is my main source of frustration and disbelief. While everyone, including Palestinians, are expected to condemn the actions of Hamas, where is the outrage and condemnation of Israel’s immeasurable and long-standing violence against the Palestinians?

While the likes of Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak are quick to offer their unwavering support to Israel, I ask myself, how do these people see the videos of bodies in the rubble, of terrified children, of grieving parents, of Gaza in ruins, and choose not to condemn Israel for committing these crimes against humanity.

As a person with a moral compass, I’m overwhelmed both by sadness for the people of Gaza, and a blinding fury over the hypocrisy and absence of compassion towards Palestinians. This nightmare of a situation has exposed with fervor the overtly racist policies of western governments, who so quickly condemn the violence of Hamas while at the same time encourage and even supply the military hardware for far greater violence being committed against the people of Gaza.

From a humanitarian perspective, the actions of Israel in Gaza are, I believe, indefensible. To believe that Israel is justified in killing thousands of innocent Palestinians in order to “destroy Hamas” assumes a degree of naivety from the rest of the world that is reminiscent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

From a national security angle, surely this tactic of collective punishment is deeply problematic since many of the victims and survivors of this escalation will no doubt seek justice, if not revenge, against those who destroyed their lives and homes.

I’m no expert by any means, and I have absolutely no idea how this terrible situation can be resolved. All I know is that history will not judge well those who bomb thousands of innocent men, women and children while they lay sleeping in their beds, and that our continued silence makes us partially complicit.

We have a voice and a duty to speak it.

#ceasefirenow

Palestinian activist Rani Burnat is engulfed in tear gas during a weekly demonstration in Bil'in, a Palestinian village located 12km west of the city of Ramallah in the central West Bank. “I live in a wheelchair, but it does not limit me from saying no to the occupation, saying no to oppression, and saying no to injustice, slavery and bloodshed. I continue to say yes to peace, freedom, liberty and independence. I still participate in the protests we organize with Israeli and foreign activists who come to express solidarity with us. We protest against the racist wall, land confiscation and settlement construction. I am in front of the parade with my camera, with which I capture photographs. These photos are a tool in my struggle against injustice and those who are responsible for it.”