In the second week of November, the Middle East caught fire once again; this time in Gaza. Twitter streamed with pictures of a city in flames resembling Baghdad during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. For many, the brutality of Israel’s attack did not come as a surprise, as memories of Operation Cast Lead resurfaced. Not again!
The eight day long brutal assault on Gaza that ended in a ceasefire brought death for both Palestinians and Israelis. Around 170 Palestinians were killed, including 34 children and 100 civilians and more than 700 wounded including dozens of journalists. Much of Gaza’s infrastructure and public facilities were destroyed by a sophisticated air, sea and land-based bombardment. Four Israeli civilians and two soldiers were killed in Palestinian attacks, with dozens wounded.
In response to this massive Israeli assault, an unprecedented outcry arose around the globe. From Cairo, Paris and London to Rome, Seoul and New York, a call for an immediate end to the Israeli aggression on Gaza spread to nearly 100 cities worldwide.
In San Francisco, people gathered in front of the Israeli Consulate in the rain. “Free free Palestine, long live Palestine.” While people joined the protest, a counter-protest gathered across the street. A small group waved Israeli flags calling for the end of rocket attacks from Gaza. One placard caught my eye: “Never again. We want peace”. On the side calling for an end to the bloodshed, the call and response continued, “Israel is a terrorist state, we don’t want your racist war”. Each group stood their ground, unshakable in their convictions. As the chanting grew louder, confrontations heated up. Each appeared unable to hear the other. In many ways, the two groups were worlds apart. This distance was like the wall around Gaza physically separating two worlds within one country. This wall seemed insurmountable.
That day, I saw two vastly different views clash. Chanting and placards reflected the gap between the mainstream media perspectives on the one hand and on the other the stories and pictures shared on social media. One side saw Israel as a brutal aggressor and perpetrator of violence while the other depicted them as a victim, claiming they were only acting in self-defense.
The Israeli armed forces “Operation Pillar of Defense” was portrayed as freeing the civilian population of Israel from the recurrent threat of rocket attacks by ‘terrorists’ from the Gaza Strip. The image of Israel as a victim was also widely promoted by president Obama. While in Bangkok on November 19, he spoke about Israel: “There’s no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” He only talked about Israel’s right to self-defense and never seemed to consider the human rights of Palestinians. One might conclude the reason for his lack of consideration for Palestine lies in deep-seated psychological disposition. These are words of a man who does not recognize certain others as human beings with the right to be treated with equality under law. For Obama, it seemed Palestinians deserved the wildly asymmetrical Israeli bombardment and that they have no right to defend themselves.
This narrative of Israel as victim has been prevalent with politicians and the mainstream media. In an Interview on DemocracyNow!, author and fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, Phyllis Bennis described how the discussion of Israel as an occupying force with far greater military might is never allowed to enter political circles in Washington.
Israel is a country with a massive military and sophisticated nuclear weapons. The inflamed rhetoric of the Israeli people as victims turns reality upside down. Those who claim to be victims can block emotions that may come up when facing dead children in Gaza after their massive assault on a relatively defenseless population. Once one engages in the process of dehumanizing the other, one doesn’t need to feel pain and guilt. All actions are justified by self-defense.
To bolster this logic, there must always be an identified enemy to keep the populace under constant fear. One only need remember the invasion of Iraq based on lies and post 911 hysteria to see how this works. The repeated images of the collapsing twin towers with the picture of a man in a cave portrayed as a terrorist quickly emerged on TV screens. The fact that none of this had to do with Iraq was irrelevant. A heightened emotional state of fear moved the support for that brutal invasion that cost upwards of a million Iraqi lives. Many people wrapped themselves in the American flag to justify dehumanizing a whole population.
For the Israeli government, Hamas has become the face of the enemy. The puny rocket attacks were blown out of proportion and taken out of context. When Israel claims their right to exist is being threatened by Hamas, it distracts people from the true underlying causes of the conflict and the reality of sheer Israeli aggression. There is no equality in what is happening with Palestinians in Israel. Gaza is occupied as Israel has continued a brutal blockade, backed up by financial and military support from the United States and the European Union.
The militant wing of Hamas is regarded by Israel as a terrorist group, yet they are seen as freedom fighters by the Palestinian people. Right after Hamas was democratically elected in 2006, the US and Israel, backed by the European Union imposed a brutal siege, along with intensive military attacks. Hamas’ aggression is undeniably a form of resistance to Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the oppression that began in Zionist colonization of Palestine.
During this recent conflict, the image of Hamas as a radical organization aiming to remove Israel as a state was promoted in the media. Once an enemy is created and given a concrete name and image, irrational fear is triggered. This fear may not grounded in recent events, but in painful memories of a past shared collectively that are often not fully conscious. Hamas firing rockets outside its borders becomes fear that is out of proportion with the Israeli aggression, considering Israel has one of the largest militaries in the world.
When these impulsive emotions are reinforced by a perceived threat from outside, it becomes a powerful force that drives people in a certain direction. The script of Israel’s right to self-defense provided by Washington and Tel Aviv became the hook. People unconsciously take up a role of victim and give consent to the violent and often dehumanizing agenda of the government and those who stand to profit from continuous conflict and hate.
I hear the voice of a woman on the sidewalk in front of the Israel Consulate in San Francisco. I feel her fear behind the placard. “Israel will stay on the map.” Like a ghost from the past, the nightmare of the Nazi Holocaust cast a dark shadow onto the street. Perceived threats of violence are magnified while we become prisoners of the past. The collective memory of mass genocide sweeps in just below the surface. Once people are caught by irrational hysteria, they often lose touch with present reality. When that happens, one no longer recognizes the other as a free human being. All they see is the imminent threat of a perceived enemy. No matter what the facts are, they are rejected without consideration by a defensive mind-set that clings to its narrative.
Yet, if we step out of this victim mentality and try to understand those who are demonized, a different picture emerge. A recent article on Associated Whistleblowing Press brought out two crucial findings from documents published by WikiLeaks. Stratfor communiques revealed a picture of Hamas quite different than that carried by the mainstream media. In addition, evidence was exposed of an embedded intention of Israel to punish Gaza that cannot be justified with the rhetoric of self-defense. It has been documented that this aggression on Gaza has little to do with Hamas. A 2008 diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks from the U.S. Embassy in Tel-Aviv revealed Israeli officials’ plan for suppressing the Gazan economy, to keep it in their words “functioning at the lowest level possible consistent with avoiding a humanitarian crisis.” Also, insider declarations made by the Egyptian ambassador in Lebanon told Stratfor that one of his contacts inside Hamas showed how they and other militant groups in Gaza have no intention of bringing serious threat to Israel.
Richard Falk, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories pointed out how mainstream media’s one-sided portrayal of Hamas is shocking and that there existed a viable diplomatic alternative as Hamas had agreed to an informal truce. As a matter of fact, the very leader, Ahmed Jabari who brokered this was assassinated by Israel at the outset of the current bombing campaign, a fact mostly ignored by Western media.
When filled with emotion, we often become blind, only seeing things that are convenient to the provided narratives. Irrational fear can turn a whole population into an enemy. Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon claimed that “Most of the people that were hit in Gaza deserved it, as they were just armed terrorists.” Many accept the official’s portrayal of Hamas and Palestine without questioning its validity.
Once we see people as barbarians and as the enemy, their voices are reduced to the roaring of beasts. In this process, we fall deaf to our own humanity. All that cuts through is the resounding drumbeat of hate. Back in 2008 Deputy Israeli Defense Minister Matan Vilnai warned Palestinians of a “bigger holocaust” if they didn’t stop rocket attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip. This same drumbeat is carried on now. On November 18, son of former Israeli leader, Gilad Sharon wrote an op-ed:
“We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza…. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima—the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too…. This needs to end quickly—with a bang, not a whimper.”
According to the leading Israeli daily Haaretz, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai, a member of the ultra-orthodox Shas party, said “The goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages,”
History repeats itself. By fighting the ‘enemy’ in the name of self-defense, people allow the dehumanizing that was once done to them happen to others. This way, what is not redeemed or transformed is passed on. It is as if the Israeli government is being driven to carry out a final solution to exterminate the Palestinians as many join the fanatic cheering for killing innocent people.
What are we being complicit with in the name of self-defense? The erupting bombardment of Gaza was an escalation of collective punishment that has been going on for a long time. It revealed to the world what amounts to the largest open air prison, and those within it who have been marginalized and dehumanized. Noam Chomsky, who recently visited Gaza shared his impressions:
“This is where a million and a half people, in the most densely populated area of the world, are constantly subject to random and often savage terror and arbitrary punishment, with no purpose other than to humiliate and degrade, and with the further goal of ensuring that Palestinian hopes for a decent future will be crushed and that the overwhelming global support for a diplomatic settlement that will grant these rights will be nullified.”
A UN report claimed the Gaza Strip will be unlivable by 2020 unless actions to improve conditions are taken. Now, with the advent of social media, this reality is no longer so easily concealed. The whole world can see the force that oppresses Palestinian and makes them out to be subhuman. Yet, this harsh reality of Gaza is not seen by those who wrap themselves with self-justifying slogans. Language blocks empathy. For many Israelis, the rhetorical shield protecting Israel’s brutality is the right to self-defense. This is similar to the language of so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’ recently used to conceal the real agenda and nature of invasions and other US led remote-control killing in that part of the world.
The aforementioned hypocrisy in the use of those terms is easily observable. President Obama supports military incursion in the name of humanitarian intervention when it comes to Libya and Syria. All the while, he insists on Israel’s right to defend itself and condemns the little rockets by Hamas, while he is busy sending highly lethal drones overseas. Use of the word war to depict the recent attack on Gaza is misleading because actually it is a rampage of lethal bullying and retributive murder.
In the last ten years, language has been abused and twisted to reverse 70 years of international war crimes law. Torture has become normalized with the term ‘enhanced interrogation’. Murder of innocent children and women are camouflaged by the euphemism of ‘collateral damage’. Hardcore statistics that reveal the death toll of civilians have now simply become abstract numbers. Killing of innocent civilians is excused by ‘human shield’ rhetoric and their portrayal as ‘unfortunate victims of war’.
At times in history this misuse of language has been shattered and people wake up to its irrationality. During the Vietnam war, it was the sensational AP photograph of a Vietnamese girl naked from napalm that outraged the American people and helped end the war. Pictures of the results of asymmetrical bombing have the power to shut down justifying narratives and open the heart that can feel. The mental construct of the ‘enemy’ crumbles and we can begin to see who they really are with our own eyes. This is the very reason that mainstream media hides these images from the public. The same thing happened to soldiers in Iraq who were trained to dehumanize brown people as ‘enemy combatants’.
Ethan McCord, the soldier in the WikiLeaks’s Collateral Murder video recounted the experience of rescuing the children from the van amid the senseless slaughter. When he held the child that could be dying in his arms, something happened. He started to question the whole operation that he had been a part of. In the raw footage of the Collateral Murder video, many saw the real faces of those portrayed as enemies and perhaps what we saw reflected in those images was ourselves, the barbarians who invade and attack a nation that has not been any threat to the US.
In confirming the Gaza ceasefire at a news conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel is prepared to exercise greater force. Two days after the ceasefire was reached, breaking news from Aljazeera reported one Palestinian was killed and at least 10 others being wounded after the Israel soldier opened fire on them. Violence continues and core issues remain unsolved.
To truly understand the Israeli-Gaza conflict, we must first ask ourselves how to listen to one another, to recognize our humanity in those who have been made our enemy. Unless we are able to see others as equal human beings, dialogue is not possible. All facts about the incident, all events mean nothing when one is deaf to all but their own murmuring.
On the streets of San Francisco the chant continued. “Gaza Gaza don’t you cry, we will never let you die!” We see in Palestine an oppressed, dehumanized part of ourselves that is dying. We can realize how by turning others into an enemy, we are dying to our own humanity. Martin Luther King once said “A riot is the language of the unheard.” There is little excuse for Hamas’s violence against Israel, yet one can see how perhaps Hamas rockets are the language of the unheard, the voices of a desperate silenced resistance.
Only when we have courage to see those who have been our enemies in a new light, we can begin to listen. These are the voices of those who survived the horrendous persecution of the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and those suffering through the atrocities in Afghanistan. These are the voices that resisted Apartheid in South Africa and blacks who are racially profiled and criminalized in the inner cities of America.
“Never again” said the Jews after the cruel Nazi persecution and genocide that murdered millions. What was this promise? It was not simply about resisting the takeover of one’s country, but is a commitment to never forget the only enemy is the one within ourselves. This concocted enemy is the most fragile, unrecognized part of us that falls prey to fear; the part that most needs our love.
This recent crisis in Gaza raises the question: Will we truly say “Never again” — never lose courage to look deeply into the eyes of those who have become our enemy? When we learn to listen to those who we have been told to hate and fear, we find the love that sets us free. We no longer need to be a victim of history that enslaves us to the past. Instead, we can choose to become a solution; one that is never final, but an ever-evolving commitment to overcome the crisis of our humanity.