The reality of war is bitter. A Vietnamese writer once confided that, for her, nighttime and its peaceful silence was a time of visceral fear because when she was a child, the silence of night was when the bombs would fall. Now, silence took her back to the moment before the explosions and so she could not rest. This is how the fear and destruction – the reality – of war enters our bodies immediately and forever.
Yet it seems we weigh realities differently.
When we read that some children’s deaths are accidents of war, that happen without responsibility or the need for justice, while other children’s deaths are terroristic attacks on our common humanity, some part of us must wonder, who decides on the line that divides those who are cherished from those who do not matter?
A powerful and inexcusable calculus has been used to value some humans over others. This cannot be clearer than in juxtaposing the deaths by Israeli bombing and invasion of over 250 Gazans – the overwhelming majority of them civilian and many of them children – with two Israeli deaths.
Those of us who read about the war at a distance play a crucial role in this suffering by colluding or not with the dehumanising of Palestinians. This is because the different valuing of lives has happened through an insidious and effective project of dehumanising Gazans, rendering them distant and their suffering meaningless and almost inevitable. Any intervention is deemed hopeless. They are turned into the intractable and stubborn problem of the Middle East, a narrative that easily becomes repetitive, a story stuck on repeat.
How has this happened?
The most powerful weapon of dehumanisation is language, particularly, the indiscriminate use of the word “terrorist” to cover all Palestinians. The word “terrorist” creates a stark vulnerability, which is then used to justify brutal violence in response. The use of Israeli vulnerability to justify disproportionate violence toward Palestinians is a cycle we witness again and again. In the last ten years, since a war was declared on “terror”, abuses in the name of stopping terror have become normalised. Public language has calcified, allowing terms like “collateral damage” to go unremarked. As writers, as South Africans, we have witnessed and felt the effects of co-opted language and we issue a call to resist such militarised discourse.
Often, the question ‘Why Israel?’ is mobilised as an argument against meaningful engagement with, and critique of, the country’s war crimes. Why not take issue with China, Syria, Russia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or any number of other places where human rights violations are frighteningly commonplace? It is an important question, not least because it condemns Israeli militarism from the mouths of those seeking to support it: to ask the comparative question is to admit Israel’s place among the guilty. We do not seek to single out Israel for condemnation: if we condemn its government for killing children, it is axiomatic that we condemn other governments too. To be enraged by Netanyahu is not to forgive Assad, to demand that Palestinian children not be killed while playing on the beach, is not to grant Joseph Kony the right to recruit child-soldiers. It is possible, it must be possible, to be concerned about many places at once. It is also possible to feel empathy and sadness for Israeli citizens, who live in a volatile and violent region.
When the three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and later killed, we grieved for their lives that were just beginning and for their families’ pain. Hamas has still not claimed responsibility for their deaths but to date, in ‘response’, 46 Palestinian children have been killed by the Israeli Defence Force.
Heartbreakingly, it is likely that by the time this letter is published, that number will have increased. Some of these children were as young as 18 months. They were babies. Gazan children’s lives, their games on the beach, have been cut short by the precise aim of one of the world’s most powerful, most well-equipped militaries. The photographs of their lifeless little bodies, their T-shirts smeared with blood, their limbs blown off, their funeral processions are unbearable to look at. But look we must.
We must not turn away.
And in that looking, let us think again about the meaning of the mounting death toll of the war on Gaza and how dangerously this illustrates the erasure of the category of the civilian in Palestine.
Let us think again of people whose faces we only see screaming in pain in the media, whose homes and infrastructure are being destroyed, whose children must stay indoors under the threat of death, who are battered daily by repeated injustice even when they are not in the headlines. Before the war, their lives were made untenable by salaries unpaid, dignity refused, taxes not transmitted by Israel, haphazard detention, arbitrary arrests, subject to endless raids of homes, cafes and mosques. Lives reduced to waiting at checkpoint, always at the mercy of an impervious authority – these routine forms of suffering erased under manipulative discourses of security.
A refusal to tolerate the excesses of Israeli militarism is not a denial of the country’s right to exist, nor is it a strand of the ugly evil of anti-Semitism. Instead, it is a demand that the Israeli government is held accountable for the for the civilians it kills and that that accountability is not side-stepped by declaring that it is Hamas’ “fault” and that they “had” to kill children.
This demand is to refuse the logic that Palestinians do not matter, that their daily suffering does not matter, their repeated losses do not matter.
Let us recall, we also know what it means not to matter. We did not matter either.
Because South Africa has been used as a metaphor – “apartheid” offers itself as an analogy for others’ suffering – let us remember how ardently the apartheid government sought to dehumanise black South Africans and render our suffering meaningless too.
But we, like Gazans, are not meaningless. Our lives matter. So do theirs.
Let us feel our common humanity, let Gazan lives be our own, let us insist that we will not collude with the erasure of their suffering.
By the simple acts of remembering, listening and refusing the language of division, let us offer our empathy and protection to those who are least powerful and most ignored. Let us refuse to be complicit with war and its infinite suffering.
Gabeba Baderoon is a scholar, poet and Extraordinary Professor of English at Stellenbosch University. Nadia Davids is a writer and lecturer at Queen Mary University of London.