/ 12 October 2023

Beware the one-eyed Middle East critic

Palestinians Mourn While Sitting Around A Mock Coffin As
Over the past few weeks we have witnessed a disturbing trend of a collective blind eye being turned to history

“You don’t want to go out that way.” So said the Israeli cop  to me at one of the exits from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in September 2000. “Why not?” I asked. “Because it’s mainly Arabs down there,” came the explanation.

Substitute “Arabs” for “blacks” and you can hear a South African cop of a certain demographic say exactly the same, can’t you? And with the same level of outrageous presumption — that because of one’s own race, the level of prejudice will be the same. 

In the days before and after this encounter, I watched with horror as the second intifada began and escalated rapidly. I saw with my own eyes how the armoured vehicles of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) would roll up to the “Green Line” border with the occupied territories of Palestine, and then over the line by a few hundred metres, further provoking the young men throwing stones.

I heard how the IDF snipers would shoot rubber bullets for a while, bullets that could still maim or even kill, but then the sound would change unmistakably as the soldiers switched to live ammunition. 

I visited the hospitals in Ramallah. I saw the victims for myself — the wounded and the dead. And I noted how our Palestinian driver’s calm demeanour shifted over the days that followed, until the point when he said he was ready to take up arms and lay down his life, if necessary. He could not bear the injustice. 

When we left, our Palestinian hosts apologised for the inconvenience that the intifada had caused to our mission. They apologised. 

Modern, secular Ramallah was crushed within months and with it the ambition of the two-state “solution” of the Oslo Treaty. 

I wrote about all this then and, drawing on my own direct experience, several times more over the coming year, increasingly inured to the nasty late-night emails that came, presumably, from American Zionists — the bots of their time. 

That was 23 years ago, so what’s the relevance now? Three reasons: history and context matter; things have deteriorated since, especially for Palestinians and, above all, because seeing for yourself is important.  

Those 10 days in September 2000 changed my life, my worldview, my understanding of the Middle East. 

Part of the problem for the one-eyed anti-Palestinian commentators is that if they are relying on mainstream media they are not, ironically, getting a realistic view — ironic, because in straining for “balance”, and in the face of a well-oiled Zionist propaganda machine, media outlets end up representing the conflict as one between equals, when it is not in fact a conflict between equals, or even a conflict between David and Goliath. 

Instead it is one between an occupier — Israel (at least from 1967 and then 1973 and now through supporting illegal settlement expansion) and the occupied. 

This matters greatly for how the conflict is framed, understood and represented.

As I saw it for myself: the bantustanisation of Palestine; apartheid Israel. 

So, in addition to tuning into Al Jazeera, rather than BBC or CNN, people should go to see for themselves, provided they have an open mind and open eyes. 

What are the implications of the war for the world? 

Whenever it flares up, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reverberates around the globe. Look at the spread of protests across the world, representing both sides of the conflict. Look at how quickly other nations are drawn in and how it intersects with regional and international politics.

Due to the shifting landscape of geo-political alliances and interests, dissecting the implications of the conflict is even more hazardous a task. The conflict adds another layer of complexity. 

In the a la carte era that international relations has now entered, alliances are no longer set in stone; the binary days of the Cold War and the post-1989 short-lived period of Western liberal triumphalism are over. 

Brics Plus illustrates the point. South Africa maintains its long-held position in support of Palestinian justice and self-determination. Narendra Modi’s India has been friendly to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel, not least because his nationalist government is so viciously anti-Muslim. They share a common enemy. 

Then there is Iran. And Saudi Arabia, whose relationship with Israel was in the process of being “normalised”, but will now be postponed — it will be hard for any Arab state to maintain relations with Israel if it continues to turn Gaza to rubble.  

As the cycle of violence and war spirals out of control, it gives licence to the demagogues of the right across the world to scale up their toxic brew of populist nationalism, state-sponsored oppression and bigotry. 

What then, in this sea of geo-political change and uncertainty, should be the defining tenets of a progressive political stance?  

First, an overriding commitment to peace and not war, and a determination to somehow find a path towards it, however obscured by the fog of war and the clamour for “revenge”. 

Second, an insistence that analysis and understanding must always be contextual, because non-progressive politics is so often characterised by acontextual and ahistorical claims. Seeking to identify the underlying structural and other causes of a “wicked” problem, rather than baying at the symptoms, is what sets progressives apart. 

Third, an equally dogged insistence that international law and human rights matter. Israel has been a serial transgressor of international law — the surge in Jewish settlers in Palestinian territory, the Wall, the blockade of the Gaza strip and the occupation of Palestinian territories, from 1967 onwards. 

Fourth, a further insistence that international law should be applied consistently — the double standards of the liberal West are a major problem in undermining the legitimacy of international law and in discrediting it in the eyes of many global south actors. 

The position of the Ukrainian leadership and their supporters across the world has been striking in the past days — even allowing for the pragmatic need for Volodymyr Zelenskiy to not risk upsetting the Western powers that are supplying him with arms — because few seem able to draw the obvious comparison between the Russian and Israeli occupying forces.

Fifth, a recognition that Hamas is not Palestine; it is a militant faction but it is not the Palestinian Authority and not the Palestinian people. 

Sixth, a recognition that, in contrast, the Israeli state is the Israeli state. 

Seventh, both Hamas and the Israeli state should be condemned for their murderous conduct and the war crimes that the UN has already said have been committed by both sides. 

Eighth, to draw the conclusion that when a supposed democratic, constitutional state commits atrocities and breaches international law it should attract a very high level of opprobrium. 

Collective retribution, whether bombing or cutting off water and electricity, against the citizens of Gaza is unlawful and unjustified because it is indiscriminate. Netanyahu should be held to account for the decisions he takes now. 

Ninth, a progressive position requires a strong stand against anti-Semitism; there can be no equivocation on this. 

Tenth, speaking up for Palestinian justice and against the Israeli state will invariably require courage because it will be deliberately, and often disingenuously, distorted as being anti-Semitic.  

Taken together, this means holding the line against the bloodthirsty right-wing call for revenge, for more violence and for more war, for more “othering” and racial discrimination, and for abandoning human rights and international norms and standards. 

It represents a principled call for peace and justice against the tide of war and injustice, in defence of humanity.  

The brutality and death and destruction which has unfolded since Saturday morning represents a mammoth failure in international politics and diplomacy, in Israeli intelligence and security, and in leadership. 

The single biggest myth at the heart of modern Israeli politics, especially that of its right-wing leaders such as Netanhayu, is that oppression of Palestinians provides for Israel’s security. 

If nothing else, the gruesome events of the weekend punctures this myth. 

In turn, Hamas gambles the lives of Palestinian citizens, who will suffer. But this is the inevitable result of decades of oppression and occupation (plus Hamas was initially supported by Mossad as part of its plan to depose Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation). Until a proper peace process is founded, which by necessity demands Israeli concessions that will never arrive without American insistence, Hamas won’t be defeated and peace will be impossible.

As a result of these profound failures in diplomacy and leadership, ordinary citizens in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian Territories are suffering the cruellest of barbaric acts, their lives torn apart by death and destruction. It is heartbreaking. 

In this maelstrom of hatred and brutality, it is hard to keep perspective and a cool head. But that is what is needed if the very worst is to be avoided, and if the conflict is not to escalate far beyond the narrow geographical confines of the Holy Land. 

Israel has powerful allies. In comparison, the Palestinians are essentially alone. Until the uncritical liberal Western alliance shifts to critical and constructive engagement with Israel it will continue to incentivise Israeli impunity rather than negotiation and a pathway to a peaceful and just resolution.

Richard Calland is the director of the Africa Office of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and visiting adjunct professor at the Wits school of governance.