/ 27 October 2023

War on Gaza shows the bias of the ‘international community’

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People mourn as they collect the bodies of Palestinians killed in Israeli air raids. (Photo by Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

The 7 October attack by Hamas on Israeli civilians was a war crime and, like every war crime, an outrage. 

Nevertheless, it is disconcerting how much of Western reporting and analysis of the war on Gaza, including our own media, has portrayed the Hamas attack, often referred to as “unprovoked”, as the first volley thrown in this conflict. 

History matters. Context matters. 

The war on the Palestinian people has been ongoing since the Nakba in 1948 when Palestinians were expelled from their homes and lands. This led to the creation of the state of Israel and to the permanent displacement of Palestinians. The United Nations has passed hundreds of resolutions with regard to the treatment of Palestinians by Israel including the demand for Palestinians to be given a homeland and for Israel to stop encroaching on more Palestinian land. 

These resolutions have all fallen on deaf ears, with Israel being given free rein and a licence to do as it pleases by its main supporter, the United States. In recent years, fuelled by the right wing and Zionist government in Israel, more and more settlers have been allowed to invade the West Bank, pushing Palestinians into tighter and tighter spaces. The violent dispossession of Palestinians is ongoing.

The reporting and analysis of the war on Gaza has further shown the hypocrisy that guides the self-described “international community’s” geopolitical viewpoint. Just like the Russia-Ukraine war, which has been reported as if it just happened out of a vacuum without any context, so has the attack by Hamas and the war on Gaza. 

The hypocrisy is deafening, when Israel, an occupying force, is being supported by the same people who want Ukraine to be freed from the clutches of Moscow. Israel is an occupying settler state, which has stolen the land, lives, and futures of the Palestinian people. It annually receives billions of dollars in military aid from the US so that it can “defend itself” against the people it is occupying. Since 07 October Israel has been given carte blanche by the US and its allies to visit collective punishment upon the people of Gaza in an horrific ongoing war crime. In the West Bank attacks on Palestinians by settlers have been increasing and the Israeli army has bombed the Jenin refugee camp.

As with the Russia-Ukraine war we are constantly being told that there is one legitimate narrative about the war on Gaza. When the hospital in Gaza was attacked, killing hundreds of people, patients, medical staff and civilians seeking shelter, we were told to believe that this was not part of Israel’s efforts to rid Gaza of Hamas. No irrefutable proof has been presented — by either warring party — to prove their claims that it was the “other side” that caused the death of hundreds of civilians. Yet, rather than waiting for clear evidence, we are just supposed to believe that this one time, out of thousands of Israeli strikes on Gaza, this one attack on a Gaza installation did not come from Israel.

The greatest cruelty that has been visited upon the people of Gaza must be the instruction by Israel for those in the north to leave their homes and go south. Where are they supposed to go? Where would you go if overnight you were told to uproot your family and leave your home? Would you go, especially given the history of Palestinians being forcibly removed from their homes that has continued from 1948 and into the present, leaving them as permanent refugees?

What is it that makes the people who have been standing on soap boxes screaming for Pretoria to side with Ukraine to be silent on the decades old plight of the Palestinians? Why are these same people not calling for Palestinian land to be returned, for a people to have the right to self-govern and determine their futures like everyone else? Why are the lives of 1 400 Israelis worth an entire people and way of life? Why is a country allowed to shut down access to the bare necessities of water, food, and fuel for more than two million people because of the actions of Hamas, a group of around 40 000 people? If lasting peace and the protection of civilians are truly the end goal, why does the US and its allies continue to block resolutions for a ceasefire in Gaza?

We need a clear explanation for these double standards. And, indeed, that explanation is clear: racism. The lives of Palestinians simply don’t count the same as the lives of Israelis or Ukrainians for much of the Western media, and its local affiliates. It is a double standard, fully backed by the US and a number of other Western states such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom, that emboldens the Israeli state to subject Palestinians to ever more brutal forms of oppression.

The audacity of the Israeli ambassador to call on the UN secretary general to resign is astounding. Stating the plain fact that the Hamas attack on Israel was not the start of this current conflict is not sedition. In no way is it support for terrorism. Nor is stating the fact that Israel’s collective punishment on Palestinians is a contravention of international law anything other than a plain fact. The arrogance of the Israeli state, a deeply racialised arrogance, is such that it sees fit to tell the UN, the one organisation of the people of the world, that it cannot state plain facts.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) 71 people were killed in Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) operations between 1976 and 1984. The TRC states that 52 of those killed during this time were civilians. When MK operatives killed civilians in the Church Street bombing in Pretoria in 1983 the apartheid regime did not respond by bombarding Atteridgeville, Mamelodi and Soshanguve. When ANC operatives set off the explosive at Magoos Bar in Durban in 1986 that killed three, the regime did not raze uMlazi, KwaMashu and Wentworth. That is what the Israeli army is currently doing, with the US providing Israel with more weapons and advising its army on tactics to further this collective punishment on Palestinians. The Western states that like to call themselves the “international community” are actively supporting the commission of an appalling set of war crimes. 

The UN is, in principle, an organisation of all the states on the planet but it has been hamstrung and rendered useless in dealing with this conflict. UN Security Council members have been unable to agree on a resolution to deal with the conflict in Gaza. This is further evidence of the need to restructure the UN system and other international institutions to make them genuinely inclusive and representative. But that is unlikely to happen in the near future because the current system favours the powers that be and allows them to by-pass the UN and do as they will. Indeed, the “international community” sets itself above the UN.

Israel’s refusal to negotiate and the failure by Israel’s friends to push it to negotiate has the capacity to push the world into another great war. The geopolitical situation is more fragile than at possibly any other time since the end of World War II. This is especially so given the Russia-Ukraine war, the tensions in the South China Sea, the coups in Central and West Africa as well as fragile states in the Sahel, wars in Yemen and Syria, tensions in the Balkans, the stagnant global economy, high costs of living and now the war on Gaza. 

South Africans who have lived through apartheid cannot be silent in the face of the atrocities taking place in Gaza. Just as the apartheid regime had to sit at the table and negotiate with its arch enemy, the ANC, also named a terrorist group by the US, so too will the Israelis need to sit with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. 

Only in talking and seeing each other as human beings is there a possibility of hope and a way to resolve this conflict. This is not an intractable matter, it is only being made so by people who in service of their own interests are unwilling to give a little and take a little. Compromise is about everyone walking away from the table having gotten something and lost something. 

Nontobeko Hlela is a research fellow with the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg. She writes in her personal capacity.