Civil defence teams and civilians conduct a search and rescue operation under the rubble of demolished buildings following Israeli attacks hit Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza City, Gaza on November 15, 2023. (Photo by Fadi Alwhidi/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Since 7 October, over 11 000 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli Defence Force. More than 4 500 of those killed are children. The World Health Organisation estimates that a child is being killed in Gaza every 10 minutes. In the two-year Russia-Ukraine war, a war between two well-armed countries, one by Nato, just under 10 000 people have died.
The humanitarian tragedy caused by this war is not just in the number of people that have been killed. It is also in the over 1.6 million out of 2,4 million Gazans that have been displaced. Israel’s indiscriminate killing has overwhelmed the justified anger and outrage following the Hamas attacks on 7 October.
The US and its allies are actively supporting Israel in its quest for vengeance by failing to call for a cessation of hostilities. They are showing the rest of the world what is meant by ‘international law’ in the discourse of the West.
The carte blanche given by the West for Israel to commit mass murder is a clear indication that law and justice are not uniform. What counts as an atrocity or genocide and instances when mass murder should be taken to the International Criminal Court is determined by the US led Western alliance rather than any facts. If you look like them, and belong to their alliance, then you can and will literally get away with murder.
Dehumanisation isn’t just a strategy, it’s a historical echo. Palestinians, long painted as barbaric and backward, are now branded as vermin, cancer by Israeli leaders, echoing dark chapters from history. Netanyahu’s Likud party stokes these flames, calling for a Nakba that would eclipse the horrors of 1948.
From the very beginning of the current hostilities, it has been clear that Israel’s aim is to exterminate and remove Palestinians. Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog stated that “it’s an entire nation out there that is responsible” and called Palestinians “human animals.” Israel’s Ambassador to Germany asserted that Israel had decided to eradicate Gaza. The articulation between these two statements is a chilling reminder of how dehumanisation paves the way for atrocities. When a people are reduced to vermin, empathy is lost, and any act of violence becomes justifiable.
Israel is getting away with mass murder because it has the support of the US, a country with its own history of mass murder at home and aboard. Mass murder is legitimated by dehumanising language that has desensitised enough people to make Palestinians appear as sub-human. If you do not count as human, then you do not deserve the world’s empathy and are deserving of collective punishment.
Dehumanisation happens when an entire political, social and economic system is designed to oppress a section of the population and prop up another. Oppressive systems are maintained by convincing those on top that they have worked hard to have what they have and that those on the bottom are lazy, uneducated, barbaric, stupid, have no agency and need the ones at the top to show them how things are done.
When the oppressed make mistakes or lash out it is said that their actions are driven by greed, inanity, irrationality and their base animalistic tendencies. When the dominant groups make mistakes, or violently repress the oppressed it is assumed that their mistakes are good faith errors and their violent actions justified, at worst as necessary evils.
It is assumed that for the oppressed to become something they need to aspire to be like their oppressors. But they will never quite measure up. They will always be backward and suspect.
Much of the world is waking up to this skewed narrative, but not fast enough. But while there are mass protests in major cities, mainstream media’s framing of the conflict as an “Israeli-Hamas” war continues the dehumanisation of ordinary Palestinians. If this is a war against a “terrorist group” rather than a war crime against civilians then the deaths of thousands of children are somehow less grievous.
London’s Metropolitan police stated that over 300 000 people come out in London this past weekend to protest against the indiscriminate killings of Palestinians by Israel. But some media referred to the numbers as being in the tens of thousands. Their biases are clear.
The last time hundreds of thousands of people around the world were moved to go to the streets was in protest at the Iraqi war. But Western governments ignored the millions on the streets, and their electorates, and waged an illegal war that led to the killing of over a million Iraqis. That war has had a lasting and often devastating impact on a number of other countries. Arabs were being dehumanised, so it was easy for many to look away and allow the atrocities that occurred in Iraq to take place.
Tony Blair and George W. Bush will never be dragged to the International Criminal Court (ICC) because they are white and Western and the victims of their war crimes were Arabs in the Middle East. This is the simple algebra of geopolitical racism — a racism that is relentlessly repeated in some of the white media here at home.
Should the US and its allies really want to show that it believes in a rules-based system it should start by enforcing those rules close to home, and rein in its friends in Tel Aviv. The failure by the US to do so continues to make a mockery of its claims that it is different, that it respects human rights and international law. There is a difference between being opposed to all war crimes and only being opposed to war crimes committed by one’s enemies.
The crass hypocrisy of the so-called rules-based system is already under scrutiny because of the West’s handling of the Russia-Ukraine war due to its use of economic warfare. The destruction and collective punishment that the West is allowing to take place in Gaza says to the Global South, if you don’t look a certain way and don’t belong to a certain alliance you do not matter, you can be killed and wiped off the face of the Earth and we will arm, fund and legitimate your oppressor.
The situation in Gaza is not just a regional conflict; it is a reflection of a global order that values some lives over others. It is a stark reminder of the geopolitical racism that assumes that not all humans are deemed worthy of empathy, dignity and life.
In times like these we are all called to conscience, to action. We can no longer be bullied and cowed by the West and its local proxies.
Nontobeko Hlela is a Research Fellow with the Institute for Pan African Thought & Conversation at the University of Johannesburg. She writes in her personal capacity.