/ 4 March 2024

Gaza: Defending the indefensible

Israeli Airstrikes In Residential District Of Rafah, Southern Gaza
Warning: Destroyed buildings after an Israeli air strike in a residential area of the Al-Shaboura refugee camp in Rafah, Gaza, on 13 December 2023. Photo: Ahmad Salem/Getty Images

The merciless devastation of Gaza and its people has become the defining global issue of the moment. The speed and scale of the genocidal violence waged against the people of Gaza — violence openly waged before the eyes of an anguished global public — has made it the central ethical and political issue of the day.

During World War II, about 43 000 people are estimated to have been killed during the Blitz in the UK from 7 September 1940 to 11 May 1941. The two-year Russia-Ukraine war has seen 10 582 people killed, 587 of them children. In five months the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) has killed more than 30 000 Palestinians in Gaza. The majority of the dead are women and children. 

The West, in particular Germany and the US, has armed, funded and legitimated the hell that has been rained down in Gaza. Western citizens of good conscience are increasingly refusing to be complicit and in the US there is a real possibility that President Joe Biden’s dogged support for the murderous regime in Tel Aviv could cost him his presidency.

As happened with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and before that the devastation of Vietnam, the West’s claim to provide enlightened leadership to the world seems like nothing but cynically self-serving spin to millions of people around the world, including many citizens of the West. It is entirely clear to anyone with an internet connection that the West remains what it always has been — a colonial power with no regard for the lives of most of humanity.

While Washington, Berlin and London continue to support genocide, a starkly racialised genocide, it has been states in the Global South that have stood up in defence of the Palestinian people. 

South Africa took the lead taking Israel to the International Court of Justice. But countries such as Bolivia, Columbia, Chad, Honduras and Chile have either expelled Israeli ambassadors or cut diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv. Recently, Brazil’s President Lula da Silva, the unofficial leader of the progressive forces in the Global South, came out in an unequivocal rebuke of the Israeli state, calling the IDF’s actions a holocaust.

The Western states backing Tel Aviv are also facing growing challenges at home, including from human rights organisations. In December, Oxfam took the Dutch government to court demanding that it stop exporting parts for F-35 fighter jets to Israel. This was informed by concerns that Israel was violating international law in Gaza. 

In February The Hague’s Court of Appeals ordered the Dutch government to stop the exports, ruling that “there is a clear risk that Israel’s F-35 fighter jets might be used in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law”.

Since the end of World War II, the dominant Western states have cynically used discourse about human rights to delegitimise their rivals while ensuring that they are never held accountable for their own rights violations. Now that human rights organisations in the West are turning their attention to Western governments that old game might be up.

Nonetheless, the US continues to defend the indefensible, doggedly vetoing, for the third time, on 20 February, a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. The US continues to provide money and arms to Israel, along with diplomatic and media support. 

Two US congressmen have even gone so far as to push for congress to punish South Africa for daring to act outside of Washington’s authority and having the audacity to take Israel to the International Court of Justice to face censure. 

They have made entirely unfounded allegations that the South African government is in league with Hamas and Tehran, allegations that the strident pro-Western voices in our media have seized on with glee. It seems that for these congressmen the only reason that a small country such as South Africa would act against injustice is because someone was pulling the strings. 

Imraan Buccus, writing in the Sunday Times, did well to insist that the liberal South African commentators who have claimed that Iran paid the South African state to approach the court must either provide evidence for their claims or apologise and retract them.

But while it is geopolitical power relations that allow unspeakable horrors to keep tearing through Gaza, minute by minute, we need to keep our eyes on the people suffering those horrors as well as the geopolitical power games that sustain them.

The situation could hardly be more urgent.

The UN and other organisations have been warning for months that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is becoming catastrophic. Israel is preventing aid from moving into Gaza, leading to the UN continuously warning that about a quarter of the population of Gaza is facing imminent famine. 

Not only is the IDF restricting the access of aid into Gaza, it has repeatedly fired at trucks bringing food to its starving people. The IDF has been caught on camera shooting at, and killing, people trying to get their hands on what little food has managed to get through the tight border controls. Far right Israeli citizens have also sought to prevent food from reaching starving people.

At the start of Israel’s war on Gaza in October 2023, after Hamas’ attack that killed more than 1 000 Israelis, the IDF had urged Palestinians to leave northern Gaza and head south. About 2.2 million Gazans are now squeezed into the southern city of Rafah, many of them living in wretched conditions in camps.

Israel has for weeks been threatening to lead a ground invasion on Rafah. It is already overrun by displaced people who have had to abandon their homes and livelihoods. Now the Israeli government is telling them to move again. Where are the Palestinians expected to move to this time? Are they expected to just move into the Sinai desert to die or live in a permanent stateless limbo? 

Israel is raining hellfire on Palestinians to try to force them to walk into the desert, to walk to their death, away from their land and citizenship. 

Israel will not bring this horror to an end if it is not forced to. 

The Israeli government’s stated aim at the start of its incursion into Gaza was to rid the strip of Hamas. They have never explained what that would actually look like. How would Israel determine that there were no longer any Hamas fighters left? If one fighter puts down his gun, how does the Israeli state know who will next pick it up? How does the state know which child will next pick up a stone or a piece of rubble from a destroyed building small enough to fit into her hand? 

How does the Israeli state propose to get into the minds of the traumatised survivors of its reign of terror to determine their precise political allegiances? How does the Israeli state plan to ensure that children who have survived the destruction of their homes, schools and families will not take up arms against their oppressors as soon as they are able?

By setting up its assault on Gaza as a war to remove Hamas from the strip, Israel has prepared the ground for a war that cannot be won until the Palestinian people are defeated as a people. 

Israel will only stop its genocidal violence when it is forced to. That will only happen when the pressure on Western governments reaches critical mass. That will only happen when the efforts of progressive governments in the Global South, Western human rights organisations and ordinary, decent citizens of the Western powers reach critical mass.

Nontobeko Hlela is a research fellow with the Institute for Pan African Thought & Conversation and a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg.