/ 14 May 2024

Israel’s war on Gaza shows the ‘civilised’ can be the biggest liars and killers

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Israeli right-wing activists look at damaged trailer trucks that were carrying humanitarian aid supplies on the Israeli side of the Tarqumiyah crossing with the occupied West Bank on May 13, 2024, after they were vandalised by other activists to protest against aid being sent to the Gaza Strip. (Photo by Oren ZIV / AFP)

In the aftermath of the 7 October attack by Hamas, mostly on civilians, Israel and its supporters have been found wanting when it comes to truth. 

We were told that Hamas had beheaded and burnt babies and that pregnant women’s bellies were cut open and their infants killed. These stories were circulated around the world and repeated by “reputable” media houses, and even the president of the United States. These claims turned out to have been false. The now notorious New York Times story “Screams Without Words” has been comprehensively debunked.

We were told that the Al-Shifa hospital was being used by Hamas as its headquarters. “Embedded” journalists were taken to the hospital and we were shown what were purported to be “weapons” left by Hamas. When the veracity of these claims was questioned, the videos were taken down without explanation. A video of a “nurse” at a Gazan hospital where Hamas was supposedly holding hostages turned out to have been falsified. The “nurse” was shown to be a Mexican-Israeli actor.

Earlier this year Tel Aviv claimed that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency looking after refugees in Palestine, was infiltrated by terrorists and Hamas militants. Without any verified evidence being presented to support this claim Western media and Western governments, including the US, took Israel’s word and stopped the flow of much needed humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza. 

This was despite the UN and UNRWA stating that those claims were false and the fact that Israel had previously made baseless allegations against the UN refugee agency. Israel provided no evidence to the independent review led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna commissioned by the UN to look into these accusations.  

Israel has not only been dishonest in its claims about Palestinians, it has also been dishonest about its own intentions. Palestinians were told to leave the north of Gaza and travel south to safety along designated routes. These routes were bombed by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and scores of people were killed on their march south. The south has itself been bombed and attacked by the IDF. Now Palestinians who have been displaced numerous times within the Gaza Strip have been told to leave the south and Rafah, the southernmost part of Gaza, the very same place they had been told was safe. 

We were told that a ceasefire was in the works, that Israel had made a “generous” proposal and that Hamas was the holdout and should agree to the ceasefire. Although Hamas agreed to the ceasefire, Israel has not. It has instead signalled by its seizure of the Rafah crossing to Egypt that it is hell-bent on continuing the fighting and escalating the land invasion of Rafah.

Nobody disputes that atrocities were committed against civilians on 7 October but this fact does not give licence to fabricate lurid claims to legitimate further violence against civilians. When it turned out that false claims had repeatedly been made by the Israeli state and actors aligned to it, that these had been uncritically repeated by leading Western media houses and then repeated again by powerful Western politicians, there were no apologies. When there were retractions they were not as ardent or prominent as the original claims. There has been no panic in the Western media about “fake news” emanating from Israel.

It seems that for all its lies and false claims there will be no repercussions for Israel for its systematic and repeated lying. Everything will carry on as normal and it will continue to receive the aid and support that it wants from the West. The fact that Israel’s lies have in all probability caused the deaths of countless people will not make any difference to how it continues to portray itself as a victim while continuing to kill and maim civilians.

The real problem is not Israel. The way the Netanyahu government is behaving is par for the course, just on a much more devastating scale than before. The real problem is the powerful Western countries that allow Israel to continue on this path. The real problem is that Israel is taken as a credible actor despite its well documented record of lying because it is seen as part of the West, as part of the civilisation that determines who is human and who is not, who is assumed to be rational and honest and who is not.

Netanyahu was very clear about this when in the aftermath of the 7 October attacks he said: “It’s the battle of civilisation against barbarism. And if we don’t win here, this scourge will pass.” He understood very well that in the West, Israel is taken as part of “Western civilisation” while Palestinians are not and that this would ultimately determine how Western governments position themselves.

Much of Western media are every bit as complicit as their governments. What Israel says is frequently taken as Gospel truth, whereas statements made from Gaza are always qualified as being from a Hamas led or controlled entity thereby rendering their veracity questionable. Israelis die in the active voice, they are killed or massacred, while Palestinians die in the passive voice, they just somehow die. Strikingly different adjectives are used to describe violence, suffering and death affecting Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli lives are awarded vastly more column inches and television minutes than Palestinian lives.

Western critics of Israel and support for Israel by Western governments have frequently been slandered as being anti-Semitic and pro-Hamas. Many people have lost their jobs for opposing the destruction of Gaza and its people.

Our public sphere is far from perfect, and remains colonial in many ways. But when there are lies in the public discourse in South Africa these are ventilated in public, sharply and pitilessly. With all our problems we can disagree and we do so often and loudly. Talk radio’s success shows how importantly South Africans value their right to voice their opinions. The right to disagree is not rubbished and it is not only the views of the political elite or administration that are allowed to stand. 

We are all aware of the many failures to hold to the promises of 1994 but one of the things that we can be proud of, and which we should hold dear, is the free speech that we have and which we enjoy as a result of our imperfect democracy. In South Africa you can support the cause of the Palestinian people and rail against the genocidal Israeli government and IDF without being labelled anti-Semitic. Jewish and Muslim people can walk together and demand justice for Palestine. Zionists and their supporters can also express their views freely, even when making the most ludicrous statements such as when James Myburgh claimed that “South Africa resurrected Hitlerism at The Hague”.

Not so in the land of the free. In the US, the self-proclaimed home of democratic values, students and university staff, many of whom are Jewish, are being painted as anti-Semitic, silenced, repressed for opposing the support given to Israel by their political elites. Despite all this many American students and academics have stood up for principle with great courage and many have paid a price for this.

The mobilisation by young people on campuses across the US has brought into sharp relief just how out of touch the Biden administration is with its base. The thousands of young people who have been calling for a ceasefire and an end to the genocide in Gaza have created a crisis of credibility for Biden and the wider liberal establishment.

As South Africans we should be proud that on this issue, and despite immense pressure and threats to our sovereignty, our government has led the way and shown what a principled stand against racism, colonialism and genocide looks like. 

Our society and our government has done so much better on this issue than the US, or countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany because, despite all our many flaws, we understand colonialism when we see it. We understand that you cannot simply assume that the coloniser is always ethical, rational and honest while the colonised is, to put it bluntly, a barbarian.

The brave young people who are challenging the superiority complex of white liberal arrogance in the US and the wider West are teaching those liberal elites that they also need to begin to understand colonialism. Like the generations before them who refused to accept Western support for apartheid or the war against Vietnam, they are refusing the old script that divides the world into the civilised and the barbarous, and showing that sometimes those who see themselves as civilised are the ones doing most of the lying and killing.

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.