‘We are not subhuman’

Amira Howeidy , Wednesday 11 Oct 2023

The unprecedented attack on Israel earlier this week by the Palestinian group Hamas has reminded many that the rules of war are only recalled in the Arab-Israeli conflict when the victims are Israelis.

 We are not subhuman

 

Acting like many of her Western peers, the US news channel CNN’s senior anchor Christiane Amanpour waved her index finger at Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, on Saturday and commenced her interview with the now-standard question of “first and foremost, do you condemn what Hamas did inside Israel to Israeli civilians?”

The ambassador, who had already appeared on several international news channels, had had enough. The Western media, he reiterated, “should abandon this framework that misrepresents the conflict”.

But both the question and the index finger have persisted. Western news anchors still needed to extract Zomlot’s condemnation of the military operation, dubbed the Tufan Al-Aqsa (the Al-Aqsa Flood), that was led by Hamas fighters across the Gaza border on 7 October and cut through a belt of settlements deep into Israel before targeting military bases and a police station.

More than 900 people were killed and 700 injured in Israel, including 124 soldiers and 41 police officers, according to the Israeli authorities. Approximately 150 Israelis were captured and declared prisoners of war.

Forty eight hours later after Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant had declared “a complete” siege on the Gaza Strip, cutting off electricity, food, fuel and anything that could sustain life for its 2.2 million residents, the Israeli war machine began pounding the Palestinian enclave with all the vengeance articulated by its top military leader.

“We are fighting human animals, and we will act accordingly,” Gallant said.

However, the international news anchors interrogating Zomlot and the small number of guests who spoke up for Palestinian rights did not bring up either the Israeli rhetoric or Israeli actions past or present for discussion.

As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, the Palestinian death toll from the Israeli bombardments of Gaza stood at 1,100 people, including at least four Palestinian journalists killed while covering the developments. Approximately 800 housing units, hospitals, mosques, and business centres were levelled to the ground.   

True to their word, a spokesman for the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) said on Tuesday that their “focus is on creating damage, not on precision”. For the second day in a row, Israel shelled Gaza with internationally prohibited white phosphorous bombs.

With the international focus on the Israeli victims, Zomlot attempted to shift the narrative. “I regret every loss of life,” he said. “The question is how do we stop this? And how do we stop the Israeli massacres against the Palestinians?”

But do you support what Hamas did, the anchors would interrupt him, as if following a script reserved for Palestinian guests across newsrooms. “This is not the right question,” Zomlot protested. “But, it’s an important question,” one BBC anchor insisted.

“No, no, no, no,” said Zomlot. “You’ve interviewed hundreds of Israeli officials. How many times did you start [the interview] by asking them to condemn themselves after committing war crimes? You don’t. I refuse to answer your question because I refuse its premise,” he retorted.

The Palestinians, he said, are always expected to condemn themselves. And Western TV stations only invite Palestinians to speak when Israelis, not Palestinians, are killed, he continued.

“What the Israelis experienced in the last 48 hours, which is tragic, the Palestinians have experienced daily for more than 50 years,” he said. In reference to the Israeli POWs captured by Hamas, he added that “over two million Palestinians have been taken hostage by Israel for 16 years,” since Israel enforced a strict air, sea, and land blockade on Gaza in 2006.

While voices like Zomlot’s have remained a minority in the army of pro-Israeli pundits invited onto international TV screens this week, the arguments made for the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation have exposed how top Western media outlets apply selective criteria in the 75-year-old conflict.

In this narrative, the focus remains solely on Hamas’ operation on 7 October and its targeting of civilians and military personnel in Israel as a violation of international and international humanitarian law.

While the complete facts about Hamas’ operation are yet to be fully known, it has raised some legitimate questions about what constitutes lawful resistance.

While UN General Assembly Resolutions (UNGA Resolutions) have long affirmed the right to self-determination, freedom, and independence for all peoples under colonial and racist regimes, even naming the Palestinians and their “inalienable right” to resist occupation (UNGA Resolution 37/43 (1982)), the Palestinian resistance is unequivocally branded as “terrorism” by much of the international community.

Hamas and any Palestinian resistance movement perceived as a terrorist group are therefore not eligible for the international support enshrined in the UNGA Resolutions or international charters pertaining to notions of freedom, independence, and dignity.

As a former associate legal officer in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), Michael Becker, asked, is there a right to resist an unlawful occupation? The answer is yes, he said, but the form that that resistance can take lawfully is deeply contested.

“My own view would be that lawful resistance, even in the face of oppression and systematic human rights violations, can’t take the form of violence or armed force except in a situation where it might invoke self defence in response to a specific event involving the use of force by Israel,” he said in a telephone interview.

“But I don’t think the right to resist extends to committing acts of violence that are on the face of it unlawful,” he added.

But according to a recent debate on jus in bello, meaning “justice in wartime” and the Latin term for international humanitarian law, the Palestinian resistance can never be perceived as “lawful” when it goes against policies endorsed by the world powers.

In this dynamic, Israel’s support by the US and the international community inevitably criminalises any attempt to challenge the 75-year-old system of settler colonialism and apartheid imposed on the Palestinians in 1948.

“Did Hamas’ operation target Israeli civilians? Yes. Does this violate international law? Yes,” said Essam Younis, head of the Gaza-based Al-Haq rights group.

“Targeting civilians and their property is prohibited in international law,” he said in a telephone interview. “The problem is that Palestinian civilians, as well as their property and land, have been systematically targeted since 1967, disregarding international law.”

“Let the ICC [The International Criminal Court] come here to Gaza and investigate what is happening to civilians,” Younis said, who was shouting to be heard over the sound of Israeli bombardments while waiting to be evacuated from his Gaza home.

“The Palestinians have the right to resist the occupation by all means necessary, and that is enshrined by international law. But does this international law apply to us? Do we have the same rights as those of other sovereign nations to dignity, freedom, and independence?” he asked.

While the Palestinians reel from the apocalyptic Israeli attack on Gaza, the shock reverberating in Israel and elsewhere from the scale of the Hamas operation is still creating shockwaves.

Randa Abdel-Fattah, an Egyptian-Palestinian scholar at Australia’s Macquarie University, said no one should be surprised by the Hamas operation.

“Why are people shocked by this?” she asked. “They are surprised because there’s an Israeli arrogance that assumes that it is invincible and that Palestinians are such a dehumanised race that they will never even dream of wanting to be free.”

“But it is a fundamental instinct for human beings to want to live in dignity and freedom. And the fact that anybody is shocked by this means that they expect the Palestinians to surrender to their condition and to accept to suffer every single day and never to resist.”

“Are Palestinian lives worth saving,” Riyad Mansour, Palestine’s Representative to the UN, asked earlier this week, as the US announced its support for Israel’s war on Gaza.

If this is about vengeance, then many Palestinians have much to avenge, he said in a press conference this week. “If this is about peace, then the way to that is not through further entrenching oppression and occupation, but by ending it.”

“You cannot say nothing justifies killing Israelis and then provide justification for killing Palestinians. We are not subhuman,” Mansour said.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 12 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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