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“Before I go on, let me say, I condemn the actions of Hamas.”
In order to talk with nuance about Israel-Palestine, some of us feel compelled to reassure everyone that we condemn Hamas. Here’s why that’s a problem.
Before I discuss the Israel-Palestine conflict with any nuance, I have to say that I condemn Hamas’s attack on settlers in Gaza. It was indeed unconscionable, just like other acts of war. Because I often demonstrate sympathy and understanding for the plight of Palestinians, and because I, myself, am an Egyptian-American and an Arab-American, I am compelled to say that before expressing anything else about the conflict. For Zionists and supporters of Israel, no such qualification seems to be required—even after Israel killed 1,500 Gazan children. The reason, of course, is that in the West, the apparent “bad guys” in this conflict are Palestinians and the “good guys” are Israel. The reason that the lines are drawn this way is because of the military alliance that the U.S. and other Western nations have with Israel, and the contempt they have for Palestine. I have no problem condemning violence and hatred on both sides, and actually gain something by so doing. That is, rebuking Hamas makes me one of the “good” brown guys who is willing to criticize people that look like him.
The political economy that frames this conflict is one that does not readily allow us to view it objectively. Israel is a Western ally, and in many ways, it is like the West. The Middle East and Palestine are subject to a variety of prejudices and stereotypes. Their acts of violence are characterized as degenerate, unprovoked, and immoral, whereas Western instances of violence are seen as inevitable acts of self-defense and self-determination–both understandable and justifiable. We can’t see this dichotomy readily because zooming out to see how power works in the entire globe and across history would be needed, and many of us settle for the latest headlines.
According to some people, Israel is a free democracy and Palestine is a violent and ungoverned state. The fact is that the former occupies the latter and oppresses its people with impunity. When Israel’s violence is outsized or disproportional, American allies and newspapers speak about it as if it is out of character for Israel, but no such perspective is offered to Palestine. It is as if Israel is “supposed” to act better, whereas Palestine is acting like the West expects it to. Even though I was happy that Joe Biden told Israel to not be consumed by rage, he at least understood their rage. Biden offered no such empathy for the Palestinians. When U.S. allies act badly, they are not acting like themselves, but are overcome with pain and emotion. But when U.S. enemies act in the same way, it’s because they are “evil”. This way of thinking is typical war propaganda. Under normal circumstances, many of us would see all acts of violence and retribution as escalatory and plainly wrong, or we’d at least seek to empathize with both parties. But in war, empathy with the enemy is disruptive to the mission.
So when the New York Times says that “Israel can defend itself and uphold its values,” it is a backhanded insult to Palestinians who exhibit no such values. The implication of saying that Israel knows how to take the higher road is that Palestine does not. While some see the Times’ rhetoric as judicious and temperate, it actually reinforces the idea that Israel is civilized and Palestine is barbaric. The justification for Israel’s violence and the lack of empathy for Palestinian violence is rooted in Western political interest.
None of this argumentation excuses Hamas’s violence—which I will say again, I condemn—but it exposes the bias that Westerners have in seeing one side as more just. Israel’s actions are seen as morally superior because Israel responded in self-defense and upholds Western interests in the Middle East. The U.S., as a matter of foreign policy, has no such empathy or understanding of Palestinians. In fact, exhibiting any sympathy toward Palestine makes someone an accomplice to terrorism–hence the preface for this very post. I needed to tread lightly when I mentioned that Israel’s occupation and settlement is indeed the “first strike” that causes these rounds of violence. But our memory is shorter than our patience. In the weeks following October 7, Israel is being described only as a victim of violence, and not the perpetrator. Western allies have an interest in exonerating Israel for the sake of their own political interest in the region.
Hamas’s sordid actions victimized Israel, and made Israeli occupation and apartheid of Palestine worse. It was wrong on its face and wrong because of what it did to Palestinians. But Palestine is treated like any minority group is when the authority around them holds a prejudice against them. BIPOC, like me, have to tell our children to act above reproach around law enforcement– or in my case, airport security– because there are prejudicial eyes on them. Don’t provoke the violence of those in power because their violence will be excused, and your actions will not be. All violence is wrong, but if you’re the wrong skin color or from the wrong nation, it’s especially wrong.
Many of us can look at the violence in Israel-Palestine with less partisan eyes than our heads of state. We can plainly see that it is wrong, but to support the wars sponsored by our political leaders, we need to see one side is guiltier than the other. And so we engage in dialogue about the scale of atrocities and measured responses to them. But if we are talking about scale, it is noteworthy that since October 7, Israel has killed three times as many Palestinians as Hamas killed Israelis, and that number is bound to go up. In this sense, Israel (even without considering how it has made Gaza an open-air prison) is decidedly more violent than Palestine. Nonetheless, we hear justification for its violence. Why? Look at the U.S.: after 9/11, the country supported an illegitimate and preemptive invasion of a sovereign nation. The U.S. committed war crimes, and violated international law—and suffered no punishment. Bush got re-elected, and while aspects of his legacy are tainted as a result, there is a tremendous eagerness to rehabilitate his image even after his egregious actions.
The geopolitical interests of the West, which are clouded with racism and xenophobia, inform how we see international conflict. Without fail, we dehumanize our enemies and empathize with our allies. And I admit, I collude with this very dynamic because before I tell you that Israel’s outsized response is unethical, its history of occupation brutal, and its apartheid criminal, I have to tell you how bad the Palestinians were first. And even then, you might accuse me of being a terrorist sympathizer. I will continue to do my best to thread the needle here, but I do not expect to receive the same sympathy as opponents of Palestine do when they have a rage-filled response to harm done to them. This is personally painful, but also philosophically ignorant and it results in warping our minds to justify the killings of innocent people.