Violence in Israel-Palestine

The Sukkot War in Germany

Let’s begin this story on 6 October 2023. It was the day after an attack on the West Bank village of Huwara.

Police and flags. Berlin, 29 November.

Some 200 extremist Israeli settlers had gathered for public prayers, marking the festival of Sukkot as a provocation; the group soon turned into a shouting mob and began throwing stones at residents’ houses.

In the course of the subsequent violence, a 19-year-old resident, Labib Dumaidi, was killed. The incident recalled the pogrom in the same village on 26 February.

During Dumaidi’s funeral procession, at least 51 mourners were injured by the army. 199 Palestinians had been killed in the West Bank since the start of the year.

In the Gaza Strip, it was the usual situation of life under blockade: the constant humming of drones overhead, the restriction of goods entering and leaving, mass unemployment, undrinkable water, four hours of electricity a day, fishermen being prevented from going out more than three miles by Israeli gunboats, which restricted their possible catches and thus their livelihoods.

A life of constriction and preventable misery in a densely populated area, with the constant possibility of bombings if the Israeli army chose to carry out targeted killings. A life that had been forced on residents for 16 years as a punishment for daring to elect a Hamas government after disillusionment with corrupt, Western-controlled Fatah politicians.

While the authoritarian government soon began to lose popularity, its military wing was able to boost its image periodically as the only substantial resistance force against Israel.

This was the immediate context – leaving aside the 75 years of oppression since the Nakba, the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians and killing of up to 15,000, and the military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in 1967 (although the Jewish settlements in Gaza had been cleared in 2005, Israel had retained effective control of the strip, which is consequently still classified as occupied territory) – in place on 7 October, when Israel was seemingly caught unawares by the operation named ‘Al-Aqsa Flood’ by its executors.

The morning of the 7th began with hectic news announcements and dramatic photos. Among the latter, one was especially powerful: the Gaza border fence burst open by a bulldozer.

To Palestinians and their sympathisers, this was an image of inestimable potency, a symbol of liberation, a prison break.

The presence of the bulldozer added a certain flavour of proletarian revolution, and shots of Palestinians with a captured Merkava tank seemed to show a disempowered population taking control, however limited and short-lived it might prove to be.

The exact nature and extent of the attack were still unclear, but it was obvious that there would be a violent response.

I texted my friend Khalil in Gaza, urging him to be careful – and simultaneously feeling ridiculous for those words, given how helpless the population is against Israeli bombs. After asking me to pray for the people of Gaza, he stated simply: “Won’t see us again. It’s the last war for us.”

As a survivor of wars that had taken away his father and his home, he had some idea of what to expect.

As more and more information came out, two contrasting facts became clear: on the one hand, the operation had been meticulously planned and took place on several fronts with unnerving precision.

On the other hand, there had been massacres of civilians in several towns and villages near the Gaza border, and a rave that had been going on in the vicinity – I paused in bafflement at the idea of people partying outside an open-air prison – had been attacked, with large numbers of dead and abducted participants.

Glued to both social media and news, I soon realised that a new conflict was opening up in the discourse in addition to the shock of the attack itself.

While it was to be expected that any military action from Gaza would be condemned as terrorism by Israel’s supporters, the massacres of civilians also horrified many who are otherwise sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, especially Israelis, most of whom knew someone in the ravaged communities.

There was a mixture of fear and grief for friends and relatives and a sense of disgust and betrayal that the side one had supported had crossed a moral line.

Meanwhile, some on the anti-imperialist left insisted that one cannot dictate the rules of resistance to the oppressed and that what the world was seeing was not the domesticated, academic form of postcolonialism but actual, messy anticolonial praxis.

Anyone involved with the Israel-Palestine issue is familiar with the high emotional temperatures that have always accompanied the debate. This time, however, a new level had been reached.

While hardened positions in discursive and political altercations between supporters of the respective parties were nothing unusual, a fault line had now opened up within the pro-Palestinian camp itself.

There had not been a concerted campaign of attacks on Israeli civilians since the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, and even on the bloodiest days in that period, there had not been anything approaching the over 800 civilian fatalities of 7 October (along with over 300 soldiers killed).

Whatever criticisms there had been of Hamas for their harsh rule and Islamist ideology, critics of Israeli oppression and occupation previously had to concede that armed resistance to occupation is a right under international law as long as it does not target civilians. Hamas abandoned suicide bombing as a strategy in the mid-2000s.

Both in the mainstream and among the more centrist supporters of the Palestinian cause, any use of the word ‘resistance’ was now condemned as an endorsement of the massacres, which, as further details emerged, appeared to have been particularly gruesome, with claims of mutilation and rape.

Soon, complaints spread about people on the ‘global left’ who, with a shocking lack of empathy, were supposedly valorising such acts with the term, thus dehumanising the civilian victims in Kibbutz Be’eri, the town of Sderot and elsewhere; one open letter was launched by Israeli academics, another by international figures.

In the latter, the authors connected what they saw as an acceptance of Jewish deaths to historical Antisemitic pogroms and the Holocaust.

More and more people, nationalists and liberals alike, referred to 7 October as the most lethal day for Jews since the Holocaust, obscuring its geopolitical context and positing an analogy between members of a persecuted minority in Europe and citizens of a nuclear-armed state.

What had been overlooked, or in some cases deliberately ignored, was that the term ‘resistance’ is a neutral and descriptive one, not a valorisation.

An act of resistance can harm innocents, and a resistance group can commit unjustified acts without ceasing to be a resistance group, just as an army does not stop being an army when it commits war crimes.

The US soldiers who carried out the My Lai massacre in Vietnam belonged to the army of a sovereign state; their atrocities did not change this fact.

Accordingly, the fighters from Hamas and other armed factions who committed massacres in the border region around Gaza were still resistance fighters despite carrying out acts of violence no longer justified by international law.

The designation of armed Palestinian individuals or groups as ‘terrorists’ has long been the norm, whether they restrict their attacks to military targets or deliberately harm civilians.

Do You Condemn?

Among the many speech acts reflecting this delegitimisation of Palestinian resistance – even in its non-violent forms, such as protest and boycott – is the question, “Do you condemn?”

Time and again, it is directed at Palestinian guests by interviewers as a ritual to be performed before the conversation can proceed, or against supporters of Palestinian rights, as demonstrated recently by the British TV host Piers Morgan in a conversation with Jeremy Corbyn.

In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Queen Rania of Jordan pointed out the double standard:

Why is it that when people are coming to represent, you know, the Palestinian issue, at the top of an interview, they have to have their humanity cross-examined, they have to present their moral credentials: “Do you condemn?” We don’t see Israeli officials being asked to condemn, and when they are, people are readily accepted by “our right to defend ourselves.” I have never seen a Western official say the sentence: Palestinians have the right to defend themselves.

While the queen had been treated a little more gently than most Palestinians and not been confronted directly with this demand, the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, Husam Zomlot, was subjected to a particularly undignified interrogation by the presenter Kirsty Wark on the BBC programme Newsnight.

Zomlot had just lost six family members, including two children, in Gaza. This, however, did not prevent Wark from insisting that he – a representative of the PLO – condemn the actions of Hamas. Zomlot showed incredible restraint, maintaining his composure despite his grief.

To anyone familiar with the history of how oppressed peoples – whether those colonised by other states or those treated unjustly by their own – have responded to their oppression, this is only the latest instance of a time-honoured phenomenon.

Because the oppressor is not only politically and physically but also discursively dominant, any refusal to accept their terms is presented as evidence of savagery, reinforcing the idea that the oppression is justified, even necessary.

A potent example from recent history can be found in an interview with the Black civil rights icon Angela Davis from 1972 when she was imprisoned.

Davis expresses bafflement that her questioner should ask her if she approved of violence in the Black struggle when she had grown up in a community that was subject to constant violence by racists.

Again, this is not a blanket justification for whatever is done in the process of resistance, and the attack of 7 October crossed the line drawn by international law. But the use of the term defines the context, not the morality.

When Native Americans were fighting against genocide, they committed massacres against unarmed settler families, but the verdict of history has clearly not been that such acts of brutality invalidated the anti-genocidal struggle itself.

One does not have to go back to 1948 to highlight the constant violence by Israel against Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere; it is enough to go back 16 years to the decision to place the Gaza Strip under blockade.

This was an act of collective punishment that has been internationally condemned, and its many ramifications constitute a state of violence.

Violence breeds counter-violence, and the armed resistance in Gaza – which includes not only Islamists like Hamas but also the Marxist-Leninist PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) – acts in response to the violence of the occupation.

The word ‘terrorism’ obscures this and delegitimises the resistance not only for specific acts – such as killing civilians – but for resisting at all. And this is precisely what people are being urged to denounce when they are asked, “Do you condemn Hamas?”

One of the more well-known and eloquent leftist politicians in Europe, the Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis, added a twist in an interview with his explanation of why he refused to condemn Hamas for the attack.

He located the responsibility for the structural injustice at the root of the violence less with Israel itself than with the West since Western countries had supported Israel’s actions and its system of apartheid for decades.

Varoufakis made the simple point that when members of the Black resistance in South Africa committed acts of violence in their struggle against apartheid, the problem was not their violence; the problem was apartheid.

Nuance can be a scarce commodity in our increasingly polarised public discourse, a discourse dominated by online outrage, and it has perhaps never been scarcer than since 7 October.

The activist organisation I belong to, the German-based Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East, has certainly not remained aloof. Many of our members are Israelis with family and friends in Israel.

On that day, one member lost a relative whom the IDF shot after being mistaken for a Palestinian militant. Another member lived in Sderot for a few years and was scared to look at the list of fatalities, fearing that he would read familiar names. These are only two examples.

It should come as no surprise that we also experienced a degree of internal friction regarding our response to the events.

While some members found it essential to express empathy, others did not consider it our role as political activists to highlight emotions when a long-term system of structural oppression and violence was the root cause of the violence at a particular moment.

There was anger and reproach; one member even left the group.

The board ultimately published a statement that sought a middle ground between humanity and political analysis. It was clear to us that our enemies and perhaps even some friends would attack it – because we did not condemn it for the reasons I have discussed here.

It was not a choice to side with those who killed innocents on 7 October, but rather to state unequivocally that those fatalities resulted from the injustice visited on those who were killed long before and are being killed by the thousands as I write this.

In memory of Khalil Aburaida, killed by Israeli bombs in October 2023, and for his wife Alaa and their four children, whose fate is unknown.

Photograph courtesy of Matthias Berg. Published under a Creative Commons license.