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Despair is the currency of massacre

Lital Khaikin on how deflecting from the Palestinian humanitarian crisis to the ‘Israel-Hamas’ war enables continued apartheid

Middle EastWar ZonesHuman Rights

All Out for Gaza demonstration in Montréal, Tuesday, October 17, 2023. Photo by Lital Khaikin.

“More than 20,000 Palestinians have perished in the new war,” reads a newspaper photo caption citing December’s death toll since the beginning of the Israeli siege. A young girl reading in a café remarks to her father, “Why? They call it a war, but it was an attack. Israel completely demolished Gaza.”

When Israel predictably bombs Palestinians every year, the episodic tragedy beckons many back to the writing of academic and literary critic Edward Said. Beyond documenting the cyclical nature of Israeli apartheid since the Nakba, Said’s essays anchor the politicization of emotion within the history of crisis in Palestine. What Said saw unravelling from the neglect—internationally and by Palestine’s own elected officials—of Palestine’s humanitarian crisis and the continuity of Israeli apartheid in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, has never been more urgent. The inability to address the racist and classist policies of repressive states is only adding fodder to reactive extremism and eroding ideological diversity in anti-imperialist resistance.

The Palestinian humanitarian crisis has long since been reduced to a story of periodic suffering and a media sandbox topic for the perfection of algorithms. Canadian policy-makers pay marginal attention to the daily reality of the IDF’s detention and murder of Palestinian civilians at Israeli checkpoints, inhumane medical and living conditions, targeting and murder of journalists, bombing of civilians and civilian infrastructure, and restricted mobility in Gaza, the world’s largest open-air prison, now reduced to rubble.

In response to the massacre of around 1,200 Israelis by Hamas militants at a music festival, Israel launched the opening salvo of its assault on Gaza in October. In the months since, the siege has been rebranded as the “Israel-Hamas war.” A status update from the Times of Israel in December assures the world that the war is “almost half done,” while months of continued fighting are still expected. With December’s campaign against Hamas through a siege on northern Gaza, Israel is pursuing “full operational control” to continue expanding its illegal settlements. The Times founding editor David Horovitz has transparently described this as “a situation that is supposed to enable the beginning of a return and rebuilding of communities in sovereign Israel.”

For a nation pushed day after day against Israel’s wall of execution, this past year is on record as the deadliest since 2005, when the United Nations started systematically documenting Palestinian casualties. In the week of October 13 alone, the Palestinian Ministry of Health reported the killing of at least 1,900 Palestinians and the injury of 7,699 people in Gaza.

Following the bombing of al-Alhi Hospital, Ramallah-based human rights organization al-Haq denounced the continued carpet-bombing of Gaza. Human Rights Watch called out the IDF’s use of white phosphorous munitions in Israeli airstrikes targeting Gaza and Lebanon in October. In light of this, Israel has still not signed and is not bound by the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons which prohibits the use of the chemical weapons in areas with dense civilian populations.

Predictably, the United States rushed to provide a $14.3 billion (USD) military aid package to the IDF, one of the world’s most technologically advanced and well-funded militaries. And despite Justin Trudeau decrying Israel’s “killing of women, of children, of babies” in Gaza, Canadian military exports to Israel are nearly as high as during the First Intifada. Last year alone, Canada exported over $21 million (CAD) worth of military goods including bombs, torpedoes and missiles, aircraft, and electronic equipment.

In the initial weeks of the Israeli assault on Gaza, protests in downtown Montréal shut down the streets from the US embassy to the steps of the Israeli embassy. On Friday, October 13, the groups Palestinian Youth Movement, Al Raya Dawson, SPHR Concordia, Academics for Palestine, and Montreal4Palestine organized emergency protests as Israel issued an evacuation order to civilians in Gaza.

Essential services have long been a weapon in the IDF’s arsenal, and, true to form, Israel cut off water and electricity to Gaza in October. While IDF Colonel Elad Goren proclaimed that there was enough water to satisfy humanitarian needs when Israel reopened pipes and about half the usual supply of water in October, Gaza had depended on Israel supplying roughly 49 million litres of water per day on average prior to the siege. Contrary to the IDF’s claims on fulfilling humanitarian needs, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) continued to report a shortage of food and water through November, and an outbreak of waterborne illnesses like cholera and typhoid.

With this dependency on Israeli infrastructure and vendors, Palestinians have long lacked sufficient access to clean drinking water. Some communities in northern Gaza, like areas of Beit Lahiya, have historically lacked access to safe drinking water for the majority of their citizens. Electricity blackouts are simply routine.

Médecins sans frontières (MSF) called for an end to the “egregious level of collective punishment currently being meted out to the people of Gaza” and for restoring “unconditional humanity,” emphasizing that medical workers and emergency responders cannot work safely in Gaza. The MSF reported that surgeons at al-Shifa hospital had been operating without painkillers. Medical and emergency supplies could not pass through the Rafah crossing in and out of Egypt, although it was eventually opened. Impeding the free movement of medical staff and supplies in conflict zones is in violation of the Geneva Fourth Convention and has been condemned by the UN Third Committee.

In the wake of the bombing of al-Alhi Hospital (Al-Maamadani) on October 17, Palestinian organizers called supporters to strike. In December, calls for a strike in Montréal continued. Several actions have taken place since, including sit-ins, vigils, the national march on Ottawa, and independent strikes like a Gazette columnist putting her collaboration with Postmedia on hold to protest Canadian media coverage of Palestine.

Palestinian trade unions—including the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (Gaza), the General Union of Palestinian Teachers, and the General Union of Palestinian Women—have called on unions globally to refuse manufacturing and transporting weapons to Israel, and to lobby their governments to end military trade with Israel. Members of the CSU/SCP (the Canadian Staff Union, working at CUPE) passed a resolution to respond to the call from Palestinian trade unions, and to protect workers from being punished or silenced for opposing the Israeli occupation.

World Beyond War has called for an end to Canadian companies profiting from Israeli apartheid through the export of weapons, weapon components and military technologies. Labour Against the Arms Trade and Labour 4 Palestine have taken actions like blockading the facilities of Toronto-based INKAS, a company specializing in security technologies and armoured vehicles that sells supplies to Israel.

Many community groups and arts organizations across Montréal have shown continued solidarity through an open letter initiated by CERAS (South Asia Forum), with supporters including South Asian Diaspora Action Collective (SADAC), Québec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG), Climate Justice Montréal, and the Québec Writers’ Federation.

But ask solidarity groups for a comment on the current siege, and you’ll receive a statement that could very well have been unchanged for years, worn out by being ineffectually trotted out to the media. Palestinian and Jewish Unity (PAJU) shared a link to a statement decrying the distortion of Judaism in the service of Israeli apartheid: “It is time to draw a distinction between Zionism—the cult of right-wing Jewish supremacy—and Judaism, the Jewish religion of transcendence and tolerance.” Following the censure over the chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” in November, Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) published the statement: “It cannot be inherently violent to call for your own dignity to be respected, and to label the Palestinian quest for freedom as inherently antisemitic or actively violent is Islamophobic and a form of anti-Palestinian racism.”

Year after year, the Palestinian humanitarian crisis continues to be mired in a war of rhetoric and the tired conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism and the defence of Palestinian human rights with “terrorism.” Year after year, human rights groups like Al-Haq, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) condemn Israel’s permanent state of apartheid that continues without censure or penalty as the international community watches the Zionist state play bingo with the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court’s checklist of war crimes.

All Out for Gaza demonstration in Montréal, Friday, October 13, 2023. Photos by Lital Khaikin.

All Out for Gaza demonstration in Montréal, Friday, October 13, 2023. Photos by Lital Khaikin.

All Out for Gaza demonstration in Montréal, Friday, October 13, 2023. Photos by Lital Khaikin.

All Out for Gaza demonstration in Montréal, Friday, October 13, 2023. Photos by Lital Khaikin.

All Out for Gaza demonstration in Montréal, Friday, October 17, 2023. Photos by Lital Khaikin.

All Out for Gaza demonstration in Montréal, Friday, October 17, 2023. Photos by Lital Khaikin.

All Out for Gaza demonstration in Montréal, Friday, October 17, 2023. Photos by Lital Khaikin.

All Out for Gaza demonstration in Montréal, Friday, October 17, 2023. Photos by Lital Khaikin.

All Out for Gaza demonstration in Montréal, Friday, October 17, 2023. Photos by Lital Khaikin.

All Out for Gaza demonstration in Montréal, Friday, October 17, 2023. Photos by Lital Khaikin.

All Out for Gaza demonstration in Montréal, Friday, October 17, 2023. Photos by Lital Khaikin.

All Out for Gaza demonstration in Montréal, Friday, October 17, 2023. Photos by Lital Khaikin.

Why is there silence around the extrajudicial killings and political assassinations carried out by the Israeli right-wing fundamentalist Zionist government as it pursues the eradication of Hamas and rounds up Palestinian “military-aged” men—including Al-Araby Al-Jadeed (The New Arab) correspondent Diaa Al-Kahlout—for detention, interrogation and torture at Beersheba prison? Does the targeting of Gaza’s Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, or the assassination of the West Bank’s Hamas chief Saleh al-Arouiri in Beirut, not deserve the same scrutiny by the UN as the extrajudicial assassination of Iranian military general Qassem Souleimani?

In Canadian media, Palestine cannot be said to exist as an autonomous political entity with an internal complexity of class struggle, labour rights, women’s rights, electoral politics, and its own renditions of political corruption. Hamas is only part of this story. Despite the exaggerations of Palestinian support for the extremist right-wing Islamist party and the discomfort it provokes, there are deeper roots to the past decades’ gradual shift in popular support toward Hamas.

A recent survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) reported that support for Hamas has risen in the West Bank; its leadership is more appealing than the prospect of governance under the Palestinian Authority, even without President Mahmoud Abbas at the helm. While Gaza burns, the West Bank has only flickered through the headlines as Israel killed more civilians between January and October than in any year since 2005. The majority of respondents want the current Palestinian president to resign.

That the name of Abbas has not even been uttered for almost a decade at Canadian solidarity protests is an echo of the disillusionment with political leadership in Palestine. Nor is it an accident that protest organizers in Montréal did not once invoke the UAE or Saudi Arabia when roll-calling representation from the Arab states at demonstrations this fall. The Gulf states are understood to be aiding and abetting US imperialism and the genocide in Yemen, and participating in the resource race for key trade corridors in the Horn of Africa.

The discontent of younger generations born after the Oslo Accords was apparent in a statement by the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) in 2020 that called for the mobilization of young Palestinian voters and international youth movements against the incompetence of the Palestinian government under Abbas: “to affirm that the leadership of the Palestinian Authority does not represent our people and is outside the ranks of our national struggle.”

Abbas is keenly aware of the lack of support from the people he is supposed to be representing and defending: he derailed the anticipated May 2021 elections when he sensed an erosion of voter support in the wake of Sheikh Jarrah and Israel’s brutal siege of Gaza. Israel’s bombing of Gaza that month took out four residential high-rises and damaged thousands of civilian buildings, with growing incidents in Israeli settler violence reported the following year.

Arafat was similarly derided for being holed up in Ramallah as his government lost the faith and respect of Palestinians in the years leading up to the majority election of Hamas to the Palestinian parliament in 2006. In 2001, Edward Said wrote: “It is a self-sacrificing spirit of human and moral solidarity with his people that Arafat’s leadership so fatally lacks. I am afraid that this terrible absence has now almost completely marginalized him and his ill-fated and ineffective Authority.”

“It has been years since Arafat represented his people, their sufferings and cause,” he wrote the following year, days before Israeli forces razed the villages of ‘Abasan and Khuza’a. “There is thus no strong moral centre in the Arab world today.”

In the absence of international accountability for Israeli genocide and daily conditions of apartheid, it is no wonder Palestine has increasingly rallied behind the leadership of Hamas. After all, only one form of self-defence is justified: that of the oppressor defending their right to oppress. This much has been made clear in the Israeli and US refusal of Abbas’ negotiations for a ceasefire without “the destruction of Hamas,” as Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan described it.

Back in October, an open letter by the Birzeit University Union of Professors and Students stated: “The unfathomable crime of silence and complicity perpetuated by the entire world— including Arab and Muslim regimes under the oppressive power of American impositions—are openly supportive of genocide or mute witness to the crimes of settlers.” That silence has been decades long. Is it not a deeply Jewish question to ask how much longer a people are supposed to remain complacent in their own destruction?

The open letter ends with the observation: “[…] Now that our resistance has used guerrilla war tactics, we have now become the oppressors?!” This refers to the criminalization of Palestinian resistance to the apartheid conditions imposed on people in Gaza and the West Bank since the Nakba, and to the sustained dependency on the Israeli state for essential services, the right of movement, and even the fundamental right to exist. That the Birzeit letter refers to “guerilla war tactics” speaks volumes about frustrated and fruitless efforts to hold Israel accountable for decades of illegal settlements and police-state brutality, and the absurdity of the occupying state playing the victim.

***

The unstable growth of support for Hamas is a negation, not an affirmation: the Islamist party’s religious fundamentalist core contributes to bolstering the Israeli state agenda of eradicating the last remnants of Palestinian autonomy and further incentivizing regime-change in the Middle East and North Africa.

Said predicted the erosion of secular resistance to Israeli imperialism in the years following the Oslo Accords—when the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) renounced terrorism and Israel recognized its leadership. Said saw hardline religious fanaticism gaining power in the Palestinian struggle for liberation, emerging out of the corruption and ineptitude that shook faith in the PLO and the Palestinian Authority.

“How many of us, for example, have openly and honestly stood up for secular politics, and have condemned the use of religion in the Islamic world,” he wrote, “as roundly and earnestly as we have denounced the manipulation of Judaism and Christianity in Israel and the West?”

Despite acknowledging the reality of growing religious fundamentalism in the Palestinian liberation movement, he wrote on the conflation of criticizing US and Israeli imperialism with condoning terrorism: “Intellectually, morally, politically, such an attitude is disastrous since the equation between understanding and condoning is profoundly wrong and very far from being true.” Such conflation erases empathy and denies the “common sense of anguish” of people living in literal entrapment in the Palestinian territories.

As the Israeli siege continues through the Judeo-Christian holiday season, mainstream media has been turning its attention from the plight of ordinary Palestinians to the “Axis of Resistance,” a union of Sunni and Shiite militant groups Hamas, Hezbollah and Ansar Allah (or Houthis). When the Houthis targeted Israeli-owned or -bound ships in the Red Sea with rockets and drones, this attack was described by journalist Rami Khouri as the “first serious coordinated battlefield action” by the Axis of Resistance beyond Gaza.

The most recent deflection from the Palestinian struggle for liberation toward the war against Hamas and the “Axis of Resistance” recalls the use of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda as, in Said’s words, “stock symbols of everything loathsome and hateful to the collective imagination”. In the weeks preceding the invasion of Afghanistan by the US, Canada, Australia and other NATO allies, this association resulted in an “inattentiveness even to the possibility of dialogue with secular movements and people who have real grievances.”

This fall in Montréal, lofty rhetoric of anti-terrorism spawned from the “Israel-Hamas” war followed the well-worn grooves from government statements and media language guidebooks to the streets. After a protest in October, drunken passersby on Sainte-Catherine street point and laugh at “les terrorists”: a group of laughing young women in hijabs walking with Palestinian flags.

Since October, weekend protests have become routine in downtown Montréal—another event to attend with friends on the weekend. Shoppers no longer linger as long beside the Palestinian flags, banners and keffiya patterning the blocks between the Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Victoria’s Secret storefronts.

Said was correct when he wrote back in 2001 that the US war against terrorism was stirring things up in “ways that might not be containable”. Where he was incorrect, however, was in his optimistic evaluation that “there is no way to continue indefinitely a thirty-five-year-old occupation.”

So it is that year after year, it takes the spectacle of massacre to bring attention to the indignity of life under Israeli occupation. While the written word itself is not enough to stop bombs, it is a conduit of memory, continuity and dignity in crisis. The written word preserves names when rubble is cleared, faces uncovered, and flags disintegrated. It exists to find sense in the senseless. It lends numbers to crimes, letters to politicians, and hope—as Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote, “the twin of despair.” Darwish, who had criticized the extremist elements of Hamas, knew well what words, verses and songs meant in the face of inhumanity battling inhumanity.

There is no nation smaller than its poem
But weapons make words too big for the living
and the dead who inhabit the living
And letters make the sword on the dawn’s belt glitter
til the desert becomes parched for songs or drowns in them.

Lital Khaikin is an author and journalist based in Tiohtiá:ke (Montréal). She has published articles in Toward Freedom, Warscapes, Briarpatch, and the Media Co-op, and has appeared in literary publications like 3:AM Magazine, Berfrois, Tripwire, and Black Sun Lit’s “Vestiges” journal. She also runs The Green Violin, a slow-burning samizdat-style literary press for the free distribution of literary paraphernalia.

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