Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Is the tide turning on Israel?

Western leaders seem finally to be waking up to the monstrosity of the horrors Israel has unleashed upon Gaza

Middle EastWar ZonesHuman Rights

Damage in Gaza caused by Israeli airstrikes, October 2023. Photo courtesy Islamic Relief Canada.

After four months of war, some Western leaders seem finally to be waking up to the monstrosity of the horrors Israel has unleashed upon Gaza, in which our governments and civil societies—our corporations, our news organizations, our social media, our educational and cultural institutions—are unarguably complicit.

The West has supplied the bombs, tanks, drones, and Hellfire missiles with which the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has killed at least 28,473 Palestinians, injured another 68,146, displaced 90 percent of the population, and rendered much of the Gaza Strip uninhabitable. Over 12,300 of the dead are children or young teenagers. These are the known casualties, as of February 13; thousands more people are missing, presumed buried under the rubble. According to Israel’s social security agency Bituah Leumi, by comparison, Hamas’s October 7 attack killed “695 Israeli civilians, including 36 children, as well as 373 security forces and 71 foreigners, giving a total of 1,139 deaths”—not 1,400, as was stated as recently as February 15 by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir—an unknown but likely substantial number of whom died from IDF friendly fire.

Comparisons may be odious, but I am not the only one making them. Benjamin Netanyahu, Joe Biden, and other defenders of Israel’s actions in Gaza have constantly reiterated that October 7 was “the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust,” coopting the memory of the most horrific crime of the twentieth century to justify what threatens to be the worst genocide so far of the twenty-first.

But however horrific Hamas’s crimes were on October 7, they are dwarfed by Israel’s retribution, which matches them in its callous brutality but is infinitely greater in its scale. It seems the IDF has taken Netanyahu’s injunction to “remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible” literally: “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys,” says the relevant passage from the first book of Samuel.

For every Israeli killed on October 7, the IDF have now killed 27 Gazans. For every Israeli civilian killed on October 7, the IDF have now killed 40 Gazans. For every Israeli child killed on October 7, the IDF has now killed 342 Gazan children.

You might have seen one of them, 12-year-old Sidra Hassouna, hanging dead from a wall in Gaza, ribbons of flesh all that was left of her legs after Israel struck Rafah in a “complex overnight operation” to free two hostages, while a worldwide audience of 123.7 million people were glued to the 2024 US Super Bowl, making it “the highest number of people watching the same broadcast in the history of television.”

Western representatives at the UN have repeatedly prevented the Security Council from ordering a ceasefire that might have halted this carnage. Western media have boosted the Israeli narrative through brazenly one-sided reporting (e.g. at CBC, BBC, CNN), while our universities, museums, film studios, art galleries, professional associations, and a host of private employers have compliantly suppressed all pro-Palestinian speech on grounds of “antisemitism.”

The ICJ ruling that there is a “plausible” case that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza vindicated Israel’s critics, but has so far done little to alter the situation on the ground. Canada’s evasive response, in which Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly reiterated Israel’s “right to defend itself” in the face of “Hamas’s brutal attacks of October 7,” was typical of official Western reaction. Immediately after the court delivered its verdict, the US, UK, Canada, and 13 other “Western democracies” diverted attention from the ruling by suspending funding to UNRWA, the principal relief agency in Gaza upon which hundreds of thousands of Palestinian lives depend, on the basis of Israel’s unevidenced allegation that a dozen UNRWA staff (out of 13,000) had participated in Hamas’s October 7 attack.

Such is the power of the spectre of October 7, which up till now has been a black hole into which everything—reason, morality, proportionality, context, or any other perspectives on the conflict—get sucked and disappear.

Palestinians inspect the ruins of Aklouk Tower destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City on October 8, 2023. Photo courtesy the Palestinian News & Information Agency-WAFA/Wikimedia Commons.

Is the tide turning?

When the Spanish and Belgian prime ministers denounced “innocent killings of civilians” back in November, Netanyahu rebuked them because they “did not place total responsibility on Hamas for the crimes against humanity it perpetrated: massacring Israeli citizens and using Palestinians as human shields.” As Israel seems poised for a final solution (“absolute victory”) by assaulting Rafah, where an estimated 1.4 million Palestinians the IDF has driven from their homes are holed up in conditions of unimaginable squalor, famine, and disease, that argument seems finally to be losing its stranglehold over rational or moral debate.

Maintaining that “The expanded Israeli military operation in the Rafah area poses a grave and imminent threat that the international community must urgently confront,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez wrote Ursula van der Leyden on February 13 demanding that “the European Commission urgently review whether Israel is complying with its obligations to respect human rights in Gaza.” Along with Belgium, Luxembourg, Norway, and Portugal, Ireland and Spain have been among a handful of European countries who have refused to join the boycott of UNRWA and publicly criticized Israel for its military response to October 7.

More recent converts to the chorus of belated concern include the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell, UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron, French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, and Mélanie Joly, who is rapidly developing into Canada’s very own Susan Collins. These all speak for states who have up till now backed “Operation Swords of Iron,” as Israel’s Gaza offensive is officially codenamed, to the hilt.

On February 14, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon went further, issuing a joint statement calling for a ceasefire. As the Times of Israel noted, the statement “did not mention removing the terror group [Hamas] from power, as a trilateral statement in December had, but rather focused on civilians in Rafah.”

Though the leaders reiterated that they “unequivocally condemn Hamas for its terror attacks on Israel on October 7” and demanded that “Hamas must lay down its arms and release all hostages immediately,” the statement’s main focus was no longer on Hamas but Israel. The settler colony troika adopted a markedly different tone toward the ICJ’s measures than Mélanie Joly’s earlier statement of January 26:

There is growing international consensus. Israel must listen to its friends and it must listen to the international community. The protection of civilians is paramount and a requirement under international humanitarian law. Palestinian civilians cannot be made to pay the price of defeating Hamas.
An immediate humanitarian ceasefire is urgently needed. Hostages must be released. The need for humanitarian assistance in Gaza has never been greater. Rapid, safe and unimpeded humanitarian relief must be provided to civilians. The International Court of Justice has been clear: Israel must ensure the delivery of basic services and essential humanitarian assistance and must protect civilians. The Court’s decisions on provisional measures are binding.

Perhaps more significantly—time alone will tell—a visibly exasperated Joe Biden, whose public backing for Israel has up till now been (in his words) “unwavering,” told White House Reporters on February 8: “I’m of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the [Israeli] response in the Gaza Strip has been over the top.” The White House meantime leaked that in private, Joe calls “that guy” Netanyahu an “asshole.”

Speaking in Tel Aviv a day earlier, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had warned: “the daily toll that [Israel’s] military operations continue to take on innocent civilians remains too high …”

Israelis were dehumanized in the most horrific way on October 7. The hostages have been dehumanized every day since. But that cannot be a license to dehumanize others. The overwhelming majority of people in Gaza had nothing to do with the attacks of October 7, and the families in Gaza whose survival depends on deliveries of aid from Israel are just like our families. They’re mothers and fathers, sons and daughters—want to earn a decent living, send their kids to school, have a normal life. That’s who they are; that’s what they want. And we cannot, we must not lose sight of that. We cannot, we must not lose sight of our common humanity.

An Israeli artillery unit in action near the Gaza Strip. Photo courtesy IDF Spokesperson’s Unit/Wikimedia Commons.

Colonialist legacies

It’s nice to see Western politicians admit that Palestinians are people rather than (as Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant called them) “human animals.” It would be nicer still if the words were matched by deeds—the suspension of arms shipments to Israel, the immediate restoration of UNRWA funding, and Western support for a binding UN Security Council resolution on a ceasefire and implementation of resolution 242 (1967) mandating Israel’s withdrawal to its 1967 borders would be a start. Despite Biden’s and Blinken’s words, the US used its veto to block a Security Council ceasefire resolution for a third time on February 20.

But one has to ask: what took you all so long? Where have you been these last four months (these 57 years of illegal Israeli occupation)? Whether or not the ICJ in the end classifies them as genocidal, what has blinded you to the palpable war crimes playing out live from Gaza on our screens in real time, that have horrified the rest of the world and brought hundreds of thousands of protestors out on Western streets week after week, only to be maligned by you as antisemites?

These questions might especially be asked of otherwise (relatively) progressive Western politicians, who are on the center-left of their countries’ political spectrum yet have stood foursquare behind the most right-wing government in Israel’s history while it methodically obliterated Gaza and canceled its people: Joe Biden and other Democrat leaders (Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer) in the US, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer in the UK, Justin Trudeau in Canada.

Could an embarrassing part of the answer be that “the West,” or what is more accurately conceived as the Global North, is made up largely of imperialist states that not so long ago possessed colonies spread across the Global South, and their former settler colonies (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and above all the United States)? That Israelis are in some obscure way felt to be, in a phrase once beloved of British supporters of Ian Smith’s rogue UDI regime in what was then Rhodesia, “our kith and kin,” in a way that Palestinians (Arabs, Muslims) are not? Why else would we be prepared to believe the most ludicrous of Israeli atrocity stories while for so long ignoring the mountain of evidence of war crimes committed against Palestinians now and previously by the IDF?

We need seriously to consider the disturbing proposition that it is not contemporary economic interests or geopolitical alliances, nor even the undoubted power of pro-Zionist lobby groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPIC) or Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), that are the decisive factors in Western support for Israel, but the deeper, affectual bonds of a shared legacy of colonialism. That what most closely and insidiously binds the West to Israel, at the end of the day, is a deeply embedded culture of white supremacy in which “the natives” are indeed regarded (in Benjamin Netanyahu’s words) as children of darkness, capable of any vileness, while we are the progressive children of light, pure as the driven snow.

Derek Sayer is professor emeritus at the University of Alberta and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. His most recent book, Postcards from Absurdistan: Prague at the End of History, won the 2023 Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Scholarship and was a finalist for the Association of American Publishers PROSE Award in European History.


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