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The Cauldrons We Make


Photo courtesy of CNBC

“Do not use our death and our pain to bring the death and pain of other people and other families…” Israeli peace activist Noy Katsman (eulogy for his brother Hayim Katsman murdered by Hamas on October 7)

Jewish Currents is a US-based leftwing Jewish magazine. Soon after October 7 Hamas attack, its editor, Arielle Angel, a vocal proponent of Palestinian liberation, penned a letter to the readers. “I watched the bulldozer destroying Gaza fence again and again, and cried tears of hope,” she wrote. “I watched Palestinian teenagers seemingly out joyriding in a place half a mile away that they’d never been…But these images were quickly joined by others – the image of a woman’s body mostly naked and bent unnaturally at the back of a truck; rooms full of families lying in piles, the walls splattered in blood. I wanted desperately to keep these images separate – to hold close the liberatory metaphor and banish the violent reality. By the time I began to accept these were the pictures of same reality, I was distraught…”

The October 7 attack itself was historical – Palestinians breaching Israel’s supposedly impregnable defences, a written-in-fire reminder to Arab leaders of the immediacy of the Palestinian question. But that operation could have been carried out without murdering civilians, including women and children. Had Hamas attacked only military targets, the focus would have been on the Netanyahu’s government’s failure to defend Israel, and on the axiomatic link between Middle East peace and a just solution to the Palestinian question. But with the murders and the rapes, Israeli government was able to pivot attention away from its own egregious failures to Hamas brutalities. (Incidentally, most victims of the Hamas attack were left-wing Israelis supportive of Palestinian rights.)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reportedly warned of a likely Hamas operation by Egypt’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel. He opted to ignore the warning and prioritise illegal Jewish settlement in the West Bank, to appease his ultra-orthodox allies. Had Hamas attacked without targeting civilians, Mr. Netanyahu would now be fighting for his political life rather than trying to snuffle out all Palestinian lives in Gaza. Hamas provided the beleaguered Israeli prime minister with a political lifeline, and an invaluable excuse to the Israeli hard right to ethnically cleanse Palestinian lands of Palestinian people.

Eqbal Ahamad, the renowned Pakistani academic and resistance activist (he was once a member of the Algerian FLN) explained that armed struggle “was supremely unsuitable to the Palestinian condition.”Instead, Palestinians should identify and expose the primary contraction in Israel, “that it was founded as a symbol of the suffering of humanity…at the expense of another people innocent of guilt.”This contraction cannot be brought out by armed struggle. “In fact, you suppress this contradiction by armed struggle. The Israeli Zionist organizations portray the Jews as victims of Arab violence…” (On Empire).

That was what happened after October 7.

Given the fanatical nature of Hamas, the brutalities were probably unavoidable. Precisely the reason Israel right helped Hamas into being. In 1978, “seeking to undermine Yasser Arafat’s popularity in the Occupied Territories, Menacham Begin’s government approved an application from a…religious leader in the Gaza Strip, Sheik Ahmed Yassin to license his humanitarian organisation, the Islamic Association…Yassin was willing to cooperate with the Likud government, because he, too, shared the goal of undermining Arafat’s secular influence over Palestinians. More importantly, and in line with Likud policies, he sought to block the creation of a Palestinian State based on land-for-peace”

Sheik Yassin was given a free hand to publish a newspaper, raise funds, build mosques and social welfare organisations. During the first Intifada, Islamic Association created its armed wing, Hamas. Now the same Hamas has saved the political life of current Likud leader, and the implacable enemy of Palestinian liberation, Benjamin Netanyahu (just as in Sri Lanka, the LTTE enabled Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory).

As Eduardo Galeano wrote, “Terrorists resemble one another: state terrorists, respectable members of government, and private terrorists, madmen acting…. in the name of various gods, whether God, Allah, or Jehovah…. How much longer will we ignore that fact that all terrorists scorn human life and feed off of one another?” (How Much Longer?)

From Untermenschen to human animals: birth crimes

In 1938, a man named Otto Frank tried to migrate to the US with his family to escape Nazis persecution and failed. Anti-Semitism was rife then; according to a Gallup poll, 72% of Americans didn’t want any more Jewish refugees and 54% of Americans felt that the persecution of Jews in Europe was partly their own fault. Otto Frank’s family, including daughter Anne, would perish in the Holocaust.

In 1942, Jewish inmate Szlamek Bajler escaped from the Chelmno death camp, with the first news of the Holocaust. The story was published in Polish socialist paper, Liberty Brigade. The reality of Holocaust was known to Allies at least from June 1942. Yet even in 1944, US War Secretary Henry L Stimson blocked Jewish refugees from coming into the US. He demanded that Japanese be prosecuted while giving the Nazis a free pass. The West’s anti-Semitism made the task of Jewish genocide easier for the Nazis.

For the Nazis, Jews (and Slavs and Gypsies) were Untermenschen (sub-human). As Holocaust survivor Victor Klemperer pointed out, the most effective propaganda weapon of the Nazis was “single words” which “permeated the flesh and blood of the people” (The Language of the Third Reich). This vocabulary of contempt deprived Nazi victims of their humanity and made Nazi crimes less morally reprehensible in the eyes of Germans.

A similar process of dehumanisation is taking place vis-a-vis Palestinians in Gaza. “We are fighting human animals,” Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant said announcing a total siege including no food or water, “and we are acting accordingly”. Tzipi Navon, advisor to Mr. Netanyahu’s wife Sarah, wants Hamas attackers tortured: nails pulled out, skinned alive, male genitalia cut off, fried, and fed to the captured. “Save their tongues for last, so we can enjoy his screams, his ears so he can hear his own screams, and his eyes so he can see us smiling”. After over 1000 children were killed by Israeli bombs, Knesset member Meirav Ben-Ali said the children of Gaza have brought this upon themselves.

Israel hard right is not Nazi any more than Hamas is Nazi. The idea of birth crime, which formed the bedrock of the Holocaust, was not a Nazi construct. For millennia, it was a key tenet of Christian anti-Semitism. In our little corner, it informed and enabled Black July, the Anuradhapura massacre and the mass expulsion of Muslims from the North, to name a few. Israeli hard right (which is in government) and Hamas both subscribe to it. When Israeli defence minister calls Gaza population “human animals” even genocide becomes possible.

No politician or official in any other land (including America) would be able to get away with such verbal violence. Just as no other country would be able to get away with the kind of murderous collective punishment Israel is inflicting on Gaza. The international community would step in to protest, to restrain, at least to castigate. Sri Lanka, during the final stage of the Eelam War, is a classic example. The LTTE held more than 200,000 Tamil civilians as human shields. The Rajapaksa administration announced a no fire zone, which too was bombed; Gotabaya Rajapaksa decreed, “Nothing should exist beyond the no-fire zone…No hospital should operate in the area” (Interview with Sky News – 2.2.2009). The results were instantaneous. “Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital…has been shelled repeatedly in the last 24 hours, forcing patients and staff to flee towards the north-eastern coast…” (ICRC statement 4.2.2009). It would take months of international pressure to make President Rajapaksa promise not to use “heavy calibre guns, combat aircraft and aerial weapons which could cause civilian casualties” (AP – 27.4.2009).

After the war, more than 300,000 Tamil were herded into internment camps called welfare villages. As then Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona said, “It was quite likely that even many elderly people were with the LTTE at least mentally” (BBC – 4.6.2009). The Rajapaksa plan to make these camps permanent and build military cantonments in the empty lands failed only due to intense international pressure.

During his 2010 Speech to the UN General Assembly, President Rajapaksa argued that humanitarian laws should apply only to legitimate states and not to terrorist organisations. Sovereign states should be given the legal right to do whatever they deemed necessary to combat entities labelled “terrorist”. This carte blanche Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted for all rulers was and is an Israeli prerogative. As Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestinian Territories warned, “There is a grave danger that what we are witnessing may be a repeat of the 1948 Nakba…Israel has already carried out mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinians under the fog of war. Again in the name of self-defence Israel is seeking to justify what would amount to ethnic cleansing.” Yet, the world does nothing.

Appearing on the podcast, The Rest is Politics, Palestinian Ambassador in the UK, Husam Zomlot said, “One of the most heinous crimes in history was the Holocaust. Six million Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis. And we all learned the lesson; never again. The never again brought about the international system. The international system created two things Israel and rules. Unfortunately Israel and rules have been at odds with each other for 75 years. We need to align Israel and rules…The Jews were not our victims. We are the victims of the victims.” The solution: “Apply international rules equally.” Let those who rightly decried the brutal Russian siege of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol apply the same standards to Gaza. Doing anything else is to accept that horrific notion of birth crimes.

Death and Life

In 2019, a non-party organisation called the 14th March Movement used social media to organise a mass protest in Gaza. The We want to live protests were mainly against the Israeli blockade and the resulting economic devastation. But Hamas saw in this independent act of dissent a threat to its political stranglehold of Gaza. Protestors were attacked, houses and refugee camps raided. Protests broke out again this August, decrying abysmal living conditions and Hamas’ punitive taxes.

According to a July 2023 poll by Washington Institute, 70% of Gazans polled supported PLO-led Palestinian Authority (PA) sending “officials and security officers to Gaza to take over the administration there, with Hamas giving up separate armed units.” The PA is notoriously corrupt and inept so this might be connected to two other findings – 62% of Gazans wanted Hamas-Israel ceasefire to continue while 65% feared “a large military conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza”. Gazans wanted Hamas out for they wanted to live.

This growing popular discontent is a likely factor behind the October 7 attack. Israel’s assault on Gaza will end all internal dissent, according to anti-Hamas activist Rami Aman who was jailed and tortured by Hamas. “No one will make any kind of revolution against Hamas under Israeli missile… They are creating more Hamas, more Hamas, more Hamas.”

Just as the Israeli assault helps Hamas, Hamas’ attack will push Israel even further to the right. The current ultra right Netanyahu administration was enabled by the electoral rise of Israel’s ultra orthodox population (Haredim). Twenty four hours after swearing in with the backing of extremist settler parties, Netanyahu tweeted, “The Jewish people has an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop the settlement of all parts of the Land of Israel (including Judea and Samaria)” (i.e., West Bank). To do that, a new Nakba is needed. Thanks to Hamas, Israel may get that.

Twenty percent of Israel’s citizens are Palestinian Arabs. Banning their political parties and thus semi-disenfranchising them is a key goal of the Israeli right. Unfortunately, Palestinian Arabs have failed to use their electoral clout to best effect. At the last election, the overall turnout was over 70% while among Palestinian Arabs it was only 53%. If more of them voted, the hard right and Benjamin Netanyahu might have not have gained power.

After the first round of Israeli air strikes caused hundreds of casualties, Hamas political leader Abu Marzouk who lives in exile in Qatar said, “The Palestinians are ready to pay even a higher price for their freedom.” But the only freedom Palestinians will get through Hamas is the freedom of martyrdom – willing or unwilling. Mostly unwilling, for as Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist based in Gaza, told the New Yorker “Most Palestinians don’t want to die, and they don’t want to die in this ugly way, under the rubble. But an ideological organization like Hamas believes that to die for a just cause is better than living this meaningless life.”

This week, progressive Jewish organisations such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace held a demonstration in Washington. More than 400 activists entered the Capitol Building and waited to be arrested. A group of Jewish American writers and artists wrote to Biden demanding an immediate ceasefire. Josh Paul, a veteran US State Department official resigned, calling Joe Biden’s decision to send arms to Israel “short-sighted, destructive, unjust, and contradictory to the very values we publicly espouse,” even though the Hamas attack was a “monstrosity of monstrosities.”

Ziv Stahl, director of the human rights group Yesh, spent hours hiding in a safe room with an injured relative as Hamas roamed looking for Jewish civilians. “I was there,” she wrote in an editorial for Haaretz. “I have no need of revenge. Nothing will return those who are gone. All the military might on earth will not provide defence and security. A political solution is the only pragmatic thing possible.” Maybe when the blood lust has been slaked, voices like hers will find a space. But before that thousands more Palestinians will die and even if the international community prevents a second Nakba, Israel right would have achieved its second dream of bombing Gaza back to the Stone Age. When religion marries politics, death and destruction are the offspring they bear, a universal truth we in Sri Lanka too should remember.

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