A shared humanity is the only way forward


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The writer is the author of ‘Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground’

It is not seemly, in the face of death, to trade figures, or frequencies. Israel has suffered; Israeli civilians have been killed. Palestine has suffered; Palestinian civilians have been killed. Yes, there must be a reckoning; every innocent murdered or maimed must be equally accounted for, whatever their ethnicity, whatever their religion.

That process is called transitional justice, or — if we could be so lucky — truth and reconciliation. But this can only happen when the root causes of the killings have been laid bare and destroyed. This is where we should be heading. Right now, what has to happen is that the killing must be halted. The displacement must be halted. The siege of Gaza must be lifted. 

Over the decades, Palestinian resistance to dispossession has taken many forms — sometimes armed, mostly cultural and legal. But the one engaged in by every Palestinian is perhaps the most human of all: to simply survive in the face of terrible and worsening odds. To live. To love. To bring up your kids. To maintain a sense of community, of history and your place within it. 

This Palestinian resilience is the famous sumoud. But sumoud is to hold the fort until your own or others come to help. The Palestinians have been holding the fort for three generations. Occasionally an image flares to the world: four boys killed playing football on a Gaza beach, a young paramedic, Razan al-Najjar, killed in her white coat while helping others on the Great March of Return. Then all falls back into darkness, into “stability”. 

The stability of decades of discrimination, 56 years of military occupation, 16 years of blockade in Gaza. But this unbearable passage of time seems only to normalise the situation for global leaders. Suffering has become the Palestinians’ usual condition, so why do they fuss? Why the books, the films, the music, the art? Nothing makes them “human” enough to have any of the basic rights that are supposed to underpin the west’s failing world order. 

Israel has often stated that its two worst fears are the Palestinian “demographic threat” and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign. BDS gives people everywhere an opportunity to express solidarity with the Palestinians in a non-violent way; now legislatures across the west are outlawing it. Changing the land’s demographic make-up requires a mix of military occupation and assault: a heavily subsidised and often violent settler movement; mass surveillance, incarceration and the selective application of multiple legal systems (Ottoman, British, Israeli and military).

To get away with this, language is used to dehumanise. Long before Israel’s defence minister described the Palestinians as “human beasts”, other leaders called them “germs” and “crazed cockroaches”. At best they are terrorists motivated by a fanatical hatred. The fact that lies about decapitated babies skipped so lightly from a known extremist settler to the lips of the president of the US reveals a colonial worldview that has been resurrected with terrifying ease. Actually, it just never went away. 

Seeing Palestinians as non-human makes it a waste of time to try to understand them. Thus their legitimate grievance is obscured and a just way forward is blocked. But no justice, no peace. A viable way forward is only possible on the basis of a shared humanity. 

Here the intervention of those Jews who support the legitimate rights of Palestinians is crucial. Brave voices were raised quickly last week; before they even had time to grieve, they foresaw how their grief would be weaponised. The brother of slain activist Hayim Katsman insisted his sibling would not have wished his death to be the pretext for killing more people.

A few weeks ago, my nephew Alaa Abd el-Fattah, writing from the prison in Egypt where he’s been held for 10 years, commented: “I don’t believe any more in the possibility of individual salvation.” The editor of Jewish Currents writes: “We cannot cross unless we carry each other.” The great Palestinian thinker, Edward Said, always saw that the fates of Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine had become inextricably linked. Pay attention, please pay attention.

Israeli governments have always been skilled at turning everything — even catastrophe — into an opportunity. Now they seek their chance to start emptying the Gaza Strip of its people. The international community must not allow this. And it also must not seek the “calm” that means everything goes back to “normal” and the siege of Gaza continues. The siege guarantees more suffering, more killings, more stains on the conscience of the world. It must be lifted.


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