On October 7th, the world woke up to the news that Hamas had fired 5000 rockets into Israel and infiltrated the blockade. As the day drew on, hearts grew heavy as information about the scale and ferocity of the attack on Israel began streaming in. Harrowing footage of Israelis and foreign internationals being killed and taken hostage began circulating quickly, and the devastating search for missing family members began. Until today, six days later, families are still attempting to identify their loved ones from videos and images of dead bodies, while the Israeli government has made what can only be described as a shambolic attempt to reach out to those most affected. Not only are Israelis still reeling from the shock of the attack committed against them, but they are furious with an already unpopular government for failing to protect and support them in their time of need.
Across Europe, the attack was condemned and our national monuments lit up in a display of solidarity. The terrible events were met with public outrage and millions watched with aching hearts as increasingly graphic footage reached us through TV screens and social media networks. People gathered in the streets to show their support of victims’ families and to mourn the lives lost. It has, for many, been a dark few days indeed.
The State of Israel responded with a counter-offensive. The number of Palestinian fatalities resulting from this operation is so far unknown as it is still ongoing but they are likely to exceed several thousand. The ca. two million civilians living under the blockade in Gaza were cut off from food, water and electricity, and the borders shut (or in the case of the Rafah crossing, bombed). Israeli officials have stated that in the past six days alone, 6000 bombs / 4000 tonnes of explosives have been dropped on Gaza. This, as on previous occasions, includes the use of white phosphorus and experimental weapons. Due to Israel’s blockade and the destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure, Palestinians are physically prevented from leaving the strip. Half the population – which already consists almost entirely of refugees – has been instructed to evacuate from the North of the strip to the South in a move eerily reminiscent of the Nakba in 1948. Back to the present day, however, and there was some bombing of evacuees as they attempted to flee to the South, resulting in further civilian casualties. As with previous raids on Gaza, and given that half of the territory’s population are children, the victims of this campaign will overwhelmingly be civilians.
Throughout this entire period, we have seen – as with any conflict – a wave of propaganda and misinformation from both sides. Unsubstantiated reports of Al-Qassam fighters beheading babies and systematically raping women made for sensational news headlines that were quickly circulated, while pro-Palestinian groups declared that Saint Porphyrius Orthodox Church in Gaza, the world’s third oldest church, was razed to the ground in an Israeli airstrike. Despite the vast majority of media outlets, even President Biden himself, amending their statements to reflect the unsubstantiated nature of these claims, the stories are already out there. We have, as a result, seen a concerning number of people resort to Islamophobic and anti-Semitic tropes in order to explain events that do not, until now, appear to have actually occurred. Are the facts as they stand not devastating enough? To highlight the absurdity of it all, a video of what appeared to be a female hostage getting escorted down a street in Gaza was shared widely across both Israeli and Palestinian social media channels. While some shared the video to argue that Al-Qassam fighters targeted women and to speculate upon how she might be treated in captivity, others used it as “evidence” that hostages were being taken care of since she seemed happy and well. On both sides, people asked why she appeared to be among civilians and not with Hamas – a question that was cleared up when she was identified as a Palestinian social media influencer from Gaza.
More shocking to our privileged sensibilities is the footage of celebration and acts of cruelty we have witnessed. Palestinians handing out sweets in celebration of the attack inside Israel. Israelis filming themselves drinking water after the government announced they would cut off all water supplies to the Gaza strip, or dancing and cheering while bombs fall. Reports of Palestinian fighters phoning the family members of hostages on their stolen mobile phones to boast about killing their children, and reports of Israelis phoning Palestinians in Gaza pretending to be the army, asking them to evacuate their homes so that they run into the streets in confusion and are executed. The President of Israel, Netanyahu, posted heartbreaking photos of charred babies to his X (formerly Twitter) account meanwhile Israelis are exchanging gory footage of people murdered by Al-Qassam fighters through Telegram and WhatsApp groups in a frantic effort to identify their missing family members. While this is going on, Palestinians throughout the territories are being exposed to gruesome images of burnt and dismembered children in Gaza, the dead foetuses of women killed by shrapnel, images of the occupying forces urinating on corpses, and footage of armed settlers invading Palestinian villages, shooting civilians at point blank range. Interestingly, images of Hamas’ war crimes and stories about Palestinians behaving badly have been highlighted by mainstream media outlets and through sponsored advertisements while footage of Israeli war crimes and of Israelis behaving similarly appalling has been widely censored across social media platforms. We might speculate as to why this is but the fact of the matter is that everyone involved is human, and neither the horrific imagery nor the horrendous behaviour described here is unusual during periods of conflict or within a system of occupation.
Despite all this, there have been glimmers of hope in the seemingly endless tunnel of despair. In statements to the press, some family members of Israelis killed or taken hostage by Hamas have empathised with the plight of Palestinians even while grappling with the emotional turmoil of having a child taken away from them, and others have stated that they do not wish the death of their loved ones to be used to justify killing civilians. There have been reports of Israeli settlers tending to the wounds of injured Al-Qassam fighters, even offering food and water while being held captive. Similarly, there is footage of Al-Qassam fighters protecting women, children and elderly Israelis during their operation inside the settlements surrounding Gaza, and of fighters releasing a woman and her two children that apparently civilian Palestinians took captive when the fence surrounding Gaza came down. There has been uproar on both Israeli and Palestinian channels following the release of a video that appears to show a group of Al-Qassam fighters parading and spitting on a naked, female corpse. Everyone expects Hamas to answer for war crimes, no less Palestinians who expect Al-Qassam fighters – as representatives of their issue – to uphold decent moral standards.
Largely absent from coverage of the events is any insight into what is happening inside the West Bank. Palestinians inside the West Bank already live under a brutal military occupation that has claimed the lives of men, women and children every single day this year. Palestinian towns and villages inside the West Bank are cut off from one another by ca. 500 army checkpoints which are all currently closed, illegal Israeli settlements, and Apartheid roads that only Israelis and foreign internationals are allowed to drive on. Over the past few days, the Israeli army distributed weapons among settlers living inside the West Bank (many of whom are already armed) and these settlers have made their way to Palestinian roadsides where they have been shooting at Palestinian vehicles, already killing several people. This is done with impunity and under the protection of the occupying forces who are also shooting at Palestinians attempting to travel. Anyone who was working or visiting friends and family in another town or village is currently stuck where they are, unable to go home. For the most part, however, Palestinians are prisoners in their own homes, in many areas under military curfew, unable to leave in order to buy groceries or collect medication, and unable to sleep as they are kept up at night by the sound of bombs falling on Gaza. Some will undoubtedly attempt to demonstrate against the bombing of Gaza over the coming days and, as with all peaceful or non-peaceful demonstrations inside the West Bank, many will be killed.
On a personal note, my husband’s seventeen year old cousin was killed by the occupying forces last night. After shooting him, the army blocked the ambulance from reaching the hospital. It is nothing new but somehow it shocks you every time. I don’t know if preventing paramedics from doing their work is a war crime but, if so, the Israeli army has years of crimes to answer for. It is a shame I never hear reporters asking Israeli officials whether or not they condemn these things. Anyway, shootings like this usually occur in predictable locations – at checkpoints or along the siege where people protest the occupation – but right now they are happening everywhere and everyone is afraid.
Having witnessed the horrors of Apartheid inside the West Bank, and I have not even begun to describe them here, I often find myself wondering why so little attention is afforded to them, or to the discrimination that Palestinians living inside Israel encounter which is, in fact, enshrined in Israeli law? Do we simply have no explanation for the regular forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem and inside the West Bank? The administrative detention of Palestinians whereby civilians are arrested and held for extensive periods of time without any charges ever brought against them? How does one justify the number of child prisoners, all the documented instances of sexual violence, or the unfathomable number of extrajudicial killings that Palestinians have suffered for decades if Hamas is not necessarily there to blame? More importantly, does ignoring this massively violent system of oppression in which organisations such as Hamas form to resist do anything to protect people, Palestinian and Israeli alike?
Rather than meaningfully engage with the issue, experts who have framed the events which occurred on October 7th as an inevitable result of years of subjugating Palestinians have been publicly accused of attempting to “justify terrorism”. Even if we adopt this position and run with the popular narrative that crimes committed by Hamas are somehow inexplicable, committed against Israelis because Al-Qassam fighters are ‘animals’, ‘inhuman’, ‘other’, what does that make us when we bomb civilian areas and cut off food, water, and electricity to civilians by way of response? It is, quite frankly, an odd thing for our Heads of State to attempt to rationalise. The hypocrisy of demanding Hamas be held accountable for war crimes while being complicit in acts defined under international law as war crimes ourselves does not go unnoticed. It is not an oversight, it is a continuation of our foreign policy which, for too long now, has treated the State of Israel with exceptionalism.
The cognitive dissonance is so hard to contain that European governments have begun to ban pro-Palestinian demonstrations, criminalise waving Palestinian flags and arrest people for wearing keffiyahs in public. Showing solidarity with those subject to one of the biggest, if not the biggest, crimes against humanity of our time is routinely conflated with anti-Semitism in order to silence discourse. It is not without a hint of irony that, in Germany in particular, this has involved the arrest and manhandling of Jewish anti-Apartheid activists. While this happens over here, citizens working for Israeli human rights organisations such as B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence also face intimidation, censorship and arrest. Evidently, the thoughts, feelings and experiences of Jewish people are only acceptable to us provided they do not call into question what every single international human rights organisation has called an Apartheid. Why?
The question is bigger than you might think. Bigger than civilians and settlers. Ordinary Israelis want to live in peace and security, and ordinary Palestinians want basic human rights so that they, too, can live in peace – or live at all. It is our leaders, our NATO governments, our foreign policies and our military budgets that are so invested in maintaining the status quo. We must stop asking ordinary Palestinians and Israelis “what’s the solution?” Whether the USA is fighting a proxy war with Iran, or attempting to foster normalisation between Israel and the surrounding Arab countries for their mutual benefit, we should demand they go about their business (or perhaps abandon it entirely) without oppressing and endangering countless people in the region. The reason this has not been achieved so far is not due to a lack of imagination or because the situation is “too complicated”, it has not been done because our governments are not under sufficient pressure to do otherwise. For the sake of the millions of people caught up in this cycle of colonial violence, the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, and the security of Israelis, we must remember our humanity and demand that we are consistent in our application of international law. We must speak out. We must demand accountability. We must end Apartheid.
My thoughts and prayers go out to every single person who lost their loved ones this week.