Gaza conflict: if the cycle of violence is to end we must not prioritise one side’s suffering over the other
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Shortly after the Hamas massacre in Israel on October 7, people I know and respect were posting Palestinian solidarity notices on their social media feeds. I am supportive of the rights of the Palestinian people and am greatly disturbed by their treatment under Israel’s military occupation. But I found this response troubling.
This response has only increased with time and the rising Palestinian death toll because of Israel’s bombing campaign.
I’ve noticed a discourse in some quarters that repeatedly privileges the victimhood and suffering of one group at the expense of the other – in this case the Palestinian civilian casualties of Israel’s assault on Gaza over the Israeli civilians massacred on October 7. There are also those who tend to prioritise the suffering of Israelis in this terrible conflict.
And here’s the problem: it comes down to a zero-sum debate about the righteousness of being the greater victim and dismisses the rights, pain and suffering of the other.
This seems to stem from an impoverished way of understanding political responsibility.
In political thought, responsibility is often understood as a synonym for being “answerable” for something, which assumes that we can be held to account for our actions. Political or collective responsibility explores the question of being responsible for things that we have not done but arise because of our membership in a specific group.
Whatever definition we take, when we hold any individual or group responsible, we are attributing to them a form of moral agency. A problem in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that responsibility is used to dehumanise the other.
‘Us versus them’
Too much rhetoric about this conflict is a simplistic contrast between right and wrong in its “us versus them” formulation. It is not hard to find fault on both sides. There is nothing inherently wrong with holding both the Israeli government and Palestinian militants such as Hamas liable for their actions.
But when it comes to Israel-Palestine, it is sadly common to hear that Israel is to blame for the actions of Palestinian terrorists. Such claims stretch the idea of responsibility to the extent that it becomes largely meaningless.
It is undeniable that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is responsible for creating the conditions for Palestinians to want to resist. His policies – and the ideology of the ultra-nationalist right that he has worked with over his many years in office – involved supporting Hamas.
This took the form of significant financial payments to Hamas in Gaza alongside a wider strategy of undermining the peace process by supporting the expansion of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, who all too often get away with the murder of Palestinians.
The Palestinian territory Israel has turned into a firing zone: meet the cave-dwelling people of Masafer Yatta
However, he is not responsible for the actions taken by Hamas.
It is possible to contribute to an outcome without being responsible for it. Hamas needs to be held to account and we must not forget what they did on October 7.
Hamas violated multiple international humanitarian laws in its October 7 attack, which included murdering more than 1,400 Israelis, wounding another 5,000, and taking over 200 hostages. They are responsible for that, and for the high number of missile launches against Israel. We should not buy into the “look what you made me do” excuse that attempts to justify Hamas’ terrorism as a legitimate response to the treatment of Palestinians by multiple Israeli governments over the years.
Israel has the right to self-defence. But the brutality of the October 7 attack does not mean that we can excuse the form of Israel’s military response or blockade of Gaza which is in violation of the international law pertaining to collective punishment, among other aspects of the Geneva conventions.
We need to hold the appropriate agents responsible for their own actions and choices, including Netayanhu and his government, and Hamas.
Antisemitism and Islamophobia on the rise
There are a lot of different ways to be held responsible, but blanket condemnations that feed into a zero-sum ways of thinking are dangerous.
When we hold Jews in the diaspora responsible for Israeli policy,, we are not engaging in any sensible notion of individual or political responsibility. Holding Jews to account for what Israel does is a variant of antisemitism.
By the same token, blaming all Palestinians – or Muslims – for the actions of Hamas is equally disturbing. Worryingly, both antisemitism and Islamophobia seem to be on the rise.
Much of the public discourse and protest against Israel’s military response has sought to minimise Hamas’ violence on October 7. At times it seems that the horror of Hamas’s massacre of Israeli civilians is diminished once Palestinian suffering is taken into account. That’s disturbing.
One side’s tragedy does not undermine the reality of the other’s. One group’s responsibility does not mitigate the other’s moral agency. Responsibility is a mechanism that makes us moral agents. Let’s not use it to dehumanise each other.
I have received funding in the past from the British Council for Research on the Levant, as well as a scholarship from the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv (Europe).