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On Israel-Palestine, false equivalences based on ignorance, prejudice

Since October 7, the world has turned its attention to one location: Palestine. With the ground situation being fluid, there have been hourly updates about leaders from across the globe issuing statements of support for Israel and some major powerhouses making a beeline to the region. Prime Minister Narendra Modi conveyed solidarity with Israel soon after the Hamas attack. Later, the foreign ministry said that India advocates “establishing a sovereign, independent and viable State of Palestine, living within secure and recognised borders, side by side at peace with Israel.” A few days ago, Modi also spoke to the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.

Everyone who has been touched by the recent happenings is rushing into the quagmire of making equivalences determined by limited historical understanding, religious predispositions, social context and a local political position. Indians, too, have been indulging in this, often brandishing Islamophobia in the garb of empathy and using the situation to take political potshots. This is not only indecent, but also reveals the utter lack of understanding of the complicated Israel-Palestine situation beyond what WhatsApp forwards dish out.

I travelled to Israel and Palestine (West Bank) in early 2017 on the invitation of the Indologist and activist Professor David Shulman. The original idea was to host a ‘Peace Concert’. But, due to the political situation, the nature of the visit was altered. We performed in Jaffa, Jerusalem, Palestinian East Jerusalem, and held a masterclass at the Academy of Science and Humanities. I also travelled to Jericho, Jordan Valley, and spent time with the Bedouins and witnessed how Jewish settlements were allowed to crop up on Bedouin lands and heard first-hand stories of violence and of hope from Palestinians. The walk from the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem to the Israeli check-post showed what it means to be born and to live behind a humungous wall, and to be treated as a criminal in your own land. I vividly remember my fear when we were stopped at another Israeli army check-post, though my foreign passport was an armour. We speak of violence and non-violence without factoring in the role of oppression, segregation and marginalisation. Palestinians have lived in the intersection of these three words for generations.

No one in their right mind can condone Hamas’ inhuman actions. But using this horrific moment to conflate Palestinian reality with Hamas’ actions is unconscionable. It is this overlapping that allows Israel to carpet bomb Gaza with impunity. Today, Palestinians — in fact all Muslims — are being asked to publicly condemn Hamas to prove their humanity. Have we demanded the same of Israelis whenever the Israeli State bombed Palestinians and grabbed their land? In an interview with Piers Morgan, Bassem Youssef, the Egyptian comedian, asked how one takes into account the yearly killings of Palestinians in West Bank where there is no Hamas. There are two issues at hand: Hamas’ violent attack, and the larger Palestinian struggle. Allowing the present crisis to brush the perpetual infringement and denial of legitimate Palestinian demands under the carpet is unacceptable.

There has to be a difference between how a terrorist organisation behaves and how a State does. As we do not take care to make this differentiation, the lives of ordinary Palestinians become irrelevant. The normalisation of killing is a clever device. When might is consistently used to attack the marginalised, a point is reached when violence surreptitiously becomes acceptable. Once that occurs, justifications are easily constructed. Hamas has also, through its ghastly actions, sanctioned the killing and destruction of Palestinian lives by the Israeli State.

The harsh fact is that the world cares very little about violence in the Middle East or Africa. How many of us know of the socio-political conflicts that embroil the region or the colonial history that has caused these deep fissures? We probably don’t even know the names of many of the countries. Many of those who are now experts on the Middle East may not even know where Syria and Lebanon are on the map. Within our own country, think how easily we have forgotten Manipur. Till date, our Prime Minister has neither issued a significant statement nor visited the state. Who cares about Manipur or its people!

Keep this in mind when you ponder over the Palestinian identity, one that has been tarnished and destroyed by the western world. The stories a Palestinian child is told is connected to these histories and their perceptions dictated by the realities they witness. On the other side of the equation, Israelis bring up their children to hate those who live beyond the walls and every action of Hamas is generalised as characteristic of the Palestinian people. As parents, we know that the choices that our children make depend on the environment we provide and the learnings they gather socially. But when none of this is under our control, the minds and hearts of our children are vulnerable to violence.

As I write this, I am also aware of my privileged position as an unaffected outsider. A reader may offer Nelson Mandela as a counter example. Though many Israelis and Palestinians have taken the route of dialogue, through the decades, they have been diminished. As citizens of this world, we are all responsible for letting this wound fester. Sadly, we continue to display opportunism by using their struggle to gain politically and financially within our own areas of influence.

Engaged in reactive yelling, we are unable to see the conflict for what it is — a series of actions and reactions that were and are determined by different junctures in history. But at the bottom are various power imbalances between western nations and the West Asian countries, between the different Arab countries and, most importantly, the permanent power disparity between Israel and Palestine. Without taking cognisance of these inequalities, all equivalences are false.

(Published 21 October 2023, 19:02 IST)

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