“For me, justice is the first condition of humanity” – Wole Soyinka
Eleven days after the October 7 horrific attacks on Israel by Hamas, President Joe Biden of the United States was in Tel Aviv to express his solidarity with Israel and, in his words, for “the world to know where the United States stands.”
His host, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke about the significance of an American president visiting Israel at war. He expressed gratitude for America’s “unequivocal support,” emphasising that “the world sees that support in the moral clarity” of Biden’s statements since the attack on Israel. During the attack, the worst in Israel since 1948, at least 1,400 civilians (including children) and soldiers were killed and no fewer than 200 hostages were taken by Hamas.
Netanyahu acknowledged Biden’s description of Hamas as “sheer evil,” saying that Biden had “drawn the line between the forces of civilization and the forces of barbarians.” Incidentally, Israeli defence minister, Yoav Gallant, had earlier called Hamas “human beast.”
On the day Biden was in Tel Aviv, Israel had in retaliation imposed a siege on Gaza, a strip that has been under the occupation of Israel for 56 years. The supply of water, food, fuel and electricity had been cut as a result of the blockade imposed by Israel amidst bombing of targets. At least 4,000 Palestinians been killed by Israeli strikes as the time Biden spoke in Tel Aviv. In the last 48 hours alone more than 700 people have been killed in Gaza, bringing the total to be more than 5, 000 people killed.
Although Biden asked the Israeli cabinet to ensure the delivery of life-saving humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza,” he had no strong words against the situation in Gaza in which innocent civilians including hundreds of children have died in a collective punishment inflicted by Israel at the time he spoke. Rather, Biden was quick to exonerate Israel of the blast that occurred in a Gaza hospital in which scores of Palestinians including children died without any independent investigation. Both Israel and Hamas are still trading blames over the tragedy.
Doubtless Hamas should be held responsible for the killings and hostage taking of October 7 and Biden said so clearly. Israel should also be held to account for the killings of innocent civilians under siege for 12 days now in Gaza; but America and its western allies are not saying so unequivocally as they rightly condemned Hamas. When Russia cut supplies to Ukraine the European (EU) said so without ambiguity that Russia committed war crimes. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the October 7 attacks, the EU reportedly was about to cut the aid to the Palestine Authority until reasonable counsel prevailed against this instinctive reaction. The western double-standards are simply incredible. The West must take the rest of the world to be fools given the way they apply double- standards and invoke a selective adherence to their values about equality of human lives.
Indeed, the voices from Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and most of western capitals are symptomatic of the dearth of moral leadership in the world today. This makes the global political and diplomatic outlook dangerous.
Palestinian lives are equal to Israelis lives and none should be unjustly taken even in a state of war. The Geneva Conventions are not in the books for nothing.
Only yesterday, the United Nations secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, seemed to have found his voice at last to condemn the” clear violations of international laws in Gaza” and that “protecting civilians cannot mean using them as human shields.”
When the West condemns Hamas, that is said to be moral clarity. But when the killings of civilians by of Israel are condemned, it is not seeing as moral clarity by the West. A criticism of Israel is often taken to be antisemitic or a glorification of terrorism.
The phrase moral clarity is often used by western politicians especially Americans when they chose to make a distinction in human affairs between “evil -and good.” Those who are friendly to the West are good while their enemies are evil.
The use of the category moral clarity is one of the hangovers of the Cold War. Hence Soviet Union was simply the “evil empire” to President Ronald Reagan of the United States. Now, both the Left and Right of American politics appropriate “moral clarity” whenever they claim that they are saying it as it is from their own perspective while clearly ignoring the other side of the argument. Their moral clarity is often about one side of reality. Whose moral clarity is it, anyway?
In particular, moral clarity has been used as a shibboleth by American leaders to justify or at least rationalise oppression, injustice and violence perpetrated in the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz, wrote a book entitled “The Case for Moral Clarity: Israel, Hamas and Gaza.” As Barack Obama was elected American president in 2008, an American moral philosopher, Susan Neiman, wrote her own book entitled “Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown -Up Idealists.” Neiman explains the use of the much abused category as follows: “Moral clarity, however, is about looking at each particular case, looking at all the facts, looking at the context and working your answers.” Politicians and public intellectuals take that to mean labelling what they observe without being politically correct or employing euphemisms. So it is moral clarity to label Hamas “terrorist.” But the moral clarity doesn’t extend to telling Israel that it is violating international laws with impunity or calling the situation in Gaza “apartheid.” Netanyahu and Israeli intelligence aided Hamas in the early stages to weaken the Palestinian solidarity. Israel once used Hamas against the Fatah faction based in the West Bank. It is reminiscent of how America once helped in the breeding of elements of Osama Bin Laden’s al Qaeda against the defunct Soviet Union. The group later turned against America in a most tragic manner. Western politicians hardly mention these sordid facts of history in their exercise of moral clarity.
The Question of Palestine is rooted in a bloody history. It is the oldest land dispute on earth. Violence from both sides has failed to solve the problem. The first prime minister of Israel, David Ben -Gurion, said in 1919 of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “There is no solution. We want Palestine to be ours as a nation. The Arabs want it to be theirs – as a nation. I don’t know what Arab would agree to Palestine belonging to the Jews.” Ben-Gurion could not foresee a solution to the problem; but he believed that it could be managed. The former trade unionist who later became a leader of Israel once made an assertion at the outbreak of the Israeli-Arab war which Netanyahu should probably ponder today. Ben-Gurion wrote as follows: “We will break Transjordan, bomb Amman and destroy its army, and then Syria falls, and if Egypt will still continue to fight, we will bombard Port Said, Alexandria and Cairo… This will be a revenge for what they (the neighbouring states) did to our forefathers in Biblical times.” This mindset for territorial expansionism has hardly changed in Israel 75 years later. Instead the cycle of violence reigns supreme in Palestine.
Even in 2023, some historians of the age-long conflict are saying that the “two-state solution “ has been rendered a “diplomatic fiction”. Israeli has ignored a catalogue of resolutions against the occupation of the Palestinian territories and the encroachment of the land.
According to the Jerusalem-based human rights watchdog B’Tselem, in the last 17 years, Israel has attacked Gaza six times before the present siege, at least 4,000 people – 405 in 2006, 1,391 in 2008 and 2009, 167 in 2012, 2,203 in 2014, 232 in 2021 and 33 in 2022. It has been shown that casualties for civilians have outnumbered fighters.
Guterres said rightly yesterday that the tragic October 7 attack of Israel by Hamas “did not happen in a vacuum.”
In the face of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza and the danger of the crisis spreading in the region, it is time to have the moral clarity to call for an immediate political solution that will ensure the release of all the hostages and an end to the siege on Gaza.
The security of Israel should be sacrosanct while the freedom of the Palestinians and their right to own a piece of the earth as their own land in which to establish a sovereign state should be guaranteed in a package of an enduring solution.
Moral clarity should also mean building a community of Jews and Arabs who, despite the bitterness in their lands, defend our collective humanity. A model of such a community is the one of those Jewish and Arab doctors who reportedly worked together in bravely attending to those injured in the October 7 attack.
Beyond that, Israelis and Palestinians must reflect on the history of the conflict to see that violence from either side will not bring a solution. Ben-Gurion boasted about military power in 1948, it would a grave error if Netanyahu in 2023 still believes the problem has a military solution.
Instead, the real solution lies in promoting the cause of justice and our shared humanity in Palestine.