War on Gaza sowing deep hatred, but also changing minds

Israeli soldiers

Israeli soldiers patrol in the Moshav Netiv HaAsara in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on November 17, 2023, in the aftermath of the October 7 attack by Palestinian Hamas militants. 

Photo credit: AFP

For six weeks, the world has watched with utter horror the heart-wrenching scenes of totally defenceless Palestinian civilians being relentlessly bombed and shelled by Israeli Defence Forces in Gaza. About 5,000 children, and another 7,000 men and women, have been killed, and much of Gaza’s cities, homes and basic life-sustaining infrastructure have been reduced to rubble.

Violence against civilians and their means of production on this terrible scale has never been seen on live television screens and on social media in my lifetime. 

Nothing I write can capture the sheer horror, agony, and fear of what Palestinians in Gaza are living though now, since it is universally recognised that no place or space is safe in this territory, which is much smaller than New York City.

Along with Hamas’s October 7 assault on Israel that killed 800 civilians with another 240 taken hostage, this “war” is sowing deep, long-lasting hatreds and poses a grave threat to regional peace and indeed to world security. How long will this unspeakable carnage go on, with Israel’s powerful allies not urging a ceasefire, leave alone seeking one through the United Nations Security Council?

This one-sided war is breeding profound disaffection with a global disorder that goes by the name of a “rules-based” international system which can see 12,000 innocents killed with no end in sight. With a catastrophic crisis like Gaza, where masses of people are killed and the rest are forced into starvation, proclamations about the importance of rule of law, human rights and inclusion are so easy to see as rhetoric to fool voters with.

Indeed, this system doesn’t even have a plan for seriously mitigating the various kinds of rampant suffering that abounds everywhere, including for millions in fabulously rich countries.

Be that as it may, the unremitting assault on Gaza has seen an astonishing public shift of sympathy in the western world towards Palestinians.  The shift has so scared leaders that UK and France have tried to ban pro-Palestinian protests, while in the US work is underway to identify students and professors who have spoken out. 

The New York Times reported on a post, soon after October 7, by Sanidia Oliver, a 37-year-old African American teacher now running her own small alternative school in Atlanta. Her words summed up for me why this huge change is occurring among disaffected younger people in particular.

“The actual history of this situation is NOT COMPLICATED,” she wrote about Gaza. “I will ALWAYS stand beside those with less power. Less wealth, less access and resources and choices. Regardless of the extreme acts of a few militants who could no longer watch their people slowly die.” This passionate shift in opinions towards Palestine is most notable in the United States and the UK, where the war has seen many realise the rhetorical hypocrisy and demonstrated against the war despite overwhelming government and mass media support for Israel.

The young and minorities apart, dissenters include university faculty members, as well as major stars in Hollywood and in the publishing and literary worlds, and some journalists as well, all groups where pro-Israeli sentiment has dominated for decades. 

There are also large numbers of Jews playing leadership roles in the protests, in fact the first demonstration in early October was co-organised by the progressive Jewish Voice for Peace group (of which I have been a member once I arrived in the US in 2014). But an even more stunning development occurred in the US on Tuesday, when multiple media reported that 2,000 officials from 40 government agencies, including many whom President Joe Biden appointed, had expressed their opposition to his refusal to suggest a ceasefire. In the UK, 10 shadow ministers resigned and 56 Labour MPs voted against party leader Keir Starmer’s refusal to call for a ceasefire.

All this has brought one significant achievement:  A surge of recognition for Palestinian dispossession as well as their national rights, which are embedded in numerous UN resolutions and other binding agreements like the 1993 Oslo Accords. These have been ridden roughshod over by Israel and its western protectors. Most Arab governments have also now abandoned their once ironclad solidarity with occupied Palestinians, seeing greater profit in developing closer ties with Israel.

So the illegal occupation of Palestinian territories, which is at the core of the conflict, and the universally-supported two-state solution, have been de facto abandoned. Israel continues to seize more land through violent settler movements, which are allowed to evict Palestinians from their homes. But the right of the occupied to resist their occupiers remains a bedrock principle of international law.

Meantime, on October 7, after IDF did not respond for hours to the huge Hamas attack, a humiliated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers reacted to Israelis’ grief, pain, and anger by promising them the most extreme response imaginable as a way to salvage their rule. Netanyahu’s “Mighty Vengeance” promise has been reported, but an extraordinary article, “‘Erase Gaza’: War Unleashes Incendiary Rhetoric in Israel,” Mark Landler of The New York Times gave us a glimpse of what that would entail.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant: “We are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly,” describing how Israel planned to eradicate Hamas in Gaza. Cabinet Minister Amichhay Eliyahu broached the idea of a nuclear strike on Gaza, arguing “there was no such thing as noncombatants in Gaza.”

And Netanyahu: “Remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible,” referring to the ancient enemy of the Israelites. This is interpreted by scholars as a call to exterminate their men and women, children and infants.  Landler concluded that experts believe the effect was to normalise public discussion of ideas about “erasing” the people of Gaza, ethnic cleansing, and the nuclear annihilation of the territory.

President Joe Biden and other western leaders knew full well what Israel intended to do in Gaza, but still gave full, open-ended support for whatever Israel wanted. France’s President Emmanuel Macron, in his initial response, was the most explicit: Israel’s war against Hamas “must be merciless”. President Biden condemned Hamas in apocalyptic terms: “Unadulterated evil has been unleashed on this world (by) the bloody hands of Hamas terrorists — whose stated purpose for being is to kill Jews. It has brought to the surface painful memories and scars left by a millennium of anti-semitism and the genocide of the Jewish people.”

The reference to anti-semitism is interesting. It is abhorrent, like Islamophobia and racism and all other hatreds. But then what hatred does one ascribe to the language Biden and the Israelis above used for Palestinians? And what about the murderous Israeli actions themselves? Do they constitute Islamophobia? Who decides? Who monitors?

War crimes are more easily understood and charted. Lots of scholars and senior UN officials and civil society organisations like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have asserted Israeli actions seem to be clearly criminal. The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for alleged war crimes involving accusations that Russia has forcibly taken children from occupied Ukraine. On Wednesday, after having repeatedly pushed Palestinians to leave Northern Gaza for the South for their safety, Israel dropped leaflets announcing it would start bombing in the South. Will the ICC prosecutor Karim Khan commence something similar for the infinitely greater crimes in Gaza.

- The writer served as Spokesperson for former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Kenya’s ex-Prime Minister Raila Odinga