Israel’s recent bombardment of the Gaza Strip has brought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back into the mainstream media. After ten days of heavy bombardment, the Friday ceasefire saw the Palestinian death toll at 248, including 66 children, with nearly 2,000 wounded. With nearly 17,000 homes, 53 schools, six hospitals, and four mosques destroyed or damaged, as well as 50% of Gaza’s water supply infrastructure, the costs of reconstruction are likely to be astronomical.
Yet condemnations of Israel, few as they are among Western politicians and media outlets, are nearly always inevitably followed by a condemnation of violence on the part of Palestinians. Whether it be an exaggeration of the threat posed by Hamas rockets — the vast majority of which are shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome system — or criticism of Gazan civilians protesting and throwing stones at armed soldiers on the border, most commentary speaks of “clashes” and criticizes violence on all sides.
Such rhetoric is not only rooted in Western states’ favouritism towards Israel. Rather, portrayals of the conflict are rooted in public conceptions of violence — namely, what forms are acceptable and when it becomes legitimate. Although shrouded in language that seems to sanctify human life, the mainstream representation of violence actually allows imposes heavy biases and facilitates a narrative that largely favours the state, while delegitimising resistance.
Violence is largely defined as physical assault. Distinct from verbal or psychological abuse, physical violence causes material harm and, in the case of warfare, usually results in widespread destruction. When it comes to military strategy, there is a disproportionate focus on weaponry among the public. Media and lobby groups monitor or condemn arms deals as an obvious marker of the militarisation of a state and a potential for enacting violence.
Yet such a narrow understanding of violence is in many ways outdated and can obscure other manifestations. Severe physical outcomes do not occur solely through actual fighting, but often through economic warfare. The besieged Gaza Strip is perhaps the best example of this. The land, air and sea blockade has brought most aspects of normal life in Gaza to a complete standstill. The lack of access to adequate medical treatment has resulted in hundreds dying on waiting lists. As tunnels for smuggling food supplies are blocked, thousands go to bed hungry. Gaza’s limited power stations deprive millions of warmth, light and connection to the outside world.
Thanks to the blockade, Gaza’s once significant manufacturing sector shrunk by 60% between 1994 and 2012. The Israeli bombardment of 2014 alone saw $60 million off the Strip’s output. Heavily reliant on aid, Gaza has no way of increasing its productivity or economic growth. With over half of Gaza’s population under the age of 18, many have no future to look forward to. With no available jobs, youth unemployment stands at 60% — the highest in the world — and many lack the security to marry and start a family. A dearth of any kind of social or economic opportunities has led to rising rates of depression and suicide among young people.
Living in poverty with no chance of escape, the material consequences of economic action has become as severe as any war. Yet there is little acknowledgement in the court of public opinion of the degree of collective punishment that has been inflicted on the entirety of the Gazan population. Moreover, whilst the average international war lasts for 11 months, this situation has been in place for nearly 15 years.
At what point are the material consequences of indirect violence recognised as equally horrendous and condemnable as direct military action? Why does it take bombardment to warrant international concern and media headlines, when many Gazans are being slowly killed by the impoverishment of their whole society? Why are economic sanctions often seen as an alternative to direct conflict, when the protracted consequences can be just as deadly?
“They’re both equally bad”
Another evident feature of discussions on violence is a desire to criticize those on both sides. Criticism of U.S. imperialism, for instance, has forced an acknowledgement of American war crimes, evident even in the entertainment industry. The unwavering patriotism of Hollywood movies such as Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker or American Sniper, which whitewash American warmongering, have been replaced to some extent with films such as Netflix’s The Mauritanian that uncovers the crimes committed in Guantanamo Bay. Popular young adult dystopian series are also praised for showing allegedly more nuanced portrayals of war; The Hunger Games and Divergent feature protagonists fighting not only against the designated bad-guy, but also the enemy within. No one side holds the moral high ground, it is argued.
It is undeniable that crimes can be committed by all sides in warfare, and all crimes are regrettable and should be condemned. Yet the onus put on commentators to acknowledge all crimes equally is flawed, simply because not all crimes are equal.
This is clearly evident in the depictions of Israel and Palestine. For decades, the Israeli lobby has attempted to cast acts of resistance against an occupying force as terrorism. While Israel regularly violates international law through its settlement expansion and continues to commit war crimes, this can rarely be mentioned without some acknowledgement of Palestinian action, comparatively minor as it is.
The equating of two forms of violence that have different impacts implicitly suggests that one kind of violence is more legitimate – namely, that which is conducted by the state. Sociologist Max Weber identified the monopoly on violence as a fundamental cornerstone of the nation state; thus, Palestinian resistance is always illegitimate, irrespective of the threat posed. Although Israel also indiscriminately targets civilians through sophisticated drone bombardment, it is when a homemade rocket is launched from Gaza towards Tel Aviv that it it is considered terrorism. This is what allows the crimes of both to be equated in the public consciousness, even though the impact is substantially different.
Consequently, efforts that solely attempt to show Israel’s crimes or convince the world that “Israel is the biggest terrorist” are fundamentally limited. Israel’s use of violence may not be legal, but it is considered legitimate. On the other hand, resistance from Palestinians can always be construed as terrorism, because it is not conducted by a state. And terrorism will always be seen as equally condemnable as unjust military action, because it is illegitimate.
This is the situation we witness today: Israel has the right to defend itself, but Palestinians do not have the right to resist. This is why many mainstream pro-Palestinian groups in the West often only elevate voices that promote pacifism and non-violent responses. To do otherwise, even if their resistance is comparatively less severe or harmless, would be to endorse illegitimate violence.
As Muslims, the human cost of any conflict is lamentable. While the U.S. has a history of designating combatants as any male of military age, according to Islam, anyone not fighting in a conflict situation should not be harmed, whether they are men, women or children.
Yet this humanitarian consideration should not mean that we give way to a narrative on violence that demonises resistance. The War on Terror has long made such issues taboo in Muslim community. In the desire to detach Islam from terrorism and the actions of extreme groups like ISIS, we have often fallen into at worst delegitimising, at best ignoring all kinds of resistance.
Islam does not endorse vigilantism, and attacks on non-combatants are always regretful and reprehensible. However, the flawed narrative on conflict must be highlighted. This is not just a media bias, but is inherent to modern conceptions of violence, where economic warfare is normalised and resistance is stigmatised. Palestinian resistance will never be recognised as justified, no matter how dire their circumstances. And no matter how many international laws Israel breaks, in a world of nation states, it will find favour.
Collier, P, A. Hoeffler, and M. Söderbom. “On the Duration of Civil War.” Journal of Peace Research 41, no. 3 (2004): 253-73.
Dusza, K. “Max Weber’s Conception of the State,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 3, no. 1 (1989): 71-105
Friedsdorf C. Under Obama, Men Killed by Drones Are Presumed to Be Terrorists, The Atlantic (2012)