"Culture of Hatred and Intolerance." "Extremists on both sides." "Tit for Tat." "Cycle of violence."
We have all heard these phrases used hundreds of times to describe various conflicts around the world. For one conflict in particular, they are invariably our media's go-to catchphrases to characterize a tragedy which has tormented a people for almost sixty five years. It is a remarkable phenomenon in which the victim and his tormentor become transfixed on the same scale of moral culpability. Through this process, the former becomes stigmatized; the latter absolved. I am speaking of course about the ongoing agony of Palestine, and how the latest rounds of agony illustrate the cruel and cowardly manifestation of the "Blame Both Sides Syndrome" (BBSS). Here are four quick points I would like to make about BBSS and other hard truths.
1. The Tabbouleh-eating Elephant in the Room
For a devastating conflict which has ebbed and flowed for decades, sudden flare-ups in violence have sadly become routine--no matter how nebulous the casus belli and how disproportionate the response may be. Yet even so, this latest escalation is anything but ordinary. From the moment the world learned of the horrific abduction and subsequent murder of three Israeli teenagers and Israel's almost immediate blaming of Hamas, there was a massive olive-skinned tabbouleh-eating elephant in the room: Where was the proof? What is their justification for conducting an unprecedented police action which broadly targeted and collectively punished entire Palestinian communities and began killing innocent civilians before the current military phase of the conflict even began? Hamas has routinely claimed responsibility for past atrocities, yet has been steadfast in its denial for this latest outrage. Even if one considers Hamas inherently uncredible as a terrorist organiation, the question remains: What does Hamas have to gain from carrying out such an atrocity without claiming credit and reaping the "terrorist street cred" it so often craves?
Israel, on the other hand, has conveniently found the perfect excuse to go after Hamas again. And through the "manhunt", they forced the power-hungry Palestinian Authority to "cooperate" with the search and crack down on Hamas, thus hugely weakening efforts at Palestinian reconciliation. Double-win for Greater Israel aka "Judea, and Samaria."
Motive of course does not equal complicity and guilt. Yet it can and often does compel criminal opportunism, and keen students of history will recognize that such inquiries are hardly exercises in ultra-cynicism. Indeed there is startling historical precedent of such Machiavellian opportunism through the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. After the attempted assassination of Israel's ambassador to the UK, the PLO immediately denied responsibility and even pointed out the true culprits-the renegade and fratricidal Abu Nidal faction. Yet Israel saw an opportunity to root out the PLO from Lebanon and seized it. In order to avenge the injury of one ambassador by a splinter cohort of pariahs, an entire nation already in the throes of a vicious civil war was brutally invaded--its sovereignty trampled upon, and nearly twenty thousand of its people killed.
Questions unasked remain questions forever unanswered--and these are some basic yet fundamental questions with repercussions for millions of people. I have no way of knowing who was responsible for those kids' murders. But neither does any ordinary member of the public. All I am asking is for Israel to present credible evidence that Hamas was responsible-- to adequately justify launching a massive police action followed by days of relentless airstrikes, and now possibly a full-scale ground invasion in which Israel has warned "100,000 Gaza residents to move back from border,"
Where are these 100,000 people supposed to go? For what purpose are their lives being uprooted, and far too many already lost? On the basis of unsubstantiated and unverified claims? If demanding answers, accountability and proof makes one a frothing-at-the-mouth conspiracy theorist or dangerous radical, go ahead and lock us up and throw away the key. It is a price worth paying for exercising a responsibility which our government, the international community, and the media ought to be shouldering more seriously (and much more often) in the first place.
2. Occupying the Narrative
Yet for daring to postulate these simple questions, the air defenses of entire nations could not deliver the amount of flak that has befallen those who simply seek answers to the unexplained. Comments that I have personally received as well as seen leveled at others include gems such as "People like you," "You Muslims are blaming the Jews," "making excuses for Muslims," and accusations of using the deaths of innocent kids to incite hatred." All of the above are apparently things "which plenty of Muslims love to do."
I cannot speak on the experience of or on behalf of others, but I can certainly speak for myself.
This is my first article addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, yet I have written two different articles on the lack of freedom of expression in large parts of the Muslim world as well as their enablers living in the West, plus two more on the oppression in Gaddafi's Libya and Syria and the need for humanitarian intervention. I also just finished a law article on how Islamic Law must be used to combat war crimes and human rights abuses around the Muslim world which pulled no punches in its scathing critiques of terrorist groups and autocratic states throughout the Muslim world. My record for self-criticism and objective analysis speaks for itself -- but apparently my name does not.
Indeed for far too many, it is not the quality of your thoughts which is judged, but your religious and socio-cultural identity. It does not matter if you routinely critique your own community above any others. It does not matter if you consistently condemn terrorism in all forms; if you regularly extend condolences and empathy to all of its victims regardless of race, nationality, or creed -- especially while the very people accusing you often seem only capable of selective empathy and outrage.
Nay, if you are Muslim, Middle Eastern, or just plain brown, there is simply no way you can be objective, rational, or have any real merits to your thoughts on anything Muslim or Middle Eastern. Forget a spot at the grownups' table of freedom of expression; you better just find your assigned spot at the table of self-censorship -- as if such communities were not already enduring the effects of a losing battle with stigmaticizing self-censorship.
It is not the Israelis who have used the deaths of children as pretext to kill over 150 people (77 percent of whom are civilians) in order to carry out their political objectives, but those who dare to ask questions and demand answers. It is not the Israeli bombs targeting mosques and disability clinics which are "inciting hatred", but those who have the audacity to lend a voice to the voiceless by expressing their shock, indignation, and outrage. It is not war crimes which are to be confronted , but the sense of injustice and righteous indignation they produce which must be condemned.
Apparently it is not just land which can be occupied and human beings assasinated, but entire narratives and characters as well.
3. Compulsively Reaching for the Can of Raid
Any renter or homeowner knows that if one's home descends into unhygienic and unsanitary muck, it will inevitably attract cockroaches, ants, rats, and other vermin. Yet no matter how elaborate the devices and equipment used, how proficient the professional exterminators are, or how much merciless determination is shown, these tiny yet relentlessly resilient home invaders will continue to persist as long as our the home continues to contain filth.
Like vermin, militants and terrorists thrive upon oppression and injustice. They cynically depend on it to further their own political aims by giving traumatized populations an opportunity to attain a sense of revenge and -- certainly in the case of the hopelessly outgunned Palestinians -- the desperate fantasy of pursuing military "solutions" to end their suffering. Yet rather than facing this reality and finally cleaning the fermenting filth of occupation which has been suffocating the fates of both peoples for decades, Israel has simply been reaching for the can of Raid time after time. Israeli civil society has long realized that causes and ideologies cannot be killed with bullets and bombs, yet its government does not truly have any incentive to change course. As long as new realities can be constructed on the ground with no meaningful consequence, the status quo will not only be maintained but expanded -- even as Israel perilously moves towards becoming a full-blown apartheid state with a majority Arab Muslim and Christian population. There are no military solutions to institutionalized racism and colonial subjugation.
4. Blame Both Sides Syndrome Enables Oppression and Injustice
When Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh went before the world at the United Nations Convention in 1951 to expose Britain's colonialist domination of Iran, he boldly confronted his country's imperialist oppressors:
"They [The British government] are trying "to persuade world opinion that the lamb has devoured the wolf."
International law affords special protection to vulnerable populations through Protocol I of the Geneva Convention by designating "armed conflicts in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination, alien occupation or racist regimes" as international conflicts. This principle does not excuse or exonerate atrocities perpetuated from the victimized population, as it holds both state and non-state actors accountable for their actions. Rather, recognition of the victimized population entails acknowledging their plight and understanding the root causes of their grievances -- and seeking greater accountability from their oppressors.
Regardless of the true circumstances behind the casus belli of this latest phase, the fact of the matter is that this current round of conflict -- like every round and phase of it -- has a stark disparate impact on one community. This grossly disproportionate nature is not just confined to a vastly inflated body count on one side, but extends to the very essence of behavior. Sentiments like "it's both sides fault" may be true in the strictest sense of the principle that it takes two parties to have a conflict, but in practice the gulf is stark.
One side routinely have their houses demolished, while another is building mansions in their place. One side are routinely expelled from their homes; the other side is adverse possessing them like it's a monopoly game. One side has water use rationed down to the drop; the other draws upon the same water supply to support swimming pools and fountains in illegal settlements. One side routinely has pregnant women and/or their newly born children die while trying to get through a maze of checkpoints in order to get to their local hospital, the other has roads criss-crossing occupied territory exclusively for their own use. One side can be jailed, shot, and even killed for protesting, while the other can vandalize, harass, and assault with impunity and has the full resources of a sovereign state act as their personal security guards.
The list of disparities goes on and on, and again does not even take into account a stark reality of each and every phase of this six decade tragedy -- that one side routinely loses far more of their sons, daughters, husbands, and wives than the other.
We can blame both sides all we want for the sake of maintaining "objectivity." Yet one of these kids must belong in the timeout corner for far longer. In my world, that kid should be the bully. It's up to you to decide who it is in yours.
Throughout history, BBSS has long served oppressors and their defenders as politically correct pretense to deflect responsibility and blame. For far too many others, it is simply a convenient crutch to cop out of confrontation and remain apathetic. On the choice between supporting the oppressed or excusing and enabling their oppressors, I choose the former -- as has countless citizens of conscience from all walks of life around the world. A growing number of Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims alike are embracing this reality and realizing that to be truly "pro-Israel" is to be anti-occupation and pro-two state solution, and to be "pro-Palestinian" as its essense to be pro-peace, pro-human rights, and to be a defender of the fundamental and universal right to self-determination.
I hope you will join us in doing the same. History is watching -- and taking attendance.
Dedicated to Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, Tariq Abu Khdeir, and children in conflict zones everywhere.