In the name of Humanity: the West’s rising rejection of Operation Protective Edge and of the siege of Gaza.
By Diane Salimkhan Tağıyeva
As we approach the end of the 22nd day of Operation Protective Edge, the number of Palestinian lives lost in Gaza has now reached between 1265 and 1313, depending on the source, with over 100 bodies discovered between last night and this morning alone. On the Israeli side, 53 soldiers and 3 civilians have so far been killed. This brings the total death count to circa 1252. One thousand one hundred and fifty two persons have passed, in the name of defense, since July 8th. On Monday evening, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addressed the press in New York, calling once more for an immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire. Up to this point, statements and reports issued by Western governments and international bodies such as the United Nations were presented in diplomatic, operational terms. Now, we begin to see a shift: casualties have faces, names and families and, for the first time, the crisis has gone from concerning only those involved (and perhaps their neighboring countries), to regarding each and every one of us – “In the name of humanity,” Ban Ki-moon invoked, “the violence must stop”.
The words of Ki-moon are by no means attempting to set a new trend in identity upon the crisis in Gaza. If anything, they are following that which has emerged from the uprisings that Europe and the United States have witnessed in the past two weeks or so. For decades, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been viewed by the Western masses as a distant issue, a complex political situation of which it was better not to speak with co-workers or while hosting a dinner party. It goes without saying, much of this silence is surely rooted in the shame and guilt that us Westerners have been taught to feel because of our nations’ involvement, regardless of nature, in the persecution of Jews prior to, during, and after WW2. The simple act of expressing an opinion that questions not the legitimacy, but even just the policies of the state of Israel, can lead to legal sentences in many European countries, notably France; this has, of course, shaped the tone and frequency at which the conflict has been discussed by the Western masses. Similar behaviors were adopted by our governments, some of whom have shown constant support for Israeli policies, while others have preferred not to voice approval nor opposition through repeated abstention. But if, since the beginning of this Israeli military operation on July 8th, European leaders have once more remained virtually passive, the populations of the West have, on the other hand, begun to raise their voice, taking the streets of major metropoles to demand that an end be put to the violence.
Similarly to many of the uprisings that the world has seen since 2012, the current pro-Gaza movement in the West owes much of its strength to social media. Over the past twenty days, countless Facebook pages and Twitter accounts were born, sharing and publishing content using the #IsraelUnderFire and #GazaUnderAttack hashtags. The easy accessibility of high-impact content shared online directly from Gaza has made the military offensive more tangible to many Westerners: naturally, the distress of daily life in a war zone is much more relatable when photographs of wounded children and direct messages from civilians mourning the loss of their homes and loved ones appear in our newsfeed, alongside pictures of our friend’s holiday or our cousin’s status update. Suddenly, the 1252 deceased, 6233 injured and over 215000 displaced Palestinians cease being numbers in a headline, as we begin to acknowledge them for what they truly are – humans, in pain.
Several organizations, spread out across most European countries and North America (but also South America, Asia, and Oceania) have taken advantage of the emotional momentum that social media platforms have enabled, by spreading information regarding the history of the conflict and the circumstances of the current escalation, in order to create debate, encourage reflection, and therefore raise awareness. These same organizations have also capitalized on the power of social media beyond the online realm: social networks have played and continue to play a crucial role in the organization of the physical pro-Gaza protests that have taken place in the past ten days. In London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Lyon, Paris, Madrid, Milan, Zurich, Lausanne, Berlin, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Wellington, Seoul, Istanbul, Islamabad, Jammu, Singapore, Tehran, Tunis, Sana’a, Durban, Bahrain, and even in Tel Aviv, hundreds of thousands of people have marched and are marching as I write, heads wrapped in kuffiyat, chanting “Stop the bombings, Stop the killings, Free Free Palestine”. The faces of the protestors are painted in green, red, white and black; they stand on stages, reciting poems that have written in the name of those who passed; they are White, Black, Hispanic, Asian; they are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist; they are English, French, American, Turkish, Spanish, Palestinian, Chilean; they are tall, short, skinny, chubby, blonde, brunette; they are people just like you and I, and they stand in front of Israeli embassies all over the world, asking for an end to the military offensive and an end to the siege of Gaza.
While researching for this piece, I spoke to several men and women who have been engaging in protests in London, Paris, and New York. They all come from different backgrounds: some are university students seeking to challenge the status quo, others are deeply religious individuals, others yet are academics or journalists, and a growing number of them are just well-informed citizens who have decided to voice their rejection of the situation in Gaza. “It’s important to understand that we are not anti-Israel”, I am told by twenty-three year-old Marya in NY, “But we certainly are pro-Palestine. We are pro-freedom, if anything. We are pro-life.” Her words seem to be aligned with those of fourty-six year-old Marc, whom writes to me from Paris, “The time has come for the world to speak up against Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism. The atrocities endured by the Jewish people throughout the past cannot justify the killing of thousands of innocent Gazeans today”. In London, I repeatedly hear the same discourse: “This is not a war, this is a genocide, and Israel must be held accountable for its actions.” When I ask them to describe their feelings towards the Hamas leadership, the activists appear once more in agreement: “No extreme is ever good”, I am told, “Hamas is also committing violent crimes against civilians and they are to be punished. But in the context of illegal military occupation, Hamas’ defense is legitimate, while Israel’s is simply unjustified”. “What about the tunnels?” I ask, referring to Hamas’ alleged underground ‘tunnels of terror’. “A tunnel, by definition, must have two entrances… Why must the IDF find them in the Gaza strip, why not in their own territories?” I nod.
Even though their message seems perfectly violence-free, some of the protestors I meet were held by police forces in Paris following the first pro-Gaza protest. Accusations of anti-Semitism directed at this growing movement have been recurrent; in France, pro-Palestinian mass gatherings were forbidden by the government after fights broke out in front of a Parisian synagogue two weeks ago. It cannot be denied that groups of individuals have taken advantages of the momentum to spread racist hate or to engage in confrontation with law enforcement officials; these actions are not lead by any of the organizations coordinating the marches, and unfortunately undermine their cause by giving the media violent images to link to the pro-Gaza movement. I say it is unfortunate, because after spending just a few minutes with some of these activists, it is clear to me that any moral individual would agree with their views, grab a banner, and join the protest. Why? Because as they would tell you, facts are facts. The population of Gaza, a large portion of which is made up of Palestinians who already endured the Nakbah, has been forced to live under drastic, inhumane conditions in a minuscule strip of land that they may not exit at will. They have been denied many of their basic needs and have seen seven wars in the past ten years alone. And today, they are being bombed by their occupier, who tells them to evacuate their houses and leave their neighborhoods. “To go where?”, they ask journalists who interview them. And so they stay, and often die.
That is the reality of Gaza. For far too long, it has been avoided, disguised, hidden, and sometimes even denied in the West. Now, we begin to see a shift. More informed than ever before, the masses understand the complexity of the conflict. They acknowledge the responsibilities of both sides, notably of the Hamas leadership. But they stand up to show the world that politics, nationality, religion, borders, should never lead to the destruction of thousands of homes and lives. They are asking for the respect of human rights, regardless of passport. They are asking for justice above all. Again tonight, “In our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinians” echoes on the streets of major European cities, and it is giving no signs of weakening – all in the name of humanity.
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