We must be relentless in humanizing Palestinians

The human cost of conflict: reckoning with the dehumanization in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.

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We live in an era where, in theory, we have accepted that all human beings are deserving of equal treatment—that skin color, national origin, language, accent, clothing, and other markers of ethnicity are secondary to the fact that we all deserve dignity. 

In theory. 

In practice, the otherizing of human beings remains central to the grim calculus by which we justify violence against one another and even accept it as virtuous. This violence, inflicted by states or by vigilantes, is everywhere we look. 

In the United States, it’s in the way Black communities are over-policedIndigenous communities are neglectedmigrants are warehoused, and asylum seekers are kept out

Internationally, it’s in the way our society dismisses the targets of Western wars and capitalism.

Most prominently today, it’s in the dehumanization of Palestinians during what, by many accounts, is an unfolding Israeli genocide against the people of Gaza. 

The only way to end the inhumanity is to humanize the victims of war in pursuit of justice.

Dehumanization lays the groundwork for genocide

Israeli diplomat Ron Prosor explained in an October 2023 podcast interview that his nation’s war on Gaza was about “civilization against barbarity,” and “good against bad.” Such language reinforces the equations of Israeli apartheid: Israelis equal “civilized” and “good,” whereas Palestinians equal “barbaric” and “bad.”

Prosor added that the targets of Israel’s military might were “people who basically act as animals and do not have any, any respect for children, women.” 

His remarks came soon after Israel’s defense minister Yoav Gallant referred to Palestinians as “human animals.” (There’s no shortage of irony in such language given how European antisemitic tropes routinely dehumanized Jewish people.)

Apologists for Israel’s war take pains to say there is a distinction between Hamas—the ostensible “barbarians” who perpetrated the October 7 attacks —and Palestinian civilians. But Israel’s bombing campaign against Gaza is so devastating that even the routinely pro-Israel New York Times calls it “one of the most intense of the 21st century, prompting growing global scrutiny of its scale, purpose and cost to human life.” The distinction between Hamas and Palestinian civilians means little within a scenario of mass indiscriminate bombing. 

Recall when the U.S. waged wars on Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s and claimed to be striking Al Qaeda “terrorists,” while dismissing the predictable, resulting mass civilian casualties as “collateral damage.” The “war on terror” quickly became a “war of terror.” 

A decade earlier, analyst Norman Solomon pointed out in a 1991 op-ed against the first Gulf War how Time Magazine defined “collateral damage” as “a term meaning dead or wounded civilians who should have picked a safer neighborhood.” That descriptor can easily be applied today to Gaza, a minuscule and densely populated strip of land subjected to a savage bombing campaign akin to shooting fish in a barrel. 

As the 1994 Rwandan genocide so aptly demonstrated, the first wave of weaponry in any pogrom is the use of dehumanizing language. Next comes extermination. If Palestinians are not people, their deaths are easier to stomach. If they are merely human animals, barbarians, and collateral damage, they can be killed with impunity.

When context is forbidden

It’s not enough to employ dehumanizing language against Palestinians. Israel’s apologists have waged a long and effective narrative war on any and all critiques of Israel as well as any and all defenses of Palestinians. From academic exile, as in the 2014 case of University of Illinois Professor Steven Salaita, to media censure, as inflicted on CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill in 2018, Israel’s defenders have routinely canceled critics of apartheid. 

Most recently, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres is facing calls for resignation merely for pointing out that Hamas’ deadly attacks on Israeli settlements “did not happen in a vacuum.” 

Contextualizing acts of terrorism even while condemning them is verboten, and not just for high-level diplomats. A science journal editor named Michael Eisen was recently fired for sharing an article by the satirical paper The Onion on his private social media account titled “Dying Gazans Criticized for Not Using Last Words to Condemn Hamas.” Eisen happens to be Jewish American. 

It is a testament to the extent of censorship in reference to Israeli apartheid that The Onion is bolder than most mainstream media outlets for pointing out the absurdity of limiting discourse. The outlet (perhaps in response to Eisen’s firing?) filed another story titled “Share This Image Of Smiling Netanyahu To Get Your Job Back.”

When some lives are more equal than others

Israel understands how significant the use of narrative is to the maintenance of its occupation and control of Palestinian territories. To underscore the idea that they are responding to inhuman terrorists, the Israeli Defense Forces released gruesome photos and footage of Hamas’ October 7 attacks as justification for bombing Gaza indiscriminately. Such imagery, when presented without any historical context of occupation and oppression, offers a sympathetic portrayal of Israeli civilians as the victims of unexplained and unprovoked barbarism. Any mention of broader context is strictly forbidden. 

Indeed, when we see the faces and learn the names of the dead, it is unfathomable to justify the violence that ended their lives. Bringing up the context of Israel’s occupation sounds jarring when juxtaposed against the heartbreaking story of how Shlomi and Shachar Matias were gunned down by Hamas fighters as they protected their son from bullets. The surviving boy told the press that his parents “wanted to us to be happy, to be whimsical … They wanted us to be joyful. They wanted us to be in peace.” 

Commercial media outlets have been flooded with such stories, centering the Israeli victims and survivors of Hamas’ assault. Israeli humanity reigns supreme. It is civilized and good. 

Where are the stories in mainstream media of Palestinian lives lost? Not just in the latest Israeli war on Gaza but in all the wars that preceded it? And what about the stories of the decades of traumatic land loss and unjust imprisonment and displacement Palestinians have faced? 

Winning the narrative war

In Israel’s previous wars of retaliation against Hamas in Gaza, the same pattern played out as we are seeing today: Palestinian civilians are many times more likely to be killed by Israel than Israeli civilians are by Hamas. This is utterly unsurprising given Israel’s military might and the unwavering U.S. diplomatic and military aid to Israel.

It’s not just Gaza either. In 2022 Israel killed five times as many Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem than it did the year before, as per an independent monitoring group. The bizarre justification was that armed Israeli soldiers were defending themselves against civilians. 

Arrayed against such forces, one of the only ways Palestinians can assert their humanity is through storytelling. But this is a challenge given the one-sidedness of mainstream U.S. news, the chilling effect on speaking out in academia, and even alleged censorship on social media.

Still, stories are trickling out. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in 2014 marked the 50th year of Israeli occupation by publishing short stories about dozens of Palestinian men, women, and children. Arab-centric and independent media outlets such Al Jazeera and Middle East Eye routinely showcase such stories, in sharp contrast to mainstream U.S. media outlets. 

Take Awni Eldous, a 12-year-old Palestinian boy who was killed by Israeli bombs in Gaza. We know his name and his story not because he was profiled in The New York Times or on CNN—he was not—but because he was a YouTube star with a huge following as an online gamer, and because independent media and the Arab press covered his killing. 

Bringing up the context of Hamas’ October 7 attack to justify Eldous’ killing sounds jarring. And so it’s easier not to bring up Eldous and other Palestinian victims at all, as evidenced by the deafening silence of Western media outlets on his death and the deaths of countless others. 

The long-term work of sharing historical context about Israel’s brutal occupation that began with the Nakba must continue. But the short-term work of stopping the unfolding genocide must happen immediately. To curb Israel’s disproportionate and brutal violence, there must be an unequivocal call for a ceasefire in the name of Palestinian humanity. 

It is a sad state of affairs that the world has to be convinced that Palestinians are human beings too. As of this writing, Israel has killed at least 2,000 children in Gaza by some accounts, and the total death toll has surpassed 6,500, nearly five times the number of Israelis killed by Hamas. 

How many Palestinian lives is a single Israeli life worth? If the ratio is not 1 to 1, what is it? 

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Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a radio and television show that airs on Pacifica stations KPFK and KPFA and will begin airing on Free Speech TV. She is the former founder, host and producer of KPFK Pacifica’s popular morning drive-time program “Rising Up With Sonali,” based in Los Angeles. She is also the co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit solidarity organization that funds the social, political, and humanitarian projects of RAWA.

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