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19 October 2023

Who is to blame?

It is a moral catastrophe that people refuse to consider the circumstances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

By Slavoj Žižek

There is a curious twist that occurs in many of the reactions to the Hamas attacks on 7 October: the moment one mentions the need to understand the circumstances in which it took place – Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its iron encirclement of the Gaza Strip – the predominant reaction is that one is accused of supporting or justifying Hamas terrorism. Are we aware how strange this prohibition is? I consider it a moral catastrophe.

By understanding the circumstances, I don’t mean the utter fatuity masquerading as a deep wisdom: “An enemy is someone whose story you have not heard.” Are we also ready to affirm that Hitler was only an enemy because his story was not heard? Is it not that the more I know about and “understand” Hitler, the more Hitler is my enemy? Not to mention the fact that stories we are telling to ourselves are not truth – they are as a rule a lie manufactured to justify the horrors I am doing to others in reality. The truth is out there, in what we are doing in reality. In all ethnic cleansings, every aggressor presents itself as a victim reacting to an aggression. When Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defence minister, said that Israel was fighting “human animals”, he lost his own humanity.

Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas who lives comfortably in Qatar, said on the day of attack: “We have only one thing to say to you: get out of our land. Get out of our sight… This land is ours, al-Quds [Jerusalem] is ours, everything [here] is ours… There is no place or safety for you.”

Clear and disgusting. But did the Israeli government not say something similar about those Palestinians in Gaza, although less brutally? Here is the first of the official “basic principles” of Israel’s present government: “The Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop the settlement of all parts of the Land of Israel – in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan and Judea and Samaria.” Or, as Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has said, “Israel is not a state of all its citizens” but “of the Jewish people – and only it”.

With such a “principle” encoded into its national law, how can Israel reproach Palestinians for refusing to negotiate with it? Does this “principle” not exclude any serious negotiations? Does it not leave Palestinians with nothing else except the option of violent resistance? The state of Israel has never offered Palestinians any hope or positive vision for their place in society; they are strictly treated as a problem to be dealt with by both force and law.

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[See also: Was Israel wrong to trust Qatar?]

So who is to blame for the prospect of a second Nakba? Should we blame the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) or its secret services? The film-maker Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers (2012) is a documentary of interviews with six heads of Israel’s domestic security agency Shin Bet, all of whom warn of how dangerous politicians can be. After interviewing the Shin Bet chiefs, Moreh told the Economist he had decided that Netanyahu “poses a great threat to the existence of the state of Israel”. He went on: “I saw from their eyes how our leaders really don’t want to solve this problem. They do not have the audacity, the temerity, the will, the courage that we need from a leader. I am not putting the blame only on the Israeli leaders. I think the Palestinian leaders suffer from the same horrible disease. I think that what Abba Eban said about how the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity applies to both sides.” It is the same with IDF – remember the condemnation of “refuseniks” who did not want to serve in the West Bank. What goes on in Israel with the last Netanyahu government is a political process at its purest, part of the worldwide nationalist-fundamentalist struggle, a populism which turns even against the legal state.

In 1989 the Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal wrote: “The continually victorious state of Israel cannot forever rely on the sympathy shown to ‘victims’.” Arthur Koestler, the great anti-communist convert, put it another way: “If power corrupts, the reverse is also true; persecution corrupts the victims, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways.” This holds for both sides in the ongoing war. The first generation of Israeli leaders openly confessed that their claims to the land of Palestine could not be grounded in universal justice, and that in the late 1940s and 1950s it was a simple war of conquest between two groups with no prospect of mediation. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, wrote: “Everyone can see the weight of the problems in the relations between Arabs and Jews. But no one sees that there is no solution to these problems. There is no solution! Here is an abyss, and nothing can link its two sides … We as a people want this land to be ours; the Arabs as a people want this land to be theirs.”

[See also: Misinformation in the Israel-Hamas war is a serious problem]

On 29 April 1956 a group of Palestinians from Gaza crossed the border to plunder the harvest in the Nahal Oz kibbutz’s fields. Roi, a young Jewish member of the kibbutz who patrolled the fields, galloped towards them on his horse brandishing a stick to chase them away. He was seized by the Palestinians, carried back to the Gaza Strip and when the UN returned his body that same day his body had been mutilated.

Moshe Dayan, then the chief of staff of the IDF, delivered the eulogy at his funeral the following day: “Let us not cast blame on the murderers today. What claim do we have against their mortal hatred of us? They have lived in the refugee camps of Gaza for the past eight years, while right before their eyes we have transformed the land and villages where they and their ancestors once lived into our own inheritance. It is not among the Arabs of Gaza but in our own midst that we must seek Roi’s blood. How have we shut our eyes and refused to look squarely at our fate and see the destiny of our generation in all its brutality. Have we forgotten that this group of young people living in Nahal Oz bears the burden of Gaza’s gates on its shoulders?”

Can one imagine a similar statement today? Just remember how far we are from the situation a couple of decades ago when we were talking about a “land for peace” agreement, about the two-state solution, when even today’s staunchest supporters of Israel were putting pressure on it not to build settlements in the West Bank? In 1994 Israel built a wall separating the West Bank from Israel as it was before the Six-Day War in 1967, thereby recognising the West Bank as a special entity.

All this progress, however limited it was, has now vanished into thin air. Europe has to find its own voice again here, not just join the global outcry. It can do it, because it was able to do it for decades, always ready to see the complexity of the situation and to listen to all sides. It would be a shame to leave this role to Putin and China.

[See also: Humza Yousaf: what my family went through in Gaza]

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