Blaming the Victim
During the most recent bombings and incursion into Gaza, many in Israel and around the world blamed Palestinians, especially and particularly Hamas, for the violence Palestinians have been suffering at the hands of Israel. People quite literally blamed the victim, suggesting Israel’s hand was being forced, and the massive disproportionate violence it unleashed in the last several weeks was something it regrettably had to do in order to stop Hamas. The rationale was that if only Hamas had never fired any rockets, or would cease firing rockets, or would never have built any tunnels, or had never stockpiled weapons, or had never kidnapped and killed the three Israeli teens, there would be no bombings or incursions and the regrettable but unavoidable collateral damage. Naftali Bennett, an Israeli minister, certainly employed this train of thinking when he accused Hamas of “committing mass-self-genocide.” The argument that Hamas intentionally incurs this violence upon themselves in order to drive up civilian casualties and win a public relations victory against Israel is also built upon this notion.
Nevermind the fact that it was admitted (but later retracted) by an Israeli official that Hamas wasn’t responsible for the kidnapping of the Jewish youths that sparked this all off, nevermind the fact that the Israeli government knew the youths were dead but still raided Palestinian communities which inflamed tensions, nevermind the fact that Israel is laying waste to entire neighborhoods, nevermind the fact that the UN Goldstone report found it was Israeli, not Hamas, that used Palestinians as human shields, nevermind the fact that the larger systemic violence, dehumanization and humiliation of Palestinians pre-dates and post-dates Hamas’ existence, (etc. etc. etc.), this line of thinking is illogical and morally abhorrent to me.
Blaming the violence of oppression on violent resistance to oppression exonerates the oppressor, demonizes the victims of oppression and ultimately is a recipe for perpetual conflict and escalation. The ultimate cause of this conflict is settler colonialism; foreigners came into Palestine and asserted themselves as the rightful owners and sovereigns of the land through force, a situation that has had to be maintained through systemic violence and injustice against Palestinians. So, to paraphrase Miko Peled and others: violent Palestinian resistance is in response to much more massive violent Israeli oppression; if Israel wants Palestinian violence to stop, it needs to stop its violence against Palestinians, end the siege of Gaza and establish an inclusive democracy and justice in its nation. Blaming Palestinians or Hamas for the violence of Israel only serves those who want to see the conflict continue and the state of Israel to continue following its present course of increasing right wing extremism.
Lessons from Black Liberation
When various Israeli media outlets, spokespeople, rabbis, and politicians employed this argument, blaming Palestinians for casualties Israel has inflicted, and when various U.S. media outlets, spokespeople, pastors and politicians repeated these arguments, all I could think about was an interview I had seen of Angela Davis. Take a few minutes and watch this interview, part of footage filmed by a Swedish TV crew that was recently discovered and featured in the Black Power Mixtape.
While Davis was speaking from the context of black liberation and resistance to the systemic white supremacy in the United States, I believe this interview touches on a few points that I think are pertinent to any assessment of the use of violence by the Palestinian resistance that’s not hasbara.
First, if violence can be justified whose violence justifiable?
When asked if black liberation might be pursued through violence Davis’ words first point us to consider the underlying merits of the principles and goals that are being pursued by violent or non-violent means. In the grand scheme of things the Palestinians are pursuing a just cause whereas Israel’s overall goals appear to be maintaining a Jewish-Supremacist state built upon ethnic cleansing, land theft and Zionism. If there is any “moral” violence happening within that context it is coming from the Palestinian resistance, not Israel.
Second, if violence is used as a form of self-defense, whose violence is a form of self-defense?
Later, Davis’ words also bring up the concept of violent resistance as a necessary form of self-defense that should be expected when people are suffering from massive systemic violence. Since at least the Nakba, Israel has created and maintained its state through the violence against Palestinians in one form or another, regardless of if the Palestinians were violent or not. In this context it would be absurd to demand or expect no violent resistance from Palestinians. In this context violent resistance is self defense. Even though violent resistance to a system of oppression like this often takes the form of asymmetrical warfare/guerrilla warfare that occupiers and their allies label as terrorism even the UN has affirmed “the legitimacy of the peoples’ struggle for liberation form colonial and foreign domination and alien subjugation by all available means, including armed struggle.” (Emphasis added.)
Third, if all violence is to be condemned and rejected (regardless of context) what violence should be the focus of this criticism and dismantled first?
Some Palestinians and some supporters of Palestine may be uncomfortable or unable to affirm every type or manifestation of violence utilized by Palestinians in their self-defense. Some may see certain types of violence as immoral (regardless of context), counter-productive politically or militarily in the long run, or are committed to non-violent methods for whatever reason. (I am one such person due to my faith and my allegiance to the teachings of Jesus.)
How can such persons work towards Palestinian liberation, affirm the Palestinian right to self-defense, recognize some Palestinians lament the censure of their right to self-defense by their allies, and yet to be true to themselves and their own principles? On this tension I believe Davis’ interview can also be instructive.
In Davis’ day there were white and black people who condemned all violence, saw violence as counter-productive, and/or feared the violence might directly impact them. When the Swedish TV crew asked Davis about the possibility of violence being used within the struggle for black liberation, it was a question born out of this concern regarding the use of violence.
Davis responded to this question by appropriately situating this question within the context of the extreme forms of violence black people had endured at the hands of the State and the hands of white supremacists.
The message of this response I think was clear. People were wringing their hands about the possibility of violence being used within the struggle for black liberation but had been silent as violence against black people had raged unchecked for centuries. If people were categorically against violence, why were they focusing on the relatively small violence coming from the black resistance, instead of interrogating the much more deadly, much more widespread, and much more unjust violence that was being used by the State and white supremacists?
Put another way, if a person believes all violence is counter-productive or immoral and as such all violence deserves to be critiqued, condemned and dismantled, the source of the greatest and most unjust violence should be their primary concern.
Within the context of Palestine it is clear that the violence of the State of Israel should be the chief and primary concern of anyone categorically against violence. The death toll between Palestinians civilians and Israeli civilians incurred during Protective Edge underscores this point. Even with Iron Dome possibly not working at all, Israeli lost two civilians as Palestine lost 1,504, billions in infrastructure, and a humanitarian crisis that will take years to recover from, even if the siege is lifted.
To wring our hands about violence coming from the Palestinian resistance while diverting attention away from the violence coming from the State of Israel, or even equally focusing our attention, is to fall into a trap that ultimately serves the State of Israel.
While people such as myself may have to utter a word of censure to Hamas’ use of unguided rockets against civilian areas or similar behavior, we should save the lion’s share of our moral outrage and our efforts to dismantle systemic violence for the State of Israel.