Opinionista Oscar Van Heerden 19 November 2019

Yes, the Israeli problem is complex, but killing children is always wrong

The Israeli state, people and diaspora have achieved remarkable things and have many qualities any country would admire. However, the Palestinian issue is a blot on their moral conscience and needs to be resolved.

After the last opinion piece on the subject I penned in Daily Maverick, “Why the Palestinians need our support in word and deed”, I was subjected to the customary slander from certain quarters and, of course, labelled, anti-Semitic. There was the customary “Right of Reply” in which I was accused of having no understanding of the said region and the writers implied that if I had not visited the region, I simply could not offer an opinion.

Beside this ridiculous accusation, another wrote and accused me of plagiarism since I quoted rather extensively from a speech delivered at the United Nations on more or less a similar topic. But the thing that grates me the most is not the reply, which of course is one’s right, or the nonsensical accusations of plagiarism even when I gave the necessary acknowledgements, but the fact that someone decided to pay a social media company to ensure that every time my name gets Googled, the inquirer will be exposed to such a right of reply and plagiarism accusation. And for that reason, I decided to own it and embrace it since some out there want to create this false impression around my person.

So, let me yet again refer you, the reader, to a letter that was penned by a very well-respected employee at the United Nations. The UN recently released remarks made by the assistant secretary-general (ASG), Andrew Gilmour, about Palestinian children, at the United Nations General Assembly, Fourth Committee meeting, New York, on 13 November 2019. Gilmour is the assistant secretary-general for human rights in particular.

These were remarks made in response to a question from the Permanent Observer Mission of the State of Palestine about Palestinian children during this ongoing conflict.

Gilmour said: “Both the secretary-general and the high commissioner for human rights have repeatedly expressed concern over the unacceptable impact of the conflict, and indeed the occupation, on Palestinian children.

During this reporting period, as I mentioned, 48 Palestinian children have been killed and thousands injured by Israeli security forces, which is the highest number since 2014 when 500 Palestinian children were killed by Israeli fire.

Should Palestinian children be encouraged to put themselves in harm’s way? No – of course not.

Should Palestinian rockets be fired against Israeli population centres that contain children? Absolutely not. And we condemn both actions.”

Gilmour goes further: “But I don’t believe that any of those actions could possibly justify the frequent targeting by snipers who know exactly what they are doing and are aiming with immense accuracy – sometimes to kill, more often to injure but with life-changing injuries, including loss of sight and amputation of limbs – thousands of Palestinian children and on a far too frequent basis.”

So, let us just take a moment here to reflect on what exactly is being said by the ASG. Children are deliberately being targeted by snipers, to be maimed and severely injured or killed.

Gilmour continues: “And whether it’s across the Gaza Fence, shooting stone-throwing children, whose stones fall way short of any Israeli target, or the harassing, threatening, beating, shooting or imprisoning of hundreds of Palestinian children in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.”

As many of you may be aware, there are numerous videos available on social media depicting the harassment and arrests of children, some as young as 12 years old.

Taking all that into account, it is impossible, in a way, to avoid thinking that if the aim of such actions was to make absolutely certain that the next generation of Palestinians would grow up profoundly radicalised, and full of hatred for the people carrying out these actions, then one would think that the best way to turn that aim into reality would be to treat Palestinian families – adults and children – exactly the way they are being treated now. And we know that because it is captured on video, almost every single day,” stated Gilmour.

The ASG for human rights then concludes with a personal note when he requests:

Mr Chair, would you allow me to finish on a slightly personal note? I joined the UN 30 years ago this week, and I have been following the issue we’ve been talking about today closely all that time. Indeed, I first visited the West Bank and Gaza and Israel in 1983, and Israel is a country I have always liked and admired, though not the occupation, or their denial.

But when I first went there in 1983, the occupation was 16 years old. And that already seemed like a lifetime of oppression for its inhabitants.

It is now, as we all know, 52 years old – ever-deepening, and it appears unending, unrelenting, unremitting, unconscionable.

Taken as a whole, it is a massive injustice and a systematic example of discrimination and humiliation. I think it represents a shame to the occupiers and indeed to us all. And it’s a driver of violent extremism around the world, as many courageous Israelis are the first to recognise, by the way.”

When the global moral conscience and authority speak out and the situation on the ground still does not change, then you know something very terrible has happened to our collective minds. Our great moral leaders around the world remain silent on this matter and it begs the question, why?

We can see all the facts on the ground and conclude this is a totalitarian situation. The question becomes, why are we unable to effectively address it? Orwell spoke of the totalitarianism of the mind.

Is this what can explain our lack of agency, perhaps?

The Palestinians occupy the realm of the other, to a point where their struggles are viewed by all of us as less worthy of our attention. Even when children are being systematically shot, maimed and killed, it hardly registers on our moral radar. When your mind hears this and the first thing it tries to do is ask, what did the child do, surely the state must have had a reason? At that point, you know you have been subconsciously duped. Surely, humanity comes first, and states must provide the structures that facilitate more humanity and more dignity?

The Israeli state has become the ministry of truth. And any who attempt to voice their conscience are thought-policed. I mean this literally. The Israeli state has lobby groups all over the world, it has unlimited resources, it has the unqualified support of the US and can rely on that veto vote in the Security Council without failure. Anyone who voices concerns is identified and targeted and brought to task.

They will be approached personally and “encouraged” to correct their views. They will, of course, be labelled “anti-Semitic”, and the news-control social media agencies will ensure such accusations remain at the top of Google searches when searching for such questioning and concerned views.

If this silencing of the mind is what happens every time a concerned view is raised, then it is hardly surprising that the totalitarian status quo remains.

Gilmour concludes with the following powerful assertion: “Last year, you will recall, distinguished delegates, we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). And when you read that magnificent document in the context of the Israeli occupation, one is struck by the extent and the comprehensiveness with which almost every human right enshrined in that document – civil and political, economic, social and cultural – is constantly, systematically violated.”

I don’t know what the answer to this intractable problem is, but what I can offer is the reminder of what it collectively took to change the unconscionable apartheid state.

Through global solidarity, a recognition of the inhumanity of the current system and a desire to see those most afflicted restored to dignity must surely be uppermost in our minds.

Principled pressure from state and corporate actors as well as individuals from afar; all joined hands and had the moral courage to stand up against the apartheid state – why not in Israel too? The visionary leadership from some Israeli leaders in the past and in no small measure Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated for making such good progress with the Palestinians, is sorely missed these days.

Speaking directly to my Israeli counterparts, I am of the view that open debate and conversations on these painful matters are the surest way to find common ground on these issues. Muzzling debate and discussions, and intimidatory tactics, will not have a fruitful outcome for anyone.

Nelson Mandela reminds us that it’s only through restoring the dignity of the oppressed that the oppressor can realise their full dignity.

The Israeli state, people and diaspora have achieved remarkable things and have many qualities any country would admire. However, this issue is a blot on their moral conscience and needs to be resolved.

I am well aware that there are many in the Israeli community who share this view, and my hope is their numbers and voices will grow.

However, I also know there is a sinister element that, were it feasible, would like to see the problem of the Palestinians dealt with as an ultimate finality, annihilated if you will. They know this is not pragmatic and so they have done the next best thing, created a camp where people rot away and they have convinced the world that such a camp is necessary for their survival.

This is how totalitarian states co-opt the moral integrity of well-meaning minds: they convince them that their acts, no matter how atrocious, no matter if it means killing children, are necessary for survival. Faced with such fears, moral fibre withers and primitive impulses take over, and the dignified agency is lost.

Have a look around at your own children. We needn’t be experts on the Israeli-Palestinian question to all emphatically agree – states must not kill children. If nowhere else, let’s start the conversation here. DM

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