Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Why do Palestinian lives not matter in Western consciousness?

Photo: @motaz_azaiza/ Instagram

In the unilateral Balfour Declaration of 1917, the British colonial authorities took upon themselves the task of establishing a “national home” for the Jewish people; that is, a territory to be occupied by a homogeneous ethnicity based on the solitary common criterion of a shared religion: Judaism. Therefore, the establishment of an exclusive “national home” meant the ‘cleansing’ of the existing ‘home’ that has been ‘illegally’ occupied by the Arabs.

The annulment of the British mandate and the establishment of the Israeli nation-state in 1948 left the colonially romanticised reconstruction of the Palestinian lands in the hands of the newly established Zionist regime.

This Zionist regime continues to draw its economic sustenance from the Western coffers and its moral justifiability from the Western guilt for the Holocaust. 

“England has to fulfil a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying the material foundations of Western society in Asia.”

Karl Marx (d. 1883)

The support for the Zionist regime also stemmed from the historical construction of the Arabs as being violent and the Middle East or the Near East as being the backyard of the West, which the ‘owner’ can reconstruct.

In his famous book Orientalism (1978), Edward Said talks about how the Arab/Muslim male is looked upon as “depraved,” “anti-Semitic to the core,” violent and unbalanced. Despite the book’s passe-partout reception, this Orientalist approach is still observable in the prevalent discourses, where Muslims are seen as being naturally antisemitic, Muslim migrants being described as “hordes of Muslim refugees”, and the ever-present potential of them being “terrorists”.

Here, the average practising Muslim is seen as having a potential towards extremism that has been indoctrinated into him due to his scriptural adherences. Notably, such labelling of Muslims and the scriptures as ‘extremist’ was observable in the recent Swedish Qur’an burning incident where the desecration of the Muslim sacred scripture was attributed to an “anti-Islam activist” and justified on the grounds of freedom of expression. The Western hypocrisy was only challenged when another ‘activist’ decided to hold the Bible and the Torah to similar sacrilegious scrutiny—only after the attempt towards a similar scrutinisation of the Torah and Bible by the activist; it made it incumbent upon the Western world to condemn the act in its entirety.

Unfortunately, a moral equivalence similar to these sacrilegious burnings cannot be formulated for the increasing Palestinian death toll, which currently stands at more than 17,700. The adult Palestinian man is seen as somebody who has intrinsically ‘impurified’ himself by accepting Islam, thereby making him a potential threat to the ‘civilised’ world. The dehumanisation of the Near East population in this context falls into what Edward Said called Romantic Orientalism, where the Orient is seen as something devoid of emotions that does not suffer.

Here, only the “destruction” of the already existing apparatus can lead to the “regeneration” and the subsequent laying of the foundation of a Western society and its ideals. This means that as a human material, the Orient is less important than as an element in a Romantic redemption of the Orient. Therefore, the death(s) of Palestinians, who are considered human animals, appears as a ‘necessary evil’ in the construction of this redemptive project. Hence, the British-mandated construction of the ‘only democracy’ in the Middle East presupposes several sacrifices that the Western world seems more than willing to make, perhaps the most important one being its consciousness.

The most telling example can be taken from the rationalisation of the genocide of more than 15,000 Palestinians at the hands of Israeli armed forces, aided and funded by the United States of America, which is justified as being done in pursuit of 250 Israeli hostages. The death of more than 17,700 Palestinian innocents does not seem to bear on the Western world due to what Irfan Ahmad recently called the “hierarchy of human lives”, where the value attached to human lives appears to be unequal.

Perhaps this hierarchy of human lives is best illustrated by the imbalance between the Western reaction towards the unconfirmed report of 40 dead Israeli babies, which drew more condemnation than the verifiable reports of deaths of more than 7,177 Palestinian children. Here again, the Orient is deemed incapable of understanding itself and must be violently ‘remodelled’ according to Western dictates. This remodelling operates on a preconceived notion of the inferiority of human lives.  

Figure. 2. Pictures of Israeli soldiers shared on Twitter titled “The first ever pride flag raised in Gaza”. [Twitter/ @Leekern]

The killing of more than 17,177 Palestinians by Israel does not seem to have attracted any policy-oriented condemnation from the West. As the Zionist State appears to be working in pursuance of the Romanticised Orient, only the ‘destruction’ or displacement of the entire existing Palestinian population at the hands of Israel can lead to the Romanticised reconstruction of the Orient.

The West’s insistence on Israel’s right to defend itself here also means the Israeli right to realise the much-sought reconstruction of the Orient. This reconstruction, as Figure 2 shows where an Israeli soldier is seen standing among the ruins of a carpet-bombed Palestinian neighbourhood holding a pride flag, rationalises the destruction of Palestinian life in pursuance of Western ‘values’. Hence, the pursuit of ‘Western values’ is conceived as something more imperative than the material cost that might come attached to it.

The cover page of the magazine The Economist in the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. [The Economist/ “Now, the waging of peace”]

In conclusion, the colonial romantic reconstruction of the Orient overlooks the material cost of achieving this romanticised dream. A similar example could be taken from the British magazine Economist and its unconscious Orientalist headline of the 2003 American invasion and the subsequent occupation of Iraq. Here, the magazine anticipates that only the ‘destruction’ of Iraqi society could lead to the achievement of what is called ‘peace’.

Therefore, the cries of children, laments of grieving mothers and the anguish of Palestinian men are disregarded; as Edward Said has shown in his book Orientalism, the Orient must face “torment to produce “pleasure“.

Saiyid Ashraf Husain Jafri is a student at Ibn Haldun University, Turkey. He writes when not listening to Begum Akhtar or quoting Urdu poetry to his niche audience. 

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