Despite the empty humanitarian gestures, these regimes consistently support one side.
The Fourth Arab-Israeli War of 1973 is my first (vague) memory of an international political crisis. Looking back now at all the conflicts since then, I can say one thing for sure: Israeli-Palestinian conflicts are the most graphic illustration of all that is wrong with the world of so-called “Pax-Americana”.
I am not talking of obvious things, illustrated by the brutal attack by Hamas on Israeli settlements on October 7 and the brutal retaliation by Israel. That there are genocidal forces on both sides is no longer a point needing to be made. Less obvious, perhaps, are other positions that undergird such disregard for the other’s well-being.
Take, for instance, the religious Muslim understanding of the conflict. Many religious Muslims see it as the latest iteration of the Christian West’s medieval crusades against Islam. Actually, although the West thinks that such religious Muslims harbour “anti-Semitic” prejudices against Jews, the educated ones I have spoken to are more likely to consider “Jews” to be pawns in a “Christian” and even “Christian-atheistic-Leftist” conspiracy. This is obviously not a Palestinian perspective as both Christian and Muslim Palestinians have borne the brunt of Israeli aggression today and in the past. And, of course, this is incorrect. But two correct corollaries still need to be drawn from it.
First, unlike many educated people in the West, educated Muslims are mostly aware that historically there was very little communal conflict between Muslims and Jews in Muslim empires, ranging from India, through Arabia, to Turkey and the Moorish kingdoms in Africa and Spain. Jews were not expelled from Spain and Portugal by the Muslim Moors; they were expelled when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella drove out the Moors. The kind of pogroms that took place against Jews across the centuries and culminated in the Nazi genocide were unknown in Muslim empires. Jews often occupied high positions in Muslim courts. Hence, despite the rise of anti-Semitism in Muslim circles since the first Arab-Zionist conflicts in the 1920s, there is also an awareness that institutionalised Jewish-Muslim hatred is a recent phenomenon.
Second, while the idea of a Christian crusade via Jewish pawns is absurd, it is true that the Western reaction to Israel/Palestine contains a religious undercurrent. This is evidenced not just by religious Christians, who understandably relate to Jerusalem, but also by Europeans and Americans who claim not to “really” believe.
Some of it is genuine chagrin at the way their ancestors treated Jews, culminating in Hitler’s Holocaust. But then, it is always easier to expatiate past guilt when someone else—in this case, Palestinians—pays the price for it.
But some of it is still subterranean religiosity. And, as is the case with all religious arguments, this shows in its lack of logic. Now, I have always believed that Israel has the right to exist. But the reason it has the right to exist is that it exists. To me, that is also the reason why Palestinians have the right to exist where they are and have been for centuries.
“I have always believed that Israel has the right to exist. But the reason it has the right to exist is that it exists. To me, that is also the reason why Palestinians have the right to exist where they are, and have been for centuries.”
A lot of supposedly non-religious Europeans do not see this parallel. Instead, they argue that “Jews” have the right to exist in Israel because that was their “ancestral land”. This is wading into religious territory because it pre-supposes that Jews who had lived in Poland or Germany for centuries have the right to push Palestinians, who had lived in Palestine for centuries, out of existence—because the Bible says so. Interestingly, these people do not make the same point about returning vast swathes of the US—including cities like New York and Chicago—to Native American tribes, whose ancestral, sacred lands they used to be. No surprise here: religions are about miracles, not logic.
Tacit support of the West
To argue that Israel needs to exist because it is there is a secular argument, and I will make it strongly in any company. But then, this argument applies to Palestinians, too, and I will make it just as strongly. The slow genocide and dislocation of Palestinians that the West has permitted for decades does not erase this fact. A lot of us feel, with good reason, that it is time to stop allowing Israel, with the tacit support of Western powers, to gradually, one conflict at a time, airbrush Palestinians out of history, following essentially a pattern established by white Americans against Native Americans centuries ago.
Another part of the unstated problem is racism. The Western support for Israel contains a strong racist element. This sounds strange because once Jews were persecuted for not being “white” (or “Aryan”) and because there still are neo-Nazis who are anti-Semitic as well as Islamophobic. But then, until recently, even the Irish were not considered “white” by some English scholars. Racism, we know, is less a matter of colour and more of power. This colonial-racist underlining of support for Israel—no matter what it does—comes through in the way Palestinians are represented, particularly in the US and British media, and the inability of Western powers to challenge putative racism by Israeli politicians.
A complex illustration is the diplomatic tiff between Israel and Colombia. Commenting on Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant announcing a “complete siege” of Gaza in a fight against “human animals”, the leftist Colombian President Gustavo Petro noted: “This is what the Nazis said of the Jews.” This led to Israel halting exports to Colombia. Now, it might be true, as an Israeli friend noted, that the Hebrew expression “human animals” is used generically to characterise any inhuman act (such as the attack by Hamas) and does not carry racist connotations. But the expression was not used in a purely Hebrew context.
It was used in a world where the bombing of Palestinian children was being permitted, even encouraged—for one of the US’ first acts of support to Israel was to provide it with ammunition without imposing, say, the condition that it was not to be used against civilians. It was employed by a Minister of a country that has regularly, almost as a matter of policy for more than a decade now, bombed civilians in Gaza in response to terrorist attacks by Hamas. It has assumed a clearly racist connotation by now, for a cardinal trait of racism is a brutally differential, institutionalised treatment of the other.
Hence, President Petro was correct in noting that racist Hitler had also spoken of Jews as “animals”. But instead of ticking off its Minister for subtly or inadvertently using seemingly racist language, Israel backed it officially. There was no outrage in the mainstream West.
- The Western support for Israel contains strong religious and racist elements.
- Part of the problem is that many people in the West can seldom think outside old Western paradigms, which are essentially colonial and racist, even when these people do not consider themselves racist.
- As Israel carries it what it thinks is retribution on Palestine, the Hamas, or any other extremist group, gets an excuse to step up its religious war too.
- The problem is not Islam, the problem is the role Muslims are repeatedly made to play by Western regimes in their attempt to hold on to their power over the rest of the world.
Part of the problem is that many people in the West can seldom think outside old Western paradigms, which are essentially colonial and racist, even when these people do not consider themselves racist. Maybe three centuries of dominance does this to people. The inability shows not just in those who support Israel, moderately or absolutely, but also in those in the West who support the Palestinian cause to the extent of ignoring the nature of organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah. As if all global choices were essentially “Western” ones. But these groups are not like Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was essentially a secular, nationalist movement: it was not leading an Islamic struggle.
Partly because of the West’s failure to give credence to the PLO’s secular struggle until it was too late in a period when Islamists, from Afghanistan to Egypt, were often celebrated as “freedom fighters” in the West, the PLO has since then been partly replaced by organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah. (This “war” might mark its further eclipse, or force it closer to Islamism.) This complicates any support for the Palestinian cause, though it does not eliminate it. However, any naive celebration of a struggle led by an organisation like Hamas will be perforce blind to the fact that, at least for Muslims like me, an Islamist future is not better than, say, a Zionist one. The West largely fails to see Muslims like me, unless we assume anti-Islamic postures. Most Muslims like me prefer not to do so, given our reluctance to fashion another whip to be used against our cousins who simply believe.
Significantly, this factor also works the other way. After the brutal attack on Israel by Hamas, a consensus was building up, which could have been used to reduce the clout of such Islamist groups, if Israel and the US had been honest about the “two nation solution”. Most Arab nations were part of this consensus, based on sympathy for Israeli victims and the realisation that Hamas was indulging in violence whose sole aim was to start a regional or global conflagration. It was more an apocalyptic than a political move by Hamas, which is in keeping with its Islamist character.
That sane consensus could have been developed further and used to marginalise Hamas politically, even as its leadership was legally and lawfully brought to book for the terrorist attack. For that, Israel would have had to restrain its tendency to treat Palestinians like “human animals” and the US needed to adopt a fairer position, and refrain from its tendency to invest its taxpayers’ money in free gifts of weapons and ammunition to various parties. This failed to happen, signally. Retribution was handed over, very biblically, to a hawkish Israeli government. Hamas got exactly what it had wanted—no, what it had expected, for its cynical view of the situation was closer to the truth than that of optimists and pacifists like me.
Now, the worst scenario is not that it might lead to a regional war. Just as Vladimir Putin’s rash invasion of Ukraine was not a potential invasion of the rest of Europe, as it has been made out to be (Saddam Hussein’s mythical chemical weapons get reincarnated again and again in the “free” Anglo-American media!), any regional conflict will not lead to another world war. Not this time. A regional war will be contained: No one can really take on the military might of the US, backed by European powers, as Putin has realised, and Israel is no military lightweight either. There will be devastation, but again it is unlikely that more than a country or two—Lebanon, maybe Iran—would get involved.
If Iran gets involved, it will give the US an excuse to enter the conflict, and though the costs will be great, the war will not drag on like the Russian-Ukraine one. After all, neither Palestinians nor Iranians are as white, light-haired, or blue-eyed as Ukrainians or Russians! Though I am now beginning to suspect, despite my critique of Putin in the past, that Russians lose significantly in this respect, being closer to darker Asia, as they are discovering.
No, the bigger problem will come about a decade or two later. There will be an uptick of Islamism. Mostly Arab nations will stay out of this conflict, even if it expands a bit, partly due to pragmatism and partly due to their elites’ loyalty to the dollar. Largely, Arab states have shown greater maturity and desire for a peaceful solution than the regimes of Israel and the US, but unless this “war” leads to a viable and undiminished Palestinian state, they will be left with only two choices.
“Any naive celebration of a struggle led by an organisation like Hamas will be perforce blind to the fact that, at least for Muslims like me, an Islamist future is not better than, say, a Zionist one.”
They will either move towards an anti-Israel Islamist policy to appease popular anger or strongly repress Islamist and democratic unrest among their peoples. Decades of efforts to build up goodwill that had just before this “war” resulted in relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel—now on hold—will unravel. If Arab regimes choose to repress the popular upsurge of Islamism-tinged politics that anger at this “war” will provoke, one can expect major Islamist upheavals in the region. Hamas may or may not be destroyed, but a dozen Hamases are likely to hatch in a decade or two.
Muslims like me will be devastated by this outcome. So will Jews like me, I am sure. But then we do not fit the “Pax Americana” vision of the world: for the mythical “peace” of that vision is rooted in brutal maintenance of economic advantages to the West arising from the colonial “Pax Britannica” and inherited and sustained now by American regimes. Neither “Pax Britannica”, which roughly ended with the Second World War, nor “Pax Americana”, which succeeded it then, was “peaceful” for vast majorities in the world: they were “peaceful” only to the extent that they enabled global trade and finance, heavily tilted in favour of “Britannica” and “Americana” powers.
Unlike what religious Muslims think, the “crusading” echoes are misleading, though sometimes they are insinuated to move public opinion in the West so that trade and finance can continue to be “peacefully” in the control of the US and its cronies. Israel-Palestine, Eastern Europe (Ukraine today), Afghanistan, and strategic ports in the Far East (Hong Kong, etc., in the past; Taiwan today) are the four strategic global loci from which this on-going Britannica-Americana control can be enabled. Racism is essentially part of that inheritance of unfair power, and that is why so many well-meaning Americans and Europeans end up succumbing to it nevertheless.
Do you hear the children cry?
As I write this, bang goes a missile in the middle of a hospital in Gaza, run by Christian missionaries—for, obviously, the religious can be good too. Hamas says 500 killed, mostly children. Israel says, no, that is an inflated figure: just, say, 300 died. Hamas blames Israel; Israel’s military says it was a failed missile launched by another terror organisation, Islamic Jihad, in Gaza, which is a probability too. But President Joe Biden gives it another twist by telling Israel that “it was done by the other team”, thus conveniently mixing up all Palestinian groups and imposing devious purpose (“done”) on what even the Israeli military had only highlighted as an error—“failed missile”—by Islamic Jihad.
Once again, Biden was talking only to one side. The fact is that it does not matter to most Muslims whether the bomb was Israeli or a failed Islamic Jihad missile. They know that the deaths could have been avoided if Israel had not been allowed—even encouraged by powers like the US and the UK—to ride like any crusading knight into Gaza, consequences be damned, in order to exact revenge on Hamas. And when this happens, again and again, Islamism flourishes: this suits extremists on all sides, and extremists suit “Pax Americana” strategies.
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The problem is not Islam, though Islam has its own problems; the problem is the role Muslims are repeatedly cast to play by Western powers in their cynical bid for relentless global control. And in the monotonous staging of this role, Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, where Western regimes essentially take one side while making humanitarian noises, play a central part. Personally, I have reached the point where I wish I could say with biblical conviction: Let the “Pax Americana” world reap as it sows. Unfortunately, I cannot do so because I have children. And so do Israelis, and Palestinians. Which reminds me, about half the population of bombed-out Gaza consists of children.
Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.