What’s the exchange rate between Israeli and Palestinian lives these days? If we look at the last few weeks of air strikes and rocket fire — ignoring a broader reality of occupation, impoverishment, displacement, and brutalization by our handsomely armed ally — it’s about 1 to 23.2.
Since May 10, at least 253 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza and another 26 in the West Bank — 12 people in Israel. For now, let’s omit distinctions between civilians and soldiers, and between civilians and militants — they tend to compel the dark, troublesome question of the distinction between soldiers and militants, which brings us to the manifold benefits and insurances that are conferred to nations and denied to the stateless. In 2014, during the Israel Defense Forces’s “Operation Protective Edge”, the exchange rate was about 1 to 30.8. In 2008’s “Operation Cast Lead”, it was 1 to 109.
It’s unsettling to quantify this way, to fashion a political barb out of immeasurable suffering, but here’s the point: for decades, Palestinian lives have been blitzed, blighted, and gambled away in plain sight. On the one hand, Israel’s occupation has been the rallying cry of Islamic, anti-colonial, and yes, extremely violent Jihadi movements worldwide. (Days after 9/11, Osama bin Laden vowed that “America and anyone who lives there will never dream of security unless we have it in reality in Palestine.”) On the other, Americans, famously oblivious of their governments’ bloody hands, have been privy to awesome campaigns of maneuvers and muzzling. For years, what transpired in plain view of much of the world was deftly packaged by powerful American interest groups and diluted or altogether denied by the American press. The resulting consensus — clutched fiercely by religious and conservative groups — was that Israel simply couldn’t be culpable for mass oppression. No, it had to be that Muslims and Arabs were an unruly lot who needed to be swatted away like flies.
So for as long as we can remember, the issue has comprised a sizzling political paradigm, wrapped in watchwords and passed like a radioactive baton between lobbyists, Evangelicals, careerists, technocrats, investors, and, not least of all, the military industrial complex.
Of course, we — leftists, reformers, readers of this magazine — know all this already. What’s remarkable this time around is the shift in the national conversation. Euphemisms and evasions have given way to declarations on the front pages of our papers of record.
The New York Times asserted that infrastructural damage in Israel caused by Palestinian rocket fire “was incomparable to that in Gaza.” It ran op-eds titled “My Grandfather Bought a Home in Gaza With His Savings. An Israeli Airstrike Destroyed It” and “‘We Have No Option but to Die’: Living Through an Airstrike in Gaza”. Its headlines on Saturday read: “The Everyday Misery of Life Under Israeli Occupation.”
Even the Wall Street Journal referred to Israel’s “aggressive actions.” Granted, this last example is tepid, but the Journal (alongside the New York Post) is, all things considered, a major bulwark of centrist Zionism. Noam Chomsky noted at a 2011 lecture that, as the “newspaper of the business world,” this is no coincidence. (Indeed, the Journal’s historical overview of the conflict, published on Thursday, reads like something ghostwritten by the Heritage Foundation.)
Still, something has changed. In 2008 and 2014, coverage of Israel’s bombings were noticeably less humanizing of Palestinians and less direct about their devalued lives. Most political shifts happen gradually. A few, however, flash through the body politic, fomenting reform. The murder of George Floyd last summer spurred a nationwide (indeed worldwide) movement fiery enough to melt the steel resolve of corrupt and complacent establishmentarians. There were some downsides to this — heat tends to forfeit degrees of nuance — but our heightened consciousness of racial inequality and injustice impacted laws and expectations in a matter of days. It also bore powerful and unprecedented implications on the foreign policy front. Colonialist and imperialist narratives started getting stopped and frisked. Statues of historical figures were torn down, their heroism contested. Political axioms buttressed and embalmed by special interests were dusted off and re-examined. The matter of lives ascended to the fore of the conversation — lives that had been explicitly, then covertly, then invisibly devalued. While this caught fire on our national stage, it soon extended to Britain, Belgium, France, and elsewhere.
In the last two weeks, establishment Democrats (and newspapers) who embraced calls for racial equality at home were forced to reconcile with U.S. policies overseas. Historical figures and abstract statistics no longer sufficed as targets. In a blunt report last month, Human Rights Watch made it clear that we ought not dance around the A-word when it comes to Palestine: Israeli "authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity….These deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution."
In an op-ed for the New York Times on May 14, Senator Sanders strategically connected the dots. He pointed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “increasingly intolerant and authoritarian type of racist nationalism” before touting “the rise of a new generation of activists who want to build societies based on human needs and political equality. We saw these activists in American streets last summer in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. We see them in Israel. We see them in the Palestinian territories.” Sanders tied it up, powerfully but unsurprisingly, by writing: “Palestinian lives matter.” Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the only Palestinian-American member of Congress, evoked similar language in a speech the same week: “How many Palestinians have to die for their lives to matter?”
That the Times published Sanders’s op-ed to begin with illustrates the shifting tides. In a separate article, it conceded that “Democrats are no longer solidly in Israel’s corner.” They might as well have just said it outright: Black Lives Matters' explicitly pro-Palestine stance, long before this round of bombings, put Palestinian oppression in terms the American Left could no longer shirk.
Peter Beinart, professor of journalism at CUNY, summed up the calculus under deliberation: “The reason the American debate over Israel-Palestine could shift dramatically and quickly is that many Democratic politicians don't need to be convinced that what Israel is doing is wrong. They just need to be convinced that they can say so without hurting their careers.”
As the sun rises over the Gaza Strip a week after the ceasefire, the courts of American media and public opinion finally seem to be surveying the flattened apartments and hospitals with something other than apathy. There are, no doubt, other, more long-term Palestinian efforts of outreach and activism at play, as Abby Seitz reported last week. A fraction of civilians died this time around, compared to the wars between Hamas and Israel in 2014 and 2008. But the images and news reports were enough to tip scales.
Even before the bombings, Gaza had “the world’s highest unemployment rate,” according to a 2018 United Nations report. One UN official said Palestinians are “caged in a toxic slum from birth to death.” Blockaded by Israel and Egypt, everything and everyone going in and out of the Strip do so at the whims of those governments.
And this is to say nothing of the militarily occupied West Bank, which Rachel Kushner wrote “is hard to understand until you see it. You might be surprised at your own intolerance of the idea of a democracy maintaining an open-air prison for 2.7 million people….Everywhere I went I saw guard towers and concrete barriers and razor wire…except where there were settlements, which featured posh, Beverly Hills–style landscaping: little blooming flowers, fragile and bright, the guard towers in the far distance.”
Given the oppressive thicket of checkpoints, illegal settlements, evictions, police brutality, and a complex of laws relegating Palestinians and Israeli Arabs to second-class citizens at best, Kaleem Hawa, in a poignant essay, hardly seems to be overstating: “On the eve of the Third Intifada, it is clear what got us here: an ideology of Jewish supremacy pervading the entirety of Israeli society.”
Less than a week before Eid, ignoring Hamas’s warnings, Israeli police raided one of Islam’s holiest sites, Al-Asqa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem, using stun grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Three days later, they did it again. So came Hamas’s rockets, followed, of course, by all the fire and brimstone of Israeli bombs and missiles (likely made in the USA).
Stories from Gaza poured in: 70 children killed; ten members of the same family, including 8 children, bombed to death in a refugee camp; a five-month-old infant pulled from the rubble; a man with disabilities killed in an air raid, along with his pregnant wife and three-year-old daughter; city landmarks blown up by Israeli fighter jets, including a building hosting AP’s and Al-Jazeera’s offices, and another housing one of Gaza’s oldest media companies; Gaza’s only lab for processing coronavirus tests rendered inoperable, caked in shrapnel and debris; Dr. Ayman Abu Al-Ouf, head of internal medicine and senior coronavirus management committee member at Shifa Hospital, buried under rubble alongside his two teenage children.
The American old guard’s responses were, at first, as predictable as ever. UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield added to the U.S.’s long streak of blocking UN Security Council resolutions aimed at Israeli violence, making sure to call out Hamas and other Palestinian groups instead.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained the UN veto as well as his own decision not to call for a ceasefire, by saying: “We are not standing in the way of diplomacy.” As if the occupied territories, like Israel, constitute an independent nation-state capable of autonomous diplomacy and leverage.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recited the military industrial complex’s favorite line, imparting “the Department’s ironclad support of Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rang the centrist gong: “Israel has the right to defend herself against this assault, which is designed to sow terror and undermine prospects for peace.”
And on Thursday, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “We believe the Israelis have achieved significant military objectives that they laid out to achieve in relation to protecting their people” — sounding a bit like former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who, when asked in 1996 if sanctions on Iraq were worth the 567,000 children who consequently died, answered: “We think the price is worth it.”
But really, all eyes were on President Joseph Biden, a proud Zionist who once wrote “I love you” to Netanyahu. Biden’s said to have privately “sharpened” his tone this time. Whether this exceeded an avuncular rap on the knuckles is anyone’s guess — his staffers and former campaign members are clearly pressing for more. Biden’s record, after all, speaks for itself. "Were there not an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region,” he said in 1986, with refreshing honesty, in defense of a $3 billion contribution to Israel’s military arsenal. Biden was, as it happens, instrumental in securing President Obama’s unprecedented $38 billion military aid package to Israel in 2016, pilfering U.S. taxpayer dollars over ten years that could’ve been spent on our own education, healthcare, and childcare.
At the time, Obama, who tended to drink the Kool-Aid when it counted, said it was a “significant contribution to Israel’s security in what remains a dangerous neighborhood.” And this is where we really get down to it. The U.S. has given more foreign aid to Israel than any other nation in the world since World War II — a wrenching excess of $235 billion. Like any intricate, multi-billion-dollar operation, filled with armed, savvy, well-connected, technologically advanced actors, there’s a great deal of manipulation at play. Dangerous neighborhoods and enemies have been fabricated, rhetoric has been weaponized (e.g. the accusation of anti-Semitism), tragedies have been exploited, and millions have been killed, uprooted, or silenced. History has been whitewashed and, with few exceptions, so has the present.
But we’re beginning to see cracks in the machinery. The narrative’s implausibility is growing in proportion to the recognition that fables of nationalism and imperialism teach us to think and trust selectively. They govern us with catchwords and electric fences. On one side there are soldiers on duty, on the other there are “militants” to be killed. One side has safety to preserve, the other has open sewers and sky-high unemployment. "Hamas targets civilians; Israel targets terrorists," Israel's UN ambassador said at a Security Council meeting last Sunday, smoothly deploying the false equivalence. He didn’t add that when Hamas fires rockets fashioned out of repurposed plumbing pipes in pathetic acts of defiance, Israel not only intercepts the vast majority of them with an Iron Dome defense system (into which the U.S. has poured $1.6 billion), but it also returns fire with the world’s most sophisticated weapons, wiping out families en masse.
It’s possible that the most skilled public relations officer in Israel’s history is also its longest-serving Prime Minister. Netanyahu dodges, deflects, and inverts questions with such mastery that he ought to be studied by aspiring politicians — or at least by those who emerge from the revolving doors of McKinsey and Bain Capital. He can sell cruelty to Americans better than our own politicians — and by the time he’s done, we’re not even thinking about the facts that he’s under investigation for corruption and warding off an ICC investigation for war crimes committed in 2014 and 2018. We forget all about Israel’s grip on governments and companies, its merciless apparatuses of surveillance, assassinations, and mysterious explosions, its evident crimes against humanity, and its inflictions of collective punishment and apartheid.
There’s a reason why Netanyahu tours the Sunday talk shows. He’s selling us something.
“We should be very clear that it is not antisemitic to criticize the policies of the Israeli government,” wrote Senator Sanders, who is Jewish, in 2019. The truth, after all, is complicated, even here. It’s not that Israel or its government is irreparably corrupt or “evil” — those sorts of reductions are false and unhelpful. It’s that an entrenched power structure, like all such structures, has learned how to self-aggrandize with impunity.
Kaleem Hawa, in the same moving essay, pluckily cuts to the core of this structure as it stands. “Confronting the soul wound at the core of the Zionist enterprise,” he writes, “will require a reckoning with the reality of Israel: The Zionist project is a genocidal one. This is not a term I invoke lightly; the violent expulsion and dispossession that began in 1948, and the ongoing attempts to disarticulate and destroy an indigenous people meet the definition of genocide from the perspective of international human rights law.”
When we look back at heroes of history with feelings of unease, it’s not usually because of obscure journal entries or private slippages. The business of nationalism is tricky, yes, but it’s most often violent, exclusionary, and self-interested. Another problem is that it morphs, cloaking itself in new narratives of allegiance and antagonism. Mourning yesterday’s brutalities won’t amount to much if we fail to identify today’s.
"I do not admit that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time," the great Winston Churchill said when asked about Palestinian Arabs. "I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place."
Churchill’s statues are now being threatened and defaced. But who gets tomorrow’s monuments? John McCain and George W. Bush? Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi? Will a future American president fly into a newly-inaugurated Benjamin Netanyahu International Airport somewhere in Israel — one that she partly funded — to sign a military aid deal? Or might we daunt our lawmakers into counting foreign lives — into narrowing the exchange rates between the profitable and the pawned?