We Must End Violence to End Violence

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Photo Credit: Ray Acheson

This article is a shortened version of an editorial published in the First Committee Monitor, a weekly newsletter published by Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament programme of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, during the annual UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security.

Each October, UN member states meet at the First Committee to discuss matters of weapons and war. With the explosion of violence in Israel and Palestine last weekend,

bloodshed has once again become the backdrop to the First Committee’s work.

On Saturday, 7 October, Hamas attacked Israel with thousands of rockets, broke through the border fence enclosing Gaza, and killed and detained hundreds of Israelis. Hamas’ brutal attacks against civilians are violations of international law and war crimes. In response, Israel has escalated its own war crimes, intensifying its siege of Gaza and carpet bombing the open-air prison it created to effectively imprison more than two million Palestinians for 17 years under the apartheid policies of a settler colonial state.

Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, with both explosive and incendiary weapons, is particularly relevant for the Committee’s work. But the larger dynamics at play all point to the wider issues underscoring all First Committee work, including militarism, colonialism, and hypocrisy.

Language matters

On Monday, 9 October, two days after Hamas’ attack on Israel, the Israeli delegation delivered its general debate statement to the First Committee. It unsurprisingly addressed the appalling massacre of Israeli civilians. But the Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations also used language infrequently heard in the UN, saying, “Hundreds of innocent Israeli civilians have been murdered by barbaric Hamas terrorists in cold blood and many innocent men, women and children have been taken captive by these sadistic savages.”

Descriptors such as “barbaric” and “sadistic savages” are adjectives used by colonisers throughout history against those whose lands they occupy. Such words are meant to impose superiority—the “civilising” force of the occupier is necessary to “tame the savages”—and dehumanise the colonised peoples, making them more disposable, more killable, easier to subject to ethnic cleansing and genocide. Language like this should give people pause and direct their attention toward the context behind last weekend’s attacks—and toward the Israeli government’s response.

Context matters

In a right of reply on 9 October, Israel’s Deputy Permanent Representative described some of the violence against Israeli civilians in visceral detail. While heartfelt, the appeal to humanity inherent in these remarks also concealed certain facts. They concealed the inhumanity imposed upon Palestinians. They concealed Israel’s illegal policies of apartheid and its daily degradation of Palestinian lives, the unlawful detainment and murder of Palestinian civilians, the repeated bombardment of civilians and civilian infrastructure in Gaza, the violations of international law, the impunity for war crimes. These remarks also concealed the fact of colonialism, the root cause and context of this current violence.

To draw attention to root causes is not to condone specific acts of violence, but to point out that there are consequences to violence. In her 9 October remarks, the Israeli Deputy Permanent Representative said that Hamas “broke into Israeli territory and led a ruthless, unprovoked attack on the citizens of Israel.” Yet, as some Palestinians pointed out, the fighters did not so much “break into Israel” but broke out of Gaza, widely known as an open-air prison. Similarly, to describe the attack as “unprovoked” is to deny 75 years of occupation, expulsion, apartheid, blockade, and bombardment. As Israeli journalist Haggai Matar acknowledged on 7 October, “This is not a ‘unilateral’ or ‘unprovoked’ attack. The dread Israelis are feeling right now, myself included, is a sliver of what Palestinians have been feeling on a daily basis under the decades-long military regime in the West Bank, and under the siege and repeated assaults on Gaza.”

The consistency of the violence of Israel against Palestinians is what led to the current crisis. As human rights lawyer Noura Erakat notes, while Israel is describing its current assault on Gaza as retaliation for Hamas’ weekend attacks, the state of Israel has already engaged in four large-scale military offensives against Gaza in the past, during which it has killed entire families, bombed hospitals and schools. “Despite the litany of well-documented war crimes, no one has been held to account and the siege has only tightened.”

Impunity and inaction

Israel’s actions have been widely condemned by the international community for many years. Multiple UN resolutions have called for an end to its settlement building and expulsion of Palestinians. The UN human rights commission of inquiry found Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory to be illegal. The International Court of Justice ruled that Israel’s wall in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem was illegal. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, Francesca Albanese, has recommended that the government of Israel end “its settler-colonial occupation of the Palestinian territory immediately and unconditionally and making reparations for its wrongful acts.”

Despite all of this, there has been absolute impunity for Israel’s actions against Palestinians. Instead of accountability, there has been billions of dollars’ worth of military aid and provision of weapons to Israel from Western governments, including the United States, Germany, United Kingdom, Italy, and Canada, among others. Many governments also buy weapons and surveillance systems from Israel, including the United States, which also engages in exchanges of training of soldiers and police in what the Jewish Voice for Peace describes as an “exchange of worst practices”.

Furthermore, there has also been repression, intimidation, and blacklisting of Palestinian activists and those standing in solidarity with them. In this current crisis, as many times before, political leaders have been accusing anyone who advocates for Palestinians supporters of terrorism. Some countries have moved to criminalise the Palestinian flag and other expressions of solidarity with Palestinian people. Critiques of the Israeli state are often labelled antisemitic as a means of silencing opposition to state violence. “Much like the response to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, which urges people to not financially support the occupation,” writes Joshua P. Hill, “the response to these peaceful rallies shows that at the moment there is no right way to support Palestinians.”

War crimes in response

As human rights defenders have pointed out, “The historical lack of accountability has bred a culture of disregard for international law that directly resulted in the weekend’s violence.” It enabled Hamas to massacre civilians and is now enabling a genocidal response by the state of Israel against all Palestinian people.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant described the Hamas attackers as “human animals,” Major General Ghassan Alian of the Israel Defense Forces said that Hamas had “opened the gates of hell,” and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would “return fire of a magnitude that the enemy has not known.” An Israeli security official told Israel’s Channel 13 that “Gaza will eventually turn into a city of tents… There will be no buildings.”

While in most of these cases the officials named Hamas as “the enemy,” in the Israeli state’s response to the attack, it has directed its wrath against the entire Palestinian population. Some Israeli officials have been explicit about this. Israel’s Minister for the Advancement of the Status of Women May Golan said, “All of Gaza’s infrastructures must be destroyed to its foundation and their electricity cut off immediately. The war is not against Hamas but against the state of Gaza.”

It is in line with this kind of thinking that Defense Minister Gallant announced a brutal intensification of Israel’s siege of Gaza, saying it would cut off electricity, food, water, gas, and medicine to the more than two million people living in Gaza. Then the government unleashed a brutal bombing attack against Gaza, indiscriminately destroying apartment blocks, schools, hospitals, and other critical civilian infrastructure.

As the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) said in a statement that called on both Hamas and Israel to stop their rocket attacks and airstrikes, “The use of explosive weapons in populated areas is a leading cause of harm to civilians. Civilians are killed and injured, with many experiencing life-changing injuries and yet more suffering psychological harm and distress. Damage and destruction of critical infrastructure including housing, hospitals and schools causes yet further harm.”

Humanitarian workers in Gaza report that hospitals are completely overwhelmed by civilian casualties. More than 400,000 people have been displaced. So far thousands of people have been killed in the bombardment, including hundreds of children.

In addition, the Israeli military has used white phosphorus in both Gaza and Lebanon. Human Rights Watch has verified multiple airbursts of artillery-fired white phosphorus over the Gaza City port and two rural locations along the Israel-Lebanon border. “White phosphorus … has a significant incendiary effect that can severely burn people and set structures, fields, and other civilian objects in the vicinity on fire,” explained the organisation in a press release. “The use of white phosphorus in Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, magnifies the risk to civilians and violates the international humanitarian law prohibition on putting civilians at unnecessary risk.”

Mass murder is not self-defence

The Israeli state’s use of genocidal language and its commission of war crimes have set the stage for ultraviolence against the Palestinian people. Last week, civilians were told to evacuate northern Gaza. As Itay Epshtain, an international humanitarian law lawyer and advisor to the Norwegian Refugee Council explained, Israel’s evacuation announcement “blatantly disregards the obligation to offer evacuees a place of refuge and guarantee that evacuated will be brought back to their homes as soon as possible. Absent these guarantees, it would not meet the requirement of an admissible evacuation, and would amount to forcible transfer, a grave breach of the [Fourth Geneva] Convention codified as a war crime.”

States have a duty to prevent genocide. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide has been ratified by most states and has been incorporated into international customary law. The International Court of Justice has also ruled that the prevention of genocide is a legal obligation.

The governments supplying weapons to Israel and those condoning its bombardment, siege, and ground invasion of Gaza are not just failing to prevent genocide, they are actively enabling it.

Nevertheless, right now it seems like impunity for Israel and support for its war crimes will continue. Many Western governments have claimed that Israel has a right to “defend” itself. B

ut as the representative of the State of Palestine asked in a right of reply at the First Committee on Tuesday, “What is this right to self-defence that allows you to massacre civilians?” The answer is, there isn’t one. International law is clear that war crimes cannot justify war crimes. Atrocities cannot justify atrocities.

Time and again, when the most militarised governments in the world perceive their interests as being threatened, or experience any of the violence they have doled out for decades, suddenly international law evaporates. We can see this with Russia’s unlawful invasion and occupation of parts of Ukraine; with the United States’ countless wars, coups, special forces operations, and other military actions abroad; and we see it today with Israel’s attack on Gaza.

The war profiteers know this well. The stock prices of weapon manufacturers skyrocketed last weekend and continue to rise as Israel bombards Gaza and launches its ground invasion. And so, these companies will profit, the governments will remain unaccountable, and the civilians will suffer. In the process, humanity is stripped away. It becomes easier to hate each other, more difficult to understand each other. This is particularly so when one group of people oppresses and violates another with impunity.

The valuation of human life

In response to the Palestinian delegate’s questions about which international laws allow such “inhumane acts,” Israel’s representative answered, “I am not a lawyer. I am a human being.” While perhaps meant to convey the raw emotion inherent in trying to grapple with the recent atrocities experienced by Israelis, these remarks once again conceal the inhumanity imposed upon Palestinians.

“We cannot continue justifying the death of Palestinians,” said the representative for the State of Palestine. He argued:

Consistency is the condition of credibility. When one says nothing justifies the killing of Israelis and in the same breath condones the killing of Palestinians, that is morally reprehensible, legally unacceptable, and politically and humanly catastrophic. Palestinian civilians are not less deserving of protection. Palestinian lives are not less worthy of respect. The families of hundreds of Palestinians killed, overwhelmingly civilians … deserve solidarity and compassion…. If you abandon them, you abandon your humanity, you undermine our international law-based order, you serve neither the cause of justice nor the cause of peace.

Disparities in how human beings are treated and perceived is not, of course, unique to Israelis and Palestinians. Menominee organiser Kelly Hayes and Black organiser Mariame Kaba described similarities with how the Black and Native communities are treated in the United States, noting that they see “parallels between this disparity and the manner in which Israeli losses have resulted in a global outpouring of grief and concern, while the murder, kidnapping, imprisonment, surveillance, torture and coercion of Palestinians throughout decades of apartheid have gone unmourned by so many who now demand justice in the wake of Israeli deaths.” They also noted that just as Black and Native incarceration and brutalisation by the police in the United States is characterised not as war but as “peace,” so too are Palestinians expected to live under perpetual violence and have it treated by the world at large as a state of peace.

But repression, injustice, and violence are not peace. Consistency and solidarity are the only paths to peace.

Despite the repression of those speaking out against the ethnic cleansing and potential genocide of Palestinians, there has been an outpouring of solidarity globally from Baghdad to Paris. Activists in the United States have organised direct actions against companies supplying weapons to Israel, such as L3Harris and Elbit Systems. Some governments have spoken out against Israel’s siege and bombardment of Gaza.

All governments need to act now to prevent genocide. They need to work for an immediate ceasefire and demand an end to Israel’s bombardment and siege of Gaza and its use of incendiary weapons. They need to provide humanitarian aid to Palestinians, impose a two-way arms embargo on Israel, and support an end to Israeli apartheid and the occupation. (More calls to action can be found the full version of this article.)

As Joshua P. Hill writes, “We must act. We must do what we can, no matter how little it may seem, to save lives. A ceasefire is the first step. For any of us to abdicate from our responsibility to act is to once again go along silently in the stream of bloodshed.”

Ray Acheson (they/them) is Director of Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). They provide analysis and advocacy at the United Nations and other international forums on matters of disarmament and demilitarization. Ray served on the steering group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its work to ban nuclear weapons, and is also involved in organizing against autonomous weapons, the arms trade, war and militarism, the carceral system, and more. They are author of Banning the Bomb, Smashing the Patriarchy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) and Abolishing State Violence: A World Beyond Bombs, Borders, and Cages (Haymarket Books, 2022).