by Guy Walker
On May 21st, 2020, just two months into the COVID-19 pandemic, with incredible economic devastation still to come, the Foreign Relations Committee passed a bill to give Israel a minimum of $38 billion over the next ten years, about $10 million per day, shuffled out of our coffers like piñata confetti. Most of us were still hiding behind drawn curtains, mixing antidepressants with wine, holding Lysol cans with both hands, ready to spray anything that came near us. It didn’t matter though, there was a conflict to fund. In the 1948 expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs — about half their population at the time — and the destruction of between 400 and 600 Palestinian villages, their Nakba (“disaster” or “catastrophe” in Arabaic) was solidified and ensured. So, when news came out that the Biden administration approved the sale of $735 million of precision-guided weapons to Israel, and Netanyahu has continued this bombing campaign that’s killed more than 200 Palestinians this current round, more than a quarter of which have been children, trying to take control of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, it was no wonder people lost their minds.
The broad conversation about the conflict has come a long way. Even the most recent major escalation, in 2014, didn’t garner nearly this much public support for the Palestinian people. People have taken to the streets, marching in solidarity, in numbers never before seen. A hundred thousand marched in London; twenty thousand marched in Chicago; ten thousand in D.C. They’re doing it all over the world, with obvious cultural parallels to the George Floyd protests, and it might just help nudge the tone and tenor of international diplomacy, perhaps even how much military aid the US is willing to give Israel in the future. But you can almost hear the stammering replies wherever you go. But what about the rockets? Are you willing to condemn Hamas? Doesn’t Israel have the right to defend itself? Some iterations of these have been repeated into the echoing eternity, with vast cauldrons of dead Palestinian children all stamped and numbered and categorized that they were killed in self-defense. Excusing an apartheid state in the shoal depths of disbelief. If you hear someone explain why it’s both sides that are fault, why both sides need to come to the table for peace, why both sides have attacked and killed innocent civilians, be wary of what they’re trying to accomplish. Of course we don’t support Hamas firing rockets indiscriminately at centers of large civilian populations. Of course we don’t support the deafening nescience of antisemitism that has materialized. Even having to say this is the fault of political speak, an obligatory platitude that produces squeamishness in all who are around to hear it. Of course both sides have committed unconscionable acts of horror, and dismantled families forever. But the clean and convenient determination of both sides, as if you can now dust your hands clean of the confrontation, and not have to pick a side, as if you were perfectly balancing horror on one of those antique brass balance scales, looked at it through your pince-nez glasses, and determined yes, yes, both sides are indeed at fault. It just isn’t that kind of scale.
As Jeremy Scahill notes in his piece in The Intercept, this is an “asymmetric campaign of terror waged by a nuclear power against a people who have no state, no army, no air force, no navy, and an almost nonexistent civilian infrastructure.” They live in what amounts to an open air prison, as Scahill notes, continuously bombarded and encroached upon, in an eight decade long Nabka. Stories have been published about families in Gaza coming together under the same roof, simply so they can die together. Ethno-nationalist mobs are storming through the streets of Israel, terrorizing and beating Arab civilians, organizing themselves in over a hundred WhatsApp groups. So, when Hamas fires rockets, it is a desperate ditch effort of bringing a stone to a gunfight. In addition, Hamas’ rockets are virtually ineffective. The Iron Dome air defense system intercepts almost all rocket attempts from Hamas. During the Operation Pillar of Defense, in November of 2012, Iron Dome determined two-thirds of the rockets fired were not a threat, and intercepted ninety percent of the remaining 300. Only three Israelis were killed in this attack, due to what was determined a malfunction in the Iron Dome system. So, this is not a balancing-act-of-blame when one side is backed by a blank check military apparatus from the United States, a policy that has long been the status quo by both Democrats and Republicans. From 1995 to 2005, for example, Israel and the United States developed the Nautilus laser defense system, spending $600 million, only to scrap it altogether, concluding it wasn’t feasible after all. This is what the people of Palestine are up against, trapped in their claustrophobic cage of death and sodden misery as a nuclear power is funded from the other end. So while Hamas is far from a gleaming, functioning democracy, it’s unfortunately the only armed resistance that’s willing to fight back. The shimmering horrors of desperation breeds madness, and madness breeds more desperation, like an entropic feedback loop that only produces more misery.
Both the Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capitol. Israel took control of the eastern end of the city in 1967, after the Six Day War, formally annexing it in the 80’s. In the Old City of Jerusalem is the Temple Mount, a holy site to both Muslims and Jews. Known to Muslims as Haram ash-Sharif, it’s one of three of the holiest sites, the third holiest amongst Sunni Muslims, as the place where Muhammed ascended to heaven. According to Jewish theology, the third and final Temple will be built when the Messiah comes. The first was built by King Solomon in 957 BCE, and destroyed by the Neo-Babylonian Empire nearly four hundred years later. Zerubbabel, governor of the Achaemenid Empire’s province Yehud Medinata, built the second, which was then destroyed by the Roman Empire in 70 CE. And so they’re waiting around for the Messiah to come and build the final one. So, if it’s the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf who controls it, the Israeli police or military, or some combination of the two, banning one another access or open prayer at the site, the clashing will continue into its disarray. The Israeli settlements are about ensuring dominance in the area, and therefore exclusivity to their holy site.
In one sense, the absurdity of these ancient cartoon horrors seem like just another footnote in our never-ending lineage of tribal and religious wars. Different broods of antiquated beliefs throwing war-bloated tantrums over who control the shiny dome. There’s an impulse to scoff the whole thing away, the way Christopher Hitchens did in his later years, and say if religions want to bomb each other for having such stupid beliefs, let them do what they want. But Hitchens became insipid and callous in his later years. It’s too important and heart-wrenching to follow that impulse, to lose our empathy across nations, to lose that a priori understanding of ourselves as a product of one another. Too many innocent people are dying and losing their homes, and everything they know. I grew up religious, in a pious and reserved Christian Science family. I went to a Christian Science liberal arts college, and read enough Nietzsche and Baudrillard, Foucault and Derrida, Dawkins and Sagan, to quickly turn me into a predictably pompous, intellectually-entitled atheist. I don’t know what I am now, but I do know there is a danger in monocultures of vast secularism — it breeds religious ignorance, and therefore historical ignorance. And civilizations that don’t know their history are doomed. There’s probably never going to be a happy medium, never going to be a common plateau of scientific literacy that just replaces the void where the stories of religion once dominated. I sense that Dawkins and other famous atheists believed it would. But we do what we can, to be tolerable of the truths that tend to waver.
Or, maybe Hobbes was correct, in that this is the hell we’ve created for ourselves by realizing the truth all too late. The oppressed become the oppressors. All too often this is the cyclical pattern of our bilious hellscape. Torch and torture the Other, corral them into bitter opprobriums, tighten the paddocks of rubble and chewed rebar, see how pathetic and barbarous they’ll become, what profanities they’ll stoop to. Why do we do this? Are we not less brutes than when we crawled from the muck of sulphuric pits? Has our wealth and modernity only succeeded in distancing ourselves from the scorched perdition we send elsewhere? Years ago, I would just quote something by Schopenhauer or someone, who said religions are like fireflies because they need darkness to shine. But it’s not satisfying to blame religion anymore. If you blame the banners of strange belief, you again dust your hands clean of anything further; you say, it’s tribal warfare way over there, and you move on. Chomsky has spent the better part of his life criticizing American foreign policy not because it’s a voguish contrarian thing to do; but because we are, in effect, partly responsible for it, and have the obligation to try to change it in whatever infinitesimally small way we can. So you stand on the streets with others, in solidarity protests, you donate to the causes you see fit, because it’s adding in some way to the collective psyche that our legacy of death and colonization needs to end.
And things are changing in some ways. It’s daunting to imagine a collective response from our ill-equipped peasantry against a $38 billion siphon into a rightwing colonial apartheid state, and then an additional $735 million military bonus like is was a casual gift basket; but mass movements operate like an immune system within our defective species, pushing like pleading armies for things to autocorrect. Will things get worse before they get better? Almost certainly. But I feel like people have been saying that for centuries. I do believe we’re caught in a cyclone of self-made entropy, our ejaculatory ennui smearing the whole world with an unraveling foment like it was a slug trail of despair, most of our wealth going to more advanced ways of killing ourselves and the planet. But we still try to nudge our quaint and adorable hopes forward. Because maybe, against all odds, we’ll win once or twice. And those will start to add up.