Of what use are unrealized human rights to Gazan Palestinians – and what happens when an aspirational right confronts the hard reality of Hamas?
We, expressing outrage and support for the people of Gaza from a distance, can refer to Israel’s illegal blockade, settler colonialism, apartheid or the right to armed resistance. These are strategies as well as narratives, each leading to actions. Change will require a range of external pressures – the more the better.
I choose the language of human rights, after many years of professional skepticism about its practical benefit. Working in communities affected by war, I believed that people hadrights, but I didn’t see theoretical rights doing them much good. I still question the rights industry, which so easily becomes one more exercise of Northern expertise. Yet I believe that it is imperative to insist upon, and return every argument to, the human rights of Gazan Palestinians.
To use this language is to say that every human is born with equal and inalienable rights, as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (both 1966). These agreements are the foundations of international human rights law, which places the value of human lives at the center of the frame.
Very nice – but what good is a list of rights, while the IDF is killing protestors?
In Afghanistan and Pakistan (2005 – 2010), I led a social enterprise that employed homebound women. Every one of those women possessed a whole, theoretical, set of human rights, which no effective authority cared to make real. The Afghan adage said that men eat meat, while women drink soup made from the bones. Of what possible use were rights that women could not eat?
Amartya Sen wrote that, “[t]he demand for legality is no more than just that – a demand – which is justified by the ethical importance of acknowledging that certain rights are appropriate entitlements of all human beings…. The claims are addressed generally to anyone who can help.” (Development as Freedom, 1999).
Where women lacked an equal claim to nutrition, their rights made a normative demand upon us, a claim akin to Emmanuel Levinas’s epiphany of the face. Rights were less a fix than an obligation.
Living in Gaza (2011 – 2015), human rights best described that which an effective authority had chosen to withhold from Palestinians. The Gazan community had much of what it needed to thrive, from education to extensive mutual assistance. Yet Gazans were avoidably denied inputs for their health and wellbeing, and building blocks for their collective social, economic and political lives. Israel’s occupation and blockade deprived them of their fundamental human rights.
That is a true but incomplete description.
Secondarily, many Gazans were also oppressed by Hamas. Those in political opposition, accused criminals, debtors, and all those women, LGBTQ and variously non-conforming others were twice oppressed. The blockade did not make Hamas more palatable, but then again, Hamas had the fiendishly difficult task of constructing a society in perpetual resistance.
Perhaps the aspirational standards of human rights could not be applied to the messy reality of surviving and resisting in Israel’s noose.
You’ve got to break some eggs, right?
What do (unrealized) human rights offer to Gaza, that might justify grappling with the hard questions they raise?
The very word ‘occupation’ – a temporary arrangement – is diminishing in its descriptive value. At issue is a single, enduring structure of power, enacted differently in Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and beyond. As Richard Falk recently reiterated, altering borders per se will not resolve this comprehensive conflict. “[F]or both sides the struggle is more about peoplethan territory.”(italics in the original).
A discourse of human rights keeps people at the forefront.
Rights equate the value of human lives. This equality constitutes a radical politics for dehumanized Gaza. If Gazans are fully human and the value of human life is indivisible, then the choking blockade must go. The blockade classifies life and diminishes the entitlements of a community: this week Israel has prevented the delivery of fuel, last week all consumer goods. For reasons including the effects of military occupation and blockade, the World Health Organization assesses that Palestinian life expectancy is now nine years shorter than that of Israelis.
Rather than negotiating marginal improvements to lives under Israeli control, human rights reject the power to classify life. Human rights reject the structural power of blockade, not by being anti-anyone, but by restoring the value of each discounted life.
Gazan lives are further endangered by the deadly language that names only Hamas as its pretext for each act of violence. This language refuses to distinguish Hamas from the whole, civilian community around it. So it becomes less than murder to kill a Gazan protestor, because some of them were Hamas. So undefined “Hamas terror targets” can be bombed year after year, as if the bombs land in a distinct and guilty Hamas-place. So the 100 family homes were bombed in first week of the 2014 onslaught, as if they were tidy fortresses, with no children or neighbours nearby. The pretext of Hamas sweeps non-combatant public servants, teachers, children and neighbourhoods onto the target list.
That language conceals the civilian nature of Gaza itself, in order to rob Palestinians of their protection and their rights. When Gazans intone, ‘Hamas is not Gaza, and Gaza is not Hamas’, this is what they mean.
Language conditions action. Israel’s Defence Minister says, “There are no innocents in Gaza.” The Chair of Israel’s Knesset Defence Committee says of the protestors, “the IDF has enough bullets for everyone.” These things are not said of civilians, and if they were said of Israelis, the allegations of anti-Semitism would break the Internet.
Shall we replicate their hatred in our opposition? Shall we declare that the racist violence of its leaders will henceforth rob all Israelis of their civilian status? Or, if that’s too overt, shall we quietly issue Hamas an uncritical pass to resist as it sees fit?
Other arguments may allow that, but the language of rights does not. We can only protect the rights of the powerless with reference to the rights of all. Human rights are universal or they are nothing. That’s the basis of protest against Israel’s nation-state law, isn’t it? If people are not equal, then what’s wrong with apartheid?
In Israel, people are denied their rights. In Gaza, they are denied their humanity. Human rights require equality in each of the places where the occupation is being enacted.
Therefore, I demand an end to the illegal blockade of Gaza because Palestinian lives are as valuable as my Jewish life. In so formulating my demand, I run smack into Hamas. If the value of life is indivisible, what about the rights that are violated in resistance?
The options, responsibilities and harms of Hamas are in no sense equivalent to those of Israel. Israel wields violence to defend an expansive, illegal regime of occupation and apartheid. Hamas is the de facto, diplomatic phantom authority of a white-sand beach behind a blockade. There are more and less legitimate governments than Hamas in the world, but none is as systematically denied the tools to govern, including sovereignty, access, recognition or inclusion in the inter-state agreements that underpin much of modern life.
Hamas and the people of Gaza share an indomitable unity of purpose. They have forced themselves into the world’s conscience, and kept themselves there. Beyond that rather astonishing achievement, though, tiny Gaza is socially and politically complex.
As an army, I thought that Hamas was most appreciated while under fire and fighting back. It was also feared and loathed as a government. People invoked it like the bogeyman – Someone will tell Hamas. Arriving in 2011, I asked about Gaza’s abortive Arab Spring. Colleagues shrugged and told me a joke that was making the rounds.
“How do you spot a democracy activist in Gaza? They limp,” and they pointed imaginary pistols at their own knees.
The blockade wall gives Hamas a very free hand. Who protects vulnerable Gazans from avoidable abuses of power?
Militarily, I weigh the tonnage and casualties of rockets against the rain of IDF bombs. I differentiate between the maintenance of an illegal blockade and the right to armed resistance. However, Hamas sent suicide bombers among civilians during the Second Intefadeh. That is surely the essence of crime.
In Cambodia (1998 – 2001) I worked with former child combatants, including child participants in the Khmer Rouge genocide. How should we unpack their crimes? Does it make any difference to the families of those killed, to know that the killers had first been victims?
I wondered the same things in Gazan neighbourhoods, wallpapered with unemployed youth. Militants filed past them, armed and purposeful; walking advertisements for paid work in the fraternity of violent resistance. You cannot walk a block in Gaza without understanding the blockade as a seedbed of despair, a future-eater. When their own lives have been so devalued, can anyone expect young men to value the lives of others – and what will happen if they do not?
S. Michael Lynk is the UN Special Rapporteuron the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory, and an Associate Professor of Law at Western University in Ontario, Canada. He investigates and reports on violations of law and the deprivation of rights, although Israel does not let him enter the Palestinian territories. I asked him how he balances responsibility and victimhood. He replied:
Martin Luther King Jr said, ‘It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes, but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society.’ I take King to be saying that these crimes should not be excused or justified, but they should be understood in the context of institutionalized subordination. The rule of law and the universal standards of human rights apply to everyone and to all situations. But saying this also means that in cases of structured subordination – where a people or a minority are kept by law and/or force in a vulnerable and oppressed situation – we must understand the context in which the violence and the counter-violence take place. WH Auden once wrote: ‘I and the public know /What all schoolchildren learn, /Those to whom evil is done /Do evil in return.’ Derivative crimes within the structure of oppression: we must account for the crime, because we value the lives that have been affected. We acknowledge the structure, to place these crimes in a distinct evaluative category. To such battered places, human rights bring “an anchor and a vision” of an accountable, compassionate future co-existence.
Speaking about Gaza sometimes feels like wading into a sea of hatred. Rather than drowning in it, or adding to it, I want a language of something better. Gazan Palestinians have placed their bodies in front of snipers, week after week. If today is Friday, Gazan protestors will be doing it again. The IDF have killed more than 150 protestors in the act of making themselves visible, and making themselves heard demanding their rights.
I support them in the same terms.
Published on Counterpunch, August 10, 2018