During the recent 11-day cruel Israeli bombardment of Gaza in the Middle East, South Africa-born US comedy show host, Trevor Noah, drew fire from pro-Israel groups for highlighting the power imbalance between the Israeli army and Palestinian resistance groups, and suggesting that this imposed a moral obligation on the former to moderate its response.
Comparing it with a fight between his teenage self and his then baby brother, Noah argues that regardless of the justifications offered by either side, the stronger party bears a higher responsibility. In essence, killing 248 Palestinians, more than a quarter of them children, injuring thousands more, flattening the homes of nearly 100,000 people and destroying Gaza’s health infrastructure during a pandemic in order to stop rockets that killed a total of 12 Israelis, including two children, seems like a massive overreaction.
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Predictably, supporters of Israel have focused on what they spun as a suggestion that Israel should refrain from deploying its full capabilities to prevent an attack on its population, many arguing that the issue was less about a disproportionate response and more about a necessary one.
Noah and his detractors base their arguments on a similar premise – that there is a legitimate conflict over Palestine with both sides presenting exceedingly complex, competing, but roughly equal claims to the land. Starting from there, they refuse to engage with the substance of what Noah describes as “one of the difficult stories that has existed in our lifetime” and instead focus on whether Israel is overreacting.
This framing is more than a little problematic. By consigning the root causes into the mists of ancient complexity and inscrutability, it erases the distinction between the oppressor and the oppressed and, at best, presents the violence by both as equally legitimate, or worse (and more commonly), delegitimises Palestinian resistance while legitimising the Israeli response, even when urging restraint.
It is similar to that of US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who tweeted: “Many will tell you Israel has a right to defend itself, to safety and security, but are silent on whether Palestinians have those rights too. Until we can defend the rights of Palestinians just as we do Israelis, we have no leg to stand on when it comes to justice or peace.” Presenting this as a contest between legitimate rights to self-defence, even when one is asserting that on behalf of the Palestinians, is another way to equivocate, rather than state the obvious: while this may not be a battle between two military equals, as the casualty figures make clear, it is also not a struggle between equally legitimate claims.
It is impossible to think Israel and the Palestinians occupy the same moral ground if one considers the context of more than 70 years of dispossession, military occupation, apartheid and ethnic cleansing. Only one side has consistently violated UN resolutions and defied the international community. Only one side is occupying the land of the other and has been accused by international human rights groups as well as global icons, including South Africa’s Nobel Peace laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, of committing the crime of apartheid.
Noah’s assertion that “Israel vs Palestine … has stumped everybody” is also mistaken. It really hasn’t. The outlines of an eventual deal – the return of occupied land in exchange for peace – have been obvious for well beyond 30 years and in that period, again one side has been the main obstacle to an agreement.
In his book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, former US President Jimmy Carter details how Israel has, at almost every turn, refused to implement agreements reached with the Palestinians while at the same time continuing to grab more land and impose an ever more onerous policy of apartheid under the guise of securing its citizens. He writes: “Israel’s continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement … In order to perpetuate the occupation, Israeli forces have deprived their unwilling subjects of basic human rights. No objective person could personally observe existing conditions in the West Bank and dispute these statements.” What could be said to have stumped everybody – “everybody” here largely meaning Americans – is how to maintain colonial occupation and dispossession while retaining a veneer of respect of the rights of those being occupied and dispossessed.
In his book, Born A Crime, Noah details some of the indignities of living in the country that gave the world the term apartheid. I am sure he would bristle at the characterisation that apartheid South Africa was the site of an inscrutable, 300-year-long conflict between two societies with equal claims to the land rather than of a struggle against a racist, oppressive, colonial system. He probably would not accept that “who’s right and who’s wrong depended on where you start measuring time” or that the problem was simply an overreaction by the white South African government against the “terrorists” as Pretoria and its Western allies described those who refused to acquiesce in their own oppression.
It should be as obvious to Noah, as it is to his countrymen, what an anti-apartheid, freedom struggle looks like. There is little that is difficult to comprehend about ethnic cleansing or the resistance to one’s property being stolen and their identity erased via a brutal military occupation. The struggle of the Palestinians for land, dignity and freedom is no different from that of Black South Africans, or indeed the anti-colonial struggles across the continent. It is not about an imbalance of power but about the oppression that imbalance preserves.
In short, regardless of however measured – or even necessary – the Israelis feel their response to Palestinian resistance was, it could never be legitimate. There is no right to oppress that is opposed by an equal and opposite right not to be oppressed. There is only the latter.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.