Palestinian lives matter as much as any other human life

The Palestinian struggle for freedom has been demonised, just as South Africa’s was.

Amal al-Robayaa's children eat their meal amid the ruins of the family home destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah
Amal al-Robayaa's children eat their meal amid the ruins of the family home destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on November 7, 2023 [AFP/Said Khatib]

We are living in a world of glaring double standards. A dangerous message has been sent by key policymakers in the international community that Palestinian lives matter less than Israeli ones and international humanitarian law can be applied selectively.

The Geneva Conventions explicitly prohibit the targeting of civilians and essential civilian infrastructure in armed conflict. And yet, there has been muted criticism of the Israeli bombardment of civilian hospitals, schools and apartment buildings in Gaza; instead, it is justified by Israel’s right to self-defence.

There is also no mention of the right of the Palestinian people to defend themselves from such egregious violations of international law, or their right to basic human rights under an inhumane and illegal occupation that has continued for 75 years.

Under the laws of occupation which form part of the law of armed conflict, Israel does not have the “right to defend itself” using military means as it is the occupying power. This is a fact and not an allegation. It has been confirmed by the International Court of Justice in a 2004 ruling.

As the occupying power, Israel can use tools applicable to the rule of law, including policing powers to deal with criminal actions. An occupying state cannot exercise control over territory it occupies and simultaneously militarily attack that territory on the claim that it is “foreign” and poses an exogenous national security threat.

The notion of Israel’s right to defend itself through military means has been used erroneously by some and deliberately by others to justify its unlawful use of force on the people of Gaza and the West Bank.

We categorically reject the myopic and distorted international responses that ignore the context and root causes of this war, which is Israel’s systemic oppression of the Palestinians, the occupation of their land and their ongoing ethnic cleansing.

International human rights bodies, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, along with local NGOs – among them at least 17 Israeli organisations – have characterised the oppressive Israeli military occupation of Palestinian land as constituting the crime of apartheid.

They condemn Israel’s cruel blockade of Gaza for the past 17 years as having created the world’s largest open-air prison in which 2.3 million Palestinians are unable to freely enter or exit the confined strip of land, while the provision of water, electricity and goods remains at the discretion of their occupiers.

When Palestinians have resorted to non-violent protests, they have been mown down with live ammunition. This is what happened to Black South Africans who peacefully protested against apartheid conditions in 1960 and were gunned down by their oppressors. The futility of non-violent resistance to oppression is what gave rise to the armed struggle in South Africa, which has similarly been the case in Palestine.

According to international law, those living under occupation have the right to resist. Armed struggle against a colonial occupation force is not just recognised under international law but specifically endorsed. Wars of national liberation have been expressly embraced through the adoption of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 as a protected and essential right of occupied people everywhere.

But just as South African freedom fighters were labelled terrorists and most Western governments turned their backs on our peoples’ rights to freedom, human rights and self-determination, the rights of the Palestinians to security, human rights and self-determination on their own land have been ignored or paid lip service to by governments around the world for far too long.

There is no Middle East “peace process” to speak of, and no intention on the part of the current Israeli government to compromise on the issue of land or the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. There can be no sustainable peace without a negotiated political solution which ensures that Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in peace.

Unfortunately, the current trajectory is being driven by Israeli extremists who seek to fully take over Palestinian lands by force, no matter the consequences in human lives or utter destruction. Similarly, the desperation of occupation has also led to extremism on the Palestinian side and the targeting of Israeli civilians which is prohibited under international law.

The killing and kidnapping of Israeli civilians must also be condemned and the world has done so. But the disproportionate use of force by Israel and collective punishment of a besieged and helpless people which has been both cruel and unconscionable has not only been accepted but enabled.

When Russia resorted to similar tactics in Ukraine, it was roundly condemned and punished with the harshest set of economic sanctions the world has seen. But in the case of Israel’s bombardment of civilians and essential infrastructure in Gaza, there have been no sanctions and no marginalisation, only unqualified and unconditional support by most Western governments.

It is the people in the streets of Arab, Asian, Latin American, African and Western capitals who have been the voice of conscience, condemning Israel’s campaign of genocide against the Palestinians, calling out the international community for their double standards and demanding justice for the Palestinian people. It is the ordinary people around the world who have defied the Israeli government’s dehumanisation of the Palestinian people and rejected their demonisation.

The lessons of World War II are still heeded by freedom-loving people who recognise that the dehumanisation of a group of people is usually done in an attempt to eradicate them, and the pushback against this type of genocidal language must be strong and unforgiving.

There can be no more apathy in the face of the decimation of Palestinian men, women and children who are bombed as they sleep in their beds. We hear the piercing screams of babies as they are pinned under the rubble of their apartment buildings in a wholly preventable war crime. We know that the vast majority of those killed in the current military onslaught on Gaza have been women and children.

Palestinians are not children of a lesser God, and it is incumbent on all of us to put maximum pressure for an immediate ceasefire and an arms embargo on Israel. The hostages must be released, humanitarian aid bodies must be given full access to Gaza, and those who have directed this war must be held accountable for their war crimes.

We fully reject the forced displacement of the Palestinian people from their land, and we will not stand by and watch as every red line in war is crossed and the region descends into a zero-sum game of death and destruction.

Our common humanity dictates that all human lives matter. The time to act is now.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.