Palestinian men are not ‘terrorists in the making’

The world cannot continue to ignore the humanity and suffering of Palestinian men in Gaza and beyond.

Palestinians mourn their relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment
Palestinian men mourn their relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, in a morgue in Khan Younis, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023. [AP Photo/Fatima Shbair]

In just under three months, more than 21,000 people have been killed in Gaza, and many more are facing the risk of disease and death due to Israel’s ongoing indiscriminate bombardment, ground invasion and siege. There has also been a significant increase in settler violence and the number of killings by Israeli forces in the Occupied West Bank.

In media coverage and reports by human rights organisations, international institutions and NGOs, especially in the West, attention has mainly been drawn to Israel’s attacks on Palestinian women and children. Examples include the often-cited figure of more than 8,000 children having been killed and reports of many children having undergone amputations without anaesthesia.

Even governments allied with Israel have voiced concern about the ever increasing number of dead Palestinian women and children. French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, said: “These babies, these ladies, these old people are bombed and killed. So there is no reason for that and no legitimacy.” While such statements rightly decry the killing of women and children in Palestine, they ignore the killing of men.

Through this refusal to explicitly count and grieve their deaths, Palestinian men are denied civilian status. Their humanity is erased and they are portrayed collectively as “dangerous brown men” and “potential terrorists”.

This, in turn, permits Israel’s killing of Palestinian men.

Their killing is permitted precisely because they are Palestinian men. Their gendered and racialised status, specifically their blanket designation as “Hamas terrorists”, eclipses their civilian status, deeming them killable and un-grievable. Their killing is excused and justified within the context of “counterterrorism”.

For example, Tzipi Hotovely, the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom, claimed in a televised interview in November that “over 50 percent” of the people Israel killed in Gaza in this latest round of violence were “terrorists”. For such a percentage to be remotely accurate, all dead men (and even older boys) in Gaza must be presumed “terrorists” or at least “terrorists in the making” .

The blanket demonisation of men – underpinned by narratives about brown, especially Arab, men being inherently untrustworthy, dangerous and radical – is not new. These narratives, currently being used by Israel and its allies to excuse genocidal violence in Palestine, have consistently been used to justify the mass killing of brown men and boys over the years, including in the context of the so-called global “War on Terror” and the illegal invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is not a coincidence. Colonialism and genocide require the erasure of people’s humanity and history. Israel’s settler colonialism maintains dominance through violence and it legitimises this violence by denying the existence of a Palestinian nation and designating Palestinians as less than human.

In the past three months, Israel has killed, maimed and starved tens of thousands of Palestinians. In Gaza, Palestinian men, and women, are digging their loved ones from under bombed buildings and burying their children with their bare hands.

Yet none of this has been recognised for what it is – grave crimes against civilians. And the experiences of Palestinian men are completely ignored. They are stripped of any complexity that underscores their humanity. They are not seen as the bakers, paramedics, journalists, poets, shopkeepers, fathers, sons and brothers they are, but branded en masse as “terrorists”. In life, they are reduced to  targets to be eliminated. In death, at best, they are deemed “collateral damage”. At worst, their violent killing is celebrated as a win against “terrorism”.

Of course, like all human beings, Palestinian men have feelings. And yet, their fears, heartbreak, anxiety, frustration or shame are consistently erased from any narrative about them. The only emotion that is recognised in Palestinian men is anger. Yet this anger is not recognised as a rightful response to settler colonial violence and oppression. Instead, it is seen as an anger that is barbaric, irrational and dangerous. An anger that necessitates extreme measures to control, such as total sieges or carpet bombing.

Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestine and its apartheid regime mean that none of this is new. This latest chapter has merely accelerated a process of dehumanisation, demonisation and destruction that has long been under way.

The tropes about Palestinian men, their inherent violence and barbaric anger have two major consequences. First,  they pose an existential threat to Palestinian men and boys in the occupied Palestinian territories and beyond because they permit their maiming and murder. Second, because they help designate half of the Palestinian population as dangerous and unreliable, they make an end to violence impossible.

Going forward, the following measures are necessary to correct course:

Narratives of “radicalisation” that are being used by Israel and its allies to justify violence, such as collective punishment, must be challenged. Any deal for the release of captives must include Palestinian men, such as hundreds being held in so-called administrative detention. When a further “humanitarian pause” or, hopefully, a permanent ceasefire is agreed, aid must be delivered to meet the needs of boys and men alongside those of the rest of the population. Illegal settlers should be held accountable for the violence they inflicted on the Palestinian people, including Palestinian men and boys who are disproportionately killed. In the longer term, Palestinians’ right to self-determination, the effects of militarisation on Israeli society, and the transgenerational effects of settler colonialism on Palestinian society need to be recognised.

Today, Palestinians in Gaza and the rest of the occupied territories are living through unacceptable horrors. Israel’s current attacks on Gaza, as well as its decades-long occupation of Palestine and apartheid regime must come to an end. Palestinians – men, women and children – must be given the space to grieve what they have lost, heal their wounds and build a future for themselves. For this to be possible, first the humanity of Palestinians – all Palestinians – must be accepted. Palestinian men and boys, in life and in death, must be meaningfully recognised.

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