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How Israel's war on Gaza exposed the West's hatred of Palestinians

The recent contempt shown for Palestinians reveals that the West hasn't become less hostile towards them and that any sympathy is confined to their being passive victims
In a viral video, Egyptian activist Zein Rahma, right, confronts CNN's Clarissa Ward on the network's reporting of the Israel-Palestine war, in Rafah, on 20 October (Screengrab)

The ongoing Palestinian-Israeli war has galvanised massive western support for Israeli Jews coupled with genocidal calls to “finish” off the Palestinians from across the western political spectrum.

Indeed, even voices sympathetic to the Palestinians condemned the breakout against their Israeli prison guards on 7 October. They also rushed to adopt Israeli propaganda, including the outlandish claims of decapitated babies and rapes, which were later quietly retracted by the very same western outlets like CNN and the Los Angeles Times that initially helped spread these fabrications.

This fanatical western hatred of the Palestinians and adoration of Israel have shocked most Arabs, even those who already considered the West the main enemy of the Palestinian people.

Over the last four decades, there has been a prevailing misconception by liberal and pro-western Arab intellectuals, businesspeople, and political elites that western liberals, and even some conservatives, had changed their views of Palestinians and become less hostile.

I have spent the better part of the last three decades, however, arguing that this change in the western perception of Palestinians is limited to their being no more than victims of massacres. But this has not translated into western support for their right to resist their sadistic colonisers, and any sympathy they receive always co-exists with the undying western support for Israel regardless of how many Palestinians it kills.

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A solid tradition

The white western contempt for the Palestinian people is a solid tradition that goes back to the 19th century. At the time, indigenous Palestinians resisted white American, British, and German evangelical Protestant fanatics who sought to establish colonies in Palestine. The British had also sponsored a project of converting European Jews to Protestantism and dispatching them to Palestine to colonise it. But as this project achieved limited success, it led to the rise of Jewish Zionism.

The Jewish Zionists of the late 19th century onwards showed similar contempt for the Palestinian people whose defeat, death, and expulsion they sought in order to fulfil their project of settler-colonisation of the country.

European and American racist contempt for the Palestinians was informed by traditional white colonial attitudes towards non-white peoples before World War Two

The British Balfour Declaration and the League of Nations, which adopted Balfour’s pledge after World War One, considered the Palestinian people at best an annoyance and at worst dispensable for the purpose of securing the transfer of European Jews from Europe to Palestine as colonists.

European and American racist contempt for the Palestinians was informed by traditional white colonial attitudes towards non-white peoples before World War Two. After the war and in the wake of the European genocide of European Jews, the same European Christians and their Zionist Jewish allies would make Palestinians pay the price for Christian Europe's crimes by forcing them to surrender their homeland to the invading Zionists.

After the Zionists expelled the majority of the people in 1948, the once-again dispensable Palestinians were considered no more than the “Arab refugee problem”, as UN resolutions would begin to refer to them, and were forgotten and relegated to the dustbin of history.

Ambivalent sympathy

The status of Palestinians appeared to change in later decades. A new dynamism seemed to have infiltrated the static notions that ordinarily characterised Palestinians in the US and Europe. Commentators and policymakers from across the western political spectrum began to express views of Palestinians they had not voiced before.  

These changes in the characterisation of Palestinians in the West were not inspired by a recalibration of western (im)morality, but rather by developments in the mid-1960s onwards that brought the Palestinian people to the fore of world politics.

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Events like the rise of the Palestinian guerrilla movement, which began to attack the Israeli colonial regime to gain independence, followed by Israel's brutal 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the massacres that ensued, and the 1987-1993 first Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, instantiated a certain shift in the status of the Palestinians in the West.

In view of the Palestinian guerrilla anti-colonial operations between 1968 and 1981, Palestinians who failed to register on the moral radar of the West for two decades were now being condemned as savage terrorists, or indeed as "animals", for attacking a peaceful Israel, which was and is still seen as an extension of the colonial West.  

But after the Sabra and Shatila massacres in September 1982, with images of slaughtered Palestinian civilians on the covers of mainstream magazines, western political commentators began to range in their views of the Palestinians, from the critical and hostile to the critical and friendly.

While the varying levels of hostility and friendliness seemed to reflect fundamental differences, they, in fact, shared the same basic assumptions. A hostile critic like conservative American political commentator George Will, for example, opposed Palestinian statehood and self-determination and vehemently defended what he considered to be Israeli interests. Still, Will was able to muster some words of sympathy for the Palestinians after the massacres: “Palestinians have now had their Babi Yar, their Lidice. The Beirut massacre has altered the moral algebra of the Middle East producing a new symmetry of suffering."

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Following the first Palestinian uprising, which was largely unarmed, western commentators seemed ambivalent, showing some sympathy for an unarmed people fighting colonialism but still condemning them when they endangered Israel’s colonial soldiers. The late Anthony Lewis, then a liberal columnist for The New York Times, occupied the other end of the mainstream spectrum from Will. He provided qualified support for Palestinian rights during the intifada.

Despite his recognition of some Palestinian rights, however, Lewis demanded in 1990 that Yasser Arafat condemn a retaliatory guerrilla attack by the Palestine Liberation Front, a PLO member organisation, on Israel's shores near Tel Aviv, which did not result in any Israeli casualties. Yet Lewis made no such demands on then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in the wake of an Israeli gunman’s massacre of seven Palestinian workers from Gaza at a bus stop in Rishon LeZion a few days earlier and the ensuing killings of 19 Palestinians, including a 14-year-old boy, and the injuring of 700 others by the Israeli army in the West Bank.

The only discernible difference between the views of Lewis and Israel’s zealous supporters is related to the unavoidable issue of real Palestinian physical victimisation - deaths, injuries, deportation, detention, and torture. Lewis supported Palestinians insofar as Palestinians were physical passive victims, objects of Israeli violence. But his support did not surpass this limit by much. Palestinians who assumed an active subject role would be met with condemnations, almost an outrage that objects had presumptuously assumed the role of subjects. This is why when Palestinians resist then or today, they are labelled “barbaric” and “evil”.

Here we begin to understand the progression of post-1948 western attitudes toward the Palestinians: beginning with utter contempt and dismissal in the 1948-1968 period, moving to intense condemnation and hostility in the 1968-1981 period, the manifestation of some sympathy for Palestinian victims of massacres in the 1982-1987 period, and finally ambivalent sympathy and condemnation in the 1987-1993 period. In the post-1993 period, that latest iteration of ambivalent sympathy and condemnation would predominate.

Fanatical hatred

To many Palestinians and Arabs, western ambivalence towards the Palestinians, though modest in its sympathy, seemed a promising transformation. Excited liberal Palestinian intellectuals, businesspeople, and political elites felt that the ambivalence would help advance the Palestinian struggle.

While some westerners may sympathise with Palestinians as victims of Israeli oppression, they do not sympathise with any form of resistance the Palestinians adopt

The problem, however, with this liberal Palestinian excitement is the misrecognition of the nature of this western ambivalence. They failed to grasp that the underlying convictions governing where Palestinians fit in western morality are derived not from what Palestinians do or do not do, but from how they relate to European Jews.

It is the status of European Jews in the West that governs how westerners view Jews in relation to Palestine, and how European Jews are viewed in the Arab world, especially by Palestinians. Whereas in the West, European Jews are depicted as refugees fleeing the Nazis and the subsequent horrors of post-Holocaust Europe, survivors of a war of annihilation and victims of British commitments to the Arabs, Palestinians view European Jews from their own direct experiences.

For Palestinians, European Jews did not arrive as refugees but as invaders whose sole purpose was to appropriate Palestine by any possible means to realise Zionist colonial aspirations, which began half a century before the rise of Hitler to power. This is why Palestinians view European Jews not as helpless refugees, but as armed colonists committing massacres. It is this perspective that Edward Said wanted to convey in his classic essay “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims”.

While much of Israel's violence is therefore "explained" in the West by the pre-Israel status of European Jews, Palestinian resistance is also viewed through the same status of those same Jews, and not through the history of the Zionist colonial conquest of the land of the Palestinians.  

Israel's actions are presented as stemming from the status of those Jews who arrived on the shores of Palestine after fleeing the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, only to be confronted by yet another violent “antisemitic” campaign, this time by Palestinian Arabs and Arabs from neighbouring countries intent on expelling them from their last and only haven. Thus, Israel's violence, regrettable as it may be on occasion, is in effect viewed as always self-defensive in nature.

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In the same vein, Palestinian resistance, peaceful or violent, which has always been and remains in self-defence against foreign invading colonists, is explained as part of an “antisemitic" campaign against Jewish refugees rather than resistance to Zionist colonists. This means that while some westerners may sympathise with Palestinians as victims of Israeli oppression, they do not sympathise with any form of resistance the Palestinians adopt that could succeed in overthrowing the Israeli colonial and racist regime.

The most recent earthquake that the Palestinian resistance operation “Al-Aqsa Flood” brought about has caused westerners of all political stripes to revert to a default position, namely that of outright condemnation of the resistance of indigenous Palestinians and support for their European colonisers who were depicted as victims, not of the resistance of an indigenous people they have subjugated at least since 1948, but of yet another Holocaust-type violence by Nazi-like antisemites.

This western support of Israel is not due to a sense of western horror at the regrettable and always horrifying death of civilians, but that they were Israeli Jewish civilians. Never has there been a comparable expression of horror at the deliberate Israeli killing of tens of thousands of Palestinians and other Arabs.

This criminal impudence on the part of the Palestinian resistance, many seem to argue, should be avenged with Dresden-like bombings of all Palestinians in Gaza, and holding all Palestinians responsible for daring to resist Israel, as Israeli President Isaac Herzog asserted.

In view of this history, there is little reason that this western hatred of the Palestinian people should shock anyone in the Arab world. This fanaticism has been constant since the 19th century. Those Arabs who are shocked seem to have mistaken some western sympathy for the Palestinians as victims of massacres as support for Palestinian resistance and liberation.

Yet most western liberals who sympathise with the plight of the Palestinians as victims of Israeli oppression have rarely, if ever, defended their right to overthrow the racist colonial system that Israel instituted since 1948.

Those few who do defend that right want the Palestinians to overthrow colonial racism and oppression by “peaceful” means – perhaps by throwing flowers at Israeli tanks or writing letters to the United Nations. At most, western expressions of sympathy sought to mitigate an oppression that they believe the Palestinians must endure nobly as victims of unceasing Israeli colonial violence without ever threatening Israel with any form of retaliatory violence.

The moment Palestinians did on 7 October, all the sympathy disappeared.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated into a dozen languages.
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