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War on Gaza: Decades of colonialism led to Israel's genocidal moment

Through both their statements and their silence, leading European thinkers have exposed western racism
A demonstrator holds a placard reading "Stop genocide in Gaza" during a national peace demonstration in Rome on 9 March 2024 (AFP)

“En brera” is an Israeli expression that is used to depict the persistent destruction, ethnic cleansing and now genocide of indigenous Palestinians as acts of self-defence for which there is no alternative. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) recently affirmed the “real and imminent risk” arising from South Africa’s allegations that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza.

This did not unfold in a vacuum. Such outcomes are inherent to the settler-colonial structure of elimination imposed on Palestine by Euro-American imperialism. As detailed in South Africa’s application to the ICJ, decades of Israeli colonialism led to the state reaching its genocidal moment.

In 2006, Patrick Wolfe, a distinguished scholar of settler-colonialism, considered genocide to be plausible in Palestine. He saw compelling indications of genocidal dynamics through Israel holding the Palestinian population captive in what resembled “reservations” or a “Warsaw Ghetto” in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Although universally recognised as the crime of all crimes, genocide represents just one of many atrocious manifestations of settler-colonial violence, which is leveraged to seize land and dispossess indigenous owners.

There is an army of not just soldiers, but also philosophers and ethicists who moralise and justify colonialism as acts of en brera, or “no choice”. This notion is deeply entrenched in Euro-modern/colonial knowledge, which has criminalised and deprived colonised peoples of ontological resistance, so that their souls, psyches and identities can be reshaped to suit the colonisers’ schemes, as Frantz Fanon reminds us in Black Skin, White Masks

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This mechanism of self-vindication denies colonised peoples the rights to self-defence and resistance to preserve and reclaim their humanity. Instead, it transfers guilt onto the victims.

The Spanish conquistadors considered the “deaths and calamities” they inflicted on the indigenous peoples of South America as their “own fault” for standing in the invaders’ way. Philosopher Georg Hegel asserted that Africans were guilty because of their innate “contempt for humanity”, which made them susceptible to being “shot down by thousands in war with Europeans”. 

Similarly, Israel holds Palestinians condemnable for “having forced” Zionist settlers to kill them, as suggested by former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

Truth versus propaganda

In the 21st century, leading European thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory insist on reminding us of the indivisibility of Euro-modern ethics and coloniality. Jurgen Habermas, a prominent European philosopher, and others expressed solidarity with Israel in mid-November while genocide was clearly unfolding in Gaza. 

Habermas based his stance on the contrived accusation that Hamas intends to “eliminate Jewish life in general”, implying that Israel had no choice but to “retaliate” in the manner it has. Hamas, which is proscribed as a terrorist group in the UK and other countries, has on several occasions affirmed that it “does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine”.

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Other critical philosophers, including Seyla Benhabib, have echoed Israeli allegations on the killing of babies, burning people alive and ritual murder, which have been debunked as fabricated propaganda. 

Truth, facts, proof, objectivity, context and history apparently have no place when Euro-colonial interests are at stake. 

This knowledge system, whether by justification or through silence, echoes the historical pattern of colonial atrocities across the Global South

Amid the clamour of dehumanisation, Palestinians, like all colonised peoples, have been stripped of the rights to ontological resistance and self-defence. Palestinian life has come into conflict with white supremacy and the West’s desire to atone for its own antisemitism and the genocide of European Jews. 

Consequently, Palestinians have become the embodiment of the damned of the earth of the 21st century, literally forced out through genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Both Palestinians and Jews were singled out in the statement by Habermas and his colleagues. While the latter were deemed “worthy of special protection”, the former was silenced and removed from the sphere of “human dignity” and concerns about the “democratic ethos” of the West.

This represents two faces of the same racist and dehumanising idea that has historically pitted supposedly inferior groups, including Jews and Muslims designated as Semitic peoples, against the self-declared superior European Aryan race. Evil might have changed its form, but not its racist essence. 

Ethical battleground

This racist structure has enabled supposedly superior groups to dominate and perpetrate genocides against those declared as inferior and of lesser value. A further practical consequence has been to rob people, including Jews, of the democratic and basic right to dissent, protest and denounce genocide. 

Instead, the liberal and democratic West has demanded that people of conscience stay silent, to the point of declaring dissent “totally out of place”.

Thanks to Gaza, European philosophy has been exposed as ethically bankrupt
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Despite their cosmopolitanism, Habermas and associates of the Frankfurt School have long demonstrated a conspicuous silence on colonialism and de-colonial resistance to western imperialism. But they broke this silence to explicitly voice their solidarity with Israel, the world’s last apartheid state. 

Even after the ICJ’s ruling, vocal leaders, pundits, mainstream journalists, scholars and philosophers who championed the responsibility to protect, alongside sanctions to end egregious forms of violence against civilians, have gone silent on Gaza.  

The swift shift from silence to vocal expressions, and vice versa, is scarcely surprising. It emerges as a natural outcome of what academic Edward Said called “blithe universalism” and its malleable morality that caters to western coloniality.

Palestine is the ethical battleground of our time, where the racism inherent in Euro-modern/colonial knowledge is dissected, exposed and resisted. This knowledge system, whether by justification or through silence, echoes the historical pattern of colonial atrocities across the Global South, including the unfolding genocide in Palestine.

In this light, as eloquently articulated by ethics professor Wael Hallaq, the Palestinian experience of colonial life and death encapsulates the global issue of ethics and knowledge.

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

Emile Badarin is a researcher in Middle East politics, coloniality and international relations. He is author of numerous publications on these topics that can be found on his and
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