On Genocide and Self-Defense
On October 7, Hamas, a political and military organization governing the Gaza Strip, launched rocket attacks on Israel, killing more than 1,000 Israelis and seizing at least 200 hostages. A senior Hamas official told NPR that the attack came in response to "Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people in Jerusalem and the West Bank" and to "break the blockade on the Gaza Strip." The most recent of these crimes, which have been ongoing since the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, are documented in a recent Emergency Legal Briefing paper drafted by the Center for Constitutional Rights:
Israeli authorities regularly subject Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, to multiple forms of collective punishment, including sustained military campaigns. These campaigns, including the ongoing military assault on Gaza, have each resulted in the mass killings of Palestinian civilians, including children. Over the course of the 16-year closure [i.e. Israel’s air, land, and sea blockade of Gaza’s borders], and prior to the current military attack, Israel carried out at least five mass military attacks on the Palestinian civilian population and attacked the “Great March of Return” protests, killing more than 5,365 Palestinians, including journalists, medical workers, and unarmed protestors.
Since October 7, Israel has retaliated against Hamas by indiscriminately and repeatedly bombing Palestinian civilians while cutting off access to basic necessities, including food, water, electricity, medical supplies, internet and phone services; ordering a forced “evacuation” of 1.1 million Palestinians out of northern Gaza; bombing the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City where civilians were seeking shelter; and bombing the Jabalia Refugee Camp. Over 9,000 Palestinians have been killed, while around 1,400 Israelis and foreigners have been killed.
The United States has reiterated its unwavering support for Israel, diplomatically, financially, and militarily.
In what United Nations officials have called “one of the worst humanitarian nightmares in recent history,” there has been a civil war taking place in Sudan between leaders of Sudan’s military, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and a powerful paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) for the past six months. The two groups, who were largely in alignment as they helped oust Sudan’s former authoritarian leader Omar Bashir in 2019 to create a tentative power-sharing government with civilian groups, are now battling for control of the country. Located in Northeast Africa, Sudan is regarded as both an Arab and African country, with Arabic being the most widely spoken language. In this war, African Sudanese are being massacred by Arab Sudanese. Evidence suggests that, since April, Arab affiliated militias and the RSF have been targeting civilians from the ethnic-African Masalit tribe and other non-Arab communities on the basis of their ethnic identity and are committing ethnic cleansing. Reuters has reported the RSF and Arab militia forces are calling the Masalit people “slaves” as they attack them. This systematic campaign of killing ethnic Africans has led to large-scale attacks on over 27 towns in West Darfur. More than 9,000 people have been killed and over 6 million have been displaced.
Rather than alleviate the suffering of the Sudanese people, the U.S. policy toward Sudan has been geared toward getting Sudan to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Israel has a vested interests in a military regime governing Sudan that can preserve authoritarian political order. It has investments in both groups of armed forces terrorizing the country because it wants to have diplomatic relations with as many Arab states as possible. It cannot have diplomatic relations with civilian-led governments in the Arab world because they would demand that Israel make concessions to the Palestinians as a condition for diplomatic relations, which Israel refuses to do.
Of these two genocides unfolding as I write, the one sparking international uproar is the one being carried out against Palestinians. Much of the developing consensus about the plight of Palestinians is because, as Ta-Nehisi Coates illuminated this week, the blatant discrimination, segregation, and humiliation that Palestinians live under is an easily identifiable replica of Jim Crow. Aside from the obvious antiblackness at work, quite literally marginalizing a contemporaneous genocide of black people occurring in the very same region, the most profound feature of this mass solidarity with Palestinians is its implicit acknowledgement of the limits of peaceful co-existence and civil disobedience as resistance when the context is genocide. Genocide is not only a singular spectacular campaign of population extermination. It is also the act of deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about a group’s physical destruction in whole or in part, which is to say that Palestinians have been living in the context of genocide for almost a century. Like the African-American freedom struggle, the Palestinian struggle has provided an occasion to decide whether “Free Palestine” is an expression of solidarity with the notion that oppressed people have a right to self-defense or only a sentimental cry to stop a slaughter.
Since the October 7th attack, the official line of Western leaders has been unequivocal support for Israel’s right to defend itself against (i.e. kill) terrorists, specifically, and Palestinians, generally. The framing of the nation-state of Israel as historically and perpetually under siege, even as it has become one of the most powerful countries in the world and steadily expanded its settlements on and control of Palestinian land, has allowed opponents of wiping the Palestinian people off the earth in the name of “wiping Hamas off the earth” to be deemed anti-Semitic.
So, the question of who gets to defend themselves and what that defense entails is, fundamentally, a question about who gets to be on the earth. About whose being this world is meant to hold. The reason why what we’re witnessing is, in fact, a genocide is because the issue on the table is not how Palestinians should exist, but whether Palestinians should exist.
No less a figure than the Prime Minister of Israel himself confirmed as much in a now-deleted tweet published on 10/19/23 that read: “This is a struggle between the children of the light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle.” The logic is that Palestinians, as children of darkness, have no “self” that is defensible and, as adherents to the laws of the jungle, have no “right” that is defensible. This is not a novel formula. Depicting oppressed people as savages for whom self-defense both is not and can not be available is a necessary pretext for committing atrocity in a civilized world. The Palestinian claim to self-defense is critical because it centers a crucial moral consideration, not about whether oppressed people are legitimately entitled to endlessly struggle for freedom, but about whether there are illegitimate methods for oppressed people to counter their own disposability. Does an illegitimate way to resist genocide exist?
Let us also consider the crises in the Congo (where millions are being killed, subjected to widespread sexual violence, and displaced by armed groups backed by Western powers) and Haiti (where thousands have been killed, kidnapped, and sexually assaulted by criminal groups due to political abandonment by their unelected government and multiple disastrous U.S.-backed military interventions). At its core, the basis of Black solidarity with Palestine is not only the shared structural position of suffering and extreme deprivation, but the shared investment in legitimizing what it means to resist our own extermination. To defend our own right to be on the earth. To defend our selves in a genocidal landscape. As abolitionists say, “a ceasefire is the bare minimum.”