A chronology of a reaction known in advance

The Palestine Project
6 min readNov 3, 2023

It’s impossible to discuss Gaza as if nothing happened before 7 October. It’s impossible to deny Israel’s colonial policies. But none of this contradicts a condemnation of the massacre and a call to halt the violence and the working out of a political solution.

By Tom Mehager *

Under the auspices of the horrific events of recent weeks, a reactionary debate erupted, aimed at shutting down the various causes and struggles against Israeli treatment of Palestinians. It is important to understand how this discourse ultimately helps to perpetuate war in Gaza and patently anti-democratic policy.

In the days after the massacre perpetrated by Hamas, decisive calls were heard to mark out anyone daring to not immediately toe the line by condemning the events using very specific language, or worse, expressing any identification with Palestinians in Gaza facing Israel’s brutal attacks. This discourse continued to focus on the Global Left: campus demonstrations, artists’ petitions, posts by activists outside Israel and so forth; people who in the eyes of Israeli critics had failed to show the appropriate level of shock at the slaughter on that Saturday.

Now they come?

It’s worth noting that in most cases we’re talking about contributors who started fervently posting content about Gaza only after that Cursed Saturday, though most hadn’t previously expressed objection to Israel’s criminal treatment its population. Until 7 October, the cruel siege of Gaza and Israel’s repeated acts of slaughter there didn’t bother them. Certainly, many of them would declare that they’re against the Occupation. But they failed to resist the military occupation of the Palestinian people in any meaningful way by, say, refusing to serve in the military, supporting an international boycott, putting senior officers on trial for returning Gaza back to the stone age, and so forth.

And so the demand by these newly sobered commentators is to begin the discussion about the horrors in Gaza and Israeli treatment of Palestinians in general from a very specific moment in time, in which Jewish communities had now become the victims of murder. But at the same time they don’t bother to figuratively or literally count Palestinian deaths in Gaza. They said nothing when hundreds of Palestinian families were buried under the rubble of devastating, indiscriminate bombardment by Israel (for the IDF, it’s only ”a light bump to the plane”). When the tables turned, we were immediately called to fly the banner of condemnation.

It is vital to note that this discussion is taking place while the state and its institutions forbid one side from expressing their view on the subject, in particular Arab citizens. This started the week after that Cursed Saturday, when Haifa University rector, Prof Gur Alroey, expelled Arab students, ordering to have them removed from campus, based on false accusations and without the authority to do so. Some of those critics of the Left happily supported the move, and lecturers who objected to Alroey’s unlawful conduct were quickly labelled as “terrorist supporters”. The Council for Higher Education headed by education minister Yoav Kisch, demanded Israeli universities report all procedural outcomes flowing from complaints against Arab students. The university heads committee responded it would not do so because this would fuel an already McCarthyist atmosphere and mutual informing will be rife on campuses.

What followed was a series of dismissals of innocent Arab citizens, false arrests, the cancellation of an Arab-Jewish conference initiated by the Arab Higher Follow-Up Committee after threats from police against the owner of the hosting venue, and the police commissioner explicitly forbidding people from protesting. The student dorms at Netanya Academic College were beset by a crowd yelling “death to the Arabs”, and the mayor issued an instruction to evacuate the students. Those well-mannered commentators so concerned with improper discourse abroad have failed to notice they’ve been copiously expressing themselves unhindered. All the while the rules have changed before our eyes: other citizens with whom we’re meant to conduct this public discourse simply cannot express themselves.

Writers who had never studied and never dealt with colonisation in Israel became instant experts. I wonder why this dark hour was seen fit for wasting so many words and pages on a paradigm they’d never cared about before and regarding which they have no expertise. It’s possible that instead of working out their moral stand about the war and the anti-democratic groundswell in their country, they chose to pontificate about the esoterica of the Global Left, and the like.

Colonialists? Us??

It is worth opening this discussion with the accepted academic definition of colonialism from Yoav Peled and Gershon Shafir’s seminal book, “Being Israeli: The Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship”: “Any new society established by a means of military control, territorial settlement, and the exploitation or dispossession of native dwellers, in which the settlers claim to have an inherent right or cultural justification to justify their actions”.

In the same weekend issue of Haaretz each of Chaim Levinson and Ofri Ilany, to take but two examples, both refuted the contention that Israel is a colonial state. However, their respective opinions ignore Israeli policy of expulsion and dispossession of Palestinians from their lands, demolition of homes and villages, Occupation, military rule as old as the state itself, Judaisation of the Land, and more: in short, colonial laws and methods. Research in this area, as well as the work of various organisations, though offering a wealth of knowledge on colonialism and Zionism, seemingly were not seen as relevant to Levinson and Ilany.

Levinson critiques Judith Butler’s essay and contends that you cannot condemn Hamas’s massacre while claiming Israel is a colonial state. Why not? B’Tselem for example harshly condemned the massacre, having previously declared that the Israeli regime of Jewish supremacy from the River to the Sea is akin to Apartheid. Colonial states have known terrible acts of violence, but the violence didn’t prevent democratic elements from calling out the regime and ending it.

Condemn, comprehend, stop the violence

Ilany claims that the meaning of decolonisation is that colonial settlers must be expelled. This is not necessarily the case, and it is also up to the occupying power to end own military control. If Israel had agreed to the Saudi peace plan, for instance, it’s possible we could have reached a peace agreement on the basis of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, without bloodshed. Another step in decolonisation could be dismantling the Jewish National Fund, a body that expropriates so much Palestinian land and sells it only to Jews. The Future Vision Documents published nearly 20 years ago offered a vision for a future of equality for the two peoples. There are proposals for decolonisation on the table. But Israel has never seriously contemplated even discussing them.

Ilany and Levinson’s columns reminded me of bi-national dialogue groups where the Jewish group had frequently felt that the Palestinian demand for equality was an attack on them. The Jewish public is so used to its superiority over the Palestinians that the very idea of dismantling the structures that maintain this superiority is seen as aggression. This is not unlike the feminist or Mizrahi struggle for equality, in which the strong side feels afraid of losing its privileges.

If so, we can and we should condemn the massacre of Saturday 7 October while simultaneously noting that it occurred in the context of Isarel’s brutal siege of Gaza, a Bantustan, or worse. And one can and should state that history shows that a military regime and ongoing policy of expulsions and dispossession of a native people almost always leads to brutal violence, especially when the Occupiers refuse to take any responsibility and drive towards ending their own racist policies. Most importantly, one must now demand the exchange of hostages and to end a war that will bring us no security, and to demand agreements based on equality and dignity for both peoples.

Tom Meahger is a Mizrahi activist and a columnist in Haaretz, Haokets, Middle East Eye and +972 Magazine

Translated by Keren Rubinstein for Sol Salbe, Middle East News Service