Do you condemn?

‘Stop the killing.’ Berlin Mitte, Potsdamer Platz, November 25, 2023. Photo by on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED).

This article was written by Wieland Hoban, and was originally published in the Battleground on Dec 1, 2023. An edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement. 

Among the many speech acts reflecting the delegitimization of Palestinian resistance — even in its non-violent forms, such as protest and boycott — is the question, “Do you condemn?”

Time and again, it is directed at Palestinian guests by interviewers as a ritual to be performed before the conversation can proceed, or against supporters of Palestinian rights, as demonstrated recently by the British TV host Piers Morgan in a conversation with Jeremy Corbyn.

In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Queen Rania of Jordan pointed out the double standard:

Why is it that when people are coming to represent, you know, the Palestinian issue, at the top of an interview, they have to have their humanity cross-examined, they have to present their moral credentials: “Do you condemn?” We don’t see Israeli officials being asked to condemn, and when they are, people are readily accepted by “our right to defend ourselves.” I have never seen a Western official say the sentence: Palestinians have the right to defend themselves.

While the queen was treated a little more gently than most Palestinians and not been confronted directly with this demand, the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, Husam Zomlot, was subjected to a particularly undignified interrogation by the presenter Kirsty Wark on the BBC programme Newsnight.

Zomlot had just lost six family members, including two children, in Gaza. This, however, did not prevent Wark from insisting that he — a representative of the PLO — condemn the actions of Hamas. Zomlot showed incredible restraint, maintaining his composure despite his grief.

To anyone familiar with the history of how oppressed peoples — whether those colonised by other states or those treated unjustly by their own — have responded to their oppression, this is only the latest instance of a time-honoured phenomenon.

Because the oppressor is not only politically and physically but also discursively dominant, any refusal to accept their terms is presented as evidence of savagery, reinforcing the idea that the oppression is justified, even necessary.

A potent example from recent history can be found in an interview with the Black civil rights icon Angela Davis from 1972 when she was imprisoned.

Davis expresses bafflement that her questioner should ask her if she approved of violence in the Black struggle when she had grown up in a community that was subject to constant violence by racists.

Again, this is not a blanket justification for whatever is done in the process of resistance, and the attack of October 7 crossed the line drawn by international law. But the use of the term defines the context, not the morality.

When Native Americans were fighting against genocide, they committed massacres against unarmed settler families, but the verdict of history has clearly not been that such acts of brutality invalidated the anti-genocidal struggle itself.

One does not have to go back to 1948 to highlight the constant violence by Israel against Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere; it is enough to go back 16 years to the decision to place the Gaza Strip under blockade.

This was an act of collective punishment that has been internationally condemned, and its many ramifications constitute a state of violence.

Violence breeds counter-violence, and the armed resistance in Gaza — which includes not only Islamists like Hamas but also the Marxist-Leninist PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) — acts in response to the violence of the occupation.

The word ‘terrorism’ obscures this and delegitimises the resistance not only for specific acts — such as killing civilians — but for resisting at all. And this is precisely what people are being urged to denounce when they are asked, “Do you condemn Hamas?”

One of the more well-known and eloquent leftist politicians in Europe, the Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis, added a twist in an interview with his explanation of why he refused to condemn Hamas for the attack.

He located the responsibility for the structural injustice at the root of the violence less with Israel itself than with the West since Western countries had supported Israel’s actions and its system of apartheid for decades.

Varoufakis made the simple point that when members of the Black resistance in South Africa committed acts of violence in their struggle against apartheid, the problem was not their violence; the problem was apartheid.

Nuance can be a scarce commodity in our increasingly polarised public discourse, a discourse dominated by online outrage, and it has perhaps never been scarcer than since October 7.

The activist organisation I belong to, the German-based Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East, has certainly not remained aloof. Many of our members are Israelis with family and friends in Israel.

On that day, one member lost a relative whom the IDF shot after being mistaken for a Palestinian militant. Another member lived in Sderot for a few years and was scared to look at the list of fatalities, fearing that he would read familiar names. These are only two examples.

It should come as no surprise that we also experienced a degree of internal friction regarding our response to the events.

While some members found it essential to express empathy, others did not consider it our role as political activists to highlight emotions when a long-term system of structural oppression and violence was the root cause of the violence at a particular moment.

There was anger and reproach; one member even left the group.

The board ultimately published a statement that sought a middle ground between humanity and political analysis. It was clear to us that our enemies and perhaps even some friends would attack it — because we did not condemn it for the reasons I have discussed here.

It was not a choice to side with those who killed innocents on October 7, but rather to state unequivocally that those fatalities resulted from the injustice visited on those who were killed long before and are being killed by the thousands as I write this.

In memory of Khalil Aburaida, killed by Israeli bombs in October 2023, and for his wife Alaa and their four children, whose fate is unknown.

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